NASCAR: Will Danica Patrick and Stewart Turn It Around in 2016?

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

The crew chiefs in NASCAR have begun to rival the drivers when it comes to silly season rumors, but unlike F1, you tend to know earlier who the crew chiefs will be. Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have brought in new crew chiefs for their respective cars.

Danica:

Patrick, who brings a whack of cash to the SHR organization is often vilified. On the other hand, there seems to be a reason as she changes crew and chiefs like red lights in Shanghai. She’s hard to work with is what most of my sources say. My sources who were close to her at one point tell me it’s the IndyCar effect: Most of the IndyCar drivers are used to working with engineers rather than old school crew chiefs.

Patrick has seemingly developed the attitude of the Diva. It’s a common occurrence in open-wheel: ‘It’s the car, not me.’ That’s something the drivers in IndyCar can get away with for only so long as everything they do in their cars is captured on software, so you can run, but you can’t hide from the dreaded software. It tells all.

Her former crew chief, Daniel Knost is heading for a new position in the SHR camp as manager of vehicle dynamics, Knost will oversee a number of the organization’s technical efforts, with a specific focus on track simulation and racecar performance.

The 36-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, has been a crew chief at SHR for two years, spending 2014 with the #41 team of Kurt Busch and 2015 with the #10 team of Patrick.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick

Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Childers remains as crew chief for the #4 team of Harvick and Tony Gibson remains as crew chief for the #41 team of Busch.

Don’t expect the dynamics to change as Patrick has a reputation for being the “Alonso” of the Cup Series. All one has to do is listen to her radio in snapshots from all of the races and you begin to see where the difficulty lies.

Maybe Billy Scott, the replacement for Knost, will have a better experience as the problem seems to lie in the chemistry department. Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The 38-year-old from Land O’ Lakes, Florida, comes to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) where since 2014 he was the crew chief for the No. 55 team.

Stewart:

It had to be a very difficult season for Stewart with injuries and legal battles all the while trying to remain relevant as a team owner. It was a hard road for Stewart who unlike Patrick blames himself and not the car. Stewart has always been a driver who would look from within to seek the answers as opposed to calling the car out.

That’s a rare quality, how many drivers do you know who would say: ‘It’s my fault, not the car’. It’s very rare in all types of motor racing, but an admirable quality nonetheless.

Look for Stewart to try and capitalize on the 2016 package which should see the cars as tough to handle given the new low-downforce rules. However Stewart has to buckle down and try and develop the chemistry with his new crew chief, Michael Burgarwicz.

Michael Bugarewicz has been promoted from race engineer on the #4 team to crew chief for the #14 team of Tony Stewart. The 33-year-old from Lehighton, Pennsylvania, replaces Chad Johnston, who has left SHR to pursue a new opportunity. Bugarewicz joined SHR in 2014 where in his role as race engineer, he helped Kevin Harvick secure his first Sprint Cup championship.

You have to wonder how Kevin Harvick let him go, but Tony has the final say and seems to know what he’s doing. Uncle Gene, not withstanding.

There’s not much to say about Tony Stewart except one has to hope that he can emulate Jeff Gordon’s retirement year. If the 2016 low-downforce cars suit him, he will be a factor for the Chase. Well, if the Chase does have an eraser change before Daytona.

Let’s hope the best for Tony as the, hopefully, looser cars will suit his driving style.

He needs a spark and a good performance to motivate him as the 2015 season took a toll on Smoke.

But Hey, Smoke rises-right?

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR and Formula One: Are You Man Enough To Succeed?

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

One more race at Homestead, Florida will decide who will be the 2015 Sprint Cup Champion. Was it a year to remember or a year to forget? It’s a little of both. Will NASCAR actually do what it takes in 2016 to succeed?

The NASCAR fan base is as polarized regarding the Chase format as Formula One is regarding it’s hybrid powerplants. In modern motorsports the wedges that have been driven between the fans has been to the determent of the sport regardless of what discipline it is.

In NASCAR, what started as a small problem, how to make the sport more interesting, resulted in the Car of Tomorrow debacle right through to the wholesale change of normally aspirated engines in Formula One to bizarre, unmanageable hybrid powerplants.

The world of motorsports has become tantamount to a plane crash: Something goes awry and then the pilots keep pushing buttons until the plane crashes.

2015 is a year to put behind us in both NASCAR and F1. 2016 will be a transitional year for NASCAR in that we will move to low down-force cars that are actually harder to drive from an aero point of view rather than hip-hop style camber being required to make the car turn.

For Formula One, 2017 couldn’t arrive too soon. The outrageous costs associated with these Frankenstein hybrids have damn near driven the sport to the brink. No independents can keep up under the current rules which have to be endured until 2017.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want's more.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want’s more.

In NASCAR The Gen 6 car proved worthy, but also too good on sticking to the track, so moving towards the low down-force set-up is a great thing. But is it too little too late? We won’t know until 2016 is mid-season and moves along towards 2017. Darlington’s viewership was down 17% over 2014. That’s very bad, very, very bad.

Redemption wont come overnight, it’s easier to keep fans you have than to gain new ones, but that NASCAR’s challenge. One issue in it’s favor, besides the low down-force, is the new influx of younger drivers. Perhaps they and their social skills can bring along a new group of viewers and fans, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

So, the NASCAR season will end up this weekend either crowning an outgoing champion in Jeff Gordon, or possibly an upset victory for Martin Truex, Jr. In Formula One Lewis Hamilton has taken his third World Championship in a year so mediocre, except for the USGP, that people will be almost forced to watch another year with nearly the same rules. Only the diehard fans may hang around for the ‘Great Engine Change’ of 2017.

NASCAR? NASCAR had better put on one hell of a show from race one in order to stop the femoral bleeding of viewers. I believe they can, however, but it will take an on-track product that dazzles along with very, very savvy social media to nudge the fans back into place and to grab those who never cared.

2016 will be the year of reckoning for both of these sports but will be married to social media like never before if they expect to keep people interested. The presidential elections are going to dominate social media, particularly Facebook and both of these styles of motorsports had better grab as many of those eyeballs as possible.

The political conversation will be dominated by the very same demographic as the motorsports fans for both NASCAR and Formula One. Who will take advantage of that?

As Alec Baldwin’s character in the infamous film, ‘Glen Gary, Glen Ross’ said: “They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

Well Ladies and Gentlemen, are you?

 

 

 

 

The Target Is on the Back of Logano At Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: Don’t Expect Joe Gibbs Racing To Chase Off With the Cup

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, 'Little E' has a shot.

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, ‘Little E’ has a shot.

With the NASCAR regular season now concluded, the Chase playoffs are upon us with 16 drivers set to battle for the Sprint Cup Championship. As anticipated, except for a quick push by Aric Amirola to break into the sweet 16 during the final laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400, the Richmond race lacked in suspense, being dominated by a single driver who led the majority of laps, just like the earlier April race.

So, with NBC Sports offering a $16 million bounty for a perfect Chase grid, along with Draft Kings’ promotion of weekly plays, which drivers will steer into the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway in November?

Right now, pundits point to Joe Gibbs Racing, which served up a statement race at Richmond. Symbolic of JGR’s dominance was the Lap 126 Richmond restart, where teammates Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards pulled away like LMP Prototypes separating from the GTLM field at LeMans. JGR has now won eight of the last eleven Sprint Cup races.

The Chase playoff, however, is a different animal altogether. While NASCAR has again ramped up a “communication strategy” to explain it, the Chase playoff boils down to three playoff rounds comprised of three races each (nine total), with four drivers eliminated in each round, with the final remaining four drivers competing in a one round “Super Bowl” Championship race at Homestead.

Additionally, the ten Chase races are overweighted towards the larger 1.5 mile speedways that tend to be more aero dependent, where JGR’s dominance was not in evidence earlier this year. With the kickoff race set for Chicagoland this weekend, the full 2015 aero rules package will be back in effect on 1.5 mile ovals for the first time since May. Perhaps the Hendrick Motorsports camp has been in stealth mode working under DARPA-like conditions, knowing that the key to winning the title would be success with the 2015 rules package on such speedways.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

So, which drivers are likely to survive through the various rounds of Chase elimination? In business school, my Finance professor always stressed “seeking the Alpha”; screening for those stocks that deliver the most consistent returns with the least amount of volatility. Applying similar theory to the Chase playoff, where one bad race can ensure a team’s elimination, requires testing one basic principle:

Which drivers have delivered superior, yet consistent finishes over rolling three race segments during the regular season (mirroring the three race Chase elimination format)? 

At the top, five drivers rise above the remaining eleven, with a high probability that at least three of these five will make the Championship 4 finale:

  1. Kevin Harvick – no surprise here, having amassed fifteen top 3 finishes so far this season. That’s about as consistent as it gets
  2. Joey Logano – again, his consistent results are second only to Harvick, and actually slightly better than Harvick during the second half of the regular season
  3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – few experts are picking him to make the Championship 4 round, yet he has been Hendrick’s most consistent driver this year, finishing the regular season third in points. His average finish of 6.1 on the 1.5 mile ovals that predominate in the Chase, combined with his restrictor plate prowess at Talladega, make him a compelling choice
  4. Brad Keselowski – solid but not spectacular this year, Keselowski is a proven Champion that is hungry to win another title and cement his legacy
  5. Kyle Busch – lacking a full season of results, the JGR driver has been on fire since his return, and shows no signs of letting up. Busch can wheel a car anywhere, and already demonstrated the consistency needed to qualify for the Chase in spite of missing almost 40% of the regular season

Conversely, in the initial Challenger elimination round, there is real pain to be had, based on the cards that have been shown so far by the teams. Looking at their three-race season averages, four drivers are at the bottom, having simply not demonstrated the needed consistency to advance in this year’s Chase:

  • Paul Menard – welcome to your first Chase, Paul, but your stay will be short
  • Jeff Gordon – something has just been off for the #24 team this year, having never got a handle on the rules package. Unless Alan Gustafson can figure it out quickly, Gordon and his crew chief will likely need to play the strategy card with some mid-race gambles if he is to advance beyond the first round
  • Clint Bowyer – relieved just to make the Chase, the pressure may now be off, but with Michael Waltrip Racing shutting its doors at the end of the season, Bowyer and team are likely looking for their next gig
  • Carl Edwards – an enigma, Edwards has shown streaks of success but lacks consistency; in the four car JGR stable, he is still the new kid on the block

So, quickly, who is the most consistent, stable Chase driver that we have not yet mentioned? For the second season in a row, Ryan Newman, a Chase qualifier in the middle of the pack, delivers highly stable, albeit not spectacular finishes typically in the low teens. The #31 team has this strategy down pat, such that we now can coin his performance as “Newmaning” the field. He and his crew chief, Luke Lambert, typically do not gamble on race strategy, thereby bringing home solid, repeatable finishes. That strategy worked last year to get him into the Championship round, and don’t be surprised if Newman’s consistency takes him deep into the Chase again.

There is no debate that this has been “the summer of JGR” for NASCAR, particularly with Kyle Busch’s storming return to the track. However, as my colleague Michele Rahal called out in his commentary this week, auto racing is inherently unpredictable and anything that can happen usually does, particularly in light of the Chase elimination format. Last season, the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut was expected to dominate the Chase.

Instead, we indulged in a Championship finale at Homestead that didn’t include a single Hendrick driver and went down to the final lap. So sit back, enjoy, as the Battle of Nations is upon us, and hopefully we will once again get the “Game 7” moments that NASCAR intended under this revised Chase playoff system.

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

NASCAR: Expect Jimmie Johnson To Come Alive In The Chase

Lowes extends Johnson's contract through 2017.

Lowes extends Johnson’s contract through 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Lamb, the Chief Marketing Officer for Lowes said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Edwards Glad Tony Mad: Less Downforce Coming

Carl Edwards is thrilled at the further changes in the Cup car's handling.

Carl Edwards is thrilled at the further changes in the Cup car’s handling.

The 2015 Sprint Cup season has, so far, been better than expected in terms of Post Daytona races that have some excitement in them. What this means, if you know what to look for, is that the cars have become harder to drive. Less downforce.

Harder to drive means harder to run away with a race because you have less horsepower and less downforce to work with. However NASCAR needs, and intends, to take it one step farther.

It would be wonderful to take more downforce off of the cars before Texas Motor Speedway (Duck Commander 500). But, NASCAR has set a schedule for it that seems reasonable. The Tire tests this week at Charlotte, and upcoming tests April 13-15 at Kentucky and April 27-29 will deliver enough information that no one is blindsided by the changes. Those changes are scheduled 4 races from now at Charlotte.

Earnhardt credits the driver adjustable track bar adjustment for keeping him in the top 5 at Las Vegas.

Earnhardt credits the driver adjustable track bar adjustment for keeping him in the top 5 at Las Vegas.

That process has already begun, according to Carl Edwards from the Charlotte testing. He said:

“NASCAR, drivers, fans – we all want to see the best racing,” Carl Edwards said. “The question is how, exactly, do we get that? The way I understand it, Gene Stefanyshyn (NASCAR’s senior vice president for innovation and racing development) and everyone at NASCAR are trying to remove a little bit of downforce and make the cars race better.”

He added, “I’m hoping there’s more of that in the future. As you remove horsepower, there’s less time off the throttle and eventually, if you keep taking horsepower away and the teams keep finding more and more downforce, it will be impossible to pass. NASCAR has to stay ahead of that curve. They’re working on it.”

Track bar 101

Track bar 101

With removing downforce you do change the balance of the car and some drivers, most notably Tony Stewart, was having trouble coming to grips with it (no pun intended). He wasn’t at all happy, comparing the Sprint Cup cars to Xfinity Cup cars in a screaming team radio tirade at Las Vegas.

It isn’t hard to understand. If you remove 100 horsepower and then remove downforce, by way of a shorter rear spoiler, then you have effectively forced the driver to carry more momentum into the corner, but still force them to try and accelerate out of that corner quicker. This is something the Xfinity cars do, but with more downforce.

Some drivers are quick to catch onto it through suspension adjustment and others not so much. It requires a crew chief who can take a few swings at the set up during a race as the cars are now more susceptible to minor changes.

We saw evidence of that with drivers wildly adjusting their track bars as the conditions changed. This is a new rule as well, and they are driver adjustable.

NASCAR explains it this way: “The track bar is located underneath the rear of the car. By raising or lowering the right side of the bar, a driver can alter the position of the rear axle in relation to the car’s centerline.

Any changes affect the weight distribution of the car and how it moves through the corners on the track.”

Apparently in May, at the Sprint All-Star Race is where all of these changes will be fully implemented. That’s fine by us.

Driving these cars should be a challenge and require the driver to earn the nickname “Wheelman”.

Las Vegas First Big Test For Updated Gen 6 Sprint Cup Car

Jimmie Johnson, a four-time winner at Las Vegas, said the pre-race testing there should help the teams, but they won’t know how much until they race.

Every NASCAR Sprint Cup race has its appeal – admittedly, fans look forward to some of them more than others – and the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is no different.

For example, many fans might be interested to see if Jimmie Johnson can continue his mastery of Las Vegas and win his fifth career race on the 1.5-mile track – and in so doing, take that solid first step toward a seventh championship.

Of course there are those who would just as soon see him fall flat on his face.

The Las Vegas race is unique because it will serve as the first test of the many changes NASCAR has made to the Gen 6 car.

These alterations were specifically made to target competition on the 1.5-mile tracks. These speedways, and their races, have been routinely criticized for producing mediocre competition.

There has been little side-by-side racing and passing has been almost non-existent.

In order to change this, NASCAR came up with a new intermediate track rules package, based in part on two lengthy test sessions at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October and December.

Chassis and aerodynamic changes included statically setting the race car ride height, a square leading edge on the splitter, side skirt and rear fascia adjustments and an eight-inch rear spoiler. Also, the radiator pan size was adjusted.

I’m no engineer so I’m certainly not able to declare what these changes will do to the competition.

To be frank, NASCAR and the competitors aren’t either. They can only speculate.

To gain a stronger certainty on performance NASCAR scheduled a test session at Vegas on March 6. The goal was to build upon the 2014 package.

Greg Biffle said testing did little to help his cause and wonders why his Roush Fenway Racing team can’t get a handle on Vegas.

To schedule a test session at a track just days before its race is not a common practice in NASCAR, not at all.

So that should tell you how much importance NASCAR attaches to the goal of improving competition on the intermediate tracks – not to mention the teams, 48 of which showed up for the session.

Did the test indicate racing would indeed be better? Well, no one really knows. It’s more speculation albeit optimistic.

“The test session was nice,” said Johnson, a member of Hendrick Motorsports. “There were points where we were real fast and happy.

“We are learning and we are enjoying the process.  There are a bunch of new challenges right now with the new car.

“This weekend is important for sure.  The test was very helpful and useful.  I’m glad that NASCAR allowed us to come out for a few hours.”

Even with his appreciation of NASCAR’s efforts Johnson, who qualified fifth, admits he doesn’t know how good – or bad – he’ll race at Vegas.

“It’s more complicated,” he said. “There are more steps involved with making a decision now.

“I feel like communication still is key, but the thought process on the pit box is more important than it’s ever been because a simple change affects more things now.”

Kevin Harvick, who won in dominating fashion at Phoenix a week ago and starts 16th at Vegas, agreed that the test helped but he, too, can’t say how things will go until the actual competition begins.

“I thought it went really well,” he said. “We struggled in the beginning just to get the feel.  It took us a couple of hours to kind of get everything situated and get the balance of the car right.

“Then we felt pretty good about it after that.  Changed a lot of stuff and did a lot of different things to the car.

“Felt like we made good head way in the end and hopefully we can progress and make it even better – hopefully.”

Not every driver felt optimistic after the test. Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing, who starts a distant 25th at Vegas, was decidedly pessimistic.

“Last year I was the fastest on Thursday, probably the third-fastest on Friday, 12th on Saturday and I was 25th on Sunday,” Biffle said. “This year I’m 34th on Thursday (testing), and hoping that I’m about 20th Friday and maybe 12th Saturday and win on Sunday, but that’s about as good of an analogy I can give you on what is wrong and why our fastest car is 27th (in testing).

“I really honestly wish I had more to tell you about it, but we just aren’t getting a hold of the race track is about the best I can say.”

The Team Penske Fords displayed strength in qualifying. Joey Logano won the pole with Brad Keselowski No. 2. It was the second consecutive time they had swept the top two positions.

“Team Penske has done a great job of finding the speed in qualifying trim,” Keselowski said. “We need a little bit more in race trim.  I think we saw that last weekend in Phoenix and a little bit on the first day of testing here in Vegas.

“We’ll get a better idea and read for that when we get back in race trim, but in qualifying trim I think we’ve got our cars really refined well for this package.”

Certainly the race at Vegas will receive its due attention. But what’s also riveting is if NASCAR’s many alterations will produce better competition at an intermediate track.

If it does, then it is so much the better for racing.

If it doesn’t it might be time to go back to the drawing board

Hamlin Wins As Six-Time Champ Jimmie Johnson’s Legacy Grows

Denny Hamlin won at Homestead-Miami to earn his first victory of the year and keep alive his streak of at least one win in each of his eight full NASCAR seasons.

Perhaps the Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race of the 2013 NASCAR Winston Cup season, ended the way it should have – with more than one compelling story.

—- After 400 miles of racing, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth career championship. The Hendrick Motorsports driver now has just one less title than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, the sport’s titans.

—- When the green flag fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all Johnson was 28 points ahead of challenger Matt Kenseth and had only to finish 23rd or better to lock up the title.

Kenseth had a remarkable race, one in which he did all that was humanly possible to wrest the championship out of Johnson’s hands.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 144 laps, twice as many as any other competitor, and finished second. Had any misfortune struck Johnson – which, admittedly, was not likely – Kenseth would be the 2013 champ.

—- A back injury that forced Denny Hamlin to miss four races earlier this year all but obliterated his chances to make the Chase, much less win a championship.

But Hamlin resuscitated his season with a victory at Homestead, his first of the year and the 23rd of his career.

Hamlin, Kenseth’s teammate at Gibbs, has now won at least once in each of his eight full Sprint Cup seasons.

—- Johnson finished ninth at Homestead to win the title by 19 points over Kenseth and 34 over Kevin Harvick, the only other driver with at least a mathematical chance at the championship, who finished 10th.

Johnson won his sixth title at age 38. Petty was also 38 and Earnhardt was 42.

It is abundantly clear Johnson will have the opportunity to win a seventh title and maybe more. Petty said he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson won eight to 10 titles.

Matt Kenseth, who won the pole, gave it his all to overtake Johnson in the point standings by leading 144 laps and finishing second. However, it wasn’t enough.

Despite the fact that Johnson isn’t the most popular driver in NASCAR, the inarguable fact is that he is one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Five of his six championships were won in succession from 2006-2010, which easily eclipsed Cale Yarborough’s three in a row from 1976-1978 and stood as the NASCAR record until Johnson’s singular achievement.

His six victories this season were second only to Kenseth’s seven. Johnson now has 66 career wins, which puts him in eighth place on NASCAR’s all-time list.

Johnson has never been one to blow his own horn. But he does realize the future will offer him opportunities to embellish his own legacy.

“I look forward to the opportunity,” Johnson said. “I hope that I can certainly accomplish more.

“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things.  There are still great years out ahead of us.  But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth.  Richard said eight to ten.  That’s all ahead of us.

“I don’t want to focus on that yet.  It’s not time.  I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, and let it soak in.  We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough.  I guess by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.”

And Johnson also realizes what has been said, and written, about him by his peers and the media.

“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry,” Johnson said. “I think their opinion is very important.  I don’t think my opinion matters.  It’s not for the athlete, the driver.  It’s bestowed upon you; it’s passed down from others.

“If others are saying it, I’m not going to deny it, chase it away.  Sure, I would love to be considered the greatest driver.

“But if you look at stats, there’s still numbers out there that I need to achieve.  That’s why I say that until I hang my helmet up, it’s not necessarily a fair conversation to have.

“I’m honored to be in the conversation and I know I will have to face it, especially being this close to seven and having a shot to tie those guys.”

—- Kenseth, the 2003 champion, had been this year’s points leader for six of the Chase’s first eight races but lost it following Martinsville.

He was still in striking distance until Phoenix, where he had his worst showing in the Chase. He finished 23rd to give Johnson the 28-point pad he had going into Homestead.

It was too much for Kenseth to overcome – but not because he didn’t try hard.

Second place and 144 laps led clearly indicate Kenseth, in his first season with Gibbs, made a strong run to win the title.

“We had a good night – we were really dominant when the sun was out,” he said. “We struggled a little bit when it went down and a lot of that will lay on the driver who was probably a little reluctant to get up in the groove where I needed to run to make any speed.

“It was just an unbelievable year for us really.  Obviously, we wanted to finish off and win the championship as good as we ran all year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the whole team.

“They did a spectacular job all season and all day today again.”

—- Hamlin’s victory meant a one-two finish for Gibbs. More important, it provided momentum for Hamlin, who said he and his team need to boost their efforts for 2014.

“This just just gives us huge momentum,” Hamlin said. “We started kicking things into gear about two months ago and then last week (Phoenix) with a horrific effort that kind of gets your spirits down.

“But then, to come here to Miami and back it up with a win, well, this is something we can think about for the entire winter.”

Indeed, Hamlin and Kenseth have momentum and look forward to better things in 2014.

But so does Jimmie Johnson, who may well enhance his legacy in seasons to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six-Race Countdown To Sprint Cup Chase Is On: Who’s Who And Where

Matt Kenseth currently ranks sixth in the point standings, but his four victories for the season make him a lock to make the Chase.

This weekend’s Pocono event initiates a six-race countdown until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins.

Admittedly, while a lot of things can happen in six races, I think we have a much clearer picture of which drivers are going to make the Chase and which are not.

The top 10 in points enter the 10-race “playoff” and two “wildcard” entries will be the two drivers among the top 20 in points with the most wins. Of course, you knew that.

Did I say a lot of things could happen in six races? Well, it seems there are changes after one race.

For example, defending champion Brad Keselowski was ninth in points after New Hampshire.

But a 21st-place finish at Indianapolis dropped him to 13th in points. Of course, he’s outside the top 10 but what is perhaps a bigger concern is that he has not won a race this year.

Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, are the leading “wildcard” candidates with one victory each.

Keselowski admits he has concerns. But that is a good thing.

“If you don’t have concerns then your heart isn’t in it,” he said. “You should be concerned from Daytona on. “When you have success you lessen

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may not have won a race yet this season, but he is comfortably in fifth place in points with an excellent chance to make the Chase.

those concerns and we have had some success this year. But we haven’t had the wins and consistency to remove all of those concerns.

“I am not going to say that I feel 100 percentabout a lot of things but I can saw that I believe in the people I am around and we are going to get this right. It is just a matter of when.”

By virtue of his seventh-place at Indy, Jeff Gordon moved from 12th to 10th in points and is, obviously, in a bit more comfortable position.

But it’s still a shaky one and it isn’t helped by the fact that Gordon hasn’t won this year.

However, he was the winner at Pocono last August and will be considered a favorite this weekend.

“That’s the beauty of where I’m at in points,” Gordon said. “I don’t have to dial back anything. We are in full-on aggressive mode.

“Do we have to win? No. But do we have to put six really good races together? Yes. In order to put good races together, I’m talking top-fives.

“You look at the guys we’re racing against and they can easily do that. We have to push and not pull back.”

The winner at Indianapolis, Ryan Newman, improved his Chase chances. He went from 19th to 16th in points. He is third in line for a “wildcard” opportunity. And if he wins another race the chances are good he will vault past Stewart and Truex Jr.

Sure, the odds are long for Newman. But a week ago a chance to make the Chase was non-existent.

“The win gives us more hope,” Newman said. “I mean we had hope in the first place and I’ve said it every time I’ve talked to you guys.

“We still have a chance of making the Chase whether it’s mathematically or winning. Another win would be amazing just based on the history of what I’ve seen with the ‘wildcards.’

“Two is pretty much going to lock you into a ‘wildcard’ spot.

I don’t think the drivers ranked No. 1- No. 9 in points have much to worry about – well, some of them might have concerns.

Jimmie Johnson, No. 1 with four wins and who won at Pocono in June, is a lock. So is Matt Kenseth, No. 6 also with four wins.

Kevin Harvick is No. 4 with two victories and Kyle Busch also has two wins and is ranked No. 7. I can’t see any way those three don’t make the Chase.

Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne are eighth and ninth, respectively and while they are at the rear of the top 10, each has one victory – which serves as an insurance policy.

Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are two of three drivers in the top 10 who have not won a race.

But unless they suffer some disastrous turn of events, they should be safe since they rank so high in the standings – Bowyer is No. 2, Earnhardt Jr. No. 5.

It’s evident Johnson has been the season’s dominant driver. He holds a large 75-point lead over Bowyer.

“It’s nice to have the points lead,” Johnson aid. “I think it sends a message to the garage area that we are good on all types of tracks, all types of situations.

“But through it all, even though I have a huge points lead right now, I still have my eyes on three or four cars that I think will be the guys to deal with in the Chase.

“I watch them and their performance and how they run, especially on Chase tracks that we have a chance to race at in the regular season, and form opinions through all of that.”

A third-place finish at New Hampshire prompted Jeff Burton say that he and his Richard Childress Racing team were not out of the Chase.

They were in 17th place, 25 points out of the Chase.

Burton had his troubles at Indy and finished 43rd, dead last. He’s now 20th in points, 60 points out of the Chase.

About all Burton can do now is salvage a season by winning races.

However, he hasn’t won since 2008.

“When you have a goal of making the Chase, and all your efforts are about making the Chase and you’re not going to, what’s your goal?” Burton asked. “If you have to diminish and lessen your goals, that’s not what any sporting team or business or anything else wants to do. So, it’s a demoralizing event.

“When that time comes where you are like we can’t make it, it’s just demoralizing. It is. Don’t get me wrong; you’ve still got to keep digging.

“But it’s a whole lot harder to bring the same effort that a team that’s in the Chase is bringing. It’s harder to bring that effort.”

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