Menard’s Indy Victory Adds To Season’s Competitiveness

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has established itself as one of the most unique in many years for a couple of reasons:

It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.

This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?

Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.

The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.

Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.

Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.

After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.

They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?

The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.

Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.

Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.

While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.

Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.

Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.

They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.

If a team can utilize creativity only to a certain point it often cannot gain a sizable advantage over another. That, many suggest, is what we have now.

Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.

There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.

But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.

Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.

Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.

Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.

It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.

Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.

In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.

This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.

Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.

That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.

That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.

Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.

 

** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.

His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.

It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.

These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.

Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.

If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.

 

** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.

The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.

Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.

Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.

With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

Nationwide To Indy In 2012: Short-Track Tradition Takes A Hit

Lucas Oil Raceway, which was known as Indianapolis Raceway Park when it opened in 1961, will play host to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this Friday and the Nationwide Series on Saturday – for the last time.

Next year, the Nationwide Series will move to nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway as companion event to Sprint Cup’s Brickyard 400.

Regardless of the reasons for the change of venue, that it is going to happen is another step toward the demise of a NASCAR tradition – perhaps even an era – for the Nationwide Series.

The series, considered as a feeder circuit for the elite Sprint Cup tour (and often called the hackneyed “Triple A league of stock car racing”), has, by one name or another, been in existence almost as long as NASCAR.

And for so many years it competed primarily on short tracks. Its schedule consisted of many stand-alone events, seldom anything that could be considered a supporting show.

After this year, when the 0.686-mile IRP (we’ll stick with the name most familiar to fans), drops from the schedule, it will mean the Nationwide Series loses another half-mile facility which once formed the circuit’s backbone.

What is now the Nationwide Series began in 1950, when it was known as the NASCAR Sportsman division.

By 1968 it became the Late Model Sportsman tour and it really hit its stride during the 13 years it went by that name.

Drivers who competed on the LMS tour didn’t necessarily do so because they wanted to advance their careers. Rather, they found it a relatively inexpensive tour on which to compete. They could make a living – something they knew they couldn’t do in the costly world of what became known as Winston Cup competition.

These drivers raced among themselves for several years, built up rivalries and became familiar to fans, which, as fans will do, chose their heroes and villains.

Competitors like Butch Lindley, L.D. Ottinger, Sam Ard, Jack Ingram, Tommy Houston, Bosco Lowe and several others were LMS stalwarts who never strayed from the circuit.

In 1982, Anheuser-Busch was signed as a sponsor and two years later the tour became known as the Busch Grand National Series.

That name lasted 10 years before it was changed to Busch Series, Grand National Division and then, in 2004, simply the Busch Series.

All Nationwide Series records today are traced back to 1982, the year decreed as the beginning of the circuit’s “modern era.”

But things began to change. Younger drivers with ambitions – Dale Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine, Phil Parsons, Dale Jarrett and others, began to join the ranks.

In time others accompanied them. Soon the “newcomers” began to win all the championships. The number of series regulars dwindled.

Most likely because NASCAR wanted to give Busch, and its series, maximum exposure in front of thousands of fans at large venues, races were more often conducted as companion events at established superspeedways.

Even so, the short tracks remained the circuit’s foundation. When Anheuser-Busch first came on as a sponsor in ‘82, 23 of the 29 races run that year were on short tracks.

They included such relatively unheralded speedways as South Boston, Orange County, Hickory, Caraway and Asheville. Half-milers already part of the Winston Cup circuit were also in the mix, including Martinsville, Bristol and Nashville.

Not to mention IRP, which staged its first Busch Series race in 1982, won by Morgan Shepherd, who had been a regular for almost a decade.

As time passed and NASCAR’s top circuit began to add races at new tracks in large markets from coast to coast, the short tracks began to fall by the wayside for the Busch Series.

It just made good business sense for NASCAR to present its products in its largest markets with its largest crowds and the added maximum television exposure.

Even so, IRP remained. There had to be a reason why. Maybe it was because Nationwide Series events always drew good, enthusiastic crowds. I know that was especially the case after the first Brickyard 400 came to Indy in 1994.

Many members of the media stayed at what was then the Howard Johnson Motel on High School Road, not far from the 2.5-mile Indy track.

Early Saturday night a few left the motel for dinner. They were amazed to see bumper-to-bumper traffic on the road in front of them.

They were told folks were inching their way to IRP for the Busch Series race. It was a rare sight, indeed.

Where one might think nearly three decades of established tradition and fan appreciation might be good enough to keep the Nationwide Series at IRP, that’s not the case.

I understand that the track is, in many ways, sub-standard in terms of fan, competitor and media amenities. It could use a repaving, among many other things.

It’s representative of how many – not all – short tracks once were. Progress has been slight and the past has seemingly held ground. That’s no longer good enough for NASCAR.

And I also understand the move to Indy on the weekend of the Brickyard 400. It’s on to bigger and better things. It’s progress with the idea that if a Nationwide Series can draw 40,000 to IRP it might double for Indy.

It’s also a move to provide more hype for Indy’s racing weekend; more fodder for marketing, promotion and ticket sales, which, they tell us, have been slumping for the Brickyard 400. It’s designed to regain what has been lost.

That might be, but I suspect fans are going to see a much different style of Nationwide Series racing in 2012. There will be more speed, sure, but forget all about short-track beating, banging, rubbing and gouging.

I’d be willing to bet many fans are going to truly miss that.

For many years now NASCAR has attempted to keep a balance between expansion to bigger tracks in bigger venues and its short-track roots and traditions.

But in 2010, of 32 Nationwide Series races, only six were held on short tracks.

Kinda makes you think tradition is losing.

Next year there will be one less short track on the Nationwide Series schedule. Tradition takes another blow.

The Points System Has Provided Intrigue, With More To Come

Maybe I’m wrong and you may disagree, but if nothing else, NASCAR’S new points system has, to date, made the season intriguing.

As I understand it, the modified system awards a winner 43 points. He gets three more points for winning and another for leading a lap, which means a minimum of 47 laps.

If the winner leads the most laps that means another bonus point. The total is now 48, the most any driver can earn in a single race.

The most points the second-place finisher can get is 44 points, 42 for second, one for leading and one for leading the most laps.

Putting bonus points aside – NASCAR wanted to maintain the race winner reward – the system is pretty basic. There’s only a one-point difference between each position, from the base of 43 for first place to just one for last place.

The unique change NASCAR made for this season, in addition to rewarding consistency of performance, was to allow the top 10 after 26 races to qualify for the chase. Spots 11 and 12 would go to the drivers who have compiled the most victories and rank among the top 20.

OK, that’s enough. I’ve dwelled long enough on something you already know.

But what I find interesting about the new points system is that it has kept things fairly undecided as we enter the final six races before the Chase.

While there are a few drivers who seem safe when it comes to the Chase, there are others whose status is very much uncertain.

And Carl Edwards, the points leader, by no means has a lock on the top spot. He’s just seven points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Among the top 10 every driver except one has a victory. Kevin Harvick, fourth in points and eight behind Edwards, has three victories, as does Kyle Busch, who is fifth in points, 13 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have two wins each – and are ranked sixth and seventh in points, respectively.

I would think all four drivers are pretty much guaranteed spots in the Chase.

I’d say the same for Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch (third in points), Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who each have a victory and are among the top 10.

OK, here’s where the situation becomes a bit tense for some drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks ninth in points largely because he’s been in a competitive swoon. He was once as high as third in the standings.

But he does not have a victory. Which means two things if he wants to make the Chase: He has to hang on to the top 10 over the next six races, or, at the very least, earn a victory, something he hasn’t done since 2008.

Tony Stewart faces a similar situation. He’s tied with Hamlin for 10th in points, but unlike Hamlin, he doesn’t have a victory.

So if the Chase started immediately, Hamlin is in and Stewart is out.

But it doesn’t start immediately so Stewart has a chance to secure his place. Most likely he would prefer to do it with a victory. He hasn’t had a winless season in a career that dates back to 1999.

Other notables, such as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, pretty much have to rely on winning to make the Chase.

Bowyer is 12th in points, Kahne 14th and Biffle 15th. They are 110 points or more behind the leader. Bowyer is 28 points out of 10th place. He can certainly make up the difference but the odds are quickly stacking against him.

It’s the same for Kahne and Biffle, who are each 47 points out of the hunt.

For these three guys, a victory would be the tonic. The last time Bowyer went winless happened in 2009. He won two races last year.

Kahne has had two consecutive winless seasons. Between 2003-10, Biffle had only one year without a victory, 2009.

I don’t think there’s much doubt any of them can win this year. The question is can they do it in time to help them make the Chase?

They are not alone. It’s going to take a win for several others who rank 11-20th in points to make NASCAR’s “playoff.”

They include A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.

Fact is there’s only one driver out of the top 10 who is assured a position in the Chase – for the time being, anyway.

That’s David Ragan, who won at Daytona on July 2 to earn the first victory of his career. He’s presently 13th in points.

He’s 46 points out of 10th place. That’s not insurmountable, just as it is for Bowyer, Kahne and Biffle, and I’m sure that, like the others, gaining positions is what he’d like to do.

But he’s the only one with the luxury of a victory.

As it stands right now, the only other driver who has a shot at the Chase is Brad Keselowski. He has a victory but, in 23rd place, ranks out of the top 20.

He’s going to have to scrap his way in. He’s 25 points behind 20th-place Martin, again certainly not an insurmountable margin. He has six races to do it.

The next half-dozen races are worthy of our attention. For some drivers it’s obviously going to take victory to make all the difference.

Can they win? Certainly. The 2011 season has already produced 13 different winners, including three who won for the first time.

Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, the all-time record for most winners in a single season is 19 and the record for most first-time winners was five twice, in 2001 and 2002.

We’re on a pace to have 25 winners this year, including six who won for this first time in their careers.

I don’t know if that will happen, but the point is this season’s variety of winners would indicate that anything could happen over the next six events – and thus alter the starting field for the Chase.

“Brooksie” Was Symbolic Of The NASCAR Driver That Once Was

Many years ago, when NASCAR was much younger, far more informal and not nearly as popular or wealthy as it is now, the competitive environment was different – needless to say.

Most guys who raced acted on a whim and competed only when they thought it might be fun or somewhat profitable.

Sure, the sport had its heroes, guys who got the backing it took to compete for championships and earn the glory and the headlines.

But they were always in the minority.

NASCAR got a bit more sophisticated in the 1970s when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. came on board and established the Winston Cup Series, which included a championship point fund that grew steadily, and impressively, over the years.

As for the competitors, they remained pretty much the same. There were the stars, of course, like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison – but the majority of the drivers they beat were still a rag-tag bunch.

Like their predecessors most came around when it suited them. Others competed regularly in hopes of making a profit through the points system.

They came and went. They had names like Eddie Yarboro, Dean Dalton, Henley Gray, Walter Ballard, Earl Brooks, George Althedie, Joe Frasson, Travis Tiller, Carl Adams, David Sisco and Alton Jones.

I daresay you haven’t heard of most of them.

As mentioned, there were regulars – guys out to make a buck by competing on a full schedule and hope to finish as high in points as possible.

Among this group were the more familiar names of Richard Childress, James Hylton, Buddy Arrington, Cecil Gordon and Frank Warren.

There was one other – and he was unique.

The late Dick Brooks was an anomaly. First, he was far removed from the Southern “good ol’ boy.”

He hailed from Porterville, Calif., of all places, where, as he would tell us all, he led a pretty hardscrabble life with a family that learned how live off the land.

Brooks would tell tales about killing bear for food. The meat would be stuffed into a jar, which was then placed in a running creek to keep cool until it was eaten.

Brooks drove fast cars hither and yon until he came to NACAR in 1969 at age 27. He did well enough, with 13 top-10 finishes in 54 races, to earn rookie of the year honors.

But it wasn’t so much his driving skill that drew folks’ attention. Brooks was, well, different.

Forget the crewcut and T-shirt with the rolled up sleeves. Brooks had long, styled hair and a decent wardrobe – although that often gave way to bib overalls.

He was good-looking, so much so that many figured that since he was from California, he was a product of Hollywood. Certainly he never lacked for female companionship.

Brooks was down-to-earth. He was quick to smile, had a terrific sense of humor and could make friends with just about everybody – including the media.

He was very accessible to the press. Brooks and several media guys became pals. They did things together, including attending horse races.

Brooks tried to compete regularly in his own cars but it wasn’t easy. By 1972, he entered only 14 of 31 races.

By 1973 Brooks was often looking for work. Then something happened just days before the Talladega 500 on Aug. 12.

Jimmy Crawford, an Eastern Airlines pilot, had entered his Plymouth in the race. But NASCAR determined that Crawford did not have enough superspeedway experience to tackle the massive 2.66-mile Talladega track.

Three days before the race Crawford struck a deal with Brooks, who was, obviously, available. Brooks would drive the Crawford Plymouth in the Talladega 500.

Brooks produced one of the biggest upsets ever in the history of what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Unbelievably, he won the Talladega 500. It was a stunning triumph. Think of the scenario – a journeyman looking for a job gets a one-race break and whips ‘em all.

Brooks was triumphant in one of Talladega’s strangest, and most tragic, events.

A crash that didn’t look very serious took the life of 1972 Rookie of the Year Larry Smith.

Bobby Isaac, the 1970 champion, radioed car owner Bud Moore and told him to find a relief driver. Isaac came down pit road, exited Moore’s Ford and walked away.

A voice had told him to get out of the car.

“Something told me to quit,” Isaac said. “I didn’t know anything else to do but abide by it.”

Isaac never again got a competitive Winston Cup ride.

While Brooks’ victory might have given him the opportunity to get a competitive ride, that really never happened.

In 1975 he hooked up with owner Junie Donlavey’s middle-of-the road team. They remained fixtures at every race. If nothing else, Brooks had a regular job.

It seemed Donlavey, now a member of the National Motorsports Hall of Fame, and Brooks were liked by everyone. They were very popular.

Donlavey was so gracious and polite was nicknamed “The Southern Gentleman.”

The outgoing Brooks was known by most as simply “Brooksie.”

Their union lasted until 1997. Brooks tried his hand elsewhere until 1983, when he and Donlavey reunited and promptly finished fifth in the Daytona 500.

It all came to an end after the 1985 season. While Donlavey continued to compete with other drivers for years afterward, Brooks called it quits after five events.

He didn’t leave racing, however. For many years he served as a pit reporter for MRN Radio, most often doing interviews from victory lane, where his signature phrase became, “There sure are a lot of happy people here.”

He also became a successful businessman who owned car dealerships. He never failed to hook up with, and entertain, old racing buddies.

But he had his problems. His wife left him. He was in a motorcycle wreck that left him severely physically and mentally debilitated for a long time.

As if that wasn’t enough, he suffered more complications from an airplane crash, which contributed to his premature death of pneumonia on Feb. 1, 2006. He was 63 years old.

Other than for his upset Talladega win Brooks’ name won’t be in the record books. He’ll never be remembered for his achievements on the track. Maybe, in time, he won’t be remembered at all.

That should not happen.

What should be known is that he was, now and forever, one of the true characters that added so much what was once the carefree spirit of NASCAR.

Thoughts On Two Drivers With Opposite Fortunes

Observations on a driver who is a multiple champion – and has made a good effort for another title in 2011 – and a very popular competitor who hopes to, finally, be at the top of the points for the first time in his career.

The former driver, as said, is right in step. The latter, however, has slipped competitively in the last several weeks and is in danger of not making the Chase – again.

Jimmie Johnson is a five-time Sprint Cup champion who has parlayed his talent, the savvy of his crew chief Chad Knaus and the strength of his Hendrick Motorsports team into record-setting success in NASCAR.

He’s after a sixth consecutive championship in 2011 and, at this point, he’s in pretty good shape. He’s second in points, just seven points behind Carl Edwards, with just seven races to go before the Chase begins.

Given that he’s also earned a victory, which gives him a measure of insurance under NASCAR’s new “playoff” entry system, there seems to be little doubt that Johnson will again contend for a championship.

But many have said Johnson hasn’t been quite the force he was in the past. He seems vulnerable. He started the season in very good form but many times since has often been plagued by atypical problems.

There have been pit road miscues and at times he’s competed in a car that is clearly not the class of the field, as it has been many times in the past.

But Johnson and team have pressed forward with the kind determination and tenacity almost championship-caliber teams share.

They have, for the most part, overcome a myriad of problems to earn high finishes, and consequently more points, than most could have expected.

Instead of languishing back in the pack or sitting helplessly in the garage area, Johnson and the Hendrick team have overcome. So much so that it’s been asked, “Where the heck did they come from?”

A very good example of this came at New Hampshire. In that race Johnson had so many difficulties that he should have been down and out instead of doggedly pushing his way into a fifth-place finish.

He didn’t qualify well, settling for the 28th position. But he moved into the lead and hovered around the top-five until, while running second, he fell victim to a pit miscue – something, oddly, not all that uncommon for him this year – on lap 217.

He had to come back down pit road with a loose lug nut, which sent him back to 35th place with well less than 100 laps remaining.

Still, he rallied. He moved into sixth position by lap 241. Then while scrapping with Juan Pablo Montoya for fifth place there was contact between the two. Johnson’s No. 48 spun and was once again sent to the rear of field.

It’s not likely Johnson is going to invite Montoya to dinner any time soon.

Rather than accept an unkind fate Johnson showed he’s a competitor of true grit. Somehow – rest assured, it was mystifying to many – he was in fifth place race’s end.

What could have been a disastrous day in New England was avoided, and then some. Johnson, who has 54 career victories, overcame. He said, given the circumstances, he and his team did it the hard way.

Imagine the kind of day they might have had if things had been easy.

I’ve seen this type of thing many times before and have come to the same conclusion as other veteran NASCAR observers.

All teams face adversity. It’s the good ones that overcome it and the great ones do so routinely.

New Hampshire offered a good example of how great Johnson’s Hendrick team has been, and still is.

A sixth title is possible – in fact, very much so. Don’t think for a moment Johnson and team don’t believe that and have clearly demonstrated their desire to earn it.

 

** For quite a while it seemed Dale Earnhardt Jr. was well on his way to a spot in the Chase, which he’s failed to make in three of the last four seasons.

Earnhardt Jr., who is Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick, rose to as high as third in points until he went into a summer swoon. In the four starts before New Hampshire, he plunged to ninth in points.

Presently he’s only seven points within the top 10, just ahead of a resurgent Tony Stewart, second at New Hampshire, and Denny Hamlin, who are tied for 10th.

Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver among the top 10 without a victory, which makes things even more precarious for him.

The Hendrick driver averaged a 28th-place finish during his four-race free fall prior to New Hampshire, where he finished 15th.

That wasn’t great – yet another finish out of the top 10 – but under the circumstances and how his car ran, Earnhardt Jr. will take it.

But if he wants to make the Chase, which begins on Sept. 18 at Chicagoland, he cannot afford to run out of the top 10. Fact is, his situation would greatly improve with a series of top-five runs. Oh, and a victory – he hasn’t won since Michigan in June of 2008 – would well serve his cause, obviously.

It’s been suggested that the media makes too much of Earnhardt Jr., particularly now. But given his heritage and his massive popularity among NASCAR fans, it’s very hard to ignore him.

Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver more excited or brimming with confidence than Earnhardt Jr. was when it was announced he would race for Hendrick starting in 2008.

In his opinion, he joined a team with which he could win races and championships. Many agreed.

However, now in his fourth season with Hendrick, there’s been only one win and one year in which he was a title contender.

His standing in points through most of the year suggested he was going to be in the Chase – and that certainly that encouraged his fans.

But in the passing few weeks things have become grim.

For Earnhardt Jr., however, they are by no means hopeless. He may be hanging on by his fingernails now, but there is time – not much of it – for him to get the firm grip he once had.

Stewart Haas Victory Might, Just Might, Indicate A Corner Is Turned

It’s probably been suggested that what we saw in the Lenox Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the kind of thing Hollywood used to grind out with its grade-B movies.

You know the formula: The hero gets down and a bit out but in the end he rises to the occasion and overcomes. All is well – the end and roll credits.

OK, New Hampshire’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race might not have been all that, but you have to admit it was something Hollywood might have come up with.

Ryan Newman won the race to earn his first victory of the year while his teammate, Tony Stewart, finished second, giving Stewart Haas Racing a sweep.

Funny thing, but one-two is the way they started. Newman won the pole and Stewart completed the front row.

That a pole winner actually goes on to win a race is something that doesn’t happen often at all. For the fastest one-two qualifiers to finish an event in that order is downright rare.

I can assure you that the last thing on Newman’ s and Stewart’s minds is how historically unusual the results at New Hampshire were. The two drivers were simply thrilled that it all happened the way it did.

It could not have come at a better time. For them, and Stewart Haas, the race was a needed tonic.

Newman was very pleased to finally notch a victory, his third at New Hampshire, and greatly improve his chances for a place in the Chase.

Stewart might not have won – and he remains winless this year – but his run eases, if just a bit, concerns that he might not make the Chase. He’s slightly better off now than he was a week ago.

I would venture to say Stewart also hopes it will shut up those in the media who have constantly questioned him about his mediocre season.

More on that later.

Newman’s victory elevated him from a precarious ninth in points to eighth. Yes, that isn’t a big leap but the win gives him a valuable insurance policy.

The top 10 in points seven races from now will make the Chase. Under NASCAR’s new policy, two “wildcard” entries will be claimed by two drivers with the most wins outside the top 10 but inside the top 20.

The win makes Newman a stronger bet to make the “playoff.”

Stewart still does not have the benefit of a victory and remains in 11th place in points after New Hampshire. He now has the same number of points as 10th-place Denny Hamlin (570). Hamlin, however, does have a victory – and thus the edge, as of now.

Stewart should be pleased with that but he’s probably even more pleased that his team gave such a strong performance when it was needed.

“This is huge,” said Stewart, who has already won two championships. “I mean, it’s huge. It’s no secret we’ve been struggling this year. But it really shows me the depth of the people we got in our organization. It’s been one of the weirdest years as far as just weird things and bad luck happening to both Ryan and me.

“Our guys at our shop just keep plugging away, they keep working, they keep their chins up. That’s probably what I’m most proud of. It’s easy when things are going right. But when times are tough and you have a day like today, you see how your organization battles. That shows the character of what Stewart Haas Racing is about, what our people are like.”

Newman led 119 of 301 laps and, despite some concerns otherwise, managed to avoid running out of gas before he took the checkered flag for his 15th career victory.

But he, too, acknowledged that race was not only beneficial to him, but also to Stewart Haas.

“I’m just really proud for us as an organization,” he said. “From my standpoint personally, it’s great to win. We had fought so hard over two and a half years to get (sponsor) U.S. Army in victory lane.

“From my standpoint, it’s just a great day. We backed up what everybody said we couldn’t back up, that was our qualifying effort on Friday. I had won three for 46, now four for 47.

“We put it on them today. We’ll relish this moment and figure out what we did right so we can keep doing it.”

Stewart, who became principal owner of the team in 2009, no doubt hopes he, Newman and the organization can indeed keep doing it. Then questions about their mediocrity will certainly cease.

Make no mistake, the Columbus, Ind., native is quite fed up such queries and made that known at New Hampshire.

At his weekly press conference at the track – he was late – Stewart knew what was in store. He’d heard it all before.

When asked to assess his season as a driver and an owner, he said, curtly:

“Same as we did last week and the week before. We’re not where we want to be and we’re working on it.

“I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question. Are you happy when things aren’t going the way you want? Makes you frustrated, doesn’t it? So, yes, we’re frustrated.”

Stewart Haas might be turning the corner. Stewart has always been known as a driver whose performance level rises with the temperature.

However, this season things have been a bit reversed. Stewart led laps and compiled finishes good enough to put him first in points after three races. It’s been a struggle since.

And Stewart asserts the questions he’s asked always remain the same.

Really, though, how could he expect them to change until he finally reached victory lane?

Or, with teammate Newman, turn in a significantly improved performance that might, just might, indicate Stewart Haas has indeed started to heat up just in time?

NASCAR’s “Superspeedway Era” Wasn’t Much At First

By the end of July 1960 what was eventually called NASCAR’s “Superspeedway Era” had already made its debut – with decidedly mixed reviews.

That season, three tracks of 1.4 miles or greater in distance became part of the Grand National schedule and joined the two existing big tracks, Darlington Raceway and Daytona International Speedway.

It was a significant occurrence for NASCAR, which, throughout most of its existence, had mostly conducted its races on tracks of half-mile, or slightly larger, both dirt and asphalt.

From 1949-1958, 381 Grand National races had been run, 293 of them on dirt tracks a mile or less in distance.

Obviously the sport had been born and bred on such speedways.

There were exceptions of course. Darlington, a 1.375-mile speedway at the time, ran its first Southern 500 in 1950 and it was still on the schedule a decade later, joined by the Rebel 300.

Raleigh Speedway was a one-mile banked paved oval that joined NASCAR in 1953 but did not survive past 1958.

Memphis-Arkansas Speedway, a huge 1.5-mile banked dirt track, lasted just three years, from 1954-57.

Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta was a notorious one-mile dirt track that was a playground for many of NASCAR’s pioneer drivers. However, it was no longer a part of the Grand National schedule after 1959.

It was in ’59 that the first Daytona 500 was held which meant that 2.5-mile Daytona and Darlington were the only two remaining superspeedways on the Grand National schedule as the decade of the ‘60s began.

Many racing purists thought even that number was too many. It was their belief that NASCAR needed to stick to its heritage else it would wilt and die.

Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder, wasn’t buying the argument. It was his belief that the superspeedways produced high-speed, exciting racing and provided fans with comfort and amenities most of the bull rings had simply ignored.

So France was pleased when three superspeedways joined the Grand National circuit in 1960. Doesn’t sound like many but it was enough for some observers to declare NASCAR was in the midst of a “superspeedway boom.”

Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta International Raceway and a track with the unlikely name of Marchbanks Speedway all staged races in 1960.

Two of them were fortunate to make it. Charlotte and Atlanta experienced financial and construction problems so great that their original debut dates had to be pushed back several months.

Charlotte, the brainchild of Bruton Smith and superstar driver Curtis Turner, was the most ambitious of the lot.

Smith and Turner, as befits their bravado, wanted Charlotte to have the longest and most grueling race on the Grand National circuit. They came up with a 600-mile event to be known as the World 600.

 

However, they had to get the 1.5-mile track built. The two encountered all manner of problems, particularly in construction, and were virtually out of money well before the race’s planned date of May 29.

The event was pushed back to June 19 so that pavement could be completed. It was on the morning of the race – well, completed maybe but not nearly suitable for racing.

The asphalt had not had time to settle and the cars tore huge holes in the track. Patchwork was done daily but the drivers still complained, knowing it would not hold up for 600 miles with 60 cars in the race.

They were right, of course. Chunks of rock and other debris flew everywhere. Teams attempted to avoid the worst by putting screens over the grill and windshield of their cars to keep stuff out of their radiators and elsewhere.

Somehow Joe Lee Johnson managed to avoid the chuck holes and went on to win the inaugural World 600 after Jack Smith, who at one point led Johnson by five laps, was sidelined when flying debris tore a hole in his fuel tank.

Atlanta was supposed to run its first Dixie 300 in November of 1959 but construction delays and a weak cash flow threatened the facility for over eight months.

Finally, finishing touches were put on the track on the week of the race, just as it was at Charlotte. There was not a blade of grass in the place and tents were used as shelter in the garage area.

Nevertheless, the Dixie 300 took place and was held on a truly unique Atlanta layout. The speedway was 1.5-miles in distance but had wide, sweeping turns which accounted for a mile of its length.

Fireball Roberts won the race when he shot past Cotton Owens with just 12 laps remaining.

But perhaps the most unusual of the superspeedways that came along with 1960 – and one probably best remembered by racing historians – was Marchbanks, located in Hanford, Calif.

B.L. Marchbanks, a self-titled sportsman who, obviously, named the track after himself, supervised construction.

Marchbanks, the track, had been part of NASCAR since 1951 but, now at 1.4-miles, it was going to be something new. Its first race was set for June 12, ahead of Charlotte and Atlanta, and, at 250 miles, was publicized as the biggest race west of the Mississippi.

Well, drivers and fans didn’t think so. Many of the top Grand National stars didn’t make the trip to California, thinking the first-place prize of $2,000 from a $17,425 purse would hardly cover expenses.

Rex White, however, snuck out to California. He finished eighth and earned 456 points, which helped carry him to the 1960 Grand National championship.

Marvin Porter, a Californian, won the race competing against mostly drivers from what was then known as the Pacific Coast Late Model circuit.

As for the fans, Marchbanks might have been something new but they could not have been less interested. Only 7,000 of them showed up for the races, largely because of the 104-degree heat.

It was pretty much the same thing at Marchbanks in 1961. This time the race was held on March 12 but still paid only $2,000 to win.

What makes Marchbanks a part of NASCAR lore is that the 1961 race was won by Fireball Roberts, who led all 178 laps and became the first driver in NASCAR history to lead the entire distance on a superspeedway.

After 1961, Marchbanks was no longer on the Grand National schedule. Charlotte and Atlanta, however, survived after many problems and upheavals.

They were among the first of the “superspeedway boom” that, obviously, continued in NASCAR well beyond 1960.

Busch Makes Kentucky’s Debut A One-Man Show

It seems Kyle Busch knows how to spoil Opening Night – at least when it comes to a stock car race.

After 11 years Kentucky Speedway finally got to play host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup race it had coveted and, while everyone certainly looked forward to a spirited, highly competitive event befitting of the debut, that simply didn’t happen.

Give Busch the blame or credit, whichever you prefer.

The 26-year-old driver for Joe Gibbs Racing put on a virtual one-man show in the inaugural Quaker State 400. Starting from the pole position after qualifying was rained out, Busch took early command, leading 105 of the first 114 laps.

He dominated the race thereafter, even to the point where he maintained his lead after a round of green-flag pit stops.

He then held off his challengers, notably David Reutimann and Jimmie Johnson, after a couple of late-race caution periods to win for the third time this season.

It was a terrific weekend for Busch. In addition to the Sprint Cup pole, he won the Craftsman Truck Series event. Additionally, he vaulted into first place in the Sprint Cup point standings.

It certainly is special,” said Busch, who earlier had made it very clear he badly wanted to win Kentucky’s first Sprint Cup race. “It feels awesome to be able to come here and run the way we did, to unload the way we did off the hauler. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and all the guys, all the engineers back in the shop did a phenomenal job with our race car.

“We didn’t have many adjustments to make, just finetuned on it through the weekend. It was definitely a special event here this weekend. We felt the energy. We saw the people.”

For most of the race Busch benefitted from the clean air afforded the leader of the race. At one point, he lead 104 of 106 green-flag laps and opened up a whopping five-second lead over Kasey Kahne.

The guess here is that if many fans still trying to negotiate traffic to get to race had known what was going on, they probably would have turned around and gone home.

Then again, they would have missed a spirited finish. Clint Bowyer spun into the turn 2 wall to bring out the race’s last caution on lap 261 of 267. When the race restarted, Busch again moved into the lead, overcoming a charge from Johnson, who was passed by Reutimann for second place.

“I knew Jimmie had fresher rubber than I did for a restart,” Busch said. “I tried to do the best I could at being able to get a good restart. But I overshot my acceleration just by a little bit and spun my tires a fuzz. That allowed him to get a little bit of momentum on me.”

But it wasn’t nearly enough, of course.

Busch has been recognized as a lively competitor who sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him. He’s certainly not afraid to speak his mind and has seldom backed away from a confrontation.

All which likely contributes to the fact he’s not NASCAR’s most popular driver.

But at his young age he’s already one of its best.

He came away from his weekend at Kentucky with the 22nd Cup victory of his career. He has now earned 99 wins in NASCAR’s top three series.

This one ranks right up there with the best of them,” Busch said of his Cup win. “I haven’t won any of the big races, unfortunately, yet. But, you know, it ranks right up there with Las Vegas being another of my prestigious wins that I feel like I’ve accomplished so far.”

 

** Fortunes improved greatly for one driver while continuing to fade for another.

Reutimann, driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, scored his first top-five finish of the season after he was able to pass Johnson on the last lap and follow Busch to the checkered flag.

Reutimann qualified 17th and plowed his way forward through most of the race. He put himself in a position to pass Johnson while the checkered flag waved.

The finish was a tonic for Reutimann, whose team has not had much to be happy about in 2011. It has been especially distressing since it came into the season highly optimistic after 2010, during which it won at Chicagoland and Reutimann finished 18th in points.

“It’s been an awful season for us,” said Reutimann, who stands 24th in points. “But we had a brand new car for this race. They guys are trying to figure out why we’re not running well so we came up with a better car this weekend.

“I’m not saying that’s the answer or the magic bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took yet another step in the wrong direction with his 30th-place finish. It came after he blew a left-front tire on lap 254 as he left pit road following a stop for fuel.

It was Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth consecutive finish of 19th or worse and he dropped a spot to eighth in points. At one point the Hendrick Motorsports driver racked up a series of top-10 finishes and seemed headed for a very promising season.

“We just didn’t have a very good car,” said Earnhardt Jr., who fought handling problems throughout the race. “We just didn’t have a good setup in there for some reason.”

 

** As announced earlier in the week, the Quaker State 400 was a sellout. But a sizable number of fans were turned away from the track as traffic problems caused by the influx of 100,000 folks backed up Interstate 71 for several hours.

Halfway through the race fans still trying to get into the speedway were turned away by officers who had to change patterns to allow outbound traffic to move.

The speedway, which had expanded its 66,000-seat grandstand to a capacity of 107,000 yet could not provide additional roads, acknowledged there was a problem and that plans for improvements were already under way.

Traffic snarls are hardly anything new in NASCAR – and remain common today – and are particularly prevalent when a Cup race is staged at a new venue for the first time.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Kentucky, has experienced such traffic woes before – and rest assured it’s not the only entity to have done so.

When SMI’s Texas Motor Speedway’s first race was held in 1997, traffic problems were so severe fans parked along the Interstate and walked to the track.

Bruton Smith, SMI’s dynamic CEO, intends to make Kentucky Speedway the foremost sports arena in the state.

For that to happen, of course, traffic problems must be kept to a minimum.

Hopefully, in time they will be.

It Took A While, But Kentucky Is Now Full-Bore NASCAR

When Kentucky Speedway stages its inaugural Sprint Cup race this weekend it will mark the beginning of its new association with the highest level of stock car racing.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky will, at long last, take its place as part of the nation’s most popular form of motorsports and the speedway will be a welcome new venue – which many think it should have long since been.

Even though NASCAR was born in the Southeast and for years flourished there, as hard at it might be to believe, Kentucky wasn’t part of it. The state didn’t take its place alongside Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.

When NASCAR began to expand, tracks located in such unlikely places as Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Sonoma and Watkins Glen came on board while Kentucky remained absent.

But some enterprising people refused to stand idly by. In 2001, Kentucky Speedway, a handsome 1.5-mile track built in Sparta (30 miles from Cincinnati) staged its first NASCAR event.

It was a Nationwide Series race won by Kevin Harvick. The track has been part of the Nationwide tour ever since but it has always sought to move up to NASCAR’s elite circuit.

Now it has done so. But for so long Kentucky and NASCAR were never partners when it seemed, logically, they should have been.

Looking back into NASCAR’s record books, until this weekend, there was only one major race held in Kentucky since the sanctioning body was formed in 1947. And by “major” it is meant an event held on the Grand National circuit that evolved into today’s Sprint Cup tour.

It was held at Corbin Speedway, a half-mile dirt track located in Corbin, Ky., on Aug. 29, 1954. The race was a 200-lapper, or 100 miles.

It was put on the schedule during a time when Bill France, Sr., NASCAR’s founder, was staging races just about anytime and anywhere he could, coast-to-coast.

France was anxious to have his sport of professional stock car racing somehow find the attention of, and an eventual foothold with, the American public.

The Corbin event was one of 37 held in 1954. In later years the schedule for the Grand National circuit would sometimes consist of 50 races or more.

Lee Petty drove his Chrysler to victory in Kentucky in ’54 to earn one of his seven victories of the season. He went on to compete in 34 races and, at age 40, win the first of his three Grand National championships.

Interestingly, the driver who finished second, and was the only other one to complete all 200 laps, was Hershel McGriff in an Oldsmobile. He was 27 years old and won four races in ’54, his best Grand National season.

McGriff is a remarkable athlete who has raced over the course of six decades. At age 83, he has already competed in two NASCAR K&N Pro Series West races this year.

Other NASCAR notables who were part of the 21-car field in Corbin included Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Marvin Panch and Jim Paschal.

After 1954, Kentucky was never again a part of NASCAR’s top circuit – at least through research done here. If anyone can show otherwise please enlighten us all.

When it comes to Kentucky, remember all of this is about NASCAR and its top circuit. It has nothing to do with motorsports overall in the Bluegrass State, which certainly has had its share of drivers, tracks and fans over the years.

And Kentucky has never needed NASCAR to take the podium in the sports world. When it comes to thoroughbred horse racing, it stands head and shoulders above all other states.

It’s fair to say that the Kentucky Derby, in Louisville, is one of the world’s major sporting events and receives perhaps even more international attention than the Daytona 500.

In 1972, Kentucky began its slowly forged link with NASCAR through the ambition, achievements and personality of a single driver.

This is an opinion shared by a multitude of motorsports historians and journalists.

Darrell Waltrip, from Owensboro, Ky., broke into NASCAR in ’72. I always have thought he was the right man for the sport at the right time.

While NASCAR did receive a huge boost from the financial participation of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston brand of cigarettes, that created the Winston Cup circuit, it was devoid of personalities that could lure, and even polarize, fans new and old.

Waltrip was the man who did so. With long hair and sideburns, a sense of humor, a brash attitude and the gift of gab, he made it clear he was going to beat the big boys.

In an upstart operation with his own car and noted crew chief Jake Elder few paid Waltrip particular notice – at first. That changed when he began to compete regularly with the stars of the day.

It also changed when fans began to listen to what Waltrip had to say and either approved or disapproved. Either way he drew attention.

The media began to court the “mouthy” kid from Tennessee – Waltrip had moved to Franklin, Tenn., so he could race regularly at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

The Kentucky native had a way with the press. He was opinionated, of course, but he was also witty and very open. He knew what he was doing.

He didn’t mind telling one writer about his misadventures in Owensboro. One of them was his ultimate conviction for something called “attempted drag racing,” which might not have happened if a buddy, who, while on the stand, hadn’t been forcefully told the punishments for perjury.

Scared, he turned on Waltrip, who subsequently spent a year riding around Owensboro in a moped.

While he kept on talking, Waltrip kept racing competitively and finally won his first career Winston Cup event at, of course, Nashville, on May 10, 1975. It took him 50 races.

“I wish I could have won at some track other than the one where I grew up,” Waltrip said. “But it’s good to finally win, though.”

Waltrip won again in ’75, at Richmond. This time it was with DiGard Racing Co., which had hired him to replace Donnie Allison.

It was with DiGard that Waltrip began his surge to superstardom, which was later intensified by his long association with Junior Johnson & Associates.

Kentucky racing fans gleefully and appreciatively went along with the ride. After all, Waltrip was one of the best in NASCAR and a Kentuckian to boot.

Kentucky’s representation in NASCAR grew. In time NASCAR had a small army of Owensboro competitors.

It included Waltrip’s brother Michael, of course, along with the Green siblings – David, Jeff and Mark. Also a member was Jeremy Mayfield.

Their presence certainly solidified Kentucky’s position in NASCAR.

But nothing will do so better than what will happen on what should be a more than well-attended weekend. It was a long time coming for several reasons, but Kentucky and the speedway are now welcome parts of NASCAR’s highest level.

Near-Perfect Strategy Pays Off For Ragan, Roush

As best as I can figure, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth performed carburetor plate racing’s two-car tango to perfection in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

And that allowed Ragan to win the race and earn the first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory of his career.

No doubt you are well aware of the style of racing that has evolved at NASCAR’s plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega – especially at the recently repaved 2.5-mile DIS.

Two cars hook up in a draft, the front end of one glued to the rear end of the other. It’s the best possible configuration in which to produce top speeds.

Which is not saying it’s popular with competitors, however.

There’s a lot more to it than simply that, of course, but suffice it to say that drivers have learned that the only way they are going to have any chance at victory is to find someone with whom they can hook up and, even more important, cooperate.

While drivers have found drafting partners from various teams competing in various car models (you take the best help where you can get it), we’re told the ideal situation is for two teammates to hook up.

Certainly the teammates think so.

If that is the case, what we saw in the Coke Zero 400 was indeed, ideal.

Prior to the race, Ragan and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth agreed to work together the entire race.

It paid off big time as Roush Fenway scored a one-two finish and Ragan won for the first time in 163 Sprint Cup starts.

“We made a pact with Matt that we were going to work together through thick or thin,” Ragan said. “I was a little worried about that. Sometimes falling to the back, and working back to the front, you get jammed up throughout the race.

“So I didn’t know if that was the right decision or not, but bottom line, our car was fast. That’s what wins these races. You’ve got to have luck, you’ve got to have pit stops and all that stuff goes into effect.

“But you’ve got to have a fast car and our UPS Ford was fast. The engine ran flawless and that’s what won the race for us. I had Matt right behind us. I knew we had a good pusher. I knew we had the car to do it and not try to make any mistakes, and try to put ourselves in good position.”

A couple of established circumstances made the victory especially significant for Ragan. In the Daytona 500, he was in position to win the race when, on a late-race restart, he switched lanes prior to reaching the start-finish line – which is subject to a penalty.

Ragan fell out of contention.

“Well, we got one back at Daytona and it would have been tough to lose another one here,” said the 25-year-old Ragan, who has been driving full-time for Roush since 2007. “I thought about the last race here while we were under caution.

“I thought, ‘Man, if we don’t win this thing I’m not going to want to talk to anyone afterwards.’ But we were able to win and that does ease the pain from February.”

Additionally, Ragan’s sponsor, UPS, is not signed beyond this season and word is Ragan’s status with his team is shaky, depending upon the return of his sponsor, or the acquisition of a new one.

The victory at Daytona clearly did nothing to hurt Ragan’s cause.

“Certainly we’re hopeful that UPS will carry on in a meaningful regard with the sponsorship of David’s No. 6 car,” said Roush. “Now that we are in negotiations, we don’t have assurance that that’s going to be the case. But David has arrived at the upper echelon.

“David is a winner now. And he’s given a win to UPS, and hopefully they’ll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association.”

To continue on the issue of sponsorships, it was recently announced that Kenseth’s sponsor, Crown Royal, would not return to Roush or NASCAR next year.

But it’s likely that was hardly on Kenseth’s mind at all as he and Ragan intensely followed their game plan to perfection.

While every driver wants to win, Kenseth made it clear he expected to finish second. As the two sped through the final turns of the race he made certain Ragan knew he wouldn’t make any attempt to pass.

“I told him, ‘I’m not gonna leave you and try to pass you,’ Kenseth said. “I knew one of us wasn’t going to win. But we had a plan.”

Kenseth was leading with three laps to go but when the caution came out with two laps remaining, he and Ragan were alongside each other. Ragan was out front when the green flag fell for the restart.

“The plan was to work as a team all night,” said Kenseth, who has won two races this year. “It just turned out that he was in front of me at the end. Both of us were unselfish all night and we worked together really well, I thought.

“We made a plan and we stuck to it. It worked well.”

At 17th, Ragan is firmly entrenched in the top 20 in points and the Daytona victory makes him eligible, presently, for this season’s Chase through one of two “wildcard” spots reserved for race winners who aren’t among the top 10 or beyond the top 20.

“It kinda disappoints us to be 17th in points,” Ragan said. “We should be about 13th in points so we feel we’ve got some work to do. I think we should have been a player in the Chase all year.”

Carl Edwards, another Roush driver who has certainly been a big player in the Chase all season, crashed early in the race and ultimately finished 37th.

He lost the points lead to Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who finished seventh and is now five points ahead of Edwards. Kyle Busch is third, five points down to Edwards.

Among the drivers ranked 11th-20th in points only Denny Hamlin, 11th, and now Ragan have “insurance policy” victories.

With only nine races remaining before the Chase begins, drivers outside the top 10 who have yet to win this year include Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne.

 

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