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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who could have possibly predicted that?

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

And who could have predicted what happened afterward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I was like, wow!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all so unpredictable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And we can do it again. We can.”

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

But they differ somewhat on how to do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where opinions vary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It was kind of surreal.

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

There was no practice, no qualifying – nothing.

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

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

But on this Friday, there was none of that.

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

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

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

That’s a packed schedule …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s good, but it could be better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

As Driver, Brad Keselowski Is Far More Than Personality And Twitter

As recognized as he is as a driver, Brad Keselowski is also noted as somewhat of a "character." What helped give rise to that was his willingness to use Twitter during races, as he is doing here.

Sometimes Brad Keselowski doesn’t act like he’s 28 years old. To put it another way, he doesn’t act his age – maybe it’s more 18 rather than 28.

But that’s a good thing. Beyond just outgoing and sociable, I daresay the driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., can be downright mischievous.

He’s the guy who gained a lot of notoriety when it was learned he was on Twitter during races. He has fun with it and, I daresay, a lot of other things.

Like many of you, I’ve read several of his “tweets,” (I trust that is the correct word) and sometimes he sounds like a standup comedian.
Once I thought I’d get into the Twitter act and see what would happen. I had just written a piece about him and afterward he won that weekend’s race.

So I sent: “Great race. You made me look like a genius.”

His response: “Anything to help, bro.”

I admit I got a kick out of that.

However, while personality and a good sense of humor do count in racing, they do not, alone, make a successful driver. Results count for much more.

When the results are good, and happen often, a driver eventually becomes acknowledged as one of the best in NASCAR.

For Keselowski the results have been good. And they have occurred often.

That is the reason many think he is destined to become a NASCAR star – if he’s not already. It can’t be denied his star is on the rise.

Keselowski has proven to be a winner. That first happened in 2009, when he drove in 15 Sprint Cup races.

Six of them were with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team.

Keselowski won at Talladega for Finch in April, a truly surprising victory because he had only a few Cup races under his belt and he won with a second-tier team.

That certainly raised eyebrows. But Keselowski wasn’t immediately tagged as a driver with a bright future. After all, unpredictableTalladega has produced more than its share of surprise winners.

Keselowski's team owner, Roger Penske, is man known for his ability to recognize talent. He hired Keselowski in 2010 and to date, the union has produced excellent results.

In 2010, Roger Penske, a team owner with a well-known eye for talent, hired Keselowski. Their first year together was mundane with no wins, only two finishes among the top 10 and a 25th in points.

But that was not unexpected. After all, it was Keselowski’s first crack at full schedule.

What was unexpected was Keselowski’s 2011 season with Penske. The third-generation driver won three times.

Two of his victories came later in the season and helped propel him into the Chase. He was 11th in points before it began and fifth at the end of the season.

“We were focused on 2011, what we could do to maximize it and we’re very proud of the season that we had,” Keselowski said last year.

“I’m very, very happy with Penske Racing.

“You know, I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of. I think as time goes on, if we can continue to grow like we have this year the sky’s the limit for all of Penske Racing.”

So far Keselowski has been proven right. He’s already won three times this year, at Bristol, Talladega and most recently, Kentucky. His three victories tie him with Tony Stewart for most this season.

Keselowski is 10th in points and with his three victories is all but guaranteed a place in the Chase for the second time in three seasons.

Lest anyone think Keselowski is just a gifted driver making the most of good equipment, at New Hampshire there was strong evidence that he is a tough, resilient competitor who can make the most of unfavorable circumstances.

Keselowski finished fifth at New Hampshire, his sixth top-five run of the year – which ties his output for all of 2011.

It wasn’t so much that Keselowski finished fifth; rather, it’s how he did it.

He started 22nd and by the 90th lap he was among the top 10. He was the only driver who started outside the top 12 to finish inside it.

He was able to do that at a track on which it is notoriously difficult to pass and in a Dodge that wasn’t, well, perfect.
“We had really good long-run speed but we weren’t as good as we needed to be on the short runs,” Keselowski said. “Our balance was a little bit shifted.

“That played a big role in it all. Track position is everything and the further up you are, the better air you’ve got. We just never really had that.”

Keselowski agreed that to finish fifth from a poor starting position was indeed a good day.

“But it wasn’t easy,” he added. “It was tough. It was hot. That’s racing and it’s not supposed to be easy.”

Clearly, Keselowski can meet the physical and mental rigors of the sport. He can overcome. That certainly enhances his status.

“It was hard fought,” he said of New Hampshire. “We drove from the back to the front. Had a really strong run.

“You hate not to be happy about it. Being happy for us is winning. But at New Hampshire, that was all we had and we all had to make the most of it. I’m proud of our effort.”

I have no doubt that many other people are as well.

For them, probably the best way to let him know is to “tweet.” He’ll get the message, for sure.

One Small Slip Can Ruin Great Outcome, Just Ask Denny Hamlin

After Denny Hamlin suffered a miscue on his final pit stop, Kasey Kahne inherited the lead at New Hampshire and led the final 66 laps to earn his second victory of the season.

Sometimes we tend to forget that when it comes to success in racing, a fast car and a savvy driver don’t always generate it.

The odds for victory improve greatly when you have both – obviously. But given that racing is a team sport that involves a lot of people performing many different tasks, car and driver alone guarantee nothing.

We all know how pit stops, both good and bad, can make a difference in the outcome of any event.

Pit stops are not just about crewmember speed and skill. They are also about driver conduct on pit road – speeding or missing a stall can be ruinous – and communication.

The most essential communication is, of course, between driver and crew chief. If there is any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what is required during a stop, it can make all the difference in the outcome.

Ask Denny Hamlin. Or his crew chief Darian Grubb.

Hamlin was enjoying a Sunday drive in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup event at New Hampshire. In his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, the Virginian was steamrolling the competition.

Which, in fact, was not entirely unexpected. Hamlin qualified third, two positions behind pole winner and teammate Kyle Busch, and was fastest in final practice.

By lap 234, Hamlin had led 150 laps, more than any other driver. But then the race’s third and final caution period began after David Reutimann suffered a blown engine.

Hamlin led the parade down pit road in what was assumed to be a routine stop. But, unlike so many other competitors who underwent a two-tire change, the Gibbs team put four on its Toyota.

As a result Hamlin was no longer the leader when he returned to the track. He was in 14th place that was, obviously, a huge loss of track position.

It was quickly learned that a four-tire change was never intended. Hamlin said via radio he needed only “tires.” From that Grubb interpreted his driver wanted four, which, in his defense, is nearly always what drivers want when they say, “tires.”

Grubb said, indeed, that was the case. He added that once teams learned, via radio scanning, what was happening in the Hamlin pits, they opted for two-tire changes.

Poised for the restart Hamlin wanted to know what happened. Grubb told him. Hamlin sighed. Grubb fell on the sword and accepted the blame. “My bad,” he said.

He also encouraged his driver to give it all he had until the finish. Other than a lack of time there was no reason Hamlin couldn’t rally. His car had been the model of perfection all day.

In the space of 20 laps Hamlin moved from 14thto sixth. He was in fifth five laps later and then, after five more laps, he settled into fourth place.

With his victory Kahne improved his chances of making the Chase. He is 12th in points with two wins, more than any other driver outside the top 10. Only seven races remain before the Chase begins.

On lap 273, Hamlin was second, 2.9 seconds behind leader Kasey Kahne with 28 laps to go.

When Hamlin closed to within a second of Kahne with five laps remaining it seemed he had a real chance.

But it went away with just two laps to go when the hard-charging Hamlin slid high in the fourth turn.

For Hamlin a potentially great day was spoiled by a small miscommunication.

Of which he was acutely aware.

“It was just a miscommunication,” Hamlin said. “I said I needed tires and that was taken to mean I needed four of them.

“It was just a little miscommunication that turned into a second-place finish. You never know what could have happened on that last restart if we were taking two tires.

The 5 (Kahne) still may have been better, you never know.”

Fact is Hamlin shouldn’t have become the pursuer. But he made as much of it as he possibly could.

You try to be as optimistic as possible, but you know in your head that the stop was a death sentence, basically, for us,” Hamlin said. “I honestly didn’t think that we would get back to where we did.

“Kasey stretched out so far on that lead when we were about 10th. I was thinking top-five and then I was thinking I could get to the top three and then we made some good ground up there at the end.

“But I needed four or five more laps. I just needed to get within striking distance because I was going to rough him up.”

 

***** While a victory at New Hampshire would have certainly cemented Hamlin’s place in the Chase, with two wins and a fifth-place standing in points, it seems he doesn’t need it.

But for Kahne, his second win of the season may propel him into the “playoff.” He is 12th in points, 66 out of the top 10, but two wins put him No. 1 among the “wildcard” challengers.

“The first win with Hendrick Motorsports (at Charlotte) was pretty cool,” Kahne said. “The second one is really special to be a part of, especially as good as the cars are each and every weekend. “To be able to win two races now, and have a shot at the Chase – we’re still definitely not in it, but we have a better shot now than we did.”

Kahne admitted that he gained the most favorable track position following Hamlin’s pit miscue. But he added that he felt confident he could hold it – even as Hamlin made his assault during the closing laps.

“I was definitely focused on the lapped cars I was going by and how I could clear them quick,” Kahne said. “But I lost a ton of forward drive. I was getting pretty loose and Denny was coming on four tires.

“So I was paying attention to where he was, but I felt pretty good about the lead we had.”

Busch ranks No. 2 among “wildcard” contenders. He’s 13th in points with one victory. He’s one position ahead of Joey Logano and two ahead of Ryan Newman, the only other drivers outside the top 10 with at least one victory.

Busch, incidentally, ran strong at New Hampshire as he led 72 laps. But when he pitted for the final time on lap 232, he overshot his pits. The error cost him time and track position.

He fell out of second place and wound up 16th at race’s end.

With seven races remaining before the Chase begins following the conclusion of the Richmond race on Sept. 8, it appears the drivers who rank among the top 10 should make the Chase – some of them easily.

But outside the top 10, a couple of competitors face formidable challenges.

Carl Edwards, at No.11, is 46 points out of the top 10 with no victories. It seems certain now he has to win.

For four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 17th in points without a victory, the prospects for making the Chase continue to dwindle.

He has missed the “playoff” only once in his career and to avoid a second occurrence, at the least he has to win twice – certainly a daunting task.

 

 

 

 

 

The Weather Is Hot, So Watch For Tony Stewart To Heat Up

On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Tony Stewart (14) got a huge push from Kasey Kahne to move past leaders Matt Kenseth (17) and leader Greg Biffle (16). The victory was Stewart's third of the year.

Judging from his thrilling, last-lap victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it looks like Tony Stewart is back on his game.

Now that I’ve said that, I wonder if he was ever really “off” his game.

Maybe he was a bit or maybe he just appeared to be.

Stewart has earned a reputation as a Sprint Cup driver who heats up when the weather does.

It seems for most his career Stewart has gathered most of his victories during the second half of a season.

Remember 2011? By the time the 26th race of the season at Richmond rolled around, Stewart was winless and barely holding on to a spot among the top 10 in points.

He wasn’t happy. He groused that, “This team doesn’t deserve to be in the Chase.”

But in the 10-race Chase, which began after Richmond, Stewart ripped off five victories to win the championship by a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

From September through November, Stewart won half of the scheduled 10 races. Talk about a late bloomer. His reputation for winning during the second half of a season was enhanced.

This year things began quite differently for Stewart.

He won two of the first five races of the season, at Las Vegas and Fontana, and rose to as high as third place in the standings.

He didn’t wait around until the weather warmed up to start winning. For him, it was the “Merry Month of March,” not May.

But afterward, Stewart’s hot start cooled down. He finished outside the top 20 five times in 10 races following his Fontana victory.

He experienced a rash of engine problems relating to the new electronic fuel injection system. It seemed he suffered more EFI woes than any other driver.

But he also had five finishes among the top five following his win at Fontana. Most important, he managed to remain among the top 10 in the standings, holding on to No. 9 as the season rolled into Daytona.

Stewart started off with a bang as he won two of the first five races of the year. One of them was at Las Vegas. Stewart routinely starts winning in the second half of a season - as he did in Daytona.

After five months perhaps many of us thought Stewart had peaked early.

But it’s hot in July in Daytona – and when it’s hot it is time to pay close attention to Stewart.

His Daytona win was his third of the season, which ties him with Brad Keselowski for the most this year. Stewart is all but assured a place in the Chase lineup.

“I think every time we come here, the field is more competitive,” Stewart said at Daytona. “And it’s proven by how many guys have a shot to win the race.

“Guys that you won’t see up front next week were guys that you saw at some point that were in the top 10 tonight.”

Like Stewart, perhaps.

“It shows how good a job everybody does at the restrictor plate tracks,” Stewart added. “And it is proof that everybody has a shot to win these things and to run in the top five when they get here.

“It’s just a matter of getting that luck on your side and being at the right place at the right time and having that opportunity.”

Stewart knows what he’s talking about. On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400, Stewart was on the high side of leader Matt Kenseth and teammate Greg Biffle.

The Roush Fenway guys had proven to be a formidable combination throughout the race. Kenseth, in fact, led 89 laps, more than any other driver. Biffle led 35.

Stewart got a tremendous shove from Kasey Kahne on the final circuit and that allowed Stewart to eke out the victory.

He had luck on his side, was at the right place at the right time and had an opportunity – as he told us.

“I knew I had a good car behind me with Kasey Kahne, obviously,” Stewart said. “Knowing that those two guys were going to be teamed up with each other on the bottom, I was surprised we got as good a restart as we did.

“Kasey did a great job of getting hooked on the bumper right away, and it seemed like we actually held our own and actually we were better on the outside than those two cars were.”

Stewart said that he and crew chief Steve Addington have had to make adjustments this season due to racing circumstances – engine problems, for example – but now all that’s left is take it as it comes.

“I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and the Hendrick engine and chassis department,” Stewart said. “I’m really pleased with the first half the season.  Yes, there were some races that we lost some opportunities on, but I think there were races that we capitalized on that we haven’t been able to in the past.

“I think on the average, we’re really looking good right now. Again, I’m proud of the effort with everybody. On the average, I feel like we’re making gains.

If Stewart thinks his team is making gains, perhaps all should take heed.

After all the weather is still hot. And it’s going to remain that way for quite some time.

 

“U-Boat Captain” Matt Kenseth Won’t Alter His Goals This Season, Or Himself

Matt Kenseth has announced that he will leave team owner Jack Roush after 14 seasons. With Roush, Kenseth has won 22 races and the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

I think there are a couple of conceptions, images if you will, that a lot of fans and media members share about Matt Kenseth.

He seems intelligent but rather quiet. He’s friendly but certainly not all that outgoing. He doesn’t make waves, carelessly call attention to himself or ignite controversies.

As a race car driver he’s a noted talent, a winner and a past champion. His style is not overly aggressive, something that has served others well and enhanced their reputations.

Oh, but Kenseth is most effective. For the most part he is cold and calculating. Many times during the course of a race he is practically invisible. Then, at the crucial finish he’s there; he’s a contender and sometimes he’s victorious.

He’s like a German U-boat in the North Atlantic during World War II. Allied ships didn’t hear or see it until it was too late.

Well, that might be stretching it a bit, metaphorically.

I’ve heard of a nickname given him – “The Silent Assassin.” Sounds like a B-movie, but hey, he might like it.

It will be a bit difficult for Kenseth to avoid attention, especially from the media, for the remainder of the season.

That’s because he’s a lame duck driver for a team that could win this year’s championship. He’s announced that he will end his 14-year relationship with Roush Fenway Racing and compete with a new team in 2013.

We don’t know which team it will be. Kenseth does.

That Kenseth is moving on is one of those very surprising splits that happen between star drivers and their winning teams.

They may be rare, but they most certainly happened: Petty departs Petty Enterprises, Darrell Waltrip leaves Junior Johnson and Associates, the vastly successful David Pearson-Wood Brothers association breaks down early in a season – and more.

I think one other reason that Kenseth’s exit announcement was so unexpected is that many of us thought he would be glued to Jack Roush’s hip for the remainder of his career.

Kenseth won this year's Daytona 500 and returns to the track for this year's Coke Zero 400 looking to be the first driver since 1982 to sweep both races at Daytona.

After all, the 40-year-old driver from Wisconsin stared his NASCAR career with Roush. Their association appeared rock solid – to some, a father-son thing – and it was certainly successful.

Kenseth won the 2003 championship in Roush Fords and earned 22 victories, including this year’s Daytona 500.

Back at Daytona for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, Kenseth has a chance to become the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to sweep both Daytona races in a single season.

But, assuredly, while he prepares for the race he’ll be asked questions about how it feels to race with a team he will depart.

Let’s get one thing straight. Even in a lame duck situation, Kenseth and Roush are going to race hard for victories and another championship.

Given that Kenseth is currently No. 1 in points, and has been for five weeks, to do any less would be foolish – no, make that stupid.

Even so, the situation has created changes, even if subtle ones.

“There are certain things that are a little awkward at Roush because you know you are not going to be there next year and they know that,” Kenseth said. “But I think you just work through that.

“Maybe it’s a little bit different walking in and talking to Jack or doing some of that other stuff, but, again, you just work through that.”

Kenseth agreed that he, and his team, could do no less than their best. The potential rewards are too great.

“We are going to go out and try to race as hard as we can to the end of the year,” Kenseth said. “We are going to try to, hopefully, win more races and have a shot at winning the championship.

“That’s what it has always been about and that’s what it is still all about.”

Kenseth will certainly be listed as a favorite for this weekend’s race because of his February victory and that, lately, Ford has seemed to exhibit newly found strength in restrictor-plate races. It has won the last three races at Daytona.

“You have to have fast cars and at Daytona, the cars seem to have more to do with your success than at some of the other tracks,” Kenseth said. “So you have got to have that at plate tracks.

“We’ve had that so far at plate races. Hopefully our car will run like it did the last two weeks and we’ll be fast enough to work out to the front and, hopefully, stay there.”

Kenseth knows that he is a bit more high profile now than at almost any other time in his past. And there are reasons for that: He’s this season’s Daytona 500 winner. He’s leading the point standings. And he’s leaving Roush.

Things like that tend to call attention to a driver.

“I honestly don’t know where to go with all that,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t know I was going to be any more high profile or low profile than I am today.

“I think we’ve had a pretty super year winning he 500 and I think I’ve had a pretty good run with Roush Fenway as well, so I don’t know what all that means.”

Even with success and the now-existing undercurrent of change, do not expect Kenseth to become a different man – or, for that matter, a different driver.

He’s been around – and been who he is – far too long for that to happen.

“I’m a different guy away from the track than at the track,” Kenseth said. “I’ve been here since 2000 and I’ve been the same guy ever since, so I think most people probably know who I am and who I’m not.

“I don’t think that’s going to change next year. I am not, all of a sudden, going to change after all these years.”

 

Top Teams Hold Top Spots But Hendrick Motorsports Surges

Jimmie Johnson was one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish among the top six at Kentucky, which emphasized the fact that he is well in contention to win a sixth championship.

The current driver standings in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings are indicative of what is true about today’s competitive environment.

To wit, NASCAR’s “super teams,” those multicar operations that manage to acquire the abundant resources needed to succeed, entirely occupy the top 10.

Some have multiple positions. Some, perhaps, have performed above expectations while others have not. But they are all there.

Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Penske Racing all have drivers in the top 10.

Other multicar teams like Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports are absent from the rankings.

But then they have operated at a lower level and their results have shown that – at least to date.

At Kentucky, many of the drivers who rank in the top 10 displayed why they are there.

Roush’s Matt Kenseth again displayed his strategic style, in which he sometimes seems to “prey” rather than charge to the front, was there at the finish and earned seventh place.

It was his 12th top-10 finish in 17 races and it allowed him to keep his grip on No. 1 in the standings – which he has held for five weeks now.

Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin could not run as hard as he would have liked over the final laps in order to save fuel. He did so to finish third at Kentucky and is entrenched in fifth place in the standings. He’s the only Gibbs driver among the top 10.

He thought his Kentucky outing could – should -have been better.

“I ran the least hard as I could all run,” Hamlin said of the closing laps. “I had to save fuel. I could have run harder, really, the whole run and try to give Brad Keselowski a run for his money, but I needed a good finish coming off two straight DNFs.”

In other words, Hamlin did what he had to do and thus held his spot in the standings.

MWR’s Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t won a race this year but his consistency has rewarded him with eighth place in the standings, one spot behind teammate Clint Bowyer.

Truex Jr. finished eighth at Kentucky, his ninth top-10 run of the year. Given that his car did not drive particularly well, he took it.

“It’s tough,” Truex Jr. said. “We weren’t very good all night. We had a good finish – I guess. It pushed like hell all night and they could never fix it.

“But we came out of here still in the top 10 and that’s where we need to be.”

Indeed as one of only two drivers in the top 10 without a win – RCR’s Kevin Harvick, at No. 6, is the other – Truex Jr. has to think points, because he does not have the “wildcard” insurance victory offers.

Hendrick's Jeff Gordon still has yet to win, which he must do to have any hope of making the Chase this year. However, his recent good, competitive outings have increased his confidence and momentum.

At Kentucky, these drivers served as examples of what they have often done to help put their teams in the top 10.

Kentucky also offered examples of top-tier drivers who didn’t, or couldn’t, sustain good runs – but slips in one race haven’t booted them from the top 10, yet.

There were two other noteworthy accomplishments at Kentucky, one of which has virtually assured a driver a spot in the Chase.
The other, which involved four drivers, showed why two of them are among the top 10 and the other two may have gained, or maintained, enough momentum to ultimately beat the odds and make the Chase.

When Brad Keselowski won the Quaker State 400, it meant two things: The Penske driver held on to his tenuous No. 10 standing in points.

But, more important, it was his season-leading third victory of the season which, given wins are critical to “wildcard” entry, means he almost certainly will be a championship contender.

There is one other thing: Keselowski’s victory indicated strongly he is ready to move to true NASCAR stardom.

Hendrick Motorsports took four of the top six positions at Kentucky. Kasey Kahne battled back from a loose wheel to finish second, a solid rebound from his previous three weeks during which he could finish no higher than 14

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth-place finish was his 13 of what he calls his “best season ever.” He is second in points, has a victory at Michigan that broke a 143-race losing streak and is poised to contend for his first-ever title.

“I’m just proud of the team,” he said. “I hope we can keep it up. I’d like to win another race.”

That he won just two races ago means little to Earnhardt Jr. The time for the next win is now.

“I ain’t going to be as patient this time,” he said.

Jeff Gordon, mired in a season that has seen him suffer team miscues and mechanical maladies, finished fifth. In three races he has now finished fifth and sixth twice.

Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick driver who won an unprecedented five consecutive championships, finished sixth.

Like Earnhardt Jr., Johnson has 13 top-10 finishes for the season but two victories.

There seems to be little doubt Johnson will be challenging for his sixth title.

Presently, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson are the only Hendrick drivers who should make the Chase without difficulty.

It won’t be the same for Kahne. He’s 14 in points but his one victory – earned at Charlotte – has made him he No. 2 “wildcard” candidate.

“Yeah, a top-five here is good but it’s not going to get us into the Chase,” Kahne said after Kentucky. “We need to win another race or two.”

“But to see how great the Hendrick cars are now and to be a part of that, well, it’s just great.

“All of the guys should be happy. They’ve prepared us some nice cars and great engines.”

Gordon, back in 18 place, has no choice but to win if he’s going to make the Chase. He knows this.

But he also knows his last three outings in his Hendrick cars have helped with confidence and momentum.

“This team has been awesome,” Gordon said of Hendrick. “The cars have definitely shown that. We’re getting the results. We can add some momentum to that.”

Overall in Kentucky we saw some drivers do what they have done all season to be among the top 10.

We saw one driver stake his claim to stardom.

We saw a team, Hendrick Motorsports, illustrate why it is perennially ranked as perhaps NASCAR’s best – and why it clearly should have strong momentum going into Daytona.

Barring Disaster, Brad Keselowski Is Championship Contender

Among other things, Brad Keselowski got excellent help from his team, which did good work in the pits but also prepared a backup car for the race, which Keselowski won to earn his third victory of the season.

At the very least, Brad Keselowski had to leave Kentucky with the contented feeling that in 2012, he has it made.

That’s because the Penske Racing driver now knows that, barring a competitive collapse of major proportions, he is going to make the Chase – and have a chance to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

The 28-year-old Keselowski won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky to earn his seventh career victory in his 106th start.

More important it was his third win of the season, more than any other driver, and it virtually assured him a position in the Chase as a “wildcard” driver – at the very least.

Keselowski, at No. 10, is among the top 10 in points who will be admitted into the Chase. But his three wins serve as a bedrock insurance policy.

Under the Chase’s format the two “wildcard” entries will come from those drivers with the most wins and who are ranked in the top 20.

It’s obvious Keselowski’s position is all but unassailable. Yes, he can miss the Chase but that would take a massive implosion over the course of just nine races.

Based upon the season he’s had so far, it’s more likely Keselowski will rise in the point standings.

“Who is leading right now with the most points doesn’t mean a thing,” said Keselowski, who has seven top-10 finishes this season. “The only thing that means anything is where you are going to restart when the Chase begins. That’s going to be based on who is in the top 10 and who has the most wins. That’s all that matters.”

Keselowski built a big lead during the final long green-flag run and retained enough fuel to win the race at Kentucky, only the second Sprint Cup event at the 1.5-mile track.

He finished well ahead of Kasey Kahne, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who earned his eighth top-10 finish of the year and his first at Kentucky.

Denny Hamlin was third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth, Jeff Gordon fifth and Jimmie Johnson was sixth, which meant all four Hendrick competitors finished among the top six.

Carl Edwards, who nearly won the Sprint Cup title last year, had to pit late at Kentucky and finished 20th. Winless this season and ranked 11th in points, he is in danger of not making the Chase.

Keselowski was forced to go to a backup car after he wrecked his Dodge in a crash with Juan Pablo Montoya during practice – an incident that still irked Keselowski after his victory.

“My guys put together a backup car in 100-degree heat in less than an hour,” Keselowski said. “Not even an hour. It was 40 minutes.

“That’s what badasses do and that is what got us to victory lane.

“During practice, well, I don’t like being pushed around and that’s what I felt happened on the track. I hate it. Can’t stand it and won’t stand for it.”

Keselowski took the lead for the last time following a restart on lap 212. The race’s fourth caution period began on lap 210 after Ryan Newman and Joey Logano were involved in a crash in the second turn.

Keselowski led the final 56 laps. He was the race leader three times for 68 laps, second to Kyle Busch, winner of the inaugural Kentucky race a year ago who led five times for 118 laps. But Busch finished 10th due to a broken shock.

After his victory at Michigan, which ended a 143-race losing streak, Earnhardt Jr. was viewed as a championship contender.

His run at Kentucky was his 13th among the top 10, which ties him with teammate Johnson for the most this season.

It also moved Earnhardt Jr. into second place in the point standings, only 11 points behind Matt Kenseth, the lame duck driver at Roush Fenway Racing who finished seventh at Kentucky.

Earnhardt’s Chase position seems safe and, in fact, has improved largely because he has avoided the “summer swoon” which has plagued him in the past – and resulted in a tumble in the standings.

For example, in races 13-17 last year Earnhardt Jr. had finishes of second, sixth, 21st, 41st and 19th, respectively.

Over the same races this year, his results have obviously been better. In races 13-17, he has been fourth, eighth, first, 23rd and fourth, respectively.

All of the drivers currently ranked among the top 10 in points seem to have a good grip on Chase entry. However, two of them, sixth-ranked Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., in eighth place, do not have at least one insurance victory.

The present “wildcard” contenders include first candidate Busch, who is 12th in points, 42 out of 10th place, with one victory.

Kahne, 14th in points is next in line, followed by Newman, 15th in points and Logano, 16th in points. All have one victory and 463 points each – 74 out of the top 10.

Carl Edwards, who tied Tony Stewart in points following the Chase last year, but lost the tiebreaker, five wins to one, is presently 11th in points but ranks as No. 5 in the “wildcard” selection because he does not have a win this season.

Edwards was running among the top five at Kentucky when he was forced to pit for fuel with five laps to go and fell to 20th, one lap down.

It was a very disappointing finish for Edwards, who must, over the course of nine races, move into the top 10 or win at least two races to assure himself a spot in the Chase.

“We hoped there would be a caution at the end, but there wasn’t,” said Edwards, who said he would’ve pitted on the previous set of stops but feared he would miss the commitment line. “It is time for us to get it in gear. I am real frustrated, Bob (Osborne, crew chief) is real frustrated and I know we can do this.

“We ran as well as any Ford out here tonight. At the end, I think with some fuel we would have had a chance to win it.

“We need to get this in gear. We need to go.”

 

 

 

 

With Current Scenario, Battle For Chase Spot Could Be Riveting

Brad Keselowski is currently in 10th place in the point standings and with two wins seems certain to make the Chase this year. But if he slips out of the top 10 and others behind him win again, his situation could well change.

As it stands now, we have a very interesting, even stimulating, situation when it comes to just which drivers are going to make NASCAR’s 2012 version of the Chase.

After Sonoma, there was a logjam of drivers scrapping for one of the 12 open positions. To be more exact, there are eight drivers in competition for one of four available spots.

The top 10 in points after the year’s 26th race, at Richmond, are automatically entered in the Chase. The remaining two, called the “wildcard” entries, are the drivers with the most wins who are ranked among the top 20 in points.

My opinion is that, currently, the drivers ranked one through nine in points seem to be secure – barring meltdowns, of course, which are always possible.

Most secure among this group are five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, fourth in points with two victories, fifth-place Tony Stewart, who also has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, ranked eighth with a couple of victories.

That each has two wins means they have solid insurance policies for the Chase, even if they slip in points.

Brad Keselowski also has two wins and he ranks 10th in points. That should be enough, but then, if he falls out of the top 10 he could be in a scramble with other drivers. After all, he’s only 11 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who presently ranks No. 11.

It’s well known that Edwards figured to be a championship contender this year after he lost the 2011 title to Stewart on the first tiebreaker in NASCAR history – Stewart have five wins, Edwards one.

Edwards could solve his dilemma by doing one of two things, or both. He certainly needs to advance in points. But wins would be very beneficial.

Edwards agrees and says his strategy is to win.

If he can’t advance in points and can’t win, Kyle Busch is ready to pounce. The Joe Gibbs driver is 12th in points, just 20 behind Edwards and, most important, he has a victory.

Lately, his racing luck has been horrendous. He suffered three consecutive blown engines before he finished 17th at Sonoma.

Still, right now, Busch has the edge. If the Chase began today he would be in and Edwards out.

But even Busch cannot be comfortable. Ryan Newman is 13th in points and has a victory at Martinsville. Joey Logano is 15th with a win at Pocono and Kasey Kahne, whose season started horribly, was triumphant at Charlotte and is 17th in points.

Another win for any of them puts Busch on the hot seat.

And this scenario intensifies the delicacy of Edwards’ position. He would be fifth in line if the Chase began today.

But the Chase hasn’t begun. Ten races remain before it does.

Anything can happen.

A driver who seems certain to make the Chase may find himself struggling to remain among the top 10 and thus have to rely on an earned win, or wins.

For example, after the race at Kansas in early June last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood third in points. He had not won a race but the assumption was he was high enough in the standings to overcome that.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson seems almost assured of making the Chase and have a chance at a sixth title. He is fourth in points with two victories, a very comfortable spot.

He almost didn’t. He had a horrible summer. By the race at Pocono in the first week of August, he had tumbled to 10th in points and the Chase was five weeks from its beginning.

He stayed in 10th for another week, then climbed to No. 9, where he remained for four races and was his position at Richmond, the season’s 26th race.

At Richmond Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th and fell to 10th in points – he held on to survive a near meltdown.

This year he’s already gained that insurance victory and his summer has begun very well.

He had already earned more top-10 finishes than any other driver by Dover in early June. He finished fourth there, eighth at Pocono and won at Michigan, after which he was second in points, four behind Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt fell to third in points after a 23rd-place finish at Sonoma but to be honest that was not a major surprise. He has not done particularly well at the road course.

He has never earned a top-10 finish. He’s been 11th three times.

But, consider that over the same number of summer races last year, Earnhardt Jr. fell from third to seventh in points.

Which means he’s on a much better path this year – and, certainly, his victory offers him major assurance.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion. Not only is he distant from the top 10 in points – 18th – he doesn’t have a victory to put him in title contention.

He has 10 races to earn one. Fact is, he’s likely going to have to win twice to be a Chase player.

He thinks it’s possible and there’s no reason do doubt him.

He did win three times last year to comfortably move into the Chase – and one of them came over the summer’s10-race span that ended at Richmond. Gordon won at Atlanta.

But, this year, one win isn’t going to cut it.With so many scenarios and possibilities, it seems highly likely the competition for a spot in the Chase is going to be very keen.

That should spark a great deal of interest among fans – and the media – which should, in turn, be very beneficial for NASCAR.

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