NASCAR Playoffs: Harvick Takes Down Truex at Texas Speedway

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, poses with the winner’s decal in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick claimed the playoff prize with his victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup AAA Texas 500 (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

When it’s playoff time, Kevin Harvick knows how to lock-in.  On Sunday, Harvick stampeded past Martin Truex Jr to win the AAA Texas 500, clinching his position in the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks.  Harvick also checked another track off the list where he had not previously won.

More importantly, Ford (and explicitly Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing Team) fired a salvo at Toyota’s dominance, whose teams had won all the playoff races so far (except for the Talladega wildcard).

At the outset, Kurt Busch, a Stewart-Haas teammate, secured the AAA Texas 500 pole with not only a track record qualifying speed approaching 201 MPH, but also the fastest lap at any 1.5-mile intermediate speedway ever, validating that the team’s development work with the switch from Chevrolet to Ford at the beginning of the season is now paying dividends.

During the race, Harvick tracked down Toyota driver Truex Jr with a power move around the outside with just nine laps to go, after loosening Truex up with air at the bumper, extremely impressive given Truex has already won six races at intermediate tracks this year.  Also noteworthy was Harvick completed the pass without spinning Truex out or ramming him from behind.

Harvick explained in victory lane, “I knew I had a really good car.  I knew I had to do something different.  I started driving a whole lot deeper in Turn 1—a whole lot deeper.  I started doing that earlier in the race, but I was afraid I didn’t have the brakes to continue to do that all day.  So, I waited until the end and was able to get on the outside of Martin and got him loose and brushed across the back of him and was able to get by on the outside down there.”

Truex, despite his second-place finish, also clinched his berth in the Championship 4 race based on his playoff points total.  Kyle Busch, last week’s Martinsville winner, is also locked into the Championship 4, leaving only one spot up for grabs at Phoenix among five remaining playoff eligible drivers.  Expect the Zoomtown USA desert race to be blazing, as drivers gamble to secure the final spot.

With Texas hosting playoff races for all three of NASCAR’s main series, several other takeaways stood out.

Downforce Leads to Sizzling Speed

Remember all the aero package rules changes that took downforce out of NASCAR Cup cars at the start of the season? It’s back.

The engineering teams have regained the majority of downforce that was removed, given the blistering qualifying speeds.  Five NASCAR drivers exceeded 200MPH in the final round of qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway.  That’s crazy fast for a 1.5-mile oval, especially since the track was reconfigured with a repave last year that lowered the banking through Turns 1 and 2 so that drivers would have to lift off the throttle.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, qualifying 2nd on the front row, summarizes tersely, “The biggest thing is just the development, and trust me, I don’t know of any driver that was comfortable running the speeds that we’re running right now.”

Critically, aero push was obvious at the Texas race.  For some fans in the stands, the most entertaining activity was watching lead cars try to pass lapped cars without wadding everybody up, given the absence of on-track passes at the front.  Todd Gordon, crew chief for Penske driver Joey Logano, observed that Logano would drive up through the field to 10th to 15th place and then his car would simply stall out.

during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas.

With record speeds at Texas, drivers often experienced aero constraints when trying to pass other cars in the pack (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Our mid-race Twitter poll of fan reaction reinforced this snooze fest, with almost 60% suggesting the race was a “couch nap”, while only 7% agreeing that the race lived up to the “No Limits” credo of excitement for Texas Motor Speedway.

Undoubtedly, NASCAR needs to reexamine the 2018 rules configuration, or the momentum the sport has shown this year in terms of fan interest may regress just like the number of on-track passes for the lead.

XFINITY Playoffs Sputter

The quandary of Monster Energy Cup drivers dropping down to XFINITY Series races to steal the show is still a thorn in the side of NASCAR’s playoff system expansion to all three series, with the “win and advance” setup.  Despite rule changes curbing some participation, NASCAR Cup drivers continue to claim the checkered flags in the XFINITY playoff races, to the detriment of XFINITY playoff contenders.

Saturday night, the craze continued, just as it has through all five XFINITY playoff races, as the top three finishers were all Cup regulars, with Erik Jones leading 137 of 200 laps in claiming the top spot.  Ryan Blaney finished 2nd, and Kyle Larson claimed the final podium spot in 3rd.

XFINITY races have become two separate competitions within the main event, which chills the excitement when XFINITY playoff contenders can’t get to victory lane.  Surely, this is not what NBC envisioned when the network introduced its novel interview of the race winner right on the front straightaway after crossing the finish line to capture the winner’s excitement.  Instead, these interviews lack passion, with the XFINITY playoff contenders relegated to pit lane commentary on point standings.

The XFINITY Championship 4 for the Homestead-Miami title race is determined next week in Phoenix; right now, there likely will be no magic Cinderella contender that advances based on claiming race victory, so the Champion contenders would instead be set by points, with Elliott Sadler, William Bryon, Justin Allgaier, and Brennan Poole currently holding the four magic slots.  Sadler, the point leader, has yet to win a race this season.

Chevrolet Fading Fast from Championship Spotlight

For the first time under NASCAR’s elimination playoff format, Chevrolet may not have a contending driver in the mix for the Monster Energy Cup Championship.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 Hooters Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Despite three 2nd place finishes in the playoffs, Chase Elliott heads to Phoenix in a must-win situation (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson below the cut line by 49 and 51 points, respectively, these two remaining Hendrick Motorsport playoff contenders are in the basement of the standings.  Either of these Chevy drivers must win at Phoenix to advance to Homestead-Miami, with wild strategy gambles necessary, given the general speed malaise that seems to be afflicting this team.

For Johnson, he finished 27th at Texas and was 3 laps down at one point, at a track where he has won seven times, including the April race earlier this season.  More striking, Johnson, usually the calm and collected seven-time Champion, expressed displeasure:

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said.  “I’m definitely disappointed.  And, I honestly just feel bad for my team.  These guys are working so hard.  And to work this hard and not see any speed go back in the car and have bad results as the last three weeks have been is pretty disappointing.”

For Chevy, having unveiled the 2018 Camaro ZL1 race car to replace the aging Chevy SS platform after this season, the testing that has shown improved aerodynamic performance cannot come soon enough when the actual cars hit the track next year at Daytona.  We will likely have to wait until then to potentially see a Chevrolet in victory lane.

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano.

Johnson Lassos Keselowski Possibly Crushing Chase Hopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dale Earnhardt, Jr: Fiery Crash at Texas Could Have Been Much Worse

Dale Earnhardt, Jr in flames after contact with the outside wall.

This past Monday’s running of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway seemed almost surreal in that it appeared to catch a number of drivers off-guard. Crashes, miscues and running the caution laps too close to the jet driers but were a few of the anomalies.

An ex-girlfriend referred to days like this with the statement that “Mercury must be in retrograde”. Obviously that’s bad but perhaps has more meaning if you follow Astrology, which I don’t.

The most notable of the incidents to me was the bizarre crash and an ensuing fire at the start of the race by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

A hit in the points aside this accident could have been far worse than it was with Earnhardt extricating himself at the speed of light, thus earning him the nickname ‘The Flash’ by several of my journalist friends.

What made this so potentially devastating wasn’t that he made a mistake, which is understandable if the “A” pillar actually impeded his view of the apex of the dogleg, but rather what happened after he had dropped a wheel off the track and shot up the banking into the wall. Earnhardt said:

“Just didn’t see the grass. Didn’t know the grass was down there. With the way the A-post is on these cars you can’t really see that good to that angle. I just didn’t have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can’t run through there they way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part. I just didn’t know I was that close to the grass, and made a mistake.” Totally believable.

The real disaster potential was once the car had caught fire, he rolled down the track and towards an inside retaining wall, still ablaze, all the while removing the steering wheel and then the seat belts before contacting the retaining wall at roughly 25 to 30 MPH.

Earnhardt, still rolling, removing his steering wheel first.

With the car still moving, removing the steering wheel is one thing, perhaps he had no real control at that point or was so overcome with the thought of getting out that removing the steering wheel was top of mind.

The major problem was that he began removing the seat belts as well. He succeeded at the very last moment in pulling those belts aside and then grabbed the roll cage bracing for the impact.

Had this car been traveling just a scant few miles per hour faster, Dale Earnhardt, Jr could very well have had a steering column impaled into his chest.

Hindsight being what it is would it not have been more forward thinking to have unhooked the belts first? Of course it would have, but after the initial incident, which Earnhardt said was a mistake, and I don’t doubt him, he was already rattled.

But there may very well be a historical reason for his rapid and visibly shaken actions.

One must remember the incident that took place in 2007 at Sonoma when Dale Jr was to co-drive the factory Corvette in the GTS division of the American LeMans series race. Earnhardt tried to negotiated a corner, lost control and back the Corvette into a wall.

Fuel lines were severed and the Corvette burst into a fireball that looked to be all engulfing and potentially fatal. Indeed it was potentially a life threatening incident, with the flames finding it’s way into the cockpit of the car and putting Earnhardt in the middle of a fire.

Niki Lauda’s nearly fatal crash at Nurburgring, Germany in the 1970’s.

This would have shaken any driver, seasoned veteran or not. He suffered injuries that, in the grand scheme of things, were not serious but enough that he was burned on the neck and arms. It effected his Cup performance simply from the pain. The mental damage was, obviously, much worse.

For any driver fire is the one thing that really does scare you, just ask Niki Lauda, who sat in a fire at the Nurburgring for almost one minute and suffered major burns on his face, head and scorched his lungs to the point near death.

In the future when such incidents occur, and they undoubtedly will, let’s hope that the drivers have practiced a way to remove themselves quickly but with some order amidst the chaos.

Jimmie Johnson Wins Easily, But Don’t Cue The Fat Lady

Jimmie Johnson, in victory lane at Texas with wife Chandra and daughter Genevieve, won the AAA 500 to break out of a tie with Matt Kenseth at No. 1 in points and now leads by seven points.

Jimmie Johnson’s dominating victory in the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway enabled him to break a tie with Matt Kenseth, who finished fourth, at No.1 in the point standings.

Johnson now leads by seven points with two races remaining in the Chase.

Time for the fat lady to sing, you might say.

I wouldn’t.

Johnson has been here before. In 2012, he was ahead by seven points with two races remaining. But he lost the championship to Brad Keselowski.

Actually, Johnson finished in third place, one point behind runnerup Clint Bowyer – who does not figure in this year’s championship – and 40 behind Keselowski.

Johnson essentially fell apart over the final 2012 races, opening the door for Keselowski. Johnson finished 32nd at Phoenix and 36th at Homestead.

Keselowski was sixth at Phoenix and clinched to title with a 15th-place run at Homestead.

So Johnson will quickly tell you that a championship is by no means a certainty. He likes the position he’s in but it guarantees nothing.“We learn lessons each and every year,” Johnson said. “I know when I go to Phoenix the balance of the car I felt last year led to a blown right front tire.

“So we’ll show up there and make sure that from my standpoint and what I feel with tire pressures and temps and the overall balance of the car that we don’t overwork that right front tire.

“I feel better about Phoenix, honestly, than I did last year leaving here. Last year was good example of us taking control late in the Chase and then that ended with two bad races.

NASCAR penalized Kenseth for speeding on pit road during a series of pit stops and he fell back to 16th place. However, he rallied to finish fourth and remains in the hunt for a title.

“I guess the lesson in all of that is I’m not counting on anything, and I have to go to Phoenix and race, same as Homestead.”

At Texas Johnson led 255 of 334 laps and went on to win by more than four seconds over Dale Earnhardt Jr.

As impressive as Johnson’s performance was, it wasn’t the most dominant at the 1.5-mile speedway. Tony Stewart led 278 laps en route to a victory in November 2006, a season in which he failed to make the Chase.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorports team wasn’t flawless. It had a slow pit stop under green and he dropped to fourth when the cycle was completed.

But on the last cycle of green-flag stops the team was perfect. Johnson retained his lead and had a sizable margin over Earnhardt Jr.

Kenseth, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, also had pit road problems. During green flag stops on lap 173, NASCAR penalized him for speeding on pit road.

He was running second at the time and, after a run-through on pit road, fell to 16th, the last car on the lead lap. However, he rallied to a fourth-place finish when it could have been far worse.

Johnson and Kenseth are, realistically, the only drivers with a chance at the championship and they will be the focus of attention during next two weeks.

Kevin Harvick, now third in points, is 40 in arrears and is the only other driver with a mathematical shot at the title.

Jeff Gordon was third coming into Texas and was 27 points down. Gordon was in the Chase after NASCAR CEO decreed he would be the 13th driver entered after Michael Waltrip Racing’s shenanigans at Richmond

At Texas Gordon was a realistic challenger for the championship.

That changed quickly. Gordon had a tire go down and he hit the wall on lap 74. After repairs in the garage he wound up in 38th place. He fell to sixth in the standings, 69 points down, and has no chance to win a fifth career title.

“I knew I was going to hit the wall,” Gordon said. “It is so unfortunate. This No. 24 team has done such an amazing job. I am so proud of them to get us where we are.

“You just can’t have things like this happen if you are going to make a run at a championship or battle with those guys. We had a great race car. We just didn’t take off good on the restarts, but once we got going by eight to 10 laps into it, boy were we really strong.”

Earnhardt Jr. scored his fifth runnerup finish of the season. Three of them have come during the Chase.

He still hasn’t won this season, but the fact is if he had not suffered a blown engine in Chicagoland, he would likely be in the thick of the championship fight.

“Yeah, I mean, the Chicago deal is regrettable,” said Earnhardt Jr., who is fifth in points, 62 in arrears. “We’d love to go back and do that over again, but as soon as that happened, we really changed our approach and it was more about trying to win a race, winning a race would really lift all the teams spirits.

“You work all season long not to go winless and getting to victory lane. So I know how much the guys want the win. So that’s what we’re working for now.”

Johnson and Kenseth, who have been the Chase leaders over the last two months would also welcome a victory. But they have a bigger goal in mind.

And it won’t be easy to achieve.

“At this point of the season if you’re in contention, you’ve got more pressure than you ever wanted on you. It’s just there,” Johnson said.  “So I don’t know if this win puts any more on me.

“They were able to get some points on us last week.  We got some on them this week, so I’m not sure.”

What it certain is that it’s not time for the fat lady to sing – for either Johnson or Kenseth.









Some Real Surprises Already In This NASCAR Season, So What Happens Next?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has surprised many with his highly competitive start to the 2012 season. As of now, second in points, he's on the path to win a race and be a championship contender. But will it last?

The first break in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is over – I think the next one is sometime in July – and the competition resumes this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

At Texas we will get some small indication that if most of what we’ve seen so far becomes a pattern or, in fact, it’s been an anomaly.

In other words, are the guys and teams that have surprised us to date going to continue to overachieve, or are they going to take a competitive tumble?

At the moment I don’t know – and neither do you nor anyone else.

But after six races we all know who has accomplished far more than we might have anticipated.

Believe me, some of them have come out of nowhere. They were on no one’s radar when the season began.

Take Michael Waltrip Racing, for example.

Not to besmirch the team or its owner at all, but when it made its full-time debut in 2002, not everyone took it seriously.

Some conjectured that the effusive Waltrip was simply taking up an expensive hobby.

And there was a time when it appeared he’d have to give it up. As it was for many other NASCAR teams, expenses and a poor economy were burdens for MWR.

But Waltrip acquired financial support through a partner, Robert Kauffman, and kept chugging along.

Even with many driver and personnel changes, “chugging” is about all MWR did for several seasons.

David Reutimann earned the only two victories for the team in 2009 and 2010.

Last season Martin Truex Jr. was the team’s highest finisher in the point standings – 18th.

I think it’s fair to say MWR wasn’t pegged for greatness in 2012.

It may be a little early to suggest that’s where it’s headed, but enough time has passed for us to know MWR isn’t “chugging” any more. It’s zipping along on the fast track.

What ignited this was MWR’s impressive run at Bristol. It put three drivers in the top 10, led by Truex Jr. in third, Clint Bowyer in fourth and Brian Vickers fifth in his first of eight races for the team this season.

MWR has had one or more of its drivers score a top-10 finish in each of six races this year. Truex Jr. leads the way with four, Bowyer has three. Part-timers Mark Martin has two and Vickers one.

Given that Martin and Vickers are on limited schedules, that means MWR has only two drivers who can contend for the championship, Truex Jr. and Bowyer.

Presently Truex Jr. is sixth in points and Bowyer ranks ninth. Yes, it is very early in the season, but indeed, as of now they are championship contenders.

If MWR had been nothing more than the proverbial “flash in the pan” with its Bristol performance it would be quickly ignored.

But it has been surprisingly competitive, week after week. The challenge will be to maintain that for the remainder of the season.


***** OK, I realize fully you have heard, read or seen this before. After all, to many in NASCAR, all Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to do to get some headlines is sneeze.

But Earnhardt Jr., to date, is getting notice because he’s doing exactly what many of us thought he would when he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. Well, not everything we thought. He hasn’t been winning races.

Not yet, anyway.

After six races this season Earnhardt Jr. has earned four finishes among the top 10, which include three among the top five. Those three have been a runnerup and two in third place.

He is presently second in points, only six behind Greg Biffle.

He has expressed renewed, great confidence and an eagerness to get back on the track because he knows his team’s competitive level is at an all-time high.

I am certain not many thought Earnhardt Jr., who has been little more than mediocre for so many years, would be in such a lofty position this early in the year.

Yes, in the past he has gone on some performance streaks that have matched his potential and encouraged his fans.

But they have been brief. And most of them have come when Earnhardt Jr. struggled to make the Chase or stay among the eligible top 12.

Now, however, good performance has come with the first green flag of the season. Instead of scrapping for a Chase position Earnhardt Jr. is entrenched in one.

He has the remainder of the season to do well enough to stay there – and, most important, win a race.

Newcomer Clint Bowyer's performances in 2012 are one reason why Michael Waltrip Racing has ascended to a prominence few expected of it this year.


***** Speaking of Biffle, the current points leader has, like Earnhardt Jr., four top 10 finishes with three among the top five.

He’s presently the top dog at Roush Fenway Racing and that is a decidedly different situation than last year.

In 2011, Biffle did not win a race, finished among the top 10 only 10 times and wound up 16th in points, the only Roush driver not to make the Chase. He was the runt of the litter.

Biffle has, on more than one occasion, praised his team, and particularly crew chief Matt Puccia, for the reversal of fortune.

How long this reversal of fortune lasts is a matter that will be determined as the season moves along.

Nevertheless, count Biffle as one who has surprised all of us thus far.


***** There are other pleasant surprises:

Tony Stewart has already won twice this year and usually it takes him more than a half-season to hit his stride.

His teammate, Ryan Newman, has also won which means Stewart Haas Racing has been a formidable force so far this season.

Brad Keselowski has settled in nicely to his new role as senior driver at Penske Racing. He’s won a race, at Bristol, and barring some unfortunate situations, he’d be much higher than 12th in points.

He wrecked at Daytona, had fuel issues at Las Vegas and got nabbed for speeding on pit road at Fontana.

As for the not-so-pleasant surprises we can certainly mention Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

Their luck hasn’t been bad. It’s been rotten.

But that can change.

So can everything else.

Or, perhaps in some cases, things will remain the same – for which those involved would be grateful.

Time will tell. And plenty of that remains.










It’s Now Man Against Man And Just What NASCAR Wanted In The Chase


With his victory at Texas, the second in two weeks and fourth through eight races in the Chase, Tony Stewart is now just three points behind Carl Edwards, who finished second at Texas, as the season moves to its final two races. It's just the kind of scenario NASCAR wanted in the Chase.

What we have now is most likely the kind of scenario NASCAR coveted when it, first, created the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and second, restructured the points system for the 2011 season.

By virtue of his fourth win in the 10-race “playoff” in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart moved to within three points of leader Carl Edwards, who finished second, with just two races remaining in the season.

While certainly anything can happen over the next two weeks, it has become abundantly clear that the championship will be most likely decided between Edwards and Stewart, man-to-man.

Use any adjective you wish here – tense, exciting, riveting – the conclusion to the 2011 season looms as all that and the perfect example of what NASCAR hoped to achieve when it created a “playoff” system seven years ago.

Hasn’t always happened, of course, but it has now.

And Stewart has helped make it so. Interestingly, when the Chase began on Sept. 19 at Chicagoland, Stewart hadn’t won a race all year and was ninth in points, 12 behind leader Kyle Busch.

Stewart said his Stewart-Haas team had not performed well enough to be in the Chase and added that he didn’t think he would win any of the 10 remaining races.

He won at Chicagoland to vault to second in points. He then took the checkered flag a week later in New Hampshire to take the points lead.

He was 25th a week later at Dover, then 15th at Kansas. He rebounded somewhat with an eighth-place run at Charlotte followed by a seventh place at Talladega.

By this time he was fourth in points, 19 behind Edwards, who, while he had not won, ascended to No. 1 in points with his remarkable record of consistency.

Stewart won at Martinsville to move within eight points of Edwards and now, with his fourth win in the Chase, he’s just three down.

Edwards has held his lead simply because he has remained consistent throughout the Chase. He has only one finish outside the top 10.

After his Martinsville victory Stewart declared that Edwards had better be worried and would likely lose sleep as the pressure of the championship increased.

“Well, if you can do simple math, you can figure out that we gained over half of the separation in one week and we have two weeks to go,” Stewart said. “It does not take much right now, it is one spot if a guy wins the race, we are doing exactly what we need to do. I am really confident right now.

“We got all the bonus points we could get and got the win. We gained more than we needed to gain on the average for the week, so we are doing good.

“I don’t think we have to say anything more. I think our performance today spoke for itself. Carl knows already, trust me!”

Edwards, who congratulated Stewart after the Texas victory, remains unfazed.

“I just told him ‘good job,’” Edwards said. “He did a great job today. Those guys stepped it up and I’m proud of my guys for hanging on and for still having the points lead.

“At the end of the day we’re going to the final two races. Although we would have loved to have won today in our Aflac Ford, to be three points ahead and then to have the third and fourth-place guys farther behind, it looks like it’s truly gonna come down to Tony and I and that’s gonna be a lot of

Stewart dominated the race, clearly establishing himself as the man to beat.

But the situation was uncertain until the final round of pit stops. That happened with 33 of 334 laps to go. Jeff Burton stayed on the track in an attempt to steal the win by stretching his fuel mileage. But that failed with five laps remaining. That gave Stewart the lead for good.

Stewart and Edwards were two of five Chase drivers to finish among the top 10. The others were Matt Kenseth, fourth, Jeff Gordon, sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh.

Kevin Harvick finished 13th and is fourth in points, 33 behind. Kenseth is 38 back, then comes Brad Keselowski (24th at Texas) 38 down and Jimmie Johnson, 14that Texas following a spin and 55 points in arrears.

Although Harvick, Kenseth, Keselowski and Johnson are still mathematically in the hunt of the championship, realistically their hopes are finished.

Barring a miracle Johnson will not win a sixth consecutive title.

Stewart’s four victories tie him with Harvick for the most this season. Stewart, a two-time champion, has also gained 21points on Edwards in the last three races, to force what will very likely be a highly anticipated two-man battle for the championship.

“At the end of the day, it truly doesn’t matter what the No.14 team does or what Tony does or what anyone else does, all we can do is just go do the best that we can do,” Edwards said. “It might feel comfortable to them to be in the position they’re in, to be gaining points, but, truly, the past is history.

“We’ve got to go out and run these next two races
and, yeah, I don’t underestimate them for a second.  I know how good they are, but we’re gonna be good as well.”

As for Stewart, he remains defiantly confident.

I told you guys all this last week but nobody listens to me when I talk anymore,” he said. “No, I mean we are set on it man, this is just the way it is going to be.”

Kenseth Put A Different Style To Good Use

A few ruminations after the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway:

** Matt Kenseth turned in what I thought was a very un-Kenseth like performance in the 500-mile race on the 1.5-mile Texas track.

No, it wasn’t that he won the race; rather, it was the style with which he did it.

I’ll admit I am one of many who have compared Kenseth’s driving style to that of David Pearson, winner of 105 races and now a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Pearson seemed to always save his car until the final portion of a race and then pounce with a rush to the front and the checkered flag.

He was sly and cunning. Both traits contributed to his nickname, “The Silver Fox.”

During his years with the Wood Brothers, Pearson was particularly effective in the late stages of a race. He might have been a calculating, deliberate driver, but many observers felt he was simply keeping his Woods Mercury reigned in until the time was right.

When Pearson bolted into the lead many of us figured he’d simply unleashed the power his car had all along.

“Looks like the Woods made that magic chassis change,” we’d say with eyebrows raised.

From all appearances over the years, Kenseth has seemed as deliberate as Pearson.

Not so at Texas. The Roush Fenway Racing driver dominated the field, leading 169 of 334 laps en route to an easy victory – the 19th of his career – in which he finished 8.34 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer.

Kenseth looked more like the ultra-aggressive Cale Yarborough than Pearson.

There was, he said, a reason for that.

“We had such good track position all night we never really got behind which was a huge advantage for us,” Kenseth said. “I think it would have been a lot tougher for us to come from behind.

“More times than not the fastest car wins the race and that’s what happened tonight. We knew that if we kept the car up front it would be hard for anybody to beat us.”

So that’s exactly what Kenseth did – and he did it so well the anticipated first night race at Texas was a yawner.

It was, to say the least, a very timely victory for Kenseth. It snapped a 76-race losing streak. He hadn’t won since February of 2009, when he won at Auto Club Speedway, which came on the heels of his Daytona 500 victory.

Kenseth is now third in the point standings.


** Kenseth’s victory capped an excellent race for Roush Fenway. All four of its drivers finished among the top 10.

Kenseth won, of course, while Carl Edwards was third. Greg Biffle took fourth and David Ragan finished seventh – which rebuked the notion that his pole victory was a fluke.

It was a good weekend at Texas for Ford. The night before Kenseth’s victory, Edwards won the Nationwide Series race, which gave Mustang its first victory ever in a NASCAR-sanctioned race.

Speaking of Edwards, he had uncomfortable race due to a stomach ailment. After the race he said it might have been caused by something his mother cooked and he ate.

“I felt little bad this morning,” Edwards said. “I felt better once the race started but then got a little sick again for a minute.

“But a good run like I had makes you feel great.”

Edwards fits the competitive mold of a stock car driver. I’ve never known one to seek relief because he felt sick. He had to be VERY sick.


** A few drivers who have received notice for surprisingly good performances in 2011 gained even more notoriety, I think, after Texas.

Paul Menard, whom many have said has found competitiveness at Richard Childress Racing, finished fifth.

Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose finished sixth and many have already said he’s getting the hang of it all.

And, again, there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. With ninth place he compiled yet another top-10 finish and moved up to sixth place in points.

Meanwhile, others find themselves, again surprisingly, struggling. They include Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano.


An Incident At Texas Might Have Been Just What NASCAR Needs

Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton may have done NASCAR a huge favor.

You might think that the scuffle between the two following a crash in the AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway was nothing more than an on-track disagreement that was briefly physical. But it might be more than that. It offered the public some real evidence of the way NASCAR used to be.

The way NASCAR used to be is something it desperately needs to be now.

It doesn’t have a thing to do with the product – which is racing. It has more to do with image.

NASCAR was once considered a sport on the wrong side of the tracks. It was enjoyed only by moonshine-swilling rednecks, as goes the stereotype, and its participants were rough-and-tumble competitors who slammed bumpers or wrecked each other on the tracks and took matters into their own hands, or fists, when disagreements arose.

Think this is far-fetched? Perhaps it is a bit. But NASCAR’s history is laced with fistfights, swung tire irons, drawn guns and near riots – and not always among competitors.

An incident that drove NASCAR into national prominence happened in the Daytona 500 of 1979. That race was the first televised nationally flag-to-flag by a TV network, CBS.

After the controversial finish of the race, in which Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, the race leaders, crashed on the lead lap. The two combatants lost the race to Richard Petty. They then engaged in a fight in the infield in the third turn. Bobby Allison, Donnie’s brother, joined in the fray.

Images of that scrap were caught on TV and flashed to an unbelieving nation.

America discovered NASCAR and was intrigued. What happened in Daytona helped propel stock car racing into the national consciousness.

But now, 31 years later, NASCAR has long since homogenized itself.

We all know that TV ratings and race attendance have dropped. The economy can be blamed for some of that, but many in the garage area – not to mention the old-time fans that have turned away from the sport – claim that driver apathy and their tendency to become clone-like to protect their image and sponsors have played a role.

NASCAR has a part in this. Once it acquired national TV contracts and made a lot of money in the process it wanted to pass itself off as a family sport. It wanted to shed its old image.

Drivers who confronted each other in heated exchanges – or worse – used bad language in front of a camera or, in some cases, publicly criticized the sanctioning body were severely punished.

It reached the point where competitors were simply afraid to react to their emotions.

As a result they, for the most part, became milquetoasts; boring robots.

Yes, there have been exceptions. But guys like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch – remember how they used to be smartasses with tempers? – are almost non-existent.

Today, with the exception of Kyle Busch, NASCAR is devoid of characters, the guys who growl, bark, mouth off and aren’t afraid to confront NASCAR and fellow competitors.

NASCAR has its heroes. It needs villains.

They aren’t villains and never will be, but Burton and Gordon, however briefly, gave us a glimpse of what once was.

Gordon has always been a calm, reasonable sort and Burton is considered NASCAR’s most able statesman. They are the two most unlikely drivers to engage in a physical confrontation.

But that they did so indicates not all drivers have become brainwashed and that emotions do boil over for all of us to see.

That’s a good thing.

NASCAR has to like it and it needs it. Why? Because it knows full well what’s been missing. Didn’t CEO Brian France tell us early this year that stock car racing was a contact sport and for the drivers to have at it?

Weren’t we told that NASCAR would no longer simply put the clamps on its competitors and allow them freedom to settle issues, on and off the track, within reason?

That’s exactly what happened at Texas and, perhaps, has fueled an interest in the sport, however smattering it may be.

This is not to say drivers should go out there and slug each other at whim. That’s chaos.

It’s only to say that a glimpse on national television of what NASCAR used to be might serve the sanctioning body well. Can it really hurt?

This isn’t a singular opinion.

Do you really believe NASCAR doesn’t agree?

As it did after Daytona in 1979 it has to be smiling after Texas.

Yes, it might not happen again by the end of the season.

But then again, if it does, it won’t hurt NASCAR a bit.

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