Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Appeal by Clint Bowyer, Richard Childress Racing will fall on deaf ears

Appealing a penalty to NASCAR is like appealing a death row sentence.

Sure, there is a small chance the state will give you a break and let you just get a life term, or maybe even free you on a technicality ... but you know deep down when you head to court that neither is a likely outcome.

Such is the case of Clint Bowyer, who went from hero (and 2nd in points) to zero (12th in points) after his car just barely failed inspection after he won the Cup race to kick off the Chase at New Hampshire. (Curiously, he keeps the win ... a rule I have always found strange. If he loses points due to the car being illegal, why does the win stay on his record?)

Both Bowyer and team owner Richard Childress insisted at Dover that they did not have a cheating car at New Hampshire. They said they had checked the car several times to be sure, after being warned the previous week at Richmond about a close inspection, and the car's inspection failure was caused to the tow truck pushing it to Victory Lane.

That may be a nice story that is square in their eyes, but good luck trying to get NASCAR to reverse the ruling based on that claim ... it ain't gonna happen.
In order for a ruling to be overturned, there must be proof. Going back to our original analogy, if a smoking gun shows up with someone else's fingerprints on it, the man in prison who was falsely accused of murder can be set free.

In Bowyer's case, there is no smoking gun proving the tow truck did it. It's RCR's word vs. NASCAR's word, and we all know who wins those kind of arguments -- the people making the rules.

What NASCAR will say to RCR at the appeal is simple: If your car is so close to failing inspection that a little bump from a tow truck will cause it to fail, you are too close to begin with ... and they will be right.

The Chase has gotten pretty intense this year .. and if you didn't know that from the start, you certainly got an idea from all the infighting between Denny Hamlin and RCR this weekend.

Everyone wants to topple Jimmie Johnson (who, you might notice, is being smart and avoiding all this fighting so he can focus on winning a fifth title), and will do everything they can to achieve that goal .. perhaps even push things to the border of cheating.

But after Bowyer's penalty, which will most certainly be upheld if history is any indicator, you can bet a few teams are taking pause when the time comes to decide how close to the limit they want to push things.

The risk vs. reward equation just got a little more complicated, because even if their gamble leads them to win a race, they still might lose in the end -- as Bowyer's adventure has shown them.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Denny Hamlin has selective memory about his own team’s cheating

When you open your mouth, what you say has consequences.
Denny Hamlin found that out this weekend when he came right out and said he thought the RCR team had cheated, calling Bowyer’s defense ‘a crock’.
“You can really try to say 60-thousandths didn’t help him perform any better – that is a crock,” Hamlin said. “That helps a lot. When we gain five points of downforce, our car runs a ton better. … NASCAR has been very, very lenient on this car.”

Hamlin stayed on the offensive, saying: “They’ve given those guys chances. They should just be happy they’re in the Chase at this point. They were warned, and they were warned before Richmond and everyone in the garage knows that. They’re the ones that wanted to press the issue and get all they could to make sure they got in the Chase. They got in it and they were busted. In the garage, everyone has known it for months. It’s not two weeks old. They’ve been warned for a long time, way before Richmond. … They knew it was wrong way before that, and they wanted to get everything they could.”

Well, after all that, as you can imagine, the RCR team wasn’t about to take that kind of trash talk … so Kevin Harvick, or should I say Harvick’s car, had a word with Hamlin on the track and later the two exchanged not-so-friendly words in the garage. Nothing happened between them during Sunday’s race, but I’m sure Hamlin won’t be having brunch with anyone on the RCR team anytime soon.
After the practice incident Saturday, Hamlin said that Joe Gibbs Racing has more integrity than RCR. … (this isn’t true, but more on that later.)
"I think I have the right to give my opinion -- and when you look at the two teams, and you look at the history of wrongdoing and penalties, the two teams, when they are compared side-by-side, our integrity speaks for itself," Hamlin said. "I think everyone at our team knows we're trying to do things the right way, and so be it."

The best line in the whole mess came from Richard Childress, who said: "When you're talking about comments, you can't win a pissing match with a skunk. There are two things I've learned. One thing is that. The other is that you don't throw stones if you live in a glass house."

What Childress is referring to by the “glass house” comment is the rather hefty penalties handed out to the Joe Gibbs team a couple years ago when they cheated on a dyno test in the Nationwide series. Yes folks, this team that Hamlin claims is holier-than-thou placed magnets under their cars’ gas pedals to mask the true power of their engines. It was one of the worst cheating offenses I remember in recent years, much worse than the Bowyer offense, and led to lengthy suspensions of both the team’s crew chiefs in the Nationwide series.

While Hamlin is being a hypocrite in attacking RCR while forgetting his team’s cheating past, I will give him one point. He said that if a car can be made illegal by a bump from a tow truck, as Bowyer is claiming, then you’re pushing things too far. This is an accurate call.

With the Chase so competitive, I’m sure Bowyer and RCR wanted to do everything they could to move up in the standings quickly. Obviously, with Bowyer’s win (which still stands despite the penalty), that worked: But at what price. By cutting it so close on the specs, the RCR team got burned. A 150-point penalty and loss of your crew chief is already a Chase death blow. Add to that a nonimpressive run at Dover, and Bowyer is now so far out of 1st you might as well pencil him in for 12th place.

Bowyer insisted this weekend that he didn’t cheat, and that the team made sure they were within the limits after a previous warning: “We have a lot more integrity for myself and our race team at RCR," Bowyer said. But what do you expect him to say? No one in their right mind would admit to cheating, even if they did do it. The appeal is Wednesday, but if NASCAR overturns it I’ll eat my shoe. They would look stupid if they did that.

I didn’t think Bowyer would win the title anyway, even if this penalty hadn’t happened, but you can’t fault NASCAR for doling out this kind of harsh punishment. The way I see it, it’s clear-cut. If you don’t fall within the proper numbers, you get hammered. If it happens again, you can bet the penalty will be equally harsh or possibly more – to prove a point that cheating won’t be tolerated.

Still, I have a little advice for Denny Hamlin and others: Keep your opinions to yourself, because your team has cheated too and you know it.

Jimmie again … is anyone surprised?
I have a word of advice for anyone who got excited when Jimmie Johnson finished poorly at New Hampshire: Don’t get your hopes up.

Just when everyone thought he was vulnerable and began to speak as if he wasn’t the same old Jimmie, he goes out and wins the pole, then dominates and wins the race. Same old Jimmie, collecting another trophy in the Chase just like he’s done dozens of times before.

No one should be surprised by this, and it will probably happen again, or multiple more times, before the Chase is over. While his main competition engages in battles and insults on and off the track, Johnson is focused on winning races and winning a fifth-straight title. If he continues to race like he did at Dover, it shouldn’t be too difficult for him.

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Whoever picks up Trevor Bayne will get a future star

Trevor Bayne may be young, but he's one smart young man.

When he recently signed a multiyear contract with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it included some caveats, including one that required full sponsorship.
So without guaranteed sponsorship for Bayne for the full 2011 season, it appears he is now a free man. From the sound of the interviews with him this weekend at Dover, he has run his last race for the Waltrip team.

But Waltrip's loss will be someone else's gain ... possibly Jack Roush's. Rumor is that Roush is the guy who wants to sign Bayne, and that would be a very smart move. An announcement on Bayne’s plans is expected early this week.

Whoever picks up Bayne will be getting a huge asset, both on and off the track. On the track, he’s probably the best young prospect on the market. Only 19, he has already been running up front on a regular basis in the Nationwide series against big-name Cup drivers with years more experience than him. He currently sits 7th in points, and has run side by side with Kyle Busch and others and shown he won’t back down. If he’s doing this at such a young age, for a team that isn’t the best in the garage, imagine what he could do as he matures and gets better cars.

Off the track, he’s very well-spoken and a marketer’s dream. I can see him bringing in some big sponsorship money if he starts to win races.

Perhaps most nervous of anyone should be the other young Roush drivers that currently make up the Nationwide stable. Roush said he would like to get Bayne, and does not currently "have an idle" Nationwide team. Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are both young drivers in the Roush organization who haven’t exactly got the biggest vote of confidence from Roush, and if the sponsorship is found for Bayne, one of them might be on the outs.

And if he did get Bayne into the Roush organization, I will guarantee you one thing: Bayne will be driving a Cup car for Roush or an affiliate in the near future, so David Ragan might want to get in gear.

Ragan gets new crew chief
Speaking of Ragan, he got a new crew chief this week. Drew Blickensderfer was pulled from the Carl Edwards Nationwide team and moved to the #6 Cup team to try and turn its misfortunes around. It’s badly needed, as Ragan has mostly struggled this year, and wants to get some momentum rolling before Daytona 2011.

Ragan admitted that things weren’t working out so well for the team, and change was needed.
“We were to a point where week-in and week-out we were working hard, but we just didn’t see much change,” he said frankly.

Elder Keselowski to Cup?
Speaking of frustrated teams, Brian Keselowski’s Nationwide run this has been mostly a start-and-park affair lately, and with purses being cut next year, he said he may just move the team up to Cup to keep the K Automotive team in operation.

“If we can't run Nationwide, I'd like to run Cup. I don't know, there's a lot of uncertainty. We've got three solid months to figure out what we're doing for next year. But if we get to January 1 and we don't know what we're doing, we're really behind the [eight] ball. It sounds like they're going to change the front ends of the Cup cars a little bit next year, so even the ones I already have would have to be worked on. I'd like to say that I will just run the Cup deal, because if nothing else I could just focus on one car, and the money over there is enough that I could afford to race the race.”

He said he’s disappointed with how things have gone so far this year, and racing has become pretty frustrating for the team.
“I never wanted to start a second team or a third team [in the Nationwide Series], I wanted to race. But it wasn't going to make business sense to do it. I'm getting kind of sick of it. It's getting to a point where it's really not any fun. We work really, really hard and you feel like racing isn't getting anywhere. You're just busting your butt and not getting anywhere, running 30th all day long.”

Whatever happens, I hope to see Brian racing somewhere and actually going the distance each week. I know that’s what he wants to do, and he has the talent to do well if the circumstances are right. Unfortunately, racing is a tough business if you don’t have big sponsor dollars behind you.

Someone’s in denial
My favorite story this week was that John Wes Townley has left the team he was driving for in Nationwide, RAB Racing, and his father’s company – Zaxby’s – was pulling their sponsorship. Apparently Tony Townley – father of the one-man wrecking crew known as John Wes Townley – said the decision was made due to poor performance by the team.

Earth to Tony: Did you ever think your son might be the problem. He’s 20 years old, and he’s got more wrecks on his resume than races.
If you don’t believe me, go to YouTube and search for John Wes Townley’s name.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart both gamble, with mixed results

Anyone who’s ever played poker knows that every hand is a gamble. Just because you have a flush, you might not want to go all in, as the other guy might have a full house.

You have to calculate what risks are worth taking, and when it’s best to toss your hand, even if you think it might win.

Racing is no different, with a million decisions made every race that determines your fate. Both Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart stopped early and stayed out, setting up the always intriguing “will they run out of gas” moment at the end of the race.

Count me in the camp that though they would both run out. As I was watching them and thinking this, it turned out I was only half right. Stewart ran out, and Bowyer took advantage, getting to the finish somehow ahead of a charging Denny Hamlin.

So as you see, the gamble doesn’t always work out the same for two different players, even if they have the same cards. Stewart gambled and got destroyed in the process, tumbling to 11th in points and 124 points out of the lead. That’s not insurmountable, but it’s a bad way to get your Chase going.

Bowyer gambled, and he’s now the Cinderella of the Chase, hoping to improve on his surprise run in 2007, where he ended up 3rd in the standings come season’s end. Having jumped 10 spots in the standings to the No. 2 position, only 35 points behind Hamlin for the series points lead, Bowyer’s gamble paid off and now he has to prove he belongs up that high in the points.

Did they make the right move by gambling? I say yes. This is the Chase, and you have to win a couple races if you want to be champion. If you get into the mode of points racing and not taking any chances,

Just like Mark Dantonio’s gutsy call for a fake field goal in overtime earned Michigan State a win over Notre Dame Saturday night, Bowyer’s gutsy call to stay out got him the win, and other drivers are probably kicking themselves for not doing it too. Even Stewart made the move, in my opinion, though he would do a better job of conserving fuel if he had to do it all over again.

Great racing to start the Chase
New Hampshire has never been one of my favorite tracks, but it’s clear that the presence of the Chase has made it more interesting. All the contenders were bumping and banging, racing three-wide and going at it no-holds-barred all day, making for one of the better races I’ve ever seen at the track – all without anyone doing anything too stupid and wrecking the field. If this is any sign of how the Chase is going to go, I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

Tune-up for Danica
At Dover, a notoriously tough track even for veteran drivers, Danica Patrick will race in the Nationwide series, and it could be ugly. To tune her up, it was announced this week that she will run the K&N Pro Series support race as a tune-up. Given her lack of stock car experience, this is a great idea, and something she should do more often if possible. If you don’t do something a lot, you’ll never master it, so the more races the better for Danica (who, by the way, had a really good finish in the Indycar race at Japan this weekend, something that must have made her feel good after a terrible year so far in both Indycar and NASCAR.)

Great to see Brad get the pole
While Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski will likely be your Nationwide champ this year, his Cup season has been rough and he sits 26th in points. So when I saw he had won the pole for Sunday’s race, I was happy to see it. The kid has a ton of talent and the ability to run well in Cup if the equipment is there.
He ended up finishing in 18th, but he was still on the lead lap at the end (something that’s not usually the case this year), and stayed out of trouble to get that decent finish. Showings like this point to a brighter future for Brad, who will drive the Blue Deuce next year for Penske.

#88 up front
No, your eyes did not deceive you. That was Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishing 4th on Sunday, and he actually looked happy after the race. Fun stat: His only other two top-5s in 2010 have come at Daytona in restrictor plate races. And there are only 3 other finishes between 6 and 10 … the last one prior to Sunday coming at New Hampshire in June. Needless to say, it’s been a rough year for Jr., and for once he doesn’t have to figure out what went wrong. When he wins again, and it will happen someday, I’m guessing it will be a pretty popular victory.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hamlin will outduel Jimmie to win first title

The Chase has arrived. Here's how I say it's going to go down.

1. Denny Hamlin: Has put on a gutsy performance in 2010, battling back from injury, and can usually be seen running up front. He was anointed the favorite in preseason, and seems determined to live up to that prediction. I predict a see-saw battle with Jimmie, with Hamlin squeaking out the title and winning three races.

2. Jimmie Johnson: You have to put him up high. The chemistry between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will get them several wins in the Chase, as usual, and all talk of any “slumps” they had during the year can be forgotten: The #48 team shines at Chase time and wants to win a fifth straight title and annoy fans even more.

3. Kyle Busch: He may be a brat, but he can race really well. While his teammate Hamlin is considered a favorite, many dismiss him as too erratic and unpredictable to win a title. But anything is possible with a guy like Busch, who is focused on winning. If he can maintain his mental focus (and not let bad days spiral into a bad stretch, like he did in 2008), he will likely stay in the title hunt until the final few weeks.

4. Kevin Harvick: He’s run so well this year, anything less than a title will be disappointing, but I don’t see his amazing numbers continuing into the Chase. Everyone else will step up their game, and leave him slightly behind.

5. Tony Stewart: One of the best drivers in NASCAR history, so you can never count him out of anything. I don’t see him winning the title, but I won’t be shocked if he pulls off the upset. Champions know how to win.

6. Carl Edwards: Three months ago, I would have been surprised if he made the Chase. With the runs he’s had the past two months, he could pull out a couple wins and finish pretty decent, setting up a return to form in 2011.

7. Jeff Gordon: The original Drive for Five continues, but if you don’t win races during the regular season I don’t see how you can win a championship.

8. Greg Biffle: Cars too inconsistent to make a serious run, but he should have a few shining moments.

9. Kurt Busch: Only Dodge in the Chase, and there have been reliability issues on the Blue Deuce.

10. Jeff Burton: Everyone would love to see Burton as champ, but #31 team is not up to the level of teammate Harvick or the other favorites.

11. Clint Bowyer: Usually the people who squeak into the Chase don’t do so hot (see: Brian Vickers, Jeremy Mayfield, etc.)

12. Matt Kenseth: Didn’t sound too excited about his chances; I agree.

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What is a dirty driver … and does Kyle Busch fit the bill?

Just in case anyone had forgotten why so many people dislike Kyle Busch, he decided to give fans another reason Saturday at the end of the Truck series race at New Hampshire.

For those who missed the race, here’s a brief synopsis: Busch and Kevin Harvick battle hard up front all day; Late in the race, James Buescher makes a great move to take the lead as Busch/Harvick battle; And then, there was the final restart.

Desperately trying to get the lead back, Busch can’t get completely in front of Buescher so he cuts him off, in the process putting himself into the wall for a second. Somehow, he managed to maintain the lead and win (his 80th overall victory in the top 3 NASCAR series), while Buescher (who has yet to win a race in the top 3 series) went on to finish second.

To top it all off, Busch gives Buescher the middle-finger salute on the cool-down lap. I assume this has something to do with Busch catching the wall, but that’s pretty ridiculous when you consider that Busch is the one who cut Buescher off and initiated the contact.

In fact, Busch should have thanked Buescher for not driving hard into his bumper and sending him spinning, as some other drivers, including Austin Dillon, suggested would have been the proper response. The fact is that Busch only won because Buescher backed off and didn’t plow through Busch when he was cut off.

As usual, the two drivers had different views of what happened.
Busch saw it as just racing.

Buescher echoed Todd Bodine’s comments from last week, calling Busch a dirty driver.

"He just went to the fence," Buescher said. "He wasn't clear at all. He drove like he had no truck on his outside, and he hit my left front and ended up in the wall. He just drove us dirty and got the win, and we hung in for a second-place finish."

Busch didn’t see it that way, but hinted in his comments that he didn't really care whether his move was clean or not.

"I knew I had to clear him. Regardless of what was going to happen, I had to clear him, and I tried rubbing off of him, and he was still there just a little bit, and it turned me into the wall. It was a hard hit. It knocked my helmet crooked. … I was surprised, really, that it felt the way it did -- and we were just kind of able to mosey around for the next couple laps and bring it home."

I’m not upset that the restart featured hard racing, as that’s what makes the Trucks the most exciting of the top 3 to watch at times, and I encourage it. What bothers me is Busch’s approach to these races in the lower series, and his entitlement attitude when he is competing there against the regulars in the lower series.

He’s a guest in the Truck series, and when one of the young drivers in that series races him hard, he gets offended and flicks him off? That right there is an indication of why Busch is not liked by most fans.

There was a stat thrown out during the race that stunned me: If Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both enter a Truck series race, it’s pretty much a lock that one of them will win. Last time that didn’t happen: 2008.

That just reinforces my belief that he has had more than enough fortune in these lower series and doesn’t need to be driving the way he did at Loudon. I want to see him race hard, but you still have to respect the competition, and I don’t think he does.

The way I see it, Busch has an entitlement mentality. He thinks every race win belongs to him before the race is even run, and if anyone gets in his way he wants to wreck them, give them the finger, or both.

While this large amount confidence (a.k.a. a huge ego) may help Busch rack up wins, it’s going to do nothing but anger his competitors and most fans, which is why you don’t hear many cheers for Busch.

And as a side note: Even if Busch does reach his career goal of 200 wins between the 3 series, he still won’t even be close to what Richard Petty accomplished. Petty did it against Cup drivers; Busch is picking on the JV squad by winning all these Nationwide and Truck races, and it’s nowhere near the accomplishment.)

What is a dirty driver?
Buescher and Bodine raised an interesting issue. Both called Busch a dirty driver, and it’s been heavily debated whether that’s true.

The problem with determining who’s a dirty driver is that most people will not apply the same standard to all. Take Dale Earnhardt Sr. for example: Everyone agrees he was an aggressive driver, but his fans will deny he was a dirty driver. People who didn’t like him will say he was dirty.

The same issue applies with Busch. Because his personality is so disagreeable, and so many people can’t stand the sight of him as a result, it’s easy to say he’s dirty. I wouldn’t say he’s completely dirty, but he can be from time to time. The Bodine incident wasn’t bad, and Kyle did nothing wrong there. But if he keeps driving the way he did against Buescher, he’ll be earning that reputation as a dirty driver.

There are those who would defend Busch’s actions as just racing. And that is accurate … to a point.

But it’s important to remember that all actions have consequences. Kyle wants only to win, and has more than enough talent to do so regularly, but if he wants to keep winning with his bumper, he’ll be receiving his share of bumper hits in return.

Because if one thing’s true about racecar drivers, as Jimmy Spencer once said, they never forget.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Hamlin living up to hype; One goal left -- topple Jimmie

Last year, everyone said Carl Edwards would be the champion, and he proceeded to do absolutely nothing of significance in 2009.

So with the hype this preseason being around Denny Hamlin, there was a thought that maybe he would see a similar letdown. To his credit, he has performed marvelously thus far, even battling through post-surgery pain for a while early this season, won the final pre-Chase race to take his sixth victory of the season, and will start the Chase as the points leader.

Hamlin now leads the Cup series in points, with the points resetting as they head to New Hampshire to start the Chase, and he hopes to hold on to that spot now and win the title.

Hamlin said that being on top heading into New Hampshire is a testament to how strong his race team has been this year, despite the doubts of many on the outside.

"It means a lot for this whole race team. A lot of people bash this race team about can't finish this or can't finish that, but we got the most wins and hopefully that's going to carry us through 10 weeks of the Chase."

And when asked how many races he could win in the Chase, he quickly said: "At this point I say we can win at all of them."

The person Hamlin will have to beat, of course, is four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. When asked who will be realistically battling for the crown, Johnson said Hamlin was among the contenders.

“Looking at the last month, the 99, the 18, the 11, hopefully us, 29; I think you've got five or six cars that can really race for the championship,” he said. “And then when you get outside of that, I think there are some guys that are finding speed.”

Clint Bowyer was the only driver who really had to defend his Chase position at RIR, and boy did he defend it. Bowyer ran up front all night, led a lot of laps and was a legitimate threat to win. Unfortunately for him, though, I don’t see a Bowyer run for the title in the offing. Others in the past, including the now-infamous Jeremy Mayfield, have had great Richmond runs to make the Chase but still flopped when competing with the big dogs. Unless his consistency improves tremendously, Bowyer will likely have a similarly unspectacular Chase run.

Always the joker, Bowyer had a good line after the race when asked whether it would be easier to beat Jimmie Johnson this year than it has been in the past.

“Absolutely. Superman has not lost his cape, but it's shorter than it was in years past,” he said. “So hopefully we'll all be able to give him a run for his money this year.”

Asked about Bowyer’s comment, Johnson said he doesn’t feel vulnerable, but added:
“If guys think we are vulnerable, it's my job to show up at Loudon, qualify on the pole and win the race,” he said. “I'm not concerned about what people think of my race team and where I'm at and what kind of threat we are for the championship. I'm just more concerned about going out and getting the damn job done.”

Those sound like fighting words, and it will be a blast watching everyone else trying to take down Johnson in the Chase. Hamlin has perhaps the best shot to do it, but he definitely won’t be the only one.

Gibbs strong overall at Richmond
Not only did Hamlin win, but Kyle Busch came from 32nd to finish 2nd, and Joey Logano came home in 4th … Not a bad night overall for the Gibbs team.

At one point, Kyle was right On Denny’s bumper, but he wasn’t about to do anything stupid to his teammate.

“Denny was a lot better than we were - he had a really good car all night. We caught up to him and I thought we had something for him,” Busch said. “In traffic, I could have made a ballsy move and gotten through him, but it would have made contact. I would rather have seen the Joe Gibbs cars finish one-two.”

Other good Richmond runs
Others having unusually solid runs included Brad Keselowski, who ran in the top-10 most of the night and finished 15th and on the lead lap. Also, Marcos Ambrose finished a solid fifth. He seems to be really good only on road courses and short tracks. If he can improve on the rest of the tracks, maybe he can contend up front more often.

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After 2009 shutout, Childress team places 3 in Chase

When you look at the Chase drivers, you’ll see there are six Chase drivers for Chevy (Harvick, Johnson, Gordon, Burton, Bowyer, Stewart); three for Ford (Biffle, Edwards, Kenseth), 1 for Dodge (Kurt Busch), and 2 for Toyota (Hamlin, Kyle Busch). Basically, all the big teams got in, some more than others; 2 Hendrick drivers plus Stewart, who’s an affiliate; all 3 RCR drivers; 2 Gibbs drivers; 1 Penske driver; and 3 Roush drivers.

The big losers: Hendrick’s Mark Martin, whose chances at a title get smaller each year; and of course Dale Earnhardt Jr., who once again failed to live up to all the hype around him. Jamie McMurray missed, too, but his Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 trophies (and the cash that comes along with those wins) can console him.

The biggest turnaround was for Childress, who had no drivers in the Chase last year.
Even the competition, such as Jeff Gordon, said RCR has done a great job getting back to the top.

“I mean, Childress, they have been getting their butt kicked the past couple of years and they have ramped it up,” Gordon said. That's what happens, you get beat down and you go to work and start analyzing what your competition is doing and what you're missing and you realize that when you're an organization like Richard has there, you've got to make some big changes; and whether it's in their chassis, their simulation, I don't know what it is, but they have obviously found some things and they are much better.”

Clint Bowyer said he’s confident that RCR will have cars capable of winning the Chase, but circumstances have to go their way, too.
“I think it’s important that obviously we have run as well as we have, but it's also important to make it happen in the last ten weeks. This is the best we have ever been prepared and the best we have run up to this point,” he said. “I feel like we have the cars and the things in the shop and feel like we have a plan for everything that has happened and going to happen. But you can’t control the circumstances and everyone gets better and sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t. The things we can control, I believe we controlled them and we will just see what happens.”

Roush Chase roundup
Carl Edwards has been a roll for a while, and he almost ended up with his first win since Homestead of 2008 … contending most of the night, leading a lot of laps and finishing 10th, due to his inability to keep up on the long runs.

Still, he was happy after the race, saying: "I think we ran better here tonight that we have run in years, so that is good for our team. It is huge. It is still a top-10 and we are in the Chase. Now we need to go to Loudon and go for all the points we can get.”

Greg Biffle locked in his spot in the Chase, but in unspectacular fashion. He finished 32nd and was terrible all night. These kind of nights can’t happen if Biffle wants to contend in the Chase, and he knows it.

"That was pretty poor. Our cars keep breaking and we seem to have stuff wrong with them. I don't know. I thought a few weeks ago we had a shot at the Chase, but I don't know anymore."

Matt Kenseth, the third Roush driver in the Chase, will start the Chase in 12th position, and in true Kenseth fashion he wasn’t exactly jumping for joy.

"Not to be a Debbie Downer but 12th in points isn't that
spectacular,” he said. “You need to do something when you get there. The saving grace is that everybody is caught up and we are like 50 points out of the lead. We got that closed up and now we have to go perform."

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The 'Smoke' monster should be a force in the Chase

Fans of the show “Lost” will recognize the “Smoke Monster” … and NASCAR has their own version as Tony “Smoke” Stewart is coming into full form as the regular season ends and the playoffs will soon begin.

With his win at Atlanta Sunday night, Tony served notice to the competition that he is still a contender for the title, despite not having won a race until this late in the year. It was just a matter of getting it all figured out, and now is Stewart’s time to shine.

He was beaming in Victory Lane, exclaiming with short breath: “God, I’ve never been so happy to win in all my life.” This is because Stewart is used to winning, and the nearly year-long streak without a win was no doubt strange for him to experience, and it was a a given that a pure racer like Stewart would be back at some point soon.

His crew chief, Darian Grubb, said the win is timed perfectly, right before the Chase hits and the most important races of the season begin.

“It's definitely huge for us to be able to get the win right before we go into the Chase. The momentum is a big thing, but it's one of those things we wanted to have all along. It's not like we weren't trying to get to victory lane every week,” Grubb said. “ It was a tough battle. We learned a lot of things in the last few months that have given Tony a lot more comfort in the racetrack anad keep speed in it, as well.”

Stewart echoed this sentiment that the leadup to this win was done little by little as the team learned and got better over the recent races.

“The thing I guess I've been really excited about, especially the last two months, we have been kind of silent every weekend and we are gaining on it. And it's not been in one week increments where we've had a big change and all of the sudden everybody goes, wow, they are starting to figure it out. It's been a lot of little steps in the last ten to 12 races, I would say, that nobody's really noticed it, but we have noticed it internally. It's a much better feeling right now this time of year than it was a year ago.”

Denny going in wrong direction
Now let’s go to the opposite end of the positivity spectrum.
If I had to predict the champion, at this point I would refrain from saying Denny Hamlin … and it has nothing to do with the driver. The Joe Gibbs cars, particularly Hamlin’s cars, seem to have far too many mechanical issues for him to realistically compete for the title. I’m reminded of the time a couple years ago when Kyle Busch was a favorite for the title, but had a mechanical issue in the first Chase race and then nosedived.

Hamlin blew up at Atlanta and dipped in the standings. While the points mean nothing since he’s in the Chase officially and will be up top along with Jimmie Johnson, that team has to be worried that their equipment may prevent Hamlin from making a serious title run.

Bowyer defends ground
Clint Bowyer, the man defending 12th place in the Chase, was pretty thrilled with his night at Atlanta, finishing 6th and basically guaranteeing a Chase spot, barring any crazy scenario unfolding at Richmond that will lose him more than 100 points.

"That is absolutely what we needed. Man, I tell you, it was a hard fought battle. The guys kept digging and kept digging,” Bowyer said. “They kept adjusting on it and never gave it. The guys in the pits, they got us back up there where we needed to be. I am real proud of them. Not what we wanted, but darn sure what we needed.”

Bowyer said he’s glad that he’s not just hanging on, and is instead increasing his points gap over Chase seekers like Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin.
"We are gaining points so that is a good feeling."

Oil politics: Mobil 1 not off limits for Stewart

There are longstanding rumors that Mobil 1 will join Stewart-Haas Racing as a sponsor in 2011, when it leaves Penske Racing (which is getting the Shell sponsorship from RCR.)

Despite a new agreement between Quaker State and Hendrick Motorsports, which is affilitated with SHR, Rick Hendrick said a Mobil 1 deal with Stewart wouldn’t be discouraged.

"The folks that rent or lease motors for us do whatever they want to do. That's their call," Hendrick said at Atlanta this weekend

Edwards on fire
After a terrible start to the year, Carl Edwards is officially on fire.
The Roush team has figured out how to run up front, and he is the main beneficiary, and finished 2nd at Atlanta to prove that to everyone.

"That was fun,” Edwards said after the race.Tony just had such a fast car there at the end, but we're back. We're doing it. We're scoring more points than anybody. We're heading into the chase. I feel like we locked ourselves in. The last couple of months have been great. I'm excited about going to Richmond. I'm real excited about starting the chase.”

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Monday, September 6, 2010

With Chase hopes dead, Martin and Earnhardt Jr. must focus on 2011

When you drive for the best team in NASCAR, you expect to compete for titles.
But it's easier said than done.

Early this year, the mantra was “two cars, one team”, with the two teams in question being Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. They were going to work together more this year and try to catch up to their more successful Hendrick Motorsports teammates: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have 8 titles between them.

So much for that plan.

This season has been another disaster for Dale Jr., who can’t seem to recapture the winning form he once had back in his DEI days. And after last year’s magnificent run, Mark Martin has floundered in 2010 and will now miss the Chase.

Atlanta’s race results were a microcosm of the whole season for Hendrick’s teams. Jimmie Johnson ran up front, led laps and finished 3rd. Jeff Gordon ran toward the front all night, but ended up 13th. Then there were Martin and Dale Jr., who finished 21st and 22nd. This is essentially the Hendrick pecking order.

There are a lot of things going against the lesser half of the Hendrick bill.
For starters, with these multi-car teams, someone has to be the low man on the totem pole … regardless of what the teams may try to spin. No one has ever successfully fielded four cars, and by that I mean that no four- or five-car team has ever seen all its drivers have good seasons.

There was talk this year about how some key players were moved from Martin’s team to Jr’s team, and that no doubt hurt Martin a little, but the truth is that neither team was really Chase-worthy. Even if Martin had squeezed into the Chase, the #5 team was nowhere near strong enough to compete with title favorites like Kevin Harvick, Johnson and Gordon.

So what to do as the #5 and #88 team look ahead to 2011? For Martin, this has to be a crushing defeat and somewhat disheartening, especially for a guy who is as competitive as Martin. Underneath that smile when he says he’s happy just to drive for Rick Hendrick, you know he wants to fight for that title.
In this offseason, Martin, Alan Gustafson and the rest of the #5 team need to do a lot of searching to figure out what broke in 2010 and fix it before next year (and maybe ask for some of those guys back from the #88 team). A lot of that discovery and experimentation can be done during the Chase races, when there’s nothing for them to lose even if they’re off. Just like the RCR teams got hot last fall and carried it over to 2010, Martin can try to get hot now and be hot when Daytona rolls around next year.

Jr. is a whole different ball of wax. As Kyle Busch once said, “It’s always the crew chief.” When you drive for Hendrick Motorsports, 22nd just won’t cut it. But since he’s the biggest name in the sport and is basically printing money for Hendrick, I don’t see him ever leaving. Lance McGrew is not scheduled to be replaced, so these guys need to get on the same page and develop a relationship like Jimmie has with Chad Knaus. If they truly understand each other and have the proper equipment under them, they can compete with the best. And in a worst-case scenario, where Jr. doesn’t start to get better, I say dump McGrew and bring Tony Eury Sr. up to Cup. All of Jr’s success in the Nationwide Series has come with Pops, and Pops got him a lot of Cup victories back in the day (remember when Jr. used to win a bunch? It’s been a while).

And last but not least, Jr. needs to forget the distractions and get his head straight. It has to be hard trying to live up to the pressure of his last name, but he has to somehow forget about all of that when he gets behind the wheel each week. If he does this and the team can give him better cars, eventually he should turn his fortunes around and return to competing with the better half at Hendrick.

I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen, though.

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Bodine, Brad K have harsh words for Kyle

The latest on the list of people to be annoyed by Kyle Busch is Todd Bodine, who said during his Victory Lane interview Friday night that Kyle is a dirty driver and caused the spin Bodine took early in the race, before he regrouped and won on fuel mileage.

Busch wasn’t happy he got called out, and confronted Bodine in Victory Lane. I have to say I’m with Kyle on this one. When the incident happened, it was just two trucks racing hard … the essence of this great series. If Busch had just let Bodine by, that would have been lame. They raced hard and one guy wrecked, without any contact being made … deal with it. There are a lot of times Busch warrants criticism, but this wasn’t one of them.

More harsh words for Kyle
Brad Keselowski comes up with some digs at his rivals. But this week, he topped himself during an interview, when he was asked about his ongoing battles with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. It was clear that when it comes to Busch, Brad is not a fan of him … both as a driver and a person.

"The difference between me and Carl and me and Kyle is that me and Carl generally have a respect for each other outside the car. I think Carl's a good person outside the car. I'm not so sure about Kyle. I don't talk to Kyle outside the car or anywhere else, so..."

Those be fighting words, and I look forward to their battles in the Nationwide Series. (Brad’s got a long way to go before he competes with Kyle in Cup.)

Surprise runs
Some surprisingly good runs Sunday came from David Gilliland, who was 20th, and Dave Blaney, was 24th. Both were driving for a Front Row Motorsports team that has struggled mightily this year. Blaney has start-and-parked most of the year, so he must be excited just to be able to race again.

Regan Smith also had an impressive 17th place finish. Martin Truex ran top-5 all day and ended up 12th, and Marcos Ambrose managed to come in 10th. There was a great comeback by Kyle Busch to finish 5th after early trouble with penalties.

It’s over folks … the Chase is pretty much set. Unless Clint Bowyer gets bedridden this week and can’t start the race, Ryan Newman has almost no shot at making the Chase. He had a great run at Atlanta, but this is a case of too little, too late. His boss, fresh off the win, will have to be the only Stewart-Haas representative in the playoffs.

Don’t look for Bowyer to try anything crazy at Richmond. He’ll run his race smartly and stay out of trouble, clinching his spot.

Multi-car qualifying
The multi-truck qualifying format that we saw at Pocono and Kentucky is rumored to be a possibility in the other major series next year. This is great news, as it sets up a more exciting qualifying format.

Going from slowest in practice to fastest, you will see a continual battle for the pole. And by having more than one vehicle on the track at once (but not close enough to gain an advantage from drafting, of course) will speed up the qualifying process, leaving more track time for other things.

I hope to see it happen in Cup and Nationwide, too, though it’s far from a guarantee.

Ambrose voted best in Supercar
As Marcos Ambrose tries to make his namein NASCAR, motorsports journalists across the pond have chosen Marcos Ambrose as the best V8 Supercar driver ever.

"It's just an honor to receive this kind of recognition," Ambrose said after hearing of the honor. "I really want to thank V8X magazine and the motorsport journalists who voted for me. I love the V8 Supercar Series and I have so many fond memories. I'm proud to have been able to be a part of its history."

Ambrose has 28 V8 Supercar wins, 18 poles, and won titles in 2003 and 2004.

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