Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400 Preview

It's time to go Saturday night short track racing again, as the Sprint Cup Series moves into Richmond International Raceway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400. If most drivers hate the high speeds and tight packs of Talladega, then almost all of them love the side-by-side action that Richmond provides.

Not only do the drivers love it, so do the fans. The 3/4-mile tri-oval traditionally produces some of the best racing in the series, regardless of which car is being run. Though the September event is arguably more important -- being the final race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set -- the May race isn't any less dramatic.

Just ask Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Or Clint Bowyer, who found himself in Victory Lane last May despite only leading the last two laps.

Denny Hamlin dominated last May, leading 381 of the 400 laps. He had a tire leak, though, losing the lead to Earnhardt with 17 to go. Earnhardt appeared to be on his way to his first points-paying victory with Hendrick Motorsports, but Hamlin slowed at the top of the track to bring out the caution and bunch the field again.

On the ensuing restart, Earnhardt couldn't hold the bottom line, and within two laps, Busch had a run on the inside. Earnhardt held on to the lead thanks to the momentum the high side let him carry onto the straightaway, but as the two cars entered the third turn with three laps to go, chaos ensued.

Busch tapped Earnhardt, sending him spinning into the wall. Bowyer slid by to take the lead before the caution came out, and an already-budding rivalry was born. Busch insisted it wasn't intentional, Earnhardt took the high road -- and just about everyone else considered Busch Public Enemy No. 1.

An already-despised driver made himself the bad guy, probably for the rest of his career. Not that Busch minded.

Earnhardt took the high road -- at least, in the immediate aftermath. In his ESPN documentary series Shifting Gears, Earnhardt said of Busch, "I would've been more surprised if he hadn't hit us. It really goes back to the kind of person he is."

Not to mention, Busch was still bitter over Rick Hendrick kicking him out and bringing in Earnhardt -- never mind the nice situation in which Busch found himself, where in a little more than one full season with Joe Gibbs Racing he's won 10 Sprint Cup races and was a championship favorite last year until a series of mechanical issues derailed the team.

Will we see a repeat Saturday night? Probably not, but Richmond always finds a way to make things dramatic. Who would've thought Ricky Rudd would ever get in Kevin Harvick's grill after a race? It happened at Richmond.

Jimmie Johnson has won three races at Richmond, including last September's event. He's the only driver with multiple wins at Richmond to have won in both the old car and the new model. Earnhardt and Tony Stewart have also won at Richmond three times, all in the old car.

Two of Johnson's three Richmond wins came on Sunday afternoons, so if Saturday night gets rained out, pay close attention to the No. 48.

Earnhardt and Stewart will be factors, as will Busch, but don't sleep on Hamlin. His luck notwithstanding, Richmond is one of Hamlin's favorite tracks. Not just because it's 18 miles from Chesterfield, where he grew up, but because he runs a lot better at that track than last May's result would indicate.

His 24th-place effort in May aside, Hamlin has career finishes of second, third, third, sixth and 15th at Richmond. He's also won two poles in that span. Hamlin, who covets his Martinsville win from last year -- the last time he visited Victory Lane -- has said a win at Richmond for him would be as big as if he won the Daytona 500.

Look for it to finally happen this weekend. Hamlin takes the checkered flag, and more importantly, all the cars stay on the ground.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

David Poole, respected NASCAR journalist, dead at 50

Chances are that if you're a NASCAR fan, you know the name David Poole. I didn't just know the name; for a brief time, I knew the man as well.

In September 2004, I spent the weekend at Richmond International Raceway as a member of the media. Though I was only a student journalist back then, I was covering the weekend for several reasons. Busch Series driver Ashton Lewis Jr. and Cup Series crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker were graduates of Old Dominion University, the school for which was I writing, and with ODU being a big engineering school, it seemed appropriate to look at how that field had affected NASCAR in recent years.

I met a lot of NASCAR personalities that weekend. Mike Massaro, Krista Voda, Rick Allen, Marty Smith, Al Pearce, Benny Parsons ... it was a bit overwhelming to meet some of the people I watched and read week in and week out covering this sport I love. But one stood out, even among them: David Poole.

Poole died Tuesday of a heart attack at age 50, just hours after finishing his daily morning radio show for Sirius Satellite Radio. Poole was perhaps best known for his work with the Charlotte Observer, for which he still wrote even as he took on the radio show and started a racing blog and wrote several books on top of guest appearances on sports networks like ESPN.

Poole sort of fell into the NASCAR beat -- covering it during an off-day when the paper forgot to assign someone else -- but he never relinquished it. Even when he helped the Observer cover the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, Poole showed the same passion and professionalism NASCAR fans had come to expect from him.

Drivers loved Poole, because he was fair. Sure, he'd ask the tough question and he'd write the tough article, but he was fair about it. Even if Poole wrote something a driver wouldn't like, he would at least let that driver say his peace before going to print.

Poole's last article ran Tuesday morning, in which he called for changes to Talladega Superspeedway. "Is racing at Talladega out of control?" he wrote. "I say it is, and Carl Edwards' crash Sunday into the catch-fence in the tri-oval of the 2.66-mile track merely reinforced that opinion.

"Does somebody have to die before we've decided we don't have control?"

Much like Parsons, I remember Poole for the brief moments he spent with me in the media center at Richmond. He was an established voice in the NASCAR media, a well-respected and very busy man. He didn't have to take five minutes out of his time to talk to some young college reporter who really didn't know what he was doing -- but he did.

Poole, from what I saw, had a graciousness and no-bull approach that made you respect him. Even if he called you on something, you couldn't really get mad at him for it, because he was respectful about it. More often than not, he was also right.

Everything Poole did and wrote was to help make NASCAR better. Poole is probably a distinctive voice for the new NASCAR fan (the one who came on-board in the 1990s); he was seen on countless documentaries and interviews about the sport. ESPN ran a series of documentaries before last season called ESPN Ultimate NASCAR, and Poole was a prominent figure in those films.

Even though I doubt Poole would've remembered me today, I still thank him for the few minutes and advice he gave. I always admired his writing and the way he went about his business, and the way everyone in NASCAR, from the drivers to the crews to the owners to the officials, respected him was something all journalists would be jealous of.

There will be a massive void in the media center at Richmond this weekend. The racing will go on, but somehow, it probably won't feel quite right.

Rest in peace, David. You were one of the finest.

Who is Brad Keselowski?

After taking his first career Sprint Cup win in just his fifth start on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Brad Keselowski not only became the 10th first-time winner in the track's history, he also took a big step toward making himself a household name in the near future.

But a lot of fans probably don't know who Keselowski is. It's a product of a lot of fans not knowing much beyond the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- Jamie McMurray experienced the same thing in 2002, when he won his first Cup race in Charlotte while filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin. A lot of fans didn't know who he was, either.

But allow me, a not-quite-professional, semi-guru when it comes to NASCAR, to fill you in.

Keselowski is a 25-year-old native of Rochester Hills, Mich. and the son of longtime racer Bob Keselowski. Bob won the Camping World Truck Series race in Richmond in 1997, his only major NASCAR victory, and was the 1989 ARCA Series champion. Keselowski is the younger brother of Brian Keselowski, who races part-time in the Nationwide Series.

Keselowski made his NASCAR national touring series debut in 2004, when he ran the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway, driving the family-owned No. 29 to a 33rd-place finish. Keselowski's career in the Truck Series was underwhelming, but he moved up full-time to the Nationwide Series in 2007. His Keith Coleman Racing team suspended operations in July, though, leaving Keselowski with Germain Racing at Memphis Motorsports Park after Ted Musgrave was suspended for an incident at Milwaukee.

Keselowski won the pole at Memphis and led most of the race, only to be bumped out of the way by Travis Kvapil. The performance caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr., though, who called Keselowski and offered him a chance to drive the No. 88 Navy Chevrolet out of JR Motorsports for the rest of the season. Keselowski did, posting five Top-10 finishes.

The 2008 season was Keselowski's first true full-time campaign in the Nationwide Series, and he finished third in the point standings behind champion Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. Keselowski posted 20 Top-10s and 11 Top-5s on the season, including two victories. Keselowski's first career NASCAR win came at Nashville Superspeedway on June 7, while the second came at Bristol on Aug. 22.

So far this season, Keselowski sits sixth in the Nationwide Series point standings, 178 points behind leader Kyle Busch. After a tough start to the season, Keselowski has posted four straight Top-10 finishes; he came in ninth at Talladega this past weekend. Prior to Talladega, Keselowski posted consecutive third-place finishes at Texas, Nashville and Phoenix.

Keselowski made his Sprint Cup debut last November in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing a then-career best 19th in the No. 25 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. He also finished 23rd at the season finale in Homestead.

Running a limited Cup schedule this year in order to keep his Rookie of the Year eligibility, Keselowski has split time between the No. 25 and the No. 09 for owner James Finch. He finished 38th at Las Vegas and 23rd at Texas before pulling off the upset victory at Talladega.

Keselowski was reportedly offered a chance to run in the Sprint Cup Series full-time this season, when Roger Penkse offered him the No. 12 ride once Ryan Newman announced he was going to Stewart Haas Racing, but Keselowski wanted to stay with JR Motorsports and admitted he needed more seat time in the Nationwide Series. Some believe he's the heir apparent to Rick Hendrick's No. 5 car, though that depends on what Mark Martin does.

Earnhardt said on Tuesday he wants Keselowski back in his No. 88 Nationwide Series ride in 2010, but that anything on the Sprint Cup side is "with Rick (Hendrick)." Could another Sprint Cup team snatch him up next season, if a ride should become available? Possibly, but something tells me Keselowski would rather stay loyal to Earnhardt and Hendrick.

18-year-old Joey Logano might get all the hype -- you know, the whole "Sliced Bread" thing -- but there's one thing no one can ignore: Keselowski made it to Victory Lane in a Cup car first.

I'm just sayin'.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Edwards flips, Keselowski wins at Talladega

Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway won't be remembered by many as the site of Brad Keselowski's first career Sprint Cup Series win, nor will it be remembered for the 14-car wreck on the seventh lap that took out such drivers as Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer.

No, Sunday's race will be remembered for Carl Edwards getting airborne in the tri-oval on the final lap and flipping into the catch fence. Sunday will be remembered for Edwards peeling himself from his burning car and running, a la Ricky Bobby, across the start-finish line. Sunday will be remembered for the seven fans who were injured by debris from Edwards' crash, one of whom was airlifted to a nearby hospital with a reported broken jaw.

As far as I'm concerned, any and all criticism of the new car needs to stop. It's true the vehicle has produced underwhelming racing at times over the past year or so -- but to be honest, so did the old model at times. Between Edwards' wreck on Sunday and Michael McDowell's tumble at Texas last season, the new car has more than proven its worth in terms of safety. Teams are getting a handle on the car, which is leading and will continue to lead to better racing, but the safety -- which was why this new car was created -- makes the current model a rousing success.

I'm not sure Edwards walks away on Sunday if they were still driving the old car.

To be clear: Keselowski was not to blame for the wreck. He held his line on the bottom and Edwards came down on him in an attempt to block. Edwards wasn't to blame, either; he did what he had to in order to try and win the race. The real culprit was NASCAR's rule which prevents drivers from diving below the double-yellow line on the bottom to pass.

Just ask Regan Smith. He dove below that line last October and passed Tony Stewart on the last lap of the AMP Energy 500 for what he thought was the win. Smith, who was penalized a lap by NASCAR for going below the line, said he did that to prevent wrecking Stewart. In Smith's mind, if he held his ground, an incident similar to Edwards' on Sunday might've happened.

To be fair, Edwards might not have gone as high into the air as he did if Ryan Newman didn't collect him. Sure, Edwards was already in the air, but the roof flaps had deployed and the car was starting to return to the track. Newman's hit -- which was not his fault -- sent Edwards even higher into the air, careening into the catch fence.

The fence did its job; it gave, but did not break. The fence threw Edwards' car back onto the track, and the fans who were hurt by the resulting debris largely suffered minor injuries. Still, that Edwards went into the air like that and we're even talking about this means something probably needs to be done.

"We'll probably keep racing like this until somebody gets killed," Edwards, who did not blame Keselowski, said on Sunday. "Then (NASCAR) will change it."

"Talladega is short for 'We're going to crash, we just don't know when'," Newman said.

It was the third major wreck of the afternoon; the first Big One took place going into the third turn on Lap 7, when Matt Kenseth got loose in a four-wide pack and sent Gordon near the wall. Everyone checked up from there, leaving Martin, Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, among others, in the carnage.

The second Big One happened on the backstretch on Lap 180, when Denny Hamlin got into polesitter Juan Pablo Montoya. Robby Gordon slammed head-on into the inside retaining wall -- which was outlined with a SAFER barrier -- while Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. were also involved.

Talladega -- and Daytona, the other track on which NASCAR runs the carbeurator restrictor plate -- is prime ground for the Big One. The huge wrecks aren't possibilities; they're inevitabilities. Drivers employ different strategies to avoid the wreck -- lead all day, stay out front, or hang out in the back.

Edwards chose the latter strategy, and it almost worked. He hooked up with Keselowski, a part-time Cup rookie who competes full-time in the Nationwide Series, with two laps to go and rocketed to the front on the high side. We saw all day that two cars could hook up and shoot past everyone, anywhere from six to 10 MPH faster than the rest of the field.

Edwards and Keselowski passed Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming to the white flag, setting up the frantic sprint to the checkereds. In the tri-oval, Keselowski looked high, only to have Edwards block his path. Keselowski, in the No. 09 owned by James Finch, then ducked low, getting a fender alongside Edwards as the No. 99 then peeled low to block again. The two cars made contact.

Three, two, one ... liftoff.

Let's just be glad everyone came out of the incident relatively unscathed, and that Edwards can be at Richmond for this weekend's races. The crash was probably one of the scariest Talladega had seen since 1987, when Bobby Allison spun in the tri-oval at over 210 MPH and got airborne. He also soared into the catch fence, which was not nearly as strong back then, and a large chunk of that fence was torn off.

I never heard about any injuries in that incident, but Allison's accident was what prompted NASCAR to mandate the restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. Without them today, these cars would probably be sailing off into the corners at Talladega at over 230 MPH.

Retired NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace, who conducted just such a test a few years ago, later said running 230 at Talladega by one's self was probably not that big a deal, but to do so in a race? To paraphrase Wallace, no thanks.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I don't know what NASCAR needs to do to prevent something like this from happening again, but it does merit a close look. Then again, racing is inherently dangerous, and no matter what NASCAR does, the drivers and fans will never be 100 percent guaranteed to be safe.

But rather than place blame and play the "What if?" game, let's just be thankful Edwards and the fans are alright.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499
1. Brad Keselowski*
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.*
3. Ryan Newman*
4. Marcos Ambrose
5. Scott Speed*
6. Kurt Busch*
7. Greg Biffle*
8. Brian Vickers*
9. Joey Logano*
10. Jeff Burton*
11. Reed Sorenson
12. David Ragan*
13. Paul Menard*
14. Joe Nemechek*
15. Regan Smith
16. Casey Mears*
17. Matt Kenseth*
18. Max Papis
19. Elliott Sadler*
20. Juan Pablo Montoya*
21. Michael Waltrip*
22. Denny Hamlin*
23. Tony Stewart
24. Carl Edwards*
25. Kyle Busch**
26. David Reutimann
27. John Andretti*
28. Bobby Labonte
29. Robby Gordon
30. Jimmie Johnson*
31. David Stremme
32. Jeremy Mayfield*
33. Martin Truex Jr.*
34. Sam Hornish Jr.*
35. A.J. Allmendinger
36. Kasey Kahne
37. Jeff Gordon
38. Kevin Harvick
39. Clint Bowyer
40. David Gilliland
41. Scott Riggs
42. Jamie McMurray
43. Mark Martin

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps (5 more bonus points)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Aaron's 499 Preview

The Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series invade Alabama this weekend for the 2009 season's second round of restrictor-plate races. Talladega Superspeedway is the setting this weekend, the series' largest speedway at 2.66 miles long. Talladega always promises high speeds, thrilling three-wide action, and like its cousin on the Florida coast, the Big One.

Who wins the race at Talladega is often determined by who avoids the seemingly-inevitable multi-car wreck. The Big One can also have an impact on the championship -- as we saw last October, when Carl Edwards triggered the massive wreck that seemed to take out every Chase contender not named Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson went on to hoist his third straight Sprint Cup trophy, tying a NASCAR record.

Kyle Busch won the spring race at Talladega last season, despite only leading 12 of the 188 laps. It was his first career plate-track win, though of perhaps greater importance was the second-place finish of Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya, now driving a Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, is that team's standard-bearer this season, sitting 18th in points with two top-10 finishes on the season. Despite recent struggles -- Montoya finished 24th at Phoenix last Saturday -- Talladega seems to be the kind of place Montoya can go to get right.

The same could be said for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won five times on the Alabama oval, but not since 2004. Junior finished 10th in the spring race last season and might've won the fall event, but he was caught in the Big One and finished 28th.

Junior had a struggle at Phoenix last Saturday, one which has been indicative of his season. NASCAR placed him and Casey Mears on probation for the next six races earlier this week, punishment (if you can call it that) for their post-race dustup last week. His early-season struggles, combined with the fact that all three of his teammates have won in consecutive races -- Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon at Texas and Mark Martin at Phoenix -- mean the pressure is really starting to mount.

Talladega and Richmond are Junior's two best tracks -- he has eight of his 18 career Sprint Cup wins at these tracks -- but nothing's a given for the No. 88 team, especially with how they've been struggling this season.

Gordon leads all active drivers with six Talladega victories, sweeping both races in 2007. Tony Stewart, who won the fall race last year after a controversial finish with Regan Smith, will also be strong. Stewart has finished third, fourth and second in his last three races -- so is there any reason to think he can't pick up his first win as a car owner soon? And why not this week?

Kurt Busch should also be a factor, even though he's never won a restrictor-plate race. His car owner, Roger Penske, only has one -- last season's Daytona 500, where Ryan Newman won.

Also, keep an eye out for Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears. Richard Childress Racing announced on Wednesday that after this weekend's race at Talladega, the crews for the No. 29 and No. 07 will be switching. That's crew chief, car chief, engineers, over-the-wall guys ... everyone. It's a pretty drastic move for Childress, who in the past has shown he knows how to handle his personnel.

The more pressing question could be, though ... what does this say for Mears? RCR is his third stop and aside from a fuel mileage win at Charlotte in 2007 and a couple poles back in his days with Ganassi, Mears has never really shown anything. Is this a last-ditch effort to get Mears on the right track? And what happens if it doesn't work?

But the talk, as always, will be about the Big One. When will it happen? Who will it take out? No one -- not even this semi-professional, hardly-expert blogger -- can predict that, which is one of Talladega's biggest charms.

The Nationwide Series will run the Aaron's 312 Saturday afternoon, with Stewart the reigning race winner. The Big One will have an even larger effect on the championship picture in the Nationwide Series, since no one has the Chase format to fall back on. Considering this is the series' only trip to Talladega this season, any driver who loses points in the Big One might never get those points back.

This race will be even more important for Carl Edwards. Motor problems lost him the points lead at Phoenix, and if Edwards isn't careful and Kyle Busch rattles off a string of top-3 finishes -- or even wins -- the championship could be decided before the season even reaches the halfway point.

Brad Keselowski is also a driver to watch out for. Behind three straight third-place finishes, Keselowski sits fifth in points heading into Talladega. Though Keselowski finished 23rd at Talladega last season, he did finish fifth in the July Daytona race last season, and his car owner just happens to be one of the best restrictor-plate racers on the planet.

ALSO: The Camping World Truck Series returns this weekend for the first time in almost a month, when the series races at Kansas Speedway on Saturday in just the fifth race of the season.

Kyle Busch leads the point standings by 38 points over Todd Bodine, but Busch won't be running this weekend, due to the races at Talladega. Kansas will be the first true opportunity -- even though Bodine won the season opener at Daytona -- for the Truck Series regulars to shine.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mark Martin takes Subway Fresh Fit 500

How popular was Mark Martin's dominating win Saturday night at the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix? Everyone from teammates to second-place finisher Tony Stewart to former Roush Fenway Racing teammates came to Victory Lane to congratulate him.

Martin, who sat on the pole for the third time this season, picked up his first Cup Series win since September 2005, when he won at Kansas in his last year driving Jack Roush's No. 6. Martin led 157 of the race's 312 laps, though he needed to pass Ryan Newman on a late restart and hold off Stewart to do it.

There was also the scare of Kyle Busch, who neverly edged out Martin on the final pit stop, but NASCAR caught Busch speeding off pit road and kept him from being a factor. Busch finished 17th.

When the late Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, every crew member from every team congratulated him and helped him celebrate. The prevailing wisdom in the garage was, "If my guy can't win this thing, I want Dale to. He deserves it."

Ditto that for Martin, four times the bridesmaid when it comes to Cup titles. Racing part-time the last three seasons, Martin signed on with Hendrick Motorsports before the start of the season with hopes at taking one last shot at a Cup title. The first few races saw Martin blow two engines and a tire, but the speed was always there.

Now, the most respected driver in NASCAR is back in Victory Lane. Martin is the third-oldest driver to win a Cup race, doing so at 50 years, 99 days of age. Harry Gant, at 52 years, 219 days, became the oldest when he took the chckered flag at Michigan in 1992.

Just how big a deal was Martin's win? It overshadowed a post-race incident in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun Casey Mears off the track. Junior had been falling backward in the late stages of the race, even getting lapped by teammate Martin, before Mears got into Junior and put him in the wall with 11 laps to go.

Junior, frustrated with his night and probably thinking he got intentionally dumped, spun Mears on the cool-down lap. Mears responded by rear-ending Junior twice once the cars reached pit road.

NASCAR did not call either driver to the hauler and said the incident would not be reviewed. Maybe it was the excitement over Martin's win, maybe it was NASCAR sticking to its promise to let the drivers be emotional again, but NASCAR's refusal to review the incident smacks of favoritism.

Think about it. Last August, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch had a similar post-race dustup at Bristol. Both drivers were put on probation. Fans already think Junior gets a pass from NASCAR (see the fallout from his wreck at Daytona a couple months ago), and this ruling just reinforces that belief. It's all a matter of perspective; all NASCAR had to do was say was they're looking into it, even if they weren't actually going to do so.

But back to Martin; will Saturday's win propel him to that first Cup title? Hard to say; first of all, he'll have to deal with teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (you know, the points leader and the guy who's won the last three championships). Then there's Kyle Busch, not to mention the incredibly consistent Stewart (who's knocking on the door for his first win as a driver/owner) and Kurt Busch, who's looking more and more like a title contender the longer he stays this strong.

I said it before and I'll say it again: that Atlanta win was no fluke.

Martin's in the mix, though. If for no other reason than his talent and determination, Martin's in the mix. We're talking about a guy who was competitive in a car that's no longer running in the series (the No. 8), so no question Martin, who's 13th in the points and just nine points out of the Chase, can mount a charge.

And I wouldn't be the least bit surprised.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 500
1. Mark Martin**
2. Tony Stewart*
3. Kurt Busch*
4. Jimmie Johnson*
5. Greg Biffle
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Martin Truex Jr.
8. David Reutimann*
9. Sam Hornish Jr.
10. Carl Edwards
11. Jamie McMurray
12. Reed Sorenson
13. Kasey Kahne
14. Marcos Ambrose
15. Jeff Burton
16. Ryan Newman*
17. Kyle Busch
18. David Stremme
19. Brian Vickers*
20. Casey Mears
21. Joey Logano
22. David Ragan
23. Paul Menard
24. Juan Pablo Montoya
25. Jeff Gordon
26. Clint Bowyer
27. Matt Kenseth
28. Regan Smith
29. Bobby Labonte*
30. Kevin Harvick
31. Dale Earnhardt Jr.*
32. Elliott Sadler
33. David Gilliland
34. Scott Speed
35. A.J. Allmendinger
36. Scott Riggs
37. Michael Waltrip*
38. John Andretti
39. Robby Gordon
40. Sterling Marlin
41. Joe Nemechek
42. Dave Blaney
43. Tony Raines

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps (5 more bonus points)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Subway Fresh Fit 500 Preview

After a week off, the Sprint Cup Series will be in the desert this weekend for the first night race of the season, the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway. Jimmie Johnson has won the last three races at the 1.0-mile oval, and will be looking to win four straight at a track for the second time in his career.

Lowe's Motor Speedway (2004-05) is the only other track on which Johnson has accomplished the feat. Johnson won three straight at Martinsville in 2006 and 2007, but Denny Hamlin's win at the track in March 2008 broke that streak.

Naturally, Johnson swept both events at Phoenix last season, picking up his first win of the year in the April event when crew chief Chad Knaus made a fuel mileage gamble before leading 214 of 313 laps in winning the November race. Given how strong Johnson has run the last few races -- winning at Martinsville and finishing second at Texas -- there's no reason to believe Johnson can't win this weekend.

Then again, Mark Martin appeared to be the class of the field in the spring race last year before fuel mileage relegated him to a fifth-place finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won twice at Phoenix in his career -- in 2003 and 2004 -- and finished in the Top 10 in both races last year.

And let's not forget guys like Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who also have multiple Phoenix wins. Harvick swept both Phoenix race in 2006, while Burton took the races in 2000 and 2001 -- back when he was still driving the No. 99 for Jack Roush.

Jeff Gordon, coming off his win at Texas, will also have something to say on Saturday night -- after all, he's the last guy not named Johnson to win at Phoenix. Kurt and Kyle Busch have both won in the desert, splitting the races in 2005 -- the first year Phoenix had two Cup dates. Matt Kenseth also owns a Phoenix win (2002), as does Tony Stewart ... though his was all the way back in 1999.

At this point, betting against Johnson (for entertainment purposes only, I assure you) is a dangerous proposition, but there are a lot of guys coming into this race who have a legitimate shot at the checkered flag. Gordon is the kind of guy who can use one win to catapult himself into a hot streak, and Kyle Busch is literally dangerous everywhere.

Phoenix can be a place where Martin continues his climb back up the standings, and there are few tracks better for Earnhardt to start righting the ship. In fact, the next three tracks -- Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond -- line up well for Junior, as he's collected 10 of his 18 career wins at those tracks.

Also of interest is how Joey Logano performs. Will he use Saturday's win in the Nationwide Series in Nashville and parlay that into his first really strong Cup effort? Can the confidence carry over like that?

Inquiring minds want to know.

If I must pick a winner, I'll go with Martin. He felt robbed after last season's race (and it is worth mentioning the car he almost won in last season won't even be in the race this year -- read more on that a few posts down), and the way Martin's been running of late has me convinced he'll find Victory Lane again sooner rather than later.

Maybe as soon as Saturday night.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Win = Confidence Boost?

That Joey Logano won the Nationwide Series Pepsi 300 at Nashville Superspeedway on Saturday isn't much of a surprise -- unless one considers he passed Kyle Busch late in the race to do it. Perhaps the more pertinent issue is ... how does Logano's second career Nationwide win -- and his first this season -- affect the 18-year-old's confidence?

The Nationwide Series isn't a problem for Logano; in 24 career starts in the series, the Connecticut native has 17 top-10s and seven top-5s to go along with two wins. In the Sprint Cup Series, though, where Logano is piloting the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (taking the place of two-time champion Tony Stewart), the road has been rockier.

In 10 career starts in the Cup Series, Logano has an average finish of 32.3. His career-best finish is 13th, which he logged in Las Vegas back in March, but so far this season, Logano has logged finishes of 43rd, 26th, 30th (twice), 38th and 32nd.

Logano was probably the most-hyped driver to enter the Sprint Cup Series since Jeff Gordon in 1993, even earning the nickname Sliced Bread, as in "the best thing since ..." Mark Martin said Logano would be one of the greats when he was just 14, which was both high praise and tremendous pressure for a kid taking over a premiere ride following one of the modern-day legends of NASCAR.

Are his early struggles simply a case of growing pains? More than likely; Logano has the same equipment and resources at his disposal as teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. He has a champion crew chief in Greg Zipadelli. He has one of the best owners in the business when it comes to managing people in Joe Gibbs.

So what's the problem? Lack of experience.

It's easy to forget Logano is just 18 years old. He should probably be running the full Nationwide Series schedule, holding off on a full-time Cup run until next season. Stewart's decision to leave changed Gibbs' plans, though, and Logano found himself in one of the sport's best rides before he was ready for it.

Logano basically said so himself in the offseason.

Though the cars and competition between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series are different, Saturday's win could be the shot in the arm Logano needed. Winning a race of any kind could remind Logano that he has the talent, that it's a matter of time and experience before he starts showing that talent on the highest level of the sport.

In fact, the more Nationwide races Logano can win this season (he's only running 24 of them, concentrating on his Cup effort), the better off I think he'll be in the long run. Wins might not translate to results on the Sprint Cup side, but the confidence will keep Logano's head in the game and allow him to keep his head up when he bounces off the wall or he's in the garage with a torn-up race car.

Logano needs all the confidence he can get right now. The last thing he needs is to have things go so badly that he loses all belief in his ability as a race car driver, and the last thing he needs to do is be the next Casey Atwood.

He's ahead of his timetable, but results like Saturday could show Logano that he'll be just fine.

NASCAR Nationwide Series Pepsi 300 (Top 10 Finishers)
1. Joey Logano**
2. Kyle Busch*
3. Brad Keselowski
4. Kelly Bires
5. Carl Edwards*
6. Jason Leffler
7. David Ragan
8. Mike Bliss
9. Steven Wallace
10. Scott Lagasse Jr.

*led a lap
**led the most laps

Friday, April 10, 2009

Nationwide Series: Pepsi 300 Preview

The NASCAR Nationwide Series will have the stage all to itself this weekend, with the Sprint Cup Series taking its traditional Easter break. The series will head to the 1.333-mile Nashville Superspeedway on Saturday for the Pepsi 300, the Nationwide Series' first standalone event of the season.

Scott Wimmer won this race last year, leading 22 laps en route to his sixth career Nationwide Series victory. Wimmer took the lead from Clint Cowyer with 21 to go, leading the rest of the way. Polesitter Kyle Busch led a race-high 118 laps before spinning out and finishing 16th, two laps down.

Carl Edwards, who has won three races at Nashville and shown a strength at the concrete ovals, finished third, while Brad Keselowski came in fourth.

Keselowski, who earned first top-10 of the season last week by finishing third at Texas, would win the series' second race at Nashville last year, the Federated Auto Parts 300 on June 7. It was his first career win.

Edwards and Busch would have to be considered the automatic favorites, but don't count out the likes of Bowyer and Keselowski. Also keep an eye out for rookie Justin Allgaier, who sits fifth in the points, has three top-10s and one top-5 in five races so far this season.

Wimmer is also not to be overlooked; the defending race winner is entered in the No. 40 Chevrolet owned by Curtis Key. In nine career races at Nashville, Wimmer has eight top-10 finishes.

It's a rare chance for the Nationwide Series to stand on its own, even with five full-time Sprint Cup drivers in the field. These standalone events always have strong crowds, both in numbers and enthusiasm, but it'll be interesting to see the TV response with not Sprint Cup event for support.

Given the debate going on as to whether Cup drivers should be racing in the series -- Cup regulars have won all five events so far this season -- does the Nationwide Series have an identity crisis? NASCAR wants the series to develop younger talent, but that's hard to do with the likes of Busch, Ewards and Kevin Harvick stealing the limelight and wins.

Then again, if those guys aren't in the race, the fans aren't likely to be in the stands. It's a Catch-22 in a lot of ways. You want the fan interest, but you want the young guys to be competitive and the sponsors to invest. Sponsorship dollars are hard to come by in this economy, and young guys might not get a fair shake if Cup guys keep stealing wins and purse money (which is nowhere near as lucrative as in the Cup Series).

I just love racing, no matter who's in the car. But let's face it -- if racing quality was the only thing most fans cared about, the Camping World Truck Series would be racing in packed houses every week.

Guarantee you the series wouldn't be taking month-long breaks, either.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reports: No. 8 Car Thing of the Past

According to a report published Tuesday night by's David Newton, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing will park the No. 8 car driven this season by Aric Almirola due to a lack of sponsorship. If true, that leaves EGR with just two cars -- the No. 1 of Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya.

Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing merged in the offseason in part to prevent this sort of move, but the continuing decline in the economy, coupled with the decline in Almirola's performance (he sits 37th in owner points after Sunday's race at Texas), made such a move practically inevitable.

So a car that as recently as five or six years ago was one of the top rides in the series is no more. The No. 8 car had been emblematic of DEI's struggles the last couple years, practicularly once Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the company to join Hendrick Motorsports before the start of last season. Mark Martin did all he could in splitting time with Almirola last season, but that car -- and in actuality, the entire company -- just couldn't keep up with the Hendricks and Jack Roushes and Joe Gibbs of the world anymore.

Why is that? Teresa Earnhardt has a lot to do with it.

The late Dale Earnhardt's widow, Teresa was trusted to keep the company and her husband's legacy intact. His legacy is practically untouchable (and it's still profitable, which she probably loves), but Teresa's dealings have taken a once-strong and proud Sprint Cup organization and turned it into an also-ran that had to merge with another also-ran to stay afloat.

Even the merger couldn't save the organization's most famous car.

There's a chance the No. 8 could return later this season if sponsorship is found, but for now, the ride is dead. Almirola is still under contract with EGR, but he could be released to find another ride. There aren't many rides left out there, but if I'm running EGR, I owe him the courtesy of letting him look.

Reports have also surfaced that Truex had a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave EGR if at any point he didn't have two full-time teammates -- reports that fueled a rumor Truex would replace 18-year-old rookie Joey Logano in the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing. From what I've read and heard, though, those reports are false.

Still, what does this say about EGR? Truex and Montoya appear to be safe -- Bass Pro Shops in 100 percent behind Truex, and Montoya will be fine, since Target and Ganassi are joined at the hip. So watching the team fold completely is a slim possibility.

Even if there are fans out there who wish it would.

Make no mistake: Junior's exodus to Hendrick was not a popular move. The fans went with him, no question, but the public relations hit Teresa and her company took for letting the sport's most popular driver go surely didn't help matters. Money is incredibly tight right now, everyone gets that, but I can't help but think a lot of potential sponsors looked at that No. 8 and thought to themselves, "Hey, didn't Junior used to drive that car ...?"

Junior is a sponsor's dream. Almirola? Not so much. That's no slight against Almirola, who is a fine racing talent; that's just the way the game works in the Sprint Cup Series, especially with sponsorship dollars so hard to come by.

You could consider the shuttering of the No. 8 team a bit of karma, the racing gods lashing out at Teresa for not bringing Junior back to the company. DEI just wasn't the same without a true Earnhardt there, a sentiment that would be true even if Junior had won 16 races and a championship with Hendrick already.

Junior won 17 of his 18 career Cup races and both of his Nationwide Series championships with DEI. He won the Daytona 500 in the No. 8 car. He finished fifth and third in the points in the No. 8 car. He won a career-high six races in 2004 -- in the No. 8 car. Though marketing numbers might point otherwise, the No. 8 will always be Junior's identity, and it feels right that the team wouldn't exist without him.

Could Hendrick buy the number from EGR (Ganassi is listed as owner of the No. 8)? It's possible, but not probable, given how much time and money he poured into making the No. 88 a household commodity. It's more likely Ganassi moves the number to either Truex or Montoya (which is also unlikely ... the No. 1 and No. 42 are intertwined with those drivers).

But perhaps the most likely scenario (and even this is a bit of a stretch) would see Junior himself buy the number for use should he ever decide to move his JR Motorsports team to the Sprint Cup Series. Even if Junior doesn't drive the new No. 8 car, if he owns it, the fans might feel like there's some right in the NASCAR world again.

Still, that's a longshot. There's no guarantee Junior would elevate his team to the Cup Series.

In the meantime, though, it's a day to either mourn the loss of what could've been a historic ride or celebrate the backlash resulting from Teresa's arrogance and lack of NASCAR business sense. Because make no mistake ... even though Ganassi owns the No. 8, its death rests squarely at Teresa's feet.

Right where it should be.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Gordon snaps skid at Texas

It figures the one week I don't pick Jeff Gordon (I didn't pick anyone, since I kind of forgot to write a preview for the Samsung 500 ... oops), he picks up his first win in a year and a half.

Gordon led a race-high 105 laps, and his crew got him off pit road first before a restart with 26 to go on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Gordon led the rest of the way, holding off a late charge from Jimmie Johnson to break a 47-race winless streak. With the win, Gordon has now won on every active Sprint Cup Series track except Homestead-Miami Speedway.

So that's 21 of 22 tracks, on top of races he won at Rockingham and North Wilksboro.

Gordon now has 82 career wins, putting him sixth on the all-time list. One more and he'll tie Cale Yarborough for fifth all-time. Another and he'll be right there with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Three more wins, which could all easily come this season, and Gordon will sit third all-time in wins, behind David Pearson (105) and Richard Petty (200).

Still doubt Gordon's one of the all-time greats? Pretty soon, there'll be no debating it.

I'm not saying Gordon will supplant Pearson or Petty -- he's far too late in his career to hunt down Pearson, and no one will ever reach Petty's mark -- but Sunday served as notice for everyone who thought (or hoped) the No. 24 was past its prime. Gordon leads the points by 162 over Johnson, and though that'll matter little after Richmond in September, it's a testament to Gordon's determination and how that team has recovered this season.

Seven races into the season, Gordon's worst finish is 13th at Daytona. He's finished sixth or better in every other race so far this season, and his win came at a track that hasn't been kind to Gordon over the years.

Gordon has two dead-last finishes in his career. They both came at Texas.

But before we hand Gordon the Sprint Cup trophy for the fifth time in his career -- he would already have six if not for the Chase -- we still have to keep in mind guys like Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Johnson has perfected the Chase format, and if Edwards can overcome pit mistakes like the one that cost him on Sunday, the No. 99 crew will be tough to beat again.

Then there's Busch. Petulant child or not, Busch is a threat to win everywhere, every week. That makes him a championship contender, even if he's prone to bad days like at Martinsville or bonehead days like at Texas.

But to count out Gordon at this point, when he's arguably the class of the Sprint Cup field this season, is downright foolish. Like it or not, the No. 24 is back, and he's not going anywhere any time soon.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samsung 500
1. Jeff Gordon**
2. Jimmie Johnson*
3. Greg Biffle*
4. Tony Stewart*
5. Matt Kenseth*
6. Mark Martin*
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
8. Kurt Busch*
9. Jeff Burton
10. Carl Edwards*
11. David Reutimann*
12. Denny Hamlin
13. Paul Menard*
14. David Stremme
15. Ryan Newman
16. Brian Vickers*
17. Sam Hornish Jr.
18. Kyle Busch*
19. Kasey Kahne
20. Dale Earnhardt Jr.*
21. Casey Mears
22. Clint Bowyer
23. Brad Keselowski
24. Michael Waltrip
25. Martin Truex Jr.
26. John Andretti
27. Kevin Harvick
28. Bill Elliott
29. David Gilliland
30. Joey Logano
31. Regan Smith
32. Elliott Sadler
33. Aric Almirola
34. A.J. Allmendinger
35. Max Papis
36. Reed Sorenson
37. David Ragan*
38. Jamie McMurray
39. Robby Gordon
40. Bobby Labonte
41. Marcos Ambrose
42. Mike Bliss
43. Dave Blaney

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps (5 more bonus points)