Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Autism Speaks 400 Preview

After a hectic and busy week -- one in which Mother Nature, "Billy Bad Butt" and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stole the headlines -- the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head to Dover, Del. this weekend in an attempt to tame the Monster Mile.

All three national touring series will be at Dover International Speedway this weekend, with the Camping World Truck Series running on Friday -- and points leader Ron Hornaday looking for his second win of the season -- and the Nationwide Series running on Saturday, with Kyle Busch looking to return to Victory Lane and widen his points lead over Carl Edwards.

A natural storyline heading into this weekend's race (aside from it being the final race FOX will cover this season -- no more Digger!) will be how the No. 88 team adjusts to its new crew chief. In reality, though, that story was talked to death on Thursday -- and the semi-permanent change to Lance McGrew on the pit box won't take hold until next weekend at Pocono, so let's table that one for the time being.

Focusing on the race itself, Busch is the defending race winner. He took this event last year in leading 156 laps to pick up his fourth of what would be eight wins on the season. Busch wasn't the dominant car, though; Greg Biffle, who would later win the fall race at Dover last season, led all drivers in pacing 168 circuits.

In short, when looking for a driver to win this weekend's race, it's a safe bet to either pick Busch (as much as that might turn your stomach) or one of the drivers out of Roush-Fenway Racing. Roush drivers have won five of the last 10 races at Dover -- and last year, four Roush drivers finished in the Top 10 in the spring race.

Roush drivers finished 1-2-3 in the fall race; Biffle won, while Matt Kenseth took second and Carld Edwards -- who has one career win at Dover -- finished third.

Dover is as good a place as any for Roush to get back its groove; since Kenseth won the first two races of the season, no Roush driver has seen Victory Lane. Not Biffle, not preseason title favorite Edwards, not David Ragan or Jamie McMurray. For whatever reason, Roush has lagged behind the likes of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing -- and even Stewart-Haas Racing -- this season.

Edwards did finish fourth in Charlotte on Monday, and he has to be a favorite any time the Sprint Cup Series visits a concrete surface -- between his success at Dover and Bristol, on top of Nationwide Series success at Nashville, Edwards has earned the nickname "Concrete Carl."

But don't be shocked if either Biffle or Kenseth steal the checkered flag, either. Even though both drivers are currently in the top 12 in points, neither can truly be considered a title threat. A win at Dover would be a good way to kick off the summer swing and get Roush back on track.

But don't discount Busch -- even if you really want to. Since sweeping the weekend races at Richmond earlier this month, Busch has yet to see Victory Lane again. He easily could've won the Nationwide Series race at Darlington, if not for a flat tire with two laps left that forced him onto pit road, and were it not for Mother Nature, Busch almost certainly would've swept the weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

In short, the racing gods might think the driver of the No. 18 Toyota is due.

If I really had to settle on one guy, though, I'll pick Edwards to get his first win of the season. The No. 99 has been off much of the year, but the team is starting to catch up a little. His Top-5 at Charlotte last week might've been weather-aided, but that's the sort of momentum that team can use to get itself back into true championship contention.

Something tells me we're gonna see a backflip Sunday evening.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: Eury Jr. out as Dale Jr.'s crew chief

ESPN's David Newton reported Thursday morning that Tony Eury Jr. has been fired as crew chief of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. The move comes after Earnhardt's 40th-place finish Monday in the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600.

Team manager Brian Whitesell will serve as crew chief for this weekend's race at Dover, with Lance McGrew taking over the following weekend at Pocono on an interim basis.

Whitesell, a longtime Hendrick employee, was an interim crew chief for Jeff Gordon in 1999, winning two of his seven races atop the pit box. Once McGrew takes over, Whitesell and lead chassis engineer Rex Stump will offer full-time support, with team engineer Tom Stewart assisting with race strategy.

Hendrick Motorsports has no shortage of smart and capable racing minds -- Ray Evernham, Chad Knaus and Darian Grubb immediately come to mind -- and both Whitesell and McGrew have proven themselves in the past. Whitesell is a Sprint Cup race-winning crew chief, while McGrew has worked with Earnhardt before in the Nationwide Series.

On paper, this arrangement looks solid. The fans, no doubt, will simply be happy a move was made. Junior Nation wanted owner Rick Hendrick to get rid of Eury for a while now, and even though Hendrick was reluctant at first, it became clear over the past few races that something needed to be done.

With his third straight finish of 27th or worse, Earnhardt sits 19th in points after Charlotte, 203 points behind 12th-place Mark Martin. While all three Hendrick Motorsports teammates -- Martin, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- have won races this season, Junior has just one Top-5 finish (Talladega) and two Top-10s.

It was clear almost immediately that a change needed to be made. Earnhardt's on-track mistakes -- missing his pit stall, causing the Big One at Daytona -- aside, it was clear something was missing between driver and crew. The car was never set up right, and on more than one occasion, Earnhardt would ask for an adjustment that never came.

At Richmond earlier this month, Earnhardt asked for a wedge adjustment -- only to have his crew adjust the track bar. Junior finish 27th at one of his historically better tracks.

With Eury Jr. as his crew chief, Earnhardt won just two races -- one on fuel mileage and one on tire strategy. Fifteen of Junior's 18 Sprint Cup victories came with Tony Eury Sr. calling the shots. Eury Sr. currently serves as Brad Keselowski's crew chief in the Nationwide Series; Keselowski has two career wins in that series and finished third in the championship standings last season.

Best-case scenario would've put Eury Sr. back on the pit box, but the addition of Whitesell and McGrew also make sense. Whitesell is smart, and McGrew -- with his history with Earnhardt -- should take care of the ever-present chemistry question. Chemistry between driver and crew chief can be paramount; just ask Carl Edwards and Bob Osbourne or Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

Junior Nation should face the fact: Earnhardt will not make the Chase this year, and even with this move, it's unlikely he'll win any races. But if I'm Hendrick, I'm probably looking toward next season. If there's marked improvement in the No. 88 camp, I can see McGrew being named full-time crew chief in the offseason. This move wasn't so much to help Junior make the Chase this year; it was more to get things in order for another try in 2010.

Will it work? That remains to be seen, but things can't be much worse for NASCAR's most popular driver than they already are.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Castroneves bags emotional Indianapolis 500 win

A month and a half ago, Helio Castroneves was staring jail in the face. This past Sunday, he had tears in his eyes following his third career win in the Indianapolis 500.

Castroneves, who was acquitted in late April of charges of tax evasion, completed the storybook ending with his win. He took the pole earlier in the month, and over the course of the month's practice sessions, he clearly had one of the fastest cars.

He pulled away on a late restart, leaving Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick to fight it out for second place. No one was going to deny Castroneves his personal tale of redemption.

Not that Castronever needed the popularity boost. He was already among the series' most visible drivers, thanks in part to his success on the track and his infectious, outgoing personality. Being a champion of ABC's Dancing With the Stars helped.

But fighting the IRS and winning, only to come back and immediately take IndyCar's most prized trophy? Hollywood executives would reject such a stript, claiming it to be too unbelieveable.

Believe it.

Castroneves' win was even larger, since the 93rd running of the Indy 500 had the motorsports stage largely to itself. Rain forced NASCAR to push the Coca-Cola 600 to Monday, allowing all of American motorsports to take in Castroneves' accomplishment and rightfully praise him for the way he handled himself in and out of his Roger Penske-owned car.

Wheldon's second-place effort in a Panther Racing ride was impressive -- no longer among the elite with Penske and Chip Ganassi -- as was Patrick's third. Patrick eclipsed her career-best of fourth at the Yard of Bricks, using patience and calm rarely exhibited before to turn in a performance that, in other years, would've generated a lot of buzz.

Castroneves' win was the only thing that could quiet Danica Mania. That win, couple with a second-place finish at Kansas in April, might propel Castroneves into IRL championship contention -- even though he missed the season-opener because his trail was still ongoing.

In a perfect world, the IRL would take Castroneves' win and use that to build on its popularity. But NASCAR is still king of American motorsport -- even with its struggles of late -- and few things outside of Patrick winning would catapult the IRL into the mainstream for more than a Sunday in late May.

Still, even if it only lasted a day, it was great story, wasn't it?

93rd Indianapolis 500
1. Helio Castroneves
2. Dan Wheldon
3. Danica Patrick
4. Townsend Bell
5. Will Power
6. Scott Dixon
7. Dario Franchitti
8. Ed Carpenter
9. Paul Tracy
10. Hideki Mutoh
11. Alex Tagliani
12. Tomas Scheckter
13. Alex Lloyd
14. Scott Sharp
15. Ryan Briscoe
16. A.J. Foyt IV
17. Sarah Fisher
18. Mike Conway
19. John Andretti
20. Milka Duno
21. Vitor Meira
22. Raphael Matos
23. Justin Wilson
24. E.J. Viso
25. Nelson Philippe
26. Oriol Servia
27. Tony Kanaan
28. Robert Doornbos
29. Davey Hamilton
30. Marco Andretti
31. Graham Rahal
32. Ryan Hunter-Raey
33. Mario Moraes

Ruetimann wins rain-soaked Coca-Cola 600

It's just not NASCAR's year. Having the Daytona 500 shortened by rain was bad enough, but for the Coca-Cola 600, on its 50th anniversary, to also succumb to Mother Nature was just depressing, on a lot of fronts.

Perhaps the only people happy with how the weekend unfolded were David Reutimann, who won the race on Monday when rain forced the conclusion after just 227 laps, and Michael Waltrip, who owns Reutimann's car. Everyone else? Wet, frustrated and eager as all hell to get to Dover this weekend.

Weather plagued the entire weekend, even cutting Saturday's Nationwide Series event short by 30 laps. Mike Bliss won that race in what would prove to be the weekend's most substantial on-track action. Showers littered the Concord, N.C. area for parts of Sunday, but the track was dry when prerace festivities began shortly after 5 p.m.

Unfortunately, a powerful storm pushed through just before the drop of the green flag, sending NASCAR into dry-the-track-and-watch-the-radar mode. The rain was persistent, never allowing track officials to dry the surface, and at 8:30 p.m., NASCAR made the decision to postpone the Coca-Cola 600 until noon the next day.

Problem was, Monday's forecast was just as bleak, if not worse. Seven laps into the race, rain fell. Roughly 70 laps later, rain fell again. The race on Monday was plagued by three red flags for precipitation, the final burst coming 27 laps past the halfway point. NASCAR waited two hours before realizing the track wouldn't be dry for the rest of the evening, and over 24 hours after the original start time, the race was called and Reutimann, who stayed out under caution to take the lead before the red flag, was declared the winner.

In all fairness to Reutimann -- a win is a win, regardless of how it's earned -- NASCAR was in a no-win situation. Regardless of what the sanctioning body did, someone was going home unhappy. Mother Nature is so fickle and unpredictable that such matters are often impossible to account for -- and with apologies to the fans, the weather is a risk you accept when you buy a ticket.

It happens when you're outdoors. You play outside long enough, sooner or later you're going to get rained on.

NASCAR made the right move in calling the race early enough on Sunday night that fans had time to leave the facility in an orderly and (somewhat) timely fashion. Even though Monday was a holiday, many fans couldn't return, either because they had to work on Monday or they had to travel so that they could return to their jobs on Tuesday.

I was among the latter, and while I'm upset that I didn't get to see the 50th running of this magnificent and historic event, I'm smart enough to realize NASCAR did everything it could to get the race in. Mother Nature just didn't cooperate, and as much as I would've liked to have stayed Monday to at least watch those 227 laps, my source of income takes precedence (partly because it helps pay for these races).

Lowe's Motor Speedway did offer the fans 10 percent off a ticket purchase for the October race at the track, which was a nice gesture. As a rule, tracks don't refund ticket prices for fans because of a rainout -- unless the rainout keeps the fans from coming, and they had ticket insurance (usually about $6 a ticket -- available on most track websites). It's no different, really, than when a baseball game gets rained out.

To the fans who missed the race, I offer this advice: when you buy your tickets, ask about ticket insurance. With ticket insurance, if you can't make a race for a legitimate reason (illness, travel problems, work obligations, etc.), the track will refund your entire ticket price. Otherwise, you're at the mercy of Mother Nature.

If she decides not to play nice, there's not really much you or NASCAR can do about it.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 (called after 227 of 400 laps)
1. David Reutimann*
2. Ryan Newman*
3. Robby Gordon
4. Carl Edwards
5. Brian Vickers*
6. Kyle Busch**
7. Kasey Kahne
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Joey Logano*
10. Matt Kenseth
11. Denny Hamlin
12. Bobby Labonte
13. Jimmie Johnson*
14. Jeff Gordon
15. Bill Elliott
16. Sam Hornish Jr.
17. Mark Martin
18. Scott Speed
19. Tony Stewart
20. Greg Biffle
21. Jamie McMurray
22. David Stremme
23. Martin Truex Jr.
24. David Ragan
25. Jeff Burton
26. Marcos Ambrose
27. David Gilliland
28. Dave Blaney*
29. Paul Menard
30. Michael Waltrip*
31. Elliott Sadler
32. A.J. Allmendinger
33. Casey Mears
34. Kurt Busch
35. Reed Sorenson
36. Clint Bowyer
37. Joe Nemechek
38. Scott Riggs*
39. Tony Raines
40. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
41. Kevin Harvick
42. Max Papis
43. Mike Bliss

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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Coca-Cola 600 & Indianapolis 500 Preview

One of NASCAR's crown jewel races will be this Sunday, when the Sprint Cup Series will be at Lowe's Motor Speedway just north of Charlotte, N.C. for the Coca-Cola 600. A Memorial Day tradition, the race formerly known as the World 600 remains one of NASCAR's proudest and longest-standing races.

One could argue the race is outranked in importance only by the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500. That's how big a deal the Coca-Cola 600 is. The race has even surpassed the Indianapolis 500 -- which is also run the Sunday before Memorial Day -- with higher TV ratings in six of the last eight years.

At this point, the only way Indy can surpass Charlotte on Sunday is if Danica Patrick wins "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

Kasey Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 a year ago, taking the lead with two laps left when Tony Stewart lost a tire. Kahne won both the 600 and the Sprint All-Star Race last year, a feat Stewart will look to duplicate this year after he won the All-Star Race last Saturday. It was Stewart's first win as an owner-driver, and even though it was a non-points event, seeing Stewart in Victory Lane was inevitable.

It's possible that with that first win out of the way, Stewart could rattle off a few more, especially since we're heading to the time of year where Stewart really excels. The temperature rises, Stewart starts winning races.

Don't ignore Smoke on Sunday night.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson also have to be considered favorites. Gordon was in prime position to win his fourth All-Star Race before he wrecked in the final 10-lap segment, while Johnson has five wins at the track that bears his sponsor's name -- and he had the dominant car in the early stages of the All-Star Race.

Kyle Busch also has to be considered a threat, simply because he's Kyle Busch. Don't ignore brother Kurt, though; he finished a solid third in the All-Star Race, and Kurt is running the same car he won with in Atlanta on Sunday. The new Dodge engine has done wonders for that Penske Racing team, and it wouldn't surprise me to see "the other Busch" holding the trophy at the end of the night.

Also look for Mark Martin. He's loving life following two wins in 11 starts -- his first multi-win season since 1999. He's got momentum on his side, and Martin has said Lowe's is his favorite track. Martin won this race in 2002.

One thing to watch for in this race ... with the green flag dropping at roughly 5:30 p.m., track conditions at the start will be drastically different from those once the sun sets. Lowe's is one of the most temperature-sensitive tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, and chances are the dominant car early in the race won't be dominant late -- unless his crew can keep up with the changes and adjust the car accordingly.

Just don't be surprised if the winner Sunday night is someone who wasn't a factor when the sun was still out. I'm going to pick Stewart, because of how strong he's run this season (five Top-5s in six races), and he has the momentum of last week's win.

Now, back to Indy ...

Helio Castroneves, still loving life after being acquitted of tax evasion charges, won the pole for the 93rd Indianapolis 500. Once the biggest event in all of motorsports, this race -- like the IndyCar Series -- has fallen on hard times since the big open-wheel split in 1996. Still, there's something magical about seeing 33 IndyCars fly toward the brick start-finish line, with rows of fans surrounding them on both sides.

Castroneves' teammate Ryan Briscoe will start second, while Dario Franchitti, who's already won in his IndyCar return, will start third. Scott Dixon, who will start fifth, won last year's race and should be a factor again after winning his first race of the season at Kansas last month.

Marco Andretti, who lost this race in 2006 to Sam Hornish Jr., will start eighth. Danica Patrick will start 10th, though many think she has as good a shot as ever to win this race. If Patrick takes the traditional sip of milk, it will probably be the biggest story the IRL has ever seen. It will also be the first time since the early 1990s that open-wheel racing trumps NASCAR in the national headlines.

For those of you looking for a NASCAR connection -- and they're hard to come by, since drivers can't complete the double of running in Indy and Charlotte anymore -- John Andretti made the race driving a car owned by Richard Petty. Andretti will start 28th in the 33-car field, and while no one expects him to be a factor in the race, it's a nice bit of crossover between the two motorsports leagues.

Frankly, I wish we could see more of it.

Do I think Patrick will win the race? She can -- she finished fourth here as a rookie and has two other Top-10 finishes -- but I don't think she will. The Penske and Ganassi cars have shown too much speed over the past month, and I don't think anyone from Andretti-Green Racing can chase them down.

Look for Castroneves to take his third Indy 500 and complete a popular story of loss and redemption. From almost going to jail to Victory Lane at one of motorsports' most revered tracks -- could anything be more special?

Here's to a great day of racing, no matter which series you prefer.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tony Stewart wins Sprint All-Star Race

It may not have been a points-paying race, but that didn't make Tony Stewart's first win as an owner-driver Saturday night in the Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway any less important. There's the $1 million to consider, but there's also the reality that Stewart-Haas Racing is for real, and Stewart -- new team and all -- is a legitimate title threat.

Stewart worked his way past Matt Kenseth with two laps left in the final 10-lap segment, the culmination of a wild shootout which saw leader Jeff Gordon get a bad restart and come out of the losing end of a three-wide battle with Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. Jimmie Johnson, who led all of the first 50-lap segment, also had his issues, spinning out on the backstretch en route to a 13th-place finish.

But for Stewart, Saturday night's win could propel him to a win this weekend in one of the sport's crown jewels, the Coca-Cola 600 (formerly known as the World 600, right next to the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 in terms of history in NASCAR). Stewart probably should've won the race last year -- leading with two to go before a tire went flat and handed the win to Kasey Kahne -- but this year, pulling that No. 14 into Victory Lane again would be special.

Not just because it would make Stewart the first owner-driver since Ricky Rudd in 1998 to win a Sprint Cup points race ... it would further solidify Stewart as a title contender (he's always been a strong driver in the summer months) and validates his decision to leave the team he won two championships with to start his own operation.

The turnaround of that organization is nothing short of astounding. That two-car program, with Scott Riggs and Johnny Sauter last year, struggled to stay in the Top 35 in owner points and had a hard time just making races. With Stewart and Newman behind the wheels, this program is running in the top 10 every week and challenging for wins.

So what's the difference? It can't be the equipment; sure, Stewart receives engines, cars and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, but that was also the case when the team struggled under the banner of Haas-CNC Racing. The drivers probably have a lot to do with it -- no disrespect to Riggs and Sauter, but Stewart is a two-time Sprint Cup champion and Newman has countless poles and 13 career wins, including the 2008 Daytona 500.

But the biggest change, perhaps, is in the people. Stewart brought in several high-profile people from the garage area to work for him, including crew chiefs Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson. Bobby Hutchens as Director of Competition was also a big pick-up, and Stewart made sure not to let his team's association with Rick Hendrick run stale, the way it had when the team was still Haas-CNC.

Stewart learned in his years with Joe Gibbs Racing that success often comes from having the right people on board. People, Gibbs thought, were just as important as good equipment, if not more so. That philosophy, and Stewart's ability to attract major sponsorship in the way of Office Depot, the U.S. Army, Old Spice and Burger King, have contributed to his team's strong season thus far.

Stewart's win Saturday night was just the first of many to come for Stewart-Haas.

Also, a quick shoutout to Sam Hornish Jr., who raced his way into the Sprint All-Star Race by winning the Sprint Showdown. Hornish finished second in the event last year to earn a spot in the big race, and this year he won the preliminary event. Hornish has shown marked improvement so far this season, picking up his first two career Top-10 finishes, and Saturday's win is but another step in learning how to race stock cars.

Winning the Sprint Showdown did wonders for A.J. Allmendinger last season -- improved confidence can be a wonderful thing -- and I expect Hornish's win to give him a similar boost as the season stretches on into the summer.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race
1. Tony Stewart
2. Matt Kenseth
3. Kurt Busch
4. Denny Hamlin
5. Carl Edwards
6. Mark Martin
7. Kyle Busch
8. Joey Logano
9. Jamie McMurray
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
11. Bobby Labonte
12. Clint Bowyer
13. Jimmie Johnson
14. Kasey Kahne
15. Kevin Harvick
16. Sam Hornish Jr.
17. Brad Keselowski
18. Ryan Newman
19. Jeff Gordon
20. Jeff Burton
21. Greg Biffle

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Showdown
1. Sam Hornish Jr.
2. Jamie McMurray
3. David Stremme
4. David Reutimann
5. Joey Logano*
6. Martin Truex Jr.
7. A.J. Allmendinger
8. David Ragan
9. Robby Gordon
10. Marcos Ambrose
11. Dave Blaney
12. Juan Pablo Montoya
13. Casey Mears
14. Michael Waltrip
15. David Gilliland
16. Bill Elliott
17. Paul Menard
18. Reed Sorenson
19. Scott Speed
20. Joe Nemechek
21. Max Papis
22. J.J. Yeley
23. Dexter Bean
24. Tony Raines
25. Scott Riggs
26. Mike Wallace
27. Todd Bodine
28. Derrick Cope
29. Mike Garvey
30. David Starr
31. Norm Benning
32. Kirk Shelmerdine
33. Elliott Sadler
34. Brian Vickers
35. Carl Long

*transferred to All-Star Race via fan vote.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mayfield first Cup casualty of drug policy

NASCAR announced on Saturday that Jeremy Mayfield would be suspended indefinitely for violating the sanctioning body's new drug-testing policy. According to NASCAR, Mayfield failed a drug test at Richmond -- though NASCAR wouldn't name the substance for which Mayfield tested positive, it was considered a "drug of concern."

Mayfield claimed in a statement that the combination of a perscription drug with an over-the-counter medication (Claritin D) triggered a false positive. Dr. David Black, who is in charge of overseeing NASCAR's new random-testing policy, said on Monday that such an explanation wasn't viable.

Besides, if Claritin D could trigger a positive drug test, that would effectively kill its sponsorship within the sport.

Mayfield, who already had a checkered past, is the first Sprint Cup driver caught in the new policy. NASCAR once tested drivers and crew members on the basis of "reasonable suspicion," which netted such drivers as Shane Hmiel and Kevin Grubb (who was found dead of an apparent suicide in a Richmond, Va. hotel last weel). But after Aaron Fike admitted to ESPN the Magazine last year that he once raced in the Camping World Truck Series while high on heroin, the sport cracked down and instituted a new policy -- albeit reluctantly.

That policy is working.

Whatever substance Mayfield took, there's no room for it in a sport where you go 200 MPH inches from other competitors. Things become a matter of life and death at those speeds, and you have to be your best mentally and physically. Drugs -- performance-enhancing or otherwise -- don't let you do that.

NASCAR had no choice.

Mayfield was a rising star in the late 1990s, when he drove the No. 12 for Roger Penske. He won three races in that car, including a victory at Pocono in which he punted the unpuntable Dale Earnhardt out of the way. His talent was without question, but Mayfield rubbed teammate Rusty Wallace and some of his crew the wrong way, which eventually led to his exile.

From there, Mayfield joined Kasey Kahne at Evernham Motorsports, driving the No. 19. He won two more races, and twice made the Chase for the Cup. But again, Mayfield butted heads with owner Ray Evernham, and upon his firing, Mayfield sued his former boss and insinuated that Evernham was having a relationship with Erin Crocker, who at the time was a developmental driver with the team.

That Mayfield is the first to get caught by NASCAR's new policy isn't surprising. I don't even care what he tested positive for -- all that matters is, NASCAR took matters into its own hands and made sure Mayfield didn't compromise the safety of everyone else on the race track. Racing is dangerous enough; we don't need drugs making things worse.

Martin wins Southern 500

How appropriate was it that 60-year-old Darlington Raceway rewarded 50-year-old Mark Martin Saturday night, as he picked up his second win of the season in the Southern 500? Something just felt right about Martin's win -- and I don't just mean because it meant someone other than Kyle Busch took the checkered flag.

Even after his win at Phoenix, there were those who thought Martin couldn't hang with the young guys, that eventually his talent and energy and desire would run out. It's no surprise Martin silenced those critics the same week in which he announced he would be driving full-time for Hendrick Motorsports in 2010.

It was also a nice ending to a day that got off to a rocky start, when NASCAR announced the indefinite suspension of Jeremy Mayfield for a failed drug test (more on that in a later post).

Even with the new surface and the fact that tire wear wasn't an issue, Darlington Raceway was still an onrey old bitch Saturday night, as the newly-minted Southern 500 (presented by saw a record 16 cautions. The old adage reads "race the race track," and several drivers failed to heed that warning.

Two guys who did, though, were rookies Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Logano led laps before finishing ninth -- his second career Top-10 finish -- while Keselowski came in seventh to validate his Talladega win and make the interest in putting him in a Cup car next year skyrocket. Darlington isn't usually kind to younger drivers, which makes what Logano and Keselowski did even more impressive -- especially when one considers Keselowski is still racing part-time.

Martin's win catapulted him to 11th in the point standings, and it was his second win in the last four races. While Martin refuses to talk championship, claiming the breathless pursuit of a title was what led him to scale back to a part-time schedule in the first place, there's no denying that his enthusiasm and equipment just might lead him to that elusive Cup.

But of perhaps greater concern (aside from Junior's struggles -- I've already written about them) could be Kyle Busch. Sure, he has a series-high three wins so far this season, which means 30 bonus points once the Chase starts, but he only has one other Top-10 finish. If Busch is ever going to hoist a Cup trophy, he'll need to find a more consistent approach. If he doesn't, we'll see more years like 2008, where he won eight races, but wasn't a factor in the championship.

Jimmie Johnson finished second, after starting 42nd because of a wreck in qualifying and having a hell of a time during the race. Just more proof that you can never count out Chad Knaus and the rest of that No. 48 team. Tony Stewart finished third -- his fifth Top-5 finish in six races -- while teammate Ryan Newman finished fourth.

Stewart-Haas' resurgence has been surprising in how quickly it's happened, and it's only a matter of time before Stewart and Newman find their way to Victory Lane. Though it hasn't happened yet, I think Stewart's on the verge, and he might win the Coca-Cola 600 next weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- a race he would've won a year ago, if not for a flat tire with two laps left.

Stewart is only 29 points behind Gordon heading into this weekend's Sprint All-Star Race -- a non-points event. I'm not sure if I'd consider Stewart a title favorite just yet, but he might turn into one if he keeps posting finishes like he has of late.

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

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

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Southern 500 Preview

The Sprint Cup Series will head to Darlington this weekend for the return of the Southern 500 (presented by This will mark the first time a race at Darlington has been called the Southern 500 since the track lost its Labor Day date to California before the 2005 season, and though the date is still different, it's nice to see the name of NASCAR's most historic race returning.

Kyle Busch, who won his third race of the season at Richmond last week, is the defending champion, while points leader Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins at the track many call "The Lady in Black." Darlington's unique egg shape -- where turns 3 and 4 are narrower than turns 1 and 2 -- combined with the tight quarters and that famed "Darlington stripe," make this a favorite of fans and veteran drivers alike.

Rookies? Not so much; Darlington favors those with the experience and patience to race the race track. Younger drivers don't have the experience to be that patient, and they start racing the other cars -- whether they're tires hold up or not. Once that happens, a Darlington stripe might be the least of their worries.

Busch is the exception, as he's proven to be over his short stint with Joe Gibbs Racing. With 30 bonus points in his pocket for once the Chase for the Cup starts, Busch has a chance to win both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championships. An impressive feat, no doubt -- and also one most fans would rather not see.

Other multiple winners at Darlington include Jimmie Johnson (two), Jeff Burton (two) and Greg Biffle (two). Bill Elliott, who runs a part-time schedule for the Wood Brothers and will not compete this weekend, has five career wins at the South Carolina oval.

Carl Edwards finished second in last year's race, with Gordon coming in third. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth and David Ragan bucked the trend befalling young drivers by finishing fifth.

Busch has to be the favorite, both because he won last year's race and because he has the momentum coming off his weekend sweep at Richmond. Busch has an uncanny ability to do things with a car most drivers don't dare, and he won last year's race despite smacking the wall no fewer than five times. A lot of that has to do with the durability of the new car, but it's rare for any driver to knock down the fence that many times and still win.

Tony Stewart would qualify as my darkhorse pick this week, having recorded four Top-5s in his last five races -- including second-place efforts at Phoenix and last week at Richmond. Stewart's No. 14 team has momentum, and it's only a matter of time before Stewart finds Victory Lane again. Even though he's never won at Darlington in a Cup car, he could do so this week.

But something tells me he'll have to pass Busch to do it.

Martin to be full-time in 2010

Hendrick Motorsports announced on Wednesday that Mark Martin would be back to run the No. 5 car full-time in the Sprint Cup Series next season, ending weeks of speculation as to whether Martin would run the second year of his contract in whole or on a part-time basis.

Prior to this year's race at Bristol, many believed Martin would split the No. 5 in 2010 with Brad Keselowski, who drives for Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series. It's unclear what Martin's decision does to Keselowski's future, but Hendrick said last week he was currently in talks with Keselowski regarding a long-term, exclusive contract.

Earnhardt, the owner of JR Motorsports, said he wants Keselowski in the No. 88 Nationwide Series ride next season, but that anything on the Cup side was "up to Rick." Rumors circulate that should Keselowski find a full-time Cup ride next season, it could be in a third car for Stewart-Haas Racing, which receives engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick -- making SHR more or less Hendrick Lite.

Another rumor, though more a far-fetched one, has Keselowski moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2010, taking over the No. 20 while Joey Logano moved to a fourth JGR ride. This one is particularly unlikely, especially with Hendrick working on a long-term exclusive deal with Keselowski.

But here's another rumor that seems to be gaining a little traction. Jeff Gordon's contract with sponsor DuPont runs out after the 2010 season. With Gordon's back problems -- along with his marriage and daughter -- there's speculation he could retire after the 2010 or 2011 season and take on a management position within Hendrick Motorsports (he's already listed as a co-owner on the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson). That would open up the No. 24, possibly for Keselowski.

This is, of course, assuming Keselowski doesn't take over the No. 5 after 2010. Then again, Martin could pull a Brett Favre and come back yet again. While the No. 24 rumor is intriguing, can you imagine the pressure that would be on whoever takes over that ride? Taking over a car that's won four Cup championships and 82 races to this point?


We've seen how infrequently the No. 43 has been to Victory Lane since Richard Petty retired. Much of that has to do with organizational flaws within Petty Enterprises -- and now Richard Petty Motorsports -- but there's always that pressure to perform well in the King's ride. Bobby Hamilton managed just fine, and even John Andretti put the No. 43 back in Victory Lane, but no one since -- not even 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte -- has been able to succeed in that ride.

It would be similar for whoever slides into the No. 24 once Gordon walks away, even though Hendrick's resources and personnel would make for an easier transition. We've already seen what happens when an unproven young driver slides into a prime Cup seat; Logano has struggled in the No. 20 so far this season -- a team and crew that has hoisted two Sprint Cup trophies.

Not saying the same will happen to Keselowski -- he's not being rushed into the Cup Series -- but the possibility is there. The best thing Richard Childress did when he named Kevin Harvick as the late Dale Earnhardt's successor was change the car's number and paint scheme. That allowed Harvick to create his own identity, and even though the team has struggled of late, Harvick doesn't face the pressure of "being in Dale's ride."

In the immediate future, though, this is excellent news for Martin. Were it not for two blown motors and a blown tire in three of the season's first four races, the No. 5 might be near the top of the standings, rather than fighting to get into the Chase. Martin already won a race this season, at Phoenix, and there's no reason to believe he won't win at least one more before the season ends.

I won't say Martin will win the title this year, but he's in the mix -- and he might be in the mix next year, too.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Kyle Busch sweeps at Richmond

Winning the Nationwide Series race Friday night at Richmond International Raceway wasn't enough for Kyle Busch; he had to take the Sprint Cup Series race, the Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400, on Saturday night as well. In winning that race, Busch becomes the second Sprint Cup driver ever to win on his birthday.

Cale Yarborough was the only other driver to do it. He performed the feat twice.

Busch wasn't his usual dominant self; at the start of the race, he had a top-10 car at best. The dominant car was that of hometown boy Denny Hamlin, who led a race-high 148 laps before a lug nut miscue in the pits put him back in the field and relegated Hamlin to a 14th-place finish.

Even after Hamlin's problem, it appeared Jeff Gordon would be the one to beat. But his strategy of staying out proved costly, as his car fell off in the closing laps -- Gordon would finish eighth, his first top-10 since winning at Texas three races ago.

Busch jumped to the high side on a restart with 49 laps to go to overtake Gordon. He then weaved through lapped traffic, keeping a steady advantage even as Tony Stewart moved up to second and appeared to be closing the gap. Stewart, looking for his first win as an owner-driver, just ran out of laps.

It wasn't all doom and gloom for Stewart, though; on top of his second-place finish -- his fourth top-5 in the last five races -- his teammate Ryan Newman came in fourth. That made back-to-back top-5s for Newman, who now sits 10th in the standings. With Stewart sitting in third as well, it's clear Stewart Haas Racing is a lot farther along than anyone could've anticipated.

Look for Stewart and Newman to make multiple trips to Victory Lane this season. This is also by far Stewart's best start to a season ever; he normally struggles until late June, early July. That Stewart is this strong, this soon, should give everyone else in the garage reason to worry.

Then again, it's hard for Busch to worry about much of anything as often as he's been pulling in checkered flags since joining Joe Gibbs Racing. At just 24, Busch has 50 wins in NASCAR's top three national touring series. He has 11 Cup wins in just 46 races with JGR.

Chemistry was certainly a factor in his release from Hendrick Motorsports -- and part of the reason he only won four races in three full seasons before leaving after the 2007 campaign. There are no such issues at JGR, though, where owner Joe Gibbs has always found a way to make all the different personalities -- even the petulent ones -- come together and find success. I'm not sure how the combination of Busch and crew chief Steve Addington works, but it does.

It's still too soon to tell whether Busch will win the championship this year -- he's still too much of an all-or-nothing driver (a lot of torn-up race cars, a lot of low finishes), and his attitude might very well cost him. But the talent and the resources are certainly there, and there is no track on the circuit that Busch can't win at. One might think Darlington would give him fits, like it does most younger drivers, but Busch won there last year.

There's also the matter of guys like Gordon and Stewart, not to mention Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch. Johnson's the master of the Chase format, while Kurt Busch has shown a career renaissance few thought possible. The first three years at Penske Racing were a struggle for Kurt, but he's already got one win this year, and he's shown he can compete at all types of tracks this year.

Kyle may yet hoist the trophy at Homestead, but he'll have to fight off a few guys to do it -- maybe even his older brother.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400
1. Kyle Busch*
2. Tony Stewart
3. Jeff Burton
4. Ryan Newman*
5. Mark Martin
6. Sam Hornish Jr.
7. Jamie McMurray
8. Jeff Gordon*
9. Casey Mears
10. Juan Pablo Montoya
11. Marcos Ambrose
12. Kurt Busch*
13. Matt Kenseth
14. Denny Hamlin**
15. Brian Vickers*
16. Robby Gordon
17. Greg Biffle
18. Clint Bowyer*
19. Joey Logano
20. Reed Sorenson
21. A.J. Allmendinger
22. Martin Truex Jr.*
23. David Ragan
24. Michael Waltrip
25. Elliott Sadler
26. Carl Edwards
27. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
28. David Reutimann
29. Kasey Kahne
30. Paul Menard
31. Bobby Labonte
32. John Andretti
33. Scott Speed
34. Kevin Harvick
35. Jeremy Mayfield
36. Jimmie Johnson
37. Mike Bliss
38. David Stremme
39. David Gilliland
40. Joe Nemechek
41. Tony Raines
42. Scott Riggs
43. Dave Blaney

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