Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kasey Kahne surprises at Infineon

The only thing more surprising than Kasey Kahne's victory on Sunday in the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway was the fact that he held off Tony Stewart -- one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' best road course racers -- to do it.

Kahne even said so himself in Victory Lane.

But win Kahne did, picking up his first of the season and the 10th of his career. Kahne also got owner Richard Petty back into Victory Lane; the last time The King saw one of his cars win a race was in Martinsville, where John Andretti won in the No. 43 in 1999. For a team struggling with funding and resources, Kahne's win was a bright spot for Richard Petty Motorsports and a possible building block.

RPM also saw A.J. Allmendinger (seventh) and Elliott Sadler (10th) finish in the top 10.

Kahne led 37 laps in taking the win and putting himself three points outside of the cutoff for the Chase, but he really had to fend off Stewart, who finished second, to do it. On four separate occasions in the late stages of the race, Kahne had to battle Stewart on double-file restarts, trying to get the preferred line going up the hill and into the second and third turns. Amazingly, he was able to do so each time.

When you beat Stewart on a road course, you've really accomplished something.

The restarts worked better than most anticipated, creating excitement for the fans and turning the race into an exciting finish without creating too much chaos. Many of the turns heading up and down that hill after the start-finish line at Sonoma aren't wide enough to handle one car, so it was impressive to see restart after restart go incident-free. Infineon was the first true test of the new restart rule, and I daresay it was a success.

The race didn't come down to fuel mileage, thanks to the bevy of late cautions, but several teams tried that strategy to little avail. Robby Gordon, who's pretty stout on road courses in his own right, was the hardest hit. Leading during a round of green-flag pit stops, Gordon was trying to get into his fuel window when a caution flag came out before he had a chance to pit.

On an oval, pitting under caution is usually a good thing. But at Sonoma, with so many other cars on the track having already pitted, the strategy backfired on Gordon, who finished 36th.

As expected, the field surrounding the 12th spot in the standings tightened considerably. Juan Pablo Montoya finished sixth to vault himself into 12th place, but he's only three points ahead of Kahne, 40 ahead of David Reutimann and 46 ahead of Jeff Burton. Brian Vickers, in 17th, is only 123 points out of the Chase, while seventh-place Denny Hamlin is only 92 points ahead of 12th.

Though Kyle Busch is still in ninth, 45 points ahead of Montoya, his 22nd-place finish on Sunday was indicative of the way the No. 18 team has run the last several weeks -- really, since his win at Richmond back in early May. Even though Busch has three wins this season, tied for the most with Mark Martin, he is in danger of potentially missing the Chase if his team can't turn things around.

With Daytona in July and Watkins Glen in August still on the schedule, there's a chance for another jostle or two in the point standings. The Race to the Chase will likely come down to the wire again, and that, combined with the new double-file restarts, should make for some exciting racing heading down the "regular season" stretch.

Not that Kahne cares much. He's probably still sipping that Northern California wine in Victory Lane.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/SaveMart 350
1. Kasey Kahne**
2. Tony Stewart*
3. Marcos Ambrose
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Denny Hamlin*
6. Juan Pablo Montoya
7. A.J. Allmendinger
8. Clint Bowyer
9. Jeff Gordon
10. Elliott Sadler
11. Partick Carpentier
12. Max Papis
13. Carl Edwards
14. Jamie McMurray
15. Kurt Busch*
16. Brian Vickers*
17. Ryan Newman
18. Matt Kenseth
19. Joey Logano
20. Bobby Labonte
21. Paul Menard
22. Kyle Busch*
23. Casey Mears
24. Boris Said
25. Martin Truex Jr.
26. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
27. Ron Fellows
28. Greg Biffle
29. Kevin Harvick
30. John Andretti
31. David Reutimann
32. David Gilliland
33. David Ragan
34. Jeff Burton
35. Mark Martin
36. Robby Gordon*
37. Scott Speed*
38. Sam Hornish Jr.
39. David Stremme
40. Reed Sorenson
41. Brandon Ash
42. Dave Blaney
43. P.J. Jones

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

Friday, June 19, 2009

Toyota/SaveMart 350 preview

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will mix things up a bit this weekend, as the series heads to wine country in Sonoma, Calif. for the season's first road course race at Infineon Raceway. The Toyota/SaveMart 350 is one of just two stops on the schedule that requires drivers to turn left and right, adding a twist into the usual fare of oval racing.

Road course races are, by and large, unique creatures. Some Sprint Cup drivers will readily admit they're not good at it, and some teams will even replace their regular drivers for the weekend in favor of "road course ringers." This weekend, for instance, Michael Waltrip will give up his ride in the No. 55 NAPA Toyota for Patrick Carpentier. Phoenix Racing, which normally fields cars on a part-time basis with Sterling Marlin and Brad Keselowski, will bring in Ron Fellows for this weekend's race.

Boris Said and Brian Simo will also be among the road course specialists hoping to compete this weekend.

Even with the road course specialists, look for a Sprint Cup regular to take the checkered flag this weekend. Kyle Busch is the defending race winner (he actually won both road course races last season), but he'll have to contend with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose if he wants to defend his title.

Jeff Gordon is the all-time winningest driver at Infineon, taking five checkered flags; his last came in 2006. Robby Gordon won here in 2003, and two of his three career Sprint Cup victories have come on road courses. Stewart, the points leader, has a pair of wins at Infineon, while Montoya picked up his only win in the series at this track two years ago.

Ambrose hasn't won at Infineon, but his road course background will serve him well. Ambrose won the Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen last season before finishing third in the Sprint Cup race there, and last year he ran well at Infineon before a broken transmission relegated him to a 42nd-place finish.

Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Montoya have the momentum heading into this weekend's event. Gordon finished second last week to gain some ground on Stewart in the points, though Stewart did rack up yet another top-10 finish at Michigan. Montoya has three top-10s in his last four races, and a strong performance at Infineon could be just the spark Montoya needs to vault himself into the Chase.

One thing to look out for is how the new double-file restarts will affect the race. The first two races under the new rule -- Pocono and Michigan -- were wide and gave the drivers a lot of room to run. Sonoma, with its narrow pavement and hilly terrain, does not. How will the drivers handle a restart with, say, 20 laps to go as they dive off into the first couple turns side-by-side? It should be exciting, and an old racing adage -- cautions breed cautions -- springs to mind.

That's assuming, of course, we see full-course cautions. Road courses tend to use local yellows, where there's no passing in that section of the track, but the rest of the course would remain clean and green.

Gotta love road course racing in NASCAR, if for no other reason than it's something different.

For all the attention the road course specialists get, it's always a safe bet to go with a full-time driver in the series. Look for Stewart to pick up his second victory of the season, celebrating in Victory Lane with a bottle of whatever wine's in season.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NASCAR talking to foreign automakers

NASCAR chairman Brian France admitted over the weekend at Michigan International Speedway that the sanctioning body was talking to several foreign manufacturers about the possibility of entering the sport in the coming years. France wouldn't reveal the name of those manufacturers, but said that in order to qualify for admission into the sport, the companies had to have manufacturing plants in the United States.

With both General Motors and Chrysler facing bankruptcy issues, and in one degree or another pulling their support from the teams, the move makes some sense; you can bet NASCAR wants to have more than two manufacturers in the sport who aren't in need of government assistance. Not that Ford and Toyota are doing all that great, but they're certainly better off than Chevrolet and Dodge.

Among the foreign automakers with American plants: Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. None of those companies make engines that would meet NASCAR's comparatively-archaic technological specifications, but if Toyota was willing to take that challenge, I would imagine a lot of these other automakers would, as well.

When NASCAR let Toyota into the sport, they used the same logic; Toyota had plants in America that were being used to build their automobiles, so NASCAR allowed those makes to be represented. The Tundra, manufactured in America, was introduced to the Camping World Truck Series in 2004, while the Camry -- built in Kentucky -- made its NASCAR debut in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series in 2007.

An unfair foreign invasion, you say? While the Camry is being built in America, the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Impala and Dodge Charger are not. Fusions are built in Canada, while Impalas and Chargers are being built in Mexico. All the while plants and dealers are shutting their doors in this country.

Good ol' red, white and blue, right?

Don't get me wrong; I love America as much as the next guy. I'm even a proponent of buying American (I own a 1997 Pontiac, and it saddens me to know I'll never be able to buy a new one) ... but when the likes of Toyota and Honda are putting out a better product, who are we to blame people if they want to take advantage of that? It's not NASCAR's fault American automakers are in such trouble, and NASCAR is not flying in the face of tradition by listening to foreign manufacturers.

I'm sorry to tell you this, NASCAR purists, but the sky will not fall if Honda fields a Cup car in 2012.

Personally, as long as the manufacturers represented in NASCAR have American plants, and the vehicles running around the tracks are built in America, then what's the big deal? Sure, Toyota is a Japanese company, but the Camry that flies around the track every Saturday and Sunday is built right here in America.

There is a chance such a move isn't needed; if GM, Chrysler and Ford all make it out of their respective financial issues without having to completely pull out of NASCAR, the sanctioning body might decide it likes where it is with four manufacturers. But NASCAR does need to have a plan in place, just in case the manufacturers have to pull out completely.

Besides, Toyota isn't the first foreign make to run in NASCAR. Do a little research into the sport's history, and you'll see foreign cars littering the early years. In the early days, NASCAR ran Aston Martins, Austin-Healeys, Citroens, Jaguars, MGs, Morgans, Porsches, Renaults and Volkswagens.

In a road race in Linden, N.J. in 1954, in fact, Jaguars finished first, fourth, fifth and sixth. So it's not like NASCAR opening its doors to foreign nameplates would be anything earth-shattering or unique. If Big Bill France was willing to let it happen back in the day, then why should be villify Brian France if he's considering the same thing?

With almost all American companies trying to outsource overseas, NASCAR is trying to reward car companies that have plants -- and by extension, jobs -- right here in the United States. Really, what's so wrong with that?

EDIT: Jenna Fryer, who covers NASCAR for The Associated Press, wrote an interesting article on this subject. You can read it by clicking here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mark Martin wins LifeLock 400

For the second straight week, a NASCAR Sprint Cup race came down to fuel mileage -- and for the second straight week, Jimmie Johnson found himself a few gallons short of potential glory.

Johnson, the three-time defending series champion, had the dominant car in Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway, leading 142 of 200 laps. But after a spirited -- and ultimately ill-advised -- battle with Greg Biffle in the closing laps, Johnson ran out of gas coming to the white flag. Biffle took over the lead, only to also run out on the backstretch on the last lap.

Enter Mark Martin, who was running third and biding his time. Admittedly never one to catch the break when a race boiled down to fuel mileage, Martin was conserving all he could, content to finish in the top-5 while Biffle and Johnson duked it out for what they thought would be the win. However, that battle cost both drivers precious gallons of fuel, and even though Martin also ran out coming to the checkered flag, he was far enough ahead of second-place Jeff Gordon that it didn't matter.

Though Michigan gets a bad rap from the fans for boring racing, such was not the case on Sunday. There was plenty of side-by-side racing throughout the pack, with drivers running high, low and through the middle while jockeying for position. There were plenty of instances of three- and even four-wide racing, particularly on the new double-file restarts.

Leaders can still run away from the rest of the field; there were times on Sunday where Johnson had a 7- to 8-second lead. But really, I seem to recall the old car doing the same thing, so it's not like a runaway, dominant leader is anything new. If a team hits the setup just right, that combined with clean air creates one smoking fast race car.

Johnson had that on Sunday, but the fuel mileage game bit the No. 48 once again.

Though Martin picked up his third win of the season, which tied him with Kyle Busch for the most in the series this season, vaulted him to eighth in the points and gave him another 10 bonus points for the Chase, Johnson is still the man to beat. Don't look for Johnson and Chad Knaus to waste too many more opportunities like Sunday, where they spanked the field and arguably should've won the race.

Still, Martin won the race. Fuel mileage wins might feel cheap to the fans, but it's part of the territory. The winner of the race is the guy who reaches the checkered flag first, regardless of whether that's a matter of dominating, having more fuel than everyone else or just being out front when Mother Nature decides to interrupt things.

A win is a win is a win is a win. The trophies and checkered flags don't care how you got there ... just that you did. Former NASCAR driver Dick Trickle once told Martin, "In order to finish first, you must first finish," and that's exactly what Martin did on Sunday. When Biffle and Johnson couldn't finish, Martin did, and his reward was yet another win and another reminder that he'll probably have a lot to say about who wins the championship this season.

And come on ... who isn't happy when Martin pulls into Victory Lane?

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

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

Friday, June 12, 2009

LifeLock 400 Preview

After a week in which it was revealed that Jeremy Mayfield allegedly tested positive for meth and Brendan Gaughan's crew chief in the Nationwide Series was suspended indefinitely for allegedly using a racial slur against driver Marc Davis (way to show everyone NASCAR's not a redneck sport, guys ...), isn't it nice to know we're just going to go racing again this weekend?

The Sprint Cup Series comes to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the LifeLock 400, the first of two trips to the 2-mile oval just outside Detroit. Michigan's economic devastation will be in the spotlight this week, particularly with two of the auto industry's biggest hitters -- Chrysler and GM -- in the middle of bankruptcy.

How that will ultimately affect Dodge and Chevrolet in NASCAR remains to be seen (Dodge has already reportedly stopped paying Richard Petty Motorsports and Chevrolet has reportedly cut support to its Truck Series and Nationwide Series teams), but the race should provide a moment of happiness for the automakers.

Well, unless a Toyota wins. That'll sour a few moods in Michigan.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this race last year, to date his only points-paying win for Hendrick Motorsports. He took the race under caution by playing the fuel mileage game, one of the rare good calls made by former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. While it was expected at the time the win would open the proverbial flood gates, the exact opposite seems to have happened.

But we already know about the No. 88's struggles this season (27th at Pocono -- third such finish in the last five races), so let's concentrate on other things -- notably, the fact that Michigan seems to be Jack Roush's personal playground. Roush loves coming to Michigan, and he puts in more effort here than almost anywhere else in the series. Carl Edwards won here last August, his second career Michigan win, while Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth also have two wins apiece there.

Six wins in the last seven years at Michigan for Roush; if you're busy setting up your fantasy roster for this weekend's race, you better get yourself a nice helping of Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth. Edwards, especially; since his early-season struggles, the preseason title favorite has three top-10 finishes, including a fourth at Charlotte and a runner-up finish to Tony Stewart last week at Pocono.

Edwards was the dominant car last week, losing when Stewart beat him out of the pits on the last stop and having to conserve fuel late. But make no mistake; the No. 99 team is hitting its stride, and if Edwards can knock out a win or two as the summer rolls along, he should nicely solidify himself into the Chase field.

But don't forget Biffle, who's always strong as Michigan, or Kenseth. Kenseth, after winning the Daytona 500 to open the season, also won at Michigan's sister track in Fontana. Though it's been a little bit of a struggle since then for the No. 17, Kenseth has been strong of late, and there's no better place for a Roush driver to come than Michigan to get right.

Stewart has one career win at Michigan to go along with nine top-5s and 13 top-10s, which will go along nicely with the momentum he's built. Not just the win at Pocono, but in seven of his last nine races, Stewart has finished fourth or better.

No wonder he's leading the point standings.

Jimmie Johnson is surprisingly pedestrian at Michigan -- no wins in 14 career starts -- but the way his team has run the last two weeks, he has to be considered among the favorites. The No. 48 usually doesn't hit its stride this soon, but with a convincing win at Dover, and a top-10 at Pocono despite running out of fuel on the last lap, Johnson is starting to come into his own, and I think he'll have something to say on Sunday.

Speaking of fuel, Michigan races do occasionally come down to fuel mileage (see last year's race). That could inevitably throw a monkey wrench into things, and if that's the case, then there's really no telling who can win. To be fair, though, Edwards showed last season he could save a lot of fuel (he even did so last week at Pocono ... he just happened to be behind Stewart because of that late pit stop).

Still, even with that potential variable, I'm picking Edwards to win this race. I realize this is the third time I've picked him this season, and we've still yet to see the backflip, but this is Michigan, and the way Edwards has been running of late, it's only a matter of time before we see the No. 99 back in Victory Lane.

So why not Michigan?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

ESPN The Mag: Mayfield tested positive for Meth

Ryan McGee, a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, reported on Tuesday that two independent sources claimed that Sprint Cup Series driver/owner Jeremy Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamines at Richmond International Raceway last month in the drug test that led to his indefinite suspension from NASCAR.

Mayfield has asserted his innocence from day one, rounding up a team of lawyers to sue NASCAR. The sanctioning body has since countersued, and the two are expected to face a lengthy battle in court over the coming months. Mayfield, who this year started up his own team and was the sport's feel-good story when he made the field for the Daytona 500, claimed he took nothing more than a prescribed ADHD medication (Adderall XR) and a double dose of the over-the-counter medication Claritin D.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Claritin D is a NASCAR sponsor, featured prominently on Carl Edwards' No. 99 Ford Fusion and in commercials during race telecasts.)

According to the report, the test did find Adderall XR and Claritin D in his system, but it also found a third substance, the name of which had been redacted from court documents. But according to the anonymous sources, that substance was methamphetamine, or meth for short.

Adderall XR is an amphetamine, designed to help with focus and concentration, and has been said to cause positive tests for meth if the dosage was strong enough (or the drug test wasn't terribly advanced). But considering the lab NASCAR uses to conduct the tests is one of the world's foremost testing labs (AEGIS Sciences) -- and the same lab that conducts drug tests for almost all professional sports leagues, the Olympics and 85 NCAA-sanctioned universities -- chances are they can spot the difference between amphetamines and methamphetamines.

If true, this backs up NASCAR lawyer Paul Hendrick's assertion that Mayfield tested positive for a "dangerous, illegal banned substance." Neither NASCAR nor Mayfield could respond to Tuesday's report, due to a gag order placed by the court in lieu of the next court date (which has yet to be determined).

If this report is true, and at this point I don't really have any reason to believe it isn't, this effectively ends Mayfield's career -- as it should. Auto racing is no place for recreational or performance-enhancing drugs; the whole reason NASCAR changed its drug-testing policy last summer was because of Aaron Fike's 2007 admission that he once drove in a Camping World Truck Series race while high on heroin.

And really, is being hopped up on meth any worse?

Driving a car at speeds approaching 200 mph inches from your nearest competitors is hard enough for someone who is of sound mind and body; throw drugs into the mix, and the danger is raised exponentially. When Martin Truex Jr. passed on taking painkillers when he passed a kidney stone the night before this year's Atlanta race, it was for that very reason; he didn't want the medication to impair him inside the car and possibly endanger his fellow competitors.

A certain amount of trust is needed in this sport; when you dive into a corner at 185 mph inches from the other guy, you have to trust that he knows you're there and won't do anything to needlessly endanger you. If Mayfield was using meth, and it was still in his system when he was in the car, that trust has been violated.

What if Mayfield had hurt or killed someone? What if his drug use contributed to an accident that left another driver or fans injured ... or worse? It might not seem all that likely, but auto racing is unpredictable that way. Who could've foreseen Edwards flying into the catchfence at Talladega a couple months back? Who could've imagined that February 2001 crash at Daytona killing Dale Earnhardt?

You just never know.

If Mayfield was indeed taking meth (and given his track record, I see no reason to believe him), he doesn't deserve to be reinstated. Ever. Drugs and NASCAR don't mix, and they never will. Besides, if Mayfield was indeed being prescribed Adderall, why didn't he tell NASCAR beforehand? Why wait until it was his turn to be tested? That seems like something I'd be telling NASCAR before the season even started, with documentation and everything.

Mayfield needs help more than anything else, and I hope he gets it, but if I were in charge of NASCAR, I would never let him back behind the wheel. With all of NASCAR's safety advances over the past eight years, letting Mayfield back, even after a stint in rehab, would fly in the face of all those advancements.

Now, with all that said ... I don't know about you, but I can't wait until this weekend, where we can actually get to racing again.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Defending series champion loses ride

Johnny Benson won't be defending his Camping World Truck Series title.

Red Horse Racing announced on Monday that it would shut down the No. 1 team, effective immediately, because of a lack of sponsorship. That leaves Benson, a 14-time winner in the series, without a ride.

"It hasn't been for a lack of effort," owner Tom DeLoach said on Monday. "We had several people working on finding a sponsor for the No. 1 and Johnny Benson. I've been working on it myself. We gave it our best shot, and we tried as long as we could, but nothing materialized.

"I am saddened that we were unsuccessful in accomplishing our goal, but this is a tough economic climate and the cost of fielding a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team with essentially no support other than our manufacturer is too much for Red Horse Racing to bear alone."

The economic downturn and its effects on NASCAR are well known, but for a defending series champion to lose his ride because of a lack of fund is indeed a sad state of affairs. Benson finished fourth in this past Friday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway and say seventh in points, 155 behind leader Matt Crafton.

The economy already hurt Benson once in the offseason, when he left Bill Davis Racing -- the team with which he won the championship -- because of the team's uncertain economic future. BDR sold all its assets in January and has not entered a race this season.

This is just the latest blow.

"The decision to close the team is a bit surprising, because they told me they wanted to build a championship-claiber race team," Benson said. "They hired a champion driver and a champion crew, and then decide to close the team instead of building the organization around it. So I am a little confused."

Red Horse Racing will continue to field the No. 11 truck driven by T.J. Bell. That team has some support, but not full. Bell only has one top-5 finish in eight starts this season, and sits 20th in the standings.

So, with all due respect to Bell, why not shut the No. 11 down and transfer whatever funding the team has to Benson? Were sponsors really that set on Bell? Who wouldn't want to associate themselves with a defending series champion? I don't blame Benson for being confused, and I'm willing to guess he's also a bit angry.

Chances are, Benson will miss this weekend's race at Michigan, meaning that even if he does line up another ride this season, he'll have virtually no shot at the championship. The series schedule only consists of 25 races, so missing one effectively kills your chances; before the Texas race, Kyle Busch was fourth in points. He didn't run that race, and now sits 12th in the standings.

Benson will be okay; he also serves as an analyst for ESPN, seen mostly on ESPN2's NASCAR Now. He'll also likely find himself in a truck again before the season's out, but there is definitely something wrong when the most recent series champion can't find the funding to go out to the track and try to defend his crown.

Especially when he gets the axe instead of his underperforming teammate.

Stewart Haas ahead of schedule

Tony Stewart isn't an owner-driver in the same vein as Ricky Rudd back in the 1990s or even Robby Gordon today. He doesn't go at it largely on his own, building his own equipment and compiling his own resources. Stewart, who now owns 50 percent of the team that was once Haas-CNC Racing after winning two NASCAR Sprint Cup championships with Joe Gibbs Racing, gets a lot of his equipment from Hendrick Motorsports.

But that doesn't make what he did Sunday at Pocono -- and really, what he's done all season -- any less impressive. Naysayers will instantly point to the connection to Hendrick Motorsports, conveniently forgetting that the team was receiving Hendrick engines and chassis long before Stewart took over.

Last year, Haas-CNC's two cars had Hendrick equipment ... and struggled to stay in the Top 35 in owner points. With Scott Riggs and Johnny Sauter behind the wheel, the No. 66 and No. 70 were struggling just to make races. The equipment was there, but the personnel and the professional know-how weren't.

Fast-forward to this year. Stewart Haas Racing still gets Hendrick engines and chassis, but look at the biggest differences. Riggs and Sauter are out; Stewart and Ryan Newman are now the drivers. Add an expert engineering mind in Darian Grubb as Stewart's crew chief, throw in longtime Richard Childress Racing mastermind Bobby Hutchens as competition director and sprinkle in a few more strong engineering minds, and what you have is one impressive -- and surprisingly quick -- turnaround.

This team has always had the Hendrick support; it just never really knew what to do with it. Sponsorship dollars also are not to be overlooked; whereas Riggs and Sauter couldn't command high-end sponsorship dollars, Stewart -- and by extention, Newman -- can. When Stewart announced this deal, he almost immediately brought in such sponsors as Office Depot, Old Spice, the U.S. Army and Burger King.

In NASCAR, sponsorship dollars go a long way, especially when one considers how hard they are to come by these days.

At the end of the day, though, NASCAR is a people business. Sure, fast cars will win you races, but those cars don't magically appear out of thin air. People have to build them. Tires don't change themselves, and fuel tanks don't instantly refill; people do that. There are hundreds of people who put in thousands of hours of hard work back at the shop during the week who hardly ever actually get to go to the track, and their efforts have as much to do with a team's success as the drivers.

Of course, having Stewart and Newman as drivers certainly doesn't hurt.

One of the reasons Joe Gibbs has been so successful as a car owner was because of his commitment to people. Hiring high-quality people of character and getting them to buy into the company philosophy; it's a process that's yielded three Sprint Cup trophies over the past decade. Even if there are combustible personalities within the organization, Gibbs knows how to massage them and balance them with calmer influences. The sometimes-childish Kyle Busch is balanced out by crew chief Steve Addington, much the way a younger, more firey Stewart was countered by the steady Greg Zippadeli.

Stewart learned his lesson well from the decade he spent driving for the former NFL coach; people are what make a successful race team. Stewart made all the right moves once he decided to take over Haas-CNC, tagging Hutchens and Grubb, among others, to work for him.

Grubb in particular was a master pick-up. A longtime Hendrick employee and Virginia Tech graduate, Grubb gives the team a voice who knows what to do with the equipment Hendrick gives them. Grubb has proven himself as a crew chief, winning the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson after Chad Knaus was suspended for a violation. Grubb was also a proven engineering mind, serving much of last season in an advisory capacity with the No. 88 car. Before Grubb left to prepare for his job with Stewart Haas, Grubb helped Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a top-three points position.

Anyone care to guess how the No. 88's done since Grubb left? And do you think RCR misses Hutchens?

Stewart's been money behind the wheel as well, picking up 10 top-10 finishes in the season's first 14 races. On top of his first points-paying win at Pocono, Stewart has racked up seven top-5 finishes in his last nine races; such consistency is the way to winning a title, even with the Chase for the Cup was introduced back in 2004.

Stewart holds a 71-point lead over Jeff Gordon, becoming the first owner-driver since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to lead the points; Kulwicki won the championship that season in a classic duel with Bill Elliott and Davey Allison. Stewart has only led the point standings twice before in his career: 2002 and 2005. Both years, he went on to win the championship.

Oh, Stewart also won the Sprint All-Star Race last month.

Not to be forgotten, Newman has catapulted himself to fourth in the standings. His more recent struggles at Penske Racing long forgotten, the engineering graduate from Purdue has five top-5 finishes in his last six races. His worst finish in that stretch was an eighth-place run at Dover.

Can either driver win the championship this season? I think so, and what an accomplishment it would be. Hendrick equipment and support notwithstanding, for Stewart to take an organization that once hoped to make races and turn it into a company that expects to wind up in Victory Lane every week is nothing to sneeze at.

A lot of people thought Stewart crazy, even stupid, to leave Gibbs and go out on his own like this, but the two-time champion is proving it can be done, and he's having a ball in the process. I'm not sure if this will start a trend in the Sprint Cup Series, particularly with the economy as weak as it is, but what Stewart's doing deserves the appropriate praise.

And if I'm the competition, I'm taking notice. This team is for real.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Kyle Busch: Good For NASCAR?

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver, then perhaps Kyle Busch is the exact opposite ... something akin to NASCAR Public Enemy No. 1.

Last year's incident at Richmond International Raceway has a lot to do with it ... you know, the one where Busch made contact with Earnhardt with two laps to go, sending Junior spinning into the fence and robbing him of his first points-paying win for Hendrick Motorsports? Busch was already not well-liked among the fans, for several reasons, but that one instant not only overshadowed Clint Bowyer winning the race, but it turned even more fans against the Las Vegas native.

But, even with his maturity issues, is Busch good for NASCAR? Whether we want to admit it or not, he is. Busch and Earnhardt may not have a rivalry (it's hard to have a rivalry when only one guy's enjoying success), but NASCAR needs a villain. It needs someone willing to spice things up, someone who says and does pretty much whatever he wants with little regard to how others perceive him.

Cheer him or boo him, chastise him on message boards and think of clever names for him (Cryle Boosh is one of my personal favorites), NASCAR needs Kyle Busch right now. With television ratings and attendance lower than usual, and some fans turning away because of a perceived lack of concern from the sanctioning body and seemingly poor competition, Busch's antics are exactly what the sport needs.

And let's admit it; even if you hate a driver, you follow what he does, right? If you hate Busch and he wins, don't you enjoy booing him and expressing your displeasure? If he wrecks or has some other type of misfortune, don't you get a kick out of it? Don't you love letting him know just how you really feel when they call his name at driver introductions?

I know I do. Because as much as I don't like Kyle Busch, he generates interest. He gets people talking about NASCAR.

When he wins, people talk about how talented he is. When he doesn't win and storms off without talking to the media, people talk about that. He's called immature, and rightly so, but even when he doesn't say a word, he gets everyone else talking. Some fans rail on him for not talking when he has trouble, other fans defend it.

FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip adamantly defends Busch, probably because he sees so much of himself in the guy, while Mike Joy has said that he would love to see Busch step forward after not winning and explain what happened. Regardless of what opinion one has of Busch, expressing said opinion is good for the sport.

His comments toward Earnhardt, particularly before the Dover race, where he said, "It's never Junior, it's always the crew chief," also do nothing for his image. It makes Busch look immature and bitter, even though his career has flourished since he left Hendrick Motorsports and joined Joe Gibbs Racing.

For Busch, winning isn't enough; he has to let everyone know he's doing better than the guy who effectively replaced him. As someone wiser than me once said, if you have to go out of your way to tell everyone how good you are, then you're really not.

Take this weekend's Nationwide Series race at Nashville. ESPN2's cameras caught Busch as he flew into the track on a helicopter during Saturday afternoon's qualifying session. Busch then gave the camera -- and everyone watching on TV -- the middle finger. Though I haven't seen the media make much of this move, you better believe the fans noticed.

Then, after winning the Nationwide Series race that night, Busch took the custom-made Gibson guitar trophy -- one of the sport's most treasured and unique trophies -- and made like a drugged-up rock star as he smashed the thing into pieces on the ground. Designer Sam Bass was reportedly okay with that, and Busch said he did it in order to share the trophy with his crew, but again ... fans ripped him a new one for it.

Some media members did, as well -- TNT's Kyle Petty among them. Others, like Larry McReynolds and SPEED's Bob Dillner, were okay with the move, saying Busch earned the trophy and could do whatever he wanted.

Personally, you don't do that to a trophy. It disrespects the sport and the other 42 drivers you just beat. There is no doubt in my mind Brad Keselowski or Carl Edwards, or even Brendan Gaughan, would've killed to be holding that thing in Victory Lane, and I bet they wouldn't have smashed it to pieces.

Trophies are so hard to come by in NASCAR, it seems disrespectful to trash one like that.

No one with a brain can deny Busch's talent; 51 wins across all three of NASCAR's national touring series is nothing to sneeze at. He has 11 Sprint Cup wins in almost a season and a half with JGR, so the combination of him with crew chief Steve Addington has obviously created some magic.

People aren't booing Busch because of his talent. Some of it is guilt by association; fans didn't much care for older brother Kurt when he first came into the series, largely because he was also arrogant and immature. Kyle has upped the ante on that, even as Kurt has mellowed and matured over the years (thank Jimmy Spencer and a few years of mediocrity with Penske Racing for that).

In the eyes of many fans, Kyle Busch is petulant and childish. His attitude, from bowing to the fans when he wins to cursing out his crew over the radio to storming off after a race without speaking to the media, endears him to almost no one. Taking digs at the sport's most popular driver and his actions Saturday at Nashville also don't help.

I appreciate the talent; I just don't appreciate the person who has it.

Could Busch, who is just 24, mature as he ages, particularly if he endures a rough stretch without much success? Possibly, but to be perfectly honest, I don't want him to mature. I have far too much fun hating him, and I'm willing to bet a lot of fans feel that way. He makes it so easy and so fun to dislike him, and that's great for NASCAR. The sport should probably fine him for the finger on TV, or what he did to the trophy in Nashville, but they won't, because NASCAR understands that it needs a villain.

Busch can talk all he wants about how he's not out there to be a villain, but you know he loves it. He wouldn't egg on the fans the way he does otherwise. A lot of people hate Kyle Busch -- myself included -- but that's okay, because it draws interest to the sport at a time when it desperately needs it.

So go on acting like a spoiled baby, Kyle Busch. We'll keep on booing you -- and enjoying every minute of it.

Stewart stretches fuel, wins at Pocono

Tony Stewart stretched his fuel over the final 41 laps to win the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, picking up his first points-paying win as an owner/driver with Stewart Haas Racing, the culmination of an unexpectedly impressive journey in the champion's career.

Not only did Stewart extend his series lead over Jeff Gordon to 71 points and earn himself 10 bonus points for the Chase, but he also became the first owner/driver to win a Sprint Cup Series points race since Ricky Rudd won at Martinsville in 1998. While Stewart's accomplishment isn't quite as impressive as Rudd's, it's a remarkable achievement nonetheless ... especially if one considers Stewart started shotgun on Sunday.

Rain on Friday handed him the pole, but Stewart spun in Saturday practice, tearing the front splitter off the car and forcing the No. 14 crew to break out the backup car. Though Stewart ultimately won because of fuel mileage -- coasting halfway down the straightaways and keeping his foot off the throttle through the turns -- Stewart was one of the fastest cars all day, and was easily top-5 caliber.

Still, to start 43rd at Pocono and march to the front like he did? Stewart earned this win, fuel mileage or no.

Perhaps more impressive than Stewart's win and points lead, teammate Ryan Newman has ended his early-season struggles. He finished fifth on Sunday to rack up yet another top-5 finish and vault himself to fourth in the standings. Stewart Haas Racing is much further along at this point than anyone expected, and both drivers are a threat for the championship.

For the balance of the day, it looked like this race was Carl Edwards' to lose. He led a race-high 103 laps, and even overcame an early pit miscue where his crew didn't get the fuel tank completely full. He played the fuel game at the end as well as Stewart, but Edwards couldn't mount a charge after Stewart beat him off pit road under the last caution.

Still, that makes three straight finishes of seventh or better for Edwards. The preseason title favorite is still winless in 2009 (after piling up nine wins last season), but the No. 99 team is starting to hit its stride, and Edwards might just rattle off a few wins before we head back to Richmond for the last race before the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson also looked strong, leading early and easily having a top-5 car. But he caught a bad break when a caution flew just as he was committing to pit road. With pit road closed before Johnson hit the commitment line, the No. 48 was penalized and sent to the back of the pack. Even with that, Johnson was running third on the final lap before he ran out of fuel, coasting over half the 2.5-mile triangle to come in seventh.

One driver who was expected to be a factor, Denny Hamlin, really wasn't. A two-time winner at Pocono, Hamlin paced Saturday's final practice session. But when the green flag flew on Sunday, Hamlin's car shut off. It did the same roughly 10 laps later after the team tried to fix the problem, and Hamlin wound up finishing 38th.

More bad luck for the increasingly pessimistic Hamlin.

Pocono also marked the first time this season the series used the double-file restart. The move was perfect for Pocono, because of how large and wide the track is, and it'll also work well this coming weekend at Michigan International Speedway. But the fact is, the new rule improved the racing, and though the change wasn't monumental, it did improve competition.

Every little bit helps.

Still, with his first win of the season (second, if you count the All-Star Race), Stewart has officially solidified himself as a title contender. That's nothing short of amazing, considering where the Stewart Haas team was a year ago, and we're heading into the summer months, where Stewart is money; 30 of his 34 career wins have come in June or later. Before this season, Stewart had only led the point standings twice: in 2002 and 2005. He won the championship both seasons, the only driver to win titles under the old format and the current Chase formula.

If I'm the rest of the field, I'm worried. Actually, make that downright scared.

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

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

Friday, June 5, 2009

Pocono 500 Preview

The Sprint Cup Series travels to the Pennsylvania mountains this weekend for the first of the series' two annual stops at the historic Pocono Raceway. The Pocono 500 will not only mark the second half of the Race to the Chase, but it will also usher in TNT's summer coverage of the sport -- and begin a new era of restarts.

NASCAR announced on Thursday that, starting with this weekend's race at Pocono, every restart will be double-file -- much like those we saw last month in the Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Lead-lap cars will line up double-file, with the leader having the option of restarting on the low or high line, while lap-down cars will be placed at the tail end of the field, where they can race each other for the free pass without impeding the leaders.

The free pass will also be given throughout the entire race; under the old rule, no free pass was given if a caution came out with less than 10 laps to go.

There are probably some kinks to work out, but I applaud NASCAR for trying something to improve the racing. Double-file restarts have long been a staple of Friday and Saturday night short track racing, and it obviously made the All-Star Race more exciting, so why not do it every weekend?

If it improves the racing, I'm all for it.

Kasey Kahne won this race last year, adding to a hot streak that saw him win both the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Though he hasn't been on such a tear this season, Kahne debuted the new Dodge engine last week at Dover to the tune of a sixth-place finish. That gives the No. 9 Dodge momentum, and Kahne loves the tricky Pennsylvania triangle. Don't be surprised if he pulls off another one on Sunday.

Then again, Pocono is practically Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards' personal playground. Hamlin collected his first two Sprint Cup wins at Pocono -- in his rookie season, I might add -- while Edwards also boasts a pair of wins at Pocono, including the race last August. Hamlin has six career starts at Pocono with five top-10s and four top-5s. Edwards has four top-10s and three top-5s in eight career starts there.

Look for Hamlin and Edwards to put their early-season struggles and bad luck behind them this weekend, with one of those two possibly even collecting his first win of the year.

Jeff Gordon leads all active full-time drivers with four career wins at Pocono (Bill Elliott, a part-timer who won't attempt to qualify for this weekend's race, has five wins at the triangle). Gordon's last Pocono win came in June 2007, when he beat Ryan Newman ... and the rain.

Though I've said repeatedly that Kyle Busch is a threat to win everywhere the series goes, his career record at Pocono might speak otherwise. In eight career starts at Pocono, Busch has an average finish of 22nd, with just two top-1o finishes. He finished 43rd and 36th in both of last year's races. Brother Kurt Busch, meanwhile, has two career wins at Pocono.

The thing about Pocono, thanks to its unique configuration, is that no driver will ever handle perfectly in all three corners. Pocono is a track of compromises, with many teams choosing to focus mostly on the flat Turn 3, because getting good speed off that corner gives the drivers a lot of speed heading down the mile-plus long front straightaway (the longest in NASCAR), which could set up the rest of the lap.

Road-course aces tend to do well at Pocono, because the configuration almost makes the track feel like a combination between an oval and a road course ("roval," depending on who you talk to). Drivers used to shift at Pocono, but new gear rules instituted last season rendered that practice moot.

Generally speaking, drivers who perform well at Pocono will also succeed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The series will come to Indy at the end of July, with a second trip to Pocono following the week after.

But for this weekend's race, keep an eye on Kahne, Hamlin and Edwards; one of those three will pick up their first win of the season this weekend. My pick? Complete gut feeling here, but I think we're gonna see a backflip for the first time in 2009.

Carl Edwards will win the Pocono 500.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Danica to NASCAR? Not So Fast, My Friend

With IndyCar Series star Danica Patrick in the final year of her contract with Andretti-Green Racing, speculation of her jump to NASCAR has begun anew -- strengthened, perhaps, by a family feud that might yet leave IRL founder Tony George out as chairman of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The thinking goes as such: the IndyCar Series, already on the American sporting fringe, can't afford such a shake-up within its higher ranks. There are those who figure such a move could leave the IRL on shaky ground, and Patrick could bolt to NASCAR seeking a more stable sanctioning body.

Never mind Patrick's departure would have a potentially greater impact than George's; Patrick is by far the series' most popular and marketable figure. Helio Castroneves is the only other IRL driver with crossover appeal, thanks to his stint on Dancing With the Stars, and the last thing the IndyCar Series needs is one of its hottest commodities defecting to stock cars.

Jimmie Johnson, who's won the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles and dominated last weekend's race at Dover, made comments over the last couple weeks suggesting Patrick would struggle in NASCAR, unless she spent significant time in the lower levels of the sport. If Patrick jumped straight into a Cup car, Johnson reasoned, she would struggle -- but if she spent a year or two in the Camping World Truck Series or the Nationwide Series, learning how to drive the heavier, less technologically-dependent machines , then she'd have a greater chance at success.

Nothing Johnson said was wrong; his analysis was a legitimate criticism -- one with which I'm sure guys like Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. would agree. Both drivers -- who, unlike Patrick, won IndyCar Series championships -- struggled mightily when they first jumped to NASCAR, trying to learn on the fly how to handle the Sprint Cup cars. Franchitti found himself back in IndyCar after funding for his Cup ride dried up, while it's taken Hornish almost two full seasons to show what he might be capable of in an underfunded Penske Racing effort.

Granted, neither driver slid into one of the prime rides of the series; you didn't see Franchitti sliding into a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, or Hornish climbing aboard one of Jack Roush's Fords. Patrick has said that were she to make the jump to NASCAR, she'd expect to climb into one such ride -- never mind the fact that she drives for one of the IRL's best teams in Andretti-Green ... and has one win to her name.

So an argument could be made that she wouldn't deserve such a chance.

To be fair, Patrick has four straight top-5 finishes, including a third-place effort in this year's Indianapolis 500. With a season-worst finish of 19th in the season opener thanks to wreck not of her doing, Patrick sits fourth in the point standings, 22 behind leader and defending series champion Scott Dixon. Though her AGR team is behind the Penske and Ganassi stables, Patrick can and probably will win a race this season.

But don't look for Roush or Hendrick or Joe Gibbs to come calling with a prime spot open for her in the Cup Series. Patrick has expressed reluctance to cut her teeth in the Nationwide Series, though she admitted she would do that if necessary. Imagine the publicity that would generate; the Nationwide Series is struggling to find an identity right now, trying to groom young stars while using the Cup drivers to get fans in the stands. With Patrick in the series and competitive, the Nationwide Series would get a boost in publicity, without the headache of a Cup regular taking a promising youngster's slot.

Plus, can you imagine a potential rivalry between Patrick and Kyle Busch? I'm chuckling just thinking about it.

At the end of the day, though, I think staying in the IndyCar Series might be the best thing for her. There, she has the best chance to be competitive. She can contend for race wins and possibly even championships -- particularly if she re-signs with AGR, or somehow winds up at Penske or Ganassi. If Patrick is consistently competitive and ever wins an IndyCar Series title -- or even the Indianapolis 500 -- then she could catapult the IndyCar Series to the mainstream once more. It won't overtake NASCAR as America's top motorsport, but a successful Patrick can only help.

I don't think a move to NASCAR would benefit her, because it hasn't truly benefitted any other open-wheeler aside from Tony Stewart (who did it so long ago, and after winning back-to-back IRL championships, I'm not even sure that comparison has merit).

Not only that, but the IndyCar Series needs her. That league is on the fringe as it is, especially this year with most of its races on Versus instead of the ESPN/ABC brand. To lose Patrick would be to lose undoubtedly the sport's biggest star, and that's a blow from which I'm not sure the IndyCar Series could recover.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Johnson dominates, rebounds to win at Dover

Seeing as how he led 298 of 400 laps, one would think Jimmie Johnson ran away with the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. But a rare pit road miscue on the last round of stops left the No. 48 in ninth on the last restart with 32 laps to go -- which, given how this car handles in traffic versus clean air, left many thinking this wouldn't be Johnson's day after all.

Yeah, about that ...

Johnson picked his way through the field over the closing laps, going high and low to pass cars before he waged a spirited battle with Tony Stewart. Stewart tried to hold him off, taking away the high line going through the corners and trying to make his No. 14 Chevy about three times as wide as it really was, but Johnson swung high out of Turn 4 with two laps to go, taking the lead and his second win of the season.

This isn't the first time Johnson's pulled off something like this -- last fall in Atlanta, Johnson went from 10th to second in the closing laps to negate much of the momentum Carl Edwards had in winning that race. The No. 48 team's ability to overcome the rare miscue like that is a testament not only to crew chief Chad Knaus' tenacity atop the pit box, but also to Johnson's abilities behind the wheel.

Honestly, has there been a champion in the last 20 years more underrated than Johnson? He's won the last three -- and could very well win his fourth this season -- yet no one gives him the credit he deserves. It's possible this team is peaking too soon, since the No. 48 normally doesn't hit its stride until later in the summer, but Sunday's win should serve notice to everyone else.

Even Stewart, who took over the points lead from Jeff Gordon. Stewart, with his second-place effort, now has six Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes on the season -- even if he hasn't won as points-paying race yet, Stewart is heading into the time of year where he truly hits his stride. The first owner-driver since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to lead the points, Stewart has never led the standings this early in a season.

Impressive, considering he already has two championships on his mantle.

Johnson and Stewart might very well stage a duel for the ages for the championship, and if it's anything like the battle they waged in the closing laps on Sunday, the rest of this season could be quite entertaining.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 12th-place effort on Sunday got the Lance McGrew Era off to a promising start. After rolling off the grid 22nd, Earnhardt toiled near the back in the opening stages before calling the No. 88 to pit during an early caution. When the caution flew again nearly 50 laps later when the leaders were going through green-flag stops, Junior found himself in the Top 10 -- where he stayed after pitting again with the leaders.

Earnhardt ran in the Top 5 for a good portion of the race, giving McGrew good, detailed feedback. In return, McGrew assured Earnhardt the right changes would be made and his driver was doing a good job. One of the reasons Earnhardt went from the back to the front like that was that McGrew gave him a good adjustment on an early pit stop, which helped the car find more grip.

The best feedback of the day? Earnhardt's car got tight toward the end of the race, and he told McGrew (paraphrasing here), "Don't go too far on the track bar; we tried that in practice and it didn't work." He wasn't giving Tony Eury Jr. that sort of feedback, for whatever reason; that sort of thing is the kind of information a crew chief can work with to make a good call.

It wasn't a Top-10, but it was a good start -- and certainly better than the 27th, 27th and 40th we saw the last three races. Earnhardt admitted the team was "building Rome," but if they can build on Sunday's effort, the No. 88 might be on its way to being a weekly contender again. The Chase might be out of reach, but race wins might not be.

Also, good show by Kasey Kahne, debuting the new Dodge engine to finish sixth. With Penske Racing carrying the banner for Dodge this season -- and the new engine being a big part of it -- Richard Petty Motorsports had to get on the ball. Kahne was the only driver with that motor, and it's unknown how often the team will run it in the future, but after Sunday, I'd try to run that in every car, every race.

By the way, Kahne won at Pocono last June. Guess where we're headed this weekend ...

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

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