Kurt Busch passes Indy rookie test with flying colors
BY Rick Minter
Kurt Busch had a busy schedule last week. Early in the week he spent time with reporters discussing the 10th anniversary of his Darlington finish with Ricky Craven, in which he lost the victory by .002 seconds in what many regard as one of the most thrilling finishes in Sprint Cup history.
Then on Thursday, he was driving an Indy car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he ran a lap at 218.21 miles per hour, passing his rookie test on that circuit and paving the way for a future attempt at running the Indianapolis 500.
On Friday, he was back at Darlington, where he turned a lap at a track record 181.918 mph to win the pole for the Southern 500. In the race, he led 69 laps in the early going, but faded to 14th at the finish.
“We let it slip away, and that’s disappointing,” Busch said. “But we won the pole, led laps, ran up front for a good portion of the race and came away with a respectable finish.”
Overall, it was quite a week.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Busch said. “To have [Michael] Andretti line up a deal to where you can drive his Indy car in the month of May and post some speeds that are worthy of making the show. I had to pinch myself.
“That was a kid-in-the-candy-store feel. Then showing up [at Darlington], it’s full-on race mode. I knew I had three hours to get this No. 78 Furniture Row car dialed into Darlington, and to put it on the pole — that is a great surprise, but it’s also showing the strength of the team.”
At Indianapolis, Busch drove the No. 1 Dallara Chevrolet that Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive in the Indianapolis 500. As a rookie, he had to pick up speed in phases: 10 laps at 200-205 mph, 15 laps at 205-209 mph and 15 laps at 210-plus mph.
Andretti told reporters that he was not surprised that Busch passed his rookie test with flying colors.
“He just drove exactly the way we wanted him to do it,” Andretti said. “He gave great feedback, right on pace, built up to nice and steady. He didn’t do anything stupid, which we knew he wouldn’t. It was a really good day.”
Busch has no plans to run the 500 this year, but he could try it next year. If he does, he’ll join other NASCAR drivers who have raced at Indianapolis.
Donnie Allison ran the 500 twice. In 1970, he finished fourth and won Rookie of the Year honors. The next year, he finished sixth. Cale Yarborough made four Indy 500 starts from 1966 to 1972, with a best finish of 10th in his final run. Bobby Allison ran the 500 two times, with a best finish of 25th in 1975, and LeeRoy Yarbrough ran three 500s, with a best finish of 19th in 1970.
Busch said he’s thinking about running both the 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte next year, a double effort that Tony Stewart, John Andretti and Robby Gordon have done in the past.
“It could be the beginning of a 13-month journey to get prepared for the double,” Busch said. “I need to get more comfortable in the Indy car. I think the proper thing is to go out and experience this car at another oval track and get into a race.”
Even if he doesn’t attempt the 500, Busch had added another form of motorsports to his racing resume.
He drove an Australian V8 Supercar at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, recently. He’s also raced sports cars in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and driven Pro Stock cars in the 2011 NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
Talladega Superspeedway, built for speed, leads to restrictor-plate ‘tight, difficult’ racing
By Rick Minter
Talladega Superspeedway, site of this weekend’s Aaron’s 499, was built with maximum speed in mind, but throughout its history, that speed also has been a problem. The speeds shown in practice for the first race in 1969, coupled with the tire failures brought about by those speeds, led to a major driver boycott.
Officials and race teams continued to search for ways to deal with speed before a major change came following the Winston 500 in 1987. Bill Elliott set NASCAR’s all-time qualifying mark of 212.809 miles per hour to win the pole for that race, with Bobby Allison on the outside pole with a speed of 211.797 mph. Allison’s mark is the the third-fastest qualifying effort ever, behind Elliott’s record speed and his speed of 212.229 mph the year before at Talladega.
But on the 21st lap, Allison’s engine blew as he roared down the frontstretch. Parts flying from his engine punctured his right rear tire and launched his No. 22 Buick into the grandstand fence, ripping down a section and injuring several fans.
NASCAR responded by placing restrictor plates on the engines to slow speeds, but racing with the restrictor plates also has been controversial.
The plates lead to big packs of cars and often multi-car crashes. But fans seem to love those packs and the crashes, so the debate goes on.
ESPN TV commentator Dale Jarrett, a nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his driving exploits, has seen it all, literally, when it comes to restrictor-plate racing.
His first Sprint Cup start at Talladega came in the same race that Allison crashed, and the last of his 32 Cup wins came at Talladega in the fall of 2005.
He said little has changed at Talladega over the years. “It’s the same as always to me,” he said. “It’s tight, difficult racing. You get so many people involved at the end of the race, and it’s going to be high-speed pushing and shoving. It’s no different than when we started running the restrictor plates back after the 1987 accident with Bobby Allison.”
Jarrett has vivid memories of that incident.
“I was 14 or 15 cars behind that, just close enough to see what happened,” he said. “When Bobby’s car went up in the air, my biggest thought was trying to keep my focus and not become part of the incident.
“It looked to me like the car was going straight to the flag stand. I was concerned that’s where it was going, and then obviously into the stands.
“It was much relief when I knew that didn’t happen.”
Even though he was still running an estimated 215 miles an hour at that point, he recalls other details.
“I saw parts and pieces flying,” he said. “I saw the car hit the fence out of the corner of my eye.
“I remember seeing the caution flag. I don’t think the flagman ever flinched. I don’t know how he didn’t, because that’s where it looked like the car was heading.”
Jarrett said he doesn’t believe there is a simple way to find a balance between what the fans and promoters want at Talladega and what the drivers will like.
Some have suggested lowering the banking in the turns at Talladega, which would slow speeds and break up the packs. But track and series officials have been reluctant to consider that in the past.
“Fixing the race track is not going to happen,” Jarrett said. “There’s really not anything you can do unless you spend a ton of money and downsize the engines tremendously, which is probably not a bad thing for the entire series.”
Jarrett said his longtime car owner Robert Yates made a push for that back in 1995, but it didn’t gain any traction.
So, that means the plates are here to stay, he said.
“You can’t have the cars running 200-something miles an hour,” he said. “Most racing that the fans enjoy is frustrating to the drivers. We’re not going to get them both on the same page. As a driver and a competitor, you go in knowing that you’ve got a long day ahead of you.”
Matt Kenseth wins the pole and dominates the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway
By Rick Minter
Matt Kenseth’s dominating win at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, coupled with his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month, make it clear why Kenseth’s former car owner, Jack Roush, expressed regret when he let him get away to rival Joe Gibbs Racing.
“If I had been as vigilant and diligent and interested in that side of the business as I am on finding why a fuel pump broke or why a connection rod bearing failed or how we could get the next pound of downforce — if I had been taking care of the business side of the business as hard as I tried to take care of the technical side, I might have been able to stop that,” Roush said last summer.
But after Kenseth scored his 26th career Cup victory on Sunday by leading 163 of 267 laps at Kansas after starting from the pole, he said that Gibbs’ team is the place he feels most comfortable, and that making the move wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine. And that’s considering the fact that before joining Gibbs, he’d spent his entire career, save one race, in Roush’s No. 17 Ford.
Kenseth said the decision to change teams was his alone, with the support of his wife.
“I didn’t talk to anybody about it except for Katie,” he said. “She would never tell me what to do, necessarily pick for my profession. She would let me do that. But certainly she had a positive feeling about it, as well.
“I didn’t really tell anybody else about it. I really didn’t need to. It wasn’t really a hard decision, believe it or not.”
He said that one of the things that lured him to Gibbs was the chance to work with two highly talented Gibbs drivers — Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. He said he liked the idea of working with drivers who were different from him and different from each other.
“I think we all have different personalities, we all have a different approach to things, we all have a different way we handle things,” he said. “It’s all different. And I think that’s good.”
He said that if everyone wants and likes the same things, it’s difficult for the group to improve their overall performance.
“There are no different viewpoints to consider and to think about and to look at or a different setup or idea or a different approach to driving the race track,” he said. “That was really interesting, and I think we’ve been doing a good job of working together and talking about things.
“I think it’s really helped me become a better driver, really elevates your game when you have guys like that that can go out and win any week.”
Kenseth also said that his early season success isn’t surprising.
“I think as an organization, one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year, if everything would have worked out,” he said. “The only place I feel like we really kind of somewhat missed it was California, and [Busch] won there.
“Other than that, we’ve had cars that have been capable of running in the top three or four every week.”
Despite his wins, Kenseth is eighth in the standings, 59 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, who finished third at Kansas. Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff expressed confidence that his team can close the gap.
“We’re running well, and yes, we’re winning races and doing the things we need to do, but I feel like we have a lot of room to grow as far as our race car,” he said. “I feel like there’s still a lot of speed to find to be a contender in the Chase.
“We’re looking forward to it, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Kenseth’s win at Kansas from the pole marked the third straight Cup race that the top qualifier went on to win. That hasn’t happened since 1985, when Bill Elliott did it at Michigan and Darlington, with Dale Earnhardt getting both pole and win at Bristol in between.
Johnson dominates STP Gas Booster 500; track brings out greatness in many drivers
By Rick Minter
A good argument could be made that the road to NASCAR greatness is shaped like a paper clip. Nearly all of the sport’s all-time great drivers found — or are finding — success on the tight, half-mile Martinsville Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson’s dominating win in Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 was his eighth at the historic Virginia track, breaking a tie with Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, and giving him sole possession of third place on Martinsville’s all-time win list.
The top two, Richard Petty with 15 Martinsville wins and Darrell Waltrip with 11, already are in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, along with Wallace. Tied for fifth on the list are two more Hall of Famers, Cale Yarborough and the late Dale Earnhardt. Other Hall of Famers on the top of the stats at Martinsville are Buck Baker, third in poles, Junior Johnson, third in car owner victories, and Glen Wood and Bobby Allison, who are tied for fourth in Martinsville poles.
Richie Evans, the only Modified series regular in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, had 10 wins at Martinsville, the track where he lost his life in a crash in 1985.
Strangely absent from the list is Hall of Famer David Pearson, but he still had three Martinsville poles, a win, four runner-up and five third-place finishes despite being an infrequent competitor there and making many of his starts in a Wood Brothers car built to run on superspeedways.
As with any motorsports accomplishment on any type of track, good equipment is a key component of the overall package at Martinsville.
Johnson’s win was the 20th at Martinsville for car owner Rick Hendrick, who broke a tie with Petty Enterprises to take possession of the top spot among car owners. Johnson said his crew gave him the car to beat.
“There’s a feel to this track, and the history we have — 10, 11 years now of coming here and doing this — we just draw on and fall back on,” he said. “For me to roll in here off of vacation, literally got home the day before, and first lap out on the track put it up on the top of the [leader] board, just tells me how good of a car I had.
“It was really up to me to not mess it up as the weekend went on.”
Third-finishing Jeff Gordon agreed that Hendrick Motorsports builds fast Martinsville cars.
“Hendrick has got something figured out pretty good here,” he said. “The first time I drove for Rick, I knew how good their equipment was everywhere we went.”
Hendrick also was able to pick up the fourth finishing position with the No. 5 Chevrolet driven by Kasey Kahne, but the fourth driver in his stable, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had a disappointing day.
Earnhardt, who had been running strong at Martinsville in recent races, entered the race as the Sprint Cup points leader, but struggled most of the day, spun out late and finished 24th. That dropped him to third in the standings, 12 points behind Johnson and six behind Brad Keselowski, who finished sixth for the second straight time at Martinsville.
While Johnson’s victory came as no real surprise, especially given the fact that he had the preferred pit stall as a result of his pole-winning performance on Friday, the stirring 12th-place finish by rookie Danica Patrick came as something of a shocker.
Patrick qualified 32nd, spun early and fell two laps down, but as the race went on she seemed to figure out how to race at Martinsville, something many other newcomers have struggled with over the years, and came on strong at the finish.
“I felt like it was kind of traditional passing here, setting it up and getting your nose in there, a little bit more road-course style, so that might have some effect because I’ve done so much of that,” she said. “But good car, steady day. I got a lot of advice on keeping my head cool and just letting things go.”
She said the early spin provided a good lesson for later.
“I learned my lesson to make sure that you just don’t go in [the corner] too hard because they’re going to be holding you tight, and there’s going to be nowhere to go, nowhere to slide up, and you get into them,” she said.
Patrick’s crew chief Tony Gibson said he was most proud of his driver’s performance in the closing laps, when the beating and banging ratchets up at Martinsville.
“It was great to see that,” he said. “I was worried about that. I knew that with 30 [laps] to go, the restarts were going to get more and more aggressive.
“I was really happy to see how aggressive she got. They would bump her and she wouldn’t get flustered. I was impressed with that. That was the biggest thing I was nervous about — how she would do in a situation like that. It will help her gain some confidence.”
The strong finish came at a time when Patrick could use a confidence booster.
Since Daytona, where she started on the pole and finished eighth, Patrick had four disappointing outings — all outside the top 25 — before coming to Martinsville.
“It was just nice to have a good weekend after having so many that weren’t good since Daytona,” she said. “I think the team has a lot to be proud of.”
Defending STP 500 winner Ryan Newman describes dramatic 2012 win at Martinsville
By Rick Minter
Ryan Newman returns to Martinsville Speedway as the defending winner of this weekend’s STP 500. Last year’s triumph, his first career Martinsville victory, came in dramatic fashion and has been a part of NASCAR’s highlight footage for the past 12 months.
Last spring, team owner Rick Hendrick was poised to get his 200th win at Martinsville, where he got his first victory back in the spring of 1984 with Geoff Bodine driving. Martinsville also is where Hendrick attended races as a youngster, and where one of his team’s planes crashed, killing 10 people, including Hendrick’s son, brother, two nieces and members of his inner circle at Hendrick Motorsports.
For much of last year’s race it looked as if either Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, both Hendrick drivers, would win the race. But with two of the scheduled 500 laps left to run, and Gordon and Johnson running 1-2, the caution flag flew for the stalled car of David Reutimann.
That’s when the situation began to turn in Newman’s favor.
He’d struggled early in the race, even going a lap down at one point. But he and his crew, then led by crew chief Tony Gibson, worked on his car and improved its handling.
“It was way off at first, we got it better, and once we got our lap back, we were really good,” Newman said. “We drove up through a lot of guys. We weren’t a winning car. The Hendrick guys were the winning cars.”
But it’s never over until the checkered
flag falls, and on Lap 504, with the race already past its scheduled distance, the field was set to try up to three green-white-checkered-flag runs to the finish.
Newman lined up fifth, behind Clint Bowyer, with Gordon and Johnson on the front row.
“I went to go past [Bowyer] and he blocked me,” Newman said, explaining that he bumped into Bowyer at that point. “When I did, I gave him enough momentum to be able to shoot down underneath [Gordon and Johnson].”
But in the process, Bowyer ran into the concrete curb on the inside of the race track and bounced up into the leaders, causing a crash.
“If [Bowyer] hadn’t clipped the curb, he probably would have won,” Newman said.
Instead, Newman’s No. 39 Chevrolet shot into the lead as the caution flag flew yet again, setting up another restart on Lap 514.
Newman said his goal on that start was to try to prevent another situation in which the leader lost a chance for victory. On the start, he had the inside, with A.J. Allmendinger on the outside and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in third, the same position Bowyer was in on the previous restart.
“My biggest goal was to keep Junior from going three wide because he was restarting third, which would have put me in the middle, which obviously didn’t work for the last group,” Newman said. “I knew if I could keep [Allmendinger] on the outside of me, in a lap and a half or two laps, no matter how good his car was, the inside line is better. After about a lap I held him to the outside, and we drove away.”
From then on, his goal was to keep Allmendinger from making a desperate bid for the win and wrecking them both.
“I wanted to make sure he didn’t try to banzai me,” Newman said. “For him, a second-place finish was a really good day for his team, and for us, a win was what we were there for.”
Finally, on Lap 515, the checkered flag flew, with Newman in control of the race.
After six top-five finishes, including a second-place run in 2007, he finally collected one of the track’s signature grandfather clock trophies.
“It was just good circumstances,” Newman said of the turn of events that resulted in his 16th career Sprint Cup victory. “I think it made for a great race.”
Logano justifies blocking of Stewart at Auto Club
by Rick Minter
Among the things Joey Logano did in the closing laps of the Auto Club 400 was bring out the A.J. Foyt-like beast in Tony Stewart.
When Stewart was growing up, one of his heroes was the legendary Foyt, who later became Stewart’s mentor as he followed in Foyt’s career tire tracks, racing any kind of car on any kind of track, almost always with great success. Stewart, like Foyt, became a team owner, fielding cars in several circuits and even owning the cars he drives in the Sprint Cup Series.
Stewart also is much like Foyt when it comes to speaking his mind and in handling what he perceives as disrespect from others.
On Sunday, Logano and Denny Hamlin, who had waged a war of words all week over an incident at Bristol Motor Speedway the Sunday before, wrecked on the last lap, opening the door for Kyle Busch, who had led the most laps but was third with one to go, to get a surprise win.
The wreck, which occurred when Logano appeared to move up the track and into Hamlin, sent Hamlin into a concrete wall without SAFER barriers attached and eventually to the hospital. Logano was unapologetic in his post-race comments.
“He probably shouldn’t have done what he did last week, so that’s what he gets,” Logano said of Hamlin, who was hospitalized overnight after complaining of back pain.
But Logano’s biggest worry going forward may be from Stewart, who was angered that Logano blocked him twice.
Stewart blocked Logano’s car after the race, climbed out of his own car, and an altercation with Logano and his crew ensued.
Stewart said Logano has a lesson coming from him.
“He is a tough guy on pit road as soon as one of his crew guys gets in the middle of it,” Stewart said. “Until then, he’s a scared little kid. Then he wants to throw a water bottle at me. He is going to learn a lesson. He’s run his mouth long enough. He has sat there and done this double standard, and he’s nothing but a little rich kid that has never had to work in his life.
“He’s going to learn with us working guys that had to work our way up how it works.”
Logano said the blocking was justified.
“I had to throw the block there,” he said. “That was a race for the lead. I felt if the 14 [Stewart] got underneath me, that was going to be the end of my opportunity to win the race, so I was just trying to protect the spot I had.”
The Logano-Hamlin incident not only opened the door for Busch to win the race, it allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to finish second.
Joe Gibbs Racing said in a statement that Hamlin suffered an L1 compression fracture in his lower spine. He is expected to fly home to North Carolina where he will be evaluated later this week.
Matt Kenseth gets the most out of his car on his birthday; claims his first win for Joe Gibbs Racing
By Rick Minter
Matt Kenseth won Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in much the same fashion as he did the 24 Sprint Cup races he’d won previously — by getting the most out of his car when it counted.
He took the lead by making a gas-only trip down pit road and led the final 41 laps, holding off Kasey Kahne, who not only had a faster car, but fresher tires.
“Matt did everything right,” Kahne said. “This is not the guy you want to have to race with 10 (laps) to go because he’s going to do everything right. He did a perfect job and we came back second.”
But this victory, Kenseth’s third at Las Vegas, was different. For starters, it came on his birthday, something that has happened only to two other drivers in the history of the Cup series.
Cale Yarborough won on his birthday, March 27, at North Wilkesboro Speedway, in 1977, and again at Atlanta Motor Speedway on his birthday in 1983, and Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch won on his birthday, May 2, at Richmond International Raceway in 2009.
Kenseth’s victory also was significant because it was his first since joining Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of the season. All of Kenseth’s previous victories came while he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
Kenseth said in his winner’s interview that he never doubted he’d be able to win in Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. Nevertheless, he was glad to be in Victory Lane after just three races.
“I’m not a huge goal person, but my goal was to win and to win early,” he said. “Nobody has put any pressure on me except for myself, but I also know that Coach (Joe Gibbs) hired me to come in there and climb in that car and win races, so you certainly want to do that and you don’t want to disappoint people.”
Kenseth went on to say that he doesn’t believe the racing world has seen all they’re going to see of him and his Jason Ratcliff-led team this season.
“I feel like this is the beginning,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence, had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it.
“And I still do …
“It’s always great to get a win early in the season, but you certainly don’t want to act like it stops.”
He said he was already thinking about what he needs to do at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.
“That’s the great thing about the sport,” he said. “It never stops. You only get to enjoy [winning] for a couple of days.”
Ratcliff sounded as if he and Kenseth are thinking alike about where they’re headed this year.
“We’ve just got a great group here, and we’ve got Matt and we’re going to win a lot of races, I think,” he said. “I knew that we would get to Victory Lane at some point, and to do it this early in the season is great, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs had been to Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup Series 100 times before Sunday, but it also was a new experience for him, especially after his drivers had engine problems the past two weeks, and one of them, Denny Hamlin, ran afoul of NASCAR for his post-race comments at Phoenix.
“In tough times, everybody kind of bands together around our place, and we start fighting and we worked our way out of some tough things,” he said.
And he said he was proud of his newest driver and the contributions he’s making to the entire organization.
“Obviously, Matt has just been special,” Gibbs said. “I think Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) both really respect him. I think that’s helped a lot. I think he kind of likes working with them, so we’ve got three guys that really, I think, can get after it and drive a race car.”
Sprint Cup drivers: Mixed feelings on new Gen-6 car; ‘Wait till Vegas’
By Rick Minter
All across the NASCAR community, many people have been saying, “Wait till Vegas,” before deciding whether the Generation 6 Sprint Cup race cars that debuted this season will improve the on-track product the sport produces.
After the first two races of 2013, this weekend’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway takes on added significance, as the first two races produced little of the side-by-side racing for the lead that many hoped the new car would facilitate.
Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, which saw Carl Edwards break a 70-race winless drought, had very little passing at the front, and lead changes determined more by events in the pits than by action on the track. Edwards led the final 78 laps without a serious challenge for the top spot.
“I don’t want to be the pessimist, but [the Gen-6 car] did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars,” said third-finishing Denny Hamlin. “This is more like what the Generation 5 was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero-balance right. Right now, you just run single-file, and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th place with 30 [laps] to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up.”
Hamlin said the tire compound is one of the issues.
He said the left-side tires at Phoenix were “very, very hard” and that if a softer tire is chosen, the racing will improve.
“Once we do that, you’ll have some tire wear and overtaking like there’s supposed to be,” he said.
In his post-race comments, fourth-finishing Brad Keselowski, the defending Cup champion, tried to put a positive spin on the race, but did acknowledge that track position was critical and that being in clean air was a clear aerodynamic advantage. Both were issues that the designers of the Gen-6 car hope to address.
“If you could get to the lead, it looked like you had it covered,” Keselowski said, adding that being in the clean air out front is “probably more important than ever.”
Phoenix runner-up Jimmie Johnson agreed that there was little side-by-side racing. “Racing-wise, it was tough to pass all day long,” he said. “Track position and strategy on pit road really seemed to be the big deal.”
But he said the lack of door-to-door action wasn’t a fault of the new car and called for changes to race tracks across the circuit.
“The cars are equal and when they’re equal, you’re going to have a situation like this,” he said. “What we need now is the race tracks to consider the asphalt they’re putting down and even reconfigure the lanes so that we have somewhere to race.”
He said changing the cars isn’t working.
“I think we need to leave the cars alone for a good 10, 20 years,” he said. “Let the teams be.”
It was much the same in the season-opening Daytona 500, as former driver Kyle Petty, now a TV analyst, surmised.
“Daytona was terrible,” he said. “All hype, no substance. For 480 miles, they went in a line. We saw it at Talladega — a single-file race — no racing.”
Patrick’s Daytona 500 a female best; ‘learning curve’ ahead
By Rick Minter
From the start of Speedweeks through the closing stages of the Daytona 500, an overwhelming amount of focus was on Danica Patrick, first for her romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then for her winning the pole for the 500.
It continued on Sunday in the race as Patrick ran among the leaders all day and even became the first woman to lead the 500 under the green flag, when she took the top spot for the first time on Lap 90. She wound up leading five laps.
But with 10 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson, who had ridden under the media radar for most of Speedweeks, surged past Brad Keselowski into the lead and held it the rest of the way to score his second Daytona 500 victory.
Johnson, who stuck to single-car runs throughout the pre-race practices, said his speed at the end of the race shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.
“At the end when it was time to go, I knew we had a straight race car with no scratches on it,” he said. “We worked real hard. We had a game plan down here every time. Even though we were in single-car drafts [in practice], we had an agenda and things we worked on and made the car a little bit better each day, kept perfecting it.
“I had one heck of a race car.”
He said that just because the media attention was elsewhere, it didn’t mean those truly in the know were caught off-guard.
“I guess I was quiet in the overall spectrum of things from the media side,” he said.“I think people in the garage, people knew we were sitting on a lot of speed and had a very good race car.”
Johnson said the key to his win was the pass of Keselowski with 10 laps to go, just before the caution flag flew. Because he was leading, he got to choose which lane he’d be in for the restart. He picked the preferred lane up high, and Keselowski wasn’t able to overcome the disadvantage, and faded to fourth behind the surging duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, who finished second and third, respectively.
Patrick lined up third on the deciding restart, but faded to eighth at the end, which still was the best-ever Daytona 500 finish by a female. Sara Christian holds the all-time Cup record with a fifth-place finish at Pittsburgh in 1949.
Patrick said she needed more experience to truly contend for victory.
“I really didn’t feel like I had a great grasp as to ‘how do you go win this race,’” she said. “I hadn’t wrapped my head around exactly how that was going to happen.
“I kept thinking about it out there, because for the most part I was running half throttle for most of the race, running in the line. I will know better for next time and for Talladega. I mean the same stuff will probably apply.”
Johnson was among those praising Patrick for her performance.
“Being close to other competitors, door-to-door, whatever environment takes place on the race track, at these speeds, she was very comfortable, held a great wheel, was smooth and predictable, took advantage of runs when she had them,” he said. “She did a really good job.”
But Johnson cautioned that Patrick’s success at Daytona isn’t a sign that she’ll be a contender when the circuit moves to other types of tracks.
“I think the style of race track really suits her,” he said. “When we get to the other tracks, she has a tall learning curve ahead of her.”
Johnson also has some learning to do, as he and his crew chief Chad Knaus prepare to race NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race cars on the flat mile at Phoenix International Raceway this week and at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway the week after.
Their Daytona 500 win won’t be any help there, said Knaus, who was enjoying his first Daytona 500 win, as he was suspended from NASCAR when Johnson won in 2006.
“That’s the thing that’s difficult about our sport,” he said. “You’ve got to move on relatively quickly and put the good things and the bad things behind you.”
In historic first, Danica leaps to next level
By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
For the first three days of Speedweeks at Daytona, all the buzz was about Danica Patrick and what she was doing off-track, specifically her romance with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
But after Sunday’s pole qualifying for the 55th annual Daytona 500, the talk shifted to Patrick’s activities on the track. She made NASCAR history by turning a lap at 196.434 miles per hour to win the pole for the 500. She became the first woman to win the pole for a race in the series now known as Sprint Cup. And she became the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2002 to win the pole for the sport’s most prestigious race in their rookie season. Patrick broke the qualifying record for females held by Janet Guthrie, who qualified ninth at Bristol and Talladega in 1977.
She will start the 500 alongside outside pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, and the remainder of the starting lineup will be determined after Thursday’s Budweiser Duels.
Like many a Daytona pole winner before her, Patrick gave much of the credit to her crew, led by veteran crew chief and Daytona Beach resident Tony Gibson.
“I appreciate the recognition, but it really falls, as I think I said before I went out on the track, 90 percent on Tony [Gibson] and his guys, everybody that gives me the car to go out there and be fast, and maybe 10 percent on me,” Patrick said. “All I have to do is think about going out there, being smooth, not letting the car bind up, running on that yellow line.
“Outside of that, I think it shows how well-prepared Tony and everybody was, how strong the Hendrick engines are, how good the new Chevy SS is.
We’ve been fast since practice in January.”
Gibson said Patrick, who will start on the pole for the first Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Thursday and on the pole for the Daytona 500 no matter where she finishes in the Duel, understated her contribution to the final result.
“It’s more than 10 percent because you can put a good product out there, but if you don’t have the person to drive it, put everything else together, it can really damage your day,” he said. “We just gave her a product that was really good and she took it the rest of the way. It’s more than 10 percent, I promise you. It’s 50/50.”
Gibson also pointed out that Patrick had a lot on the line, not just because of her gender but because of her lack of a guaranteed starting spot for the 500.
“I’m proud of her,” he said. “I know there was a lot of pressure on her to come here and qualify well, in the top six, to lock us in. I’m proud of her to carry that weight on her shoulders. She didn’t falter. She did everything right. She hit her marks, hit her marks on the shifts, and here we are.”
Patrick, who also made history for women by leading laps in the Indianapolis 500 and by winning an Indy car race in Japan, attributed her record-breaking racing career in large part to fast cars, to her upbringing and to her ability to perform at a high level while under the glare of the spotlight that comes with being a high-profile female performer in a mostly male sport.
“First and foremost, I grew up with good values and good goals,” she said. “I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. That was instilled in me from very young, from the beginning.
“Then I feel like thriving in those moments where the pressure’s on, has also been a help for me. I also feel like I’ve been lucky in my career to be with good teams and have good people around me. I don’t think any of it would have been possible without that.
“For those reasons, I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope that I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make. We are excited to do it.”
All eyes on Gen 6 cars as competitive debut nears
By RICK MINTER
With NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series set to kick off the 2013 campaign this weekend at Daytona International Speedway with the non-points Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night followed by pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, much of the focus will be on the new Generation 6 race car, which makes its first appearance in a competitive environment.
NASCAR president Mike Helton will be watching as closely as anyone, because he’s the one who will be responsible for making adjustments if one manufacturer winds up with a significant advantage over its competitors.
The new cars are built to more closely resemble the showroom versions they represent, so Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas all have different shapes. NASCAR has made every effort to ensure that all cars, while having different characteristics, are equal aerodynamically, but the true test won’t come until there are points and money on the line.
Helton said that going into Speedweeks at Daytona, he believes the three manufacturers’ products are close aerodynamically.
“We gave the manufacturers the aero numbers to match up to and asked them to design a car that would do that,” he said. “In today’s world, we can use a lot of science and technology to go into the design of these cars from a competition aspect. Hopefully we’ve done that correctly, but with the uniqueness of the shapes of these things, we could get back to the days where we have to adjust spoilers or something, but we don’t think so.”
In an earlier era, it was almost a weekly occurrence to see representatives of race teams and manufacturers trekking to the NASCAR hauler in the garage to plead with Helton and other officials for rules tweaks to help them overcome disadvantages. Those disadvantages, both real and perceived, also were discussed and debated in many a water-cooler conversation across the NASCAR nation.
Helton said that the return of that kind of debate wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
“The design of the cars and matching up to the showroom cars represents a bit of a throwback of its own, so going back to arguing over who’s got the best aero package and who’s got the best horsepower is part of the rivalry of our sport,” he said. “That’s something we’ve got experience with. It’s not the worst thing.”
Helton also said he’ll be watching closely when the Gen-6 car makes its first competitive appearance on an intermediate-length track, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 10.
“We want the intermediate-track racing to get better,” he said. “We’d like to figure out how to keep the guy from getting out by himself and just running away from everybody.”
But he believes another unpopular kind of racing, one involving the two-car tandems that dominated recent races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, is a thing of the past with the new car. “I think it’s gone,” Helton said. “… What we’ve seen so far – and what the garage area thinks – is that it doesn’t work any more.”
Helton said the risks involved in tandem racing now far exceed the potential reward.
“In testing, we saw two cars hooking up, and one car by itself could run as fast as they could,” he said. “And drivers in the tandem have to rely even more on each other’s talent than they did in the past.”
The art of winning
Racing artist helps to preserve painting schemes he pioneered
By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
Visitors to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., where the fourth class will be inducted on Friday, will get to see some of Albert “Buz” McKim’s best work, and it won’t have anything to do with his day job as the Hall’s historian.
In addition to his knack for putting together exhibits and for telling the story of NASCAR’s history, McKim is an accomplished racing artist, and as such has hand-lettered many a race car over the year.
His latest lettering job, on a replica of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford that Tiny Lund drove to victory in the 1963 Daytona 500, will be on display to commemorate Leonard Wood’s induction into the Hall. Joining it will be a replica of the 1954 Hudson Hornet driven by another inductee, the late Herb Thomas. McKim lettered that car nearly 30 years ago, and the paint job has stood the test of time without any issues.
“Maybe I should have charged them more,” he chuckled.
It all began back in his youth, when he attempted to be a race driver on the tracks around Daytona Beach, Fla., where his family moved from his birthplace in New Jersey. Going to the tracks was a family affair as his father was the track announcer at several tracks in central Florida.
“I got my first race car when I was about 14, a 1955 Chevy that we paid 50 bucks for,” McKim said. “Of course I didn’t have any money. The thing ran, but we had to paint it. I couldn’t afford to have anybody do it, so I did it myself.”
He spent about a week on the project, but the finished product was impressive.
“Somebody saw it and said, ‘Hey, that looks pretty good, how about doing mine?’” McKim said. “Now, 1,200 cars later I’m working on the Wood Brothers’ car.”
McKim drove for about six seasons before deciding that he had a better future painting cars than driving them.
“And it wasn’t helping attract girls like I’d hoped,” he said. “But my folks knew exactly what they were doing [by allowing him to race] because it kept me, my brother and all our friends busy and broke all through high school.”
From there, McKim ventured into painting cars at Daytona International Speedway.
“I’d go to the speedway during Speedweeks every year and go through the garage area with my paint box, and if anybody needed anything I’d take care of it,” he said. “And I handled most of the work for the guys in the Daytona Beach area.”
He also helped design paint schemes back in the 1970s.
He designed the King’s Row Fireplace Shops paint scheme on Benny Parsons’ No. 72 Chevrolet and the Purolator scheme on the Wood Brothers’ Mercury, although he didn’t do the actual painting on the cars.
“Those cars wound up being back-to-back Daytona 500 winners,” McKim said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”
McKim also has done racing artwork, designed race program covers and even done drawings for cartoon characters, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ren and Stimpy.
McKim eventually began making his living as a racing historian, working for NASCAR in Daytona Beach before joining the Hall of Fame staff in Charlotte.
Through it all, he kept his paint brushes handy, and was ready when the Wood Brothers needed someone to put a period-correct paint scheme on their car.
“I hadn’t done much painting since I came to Charlotte, so it was like getting back on course to do the Wood Brothers’ car,” he said.
Now hear this …
Media tour reveals new rides, new tech, even new romance
By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
NASCAR’s annual media tour, held each year in Charlotte, N.C. prior to the start of Speedweeks in Daytona, usually generates off-season news as teams and NASCAR wait for the tour to make any official announcements concerning the upcoming season.
This year’s tour, held last week, was no different, except that some of the biggest news came the day after the tour ended when Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed to the Associated Press that they were dating each other.
It had been rumored for weeks that Patrick, who announced last fall that she was divorcing her husband, Paul Hospenthal, and Stenhouse, the two-time and defending Nationwide Series champion, were romantically involved.
Stenhouse, who will face Patrick in the Sprint Cup circuit’s Rookie of the Year contest this season, was questioned about their relationship during the media tour but offered little insight. The two spoke with the AP the next day and insisted that their off-track relationship won’t affect the way they race each other on the track.
Stenhouse, 25, is moving up to Cup to drive the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing. Patrick, 30, will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.
On the tour, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that it had signed Kyle Busch to a long-term contract extension. Gibbs also will field the No. 54 Toyota in the Nationwide Series with Busch as its primary driver. Busch, for the most part, raced his own car in the Nationwide Series last year, but without the success he’s had in Gibbs’ cars in the past.
“This is a big deal for us,” JGR President J.D. Gibbs said. “It’s no secret that you have to have great drivers to win in NASCAR, and in the past year we’ve been able to secure long-term deals with Kyle and Denny [Hamlin] and of course we were able to add Matt [Kenseth] as well. Kyle is a big part of our success at JGR and we’re thrilled to know he will be with us for a long time.”
Busch, who drove for both Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports earlier in his career, said he looked around and decided that staying with Gibbs was his best opportunity.
“I did have options, which was awesome,” he said. “I just felt like this was the best place for me. I’ve been here for a while now.”
Busch said the lineup of drivers and crew chiefs at Gibbs weighed heavily in his decision.
“It just shows nothing but positive growth over here for this organization,” he said.
At Roush Fenway Racing, team co-owner Jack Roush said he hoped to put Trevor Bayne in a full-time Sprint Cup ride in 2014. Bayne, who is set to run a full Nationwide Series campaign for Roush this season, already runs a limited Cup schedule in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford. He won the Daytona 500 in that car in 2011.
Roush said Bayne’s move to a full-time Cup ride will require more sponsorship and continued improved performance by Bayne.
There were plenty of sponsor-related announcements last week, most of them involving existing sponsors continuing their relationships, plus a few new sponsors joining the sport. Hertz was among them, announcing that it was teaming with Penske Racing to back cars in both the Cup and Nationwide Series.
Cessna also announced that it would be sponsoring Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet at Ganassi Racing for 10 races this season, joining McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper and Bass Pro Shops.
There also was confirmation that the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has 13 unsponsored races at this point.
His team owner Rick Hendrick said he’s not concerned and is waiting to sign a backer with the best long-term prospects.
Hendrick also announced that his youngest driver, Chase Elliott, will run five ARCA and nine Camping World Truck Series races under the Hendrick banner. Elliott, the 17-year-old son of former Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott, is in position to take over one of Hendrick’s four Cup cars, if and when one of the current drivers retires.
Jeff Gordon, at age 41, appears the most likely candidate for retirement at some point in the not-too-distant future. He talked about his plans last week, telling reporters that he doesn’t intend to compete into his 50s as many of his peers have done.
NASCAR officials discussed a new track-drying system that is billed as quicker than the kerosene-burning jet dryers now in use and more environmentally friendly.
Drying the track after a rain has been a painfully slow process in the past, as the process can take up to two hours at most tracks, making for a long wait for fans at the track and watching on TV.
“The goal is to improve it by 80 percent,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said. “So that means if we’re drying Daytona off, where it usually took two and a half hours, we get it down to 30 minutes.”
And France said that with the new system they’re close to meeting his goal.
“We’re going to be able to dry Martinsville off in 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s going to be a spectacular thing, and all auto racing will benefit from this as we go down the road.”
The new system, which NASCAR owns the rights to, relies on compressed air and heat, plus some vacuuming, to dry the track. The old jet dryers, supplied by the tracks, used the heat from jet engines to blow water off the track as well as dry it.
NASCAR officials also praised the work that has been done on the Generation 6 race car that will make its competitive debut next month at Daytona International Speedway.
“The collaborative efforts between the manufacturers, teams and NASCAR has been unparalleled in my 34-plus years in the sport,” said NASCAR’s vice president for competition Robin Pemberton. “We’ve been highly encouraged by the results that we’ve seen at the tests at Daytona and Charlotte earlier this month, and are optimistic that not only will the cars look great, we believe they will race great …
“I really believe we’re going to see some of the most competitive, intense and exciting racing that we’ve seen in quite some time.”