Viva Las Vegas – A lot of luck to go around as new season keeps surprising
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s season of surprises continues even though Carl Edwards’ win in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway wasn’t unexpected given his recent performances on the intermediate tracks and Ford’s strength at Las Vegas.
But on down the finishing order at Las Vegas – and the Sprint Cup points standings after the first three races – there are some unexpected names showing up.
Among the biggest surprises to date is the strong start by Paul Menard in his first year at Richard Childress Racing. Menard came to RCR with backing from his family’s home improvement company of the same name, but so far he’s proven to be much more than a driver with money behind him.
After three races Menard is ahead of his fellow RCR drivers in the points standings. He’s in sixth place, 17 points behind leader Tony Stewart, who finished second at Las Vegas after leading the most laps but also drawing a penalty for removing equipment from his stall during a pit stop.
Menard also had the best Las Vegas finish of any of his teammates. He finished 12th, while Clint Bowyer was 15th, Kevin Harvick was 17th and Jeff Burton was 21st.
Menard told reporters at Las Vegas that one of the main keys to his success of late is that he and his crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe have been made to feel at home in the RCR camp.
“Everybody has been good to work with, from all four crew chiefs working well together to all four of us drivers working well together,” he said. “I’ve been really well received in the whole group, and that’s neat for me personally and professionally.”
Another surprise is over at Hendrick Motorsports, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has moved from fourth to first among his teammates.
He finished a Hendrick-best eighth at Las Vegas, and is a team-best 10th in the points standings. Mark Martin is 11th, Jimmie Johnson 12th and Jeff Gordon 19th.
Earnhardt told reporters at Las Vegas that his success so far is due in large part to his crew chief Steve Letarte and Letarte’s crew, which spent the last few years working with Jeff Gordon but took on Earnhardt in a big off-season shift at Hendrick.
“It’s a fun team, a great group of guys,” Earnhardt said. “I’m proud to be a part of it and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well.”
He said that even though he qualified poorly (33rd) at Las Vegas, he wound up with a good car at the end of the race.
“I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments,” Earnhardt said. “I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong, and he was hitting on it every time.
“We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up.”
Earnhardt said that it’s imperative for him to make things work with Letarte and to do it right away.
“Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I’ve got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work,” he said. “If it doesn’t work with him, I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony [Eury] Jr. and those guys.
“But I want this to work. I want to be in a [Car of Tomorrow] the rest of my career as long as I can, and I want to be successful and so I’m just trying to work hard.
“We’re getting better. It feels like it’s working.”
YOUNG BLOOD – Bayne, 20, wins Daytona 500 on day filled with nostalgia
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
It’s no real secret that NASCAR has lost some of its spark in the 10 years since Dale Earnhardt, its biggest star, died in a crash during the Daytona 500. TV ratings have dropped along with at-track attendance. Some of the most disgruntled fans seem to be the old core audience, who long for the days when NASCAR was a Southern sport, racing at tracks in the South with drivers and teams from the South competing for wins each week. Now there are more Sprint Cup drivers from California than from any state in the South.
But after Sunday’s Daytona 500, the old core crowd ought to be happy.
For starters, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a North Carolina native, won the pole for the 500 and was a contender for a time.
Then, as the laps wound down in the 53rd running of the Great American Race, two sons of the South were running first and second, and the second-place car belonged to the iconic Wood Brothers, who once dominated the superspeedways but hadn’t won a race since 2001.
Unadilla, Ga.’s David Ragan, driving for Roush Fenway Racing, had the lead, and Knoxville, Tenn.’s Trevor Bayne, who turned 20 the day before and was running in just his second Sprint Cup race ever, trailed him in the Wood Brothers Ford, which was painted in the same scheme as the Mercury that the legendary South Carolinian David Pearson drove for the Woods back in the 1970s.
Ragan dropped out of contention after he was penalized for changing lanes too soon on a restart, leaving his one-time drafting partner Bayne to fend for himself in a green-white-checkered-flag dash to the finish.
But Bayne got a mighty drafting push from veteran Bobby Labonte, a Texan, who was in contention for the win for the first time in quite a while, and held the lead as the leaders took the white flag.
Then Carl Edwards closed in and gave Bayne just enough of a push to send the youngster and his 61-year-old race team to Victory Lane in NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
And for the sentimental fans in the crowd, there was nothing more heartwarming than to see Glen Wood, the 85-year-old patriarch of the Wood Brothers race team, being escorted to Victory Lane by none other than his team’s one-time rival Richard Petty.
“I walked in Victory Lane with Richard Petty and Edsel Ford and my dad,” said Eddie Wood, Glen Wood’s son and one of the current co-owners of the team. “I don’t know how much better that can get.”
With his victory, Bayne joins A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Tiny Lund and David Pearson as drivers who have won the Daytona 500 in the Woods’ No. 21 car. But his win is the first in the 500 for the Woods since Pearson’s victory in 1976, which was 15 years before Bayne was born. And he seemed humbled to be a part of such an elite group of drivers.
“That’s a cool list,” he said. “It’s incredible to be a part of this group, it really is.”
But he wasn’t just looking back.
“To be added to that list, period, is crazy, especially at our first attempt,” he said. “That’s just insane. It sets the bar for this team. We don’t expect to win them all, but we know we can now, that’s for sure.”
For Ragan, who recovered to finish 14th after serving his penalty, the setback was tough to take. And he said he’s not convinced he broke any rules.
“I know what the rules are,” he said. “I felt like the leader had the start of the race. I felt like we fired, and I started to move down right before the start-finish line, but I don’t think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and the bottom …
“It’ll take us a long time to forget this one, but we’ll move on to Phoenix, and the sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”
And he pointed out that without Bayne pushing him, he wouldn’t have been in the lead to start with. “Trevor did a great job,” he said.
Veteran Terry Labonte, who wound up one spot behind Ragan, summed up the feelings of many in NASCAR with his comments about the Wood Brothers and their big win. “I’m so happy for those guys,” he said. “That’s just a great family, and they’ve done so much for the sport. I sure am glad to see them in Victory Lane.”
‘Hi, five’ Johnson wins fifth consecutive Sprint Cup
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
For most of the 2010 Sprint Cup season, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team looked vulnerable despite the fact that they were riding a streak of four straight championships.
Throughout the season and in the Chase, they admittedly didn’t show the pure speed they have in recent seasons. But when the title was on the line in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson and his team looked more invincible than vulnerable.
While Denny Hamlin, the points leader coming into the Ford 400, was involved in an early fender-banger with Greg Biffle, and third-place Kevin Harvick was caught speeding on pit road, Johnson and his team simply made their car better when it counted and finished a strong second to secure a record fifth straight Sprint Cup title and become the first champion to have entered the final Chase race without the points lead.
So much for being considered vulnerable.
“They are spectacular,” said Carl Edwards, who won the last two races of the season but finished a distant fourth in the standings. “It just looked like they didn’t make any mistakes today. They steadily made their car better and they let the other guys make mistakes…
“That is probably what they do best. They toe the line and keep progressing forward without too much emotion or too many mistakes. I think that is the thing that all of us are trying to do, be that good … I believe we really are all witnessing something that is nothing short of spectacular.”
But Edwards wouldn’t go as far as saying Johnson is invincible. “No, I feel like I’m better than him,” he said. “I mean, everybody feels like that. That’s why we race. If you get a driver out there right now that’s driving that says, ‘Oh no, Jimmie is a lot better than me,’ you don’t want that guy on your team. Obviously, they have proven that they are able to win more races and more championships than the rest of us, we just have to figure out how to do that.”
Johnson’s latest championship also was the 10th for his Hendrick Motorsports team, breaking a tie with the old Petty Enterprises team.
And his fifth title is being compared to championship streaks in other sports, such as the Boston Celtics’ streak of eight NBA titles in a row back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the New York Yankees that won five World Series from 1949-1953, and the Montreal Canadiens who captured four Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960.
Now, only two drivers, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, have more championships than Johnson. They have seven apiece, which were won using a season-long points formula, while Johnson’s came in a 10-race Chase format.
Among the obvious questions in the aftermath of Johnson’s fifth title are just where he stacks up among the sport’s all-time greats and when and if he’ll move up from his current position – third on the all-time championship list – to first place.
“I don’t know if it’s in reach,” Johnson said in his champion’s interview at Homestead. “I know we are going to have chances to win championships, but you just don’t know how the year is going to unfold. You just don’t know what is going to take place. It is so tough to win championships, and it’s easy to look at us having five in a row and say, naturally, just keep doing it.
“Next year is a whole new year. There’s no telling what the challenges will be, with what we are going to face, strengths of the other teams and where we are going to be at. We are closer. There’s six and seven out there ahead of us, and we’ll work as hard as we can to do it.”
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus said he believes his driver is as good as Earnhardt or Waltrip or Pearson or any of the great ones who have come before him.
“The guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, the guys like that; you hear a lot of what they say about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do,” Knaus said.
“I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy [Johnson] can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He’s been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He’s put his nose in places that other people would not do and not be able to pull off.”
A First! But not in every way Cup driver dominance may bring new rules to Nationwide series
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide Series championship, which he clinched two races early with a third-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, was his first major NASCAR championship and also the first for his car owner, Roger Penske. The longtime owner and former driver has 12 championships in other forms of racing, but Penske had none in NASCAR before this, despite 63 Cup race victories and 10 on the Nationwide side.
But in many ways, Keselowski’s and Penske’s championship was too familiar for many in the NASCAR world. It was the fifth straight year that a full-time Sprint Cup driver won the championship in the second-tier series that once was looked upon as a developmental series and one where non-Cup teams would be competitive. And Keselowski’s triumph continued a streak of 10 straight years in which either a Cup team, or one closely affiliated with a Cup team, won the Nationwide title. The last independents to win the Nationwide crown were driver Jeff Green and owner Greg Pollex back in 2000.
The dominance of the Cup teams in Nationwide has officials at NASCAR pondering rules changes that would give the independent Nationwide teams a better chance in races and the championship hunt. With two races left to run this year, full-time Cup drivers hold four of the top five spots in the drivers standings and six of the top 10.
Cup drivers or Cup-affiliated teams have won every Nationwide race but one. Boris Said won at Montreal driving for Robby Benton.
In some aspects, the Nationwide Series is serving as the developmental series some would like it to see. Cup teams often put young Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series to help them gain experience, which is at a premium since private testing is banned at tracks that host Cup races.
But some experienced drivers, like Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, continue to compete in Nationwide and often dominate the races. Busch has won 12 Nationwide races this season, Edwards three and Keselowski six.
Edwards told reporters at Texas that he’s against limiting Cup driver participation in Nationwide or not allowing them to run for the championship.
“I hope we can run for the championship,” he said. “It seems odd to make rules that keep certain drivers out, based on where they race …
“Right now Brad is doing very well, but I am not dominating or anything like that. I hope we can run for the championship and do what has been done historically. To me the greatest achievement in NASCAR would be winning both championships in one year … I don’t know if it will ever happen, but it would be a neat opportunity.”
Keselowski said in his champion’s interview that gaining experience and doing things to make him a better Cup driver were arguments he used in convincing a skeptical Penske to let him run the undercard circuit full-time while also running every Cup race.
“Coming to Penske Racing, I told Roger I wanted to do this Nationwide deal,” Keselowski said. “I think he looked at me like I was crazy and was looking at this like it would only take away focus from the Cup program.
“But I said we’re building a foundation for success on the Cup level. It’s here that we’re building cars and people and attracting sponsors that will make the company stronger as a whole and give us a better shot at winning a Cup championship.”
Penske’s question about taking away focus seems to have merit. It wasn’t until the second Martinsville race this year that Keselowski got his first top-10 finish in Cup, and although he followed that 10th-place finish with another at Talladega the next week, he’s still 25th in the driver standings.
But he got to give his fellow Michigan native Penske, who can afford most anything he might ever want, something really special – a NASCAR owner’s champion trophy.
“It’s hard to give a billionaire something,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
And Penske appreciated it.
“We’ve been in NASCAR a long, long time,” Penske said. “To me, this championship is like winning the Indy 500 for the first time.
Is it Finally Johnson’s turn…to lose? Close in points, top three drive on to final three
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The Talladega wild card has been played, and there’s still a close battle for the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. After the top three drivers in the points standings all finished in the top 10 in the Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the series heads into the final three events with Jimmie Johnson leading Denny Hamlin by 14 and Kevin Harvick by 38.
That’s the closest points margin among the top three with three races to go since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, and it’s exactly what NASCAR officials were looking for when they instituted the 12-driver, 10-race season-ending method of determining a champion.
And as Harvick said, while sitting next to Johnson in the press room after the race, it opens the door for something that many of the sport’s fans badly want to see – a different champion.
“No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win,” Harvick said, looking over at Johnson.
“Says who?” Johnson replied, laughing.
Then Harvick laid it out, laughing at times but completely serious otherwise.
“Everybody but [Johnson and his team] wants somebody else to win,” Harvick said. “I like Jimmie as good as anybody. But for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us [Harvick or Hamlin] needs to make something happen. I can promise you that.”
But Harvick said it won’t be easy to knock off a team that has won four straight titles and has finishes of first, second, third, third, fifth and seventh in the past six races.
“When these guys have done what they’ve done over the last four years … the Chase started, they’re right back on track, it was important for the two of us as teams – speaking of the 29 and the 11 – to go out and knock those top fives off and not make any mistakes,” Harvick said. “When you go back and look at the stats over the last four years, top 10s do not cut it. You got to be in the top five and being up front every week.
“It’s the same pace that [Johnson’s] had this year, it’s just the two of us have done a lot of the same things … It’s important to continue to do that over the next three weeks.”
Johnson said he’s not surprised the points race is shaking out like it is.
“The way [Harvick] ran through the first 26 [regular season races], I would definitely have picked [him],” Johnson said. “A lot of people argued the point that us and [Hamlin’s No. 11 team] were kind of out of sorts when the Chase started. I think inside the garage area, we all expected the 48 and the 11 to be where they needed to. We ran good the last couple races to show that before the Chase started.
“These guys have been so consistent all year, didn’t matter if it was a short track, big track, superspeedways. I’m not surprised to be racing these two.”
The way previous championship battles have gone, it looks like there’s a good chance the title won’t be decided until the final lap of the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it looks like the three now at the top of the heap are the only ones left with a realistic chance to win the title.
The 12th-place driver in the Chase, Clint Bowyer, got the victory at Talladega, one that took officials some time to determine as the race ended under caution for a wreck in Turn One on the last lap, but he’s out of the title hunt after being docked 150 points for a problem on his car following his victory in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
His win didn’t even move him out of the 12th spot in the standings.
Fourth-place Jeff Gordon is 207 points out of the lead, and fifth-place Kyle Busch is 230 back. From Tony Stewart in seventh on down, the rest of the Chasers are more than 300 points behind.
“We really have been out of it the last few weeks,” Gordon said. “So I feel like you are going to have guys like us trying to win, and then you are going to have those three [Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick] really battling it out.”
WILD CARD Historically, Talladega has potential to scramble–Chase
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The points standings at the top of the Chase chart are as close as they’ve ever been with four races to go, and now it’s time to play the wild card in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sunday’s Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway is viewed as the “wild card” in NASCAR’s 10-race run to the championship, since the track and its restrictor plate racing tends to lead to a Big Wreck that could bring about a big scramble in the points standings with just three races left to run – after Talladega – this season.
Right now, Jimmie Johnson leads Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin by six points, with Kevin Harvick, in third place 62 points back, the only other driver who is heading into Talladega with a reasonable chance of taking the points lead.
The Talladega race also is seen by many as a last chance to ratchet up interest among fans and TV viewers, who haven’t taken to this Chase as many in NASCAR had hoped.
Johnson, who is on pace to win a record fifth-straight championship, is among those who view Talladega as having the potential to drastically change the complexion of the Chase in a matter of seconds.
“I still can’t stress it enough that Talladega can equal this whole thing up, and it’s an eight-car race or a 10-car race for the championship,” Johnson said. “After we get out of Talladega, there will be more of a clear strategy that will kind of unfold, and we’ll know who we really need to race and what to do from there.
“Hopefully we are in a position to protect. That’s the position I want to be in … I want to go to Talladega and win that race, but you just don’t know … After Talladega, I’ll know what I need to do then.”
Hamlin, whose recent runs indicate he’s a serious threat to dethrone the four-time and defending Chase champion, said last week that one strategy for him could be to keep Johnson in front of him all day at Talladega, so that if one gets swept up in a wreck, so will the other.
“If I’m around him or right behind him, if I’m going to be in a bad spot – say I’m 15th and get caught in a wreck – then I make sure that he’s around me, then more than likely he’s going to be in, or put himself in, a bad spot, too,” Hamlin said.
But Hamlin also pointed out that he believes he can race for the win at Talladega.
“That’s not saying that I’m going to follow him around for 500 miles or whatever next week, because honestly I feel like we have a better Talladega package than what those guys [Johnson’s team] have had,” he said.
Harvick – the points leader for much of the 26-race regular season and still right in the thick of the championship battle – pointed out that for drivers, racing at Talladega is as much about what those around you do as it is about what you do yourself.
“When you get to Talladega you’re kind of at the mercy of a lot of things that can happen around you,” he said, adding that he agrees with his fellow drivers that the Chase picture will be much more clear after the checkered flag falls Sunday afternoon. And he’ll know better what he and his team need to do strategy-wise to make a run for the title.
“I think after you get done with Talladega you’ll kind of know where you stand as far as what you need to do over the last few weeks,” he said. “I think the last few weeks are really good race tracks for us, and Talladega is a good race track for us as well.
“They can all flip you upside down and turn things around and have things turn at any given week, but it seems that Talladega is definitely the biggest wild card as far as what’s going to happen and who is going to get caught in a wreck and who isn’t.
“So, I think everybody is waiting for that particular race to see where you stack up from there.”
HIGHER POWER – McMurray wins again, inspired by father and faith
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Right in the middle of a Chase that doesn’t seem to be exciting fans as much as the NASCAR powers that be had hoped for, along comes a heart-warming story involving a popular non-Chase driver.
Jamie McMurray, the odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing last year, sped away from Chasers Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway and grabbed his third Sprint Cup victory of an improbable comeback season. He’s already won the sport’s two biggest races, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, plus a Nationwide Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car.
In Victory Lane, McMurray took time to talk about what winning races means to him these days, and to explain more about why he was in tears and almost unable to speak after winning the Daytona 500 back in February.
But first he talked about how much it meant for him that his dad Jim McMurray, a regular fixture around the tracks who somehow missed seeing his son take two checkered flags this year, was finally able to see his son take the checkered flag.
“It’s very special,” McMurray said. “My dad and I are really good friends, and he is certainly what got me involved in racing. We still race go carts together, we fish together, we do all kinds of stuff together; and he is really one of my best friends. It’s important to have him here.”
He also talked about being able to dedicate his win to the family of Shane Hmiel, gravely injured in a dirt-track race the week before.
Hmiel’s father Steve, a longtime NASCAR crew chief and team manager, is one of the key players on McMurray’s Chip Ganassi-owned team.
“Shane Hmiel had a terrible racing accident, and our team is thinking about him,” McMurray said. “We’d certainly like to dedicate our win tonight to him and the whole Hmiel family. I wish Steve could’ve been here; he is a huge part of our success.”
And then he talked about his emotions back at Daytona in February.
“I don’t think I ever really got to explain that and why I cried and what was going on there,” he said. “I had a tough year last year; I found out the power of prayer and what that can do for you. When you get to Victory Lane and you get to experience this, it just makes you a believer. And it’s something that is obviously very important to me and my family.”
Later, in his post-race session with the media, McMurray, who is now married and expecting a child, expanded even more on his faith and what it means to have prayers answered. He also said that he considers it selfish to pray for success on the race track ahead of other things in life.
“Certainly it’s not the first thing that I pray about every day,” he said. “But everyone wants to be successful and you want to do well in life, so when you feel like that’s been answered, it’s emotional.”
He said he was pondering those comments as the laps wound down at Charlotte.
“I was like, ‘If I win this race, Lord, if you don’t throw a caution … and I win this race, I’m going to explain to people my feelings and why I felt that way,’” he said.
“And I think that’s important.
“I watch other professional athletes – whether it’s bull riders or basketball players or motorcycle riders – you hear them get out, and you hear them thank God and talk about the power of prayer, and I just think that that’s important for people to understand, and understand why my feelings were the way they were.”
SWEET CHARLOTTE – Young track president is upbeat in down times
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
There’s probably no bad time to be named president of a NASCAR race track, but for Marcus Smith, taking over at Charlotte Motor Speedway two years ago did present some challenges. For starters, he was following H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, the man many consider the greatest racing promoter ever. And then there’s the economy that is hammering auto racing about as hard as any part of the economy.
But Smith, the 36-year-old son of track owner Bruton Smith, was mostly smiling and upbeat recently as he talked about this weekend’s races at Charlotte.
“We’re really focused on making the race better every single time the fans come back, where they’ll really enjoy it as a thing you go to with friends or with family,” he said.
Part of making the races more enjoyable is making the tickets more affordable. And it’s not the easiest thing to do for a person like Smith, who also is responsible for delivering profits to his dad’s company and to its shareholders.
These days in racing, the strongest market for tickets seems to be the individuals who buy from two to four tickets at a time. In NASCAR’s recent boom times, corporations bought tickets by the stack and distributed them to their employees, associates and customers. But not lately.
“Corporate ticket sales have been soft, but we’re starting to see that come back a bit just now,” Smith said. “They really fell off the cliff with the recession. It’s tough times.”
And he’s responded appropriately, he said.
“We’ve lowered prices in a lot of areas,” he said.
“And we offer extra amenities for people who buy a lot of tickets or season tickets. We’ve also lowered prices for people that are just looking to come in for the least amount. That’s good for the fans and in the long run it’s good for NASCAR.”
But will that policy paint him in a corner where he’ll find it difficult to raise prices when the economy recovers?
“It’s no different than any other business, whether you’re selling cereal or race tickets, you have certain expectations of what a fair price is,” Smith said. “We still have tickets that are expensive, $100 or more, but they come with a lot of benefits. And we still have great tickets that used to be $79 and now they’re $49. Sure we’d like to charge more, but at this time we have to charge a fair price for the times we’re in.
“We’re very happy to be able to lower prices in a way that will be responsible to fans and to our company.”
Smith also argued that the media attention on empty seats at NASCAR races, attention that largely comes because of the sport’s successes in the past, is unfair today.
“If you flip on ESPN and see empty seats at baseball or football games, you don’t see stories about attendance being in the toilet,” he said. “We have a history of tremendous sellouts … but on a bad day we’re still bringing in 120,000 or 100,000, and that’s more than a baseball stadium gets in five or six games during regular season.
“It’s a bad economy, but thankfully some people are starting to see it level off and turn around. As things turn around, we’ll start back getting great big crowds.”
Smith also is making strides to emerge from the shadows of his predecessor, Humpy Wheeler. His biggest project to date is a Humpy-like improvement on the backstretch of the track.
That’s where he’s building what he describes as the world’s biggest HD video screen, one that will be 200 feet wide and 80 feet tall.
Construction is expected to begin after this weekend’s races.
“He’s been talking about that since the first day he took over,” said track spokesman Scott Cooper.
“WON FORD” – Biffle’s win gives carmaker a longed-for victory
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Jimmie Johnson came away from the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway with the points lead after posting a strong second-place finish. But the big winner, from a manufacturers’ standpoint, was the Ford Motor Company. Its cars dominated both the qualifying – as Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard swept the front row – and the race as Greg Biffle won for the second time this season, the second time at Kansas and the 16th time in his career.
It was just the second win of the season for Ford, and it came largely as a result of some information sharing among the Ford teams, according to Jamie Allison, director of Ford North American Motorsports.
“What a great feeling for everyone at Ford,” Allison said. He pointed to the fact that Fords driven by Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard and Carl Edwards were also in the lead pack for most of the race proves that the Ford team isn’t just a one-car wonder.
“Running one, two, three Fords with 50 laps to go shows you that it is deeper than just one team,” he said. “I am very proud of everybody at Roush, [Richard Petty Motorsports] and Wood Brothers. It is a ‘One Ford’ effort.”
Biffle agreed that his victory was more than a one-team effort.
“I am so glad, not only for [team owner Jack Roush] but for all the Ford guys and Roush Fenway guys,” he said. “Everybody has worked so dang hard, and it makes it even more rewarding and exciting for us.”
Roush said it was one of those races where Ford had several chances to win, unlike many events earlier this year where Fords were outclassed by the Chevrolets, Toyotas and Dodges.
“We had a whole bunch of cars that could have won the race,” Roush said. “All of our Fords were good out there today.”
The Kansas win will be even more special than usual for Biffle’s crew, according to teammate Carl Edwards.
“Ford told us right before the race that they were giving us an extra incentive to win the race,” Edwards said of the $100,000 bonus – to be split among driver and team – that was put up by Ford for a race-winning effort.
“They had some extra money in a fund that they weren’t using, so Greg is going to be handing out checks to his pit crew.
That is really cool. Ford wanted us to step it up, and Greg did that.”
Edwards didn’t do so badly himself. He finished sixth and gained some ground in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I was frustrated with sixth, but I found out we are only 53 points out of the lead, so that is huge,” he said.
While Edwards is fourth in the standings, Biffle is eighth, 85 behind Johnson. The other Ford driver in the Chase, Matt Kenseth, is mired in 11th, 149 points out of the lead despite a seventh-place finish at Kansas.
Biffle said he’s still looking at the Chase like he can win it, and he said the best way to do that is to do what he did at Kansas.
“We want to win these races,” he said. “We want to have the trophies. They’ve been talking about all the other guys, so we’ll give them something to talk about for the next couple weeks.
“Hopefully in California and Charlotte we can run decent and make our way up there into the points, maybe get up in the top five.”
Hamlin not afraid to steer into controversy
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Along with his successes on Sprint Cup race tracks this year, Denny Hamlin also stands out because he has become one of the few drivers who doesn’t mind speaking his mind.
And even though his outspokenness over NASCAR’s alleged use of “debris” cautions to liven up races has cost him a $50,000 fine from series officials, he weighed in heavily about Clint Bowyer’s penalty for an illegal car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, something most other top drivers declined to do in detail.
During his weekly media session at Dover International Speedway last Friday, Hamlin offered his insight on the situation that led to Bowyer being docked 150 points, which dropped him from second in the standings to 12th. And his comments likely weren’t what NASCAR officials wanted to hear. They also didn’t go over well with Bowyer’s teammate Kevin Harvick, who bumped into Hamlin in practice then had a heated exchange with him afterward.
Hamlin started it off by saying there was a good reason his second-place car at New Hampshire passed the post-race technical inspection while Bowyer’s winning car did not.
“Our car came back and it was correct, but it wasn’t built incorrectly and … [Bowyer’s] car was built incorrectly,” Hamlin said, adding that the fact that the difference between a passing height and a failing height on Bowyer’s car was just 60 thousandths of an inch doesn’t mean it didn’t create a big advantage on the track.
“You can talk about how small the thing was off and you can really try to say that 60-thousandths didn’t help him perform any better … that is a crock,” Hamlin said. “Let me tell you something, that helps a lot.
“I know when we gain five points of downforce, our car runs a ton better …
“NASCAR has been very, very lenient, I feel like, on this car, and they’ve given those guys chances. … I think that [Bowyer’s team] should just be happy that they’re in the Chase at this point. They were warned and they were warned before Richmond. Everyone in the garage knows that. They’re the ones who wanted to press the issue and get all they could to make sure they got in the Chase.”
And Hamlin said the Bowyer car has been wrong for a lot longer than it might appear.
“In the garage, everyone has known it for months,” he said. “They’ve been warned for a long time, way before Richmond. … They wanted to get everything they could. What did they have to lose really? You almost can’t fault them for that.”
NASCAR apparently didn’t say anything to Hamlin about his comments, but an ESPN report indicates his team president, J.D. Gibbs, did tell Hamlin to tone it down.
For their parts, Bowyer and team owner Richard Childress continued to say their car was legal when it arrived at New Hampshire, and they say the reason it failed to pass inspection was that the car was damaged either during the race or when it was pushed to Victory Lane by a tow truck.
They’ll make their case in an appeal scheduled for Wednesday.
And Bowyer didn’t hold back when airing his thoughts on the issue, saying among other things that the NASCAR rumor mill forced series officials into issuing such a hefty penalty, one that he’ll find difficult to overcome.
He said that it makes no sense for a team that knows it’s under scrutiny to try to slip something past the inspectors.
“Who in their right mind, knowing that [inspectors] are going to take that car, wouldn’t have made triple sure that thing was right before it went to the race track?” he said, while also raising questions about the inspection process that officials used to check the car once it was taken back to Concord, N.C..
“They take the car apart, completely apart to measure this thing, and in my opinion that’s not the way the car was raced on the race track,” he said. “I think that’s something to be said.”
Burning up Atlanta – Penultimate pre-Chase race an exciting preview of contest to come
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
With the finish of the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is essentially set, even though there’s one more race to run, at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, before the start of the 10-race run to the title.
Only the bottom two positions are at stake, and Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer are still fairly secure. All Biffle has to beat is one driver at Richmond, and Bowyer has a 117-point lead over 13th-place Ryan Newman.
Even more importantly, several drivers and teams, besides having clinched Chase berths, appear to be peaking just in time to make spirited runs to the title.
Atlanta race winner Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards both have been running strong of late, but their Atlanta runs were among their best of the season.
“We need this momentum,” Stewart said after taking his first win of the year. “This team has been doing an awesome job for the last two and a half or three months, and we’ve been kind of quiet this year, we took off slow but thank goodness … these guys with this Chevrolet have been doing a great job.
“The pit stops have been good. The cars have been good. With [crew chief] Darian [Grubb] and these guys at our shop, it has just been really fun the last couple of months.”
Third-finishing Jimmie Johnson, the four-time and defending Cup champion, said he and his crew finally hit on a chassis set-up that responds positively to mid-race adjustments, something that had eluded them in recent weeks.
“We have had some problems on the mile-and-a-half, two-mile tracks,” Johnson said. “[But] with the set-up we brought [to Atlanta] and the way we worked on things, it seemed we could adjust the car and improve throughout the night and be there at the end of the race.”
Denny Hamlin, who like Johnson has five wins going into the Chase, was blazing fast until a blown engine sidelined his pole-winning No. 11 Toyota after he’d led seven times for 74 laps.
“I know if we had the reliability that we could win this championship, and the odds would be pretty good to win the championship if I can just keep it together for 10 weeks,” he said.
Kurt Busch was fast at Atlanta, even on worn tires, and he salvaged a sixth-place finish even with damage from a late-race run-in with Kasey Kahne.
Busch said he and his team still have work to do if they’re going to seize the momentum in the Chase.
“We’ve got to turn some things around to see what we have against these guys if we’re going to run for the title,” he said.
His brother Kyle Busch was able to score a top-five finish despite losing a lap early on, and points leader Kevin Harvick was fast until a blown tire relegated him to a 33rd-place finish.
Johnson said all that means fans can expect a barn-burner of a Chase.
“If you look around, we’re going to have a really exciting Chase,” he said. “There are a lot of teams coming together now.”
Edwards agreed, saying he puts a lot more stock in the value of momentum than he once did. “I used to never believe in momentum, but I’ve never run so poorly for so long,” he said. “Now, I’m seeing this turnaround, and it’s been a couple of months, and I think I understand the team more and I understand where we’ve been gaining.
“So, for that reason, I believe in this momentum that we have and I believe it will apply to future races.
“You can’t do anything about a cut tire or a broken valve spring or something like that, but at least we’ve proven to ourselves the last couple months that we can do it, and that feels good for us.” Johnson said he too sees value in a good start to the final 10 races.
“We all look for things to encourage the team, to cheer the guys up and get them rallied around – something to send them off like warriors ready to go and charged up for whatever is out there for them.”
‘Alter Ego’ On and off the track: ‘Will the real NASCAR driver please stand up?’
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Sometimes, when watching how NASCAR drivers react off the track compared to how they behave behind the wheel, the old TV game show “To Tell the Truth” comes to mind.
At the end of the game show, where a celebrity panel tries to decide which of the three people before them is the central character and which two are impostors, the host asks: “Will the real (the central character’s name) please stand up?”
Jeff Gordon, who usually is as pleasant and professional as can be outside the car, is at times a tiger behind the wheel.
So which is the real Jeff Gordon?
Here’s what he had to say about the differences in drivers off the track and on.
“I always like to think that on the race track that’s kind of your alter ego,” he said, adding that the environment on the track affects behavior. “When you put the intensity that goes on inside the race car, especially at a place like Bristol … the patience level, the frustration level, is to me equally as intense as it’s ever been.”
He said that it’s not just race drivers who get put in situations where a different side of their personality comes out.
“If you’re in a calm, controlled environment, then your emotions and your personality is going to reflect on that,” he said. “You go into a highly intense environment with a lot of pressure, a competitive intense environment, it’s going to affect your personality and how you react to things.”
But Gordon said the bottom line answer is that the person behind the wheel is closer to who a driver really is.
“I think you really find out truly who you are in those moments, probably more so than you do outside the race car in a more controlled environment,” he said.
Racing also has a way of affecting relationships between drivers. People who might otherwise find lots in common and get along well end up with strained relations because of situations that occur on the track.
Kevin Harvick said that’s true of him and Carl Edwards, a driver he’s had a run-in or two with over the years.
“Sometimes I just think people don’t see eye-to-eye on things,” he said. “I enjoy racing on the race track with Carl (Edwards) and that is all that matters.
“It doesn’t really matter if he likes me or if I like him, and I think we both race each other, and off the race track doesn’t really matter as long as on the race track we race hard and enjoy racing with each other.”
Edwards, who has had several on-track incidents with Brad Keselowski this season including intentionally wrecking him two times, also talked about the differences in the way a driver acts inside and outside his race car.
Interestingly, the in-car side of the usually affable Edwards seemed to come out when asked to discuss the subject.
“It’s really simple,” he said. “I treat everyone the way they treat me. I’m not going to let somebody take advantage of me. That’s all there is to it. I don’t think I’ve ever gone out and been the aggressor of a situation or a bully or anything like that, but I’m not going to let somebody take advantage of me …
“The people who know me and know what I’m about, it makes pretty good sense to them, but, for some reason, I guess some people don’t like that or don’t understand it.”
Cut to the chase: As final 10 approach, is Harvick the new pre-Chase favorite?
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s Race to the Chase, the final regular season races that determine which 12 drivers will compete for the championship over the final 10 races, is down to three races – at Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. And the big question now is whether points leader and Michigan winner Kevin Harvick has replaced four-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson as the pre-Chase favorite.
After his dominating win at Michigan on Sunday – his third triumph of the season – Harvick clinched his spot in the 10-race run to the title. Now he has the luxury of using the next three races to prepare for the Chase and to try to add to his bonus point total. Each regular season win is worth 10 points when the Chase starts, and at this point both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have 50 apiece.
Harvick said he plans to enjoy the upcoming stretch of the schedule.
“Right now we’re in a fortunate position to be doing what we’re doing,” he said. “I’ve been in that 12th-, 13th-place battle … You can’t sleep at night, you can’t do anything to get your mind off of that.
“We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to go and race hard. We’re going to try to gain 30 more bonus points. Hopefully we can have a couple things that we can try … whether it’s engines, parts, pieces, over the next three weeks [we’ll] try to get a little bit better.
“We’re going to enjoy it and we’re going to hopefully be ready for the last 10 weeks.”
For Johnson and the No. 48 team, a mid-season swoon is nothing new, but the timing this year isn’t the best for the team. After scoring back-to-back wins at Infineon Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson has run six races with just one top-10 finish, a 10th a Pocono.
At Michigan, he finished 12th after leading early on. It was a repeat in many ways of his recent runs.
“We started the race good and faded a little bit in the middle of the race when things started to slip from us,” he said in his post-race interview. “We did a good job of keeping our heads in the game and not letting it beat us down, start making bad decisions.
It’s definitely not the finish we wanted, but I think it was a big victory in a lot of other areas.
“At a few races this year we’ve had some struggles, and you can all get frustrated and start making mistakes, but we kept our head in the game.”
Despite Johnson’s recent struggles and Harvick’s rock-solid performance all season, Harvick wasn’t quite ready to declare himself the new Chase favorite.
“I think over the last four years, you can look at the 48 and they’ve done the same thing and won the championship,” he said. “We’re fast enough to beat ’em, but the circumstances and all the things have to go your way over the last 10 weeks … it’s not about a whole season anymore, it’s about 10 weeks.
“They’re going to start pretty much dead even or a little bit ahead of us. Hopefully we can keep doing the same thing that we’re doing. It’s like saying you’re going to beat somebody that’s won the last four Super Bowls. Until you beat that guy, there’s no reason to put that pressure on ourselves, I don’t think.”
There’s still plenty of pressure to go around among the top 12, although some, like Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, have been plenty solid. Stewart is winless, but he’s only had one finish outside the top 10 since back in May, at Charlotte. Along the way, he’s posted five top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
Edwards also is winless, but he hasn’t finished worse than seventh in the past six races.
Jeff Gordon, also winless, has been consistently fast, too. He struggled to a 27th-place finish at Michigan after blowing a tire, but he has six top-six finishes in the past nine races.
Denny Hamlin, who has cooled off some after winning five races, has two top-five finishes in the past three races.
But other Chase contenders have struggled, most notably Mark Martin, who has posted just one top-10 finish, a seventh at Pocono, since May.
He’s dropped to 13th in the standings, 35 points out of the elite group after a 28th-place run at Michigan.
Afterward, he didn’t sound too optimistic about his chances of competing for the title.
“I don’t know what they are,” he said. “We’ll keep digging. I don’t know. Every race is a new race.”
The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, also seem to be fading down the homestretch.
Kurt Busch has run well, but has run into misfortune not of his own making. He wrecked at Pocono, then finished second at Watkins Glen, then blew an engine at Michigan.
Kyle Busch has posted just two top-10 finishes in the past nine races, and both of those were eighth-place efforts – at Watkins Glen and Indianapolis.