Family affair: Racing’s Elliott family has a milestone week
By Rick Minter
For the Elliott family of Dawsonville, Georgia, this past week was about as big as it gets — with two milestone events on back-to-back days.
First, last Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Chase Elliott, at age 19, has been hired to take over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet from the retiring Jeff Gordon, beginning with the 2016 season. In the meantime, Chase will defend his Xfinity Series championship and make five Sprint Cup starts.
Then, the next night, Chase’s father, Bill Elliott, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
It’s a success story that began decades ago, when Bill’s late father, George, first urged his sons to chase their dreams of racing in NASCAR, buying them hand-me-down cars and supporting their efforts to put them on the track.
In the beginning, there was little indication that a week like the final one of January 2015 would ever be possible. The Elliotts were successful on the Georgia short tracks, but their NASCAR efforts left a lot to be desired.
Bill Elliott said his dad had a vision for a NASCAR future, and a unique way of motivating his sons Ernie, Dan and Bill.
“He always was leading you that way,” he said. “He never said, ‘Hey, you need to do this.’ The way he proceeded was, he’d go buy a race car and he’d look at me and Ernie, and he’d say, ‘Hey, y’all need to go run Charlotte here in a few weeks.’”
Even the boys’ most ardent supporters didn’t see much hope for the fledgling team operating out of an old elementary school — where the race car was prepared in old classrooms with chalkboards still attached to the walls.
“The car would be a total disaster,” Bill recalled. “Some of the things we showed up with were just terrible. But that was his way of nudging you along to try and make you better and better.”
What George did preach was the value of hard work. It wasn’t uncommon for him to call his boys away from their race car preparation to haul hay or do some other sweaty chore. The end result was that the Elliott sons developed the same work ethic as their father. Even as the team progressed to the point where they were winning races and poles, the brothers still often pulled all-nighters at the shop, then went off to race or test the next day.
“I didn’t feel like I was the best race car driver, but I was probably the hardest-working race car driver at the time,” Bill recalled. “We never gave up, and I think that ethic took us to the level it took us to.
“Without my dad and the ethic he taught us early on, we would have never achieved the things that we did.”
In Chase’s career, the financial struggles and lack of top-flight equipment weren’t an issue in his first years as a driver.
Chase’s early years, particularly in Late Model racing, saw him, in a similar manner to the previous Elliott generation, take advantage of what he’d learned from his father.
Only the things he picked up on had more to do with how to drive cars than how to prepare them. From the beginning, he raced — and still races — more like a veteran than a rookie.
He’s always seemed to instinctively know when to push his car hard and when to preserve his equipment. He also has a veteran’s feel for when to be aggressive in racing an opponent and when to wait and fight the battle another time.
Chase is smart enough to acknowledge his shortcomings, although they’re few, and he doesn’t get too up or too down, no matter how a race or a season is going.
“He’s an incredibly good race car driver,” Bill says of his son. “I’m not saying it’s because he’s my kid. I’ve watched him week in and week out through the short tracks, through all the stuff that the kid has done, and he’s a pretty phenomenal race car driver.
“I’ve said all along he’s better than I ever thought about being as far as driving a race car, and the way he processes knowing the things he wants out of the race car. I think he’s got a good enough head on his shoulders. He’s got some great people around him.”
Ray Evernham, who is in the unique position of being Bill Elliott’s former car owner and the one-time crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet that Chase will take over in 2016, said he has no doubt the youngster will find success in his full-time Cup career.
“I can tell you that I’m not surprised at his success, because I’ve known Chase since he was 5 years old, and I’ve seen him do some pretty amazing things behind the scenes coming along, like whipping Bill and I both testing a dirt car one day when he was about 12 years old,” Evernham said.
“I know that Chase will do a really good job because I told him all the time he’s the luckiest kid in the world — he’s got his daddy’s talent and his mama’s looks.”
Darrell Wallace Jr. claims victory in Ford EcoBoost 200; Matt Crafton wins Camping World Truck Series championship
By Rick Minter
Friday (Nov 14) night’s season finale for the Camping World Truck Series turned out to be a banner event for NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program.
One of its graduates, African-American driver Darrell Wallace Jr., got his first-ever victory on a 1.5-mile track and his third Truck win of the season, and to do it he had to outrun another Diversity grad, Kyle Larson, over the closing laps.
Larson, who appeared to have a truck at least as fast — or maybe a bit faster — that Wallace’s, said he didn’t want to knock Wallace aside to get the win.
“I thought about it,” Larson said. “I thought very quickly. But I figured that would be definitely the wrong thing to do, especially in a Truck race where I’m just kind of out there to have fun, and Bubba [Wallace] is going out there to try and gain points or whatever and get another win.
“I had a finish like that a couple years ago at the Battle of the Beach, and beat myself up about it, regretted it a little bit, so I definitely wasn’t going to do that again.”
Wallace also had to outrun his car owner, Kyle Busch, who secured the series’ owner championship with a fourth-place finish in the No. 51 Toyota.
“I can’t thank my guys enough for continuing to come up each and every race and never give up and have that desire to win,” Wallace said. “I had to work for it there. I had to battle off Kyle and Kyle, so a lot of things knocked off tonight in the mile-and-a-half win.
“We beat the boss, finally. It was another battle with Larson like Eldora — running up against the fence like Eldora. Just had to be smart about it. Just had a lot of fun.”
Wallace’s plans for 2015 are uncertain, but it’s looking like he’ll run at least a limited schedule in the Xfinity series — the series now known as Nationwide — for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I wish things were finalized,” Wallace said. “We’re continuing to work hard to find out future plans for me.”
Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton won the Series driving title with a ninth-place finish. It is his second championship, and he’s the first Truck Series driver to win back-to-back titles. And Ben Kennedy, the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., won the circuit’s Rookie of the Year award.
Pit stall, weather play into Junior’s hand at Phoenix
By Rick Minter
Dale Earnhardt missed winning at Talladega Superspeedway last month by a margin of inches when the race-ending caution flag flew just before he passed Joey Logano for the lead.
On Sunday night at Phoenix International Raceway, the racing gods paid him back.
With rain that delayed the start of the race for more than six hours threatening to return, drivers began making green-flag pit stops.
On Lap 197, with race leader Kevin Harvick and top contenders, including Joey Logano and Earnhardt, on pit road, the caution flag flew for a crash involving Joey Gase and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Because Earnhardt’s pit stall was on the fourth turn side of the start-finish line, he was able to drive past the start-finish line just as the caution flag flew, and was scored as the leader.
NASCAR officials used 16 laps under the caution period to sort out the scoring and clean the track, and that played into Earnhardt’s favor as well.
Before the race could be restarted, rain began to fall again and the race was called after 219 laps of the scheduled 312, and Earnhardt was declared the winner. It was his third win of the season and the 26th of his career.
Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 143 laps, finished second for the 12th time this season, but that was good enough to put him among the four drivers who will compete for the championship this Sunday in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Harvick, the defending Series champion, will be joined by Jeff Gordon, who will race for the championship in his final Cup race, thanks to his win at Martinsville Speedway on Nov. 1. Also among the final four are Kyle Busch, who has made an amazing comeback since missing the first 11 races of the season, and Martin Truex Jr., who drives for the single-car No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team .
Earnhardt said his win on Sunday is due in large part to his team’s success on Friday at Phoenix, when he qualified third and thereby got to pick one of the better pit stalls. Pit picks are based on qualifying results, with the polesitter picking first.
“We struggled all year in qualifying, and that was really the difference-maker for us,” Earnhardt said. “It gave us this awesome pit stall that was just right next to the start-finish line. When the caution came out, the 4 [Harvick] and the 22 [Logano] slowed down like everyone else. When everyone cycles, it put us in the lead.”
Harvick said the final result was bittersweet, as he lost a chance at victory, but nonetheless secured a berth in the Championship Round of the Chase.
“The caution came out at the wrong time, and we didn’t get to make up the ground on the race track under green,” Harvick said.
Busch secured his berth with a fourth-place finish, as he continues his return to racing after suffering a broken leg and broken foot in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona.
“We’re playing with house money and we’re rolling to Homestead,” he said.
Truex also is in the midst of a comeback from a miserable 2014 season, which saw him score just one top-5 finish and a finish of 24th in the standings.
The final pit stop at Phoenix also played into Truex’s hands, as he was scored 14th after the field was sorted out. That put him 5 points ahead of Carl Edwards, who finished 12th, in the race for the final transfer spot.
Among those leaving disappointed was Joey Logano, who finished third, but will not advance to the championship, despite leading the series in wins with six.
“Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done this year,” said Logano, who lost his chance to advance when he was wrecked by Matt Kenseth while leading late in the race at Martinsville. Also failing to advance was Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, which means there won’t be a Ford driver running for the championship in the Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead.
Toyota driver Carl Edwards and Chevy’s Kurt Busch also failed to make the final four
Brad Keselowski uses push from Matt Kenseth to grab victory in GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway
By Rick Minter
After disappointing races at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski’s only hope of advancing to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup was to win the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
That’s a tall order in itself, but Keselowski also needed to overcome the distractions associated with his temper tantrum after the previous week’s race at Charlotte, which led to a $50,000 fine from NASCAR and probation for the rest of the year.
But the 2012 Cup champion rose to the occasion, overcoming damage from an early race incident to pass Ryan Newman with one lap remaining to win the race and be among the eight drivers advancing to the three-race Eliminator Round of the Chase.
Team owner Roger Penske said he and Keselowski talked about the Charlotte incident and decided to put it behind them before coming to Talladega.
“I’ve told him a lot, ‘It’s over, it’s over; let’s move on,’” Penske said. “Look, I like him. He’s a great driver. We have a long-term relationship with him. If he wants to get a little upset sometimes, that’s OK with me. We’ll let NASCAR figure out if he’s over the line or not.
“I guess it cost us 50 grand. I’ll take 50 grand and the win this week, wouldn’t you?”
The Talladega finish saw three of the four drivers from Hendrick Motorsports knocked out of the Chase, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne failed to advance, leaving only Jeff Gordon to carry the company colors in NASCAR’s playoffs.
In a development that shows that drafting on superspeedways can produce some strange bedfellows, Keselowski wound up getting the winning push from eventual runner-up Matt Kenseth, who was involved with Keselowski in incidents on and off the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway the week before. Kenseth ended the Charlotte confrontation by tackling Keselowski from behind before the two were separated by crew members.
Third-finishing Clint Bowyer said he wasn’t surprised to see the two combatants from one week working together the next.
“That’s just competition,” he said. “Matt needed to push the 2 [Keselowski] to get his best position and get himself in an overall shot to win the race. It doesn’t matter if it’s your worst enemy out there or your best friend, your closest friend — as far as racers go, you’ve got to use ’em.
“He was using the 2 car as much as the 2 car was using him at that point.”
Kenseth said it didn’t matter that it was Keselowski at the end of his front bumper — he was just trying to look out for himself.
“When it comes down to the end of the race at Talladega, you have to do what’s best for your best finish,” he said. “I got a good push off of [Turn] Two. If it would have been a little farther down the straightaway, I think I would have had enough speed to get under Brad and might have had a shot for the win. But he went all the way across the track and just had enough room to get down in front of me. It’s just how it turned out.”
Keselowski said that his Talladega victory, while impressive and meaningful to him, is something to be put in the rear-view mirror, with four critical races coming up.
“We all hit the reset button as soon as we leave this track,” he said. “The six wins that we have mean nothing. Everyone has zero points within the top 8. We still have to go out and perform over these next four weeks, especially Homestead. Got to get in that top 4, then get to Homestead and really deliver.
“As far as what [Talladega] says for that, it says that we’re capable of a lot, but nothing more.”
Aric Almirola races to his first Sprint Cup victory at his home track under direction of crew chief Trent Owens
By Rick Minter
Among the keepsakes that Trent Owens collected back in the day, when he was traveling to NASCAR races with his aunt and uncle, Lynda and Richard Petty, was a photograph from Victory Lane at Daytona in July 1984, when Richard Petty won his 200th Sprint Cup race.
In that photo, Owens, whose late father Randy was Lynda Petty’s brother, is standing in front of the famed No. 43, holding the checkered flag.
Thirty years and two days later, Owens posed for more photos with the 43 in Victory Lane at Daytona. This time he was the team’s crew chief, and his driver, Aric Almirola, had just held off a pack of drivers including Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers to be in front when rains halted the Coke Zero 400 after 112 of the scheduled 160 laps.
It was the first win at the Cup level for both Owens and Almirola, and the first for the 43 since John Andretti won at Martinsville in 1999.
Owens, whose father died in a pit road explosion at Talladega Superspeedway in 1975, said in the winner’s interviews that he’s happy just to be working as a crew chief in NASCAR’s elite division. To take his family’s car back to Victory Lane in his rookie season is even better, he said.
“To be on the 43 car, to be in Victory Lane here in Daytona in July, it’s really special,” he said. “I enjoy working with Aric. It’s going good, and we’re going to try to build some momentum for this Chase thing.”
Under the new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win during the regular season essentially assures a team of one of the 16 Chase berths.
Owens went on to say how much it means to him to be working on the iconic No. 43.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given on the 43 car,” he said. “Obviously, being a family member, it’s a number that I grew up with, I grew up watching. The King provided me work during the summers when I was in high school to learn the ins and outs of racing.
“It feels like home to come back. It was a very comforting transition from Nationwide to Sprint Cup with the 43 car, and these guys did a really good job through the interview process and making sure I made the right decision.
“I feel like I have, and I’m enjoying it, and this win will be hard to top, probably ever.”
For Almirola, his first Cup win was especially rewarding for entirely different reasons. It came at his home track — one just two hours from where he grew up in Tampa, Florida. And he won carrying the colors of his sponsor, the U.S. Air Force, which was special because he was born at Eglin Air Force Base near Panama City in the Panhandle.
“Of all the places I could pick to win, I would pick Daytona, because I grew up two hours away,” he said. “I’ve sat in these grandstands and watched the Daytona 500. I’ve watched the Firecracker 400s. My family and I have loaded up every Christmas night after we’d eat Christmas dinner and we’d drive over here and get ready for Kart Week, from the time I was 8 years old until I was probably 16 years old.
“I’d race right outside this race track at the municipal stadium and would always come over here and check out the big race track. That’s what everybody always talked about, and as a young kid, coming over here and watching — just dreamed about what it would be like to have a chance to race at the highest level at this race track.”
Almirola and Owens both emphasized that they won, not out of the pure luck of the rain coming while they were leading, but because they had a car that put them in that position in the first place.
“You can’t do it all on luck,” Almirola said. “Obviously we won, and it was a rain-shortened race, but we had a good enough car to be up there to outrun and to pass Kurt [Busch] and to stay in front of [Vickers], and there were some really good cars behind us
Joey Logano lives up to the nickname ‘Sliced Bread’ with victory at Richmond International Raceway
By Rick Minter
Maybe that “Sliced Bread” nickname that Joey Logano’s backers hung on him several years ago wasn’t as bad an idea as it once looked.
In the first seasons of his NASCAR career, Logano struggled to live up to a nickname that indicated he was the best thing since sliced bread. He did get a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in his rookie season, but it came on a pit strategy ploy in a rain-shortened race and got him a win he didn’t really earn.
His career at Joe Gibbs Racing saw him grow into a confident, winning Nationwide Series driver, but he couldn’t duplicate that success on the Sprint Cup side.
But since moving to Team Penske last year and hooking up with Crew Chief Todd Gordon, the potential he showed as a teenager is coming to fruition.
His win this past Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway — one in which he raced past three former Cup champions in the closing nine laps — was his second of the season, and puts him in the position of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup no matter what happens the rest of the year.
He and Kevin Harvick are the only Cup drivers with multiple wins this season, as Logano also won at Texas, while Harvick has wins at Darlington and Phoenix.
“Having a couple wins this early in the season and in two completely different race tracks makes you very confident for the rest of the season,” Logano said. “At this point, we really have nothing to lose. It’s all about going for wins and having fun out there and making sure we’re ready for when the Chase starts.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position this early in the season, and we’re going to have some fun.”
Logano said his success this season is in large part a product of the experience he and Gordon have had in the past two seasons — the knowledge they’ve gained from their good and bad runs together.
“I think you’ve got a notebook now, and I think Todd really understands what I need in a race car and what we’ve got to do and what we need to go fast,” he said. “Darlington was our worst race of the year — really, to be honest with you — and we were still a very good car. We led a lot of laps, but that was the one race track that we really didn’t have any notes to go off of, and as we come to these race tracks over and over again, we’ve got something to build off of.
“We know what we fought last time and we’re able to overcome it.”
Gordon said he and Logano are also able to benefit from the experiences of the other Team Penske entry of driver Brad Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe.
“We’re focused on what we need to be successful, and that’s I think the chemistry not only between Joey and myself, but between Joey and Brad and Paul and myself,” he said. “As we’ve gotten more successful, it’s allowed all of our organization to have more confidence in the notebooks of each other and how we build off of each other, and that’s the piece that I think allows us to continue to build and push each other.”
As Logano pointed out in his winner’s interview a few weeks ago at Texas, another factor in his success — one that distinguishes his career at Penske from his time at Gibbs — is his own maturity.
“Over the years, I’ve been able to kind of hone in on who I am as a driver, who I am as a person,” he said, explaining that he was only 18 when he went to Gibbs. “You’re not quite done growing up at that point, and I may not be now, but I feel like I’m getting closer.
“When I was able to go to Team Penske — kind of get that fresh start and be able to take everything you’ve learned there — you’re not taken as the 18-year-old kid anymore. I came over there, and I was 22 and you’re looked at a little bit more as a man, instead of an 18-year-old kid.
“I’ve been able to take advantage of that and kind of walk in the doors of Penske the first time and say, ‘Here’s who I want to be. Here’s what I want to do. And here’s how I feel we can win races and do it together.’”
It showed at Richmond, as he came from fourth place in the closing laps to pass Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Keselowski to get his fifth career victory and his third since joining Penske.
Kevin Harvick becomes first repeat Sprint Cup winner of 2014 with victory at Darlington Raceway
By Rick Minter
When Kevin Harvick left Richard Childress Racing last winter to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, the move was regarded by many as a coup for Stewart-Haas. It got a driver who had, at that time, 23 Sprint Cup victories. Among those wins were three of the sport’s biggest races — the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Coca-Cola 600.
But there were those who wondered if Harvick had made the right move. He was going to a team that struggled through the second half of 2013 and was in a rush to expand its facilities to add a fourth team for Kurt Busch. And the crew chief chosen to work with Harvick — Rodney Childers — had a great reputation in the garage, but only three Cup victories in nine years to show for his efforts.
After Harvick won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Saturday night to become the first repeat Sprint Cup winner of 2014, his decision was looking pretty good, even if his team is mired in 22nd place in the points standings. (Harvick has little to worry about points-wise, because his two 2014 victories all but assure him of a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.)
He also won the pole, the eighth different driver to do so this year, and he became the first to win from the pole at Darlington since Dale Jarrett in 1997.
Harvick dominated the race, leading 238 of 374 laps, but had to work his way back to the front in the final 15 laps after a late caution gave challengers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. opportunities to win via two-tire pit stops, while Harvick took four. Harvick took the lead for good from Earnhardt at the start of a green-white-checkered-flag run to the finish, and motored away for the first Darlington win of his career.
He said the fact that he was able to put on such a strong performance at Darlington after a five-race stretch that saw him finish 36th or worse on four occasions, shows that his Rodney Childers-led crew is a keeper.
“I think it says a lot about the character of the people and the things that happen within Stewart-Haas Racing, to have everybody keep their head down and stay focused on what they need to be focused on, is kind of like a big test to see if it would implode from inside out,” he said. “Everybody just kept doing what they’re supposed to do, and everything went really well.”
Harvick also stressed that his decision to leave Childress and move to Stewart-Haas was based on his desire to be with a team that could win races and contend for championships, as he’s doing now. By racing for Stewart-Haas, he gets to drive cars and use engines from the sport’s powerhouse, Hendrick Motorsports, and team co-owner Gene Haas has the financial resources to get the team any parts or pieces it might need.
“We came here to race for wins, to be in a position to where we could contend for a championship, and I really feel like everybody on this team felt like we all bettered ourselves in coming together and being a part of Stewart-Haas Racing,” he said.
“For us it’s a lot of fun, just for the fact that you have so many resources, and it’s almost a challenge to figure out how to use them all. Gene [Haas] has put in a major commitment from a financial standpoint, and I think that’s hard to get used to because it’s all about winning.
“It’s not about money, it’s not about resources, it’s all about what do you need and how are you going to achieve what you think you should achieve with the people around you.”
For Childers, just being at Stewart-Haas and working with Harvick is big.
“As young as I am in my career, I’ve been really fortunate,” he said. “I was lucky that Kevin Harvick wanted me to be his crew chief. This has been phenomenal for me, and it means a lot.”
Childers also pointed out that his crew is relatively young and inexperienced.
“We’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to get better at,” he said. “I thought the day I walked in there it was going to be June or July before we could win a race. We’re sitting here now, and without mechanical issues, we could have won two or three races, maybe four races, maybe five races. We’ve had good cars every week.
“But that’s part of the learning process, and like [Harvick] said, we’ve had each other’s backs through all of it.”
Chad Johnston deserves credit for Duck Commander 500 pole, according to his driver, Tony Stewart
By Rick Minter
Tony Stewart won the pole for the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the 15th of his Sprint Cup career, and his first since the fall of 2012 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart, who is better known for winning races — 48 in Cup alone — than poles, said his crew chief, Chad Johnston, deserved much of the credit for his success at Texas in the three-round “knockout” qualifying session. Stewart was 16th-fastest after the first round, second-fastest after the second round and won the pole in the final round.
“The good thing is Chad Johnston made a really big change there to try and make it better,” Stewart said. “Like he said, ‘I was either going to make you quick, or I was going to make you 12th.’
“I’m glad he made the change. He’s got a lot of confidence and I really like that.”
Stewart also said his pole is another sign of progress for Stewart-Haas Racing, which expanded from three to four teams since last year. Already this season, the team’s two newest drivers — Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch — have race victories, and Harvick set a new track record in the first round of qualifying at Texas.
“The good thing is, it’s not just one team,” Stewart said. “The whole organization is having really good starts as far as qualifying is concerned.
“I think the atmosphere at our shop is really good right now. It has been ever since the end of the season last year. Just a lot of new faces, and with that has come a new excitement around our shop and it seems to be transferring to what we are seeing on the race track as well.”
Kurt Busch delivers his first 2014 Sprint Cup win in dramatic fashion
By Rick Minter
California businessman Gene Haas has been fielding cars in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series since 2002, when Jack Sprague drove his car to a 35th-place finish at Kansas Speedway. But it wasn’t until this past Sunday at Martinsville Speedway that a car primarily sponsored by his Haas Automation company went to Victory Lane.
Kurt Busch, the driver Haas hired last year to be the fourth driver at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team Haas co-owns with driver Tony Stewart, delivered the milestone win in dramatic fashion. He overcame an early race skirmish with Brad Keselowski that could have seen him knocked out of the race, then outdueled Jimmie Johnson — a Martinsville master — down the stretch to seal the victory.
It was Busch’s first win since October 2011, when he drove a Roger Penske-owned car to victory at Dover International Speedway. And he becomes the sixth different winner in the first six races this season.
The Victory Lane appearance by Haas Automation has been surprisingly long in coming, given the position that company holds in the machinery world. Haas, as a sole car owner, ran 284 races without a win, but now has 21 since Stewart joined his team as a co-owner. But none of the earlier 20 came in races in which Haas Automation was the primary sponsor.
Haas’ company is the nation’s largest machine tool manufacturer and specializes in computer numerical control (CNC) technology. CNC machines are computer-controlled devices that do everything from cutting out precision parts for race cars to slicing up top-of-the-line kitchen tiles. They replace earlier technology in which machine tools are controlled manually with hand wheels and levers.
Haas, speaking on a teleconference with reporters after the race in Martinsville, said he liked what he saw in the performances of his driver and of Johnson.
“I think Jimmie was a real gentleman about racing [Busch] cleanly and not trying to push him out of the way,” Haas said. “I think Kurt and Jimmie both did that.
“Ultimately, they didn’t do what they typically do at the end of those races, where they have multiple passes and all that stuff, so those two guys did really well. I think we just came out on top of that. Any other day, I think Jimmie would have come out on top.
“I was just really impressed with that, and the great season, to finally win a race with Haas Automation on the hood.
“It couldn’t have been better. … Well, it could, if I could have been there.”
The win also validated Haas’ decision to hire Busch, who had been considered “damaged goods” in NASCAR after being released by Penske, in large part because of his behavior off the track, which included tirades against several reporters, including the highly respected Dr. Jerry Punch. And he said it was a sign that the team is on the rebound from its troubles of a year ago, when Stewart was unable to compete because of a broken leg and the team’s overall performance tailed off.
“There were a lot of naysayers and doubters out there about Stewart-Haas Racing,” Haas said. “With Tony (Stewart) having his injury last year, it looked like we were all washed up and out of business.
“But it just goes to show you that there is a team behind everybody. That was always the backup plan. We are still going forward.
“Racing is tough. Every time you win, you typically lose three times. It’s a very difficult sport, and it’s always great to win.”
Haas also said he was glad to see that Busch was able to put aside the early spat with Keselowski and go on to victory.
“As far as Kurt Busch handling it, I think he did a great job, and we have obviously found a solution for Kurt Busch,” he said. “When he is in Winner’s Circle, he doesn’t [complain] about anything, so that is where we need to keep him.”
Busch’s victory came after a slow start to the season. He didn’t score his first top-20 finish until placing third in the Auto Club 400 the week prior to Martinsville. And the team is led by a rookie crew chief, Daniel Knost, who got his first Cup victory on home turf, as he’s a Virginia native.
“A win like [Sunday’s] is a great step forward,” Busch said. “I don’t want it to camouflage any of the work, though, that we still have to do to make our car stronger and to be more competitive week in and week out.
“But don’t think that I’m not going to enjoy this for one moment.”
NASCAR hopes new ‘knockout’ qualifying rules are a hit with fans
By Rick Minter
In recent seasons, some NASCAR qualifying sessions, particularly at long tracks like Talladega Superspeedway, took longer to run than the 500-mile races themselves.
And with just one car on the track at a time, there was little drama for fans in the stands and those watching on TV.
NASCAR last week announced a new “knockout” style qualifying procedure for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series that should eliminate some of the boredom on qualifying day.
At tracks 1.25 miles or longer, there will be three qualifying sessions with multiple cars on the track at the same time. The first session will be for 25 minutes and open to all entrants.
The fastest 24 will advance to the second round with the rest placed in the starting lineup based on their best qualifying speed. After the second round, 10 minutes in length, the top 12 will advance to a five-minute pole session, with the remainder assigned starting spots. The final session will determine starting spots 1-12. There will be a five-minute break between each qualifying round.
At tracks less than 1.25 miles, there will be two qualifying rounds. The first, 30 minutes in length, will set the field for all but the top 12, and after a 10-minute break, the rest will run for the top 12 starting spots.
The new rules do not apply to the Daytona 500, which uses a combination of one-car qualifying and 150-mile qualifying races to set the starting field, and the truck race at Eldora Speedway, which uses a typical short-track formula of heat races and a B-main.
In the knockout qualifying, teams can only make adjustments during the breaks, and only minor changes as the hood of the car can’t be raised during the session. And only one set of tires can be used, which means that at abrasive tracks such as Atlanta Motor Speedway, the pole-winner’s speed likely will be lower than that of others who secured their starting spots in earlier rounds. That’s because the pole winner’s tires will be more worn, and therefore slower, after competing in three rounds.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition, said the change was made in hopes of adding drama to qualifying day as well as condensing the event.
“I’ve got to believe it’s better for any of the sponsors … and it’s going to be a better show for TV, and the people at home will have a better opportunity to watch these guys qualify,” he said, adding that the shortened program also helps NASCAR get qualifying in when the weather is threatening. “It will allow us, if we have the time and if all cars run during that first session, it will allow us to set the field in a 25-minute session.”
Makeover hopes to improve superspeedway racing experience for fans at World Center of Racing
By Rick Minter
Traveling down International Speedway Boulevard, the main thoroughfare behind the main grandstands at Daytona International Speedway, signs of a major construction project are everywhere.
There are numerous cranes set up behind the existing grandstands, and the steel frames of new facilities are in place. It looks like a massive expansion of the track’s seating capacity, but the fact is that when it’s all done, there will actually be fewer seats.
The Daytona Rising project, a $400 million makeover of the 2.5-mile superspeedway facility, instead is intended to improve the experience for the fans attending races at the World Center of Racing.
Among the changes being made between now and the start of the 2016 racing season are the creation of five new entrances, which will lead to a series of elevators and escalators that will take fans to three different concourse levels.
The finished product will feature 101,000 seats, twice as many restrooms as before and three times the number of concession stands, social areas on each of the concourses and 60 suites. The grandstands on the backstretch will be removed once the work on the front side is finished.
Track officials say that as their fan base ages, it’s important for spectators to be able to access their seats high above the race track without having to climb numerous flights of stairs. They say the escalators are the most popular part of the project among fans they’ve surveyed.
While construction proceeds during the next two months, track officials are planning to make sure this year’s visitors aren’t overly inconvenienced.
“We are proud of the progress thus far on the Daytona Rising project and equally excited to welcome fans for the start of the 2014 racing season,” Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said. “They will get an up-close and personal look at all the progress we’ve made to date and, hopefully, they will share in the excitement that we’ve felt since the groundbreaking in July.”
Chitwood also pointed out that the crossover gate from the frontstretch grandstands to the infield in the tri-oval has been reworked to try to prevent an incident like the one last February in which Kyle Larson’s car flew into the air and snagged the old crossover gate. The impact sent parts of his car flying into the spectator area, injuring 28 fans, 14 of whom were treated at a local hospital. Even the engine of his car wound up on the interior grandstand walkway used by fans.
The new crossover eliminates the temporary stairway and gate opening. Now the wall and SAFER barrier will be fixed so that they will swing open and fans will walk under the catchfence and up a few steps into the grandstands after attending pre-race festivities in the infield.
The project underway was a big topic of discussion among those in the garage for Preseason Thunder testing.
Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Ford driven by Trevor Bayne, compared it to what his father Glen Wood and his fellow drivers must have felt when they drove through the track’s tunnel in 1959 and saw the giant speedway for the first time.
“At that time, it was the biggest race track they’d ever seen,” he said. “Before that, the biggest track they’d raced on was Darlington.
“I’m sure they were as impressed by the bigness of it then as we are today by the construction that’s going.”
‘Rocket Man’ Ryan Newman one of the best at describing how it feels to drive at high speeds
By rick minter
On the morning — or afternoon — before every major NASCAR race, the top drivers participate in meet-and-greet sessions with fans at hospitality villages set up on speedway property.
Most of those fans who get to attend do so as guests of a driver’s sponsor, and the crowds are relatively small compared to a driver’s fan base. The driver typically offers opening remarks, then fields questions from the audience before signing some autographs and moving on to the next appearance.
In many cases, the answers given in the low-key environment of the hospitality sessions better explain what it’s like to drive a race car than the answers given in sessions with the media or in televised interviews.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing, is considered one of the circuit’s best at explaining his profession.
Since he’s known as the “Rocket Man” for his performances on pole day, which include 51 career poles in the Sprint Cup Series, 12 in the Nationwide Series and one in the Camping World Truck Series, he’s often asked what it feels like to drive really fast.
His initial answer usually brings smiles to the faces of those in his audience.
“From 140 miles an hour on up, it all feels the same,” he said. “When you take off in an airplane, you’re usually leaving the ground at about 120 miles an hour.
“You can feel the speed up to 120, but from that point on, you can feel it accelerate a little bit, but you don’t realize you’re going 600 miles per hour, or 500 miles per hour or 350.
“You don’t have the acceleration to feel the speed, and that’s the same feeling in a race car.”
Newman explains that in a race car, the faster one goes, the better the car reacts to the speed.
“When you leave pit road and get halfway up to speed, the rest of it is just a matter of the faster you go, the better the car sticks, because you have more downforce,” he said, quickly adding that there comes a point when the downforce isn’t enough to keep the car sticking to the track.
“The tires want to slide, so there’s a happy medium in there that we all try to hit as drivers,” he said.
Then there’s the issue of something happening at extreme speed, which is where the danger factor kicks in.
“When you’re going 200 [miles per hour] and you hit something or a tire blows or whatever, it’s going to be compounded by the next hit and the hit after that and who comes up and hits you at 200 while you’re sitting still,” he said. “Going 200 miles an hour doesn’t mean anything as long as the guy next to you is going 200 miles an hour.
“It’s the difference in speed that makes a difference. That closing rate is like being in rush-hour traffic. If you’re all going the same speed, there’s really no difference. It’s when somebody checks up and you have to get on the binders [brakes] because you weren’t paying attention, that’s when there’s a difference.”
Newman said the sensation of speed depends a lot on the circumstances, such as the type of car he’s driving or the length and shape of the track he’s on.
“If you’re at Michigan, where it’s a little more wide open, it’s one thing,” he said. “And if you have a tire that kind of locks you in to the race track, that’s one thing. But like at Atlanta, when you’re going almost 200 miles per hour, you’re almost in a controlled slide. That’s good because you’re controlled, but you’re still sliding.
“It’s part of what we do in taking race cars to the edge, but ultimately it’s whoever is sliding the least that’s leading.”
And he said that the speeds he feels in a Sprint Cup car sometimes seem mild compared to those he attained in smaller, open-wheeled cars earlier in his career.
“Running a Midget at 140 miles per hour average at Pikes Peak [International Raceway] with open wheels and a little four-cylinder car, I think that kind of gets you prepped for a lot of things,” he said. “Silver Crown cars would run 185 at the end of the straightaway at Gateway [Motorsports Park], which was clipping right along for that type of car.
“So 200 in a full-fendered [Sprint Cup] car with a lot of downforce isn’t such a big deal. The weight [of the Cup car] kinds of works to your advantage because you can feel it moving around.”
Jimmie Johnson ends 2013 Chase with sixth Sprint Cup title
By Rick Minter
Even before he secured his sixth Sprint Cup championship with a ninth-place finish in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson was considered one of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever.
The questions for many now become how long he and Chad Knaus, his crew chief since the start of his Cup career, can keep on dominating the series and where they will end up on the all-time winners lists in NASCAR.
Denny Hamlin, who won the season finale to extend his own record to eight consecutive seasons with at least one win, is among those who have challenged Johnson for a title but come up short. In 2010, Hamlin led the series in victories with eight and took a 15-point lead over Johnson in the season finale only to lose the championship to him.
Hamlin said Sunday that Johnson’s team stands apart from the rest because it usually doesn’t make errors when the pressure is on.
“They just don’t make any mistakes,” he said. “They don’t have 20th or worse finishes that it seems like every one team has throughout the Chase, whether it be a superspeedway or whatever. You have to beat him on performance. To do that, that’s really hard.”
He said that Johnson, who has 66 career Cup wins, is the best NASCAR driver of all time.
“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” Hamlin said. “We’re just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.”
Hamlin’s teammate Matt Kenseth, who finished second to Hamlin at Homestead and second to Johnson in the championship standings, agreed that Johnson’s success is unparalleled.
“Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable,” Kenseth said. “Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It’s amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It’s amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year.”
Johnson’s championship puts him within one of the sport’s all-time record of seven, which is shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Petty said that making comparisons between his and Earnhardt’s and Johnson’s records is meaningless because they were set in different eras, under different circumstances.
“Earnhardt did his thing in his time against his competition,” Petty said. “I did mine against my competition and [Johnson’s] doing his thing against his competition.
“We didn’t compete with each other. In other words, he wasn’t there to race against Richard Petty or Earnhardt, and we didn’t have to race against Jimmie Johnson, either. You can’t compare. It’s not apples and apples. It’s apples and oranges.”
Petty did say that he and Johnson do share one major factor in that they both have done the bulk of their winning with the same crew chief — Johnson with Chad Knaus and Petty with his cousin Dale Inman.
“It’s everything,” Petty said of the chemistry between driver and crew chief. “It’s just like me and Dale Inman. It was like a one-operation show with two people, so you’ve got to have that. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s football or baseball or whatever.”
Petty also said that Johnson and Knaus likely would keep on winning for some time to come.
“He’s liable to go to eight to 10 [championships],” he said.
In his champion’s interview, Johnson seemed comfortable with his greatness, as described by those around him.
“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry,” he said.
“I think their opinion is very important. I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s not for the athlete, the driver. It’s bestowed upon you, it’s passed down from others.”