New aero package for Quaker State 400 helps Kyle Busch chase down Joey Logano for the victory
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch entered Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in need of points to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins after eight more races.
He wound up scoring the maximum 48 points after leading the most laps — 163 of 267 — and winning the race. That allowed him to move from 37th to 35th in the standings, and more importantly, shave his deficit to 30th-place Cole Whitt from 128 points to 87.
Busch, who missed the first 11 races of the season due to injuries suffered in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway, now has two wins in the past three Sprint Cup races.
His win at Kentucky came at what is statistically his best track, but he had to do it under a drastically different rules package that is intended to facilitate better racing at the head of the pack.
The new rules package was a big winner as well, as there were numerous passes for the lead under the green flag, including some late-race lead swapping between Busch and eventual runner-up, Joey Logano.
Where in many recent races, the aerodynamics gave a great advantage to the leader in a situation like Busch and Logano found themselves in at Kentucky in the closing laps, the Kentucky finish saw Busch chase down Logano, swap the lead with him several times, then pull away for the victory.
“I think the aero package lended itself to options for us drivers to be able to move around and try different things,” Busch said. “When I got to Logano there late in the going, I knew he was going to come up and block my lane and take my air.
“But when he did, it wasn’t as bad as it has been with … the other aero package, where you just stall out, and that guy can basically manipulate whatever you’re going to do.”
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing team and Logano’s Team Penske seemed to adapt to the Kentucky aero rules much more quickly than their competitors.
Logano said he thought the new rules were an improvement.
“I felt like we can enter [the corners] behind each other, and the effect of being behind a car wasn’t as big, so I think that’s good,” he said. “You’re never going to get rid of it completely — we’re going too fast. But I think, directionally, it was correct.”
Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, led 62 laps and seemed to have a car capable of running with Busch, but he wasn’t able to recover from a couple of slow pit stops, and finished sixth.
Busch’s JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively — the first time the four-driver contingent has all finished in the top 5.
Hamlin, who had to make an unscheduled pit stop early in the race and was penalized for speeding on pit road, did as much passing as any driver in the field, as he had to come from two laps down at one point. He was supportive of the new package as well.
“You’re going to hear both sides of this story,” he said. “You’re going to hear guys in the front say they like it, guys in the back say they don’t.
“But I came from two laps down, I passed a ton of cars throughout the day. And there was a pass for the lead inside of 20 laps to go. Can’t really complain a whole lot about that.”
Edwards also liked the feel of the new aero package.
“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” he said. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700, 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing.”
The new rules seemed to somewhat confound the Hendrick Motorsports contingent. Jeff Gordon was the best of that group, with a seventh-place finish, with Jimmie Johnson ninth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21st and Kasey Kahne 27th.
Gordon said that since Kentucky is such a challenging race track, he didn’t get a really good feel for the new rules, which likely will be used at upcoming intermediate-length tracks, although that is not yet certain.
“Basically, the cars just drove really bad right from the beginning …” Gordon said. “I think we have to give it a try somewhere else. … We’ve got to get the right tires on it. … I’m glad we tried it, did a little more work. I’m looking forward to trying it again.”
Johnson’s gamble propels him to Victory Lane at Kansas
By Rick Minter
On a race track with a casino next door, Jimmie Johnson took a late-race gamble on pit strategy and won the big jackpot.
Johnson, who won the rain-delayed SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway, didn’t have the fastest car in the race, or even the best handling car. In fact, he spun in the early going.
But when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun to bring out the caution flag with 12 laps to go, Johnson saw an opportunity to take a chance. When race leader Kevin Harvick, laps-led leader Martin Truex Jr. and others headed to pit road for fuel, Johnson stayed on the track. He inherited the lead, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon remaining on the track behind him.
Harvick got fuel and two tires, while Truex opted for fuel only.
The final six-lap run to the checkered flag saw track position come into play. Johnson drove away to the lead, while Harvick, who restarted sixth, was unable to overtake him, despite racing his way to second place. On intermediate-length tracks like Kansas Speedway, track position is very important, because the aerodynamic forces created by the lead car make it very difficult for the trailing car to overtake it.
And Johnson made the most of the advantage he had from being out front.
“He wasn’t that strong,” Harvick said of Johnson. “He was just trying to run right in front of our car, so for those first few laps when you’re pushing like that, it really takes the air off the front of the car, and it gets the chatter in the front end and it snaps around. But that was the strategy they took, and it worked out for them.”
Harvick said he knows that pit-strategy gambles don’t always work. For instance, had the race gone into overtime, Johnson would have run out of fuel, since he ran his tank dry during his post-race burnout.
“I’ve been on the other side of this deal, where the cars aren’t running good and you don’t have a chance to win,” Harvick said. “We won a championship on pit calls and tires, and everything fell our way. We’ve had a lot of things go our way, and we’ve had a lot of things work.”
For Johnson, the decision to forgo the final pit stop was made easier by the new points system. With two wins already heading in to Kansas, he’s assured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, so a bad finish at Kansas wouldn’t affect his chances of competing for a seventh Sprint Cup championship, as the points are reset at the start of the season-ending Chase.
Johnson also said the decision to stay on the track was mostly his.
“I could tell (crew chief Chad Knaus) was having a hard time making the decision,” Johnson said. “We have two wins, we are locked in the Chase, and we are here to win a race — let’s gamble.
“A few more laps — I think (Harvick) would have had me. He was awfully strong. We had just enough time to get to Victory Lane.”
The win was the 73rd of Johnson’s career and his third at Kansas. It was also his 200th career top-5 finish and his 300th top-10.
Truex, who finished ninth and remains second in the standings, said that after leading a race-high 95 laps in his No. 78 Chevrolet, it was disappointing to fall to ninth, even though it gives him 10 top-10s in the 11 races run this season.
His biggest regret was not taking on fresh rubber during his final pit stop.
“We should have either stayed out or took new tires,” Truex said. “We probably did the worst thing you could have done there, with just … getting gas only, because everybody else … ate us up on the restart.”
But Truex said he and his team aren’t going to let the disappointment affect them going forward.
“Cole (Pearn, crew chief) got put in a bad spot there at the end,” Truex said. “I told him to keep his confidence up, because he has done a good job all year long. We are going to get one. We just have to keep digging.”
Earnhardt finished third, ahead of Jeff Gordon and pole-sitter Joey Logano, who had to overcome two pit-road penalties that caused him to restart from the rear of the pack. The first was assessed when a crew member went over the wall too soon, and the second came because Logano drove on to pit road while it was still closed.
“Passing all those cars was fun, but the rest of it — we just did a terrible job of executing this race,” Logano said. “We made mistake after mistake.
“We all just have to raise our game a little bit and understand why we made mistakes and clean it up going forward.”
Jimmie Johnson takes record fifth checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway
By Rick Minter
After an uncharacteristically poor performance in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson appears to be back in the form that has seen him win 72 races and six championships since joining the Sprint Cup circuit full time in 2001.
In last Saturday’s Duck Commander 500, Johnson led a race-high 128 of 334 laps and held off defending series champion Kevin Harvick to claim his second victory of the season. It was his fifth career win at Texas — a series record — and his first in the spring race there.
Johnson had to work for the lead at the end, as a caution flag at Lap 310 allowed several drivers, including Jamie McMurray, to take two tires on the ensuing pit stops, and return to the track ahead of Johnson and Harvick, who had the two fastest cars for most of the race.
McMurray led for seven laps, but his tires gave out as Johnson, Harvick and Joey Logano ran him down.
Johnson took the lead for good, passing Harvick and McMurray at the same time with 14 laps to go.
“Unfortunately, the 4 [Harvick] was having some trouble getting by the 1 [McMurray], and they slid up high through [Turns] Three and Four and left the bottom wide open for me,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d at least get the 4 car, and when I came off of Turn Four, I was alongside the 1, and I thought, ‘Man, we’re going to get them both here.’ So that worked out well.”
Still, the outcome was in doubt, as both Logano and Harvick appeared to have cars fast enough to overtake Johnson.
Logano’s bid for the win ended when Harvick bumped him out of the way, then Harvick’s own chances for victory were dashed when he bounced his No. 4 Chevrolet off the wall with two laps to go. Harvick’s stumble allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to briefly take the runner-up spot, but Harvick reclaimed it to finish second, ahead of Earnhardt, Logano and Brad Keselowski.
Johnson’s other win this season came at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which, like Texas, has a worn, bumpy asphalt surface that suits his driving style and the skills of his No. 48 team.
“I think the tracks with high wear, bumps, all those types of things, have just always been a good surface for the 48,” he said.
“The spring race has always been tough results” wise, but we’ve had fast cars, and in the fall we come here and get the finish we hope for. It’s nice to get one done in the spring. I think the surface fits my style, fits … what our team does together. Our cars just perform well on those tracks.”
Harvick, who scored his fourth runner-up finish of the season and remains atop the points standings, said his car was good enough to win, but got tied up racing with McMurray and Logano, which hurt him in his bid to overtake Johnson.
“Just lost a little bit of time and tried to make too much of it up in too many chunks, and about spun out and got in the fence trying to make up ground,” he said.
Earnhardt said he was proud of the way his team, led by rookie crew chief Greg Ives, performed throughout the race.
“We made some good adjustments,” he said. “We seemed to have a good pattern of what was working for us, and I think by the end of the race, we had our car as good as we had it all night, so that’s a good job on the crew chief when the car is the best on the last run.”
Kevin Harvick scores another runaway Sprint Cup victory
By Rick Minter
There comes a time in any string of success when the historical comparisons start to hit home. It’s happening now for Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Chevrolet team at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick scored yet another runaway win at Phoenix International Raceway in the CampingWorld.com 500. It was his fourth straight Sprint Cup victory at that track, and it’s the first time anyone has won four straight at a track since Jimmie Johnson did it at Charlotte in 2004-05. And it was Harvick’s seventh straight finish of first or second place, dating back to the final three races of 2014. That streak ties him with NASCAR’s all-time win leader, Richard Petty, who did it back in 1975. He also now has seven Cup wins at Phoenix — more than any other driver.
“The Richard Petty part — that gives me chills,” Harvick said upon hearing those stats read to him during the winner’s interview at Phoenix.
Before that, another noteworthy comparison came up — this one from the race’s runner-up, Jamie McMurray. He said Harvick’s recent dominance reminds him of some of Jeff Gordon’s best years.
“I remember the days when Jeff Gordon won 13 races in a year in ’98,” McMurray said. “I remember watching every week. It was incredible.”
McMurray said what Harvick and his Rodney Childers-led team is doing may be even more impressive.
“I think our sport is much tougher now to do that in,” he said. “I remember when the 4 car [Harvick’s] unloaded at the Charlotte test last year in January — first lap on the track, he was literally the fastest car. For a year it’s been that way.”
McMurray, like others in the sport, believe Harvick and Childers could have won more races last year with some better luck at times. And he said their success is due in large part to the working relationship between driver and crew chief and the rest of the race team.
“When I listen to Kevin talk, it seems like there’s good communication between he and Rodney and the engineer and the whole team,” McMurray said.
That’s the same sentiment expressed by Harvick in the media sessions after each race. Sunday at Phoenix was no different.
“I’m just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas for everything they do; really proud of Rodney and these guys on this team,” Harvick said. “I feel like we get better as we go through different situations.”
Harvick, who started on the pole and led 224 of 312 laps in winning the CampingWorld.com 500, almost had to take a back seat to McMurray at Phoenix. McMurray got the jump on him on a late-race restart, but didn’t move in front of him immediately off of Turn Two, and that allowed Harvick to motor by on the outside and run away to the checkered flag.
“Honestly, when I went through [Turns] One and Two, I felt like I totally missed the corner and I was waiting to hear, ‘Three wide, you’re in the middle,’” McMurray said. “I heard, ‘Clear.’ I wish I would have moved up immediately. He had momentum on the outside.”
McMurray said he hesitated because those gaps close quickly, and he might have caused a wreck by moving up.
“I didn’t feel like I was clear,” he said. “Hindsight, I would have listened to my spotter a little bit and just moved up.”
Ryan Newman had another strong run, finishing third, ahead of Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.
“We’re four races in and we’ve got two top-5s,” Newman said. “It took us until June last year to get our first one, so, we’ll keep digging.”
For Busch, his fifth-place finish gives him hope that he can salvage a decent season despite missing the first three races while suspended from NASCAR due to a domestic violence case in Delaware. He was reinstated last week after Delaware officials said he would not face criminal charges.
“Now it’s on to the next group of races to where we will develop as a team and get stronger and stronger and stronger,” Busch said. “We’ll just settle back in and get in that groove for these next couple weeks.”
Crew chief calls Jimmie Johnson’s victory at AMS ‘phenomenal’
By Rick Minter
When Jimmie Johnson fell out of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup after the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway, the focus shifted to a new set of drivers, including Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and eventual champion Kevin Harvick.
It continued on through Speedweeks at Daytona, as Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Unlimited and Joey Logano took the Daytona 500.
But when the checkered flag fell on the second race of the 2015 Sprint Cup season, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson was back in Victory Lane.
His weekend had a quiet start, as he was one of a group of drivers who had to start the race from the back after their crews did not get their cars through NASCAR’s inspection line in time to qualify on Friday. But that turned out to be little more than a bump in the road for Johnson and his No. 48 team, which now is guaranteed a berth in the 2015 Chase under NASCAR’s “win and you’re in” format.
If he were to go on to win the title this year, Johnson would tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt at the top of the all-time series championship list.
At Atlanta, in a race that was delayed 55 minutes because of rain, and run under cold, cloudy skies, Johnson started 37th, but had driven to 13th place by the time the first caution flag flew at Lap 27. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 198 and wound up leading six times for 92 laps, including the final 21. He finished 1.8 seconds ahead of the 2014 Cup champion, Kevin Harvick, who led 116 laps — more than any other driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, ahead of polesitter Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
It was Johnson’s fourth victory at AMS and the 71st victory of his career.
His crew chief, Chad Knaus, said Johnson’s run to the front was something to behold. “To see Jimmie do what he did [Sunday] was phenomenal,” Knaus said.
Johnson said he considers a win in the second race of the season an indication of better things to come on down the road.
“It is a sign of who is going to be competitive,” he said. “This says a lot for us. What we did here we can take to a lot of tracks ahead.”
And being locked in to the Chase so early is a relief. “It takes the pressure off of us,” he said.
But Johnson also cautioned that it’s still a little early to draw any real conclusions about who will be fast at upcoming races.
“I’m feeling really great, but not 100 percent yet,” he said.
The race ran relatively incident-free until the later stages, when two multi-car crashes knocked out some of the top contenders. The first, at Lap 257, collected Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin.
The second, at Lap 306, involved six drivers and brought out the red flag for a nine-minute clean-up period. It started when Greg Biffle and Joe Nemechek collided just after a restart, and when the smoke cleared, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson all had damage to their cars. But the final 14 laps ran without incident, with Johnson fending off an early challenge from Earnhardt Jr. before motoring away unchallenged.
David Ragan, driving the No. 18 Toyota for the injured Kyle Busch, kept the car in the top 10 for the first quarter of the race, but fell a lap down at the halfway mark and finished 18th.
Another fill-in driver, Brett Moffitt, drove Brian Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota to an eighth-place finish.
Johnny Sauter must qualify his way into Daytona 500
By Rick Minter
Veteran driver Johnny Sauter has been hired to drive the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing in the upcoming Daytona 500.
But Sauter will have to qualify his way into the starting field, since the team finished the 2014 season 41st in car owner points, and therefore is not guaranteed a starting spot for the Sprint Cup circuit’s premier race.
Sauter, who will work with veteran crew chief Doug Richert, has experience in all three of NASCAR’s major touring series. He has 84 career Sprint Cup starts, 205 in the Xfinity Series with three victories, and 152 starts in the Camping World Truck Series, where he has 10 career victories and is riding a six-season streak of winning at least one race every year.
Sauter will run Daytona as a teammate to J.J. Yeley, who will drive the team’s No. 23 Toyota, with Joe Williams serving as crew chief.
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.”