A Look Back at 2017
By Rick Minter
The 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season saw many an interesting storyline, from Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating run to a championship to a significant changing of the guard to the continued emergence of some of the sport’s stars of the future.
Carl Edwards’ Stunner
The big changes began in early January, when Carl Edwards, who came within a handful of laps of winning the 2016 championship only to be involved in a late-race wreck with Joey Logano, stunned the racing world by announcing that he was stepping away from his full-time ride.
The popular Edwards, who has won 28 Cup races and 38 in the Xfinity Series, plus the 2007 driving title, said in the news conference announcing his decision to step away that the bold move left him “about the most scared I’ve ever been about something.”
He said he simply followed his gut instincts.
“I really believe it’s the right thing,” he said. “It’s a personal thing. I feel strongly about it. I’m very confident in it.”
He did admit that the prospect of serious injury, such as the concussions that caused Dale Earnhardt Jr. to miss races in previous seasons and hastened his retirement, was a factor.
“I can stand here healthy, and that’s a testament after all the racing I’ve done and all the stupid stuff I’ve done in a race car, that is a true testament to NASCAR, to the tracks, to the people who have built my race cars, to my competitors, and to the drivers who have come before me who haven’t been so fortunate,” he said in that January news conference. “Having said that, though, it’s a risky sport. I’m aware of the risks.
“I don’t like how it feels to take the hits that we take, and I’m a sharp guy, and I want to be a sharp guy in 30 years, so those risks are something that I want to minimize.”
After making a few appearances at tracks early in the season to support Daniel Suarez, his replacement in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota, Edwards dropped out of sight and was rarely seen or heard from by the racing community.
Junior Makes It Official
In April, Earnhardt Jr. announced that the 2017 season would be his last as a full-time driver.
Earnhardt, who returned to the circuit at the beginning of the season after missing half of the 2016 campaign due to a concussion, said it was important to him to be able to end his career on his own terms rather than have the decision dictated by an injury or some other situation out of his control.
While Earnhardt was able to run the entire 36-race schedule without suffering a concussion, he was not as competitive as he had been in his prime. He had just one top-five finish, a career low, and eight top-10s on the way to a 21st-place finish in the final points standings. He did score two poles, which leaves him with 26 career Cup wins and 15 poles. He also has a commendable record in the Xfinity Series, where he has two driving titles, 24 wins and 10 poles.
Earnhardt, who scored his 15th-straight Most Popular Driver Award in 2017, isn’t planning to stay out of the limelight as Edwards has done. He’s planning to run a few Xfinity races and will be a commentator for NBC during its NASCAR TV coverage.
That TV gig will put him in an arena that his late father never entered, so the comparisons to his father, which were hard to avoid during his driving career, shouldn’t be a topic of discussion.
Even so, Earnhardt has never seemed to be affected by the comparisons to his father, who had 76 Cup wins and seven championships.
Earnhardt addressed that issue during a media session at Phoenix Raceway.
“I read something on Twitter the other day about my brother [Kerry],” Earnhardt said. “He said he has always lived under Dad’s shadow and that is not such a bad thing.
“I don’t know that you are always out from under it, but it didn’t bother me. But I was always compared to him and compared to his success, the person he was. People either liked that I was different or didn’t like that I was different and wanted me to be just like him or whatever.
“I really don’t know when that started to happen. I guess it is happening now. I am going to go do something else after I’m done driving.
“Hopefully, I’m just as proud of my accomplishments in the booth as I am on the race track. I would love for that career to be a success and that would definitely be out from under his shadow. But it’s not something I really put a lot of thought into.
“I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this happening.”
Kenseth and Patrick
The season ended with two more veteran drivers, Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, stepping away.
Kenseth left involuntarily after it was announced that his ride in the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing was going to Erik Jones, who won the 2017 Rookie of the Year title driving the No. 77 for Furniture Row Racing.
Patrick announced at Homestead-Miami Speedway that she planned to run the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in 2018 before retiring for good. Her ride in the No. 10 Ford at Stewart Haas Racing is going to Aric Almirola, who is moving to Stewart Haas from Richard Petty Motorsports, along with sponsor Smithfield Foods.
Kenseth, who won the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix Raceway to push his career Cup win total to 39, left the door open to returning to driving, but also seemed at peace with the idea of being retired.
“It’s just been quite a journey, and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel,” Kenseth said in his winner’s interview at Phoenix. “A lot of things I don’t really understand, but I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level going forward.
“With that, I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it.
“Not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship.”
Truex’s season for the ages
They focused on winning stages, a new format for NASCAR’s major circuits, and collecting the bonus points and playoff points that came with them. Drivers in the top 10 in the first two stages of races earned stage points, and stage winners and race winners also earned playoff points.
Truex won a circuit-leading eight races, and led his fellow drivers in stage points and playoff points with 438 stage points, 19 stage wins and 69 playoff points.
The playoff points allowed Truex to be in a relatively safe position as far as advancing from one round to the next. But he didn’t end up needing them, as he scored four wins during the playoffs, including three that allowed him to advance to the next round.
In the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in which the highest finishing driver of the four championship contenders got the title, Truex outdueled Kyle Busch in the closing laps to get the victory and the championship.
Among those congratulating Truex and his T-shirt-wearing crew chief, Cole Pearn, was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who helped Truex make the move from the short tracks of the Northeast to NASCAR’s elite divisions.
“It’s so good to see him win this title,” Earnhardt told reporters at Homestead. “He is a professional and a gentleman and just a perfect friend. We’ve been pals a long, long time. I was glad to have a hand in getting his career going. I can’t take all the credit. … But he’s just such a great guy. … I am so proud of him.”
Earnhardt went on to say that Truex will be a great representative of the sport. He said it was also good to see Truex and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who is battling cancer, celebrating with the Cup champion’s trophy.
“Everything that he’s gone through as a driver, and beyond that, everything he’s gone through in his personal life, everything Sherry has gone through, the whole sport has been behind them for so long and supported them for so long, but it’s just great,” he said, adding that he was happy for Pearn as well. “Cole, he’s just himself. He’s a really cool guy, comes to work in a T-shirt. You’ve got to love his attitude and personality. That personality and attitude encompasses the whole team. It’s just fun to watch. And they’re sort of the outsiders way up there in Denver. Beat all us boys down in North Carolina.”
Gordon owns the night at Sprint Cup awards banquet
By Rick Minter
The annual Sprint Cup awards banquet often features a parade of drivers reciting a list of people they want to thank for helping them land among NASCAR’s elite that year. This year’s ceremony was different, and much more emotional.
For starters, it was the last official act as a driver for the retiring Jeff Gordon, who will no doubt be a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he’s eligible.
And this year’s champion, Kyle Busch, had much to be thankful for besides his good fortune on the track. His list of thank-yous started with the doctors who mended his bones broken in a crash at Daytona.
“One day, I went from being able to win races, to the next where I was just thinking about how I was going to be able to walk into the delivery room with (wife) Samantha to be a part of the birth of our son, Brexton,” Busch said. “I can’t thank Dr. Todd McCall and Dr. Bob Anderson for putting me back together as well as they did.”
Busch concluded his remarks by thanking his wife, who many credit with helping him shed his bad-boy image and become the kind of driver who can contend for championships on a regular basis.
Martin Truex Jr. was another who had more than racing on his mind in Vegas. He earned a speaking part at the awards ceremony by contending for the championship all the way to Homestead, and did it just a year after he had a miserable season on the track as his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, battled ovarian cancer.
Even though he didn’t win the championship, the night belonged to Gordon, and it started with a surprise appearance by actor Tom Cruise, who introduced Gordon, and in doing so said his presence would be missed on the track.
“We are happy for him, but sad to see him go,” Cruise said during the televised ceremony. “When you’re treated to excellence every week for 23 years, well, that’s not something that you let go of easily.
“[Gordon] brought joy to millions, used his immense and deserved popularity for the betterment of the world both at home and abroad,” Cruise continued. “Transcendence … Few reach it. He did. And although many of us want to say we’ll miss you, what we really mean is we thank you.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France presented Gordon with the Bill France Award of Excellence, which is reserved for very special occasions.
The events of the night left Gordon with moist eyes and a bit choked up at times, especially when he thanked his car owner, Rick Hendrick.
“Rick and Linda Hendrick, thank you so much,” he said. “Thank you so much for choosing me as your driver. I’m so proud to say I drove for one car owner, the best car owner, my entire Sprint Cup career.”
Gordon thanked others as well, from fellow drivers to crew members to media types to fans, including those fans who took some time to warm up to him.
“I got off to a bit of a rocky start with the fans,” he said. “There were some cheers, but then there were some boos, but you accepted me, you supported me so much over the years, and this year you rewarded me so much.”
And speaking to everyone in the room, he ended his remarks by saying: “Thank you guys. It’s been so special. Thank you, thank you.”
First 20 years – Gordon marks two decades of Cup and earlier racing
By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
Jeff Gordon was born in Vallejo, Calif., then moved with his family as a teenager to Pittsboro, Ind., to pursue his racing career. But it was down South where Gordon had some of the milestone events of his racing career.
Most everyone who follows auto racing knows that it was at Atlanta Motor Speedway 20 years ago that Gordon made his first start in the series now known as Sprint Cup. That was in the 1992 Hooters 500, Richard Petty’s last as a driver and one that saw a dramatic end to the championship battle, as Alan Kulwicki finished second in the race but beat race winner Bill Elliott for the title because he led one more lap, and those bonus points for leading the most laps were the difference in the championship.
Many also know that it was at Atlanta where Gordon got his first major NASCAR victory, earlier in 1992 in the series now known as Nationwide. He also got his first-ever top-five finish in NASCAR at a small short track north of Atlanta, Lanier Raceway in Braselton, Ga., in a race for the series now known as Nationwide.
Before that, he made his first start in a sprint car at a dirt track near Jacksonville, Fla., and really got going in sprint cars in the 1985 Winternationals at East Bay Raceway near Tampa.
Gordon said his first sprint car start wasn’t an indication of what his racing future held.
“It went terrible,” he said. Then he traveled across Florida to East Bay, another track where 15-year-old drivers like he was at that time were allowed to compete.
“It was a track very capable of us getting good laps and getting my feet wet in the sprint car,” he said. “By the last night we were moving along pretty good.”
And that’s impressive given the fact that the starting fields included sprint car legends like Dave Blaney, Doug Wolfgang, Jack Hewitt, Steve Kinser and Kelly Kinser, although Gordon said he wasn’t really focusing on them at the time.
“I was a long way from competing with them,” he said.
By the time he joined NASCAR’s Busch Series, now known as Nationwide, he had become a much better driver.
He said his first NASCAR win, at Atlanta in a Baby Ruth-sponsored Ford, wasn’t an upset by any means.
“It was my second year driving for Bill Davis,” he said. “We came off a year where we ran good but were missing a little something. But we came out guns loaded in ’92. We had some new power and a new body style.
“We came into Atlanta and just flew. It was an incredible day. We were fast in practice, sat on the pole.”
But that race was no cakewalk, even though he led 103 of 197 laps.
“We had Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, a bunch of heavy hitters in that race, not to mention the Nationwide or Busch Series guys.”
And Gordon had several issues to overcome, including running out of fuel at one point.
“We had to come from behind to get back to the front,” he said.
Gordon also has fond memories of his days running at Lanier, a 3/8-mile oval track across Ga. Highway 53 from Road Atlanta.
It was at Lanier in 1991 that he got his first top-five finish in NASCAR.
He started third and ran second to David Green.
“We were in a pretty heated battle with David for Rookie of the Year,” Gordon said. “He got a win, and we didn’t.
“He had us covered that night at Lanier.”
Then in 1992, he dominated the early portions of the Lanier race, leading the first 177 laps from the pole before being derailed by a mechanical issue.
“I remember that race very specifically,” he said. “We started on the pole, were very fast and were leading and had a problem with the bolt that holds on the air cleaner.”
The stud that held the air cleaner to the carburetor broke off and caused Gordon’s throttle to begin sticking. He made a pit stop and his team removed the air cleaner and sent him back on the track. NASCAR officials did not approve of the stop-gap measure.
“They penalized me and made me come back in and fix it,” Gordon said.
Bobby Labonte wound up winning, while Gordon recovered to finish 10th.
“I always liked Lanier,” Gordon said. “I raced there one time in a Midget and ran good.”
Atlanta’s big track also has been good to Gordon. He’s won there five times and finished second in the most recent race.
Not just any track
Drivers reflect on experience racing world’s most famous speedway
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
As NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this week’s Brickyard 400, there are rumblings that ticket sales are off compared to recent years. But for the drivers who will be on the track, there’s no drop-off in interest about racing at the track that recently hosted the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
For Tony Stewart, who grew up in Columbus, Ind., just a short drive from the Speedway, there are few places on earth that mean more to him than the world’s most famous race track. In an interview several years ago, he talked about just how much the place means to him.
“The last time I did double duty [driving in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on the same day] I was staying in my motor home in the infield,” Stewart said. “I got back from an event at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’m the only one walking around there.
“You’re standing there and you swear you can hear people and hear race cars going around there. To me, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just like a living, breathing organism.”
Stewart, who has raced in both Indy Car and NASCAR races at the Brickyard, has yet to win an Indy 500, but he has two Brickyard 400 victories, in 2005 and 2007.
Kevin Harvick, who won at the Brickyard in 2003, told reporters at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that while the Brickyard 400 may have lost some of its luster for fans in recent years, a change that many attribute to the tire debacle that turned the 2008 running into a series of short sprints, it’s still shining brightly to the participants.
“When you go to Indy, there can be nobody sitting in the grandstands, and it’s still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” he said. “It’s still been there for 100 years and still is our second biggest race that we go to.
“So for us, it’s where you bring your latest and greatest car, your latest and greatest engine, and it’s just kind of like the Daytona 500.
“It’s all about trying to win the race, and putting it on the line to do that is what it’s all about. It’s a prestigious race to win, and nobody in the garage is going to go there with any intention other than to try to win the race when they unload their cars.”
Many old-time Indy fans think of drivers’ names like Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears, Vukovich and Ward when they think of the Speedway. But there also are many fans, especially younger ones, who also think about drivers like Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson when they think about the great drivers who have competed there over the years.
Johnson, who has won three of the past five Brickyard 400s, is like many from his generation in that he knows much more about the recent Indy winners than he does those who competed before he was born.
“My view is shaped in the 30 or 40 years of watching, and there are certainly other names that go further back that mean a lot more,” he said. “I don’t think I remember watching [A.J.] Foyt win there, but I certainly remember him hammering on his car one time on pit road.
“I have to think from a dominant standpoint it would be Rick Mears. Watching Helio [Castroneves] win those three that he has won, I guess that would be the other one that comes in my mind first.”
But Johnson also appreciates the entirety of Indy’s history and has toured the popular museum in the track’s infield, where Indy-winning cars from Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp that won the first 500 to the present are on display, many of them just as they were when they were rolled out of the winner’s celebration.
“I wish I knew more of the history of the speedway and those cars,” he said. “The older I get, the more history becomes interesting to me. I should go back [to the museum]. I think I went through there my sophomore year in the sport and saw a lot of cool cars, but some of the guys I just didn’t know much about.”
LIKE A BRICK HOUSE – NASCAR bringing Sprint Cup to Indy for annual Brickyard 400
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Like the golfers of the PGA playing a course like Augusta National in the Masters, there seems to be something magical that happens when NASCAR’s finest race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The cream always seems to rise to the top. And drivers who appear to have the best years of their careers behind them somehow summon the strength to run with the younger dogs at the famed Brickyard.
The list of NASCAR winners at the Brickyard reads like a Who’s Who of the sport – Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. There are no “fluke” wins so far in NASCAR races at the Brickyard.
And, like golfing at the Masters, NASCAR’s graybeards can put on a show at Indy. Dale Jarrett, winner in 1996 and 1999, came back and ran second in 2004 at age 47. Earnhardt won in ’95 at 44. Elliott won in ’02 at 46, and Rusty Wallace got his third career runner-up finish in ’02 at age 45.
Even the younger winners know they’ve done something special by winning at Indy. Jeff Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 at age 22, knows as well as anyone what place that track and that race hold in the history of the sport. He spent many of his formative years living just down the road from Indy, in the town of Pittsboro, dreaming of one day driving a race car on that storied stretch of asphalt and bricks. In those days, few could have imagined that the bastion of open-wheel racing would one day open its doors to NASCAR.
“I love the fact that we get to go there in a stock car,” Gordon said during his weekly press briefing at Chicagoland Speedway. “It’s a lot of fun to bring NASCAR to the Brickyard.”
Gordon went on to say that winning at the Brickyard requires a well-tuned car, and that goes a long way in explaining why the wins at Indy only seem to go to top-echelon drivers and only to the best race teams.
“You have to have the car really balanced out right, and it’s tough to do because you have four unique corners,” Gordon said.
“Even though they look the same shape, they’re all different.
“It’s a hard place to pass at so track position is extremely important. Qualifying well is important there and then we’ve been seeing a lot these days with softer rear springs versus bigger rear springs and what downforce package seems to be the best combination at a track like Indy where you have these long straightaways where you want to try to get down the straightaways good, but have the downforce in the car for the grip through the corners.”
The team and driver that seem to have Indy figured out the best are Gordon’s teammate Jimmie Johnson and the crew of his No. 48 Chevrolet. He has a chance this year to join an elite roster of four-time winners at Indy, a list that includes both open-wheel and NASCAR racers.
“It would be a huge honor to join the list of four-time winners,” Johnson said. “Just to win there once is a career maker for anyone, so to have three victories there means a lot to me.
“When I went [to Indy] to do the winner’s circle appearance a month or so ago, I was there with [four-time Indy 500 winner] Rick Mears, and to see him as a four-time winner and to talk about his experiences at the track and what it’s done for his life and career was neat and helped me open my eyes to his world and the open-wheel world there.
“So I’m pumped and excited.”
Hamlin & Busch Sparks still flyin’ Smoldering rancor over All-Star Race flares up at Coca-Cola 600
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The dust-up between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch in NASCAR’s All-Star Race continued to generate buzz well into the Coca-Cola 600 race weekend, with both drivers obviously far from putting the incident completely behind them.
They did manage to avoid each other on the track during the 600, but they had plenty to say beforehand.
During his regular meeting with the media on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch fielded question after question about the incident late in the All-Star Race when Busch tried to pass Hamlin.
To Busch’s credit, he maintained his cool, never really losing his temper.
“I think my frustration right now is just continually having to talk about the same thing over and over again,” Busch said in response to the 11th straight question about the Hamlin incident. “You’re trying to hit something, and I feel like I’m answering what you’re asking.
“For me, I’m over the Denny Hamlin issue. It’s done. We’re moving forward, and we look forward to the rest of the year and the 600 this weekend. We’re going to work together.”
He added that he didn’t regret threatening Hamlin over his radio during the All-Star Race, but added that he didn’t really mean he wanted to kill him.
“Do I regret saying what I said over the radio? Absolutely not,” Busch said. “It was the heat of the moment, that’s who I am, that’s my expression and I’m not going to be sorry for what I say …
“It wasn’t joking, but it wasn’t going to happen, it wasn’t meant.”
Hamlin, who appeared before the same media contingent later in the day, defended his driving in the All-Star Race, saying Busch should have slowed down instead of running into the wall when the gap on the outside of Hamlin shrank to less than a car’s width.
“He has a gas pedal and a brake just like I do,” Hamlin said. “He could choose to check up and pass me in the next corner or put his car in the fence like what happened. That’s just part of it, and I think he expected me to do that there and I just wasn’t willing to do it at that point.”
But as Hamlin’s session wore on, he took a few verbal shots at Busch, saying his teammate needs to calm down some before he can contend for a title.
“Kyle [Busch] brings this stuff up himself, and he gets mad at the media for asking him questions about his blowups and stuff, but he does it to himself,” Hamlin said. “I don’t want to be part of it. Any drama that he wants to create or anything is on him. Anything he says on the radio is on him. All I’m going to say – and I’m going to be done with it – is each year I think Kyle’s going to grow out of it, and he just doesn’t.
“Until he puts it all together, that’s when he’ll become a champion. Right now he just doesn’t have himself all together.”
When asked about his own maturing process, Hamlin apparently couldn’t resist slinging one last barb at Busch.
He said his growing-up moment occurred when veteran Tony Stewart left Gibbs, leaving Hamlin the senior driver on the team.
“I didn’t say that I was going to take over this team or be the leader of this team, but somebody’s got to be the leader,” he said. “It ain’t going to be Kyle.”
Hamlin & BuschSparks still flyin’Smoldering rancor over All-Star Race flares up at Coca-Cola 600By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The dust-up between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch in NASCAR’s All-Star Race continued to generate buzz well into the Coca-Cola 600 race weekend, with both drivers obviously far from putting the incident completely behind them. They did manage to avoid each other on the track during the 600, but they had plenty to say beforehand.During his regular meeting with the media on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch fielded question after question about the incident late in the All-Star Race when Busch tried to pass Hamlin.To Busch’s credit, he maintained his cool, never really losing his temper.“I think my frustration right now is just continually having to talk about the same thing over and over again,” Busch said in response to the 11th straight question about the Hamlin incident. “You’re trying to hit something, and I feel like I’m answering what you’re asking. “For me, I’m over the Denny Hamlin issue. It’s done. We’re moving forward, and we look forward to the rest of the year and the 600 this weekend. We’re going to work together.”He added that he didn’t regret threatening Hamlin over his radio during the All-Star Race, but added that he didn’t really mean he wanted to kill him.“Do I regret saying what I said over the radio? Absolutely not,” Busch said. “It was the heat of the moment, that’s who I am, that’s my expression and I’m not going to be sorry for what I say …“It wasn’t joking, but it wasn’t going to happen, it wasn’t meant.”Hamlin, who appeared before the same media contingent later in the day, defended his driving in the All-Star Race, saying Busch should have slowed down instead of running into the wall when the gap on the outside of Hamlin shrank to less than a car’s width.“He has a gas pedal and a brake just like I do,” Hamlin said. “He could choose to check up and pass me in the next corner or put his car in the fence like what happened. That’s just part of it, and I think he expected me to do that there and I just wasn’t willing to do it at that point.”But as Hamlin’s session wore on, he took a few verbal shots at Busch, saying his teammate needs to calm down some before he can contend for a title.“Kyle [Busch] brings this stuff up himself, and he gets mad at the media for asking him questions about his blowups and stuff, but he does it to himself,” Hamlin said. “I don’t want to be part of it. Any drama that he wants to create or anything is on him. Anything he says on the radio is on him. All I’m going to say – and I’m going to be done with it – is each year I think Kyle’s going to grow out of it, and he just doesn’t. “Until he puts it all together, that’s when he’ll become a champion. Right now he just doesn’t have himself all together.”When asked about his own maturing process, Hamlin apparently couldn’t resist slinging one last barb at Busch.He said his growing-up moment occurred when veteran Tony Stewart left Gibbs, leaving Hamlin the senior driver on the team.“I didn’t say that I was going to take over this team or be the leader of this team, but somebody’s got to be the leader,” he said. “It ain’t going to be Kyle.”
New NASCAR rules get vetted at Talladega races
“How did the new spoiler and NASCAR’s instructions to the boys to ‘have at it’ work out at Talladega Superspeedway?”
A: NASCAR seemed to get it right on this one. Last fall at Talladega, drivers were told in the drivers meeting that there would be punishment for aggressive driving, and long stretches of the race were considered by many to be boring compared to previous Talladega events.
On Sunday at Talladega, there were no threats of punishment in the drivers meeting, leaving the drivers to police matters themselves. By most accounts they did a commendable job.
And the spoiler seemed to allow trailing drivers to close the gap on those ahead of them, and it even seemed to play a role in Kevin Harvick’s last-lap pass of Jamie McMurray for the win in the Aaron’s 499.
And it kept spinning cars from flying through the air, as they tended to do with the wing on the back.
“I think it was very typical Talladega,” Harvick said. “I think there was a lot of pushing and shoving, two- and three-wide.
“The spoiler made it so you could pull back up on somebody if you made a mistake. You just didn’t want to be the very last car. It was a very interesting day and it played out perfect for us.’’
Even in defeat, McMurray seemed to like the way the race played out.
“It was actually a lot of fun out there,” he said. “We had such a good rules package with the wing here, you didn’t know how this was going to work. They did a really good job of picking the blade and the right [spoiler] and made the cars racy.’’
Still, McMurray said both he and Harvick played it safe for the majority of the race.
“Well, we raced really smart,” he said. “We rode around toward the rear. Kevin and I actually rode together all day back there. I think everybody in the back of their heads thought that with the wing and the plate and everything that there were a lot of unknowns and that we were going to suck up too quick, because the cars did, they sucked up really well.
“We saw Ryan Newman get wrecked in practice, and that was practice. I really thought in the first 40 laps we would have a wreck like that but everybody did a really good job.”
Sixth-finishing David Ragan agreed that the racing was good, at least from the driver’s seat. “Certainly, the cars drive really well. I think NASCAR made the right decision on allowing guys to push a little bit more and be a little more aggressive.
“I think it was a pretty clean race, except for maybe the last 10-15 laps, and that’s just from everybody losing a little bit of patience.”
Got a question about NASCAR? Ask Rick! E-mail your question to firstname.lastname@example.org
Trading Spaces Swapping drivers presents challenges and opportunities
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The full details of Kasey Kahne’s move to Hendrick Motorsports have yet to be revealed, but there’s a consensus in NASCAR circles about how things will work out in the end.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the four drivers now running for Hendrick in the Cup Series, summed up the feelings of many in his comments to reporters at Texas Motor Speedway last week.
“I’m sure whatever Rick [Hendrick] chooses to do will be a smart way to take care of it,” Earnhardt said.
The complications come because Hendrick hired Kahne, now driving the No. 9 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports, to take over his No. 5 car beginning with the 2012 season. But Mark Martin, who is under contract to drive the car through next season, is doing a very good job behind the wheel. That puts Martin in an awkward spot as, the way the situation looks now, he’ll be a lame duck in the No. 5 next year, while Kahne likely will be farmed out to a Hendrick-affiliated team, as many have speculated.
Hendrick said on a teleconference last week that it’s his responsibility to field a car for Kahne next year.
The scenario, on the surface, looks much like the situation back in 2003-04, when Kahne first came on the Cup scene to take over the No. 9, driven at that time by another veteran, Bill Elliott. Looking back, it seems that the driver swap was made a little too soon as far as Elliott was concerned.
In his last seven races in the 9 car, Elliott, who was 47 at the time, had an average finish of 4.56, including a win at Rockingham. And in his final run in the No. 9, he was less than a lap away from winning at Homestead in the 2003 season finale when a tire went flat.
Like Elliott back then, Martin today, at 51, is still plenty capable of delivering wins and competing for championships, so the idea of him retiring after next season is far-fetched.
He said so himself in his weekly interview with reporters at Texas.
“I’m not going to retire,” he said. “I’m going to race in 2012. And so don’t even talk about it. I’m racing in 2012.”
But he didn’t say where, and he may not know where.
“There will be an opportunity for me I’m sure, that will be exciting and fun and that I can help people,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done that. I feel like I did that in the No. 01 at DEI [after he left Roush Racing and before he joined Hendrick], and I feel like I’ve helped the No. 5 team realize that they can win races and contend for a championship.
“And so I’ll find another opportunity that’s exciting to me, and I don’t want to commit to that now. I want to make sure that Hendrick is set, and they are set. It’s such an incredibly perfect scenario.”
One possibility might be that he would own his own team, possibly with an affiliation with Hendrick, as his fellow driver Tony Stewart did last year.
“For the first time ever, I would consider an opportunity like Tony Stewart had,” Martin said. “I don’t want to be an owner, but if I can be an owner like Tony Stewart maybe I want it.”
Often in NASCAR, as was the case when Kurt Busch went from Roush to Penske Racing, the swap was made sooner than expected thanks to some behind-the-scenes dealing. But Martin’s comments indicate he’ll still be with his current team next year.
“I feel so fortunate to have a whole year and a half yet in front of me to work with [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and this team,” he said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It’s been the gift of my career to realize this and to be able to do this and be successful.
“It’s also exciting to do new things, and I love and embrace the excitement of 2012 and whatever that may bring.”
Driver A.J. Allmendinger…. Rising like the Phoenix
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Children are often taught that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
To back up that point, kids could be told the story of NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger. He came into the sport from the open-wheel ranks, a move that often doesn’t pay many dividends.
Allmendinger had a typical transition from open-wheel racing to NASCAR. In his first season with Red Bull Racing, then a new team, it was one struggle after another. After failing to qualify for 19 races including four of the first five, he kept right on trying. Then the next season, after a slow start, he was replaced by Mike Skinner for a stretch of races from Las Vegas to Talladega. But he kept coming to the tracks, learning by observation, and he eventually regained his old ride, only to lose it at the end of the 2008 season.
But his perseverance made an impression on the folks at Richard Petty Motorsports, and he eventually wound up behind the wheel of the company’s flagship No. 43, the one once driven by Richard Petty himself.
On Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, Allmendinger put his car on the pole, which was a surprise in most anyone’s book. Even Allmendinger had to admit that.
“Heck, it is my first one, so I would probably say yes to that,” he told reporters at Phoenix during his pole-winner’s interview. But he said he and his team have been getting better, even if their efforts haven’t drawn a whole lot of attention.
“I feel like we have been showing that we are getting quicker, unfortunately the results aren’t showing that,” he said. “We have been caught up in a lot of other people’s mistakes.”
He said the upcoming portion of the schedule is a make-or-break time for teams like his that want to move up in the standings and secure a berth in the season-ending, championship-deciding Chase. He’s now 23rd in the standings, 173 points out of 12th place.
“I told the team this is a key six-week stretch before the All-Star break,” he said. “If we can go out there and get into the top 15 in points and have good runs every weekend, then I think we can go into the All-Star break knowing we have a chance at the Chase.
“That is our goal.”
To make Allmendinger’s first Cup pole a little sweeter, he got it by beating his old Red Bull team – and its driver Scott Speed.
“Anybody that has been let go, however, you know what it is like to go out there and beat your old team,” he said.
But no matter who he beat, the important thing to him and his team was the boost it gave them.
“It is a small victory, but it means so much to this race team and me,” he said. “In this sport, it is all about confidence …so to go out there and get the job done is a big deal.”
In the race at Phoenix, Allmendinger led 17 laps and finished 15th, his second-best effort this season after a sixth at Atlanta.
Contender again Driving the No. 32, Sorenson concentrates on the win
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Reed Sorenson appears to be doing exactly what he said he would do when he stepped back to a partial Nationwide Series schedule after losing his Sprint Cup ride at Richard Petty Motorsports. He said in the preseason that he looked at his 23-race deal with Braun Racing as taking a career step back as part of a plan to eventually make a bigger step forward.
He figured that he could use his time in the No. 32 Toyota to recapture the feeling of being a contender every time out, of racing for wins instead of being mired in mid-pack. In the process he’d make himself more attractive to a Cup team owner, and he expects the job market to offer more opportunities in 2011 than it did this year.
On Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway, where in 2005 he got his first major NASCAR win, Sorenson almost got back to Victory Lane in just his second time out this season. He finished second to race winner Kevin Harvick and appeared to be gaining on the leader when the laps ran out.
“Even when there were 10 laps to go, I thought we could get [Harvick], and with five laps to go, I still thought we could,” Sorenson told reporters after the race. “I could taste it. That was a feeling that I felt in this car a few times last year, and the second time this year we’ve already felt it again.
“These guys do a great job, and I can’t wait till next weekend.”
The one-time Legends racing star was back to talking about winning, and it’s realistic, unlike many of his days on the Cup side of the garage, where his odds of winning often were slim. In four full seasons in Cup, he went winless with five top-five and 14 top-10 finishes and an average finish of 25.3. On the other hand, in his four career starts in Braun’s No. 32 Toyota, his average finish is 3.5.
“When we ran this car last year, we had a second and a third the two times I ran it,” he said. “Now I have another second. Every time I get in this car, we’re fast. These guys do a good job, and we’re going back to Phoenix next week and I’m in the car again. I look forward to that.”
The Nashville success comes at a good time for him, heading into Phoenix where he finished third last year.
“Today proved that we could do it, so we just have to keep working hard so we can get a little bit better so we can win,” he said.
And he said he’ll be in better shape when he returns to Nashville in June for the track’s second Nationwide race of the season.
“We just have to go back and look at where our problems were because we kind of fought the same problems in the race that we did in practice, so that’s a good thing,” he said. “It stayed pretty consistent …
“If we can fix those two little things that we have a problem with then we can apply it to the June race.”
NASCAR Racing Etiquette 101
Veteran drivers recall the tough lessons every rookie must learn
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The week off that followed the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident at Atlanta Motor Speedway meant that when the drivers arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway last Friday, it was the first chance for the media to quiz them about the incident and its aftermath.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the questioning centered on how young drivers learn the unwritten rules of the sport, especially when it comes to aggressive driving. Call it Racing Etiquette 101.
It didn’t take Jeff Gordon but a second to recall his introduction to class.
“Phoenix,1993. Dale Earnhardt Sr. and me backing into the wall,” Gordon said. “Yeah, I remember it well.
“At the time I was pretty mad, and didn’t think I was deserving of it. About six years later I was like, ‘Now I get it.’
“I was racing way too hard for 10th place, too early in the race, and I had it coming to me. It was the perfect time to teach me a lesson from the best guy to do it. I never forgot it, obviously, but I did learn from it.”
Kasey Kahne said he learned his first big lesson from Gordon, and apparently all Gordon had to do was point his finger out the window during a race.
“I’m not sure which finger I was pointing out the window at Kasey that day, but it worked,” Gordon said. “I think every rookie goes through that, and that’s what makes being a rookie so tough. You feel the pressure. You feel out of your element. You’re not sure if you belong there or if you have what it takes.
“You’re going though these lessons that you don’t want to go through, you don’t like going through them, but it’s necessary. It makes you a better driver, and it’s what everybody has to go through. If there’s a rookie that comes in and doesn’t go through that will you let me know so we can make sure he doesn’t get through the season clean?”
Denny Hamlin said Mark Martin schooled him at Martinsville.
“It was my only DNF [Did Not Finish] of my rookie season,” he said. “I was racing Mark Martin I think pretty hard, probably midway through the race, and he just ran right up into me and cut my left rear tire on purpose.
“I spun out, I tried to cause a caution and I ended up backing into the fence and ended our day.”
Hamlin said he was really mad at the time and talked to Martin the next day.
“He was like, ‘Why were you even running me that hard?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know to be honest with you.’ But I feel like all the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve at least made a conscious effort to try to correct them or learn from them.”
Sometimes class was even a little funny, or at least the stories are now.
Jimmie Johnson learned some lessons from both Burton brothers, Jeff and Ward.
It was Ward and his thick Virginia accent that Johnson remembers most.
It started with a crash at New Hampshire.
“We were coming from the back and coming up through there and we got together going into Turn 1, and I got into him and turned him around and he hit the fence,” Johnson said. “He got back on track and spent like four or five laps trying to crash me. So then I was pretty nervous about what went on and started tracking him down.
“I called his office but that didn’t work and somehow I got his home phone number. And I don’t know what made him more mad actually, whether it was me calling him on the phone or calling him at home. I think he was cussing at me because it was a little tough to understand him, but he went on for 30 seconds in just four-letter words and he finally calmed down and we talked it out from there.
“That’s just a part of it.”
‘Have at it,boys’ Kurt Busch wins in dramatic Kobalt Tools 500
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s new “Have at it, boys” approach to racing played a major role in the finish of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But none of the late-race wrecking seemed to slow Kurt Busch, who got his third career Sprint Cup victory at AMS and his second straight in the spring race.
Busch was cruising at the front, finally having dispatched his chief challenger, Kasey Kahne, when Carl Edwards, running 156 laps in arrears, appeared to use his front bumper to retaliate against Brad Keselowski for a Lap 41 incident between the two of them.
Keselowski’s Dodge flew upside down and into the wall, but he escaped unhurt. Edwards was parked for the remainder of the race and summoned to NASCAR’s mobile office afterward.
The wreck was eerily similar to the one between the two of them at Talladega last year, where it was Edwards who flew into the fence after contact with Keselowski, who won that race.
“It was a wild ride, uncalled for,” Keselowski said of his AMS crash. “It could’ve killed somebody in the grandstand or on the track. We will hurt someone either in a car or in the grandstand.”
NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton told reporters Sunday night that the Edwards-Keselowski crash looked like payback on Edwards’ part. He said officials will meet at the NASCAR facility in Concord, N.C., early this week to contemplate further penalties.
“It’s always a concern when you see retaliation and there are different levels of it,” he said. “We don’t rush to judgment on Sunday nights and make penalties. That’s why we take our time and go back and talk it about it some more.”
Edwards all but said he wrecked Keselowski intentionally. He was way behind at that point, having wrecked on the start after contact with Keselowski, contact he at first indicated was not his foe’s fault.
Afterward, he wasn’t so gracious.
“Brad knows the deal between him and I,” he said. “The car went airborne, which wasn’t what I expected. I wish it wouldn’t have gone like it did.”
The wreck bunched the field, sent the race into overtime and allowed the top running drivers to hit pit road for fresh rubber. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray took just right-side tires and lined up in the first three spots, with Busch fourth, leading a string of drivers who took four. When the green flag dropped, Busch bolted in between Bowyer and Menard and sprinted away.
Busch said he knew Menard would be protecting the bottom and Bowyer would be looking out for his territory on the outside.
“We were on offense and shot through there like a slingshot,” Busch said.
Matt Kenseth finished second, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Kahne.
A wreck that same lap set up a second try at a green-white-checkered finish – a new wrinkle in the rules this year allows up to three tries – and Busch prevailed over the final two laps to get the victory in a race that wound up being 525 miles long. It was the third straight win at AMS for Dodge, and the 22nd of Busch’s career. He pushed his streak of winning at least one race a year nine consecutive seasons, and he also got his first victory with his new crew chief Steve Addington. The crew boss worked with the other Busch brother, Kyle, before being released late last season. Kurt Busch gave Addington much of the credit for his team’s latest success, and Addington seemed to appreciate the unwavering support of his new driver.
“It’s a good feeling to know your driver wants you to go to work for him,” said Addington, who got his first Cup win at AMS with the other Busch in the spring of 2008.
What a difference a year makes for 2010 Daytona champion
By Rick Minter/ Cox Newspapers
In a heart-warming turn of events, last year’s odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing has become the hottest property of the early 2010 NASCAR season.
Jamie McMurray, who was left without a ride when Roush Fenway was forced to drop from five to four teams to meet NASCAR’s maximum number of teams per owner, languished in limbo for a time before securing a job driving the No.1 Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, the team he left when he moved to Roush.
And on Sunday he gave the Ganassi team its biggest moment ever in NASCAR by surging to the front and scoring a win in the Great American Race, the 52nd annual Daytona 500.
McMurray used a drafting boost from his old Roush teammate Greg Biffle, then held off a fast-closing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get his second straight win in a restrictor-plate race. He also won last fall at Talladega in a Roush Ford, and he won another plate race, in July 2007, at Daytona.
In winning at Daytona, McMurray set a record for the least laps led by a winner, two. It was also one of the race’s longest events, running eight laps past the scheduled distance to accommodate two green-white-checkered-flag attempts. And the race was delayed two times for a total of two hours and 25 minutes so track workers could repair holes in the track. But when the cars were running, it was good racing, with 53 lead changes, the third most at Daytona, among a record 21 drivers.
When McMurray climbed from his Chevrolet in Victory Lane, he was overcome by emotion, pausing to collect himself and wiping away tears as he spoke to a national audience about his triumph.
“Coming off of Turn Four, seeing the checkered flag, knowing there’s not going to be another ‘green white checkered’, you’re going to be the Daytona 500 champion, I can’t explain to you,” McMurray said. “It’s very emotional. I don’t know that I’ve cried like that. I kept trying to compose myself. I couldn’t get it back.”
McMurray’s father, Jim McMurray, who has been a familiar face around the NASCAR garages since his son became a racer, missed the celebration by leaving the track early.
But McMurray mentioned him often in his post-race interview.
“My dad, that’s who I grew up racing with,” he said. “We still race together. He’s literally my best friend probably. That’s just who I hang out with….
“I’m really fortunate that my dad’s cool and I like hanging out with him. He drives me crazy sometimes. I won’t lie to you. We go at each other. But I love him.”
McMurray said it’s no big deal to him that his father missed the Victory Lane celebration.
“I almost kind of laugh at it because I know he’s fired up that he left,” he said. “I got something to yell at him about now. So it’s good stuff.”
Another person who put on a stirring performance but wasn’t smiling at the end was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was as low as 22nd in the running order when the green-white-checkered-flag finishes started but soared to second place at the end.
“I don’t really remember much about it. It was all a blur,” Earnhardt said. “I was just going wherever they weren’t. I really don’t enjoy being that aggressive, but if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best.”
Earnhardt and McMurray both said they didn’t think the lengthy delays for repairs to the track would have a lasting effect on fans, even though many left the track before the end of the race.
“Track surfaces are going to have problems from time to time,” Earnhardt said. “This wasn’t a fault of NASCAR. It wasn’t a fault of Daytona’s. It was probably more or less everybody’s cars beating on the race track with trailing arm mounts and tail pipes.
“That’s going to knock a hole in some asphalt, I don’t care where you are.”