One year ago it was chaos for NASCAR fans as the announcement came through there was a new version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one that put emphasis on winning, had eliminations, and an expanded field. Many, include me, thought this was the dumbest idea ever and no way would it work. Sometimes I can admit when I’m wrong, and judging by the tempers that overflowed and nail biting season finale at Homestead, this was the correct move for NASCAR to make. Continue reading “Sprint Cup Series 2015 Season Preview”
The call of a championship raised the performance for all four of the drivers going for the Sprint Cup Series title on Sunday. That was evident by all four being in the top-5 at multiple times during the race. Statistics and history was thrown out the window for the most part, but those pointed to Kevin Harvick winning, and that’s exactly what happened.
It wasn’t overall surprising to see Harvick capture the crown, given that the team has been fast every week. The only thing they could not get going was luck on their side, but they did it the correct way. Get all the bad luck out of the way early, then execute for the title. Interesting that the pit crew for Harvick was able to pick up their second championship, the first being with Tony Stewart in 2011.
Ryan Newman made a big statement in his second place finish that he did not luck his way into this battle. His team even improved up their performance as the race went on, going from losing Newman spots to gaining him spots on pit road. That was key to getting him close to the lead for the final stretch of restarts. This team has a lot to build on and I’m hoping there is not second place hang over.
For the team of Denny Hamlin, they showed a lot of guts making calls late to put them in a position to win. It was just worn tires were not his friend and the nail in the coffin was spinning his tires on the second to final restart. That made him loose track position he could never get back. It will be interesting what Joe Gibbs does with his crew chiefs, as a major swap seems evident.
While Newman’s crew came through at the end, Joey Logano’s team failed him at the end. Well, you can’t blame the crew too much for the side of the car giving way, but because of that, the car fell off the jack, and a lot of valuable time was lost trying to get it back in the air. He will be left with dwelling on what could have been had that executed as planned, but there is always next year.
This new format really puts the television producers in a small box for their finale coverage. Luckily I had a vested interest in two of the final four drivers, so I didn’t mind the extremely bias coverage of them. I could see how someone who was a Jimmie Johnson fan, for example, could get frustrated with the coverage. That said, it is the title and that is more important than whatever position Johnson (for this example) could have gotten. Tough spot for NASCAR and ESPN, but based on the early numbers, I don’t think many are complaining.
Congratulations are in order for Brad Keselowski, who is the first loser. He was able to rise to fifth place and with Jeff Gordon can just think about what could have been had they made it into the finale. Well, just hopefully they don’t think about that together, because that could get ugly.
As much as I would like a Super Bowl like feel of moving the season finale among many tracks, Homestead does provide a lot of action and options for drivers. You can run high, low, middle, and even push it four wide, and we didn’t see many big accidents because of that. The racing was hard and fast, just the way it needs to be for the title.
Looking at the history of close point battles, you could put this one at the top because of the one point difference between Harvick and Newman. Realistically that was fabricated by the rules, so I would throw that out on that level. Looking overall I would rate this as the top four best season finales: 1992 when Alan Kulwicki out smarts Bill Elliott, 2004 the first Chase where Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson all went neck and neck with Busch prevailing, this title fight, and the 2011 Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards duel that ended with Stewart rising the occasion.
When the Chase for the Sprint Cup rule changes were announced before the start of the 2014 season, there were two things that would have been unbelievable. The first would be that a winless driver would be in the final four drivers for the championship, and one of those drivers would be Ryan Newman.
Here we are just days away from the start of the Ford Championship Weekend and Ryan Newman is playing the role of the underdog. He will contend against Joey Logano (five wins this season), Kevin Harvick (four), and Denny Hamlin (one) to fight for the title. Though he does not have a win under his belt this season, that is not going to keep Newman from being confident this weekend.
“It doesn’t matter to me. I mean, in the end it really doesn’t matter…the fastest car may not win, the best car on a restart may not win. You just never know. It could come right down to fuel mileage and three of the four of us could be coasting on the last lap. You just never know,” commented Newman after Sunday’s race at Phoenix.
How this team has performed should not have surprised anyone, it was former driver Jeff Burton who gushed about how close the team was just one year ago. “We’ve got really, really good people on that team, and we’re starting to perform. Truly, I’m walking away from it when I believe we’re about to blossom. I can feel it. I can see it.”
The Homestead-Miami Speedway has not been the best track for Newman in his career. His best run was a third place effort in 2012; beyond that it has been a sixth place in 2002, and a pair of seventh place finishes in 2005 and 2001.
That said, this year is different from his past few years. Consistency has been Newman’s best friend this season. This can be seen by exactly how he has found his way into the Chase. Comparing last season with Stewart-Haas Racing, to this season with Richard Childress Racing, his numbers are much better on intermediate tracks. Last season he had one top-5 and seven top-10 finishes, this year it is two top-5s and seven top-10 finishes.
The difference is the average finish, one year ago it was 16.50 and this season it has been dropped to 10.38. He’s completed 99.98% of the laps run this season versus 95.06, thanks to finishing every race versus two DNFs last season. Another big stat is he has spent 74.63% of the laps run in the top-15 this season versus 52.44% last year.
While the numbers don’t look great compared to the others going for the title, Newman has exposed one crucial side of himself this past weekend: he will do anything to put himself in contention for the title. As Newman said, “that’s part of the intensity of this Chase. It’s racing, man. That’s what we’re kind of supposed to do.”
And that is what they will do this Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400. Fans can catch the action at 3 PM EST on ESPN when the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship will be determined after 36 grueling weeks.
Kevin Harvick flat out dominated the Quicken Loans 500 from the Phoenix International Raceway. He led 264 of the 312 laps and punched his ticket into the Chase finale with his win. Joining Harvick with a shot at the title at Homestead next weekend is Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman.
Here are some observations on the Chase and this weekend’s race:
Anything For A Championship
If the past few weeks haven’t been indicators of the pressure teams and drivers are under, today provided another example of that. While there were no post-race fights on pit road, Ryan Newman did everything he could to wrestle 11th place from Kyle Larson, which included a slide job into Larson to get the spot. Different from last weekend, Larson did get into the wall, but still salvaged a 13th place finish. Dirty move by Newman? No way, he’s going for a title and it is racing. Larson might not disagree, but he’ll understand in time like Newman said.
Second Just Isn’t Good Enough
Jeff Gordon finished second and became the first loser when it came to the Chase cut off. He might have tied Kevin Harvick for fourth place, but Harvick’s win gets him in. After last weekend, there will be lots Gordon will dwell on, but this season has been a major resurgence on his career. Capping off with another Homestead win will go a long way to putting this behind him.
Hamlin And Logano Try To Give It Away
Both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano tried to give away their positions in the Chase. Hamlin had a tire go down and lost two laps, but battled back to make it in with a top-5 finish. I had already given up on Hamlin, equating him to being toast at one point, and began to wonder where crew chief Darren Grubb might be working next year. They hang on for one more race, but I can’t imagine there will not be changes across the board at Joe Gibbs Racing. Logano had a simple pit miscue, and like Hamlin, he just couldn’t get through the traffic back in the pack fast enough. Both persevered and will look to take home a title.
First Timer Next Weekend
We will have another first time champion when the checkered flag falls next weekend. The only driver of the four that has a NASCAR title on his resume is Kevin Harvick, owning two Nationwide Series championships. A quick look at the title contenders at Homestead, you’ll see by virtue of average finish it is Harvick’s to lose. He’s averaging an 8.08 finished followed by Hamlin (11.22), Newman (17.00), and Logano (20.80). Hamlin though owns two wins at the track versus the zero for everyone else.
Harvick Takes The Record
Kevin Harvick used his dominating performance to move past Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Jimmie Johnson to become the all-time lap leader in Sprint Cup Series history at Phoenix. He now has led 978 laps, which is 45 more than Johnson. This is one record that could seesaw over the next couple of years, but it is an impressive list of drivers Harvick got past. Rounding out the top-10 are Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Denny Hamlin.
Johnson Continues To Look At 2015
It’s hard to rationalize a four win season as being “terrible,” but when you’re Jimmie Johnson, that’s how the bar is set. Phoenix was another forgettable race for Johnson and his team as an accident knocked him out on lap 235 for a 39th place finish. Dominating last weekend to near last the next has been the exact example of his season.
Ambrose Gears For The End
Marcos Ambrose’s NASCAR career has one more race left in it, but he is not going down without a fight. Ambrose picked up his 46th career top-10 finish at Phoenix with a late charge past Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson. Coming into Homestead, Ambrose has a lot to be proud with after his eight years in the Sprint Cup Series.
Last night’s Budweiser Duels provided an interesting insight into what we can expect in Sunday’s Daytona 500. With most of the early practices gear towards single car qualifying, it wasn’t until the Sprint Unlimited where we saw how the racing could be with this new package on the Daytona International Speedway.
Results there were of a wreckfest, with nearly have the field eliminated in accidents because cars were unstable and drivers were unused to the closing rates. Wednesday during practice we had a similar situation which saw more cars destroyed, and drivers opted not to practice much in the night time session.
What we saw in the Budweiser Duels was a lot different and should translate into the Daytona 500. Drivers raced side by side, but did so with caution they did not have prior. Whether this was because teams couldn’t afford to wreck any more cars or drivers got acclimated to the new package has yet to be seen. The first race went caution free and the second nearly went caution free, and that caution was due to Jimmie Johnson running out of fuel, not errors by any drivers.
Something that is a bit disturbing, from a fan’s perspective, is that there was very little movement in the top-5 during the final six laps of each race. The first Duel saw the same drivers who were first through fifth with six to go cross the finish line the same way to end the race. Second place Kevin Harvick was disqualified as his car fail post-race inspection, which throws this example off on paper.
In the second Duel, it was shaping up to finish the same way until Johnson ran out of fuel. That jumbled the order up, but the same drivers who were first, second, and third with six laps to go crossed the finish line as the top three drivers. Only Jeff Gordon managed to get past Kurt Busch for second place when it was all said and done.
Each race featured minimal lead changes (eight total between the two races) with five drivers leading 96.67% of the total laps run last night. The others who led did so because of pit stops or because they started on the front row.
Another indicator that drivers were happy riding last night is the average position of each driver. In the first race, the top four finishing drivers had the top four best average positions (minus Harvick, who had he finished second would have made it five for five). Kenseth and Earnhardt average a running position of fourth place (along with Harvick), Marcos Ambrose averaged a fifth place position and Kasey Kahne averaged a seventh place position.
The second race has nearly the same result with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch among the best average running positions with seventh, third, and fourth respectfully. With the accident at the end it did drop drivers like Jamie McMurray (averaged eighth), Casey Mears (averaged eighth), and Carl Edwards (averaged sixth).
On the flip side, drivers who were out back didn’t really gain much by the race’s conclusion. The bottom three finishers in the first race had the worst three average running positions (excluding Harvick). In the second race, the fourth worst running drivers were aided by Brad Keselowski’s problems and Ryan Truex and Justin Allgaier were able to get past Michael Annett by the finish, who had a better average running position than both of them. This is a moot point for Truex, who missed the Daytona 500, whereas Allgaier and Annett both made it.
Passing as always will be critical and one thing did jump out at me when looking over the box score. Factoring in that each race only featured 24 drivers, there was a good number of drivers who were in the 90% of quality passes. Quality passes is a stat NASCAR keeps track of for every time a driver makes a pass of a car for position who’s running in the top-15. Marcos Ambrose led the way with 64 of his 64 passes being quality passes for a 100% mark. Others who rated high include: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (96.3%), Brad Keselowski (92.9%), AJ Allmendinger (92.8%), Kurt Busch (91.9%), and Jimmie Johnson (90.6%).
I didn’t like that Earnhardt tried to go with Ryan Newman to the front in the closing laps of the first race, but Newman passed on the invitation citing it was too early and the bottom of the track wasn’t good for a run. I hope we see some racing near the end instead of just a single file line to the finish.
My theory is that during the Daytona 500 most drivers will be happy to ride single file if they can for as long as they can. There will be the traditional jockeying for position around mid-pack, but once someone gets to the lead they will try to stay there. This might mirror last year’s race, when Matt Kenseth put his Toyota on cruise control for much of the race until his engine expired. As the second race showed, when it comes to the end of the race, anything can happen and probably will.
Even if drivers want to stay single file, someone is going to try a move to position themselves to potentially win the Daytona 500. Not only would they gain the accolades of winning the Super Bowl of stock car racing, the win could secure them into the Chase for the Sprint Cup after one race.
With the stakes that much higher we might see more moves than we did Thursday night when they were racing for starting position and not a points paying victory. The action gets underway at 1 PM EST and can be seen on FOX.
When the checkered flag flies in Sunday’s Ford 400 from the Homestead-Miami Speedway, more than just the 2013 season will come to a close. For some drivers it will be the end of tenures with their current teams and for others the end of their careers.
The most prominent driver to be hanging it up at the close of the season is Mark Martin. While the retirement word hasn’t been used, his talk with reporters is one that indicates the driving aspect of his career is over. “It is hard to believe that I’ve lived this dream. I’m so fortunate. I got two chances at it. I got a chance at it and had success and failed, and had to go and start my career all over again and spend several years getting back up on my feet and getting a second opportunity in NASCAR. It is really hard to believe. I am still – deep down inside, I’m still the kid from Arkansas that got the huge thrill the first time I went to Daytona as a spectator to watch the Daytona 500. I wasn’t even a teenager yet. I never dreamed I would be able to do the things that I’ve done and to have the success that I’ve had. It’s been a dream. Living a dream.”
Coming into the race under the radar of his final Sprint Cup Series start is Ken Schrader. The 29 year veteran has been running off and on the past few years, but has said that this will be it. Odds are he still might make a random Camping World Truck Series or appearance in another series, it won’t be the Sprint Cup Series. While not one of the more successful drivers on the track, off the track he’s earned the respect of fans and competitors alike.
Another driver stepping away from the Sprint Cup Series, but could possibly be back in a one off race scenario is Juan Pablo Montoya. After seven years in the Sprint Cup Series, which saw two career wins, Montoya is going back to his roots in the IndyCar Series. He will be driving there for Roger Penske, so coming back for a road course race will always be a rumor. “It’s hard to believe that seven years ago I raced in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the first time. This race is special to me in a lot of ways; its home, my family and friends will all be there and it’s the last time I will race with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Target. To be honest with you, it’s bittersweet and I’d like to have a good weekend for Target and the team. Nothing would mean more than a win this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.”
While not retiring, just yet anyways, Jeff Burton will be stepping away from the full-time side of things in the Sprint Cup Series for a yet to be determined part-time ride in 2014. He will leave the Richard Childress Racing team after just over 9 years with them. During that time he was able to re-ignite his career with four wins from 2006 to 2008. He has struggled as of late, but that should not be a true reflection of his career. “I’ve been really blessed to do it for as long as I’ve done it to do something that you love and to be able to do it as long as I’ve done it really is a blessing. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a race car driver. I’m 46 and I’m a race car driver. I’ve just been really blessed. The cool thing is I’ve met so many people and experienced so many things that I never would have been able to do. To have a chance to compete for a living is really is a cool thing. You know what your job is and go out and try to do it. Competing to me means something. To be able to do it this long has been really cool.”
After helping Furniture Row Racing become the first single car team to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kurt Busch will be leaving at year’s end to join the Stewart-Haas Racing stable. Busch helped set marks for the teams with top-5s and top-10s, but was never able to get a victory. “This is our last chance to take the Furniture Row Chevrolet to Victory Lane. There’s nothing I want more for these Furniture Row guys who have worked so hard all year to give me a fast race car. Though we have a bunch of top-fives (11) and top-10’s (16) we don’t have that W. A victory would cap off an already successful season for our single-car team. It’s been a great ride with a great bunch of guys and with an outstanding organization led by team owner Barney Visser. Each year when we close out the season at Homestead there is that nostalgic feeling of what happened in 2004 — winning the championship in the first year of the Chase. It was a magical time for me and I am looking from some more magic this weekend in my final ride with the No. 78 flat-black Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet.”
The man he’s replacing at Stewart-Haas Racing will be Ryan Newman. Newman is moving on to the Richard Childress Racing team after five years with SHR. In that time he’s won four races and qualified for the Chase three times. “I really look forward to Homestead. It’s a really fun racetrack for all of us. For us to go down there and end the season on a racetrack that is very raceable is something I’m happy about. They really did a great job the third time around on redesigning that racetrack. It’s a great place to have a championship weekend for all three series. I’ve not had the best record there, but we did finish third in this race last year. I’d like nothing more than to end the season on a high note and end the season on a good note for everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing.”
Also joining Stewart-Haas Racing is Kevin Harvick, who leaves the Richard Childress Racing team after 13 interesting years. It started off as Harvick being pushed into replacing the late Dale Earnhardt. Through squabbles and tribulations along the way, Harvick and his team were able to win 23 times. They finished in the top-5 in the driver standings five times and find themselves as one of the final three for this year’s title. “Homestead (Miami Speedway) has been a great race track for us, whether it was flat or banked. It’s been a race track where we’ve run well. It would be nice to close out my career at Richard Childress Racing with a win there and go out on the right note. RCR is where I got my start and it’s been a great career so far.”
Unplanned at the start of the year, Martin Truex, Jr. will be moving on from Michael Waltrip Racing after this race. He will go to the Furniture Row Racing team after four years with MWR. “I believe this NAPA team has nothing to prove. All we want to do is end on a high note and this track can certainly be the place that we can win. My guys have worked so hard for me over the last four years and I know they really want to close out our time together with a victory. To be honest, it’s been sad to see it end this way. We had such high expectations for all of us. If you really think about it, this year is only our second full season as a team for this group of guys and that’s impressive. We are really just getting started and moving in the direction that we always wanted to go. This NAPA team is such a great group of guys. It’s just unfortunate that we are not going to realize the full potential of this amazing team. All we want to do is go down swinging at Homestead. We want to use this race as a way to show everyone just how good we are and to thank NAPA Auto Parts for supporting and believing in this team. They deserve another visit to victory lane and it’s our plan to get them there on Sunday.”
While it is the end there is excitement for what the future might hold for all of these drivers. They’ll reflect on the season or career that was, but then get focused for what lies ahead.
Trying something new before the end of the season by debuting a couple things this week. First up is a weekly column I want to start so I can hit on some topics quickly and give my two cents. This week I touch on ESPN’s dismissal of Marty Reid, the rumored Camping World Truck Series schedule, Chase Elliott reaching out to Ty Dillon, and lots more.
Over the weekend it was leaked that ESPN had chosen to “go another direction” with announcer Marty Reid. Reid had been with the network for 31 years calling everything motorsports. It was becoming painfully obvious that Reid has lost his way as of late. A good indicator of that is that not one, not two, but three compilations of Reid’s errors have been created on YouTube. I saw a lot of objections on Twitter to get rid of him because of how well he did in the wake of the Dan Wheldon tragedy a few years back. He handled that with class and dignity that was needed, I’ll give him that. But to keep someone around because they did one thing once, well that just doesn’t make sense to me.
Ray Dunlap answered a question about the Camping World Truck Series schedule from a fan on Twitter about the makeup he’s seen. According to Dunlap, we’re stuck at 22 races for the third straight year, but they’ll add a second road course race and return to Gateway Motorsports Park. Nothing official has been released and it’s expected for another couple of weeks. If true, I’m glad they’ve added another road course to make it worth the teams to build road course trucks and kudos to them returning to a former track. I was hoping Myrtle Beach would make the cut like rumored and have at least 25 races, but I guess you can’t always get what you want. At least they didn’t add another dirt race to kill that like the NHL has done to its outdoors game.
Popular Speed’s Matt Weaver caught up with Chase Elliott in victory lane after a late model race in Florida over the weekend. He was asked if he’s talked to Ty Dillon in regards to their dust up in the only road course race for the Truck Series this year. Not surprisingly Dillon was not receptive to Elliott’s phone call. They’ll both be in Martinsville in a few weeks, so it should be interesting to see if Dillon takes him out. And I don’t mean to lunch. As for his 2014 schedule and current sponsor Aaron’s, Elliott said they would be leaving, which is leaving his schedule up in the air as of right now.
Mike Mulhern caught up with Speedway Motorsports, Inc.’s Bruton Smith. Among the topics they talked about was NBC starting their NASCAR coverage a year earlier. Smith was emphatic that they would be. As of yet the only official word has been from NASCAR who said nothing is changing, but I’m sure if ESPN and TNT can dump NASCAR, they will in a heartbeat.
Over the weekend Rob Kauffman, the co-owner and brains behind Michael Waltrip Racing, was finally back in America to deal with Spingate. The good news was 5-Hour Energy announced they would return to the #15 of Clint Bowyer. The bad news is Kauffman said he would not personally fund Martin Truex, Jr.’s car next season, which means Truex is most likely moving on. Being vague on the three car effort, I believe they’ll scale back to two cars with knucklehead, er, Michael Waltrip running the restrictor plate races in a third car. Kauffman also vowed to rebuild the team’s credibility, which should be easy without those goofy NAPA commercials.
I try to stay positive on all drivers in my Chase Watch, but here’s a list of drivers who won’t win the title in 2013: Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Ryan Newman. Edwards pains me because he was my pick, Newman pains me because I’m a fan of his, and Earnhardt pains me because he might be hitting his second wind too late. Newman sits 48 points behind, which is a full race behind, with how the other drivers are running, he and the others, aren’t making up that ground in this season.
In the Nationwide Series it’s a two driver race in my opinion between Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish, Jr. Either one winning the title will be interesting story. Dillon captures it before moving to Cup to give him the confidence and quiet the critics. Hornish gets it when he’s looking for a job and quiets everyone who questioned his move to NASCAR. For once I’m not swayed in either direction on who to root for.