NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

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A Bad Weekend for the Buschs

Kyle and Kurt Busch will both miss the 57th Daytona 500 on Sunday, but due to two very different sets of circumstances.

Kurt, the older of the brothers, has been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for conduct detrimental to the sport after a family court in Delaware found that he abused his then-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, in his motor home in a race last September at Dover.  A family court commissioner handed down that ruling of domestic abuse on Friday afternoon, before the driver of the number 41 Haas Chevrolet was punished by the sanctioning body early Friday evening.

Kurt Busch is the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion, and has won 25 Cup races in 14 full seasons for Roush Racing, Penske Racing, Phoenix Racing, Furniture Row Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing.  In missing Sunday’s race, he misses another opportunity to win the 500, something he hasn’t done in 14 previous tries, although he has finished 2nd on three occasions, most recently in 2008.

After NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch on Friday, Chevrolet also “suspended their relationship” with the driver, in essence saying that even if he was allowed to drive in NASCAR, the manufacturer would not allow him to drive one of their cars.  Kurt’s current team, Stewart-Haas Racing, runs Chevrolets, meaning that even if he is allowed back on the track by NASCAR, he might not be able to return to his Stewart-Haas ride.

Regan Smith, a 31-year old XFinity series regular, will replace Kurt Busch in the 41 car for the 500 on Sunday.  Smith has one career Cup Series win, in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington, but has proven himself to be a competent superspeedway racer.  It is the fourth time since 2012 that Smith has filled in for a Cup Series driver, filling in for Tony Stewart the day after the Kevin Ward fatal accident last year, and filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two races in 2012 after Junior got a concussion.

Kurt appealed his suspension, and due to the circumstances and timing, NASCAR expedited the appeal process so that if it was overturned, Kurt could still run the Daytona 500, which he had been scheduled to start 24th in.  Both his initial appeal to the National Motorsports Appeals Panel was denied, as was his final appeal to NASCAR Chief Appellate Officer Bryan Moss.

Considering that both the sanctioning body and his car manufacturer have indefinitely suspended Kurt Busch, and considering what has happened elsewhere in professional sports in the past year regarding domestic violence, particularly in the very high-profile cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, there is a real possibility Kurt’s career in NASCAR may be over.  Only time will tell.

This is not the first time Kurt has been in trouble with NASCAR, either.  Kurt, known by some as an aggressive and temperamental driver, was fined $50,000 by NASCAR and later fired by Penske Racing for insulting team officials on the radio and twice having incidents with reporters.  He was suspended one race in 2012, also for an incident with a reporter.  And now he’s in more trouble than he’s ever been.

On Saturday, in the NASCAR XFinity Series race at Daytona, Kyle Busch, the younger of the brothers, crashed head-on into a concrete wall on the extreme inside of the track between the tri-oval and turn one.  The crash resulted in a broken left leg and a broken left foot for Kyle, who naturally will miss the Daytona 500 due to the injuries.

Kyle initially got most of the way out of his car under his own power after the crash, but couldn’t get his left leg out of the car without the help of emergency personnel, who then laid him on the ground and stabilized his leg.  He was placed on a stretcher and taken directly to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, bypassing the on-site hospital, and within a couple of hours was in surgery, according to media reports.

The crash resulted in the worst injuries suffered at Daytona since Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.  Kyle Busch will miss the 500, and a few subsequent events, as he is currently described by his Joe Gibbs Racing team as “out indefinitely”.

Matt Crafton, the 38-year old two-time defending champion in the Camping World Truck Series and has plenty of NASCAR experience, will drive Kyle’s number 18 M&Ms Toyota in the 500 on Sunday.  Crafton has filled in for drivers before, but only in qualifying, so he will make his Sprint Cup Series debut in his first 500 start on Sunday.

As for both Smith and Crafton, no word has been given as to whether or not they will continue driving for Stewart-Haas or Gibbs on an interim basis next week at Atlanta.

After the crash, which was into a concrete wall and not a SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier, which was a point of contention among many after the crash.  SAFER barriers were first used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, as part of the safety movement across all forms of motorsports after, among other events, Earnhardt’s death, but are expensive, so many tracks began by placing them in the places where hard impacts occurred most frequently.

A majority of the walls at Daytona are SAFER barriers but, as mentioned, Kyle Busch hit a concrete wall, making the impact much more violent.  Within two hours of the accident, Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III announced that tires would be used as an impromptu softer wall for Sunday’s race, before the installing SAFER barriers on “every inch of this property”, saying the planning process for that would start on Monday.  Chitwood’s message was, in essence, that this will not happen again at Daytona on his watch.

Due to the Busch brothers both being out of the Daytona 500, making this the first running of the 500 since 2000 without one of the Buschs in the field.  Additionally, at least one Busch has been in the field for every Sprint Cup Series race since Kurt failed to qualify for a race at Atlanta on November 18, 2001 (before Kyle’s Cup career began).

For two very different reasons, it has been a bad weekend for both racing members of the Busch family.

 

 

 

2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch

Chase for the Sprint Cup Power Rankings

My overall rankings for the 10-race Chase.

1. Matt Kenseth.  He has 5 wins this year, with 4 coming on 1.5-mile tracks.  Half the chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks, with additional races at Talladega and Dover, good tracks for Matt.  He starts the Chase as the points leader based on those wins.  Much of the media has him as the favorite, and so do I, with Johnson’s recent struggles.

2, Carl Edwards.  Winner at Richmond, “Cousin Carl” has some momentum.  Like Kenseth, he is good at 1.5-mile tracks, Talladega, and Dover, as well as Pheonix.  If he is decent at Martinsville, expect the 99 to be in contention to win it all at Homestead.  Unlike Kenseth, and many others in this Chase, he has experienced racing at Homestead with the prospect of winning the title, finishing 2nd  twice.  That experience could put him over the top.

3. Jimmie Johnson.  A month ago it was unthinkable the 5-time champion would be this low in these rankings.  Since then, he has posted finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th, and 40th.  It should be difficult for anyone to suddenly flip a switch and be championship material again, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.  They are very good in the Chase format, winning 5 of the 9 Chases run, with finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the other 4.

4. Kyle Busch.  Here’s the elephant in the room.  There are questions surrounding Kyle, as usual.  Can he be consistent enough to contend for a championship?  Is he mature enough?  Can he keep his composure in big-pressure spots if he’s in contention late in the Chase?  I have a feeling we’ll get some answers in the next 10 weeks.  Like Edwards, Busch is riding some momentum, and he’s good at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, the first three tracks the Chase will visit.  After those races, we’ll know if he’s in it or not.

5. Kasey Kahne.  I was hesitant to put him this high, because he was 14th in points, reaching the Chase on a wild card berth.  Kahne, though, is another driver very good on those key 1.5-mile tracks, particularly Charlotte and Texas.  He’s also had moderate success at Phoenix, Dover, and New Hampshire.  Like Edwards, Martinsville is Kahne’s weakness among the Chase tracks.  Kahne may be the wild card in another way, as he will likely be consistent enough to contend for a title, like early in the season, or he will lack consistency and struggle down the stretch.

6. Ryan Newman.  The 39 team left Richmond thinking a late caution and a bad pit stop had cost them a wild card spot in the Chase.  Sunday, of course, they found out with the rest of us that there was more to it.  Newman could use his surprise Chase berth as a springboard to a title shot.  However, the “Achilles heel” of Stewart-Haas Racing this year has been 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races.  The full resources of SHR will be needed to give Newman a shot, and he will have them due to Tony Stewart’s season-ending leg injury.  Another negative, though, is that this is a “lame duck” season, as Newman announced Monday he will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

7. Joey Logano.  Like Newman, Logano just barely got in.  In fact, there is now speculation that Penske Racing may have asked David Gilliland to intentionally let Logano around to help his points situation at Richmond.  (Great, this week’s been crazy enough.)  He has some momentum, if you ignore his finish at Richmond, he had a win, 3 top fives, and 5 top sevens in the previous 5 races.  Penske Racing won the Chase last year with Brad Keselowski.  The 2 car isn’t in the Chase, so all the resources of Penske will be with Logano, not a bad thing to have.

8. Kurt Busch.  The 2004 Champion may be a dark horse in this Chase.  No one gives the single car team out of Denver a chance.  They are the first single car team and the first team based outside of NC to qualify for the Chase.  This team, however, has some help.  They have a competitive alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and after winning at Darlington in 2011 with Regan Smith, they have been poised to win all year with Kurt Busch, with a 2nd at Richmond, three 3rds, and four additional top fives.  He is a “lame duck,” but his team has probably assumed that all year.  Expect him to win a race or races in the Chase; we shall see if the underdog team can contend at Homestead.

9. Kevin Harvick.  Some writers have him among their top 3, and a couple even have him winning the title.  I’ll be different, and coin a new term, as he may be the “lamest duck.”  Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing since 2001 (2000 if you count Nationwide), and is leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.  In six previous Chase apperances, he has finishes of 3rd (twice), 4th (twice), 8th, and 10th.  He has shown some consistency, but he only has 6 top fives on the year.  I don’t see that as strong enough to contend for the title.

10. Clint Bowyer.  I just can’t see someone with as crazy a week as Bowyer has had going to Chicago and doing well.  There also must be some negative momentum, not just from the Richmond incident but also from a couple of poor finishes.  Also, after Jeff Gordon got the short end of the stick in the MWR penalties (he’s still not in the Chase), and considering the two have a history, there could be some fireworks (who knows).  On the bright side, Bowyer is good at the first three tracks In the Chase:  Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Junior has had a pretty good year, other than the fact he hasn’t found the winner’s circle.  He was, of course, leading big at Michigan when he blew an engine.  Consistency has been an issue this year, not just for Junior, but for all of Hendrick (never thought I’d say that).  In five previous Chase apperances, his best finish is 5th, but not since 2004 and 2006.  His best Chase finish in three appearances while at Hendrick is 7th.  I don’t see anything here to suggest he will be a contender for the title.

12. Greg Biffle.  Biffle struggled for much of the regular season, as did all of the Fords, but put together enough good finishes to make the Chase.  “The Biff” did finish 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 2008, but has never really been close enough to taste the champagne.   He won at Michigan in June, but his best finish since the win was 8th, and at a road course.  Out of the 8 races at tracks that are featured in the Chase, he had only one top ten finish, and that was a Martinsville, a track he traditionally struggles at.  The signs don’t look promising for the veteran to contend late into the Chase.

Chase Schedule: 9/15 Chicago, 9/22 New Hampshire, 9/29 Dover, 10/6 Kansas, 10/12 Charlotte, 10/20 Talladega, 10/27 Martinsville, 11/3 Texas, 11/10 Phoenix, 11/17 Homestead