Hamlin Bucks Trends to Win Daytona 500

Sunday, in his 11th attempt, driving car #11, Denny Hamlin won the thrilling 58th Daytona 500, the first 500 victory of his career.

Hamlin picked up the biggest win of his career by coming from fourth on the final lap, passing leader Matt Kenseth before beating Martin Truex Jr. to the line by mere inches.  The margin of victory of 0.010 seconds was the closest in Daytona 500 history.

The win marked the first Daytona 500 victory for Toyota, and the first for owner Joe Gibbs since 1993 (Dale Jarrett).

Hamlin entered Daytona Speedweeks as one of my favorites, and his car showed speed all week leading up to the 500, but leading up to the race, Hamlin was not historically in a great position to win his first Daytona 500.

Consider the trends of the Daytona 500 throughout its 58-year history, and particularly over the last 15 years of restrictor plate racing (although restrictor plate racing has been around since 1988, it has been most similar to today’s restrictor plate racing only since 2001).

Last weekend, Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, a season-opening exhibition race at Daytona.  Before 2016, the winner of the Sprint Unlimited had only gone on to win the 500 five times, and had never done it since 2000 (Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in 1987, Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000, and Jeff Gordon in 1997).

In fact, over the nearly six-decade history of the Daytona 500, a driver who has won any of the preliminary events during Speedweeks generally does not win the Daytona 500, but instead someone who has shown speed and performed well but not won in the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, and Can-Am Duels.

Another potential strike against Hamlin’s chances to win, at least according to the trends of the previous 15 editions of “The Great American Race”, is that he led the most laps.  While early in the 500’s history, it was common for one driver to dominate the race and take the checkered flag, Hamlin became just the third driver since 2001 to lead the most laps and win, joining Michael Waltrip in the rain-shortened 2003 edition, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.

Lastly, Hamlin was not the leader at the white flag, but found a way around all three of the cars in front of him to beat Truex by inches.  Hamlin becomes only the third driver in the last 23 Daytona 500s to make a last-lap pass for the win, joining Kevin Harvick in 2007 (who ironically pushed Hamlin to the win), and Ryan Newman in 2008 (who, like Hamlin, passed a #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota).

Not only are last-lap passes to win the 500 rare, but throughout Speedweeks it appeared the leader at the white flag would have control over the pack, and would be very hard to pass them.

Kenseth had actually led from lap 160 of the 200-lap race until the third turn of the final lap when Hamlin and Truex got around (in fact, after Kenseth got sideways, he slowed to save his car from spinning out, and as a result fell back to 14th).  The leader at the white flag had won every stock car event so far during Speedweeks, including Hamlin, who was not hardly threatened over the final 2 1/2 miles of the Sprint Unlimited.

With a train of Gibbs Toyotas behind Kenseth, plus Truex in a Gibbs-affiliated Furniture Row Racing Toyota, it did not appear that Kenseth, a two-time 500 winner, would be touched.

After his 500 win, Hamlin told Marty Smith of ESPN that he did not intend to jump out of line to try to pass his teammates, but only moved to the outside to block a run by Harvick, who then pushed him to the win.

You might think it would be common sense that a driver would want to be leading at the white flag, but there have been years that the aerodynamic environment of the cars made passing easier, and in some of those years I have said before the 500 that I would want to be second at the white flag if I were driving in the race.

All of this being said, Hamlin winning NASCAR’s biggest event is a surprise to no one in the sport.  Hamlin’s win in the Sprint Unlimited was his third in that event, and he has also won twice in the Can-Am Duels, so he has experience winning at the World Center of Racing.

The thing about trends is that they are not always followed, as is the case here.  Three trends went against Denny Hamlin’s chances to win his first Daytona 500, but a car that was one of the favorites throughout Speedweeks, and showed plenty of muscle from the time it was unloaded, enabling Hamlin to nullify all of the tendencies above, and win by less than a foot.

With his prior prowess on the superspeedway, and his amazing run from fourth to the front, one thing is for sure.

Denny Hamlin’s name will forever be engraved on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.  And he earned it.

 

 

 

2016 Daytona 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 95, 45
2. Martin Truex Jr., 28, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 2, 40
3. Kyle Busch, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 19, 39
4. Kevin Harvick, 9, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 37
5. Carl Edwards, 10, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 36
6. Joey Logano, 5, Team Penske, Ford, 0, 35
7. Kyle Larson, 14, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
8. Regan Smith, 27, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 33
9. Austin Dillon, 21, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 33
10. Kurt Busch, 8, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
14. Matt Kenseth, 2, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 40, 28
16. Jimmie Johnson, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 18, 26
20. Brad Keselowski, 25, Team Penske, Ford, 1, 22
36. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 3, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 6
37. Chase Elliott, 1, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 3, 5

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Gordon Wins Wild One at Martinsville

(*Editor’s note: I write game recap articles, or as those of us in the sportswriting business say, “gamers”, all the time in my work for the Anderson Independent-Mail.  However, that experience is currently limited to football, basketball, baseball, and softball, so I decided to, for the experience and practice of doing so, write an article on today’s NASCAR race at Martinsville.  Here is the result, and I felt it appropriate to publish here.)

 

As Jeff Gordon’s career races into the twilight, the four-time Sprint Cup champion won Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville by literally doing just that.

Gordon, in his final season of Sprint Cup competition, collected his 93rd career Sprint Cup Series victory by outracing the competition in near darkness.  With the win, Gordon earned a spot in the Championship Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, November 22 at Homestead, as he tries to win his fifth title, and first since 2001.

The win was the first of Gordon’s farewell season, ending a 39-race winless streak, and was a wildly popular victory among the fans at the Virginia short track.  This wasn’t the first time Martinsville fans have seen Gordon win, as he won the trophy’s signature grandfather clock trophy for a ninth time, the most among active drivers.

Gordon took the lead with 22 laps to go, passing A.J. Allmendinger.  Allmendinger had taken the lead from Denny Hamlin at lap 460 of the 500-lap race, after both had opted not to pit during a caution flag, just after Gordon had taken the lead at lap 454.

After the race’s 18th caution came out with six to go, Gordon restarted side-by-side with eventual runner-up Jamie McMurray, but never lost the lead and cleared McMurray with two to go, finishing off an emotional win, which was one of the biggest of his storied career.

“What an incredible battle that was,” Gordon said.  “We just stuck with it, all day long, just trying to protect those rear tires, and it all fell in our lap.”

Gordon inherited the lead with 46 laps to go, when Matt Kenseth, who was several laps down, wrecked race leader Joey Logano, who was going for his fourth straight win, heavily damaging both cars.

The incident appeared to be Kenseth’s retribution for being spun by Logano with five to go two weeks ago at Kansas while racing for the win.  Kenseth, who was eliminated from the Chase last week, said afterward the incident was due to a right-front tire problem, but was parked by NASCAR for the rest of the race, although that likely didn’t affect his finishing position of 38th.

“I think what happened at Kansas is a completely different deal,” Logano said.  “We were racing for the win and (Kenseth) blocks you a few times and then we raced hard and he blocked me the last time and we spun out.  Here it was just a complete coward move, especially for a championship race car driver and race team. Just a complete coward. I don’t have anything else to say.”

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell addressed the situation afterward, showing NASCAR’s displeasure at the incident.

“What was disappointing today would be the incident we’re referring to where (Kenseth) is not competing for a win, (and) in fact, is several laps down when that happened.  In our mind, that’s a little bit different that two drivers really going after it coming out of turn four for a win, versus what happened tonight.”

NASCAR didn’t immediately penalize Kenseth on Sunday night, as has often been the case in similar situations, as O’Donnell said NASCAR will continue to analyze what happened into the early part of this week.

“There’s still a lot to digest from what happened tonight,” O’Donnell said.  “We’ll have some additional conversations, and probably come out with something, if there is anything to discuss, on Tuesday.”

Logano led nine times for a race-high 207 laps, which is why Gordon saw the incident between Logano and Kenseth as a turning point.

“Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor,” Gordon said.  “But you’ve got to be there and be ready for that moment when it comes, and we were.”

Kenseth’s car was damaged from a previous crash at lap 436, when Brad Keselowski clipped Kenseth while racing for second position on a restart, and Kenseth’s Toyota spun, collecting Kurt Busch.  Keselowski had led 143 laps, and all three drivers were threats to win before the accident.

Gordon led 35 laps, the fourth-highest total in the race, but after running no lower than 10th all day was at the front when it counted most, and now won’t have to reach Homestead on points.

“People don’t give this team enough credit, and we seized an opportunity right there,” Gordon said.  “I don’t think this opportunity will present itself the next couple of weeks, but it sure is nice to have taking advantage of this one and not have to worry about that.”

After Gordon, the next highest-finishing Chase drivers were Kyle Busch in fifth and Martin Truex Jr. in sixth.  Kevin Harvick finished eighth, and Carl Edwards finished 14th, while the accident involving Keselowski and Kurt Busch relegated them to finishes of 32nd and 34th, respectively.  Logano finished 37th after the contact with Kenseth.

Hamlin finished third, while Allmendinger, after losing the lead to Gordon, fell back to 11th.

The race to join Gordon in the four-driver championship battle at Homestead has Kyle Busch and Truex both nine points above the cut-off, with Harvick seven points clear.  The first driver out would be Edwards, seven points behind fourth, with Keselowski 24 points back of Harvick, Kurt Busch 26 markers back, and Logano, who entered Martinsville the championship favorite, 28 points behind the cut-off.

There are two races left in the eight-driver Eliminator Round, with next week’s event at Texas, and the season’s penultimate race at Phoenix, before the season finale at Homestead.

After the win, Gordon showed his excitement in advancing to the final Chase race at Homestead, pointing to the possibility of a Hollywood ending to his illustrious career.

“This has turned into a fairy tale year,” Gordon said.  “I just can’t believe it.  Homestead is going to be an unbelievable weekend, and we’re so focused.”

NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

While it may be overshadowed in the sports world by football season, and the approaching baseball postseason, it is an exciting time in NASCAR, as they prepare for their version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Last year, NASCAR changed the format from the previous 10-week cumulative Chase to a four-round system among 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated every three weeks for the first nine races, all leading up to a “final four”, one race, winner-take-all finale in Homestead.  The elimination format is known as the “Chase Grid”.  Chase participants who win a race in a round automatically advance to the next round, while remaining spots are determined on points.

Kevin Harvick won last year’s title, winning the Homestead race to do so.  This year, there are several storylines entering the Chase, including the recent dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing, the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports (at least, relative to their normal level of success), maiden appearances in the Chase for Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, and Jeff Gordon trying to win a championship in his final season.

Here’s how I see the Chase playing out:

Challenger Round

Races:  Chicagoland (9/20), New Hampshire (9/27), Dover (10/4)
Advancing to next round:  Kevin Harvick (Chicagoland winner), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire winner), Jimmie Johnson (Dover winner), Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Eliminated:  Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard

Harvick is on the pole for Sunday’s race at Chicagoland, where he’s won twice before and finished in the top five over half the time.  Recent form, and his form all year, for that matter, suggest he is ready to win in the Chase, even despite having not won since March 15 at Phoenix.  Much of the same can be said about Hamlin at New Hampshire.  The driver who is racing with a torn ACL last won March 29 at Martinsville, although he did win the Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points event) in May, ranks second among Chase drivers with a 10.7 average finish in Loudon, with two wins at the track.  Johnson recent finishes don’t necessarily suggest him threatening for a record-tying seventh title, but in 27 Dover starts he has 10 wins, 15 top fives, and 20 top 10s, making him the clear favorite for that race.  The #48 team also have rough stretches like their recent one at some point most years, but always seem to practically flip a switch come Chase time.  He has, after all, won six of the 11 championships awarded in the Chase era.

Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004, and while he does have three wins at New Hampshire, he has a poor average finish of 18.6 at Dover, and his overall recent form has been decent, but not champion-like.  My elimination of Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be a popular prediction, as he is the sport’s most popular driver, but the three tracks in this round are all tracks he struggles at, particularly at Kansas and Dover.  He only has 31 top 10s in 77 career races at the three tracks combined.  However, should Junior get past this round, with his record at Talladega, and last year’s win at Martinsville, he could be a threat for a deep run.  McMurray could potentially be a sleeper, but he has to get out of this round first.  His best average finish at these three tracks is 17.8 at Dover, with the other two worse than 20th.  Menard has the least career credentials of any driver in the Chase, and his numbers at these three tracks are similar to McMurray, although he is having his most consistent season this year.

Contender Round

Races:  Charlotte (10/10), Kansas (10/18), Talladega (10/25)
Advancing to next round:  Carl Edwards (Charlotte winner), Jimmie Johnson (Kansas winner), Brad Keselowski (Talladega winner), Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman

Edwards doesn’t necessarily have the most wins at Charlotte–he only has one, and it came this May in the Coca-Cola 600–but he has been consistent there.  His 10.8 average finish there is second among Chase drivers, and after struggling during the summer, he has been steadily improving coming into the Chase, including a win at the Southern 500 two weeks ago.  Johnson has three Kansas wins, and has 15 top 10s in 18 starts at the track.  His 9.1 average finish there is the best among Chase participants, and he won at Kansas in April.  The Talladega race is as unpredictable as any in the Chase, but Keselowski won the fall race there last year, and has 3 wins in 13 starts there.  An average finish of 12.5 doesn’t necessarily scream “race winner” at other tracks, but because of the craziness that happens in restrictor plate racing, that average is very respectable.  Kenseth, Harvick, Gordon, Logano, and Hamlin all have solid enough records at the tracks to be expected to run well, resulting in their advancement on points.

Bowyer is trying to win a title in the final season for his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, and has won at two of these three tracks, but he was the last driver in the Chase, and his luck will run out here.  A writer who covers NASCAR wrote this week that if Kyle Busch can get past Kansas, he can win the championship.  I agree, but I don’t think he will get past Kansas, or Talladega either.  While his Charlotte record isn’t bad, Kansas is his worst track on the circuit, with a 21.3 average finish, and only 3 top 10s and a single top five in 15 career starts there.  His Talladega record isn’t great either, although he has won there, with a 22.4 average finish.  Truex is good at Kansas, but won’t be able to get past struggles at Charlotte and Talladega.  Newman doesn’t have an awful record at any of the three tracks, but his best average finish is 17.6, and he always seems to be part of the “Big One” at Talladega.

Eliminator Round

Races:  Martinsville (11/1), Texas (11/8), Phoenix (11/15)
Advancing to next round:  Denny Hamlin (Martinsville winner), Matt Kenseth (Texas winner), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix winner), Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

Hamlin, a native Virginian, is very solid in his home state at Martinsville, with five wins and 15 top 10s in 19 starts there.  Kenseth has two wins at Texas, and an average finish of 9.5, second among all drivers to Johnson.  He has finished in the top 10 in each race at a 1.5-mile track this year, despite not winning at one.  Harvick has seven wins at Phoenix, including the last four Phoenix races, and five of the last six.  Last year’s win in the Phoenix Chase race vaulted him into the Championship Round at Homestead, when he won his first career title.  Johnson advances on points after winning a race in the first two rounds.

By this point in the Chase, with the field being cut down to the final four drivers, there is no margin for error.  Carl Edwards only has one top five in 22 Martinsville starts, and although he is always a threat to win at Texas and Phoenix, he may have to win to advance if he digs himself too deep a hole at Martinsville.  Gordon’s best chance to avoid a winless season in his swan song will likely come at Martinsville, where he has eight wins and a 6.9 average finish, but it may also be his best shot to advance to the Championship Round in his final race at Homestead given that Texas is arguably his worst track with a 17.3 average finish and only one win in his lengthy career.  Keselowski’s average finish is no better than 13.9 at any of the three tracks, and 17.3 at Texas, and he has never won at any of the three.  Logano, who is a common championship pick, has similar numbers to Keselowski at these three tracks, and although he does have one Texas win, he has a 16.9 average finish there.

Championship Round

Race:  Homestead (11/22)
Champion:  Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson

It all comes down to one race at Homestead to determine who has had a great year, and who is the champion, and it is determined in the “Game Seven” atmosphere NASCAR had in mind when they created this format.  Any of these four drivers are more than capable of winning the title, so here’s why I picked Hamlin.  While Johnson and Kenseth have both made their careers to some extent by running well on 1.5-mile tracks, Kenseth has a 15.8 average finish, although he does have one win, and would tie a record for the most years between championships (12 since his 2003 title in the last season before the Chase).  Johnson has never won and has only four top fives at Homestead, with an average finish of 14.4.  While some will use the argument that he hasn’t had to win, but just finish, most years at Homestead while clinching the title, in other years the #48 hasn’t necessarily been a race-winning car.

Harvick and Hamlin are both good at Homestead, with Harvick winning last year’s finale to win the title, and holding a 7.6 average finish.  However, it is historically difficult to win back-to-back titles, as only nine drivers have ever done it (although four have done it more than once), and that is true in every sport.  Harvick has also finished second an astounding 10 times this year, with “only” two wins.

Hamlin has two wins at Homestead, and a 10.8 average finish, and has been poised to win a championship his entire career, since his rookie year in 2006 (he would’ve won the title that year in the current format).  One of the best stretches of his career came after he tore his left ACL in 2010, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a championship after tearing his left ACL just before the last “regular season” race at Richmond.  Hamlin does have a 27.1 average start at Homestead, which is by far the worst of the four Championship Round drivers, but his qualifying numbers have steadily improved since his career low average start of 21.0 in 2013.

Two interesting notes should Hamlin win the title: it would be the first title for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2002, and it would be the ninth championship for car number 11 in NASCAR history, which would extend a record, as Hamlin would join NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, and Darrell Waltrip as champions driving #11.

As the Chase unfolds, fans may think that who advances from one round to the next early in the Chase is inconsequential, as they think the drivers who end up competing for the title at Homestead will be near the top of the standings throughout.  However, as I made my projections (ranking drivers first to last at each track then giving points accordingly), Hamlin nearly didn’t get out of the Contender Round at Talladega, as he was tied with Clint Bowyer, and won the tiebreaker based on having more wins.

Now, the drivers I have picked in fantasy NASCAR competition all season have done horribly, always seeming to have an accident or mechanical failure, causing them to finish much more poorly than they would have run without issues during the race.  That being said, I want to apologize in advance to Denny Hamlin’s fans, because in picking your driver to win the title, I have probably actually doomed him into a poor Chase finish.  These rankings, obviously, are as unofficial as they come.

It should be an excellent Chase for the Sprint Cup.  The storylines I already mentioned will make it memorable, as well as those that we can’t even imagine right now which will present themselves.  For instance, who would have thought this time last year that Brad Keselowski would be involved in brawls with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon after Chase races, and who would have thought Ryan Newman, one of three drivers to reach the Chase without a win, would make it all the way to Homestead, and would finish second, having a shot at the title all the way until the final lap.  Stories like these are what the Chase format intended to create, making it among the most unpredictable of “playoffs” in all of sports.

Johnson Wins Sixth Title

Jimmie Johnson finished 9th in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, enough to comfortably claim the 6th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship of his career, all of which have come in the last 8 seasons.  His 6 championships place Johnson just 1 title short of the record of 7, shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.  While breaking that record is likely one of Johnson’s career goals, he has a legitimate shot at winning 10 titles in his career.  Johnson won the title by 19 points over Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champ in his first year for a new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.  Kenseth ran well, leading the most laps and finishing 2nd, but when Johnson finished the race without issue, the 28-point deficit at the start of the day was insurmountable.  Kevin Harvick, who still had a mathematical chance at the title at the start of the day, finished 34 points back after struggling most of the day before rallying to a 10th place finish.  The top 5 in the standings were rounded out by Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson (File) (Photo credit: AmyKay1974)

The title is the 11th for Hendrick Motorsports, adding to an all-time record which already exists.  As mentioned, Johnson has won 6 titles in the last 8 seasons (by the way, that’s never been done before; Earnhardt won 6 in 9 seasons from 1986-1994), all with Hendrick.  In addition, Jeff Gordon’s 4 Cup Series titles (1995, 1997-98, 2001) are all with Hendrick, and 1 of Terry Labonte’s 2 titles came for Hendrick (1996).  Sunday’s title for Johnson adds to Hendrick’s already historic career.  First I figured up that Hendrick has won 11 titles in his 30 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, which is true.  But when analyzing the titles, I realized that all of the 11 are in the last 19 seasons, an unbelievable feat.

Kenseth’s runner-up finish was behind Denny Hamlin, who grabbed his first victory of an otherwise dreadful season.  Hamlin broke his back in March in an accident while racing for the win at the Auto Club Speedway.  He returned at Talladega, but ran only 23 laps before being relieved by Brian Vickers, before finishing 2nd the following week at Darlington.  After that, however, Hamlin was continuously nagged by accidents and bad breaks.  Hamlin’s win continued a streak of winning a race in each of his full-time Sprint Cup seasons, now 8 in a row.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 3rd in the race after leading some laps in the second half of the event.

Martin Truex Jr. was the best among those in their final ride for their current teams, with a 4th-place finish.  Truex will be moving to Furniture Row Racing next year after his current team, Michael Waltrip Racing, was forced to let him go after losing NAPA’s sponsorship.  Kevin Harvick, who, as mentioned, finished 3rd in the standings and 10th in the race, will leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 Sprint Cup seasons for Stewart-Haas Racing.  Ryan Newman finished 17th in his final ride for Stewart-Haas Racing, and will drive for Richard Childress Racing next year.  Kurt Busch ended his only season at Furniture Row Racing with a 21st-place finish, as he prepares to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Others either took the track for the final time on Sunday, or face an uncertain future.  Mark Martin finished 19th and Ken Schrader finished 34th, both in their final race in the Sprint Cup Series due to emending retirement.  Juan Pablo Montoya ended a 7-year NASCAR career with a 18th-place finish.  Montoya isn’t retiring, but instead moving back to the IZOD IndyCar Series, trying to duplicate success he had in open-wheel racing in both Indy and Formula-1 earlier in his career, including an Indianapolis 500 win in 2000.  Jeff Burton finished 23rd in his final race for Richard Childress Racing, and Dave Blaney finished 38th in his final race for Tommy Baldwin Racing.  Both veterans are unsure of their futures in the sport at this time, as well as Bobby Labonte, whose replacement for next year at JTG Daugherty Racing, AJ Allmendinger, drove the team’s car on Sunday.

Johnson wasn’t the only champion this weekend in South Florida.  Austin Dillon won the Nationwide Series championship, and Matt Crafton won the Camping World Truck Series title.  Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, and drives #3 to honor both Childress (who drove the number in the 1960s-70s) and Dale Earnhardt, who made the number both famous and symbolic.  Dillon won the 2011 Truck Series title, in his 2nd season in the series, at age 21.  Now 23, Dillon won the Nationwide title in his 2nd season in the series.  Dillon will move to Sprint Cup in 2014, and will be the first to drive #3 in the Cup Series since Earnhardt’s death in 2001.  Should he continue the trend of winning a title in his 2nd season in each series, he would match the record of, you guessed it, Earnhardt, who won a title in his 2nd season in 1980.  Dillon won by just 3 points after a season-long points duel with former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr.  Crafton is a 13-year Truck Series veteran, having driven his whole career for ThorSport Racing.  He has 3 career wins in the series, including one in April at Kansas Speedway.  Consistency is what won Crafton the title, as he finished in the top 10 in the first 18 events of the season, and had a season-low finish of 18th, which is remarkable over the course of a whole season.  Crafton’s consistency is a trademark of his career, as he has finished in the top 10 in 175 out of his 316 career starts.  Crafton clinched the title simply by starting the finale on Friday night.

I was privileged to watch Sunday’s race in the High Octane Theater inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.  A friend of my aunt gave her 2 tickets for this race viewing party.  We watched the race on the big screens, which featured the ESPN broadcast (but without commercials!) as well as on-board cameras for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.  The Hall also provided race scanners, which allowed us to listen in on the radio channels used by the drivers to communicate with their crews and spotters.  While Johnson and Kenseth would have been two interesting drivers to listen to, given the championship battle, I figured ESPN would keep us updated on anything interesting being said by those two, so I kept my scanner on Jeff Gordon’s channel for most of the race.  He is, after all, my personal favorite and was also my pick to win the race in a fantasy league I play with a friend and his family.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The highlight of the day, however, was meeting 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ned Jarrett.  He was making an appearance at the hall to unveil a car, which will be put on display in the coming weeks, that he drove in 1966, the year he retired midway through the season.  Jarrett is the only driver to retire as the reigning Cup Series champion, having won the title in 1965, as well as one earlier in 1961.  After completing his driving career in which he won 50 races, he began a career as a racing broadcaster, first for MRN Radio in 1978, before joining CBS and ESPN from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.  His most memorable moments as a broadcaster are clearly being in the booth for a handful of wins by his son, 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Dale Jarrett:  his first win in 1991 at Michigan, and his first two Daytona 500 wins in 1993 and 1996.  Jarrett, following the unveiling of the car, answered questions from fans, before taking pictures with those, like me, who became Hall of Fame members on Sunday.

 

 

 

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series:  2013 Chase for the Cup, Final Standings
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, 2419
2. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2400, -19
3. Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, 2385, -34
4. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2364, -55
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports, 2363, -56
6. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 2337, -82
7. Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, 2336, -83
8. Joey Logano, Penske Racing, 2323, -96
9. Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing, 2321, -98
10. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing, -110
11. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing, 2286, -133
12. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports, 2283, -136
13. Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, 2282, -137

 

2013 Ford 400, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 5, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 72, 47
2. Matt Kenseth, 1, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 144, 44
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 28, 42
4. Martin Truex Jr., 8, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 0, 40
5. Clint Bowyer, 25, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 0, 39
6. Brad Keselowski, 4, Penske Racing, Ford, 9, 39
7. Kyle Busch, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 37
8. Joey Logano, 3, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 36
9. Jimmie Johnson, 7, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 35
10. Kevin Harvick, 6, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 8, 35
Notables:
11. Jeff Gordon, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 33
12. Carl Edwards, 18, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 32
13. Kasey Kahne, 13, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Ryan Newman, 15, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 27
19. Mark Martin, 22, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 25 (final career start)
21. Kurt Busch, 2, Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet, 4, 24
24. Greg Biffle, 16, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 20

Gordon Ends Drought, Bubba Makes History: The Weekend in NASCAR

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon (File) (Photo credit: .Mearn)

Jeff Gordon won today’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, for his 88th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, and his first this year.  This was his 8th career win at Martinsville.  The win was a much needed one for Gordon, as it moved him from 5th to 3rd in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, and he reduced his deficit from 34 to 27 points.  The win was the 21st at the Virginia short track for owner Rick Hendrick, although the track is also the site of the Hendrick plane crash tragedy in 2004, in which 10 were killed, including Rick’s son and brother, as well as legendary Hendrick engine builder Randy Dorton.

Matt Kenseth, who began the day 4 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson in the standings, led the most laps and finished 2nd, while Johnson finished 5th, resulting in a tie in the standings with 3 races remaining.  Kenseth does own the tiebreaker (for now at least) with 7 wins compared to 5 for Johnson.  The remaining races are at Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday, followed by Phoenix International Speedway on November 10 and Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 17.

Martinsville Speedway, April 2011

Martinsville Speedway (File) (Photo credit: chayes2014_)

Gordon’s win clinched the manufacturer’s championship for Chevrolet (pretty remarkable considering there’s still three races left).  This gives Chevy their 11th straight title, and their 37th overall.  This will be their 25th title in the last 31 years, with the last 30 of those being the Hendrick era, something that is not a coincidence.  While the Hendrick team isn’t solely responsible for this unbelievable run (Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Morgan-McClure Motorsports, Darrell Waltrip Racing, Junior Johnson & Associates, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Ranier-Lundy Racing, Hagan Racing, and (briefly) Joe Gibbs Racing have also played a part in Chevy’s success over that time span), they are a major reason Chevrolet has dominated the sport.  Hendrick Motorsports has won 10 championships and 217 races in 30 Sprint Cup seasons, with drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, and Geoff Bodine.  Of those championships, Johnson has 5, Gordon has 4, and Labonte has 1 (Waltrip and Bodine won their titles with other car owners).  Hendrick also has 7 Daytona 500 wins.

Darrell Wallace Jr. Chats With Media

Darrell Wallace Jr. (File) (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)

In Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race, an event that would normally be an unnotable preliminary became a historic occasion when Darrell Wallace Jr. took the checkered flag, becoming just the second African-American to win a race in a NASCAR national series (the national series are the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck circuits).  The first man to do it was Wendell Scott, on December 1, 1963 at the now defunct Jacksonville (FL) Speedway Park.  Scott died in 1990, but his sons Franklin and Wendell Jr. made an appearance at Martinsville this morning alongside Wallace.  The 20-year-old Alabama native, who is called “Bubba” by many in the garage area, was making just his 19th career start in the Truck Series, acquiring his 5th top-5 and his 11th top-10 finish.  He currently sits 8th in this year’s points standings in the series, and could realistically finish as high as 5th in the standings at year’s end (he’s not mathematically eliminated from the title, but it’s unrealistic that he could catch points leader Matt Crafton).  Wallace had previously become the first African-American winner in the K&N Pro Series East in 2010 at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, and he won Rookie of the Year in that series that season.  Also, in 4 Nationwide Series starts in 2012, he has compiled 3 top-10 finishes with a high of 7th.  Everyone who watched the race yesterday, and everyone who has followed Wallace’s career can tell you he has an exceptional amount of talent, and that the win which was his first won’t be his last.  If he reaches the Sprint Cup Series (and I firmly believe he will), he will be the first black driver to start a Sprint Cup Series race since Bill Lester ran 2 races for owner Bill Davis in 2006.  Before that, the most recent man to do it had been Willy T. Ribbs in 1986.  Watch out for Wallace, who currently drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports, to make some noise, and some more history, in the future.

 

Sprint Cup Series:  Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Jeff Gordon, 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 78, 47
2. Matt Kenseth, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 202, 44
3. Clint Bowyer, 5, Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, 60, 42
4. Brad Keselowski, 11, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 2, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 123, 40
6. Kevin Harvick, 10, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 38
7. Denny Hamlin, 1, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 14, 38
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 12, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet 0, 36
9. Greg Biffle, 33, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 35
10. Jamie McMurray, 7, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
12. Carl Edwards, 14, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 32
14. Joey Logano, 6, Penske Racing, Ford, 0, 30
15. Kyle Busch, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 12, 30
18. Kurt Busch, 19, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 0, 26
27. Kasey Kahne, 25, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 17
38. Ryan Newman, 17, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 6

Chase for the Cup Standings:
1. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2294
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, 2294
3. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 2267, -27
4. Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing, 2266, -28
5. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, 2258, -36
6. Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing, 2239, -55
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports, 2238, -56
8. Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing, 2236, -58
9. Kurt Busch, Furniture Row Racing, 2219, -75
10. Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing, 2218, -76
11. Joey Logano, Penske Racing, 2209, -85
12. Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing, 2188, -106
13. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports, 2170, -124

 

Camping World Truck Series:  Kroger 200, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Darrell Wallace Jr., 3, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota, 96, 48
2. Brendan Gaughan, 15, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 42
3. Jeb Burton, 9, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 41
4. Ben Kennedy, 14, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Ryan Blaney, 24, Brad Keselowski Racing, Ford, 0, 39
6. Denny Hamlin, 1, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Toyota, 66, n/a
7. German Quiroga, 6, Red Horse Racing, Toyota, 0, 37
8. Johnny Sauter, 2, Curb Racing, Toyota, 9, 37
9. Scott Riggs, 28, RBR Enterprises, Chevrolet, 0, n/a
10. James Buescher, 7, Turner Scott Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 34
Notables:
17. Matt Crafton, 13, ThorSport Racing, Toyota, 0, 27
20. Chase Elliott, 12, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 24
22. Ty Dillon, 5, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 16, 23
30. Kevin Harvick, 21, NTS Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, n/a

Series Standings
1. Matt Crafton, ThorSport Racing, 707
2. James Buescher, Turner Scott Motorsports, 656, -51
3. Ty Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, 646, -61
4. Jeb Burton, Turner Scott Motorsports, 639, -68
5. Johnny Sauter, Curb Racing, 625, -82
6. Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski Racing, 615, -92
6. Miguel Paludo, Turner Scott Motorsports, 615, -92
8. Darrell Wallace Jr., Kyle Busch Motorsports, 614, -93
9. Brendan Gaughan, Richard Childress Racing, 595, -112
10. Timothy Peters, Red Horse Racing, 592, -115

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