Gordon Takes The White Flag

Jeff Gordon announced today that the 2015 season will be his final full-time season driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, stepping away after his 23rd full season.

Gordon announced the decision with this statement:

“As a race car driver, much of what I’ve done throughout my life has been based on following my instincts and trying to make good decisions,” Gordon said. “I thought long and hard about my future this past year and during the offseason, and I’ve decided 2015 will be the last time I compete for a championship. I won’t use the ‘R-word’ because I plan to stay extremely busy in the years ahead, and there’s always the possibility I’ll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that.

“I don’t foresee a day when I’ll ever step away from racing. I’m a fan of all forms of motor sports, but particularly NASCAR. We have a tremendous product, and I’m passionate about the business and its future success. As an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports, I’m a partner with Rick (Hendrick) and will remain heavily involved with the company for many years to come. It means so much to have the chance to continue working with the owner who took a chance on me and the incredible team that’s stood behind me every step of the way.

“Racing has provided a tremendous amount of opportunity that’s been extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling in my life. The work we’re doing with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation will continue to be extremely important to me. Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I’m no longer driving.

“I’ll explore opportunities for the next phase of my career, but my primary focus now and throughout 2015 will be my performance in the No. 24 Chevrolet. I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship.

“To everyone at NASCAR, my teammates, sponsors, competitors, friends, family, members of the media and especially our incredible fans, all I can say is thank you.”

The 43-year old ranks third all-time in the series with 92 wins, behind only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105), although he has the most during the “modern era” (post-1972).  Gordon ranks fourth all-time with four series championships, behind Petty and Dale Earnhardt (7) and Jimmie Johnson (6).

After growing up in California and Indiana, his career began in quarter midgets and sprint cars before moving to stock cars in 1990, and driving in what was then the Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) for owner Bill Davis in 1991-92.  Rick Hendrick noticed the young Gordon, and gave him a ride for the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup Series) for 1993, running his first Cup race in Richard Petty’s last at Atlanta in 1992.  Gordon has run the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports ever since, and is even an equity owner of the Hendrick team, owning a share of Jimmie Johnson’s #48 car.

Following a Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993, Gordon won his first event in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in ’94.  His second win came at Indianapolis, known as the Mecca of motorsports, in the first ever stock car race there, the 1994 Brickyard 400.  To many it is still considered Gordon’s greatest victory, as it impacted more that just Gordon’s career, but an entire sport.

Following an eighth place points finish in his sophomore season, Gordon won his first Cup title in 1995, and after finishing second to teammate Terry Labonte in ’96, won back-to-back titles in ’97-’98, becoming the fourth driver at the time to win three titles in a four-year stretch.  Gordon won 40 races in that four-year stretch, one of the best stretches in NASCAR history.  Over one stretch in 1998, Gordon won six out of seven races, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500, two of the sport’s biggest races.

In 1999-2000, Gordon finished sixth and ninth in points, although after the run of the four years before, it seemed like a letdown.  But Gordon responded in 2001, winning his fourth title, at the time becoming the third driver to do so (Jimmie Johnson has since joined him).

While Gordon has not won a title since, he has remained extremely competitive during the “Chase Era” in the Sprint Cup Series.  In 2004, Gordon finished third in the inaugural Chase, only losing by 16 points (in the points system used at the time, that was the rough equivalent of 4 points today).  Three years later, in 2007, Gordon set a modern era record with 30 top 10s in the 36 race schedule, but finished second in points to Johnson.  In 2009, he finished third behind Johnson and fellow teammate Mark Martin, joining together for the only 1-2-3 points finish in history by a set of three teammates.

After being added to the Chase in 2013 after initially missing by one point under cloudy circumstances, Gordon was very competitive in 2014, winning four times including a special win at Indianapolis (more on that later), and came within a point of advancing to the final round of the new Chase format featuring elimination rounds, finishing sixth in points.  A late race incident with Brad Keselowski is what likely cost Gordon the chance to compete for his fifth title in the finale, and he ended up sixth in the standings.

In the 11 seasons of the Chase era to date, Gordon has only missed the Chase once (remember, it used to be harder to get in than it is now with 16 spots), falling short in 2005 despite four wins.

In addition to series championships, Gordon has had success in the biggest individual races each year.  He has won three Daytona 500s, in 1997, ’99, and 2005.  In each instance, Gordon pulled off and aggressive move to take the lead, then held off the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett in the ’90s and Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Johnson in ’05.  Gordon is one of only five drivers to win at Daytona three or more times, and only Petty and Cale Yarborough can claim more wins in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” than Gordon.  He has also won the July race at Daytona three times.

At Darlington, Gordon has won the Southern 500 more than any driver in the history of that race, which dates back to NASCAR’s second season in 1950, with six wins (1995-98, 2002, ’07).  He is one of eight drivers to win the Coca-Cola 600 three times or more (1994, ’97-’98), with only Darrell Waltrip and Johnson having more wins than Gordon.

In 1997, he won all three in the same year, becoming the second driver to win the “Winston Million”, a promotion sponsored by then-series sponsor RJ Reynolds to reward any driver that won three of the four “crown jewels” (along with the spring race at Talladega), joining Bill Elliott, who accomplished the feat in the promotion’s first year in 1985.

As mentioned, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 in 2014 for a very special victory.  The win was Gordon’s fifth in the event (1994, ’98, 2001, ’04, ’14), making him the first driver in any series, in any form of racecar, to win five races at the Speedway, including in the Indianapolis 500, where the record of four wins is shared by legends AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser Sr.

Gordon’s competitiveness in 2014 and the energy he has shown today throughout the media engagements surrounding his announcement show he will be competitive in his final season.  This is something the sport hasn’t ever seen from a retiring driver (although several driver’s careers have been ended by injury or death during their prime).  Gordon will try to join Ned Jarrett as the only driver to retire a Cup Series champion, but Jarrett walked away after winning the title, so no one knew they were watching his final season as it happened.  With Petty’s final season in 1992, dubbed by The King as a “Fan Appreciation Tour”, he wasn’t at all competitive, particularly considering the merits of his career, with a high finish of 15th eight years after his final win.

Gordon said in a teleconference this afternoon he doesn’t want there to be ceremonies at every track commemorating his final season throughout the year, but instead said the time for that is in 2016, when he will still be at the track but will not have any competitive obligation, and can be more proactive with the fans.

That all goes with Gordon’s choice not to use the word “retirement” in discussing his decision.  Gordon said he perceives retirement as someone moving to the beach or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair.  He says he’ll still be very active in the sport, and other business interests, but will do so without competing.

To fans who don’t understand the magnitude of Gordon to his sport, think of this as equivalent to Derek Jeter’s final season, which we all just witnessed last year.  When Gordon came into the sport in the early ’90s, NASCAR had come a long way with ESPN’s coverage throughout most of the ’80s, but was still viewed as a Southern sport.  There was good reason for that, as only five of the top 15 finishers in Gordon’s first Cup race in 1992 were from outside the South.  (By the way, Gordon finished 31st that day.)

In the last race of 2014 at Homestead, only two of the top 15 were from the South, showing the national explosion the sport has taken in terms of its participants.  Furthermore, Gordon’s career has seen tracks built in California, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and Nevada which host Cup Series races, as there are now NASCAR fans everywhere.

The first driver from outside the South to win a Cup Series title was Alan Kulwicki, who did it the day Gordon’s career began in the 1992 season finale.  His success would be short-lived, as he died in a plane crash the following April, during Gordon’s rookie campaign.  Gordon went on to become the first superstar who wasn’t Southern by origin, and in many ways led the way for the likes of Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick, all of whom have won championships in the Chase era.

Gordon has never missed a start since his debut in 1992, running in 761 consecutive races since.  Barring the unforeseen, Gordon will pass Ricky Rudd (known as “The Iron Man”) on September 27 for the consecutive starts record, after Rudd ran 288 races in a row from 1981-2005 (Note: I was a Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002 when Rudd broke Terry Labonte’s consecutive starts record.)

It won’t be the only record owned by Gordon, even if you somehow overlook his wins and championships.  Gordon currently holds the all-time record of 22 consecutive seasons with at least one pole, and has won the third most poles all-time, once again behind Petty and Pearson (exactly the way they stand in wins).

As for what’s next for the #24 car, a number which Gordon is identified with in the sport as much as Earnhardt and #3 or Petty and #43, it seems likely that Chase Elliott, the son of former Cup Series champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, will move to the seat in 2016, although there is no official word from Hendrick.  Elliott won the championship in the Xfinity Series last year, in the same year he graduated from high school, driving for JR Motorsports, a team competitively allied with Hendrick which has, at times, served as a bit of a satellite operation for Hendrick.  Elliott also ran races at lower levels for Hendrick before moving to the Xfinity Series at the age of 18.

Someone on Twitter today suggested Elliott make his Cup Series debut at Homestead, to parallel Gordon’s career, making his first start in the season finale before running the following season full-time, and running the last race of a legend, just as Gordon did in Petty’s final race.  Elliott is expected to run a handful of Sprint Cup races in 2015, but I doubt Hendrick would want to wait until the finale to break in the youngster.  Instead, I’ll suggest that, for the same reason of parallels to Gordon’s career, Elliott could make his debut March 1 at Atlanta, the very track where Gordon made his 23 years ago.

On a personal level, Gordon was one of my first two sports heroes, as my very young self was endeared to both Gordon and Chipper Jones at a very young age.  I was taught by my aunt to respond to the question “Who’s the best driver?” with the answer “Jeff Gordon” before I could read that question.  That being said, today was obviously bittersweet, and although I knew the day would one day come, I was very surprised by the timing of it, with Gordon coming off his most competitive season in years.

Brian France, the Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, commented on Gordon’s announcement, saying:

“Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race. We have all enjoyed watching his legend grow for more than two decades, and will continue to do so during his final full-time season. His prolonged excellence and unmatched class continue to earn him the admiration of fans across the globe. Today’s announcement is a bittersweet one. I’ll miss his competitive fire on a weekly basis, but I am also happy for Jeff and his family as they start a new chapter. On behalf of the entire NASCAR family, I thank Jeff for his years of dedication and genuine love for this sport, and wish him the very best in his final season.”

I’ll agree with France that Gordon is one of the greatest in the history of the sport.  Coming from a member of the France family, the family that started it all in 1949, and has overseen the sport throughout the entirety of its existence, I think that’s a pretty accurate measure of what the 92 wins for Gordon have meant to the sport.

So, fans, savor this season, as Gordon runs 36 more Cup Series races.  Because you are truly watching one of the greatest ever turn his final lap.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins His 2nd Daytona 500

For the second time, and the first since 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the Daytona 500.  The 56th annual race, at Daytona International Speedway was marred by an over six-hour rain delay after just 38 laps of racing, but once action resumed under the lights, it made for one of the most competitive 500s in recent memory.  Junior led a race-high 54 laps after starting in the 9th position, running his 15th 500, and recorded his 20th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.  Junior didn’t take the lead for the first time until lap 131, so he led 54 of the last 70 laps.

The final 162 laps, under the lights, were much more exciting for the fans than the first 38.  The race, as a whole, featured 42 lead changes among 19 drivers, and the stat of lead changes is only measured at the start-finish line.  According to NASCAR.com, there were 177 passes for the lead in all, and 11,977 green flag passes, both track records.

Earnhardt Jr. had finished 2nd in 3 of the previous 4 Daytona 500s, and the victory was his first win in his last 56 starts, since Michigan in June 2012.  Junior had to hold off Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Brad Keselowski over the final laps, including a two-lap dash after the final restart, to claim the victory.  The win was Earnhardt’s 3rd (in a points-paying event) since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, after previously winning the 500 driving the #8 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the team started by his father before his death.

Ironically enough, one of the big storylines leading up to the 500 was the return of the #3 car to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., as it was driven to the pole by rookie Austin Dillon.  So, the 3 led the field to green, while an Earnhardt led it to the checkers.

Steve Letarte won his first 500 as a crew chief, although he had won the race previously as a crew member for Jeff Gordon, and did so in his final career attempt.  Starting in 2015, Letarte will move to the NBC broadcast booth, so this will be his final season on the #88 pit box.  Many believe there is, therefore, a greater sense of urgency for both Letarte and Earnhardt Jr., because both realize if they want to win together, they have to do it now.  Perhaps that sense of urgency helped contribute to a flawless Speedweeks, leading to a Daytona 500 victory.  While Junior didn’t win everything (in fact, he didn’t win anything until the 500), he ran well in every event and kept his equipment clean (with the exception of a Sprint Unlimited crash that he didn’t cause; that was not in the car the 88 team planned to run in the Daytona 500).

With the win, Earnhardt now leads the series standings, and with the new Sprint Cup points format, he has almost guaranteed a spot in the Chase Grid.  The only way he would not qualify would be in the event of the series having 17 or more race winners in the first 26 races, and Junior being 17th in points out of those drivers, or the event of Junior not attempting all the races without a valid medical excuse for his absence, or falling out of the top 30 in points (those last two scenarios won’t happen).

 

2014 Daytona 500 Results

(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 54, 48
2. Denny Hamlin, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 16, 43
3. Brad Keselowski, 33, Penske Racing, Ford, 13, 42
4. Jeff Gordon, 6, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 32, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 40
6. Matt Kenseth, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 38
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 34, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 37
8. Greg Biffle, 25, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 8, 37
9. Austin Dillon, 1, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 36
10. Casey Mears, 28, Germain Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
Notables:
11. Joey Logano, 35, Penske Racing, Ford, 2, 34
13. Kevin Harvick, 38, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Carl Edwards, 30, Roush Fenway Racing, 8, 28
19. Kyle Busch, 37, Joe Gibbs Racing, 19, 26
35. Tony Stewart, 21, Stewart-Haas Racing, 0, 9

Daytona 500 Preview

After countless hours of practices, an exhibition race, pole qualifying, qualifying races, and preliminary events, the Daytona 500 is finally just hours away.  The 500 is the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” starts the season, unlike big events in other sports.

Recapping the week, Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, Austin Dillon won the 500 pole, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the Budweiser Duels, Kyle Busch won the Camping World Truck Series event, and Regan Smith won the Nationwide Series event.  Additionally, the UNOH Battle at the Beach (a pair of races for two NASCAR-sanctioned short track series, the K&N Pro Series and the Whelen Modified Series, run on a .375-mile short track constructed on the Daytona backstretch) was won by Daniel Suarez (K&N Pro) and Doug Coby (Whelen Modified).

Now before I get to my list of picks for the Daytona 500, and my official pick to win it, let’s look at some trends.  The defending Sprint Cup Series champion hasn’t won the 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000, who was also the last driver to win the 500 from the pole, and the last to win the Sprint Unlimited and the 500 in the same year.  The defending champion of the 500 hasn’t won it since Sterling Marlin in 1995, (five days before I was born).  Only twice since 1998 has a winner of one of the Gatorade Duels won the 500 (that’s 2-for-30), and when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth did it in 2004 and 2012, those were both unusual 500s (2004 ended with a strung out, 120-lap green flag segment, and 2012 was run on Monday night/early Tuesday morning due to rain, and included a jet dryer explosion).  Those trends have eliminated Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, and Matt Kenseth from being my pick for the 500, although all 4 will appear in my power rankings of top contenders.  Here are the twelve biggest threats to win the 56th Great American Race:

Worth Mentioning:  Kurt Busch (runner-up in 2005, 2008), Kyle Busch (past winner of Sprint Unlimited, Daytona July race), Carl Edwards (2011 runner-up), Austin Dillon (pole sitter), Trevor Bayne (2011 winner), Ryan Newman (2008 winner), Martin Truex Jr. (qualified 2nd, but will start at rear in back-up car), David Gilliland (2007 pole sitter, 2011 3rd place, 2013 Talladega runner-up)

12.  David Ragan
Ragan starts 43rd, dead last, although you can win from anywhere at Daytona.  In 2011, Ragan, not Trevor Bayne, might have been Cinderella, if it weren’t for an illegal lane change while leading the 500 on a late restart.  Later that year, he won the Daytona July race, and he won last spring at Talladega, the other restrictor plate track on the NASCAR circuit.  He’s certainly a dark horse, driving for unheralded Front Row Motorsports, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 34 car run well.

11. Michael Waltrip
Yeah, he’s 50, and a win would make him the oldest winner of the 500 in history.  But the guy can still drive in a restrictor plate race.  All 5 of Waltrip’s career Sprint Cup wins have come on restrictor plate tracks, with 3 at Daytona and 2 in the 500.  Yeah, he hasn’t won in 11 years, but finished 4th at Talladega last spring and 5th at Daytona in July.

10.  Tony Stewart
Stewart is the modern-day Dale Earnhardt, in that he’s won multiple times in every event at Daytona, except in the 500.  He’s won the July race 4 times, along with 3 Budweiser Duels, 3 Sprint Unlimiteds, and a record-tying 7 Daytona Nationwide Series races during Speedweeks.  He finished 2nd in 2004 and 3rd in 2008, as well as having some heartbreak with crashes and mechanical failures.  Earnhardt eventually won the 500, in 1998, and so will Stewart, and it may be this year.

9.  Jeff Gordon
While Gordon hasn’t run as well in recent Daytona 500s, that has mainly been due to bad luck, usually an accident.  However, Gordon won 3 Daytona 500s, in 1997, 1999, and 2005, 4 Daytona July races, and finished 2nd in his Duel race on Thursday night behind Denny Hamlin.  It’s never wise to not include the #24 Chevrolet in a list of potential Daytona contenders, even at age 42.

8.  Jamie McMurray
In 2010, McMurray quietly looked solid throughout Speedweeks, but didn’t win anything until the Sunday, when he won the Daytona 500, one of his 7 career Sprint Cup wins, 3 of which have come at restrictor plate tracks.  This week, like 2010, the #1 Chevrolet has quietly had a solid Speedweeks, and was in contention in his Duel on Thursday before being caught up in a last lap crash.  He will try to do what Trevor Bayne did in 2011, winning the 500 in a back-up car.

7.  Greg Biffle
While Biffle only has one career Daytona win, in the July race back in 2003, he has run well as of late in the 500, finishing 3rd in 2010 and 2012, and 6th last year, and has sat 2nd at the white flag twice, in 2010 and 2013.  Biffle ran 3rd in 500 time trials, although he finished 12th in his Duel.  With his recent good finishes in the 500, he is certainly a driver to watch in this year’s event.

6.  Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion has never won at Daytona, although he has won twice at Talladega, NASCAR’s other superspeedway.  Keselowski finished 4th in the 2013 Daytona 500, after dueling for the lead with Jimmie Johnson with about 10 laps to go.  He also ran very well in his Duel on Thursday, contending for the win until a pit road speeding penalty and a mechanical issue.  He is getting better the more he races at Daytona, so look out.

5.  Jimmie Johnson
Last year, Jimmie Johnson laid back during all practice sessions during Speedweeks, and even in his Duel, to protect his equipment, and it led to his 2nd Daytona 500 win, adding to his 2006 victory.  This year during Speedweeks, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have repeated their strategy from a year ago, in an attempt to repeat the result.  However, no one has repeated as 500 winner since 1994-95 (Sterling Marlin), and the defending Sprint Cup champion hasn’t won the 500 since 2000 (Dale Jarrett), so while Johnson certainly could repeat, he’ll have to beat history to do it.  He’ll be in a backup car after running out of gas and crashing on the final lap of Thursday’s Duel.

4.  Kevin Harvick
Harvick is almost always near the top of the list of 500 favorites by the end of Speedweeks, as he always runs well at Daytona, winning 3 times in the Sprint Unlimited, a duel in 2013, and the 2007 500.  He finished 2nd to Matt Kenseth in Thursday’s Duel, although that finish was disallowed after his car failed post-race inspection, meaning he will start 38th instead of 5th.  In addition to his 500 win, he finished 2nd in 2009 and 4th in 2003-04.  Expect Harvick to run up front, as he usually does at the Speedway.

3.  Matt Kenseth
Kenseth won Thursday’s Duel, which was the 2nd Duel win of his career.  The only other time he won a Duel, he won the 500, back in 2012, in addition to his 2009 win in the 500.  However, Duel winners haven’t done well over the last 15 years in the 500, with Kenseth’s 2012 run being an exception.  He led the most laps in last year’s 500, but an engine failure ended his day early.  There is a chance of rain in Daytona Beach on Sunday, which is good for Kenseth; both of his 500 wins were in races affected by rain.

2.  Denny Hamlin
Hamlin had a tough 2013, suffering a broken back and finishing a career low 23rd in the series standings.  His momentum began to change when he won the season finale at Homestead, and that spilled into this year’s Speedweeks, as Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel, his 2nd career win in both events.  The win in the duel made Joe Gibbs Racing the first team to ever sweep a set of Duel races.  Hamlin will be, according to many, the favorite, but history is not his side.  Hamlin is the 16th driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel in the same Speedweeks, and none of the previous 15 won the 500.

1.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Often times, the winner of the 500 isn’t someone who has won an event or two during Speedweeks, but instead someone who has run well, and showed promise and ability to lead, and just not gotten the finishes to show for it.  Junior finished 9th out of the 18-car field in the Sprint Unlimited after being involved in a crash he didn’t cause with about 10 laps to go.  He finished 5th in his Duel, and may have run higher had he not gotten boxed in the pack late, and had led laps early in the race.  Junior also has plenty of experience, finishing 3rd in 2005, 2nd in 2001, 2010, 2012, and 2013, and winning in 2004, in addition to 3 Duel wins, 2 Sprint Unlimited wins, and 1 July race win.  His runner-up in 3 of the last 4 500s was the stat that clinched it for me that he was the man to beat in this year’s 500.

So, what do these picks mean?  Absolutely nothing.  The 500 has always been, and will always be, a crapshoot, and half the drivers I mentioned may not even be around at the finish due to the seemingly inevitable crash that takes out a large portion of the field, known as “The Big One”.  In some years, the wreck has come in the first handful of laps, while in many years, it comes late, but whenever it comes, the hopes of many for a 500 win go out the window.

All we can do is plan for a good race, and hope to see another classic finish, such as the ones we saw in 1976, 1979, 1990, and 2007 (and there are many, many others I could have mentioned here).  While Hamlin pulled away with the Sprint Unlimited on the final lap, every other race in Speedweeks has seen a spectacular finish, with photo finishes in Duel 1, and both the Truck Series and Nationwide Series events, and a big last lap crash in Duel 2.  Regardless of what happens, we can all sit back and enjoy one of the great sporting events in the world, the 56th running of the Daytona 500.

 

 

 

2014 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 2:  Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon
Row 4:  Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard
Row 6:  Josh Wise, Brian Scott
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne
Row 8:  A.J. Allmendinger, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  David Gilliland, Landon Cassill
Row 10:  Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Row 11:  Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray
Row 12:  Cole Whitt, Terry Labonte
Row 13:  Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte
Row 14:  Danica Patrick, Casey Mears
Row 15:  J.J. Yeley, Carl Edwards
Row 16:  Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson
Row 17:  Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 18:  Joey Logano, Michael Annett
Row 19:  Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick
Row 20:  Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier
Row 21:  Parker Kligerman, Michael Waltrip
Row 22:  David Ragan
Failed to Qualify:  Eric McClure, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd, Ryan Truex, Michael McDowell, Dave Blaney

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)

The Significance of 3

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, after crashing in the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.  Most years during Daytona Speedweeks, Earnhardt’s life, death, and legacy are remembered, and particularly on February 18, by many of those in the garage area who raced against Earnhardt on the track and were friends with him off the track.  And when these folks think of “The Intimidator” on the track, the first thing that comes to mind is the black #3 car that he drove for so many years, and that hasn’t been seen in a Sprint Cup race since.  Earnhardt began at Richard Childress Racing for good in 1984, after a brief stint with the team in 1981, and although he originally drove the blue and yellow colors of Wrangler, by 1988 he was driving the all black paint scheme and white number that is so synonymous with the Earnhardt name today.

There’s a lot of people out there that only look at the 3 as an Earnhardt number, and rightfully so, as the only driver a 35-year old fan would remember driving the number is Earnhardt.  However, there is a lot of history behind the 3 from before Earnhardt ever drove it.

The car has made 1,134 starts and won 97 times.  Sure, most of the wins were by Earnhardt (67 of his 76 career wins), but there were 30 wins for the number before Earnhardt, and 73 drivers have turned laps driving the number (that will be 74 on Sunday, I’ll get there momentarily).

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, in NASCAR’s early days, it was common for a car’s owner to also be its chief mechanic, and big name mechanics like Ray Fox and Smokey Yunick commonly ran the 3.  Before the Daytona 500 began in 1959, the last two beach course races in Daytona were won by Cotton Owens in 1957 and Paul Goldsmith in 1958, both driving car #3.  Fireball Roberts won the inaugural Daytona July race in the 3.  The first 3 wins of David Pearson’s career, including the 1961 World 600 in Charlotte, and the last 2 wins of Buck Baker’s career all came in the 3, and 9 of Junior Johnson’s 50 career wins were in the 3 car.  Buddy Baker also won 2 races, including a World 600, driving the number.  Among the others that drove #3 include legends Marvin Panch, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Isaac, and NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Tim Flock.

From 1976 to 1981, Richard Childress drove a self-owned 3 car, in the beginning stages of the history of Richard Childress Racing.  Childress never won, but finished as high as 3rd at Nashville in 1978.  He retired during the 1981 season after the opportunity to sign Earnhardt, and a Wrangler sponsorship, came.  After a brief stint in the 3, at the suggestion of Childress, Earnhardt went to drive for Bud Moore, a long-standing, well-funded team which, at the time, gave Earnhardt a better opportunity.  Ricky Rudd came to RCR for the 1982-83 seasons, scoring his first 2 wins in 1983.  Earnhardt and Rudd swapped rides, as Earnhardt came back to Childress and Rudd went to drive for Moore.

And the rest is history.  Earnhardt won 6 of his 7 titles while driving for Childress, a ride he never left for the rest of his career.  The stylized 3 logo that we all see on so many bumper stickers and t-shirts is a symbol of a man and his racing career, but also the connection the fans seemed to have with Earnhardt.  He was the everyman, who had come up through the ranks from the small mill town of Kannapolis, NC.  And the man was taken away in a flash, doing what he loved, driving a racecar.  He was blocking to protect the position of his friend and employee, Michael Waltrip, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and made contact with Sterling Marlin that shot him up the track, into Ken Schrader, and head-on into the concrete turn 4 wall.

A week later, the 3 team continued to race, as Childress did what everyone who knew Dale said he would want the team to do, but changed the car number to 29 for rookie driver Kevin Harvick.  So in many ways, the history of the 3 should include the 23 wins for Harvick while driving the 29 to a trio of 3rd place finishes in points.  Childress vowed the 3 would not be raced in any of the 3 NASCAR national series unless an Earnhardt or Childress family member was doing the driving.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the 3 in a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series races in 2002, and winning at Daytona, before running it again in the Daytona Nationwide Series race in July 2010, and winning.  He then said he, too, was done with #3.  And along came Austin Dillon.

Austin Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress.  For Dillon, 3 didn’t start out as a racing number; it was his baseball number.  Dillon was a member of the team from the Southwest Forsyth Little League in Clemmons, NC that appeared in the 2002 Little League World Series, wearing #3, in honor of both his grandfather and Earnhardt, one of his heroes.

Austin and his brother, Ty Dillon, got into racing by the time they were old enough to drive.  Beginning at the lower levels of NASCAR racing, Childress asked both what number they wanted to run.  Ty said he wanted to run #2, the number run by his father Mike, who had 15 top tens in a 154-race Nationwide Series career.  (Mike Dillon also drove the 3, albeit unofficially, for one race, substituting for Earnhardt after Earnhardt blacked out on the opening lap of the 1997 Southern 500 at Darlington.)  Austin said he wanted to run the 3, that number he had used to honor both Childress and Earnhardt during his baseball days, and acknowledged the significance of the number on the side of any racecar at any level, particularly one run by the grandson of Childress.

Back to Earnhardt (briefly).  Before he drove the 3, he had won Rookie of the Year in 1979 and his first Sprint Cup Series title in 1980, driving car #2 for owner Rod Osterlund.  Keep that pattern in mind.

Now back to Austin Dillon.  By 2010, after a couple of years running races in smaller NASCAR-sanctioned touring series, Dillon moved to the Camping World Truck Series full-time.  After a rookie record 5 poles, and wins at Iowa and Las Vegas, Dillon won Rookie of the Year, and finished 5th in the series standings.  In 2011, he won 2 more races, and won the series championship.

In 2012, Dillon moved to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which is analogous to triple-A baseball.  Dillon won a pair of races in the series, sweeping the season’s 2 events at Kentucky Speedway, finished 3rd in the standings, and won Rookie of the Year.  In 2013, he won the series championship.  Dillon proved his consistency in winning the title, becoming the first champion in any of NASCAR’s 3 national series without winning a race during the season.

So it’s definitely time for Dillon to be rewarded with a Sprint Cup Series ride.  Dillon actually started 11 races in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, running 5 races for RCR (in #33, though), 4 for Phoenix Racing, and 2 as a replacement for the injured Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing.  His high finish was 11th at Michigan, although he was running 3rd at the white flag in Stewart’s #14 at Talladega before being involved in a crash while being aggressive and going for the win.  As mentioned, the starts for RCR were in car #33, so this year, when Dillon will run the full Sprint Cup Schedule, and compete for Rookie of the Year, he will be running #3 in the Cup Series for the first time.

Oh yeah, about that car number…

While Dillon has brought the 3 back to both the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, bringing it back to the premier level of NASCAR racing is a different story.  Seeing the 3 on a Sprint Cup Series track will bring back memories for many, while allowing other younger fans a chance to become better educated about the life and legacy of the “Man in Black.”  I could say I am one of those younger fans, as I was 6 days short of my 6th birthday when Earnhardt died.  While I remember Earnhardt’s death, I wasn’t old enough to understand what the 3 stood for when I saw it on the track.  Most people I’ve heard, both from the inside of the sport and from its fan base, are supportive of the number returning to the track.  Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was a good thing his father’s number was back.  However, there are still those who don’t want to see anyone except their hero behind the wheel of an RCR #3 car.

One of the skeptics was Dale Earnhardt’s mother, Martha.  At first she said she wasn’t sure whether or not she liked the idea of Dillon driving the number, although she has said it will be alright as long as the car isn’t painted like Earnhardt’s (it won’t be), and is competitive with Dillon behind the wheel (it will be).  There are also some among Earnhardt’s fans that say that no one, no matter who it is, should drive Dale’s car number.  It could be argued that, while some know the sport’s history and just aren’t receptive to seeing someone new in the 3, others don’t realize the deep amount of history behind the car number.  Even without Earnhardt, the number would rank alongside 11 and 43 among the great car numbers throughout the sport’s history.

In addition, I had a thought about the way the skeptics feel.  If it wasn’t Dillon to bring back the number, eventually Childress would retire as a car owner or grow old and die, and would be out of the sport.  And, therefore, eventually, once those who were around during Earnhardt’s career are gone from the garage, someone would have a notion to bring the number back; perhaps it would be someone with no business returning the iconic number to the track.  This way, with Dillon, driving, it’s a Childress family member, and Childress is honoring his friend, Earnhardt, through running the number, but doing so completely on his own terms.  And I heard someone point out over the weekend that Childress seems as happy at the track and as focused at the track as he’s been since the death of Earnhardt.  While that may be simply due to the fact that one of his drivers is also his grandson, I have reason to believe that seeing the 3 back on the track for the first time since Austin Dillon was 10 is part of the reason for the glimmer in his eye.  If something as simple as a car number can reenergize a 68-year old man, why not let him re-enter the number into the sport?

It will become official in this Sunday’s Daytona 500, when Dillon makes his first start in a 3 car in Cup Series competition.  Buzz surrounded preseason testing at Daytona, when the 3 made its first appearance, even if it was in a testing format.  And Dillon didn’t disappoint, running he fastest lap of the session, putting #3 back on top of the Daytona scoring pylon.  Another step forward was taken on Saturday, when Dillon ran 4th and 2nd fastest in a pair of sessions preparing for 500 pole qualifying.  And then it happened.  Sunday, Dillon won the pole for the 56th Daytona 500, becoming the 4th driver to do so in the 3 car, joining Buddy Baker in 1969, Ricky Rudd in 1983, and Dale Earnhardt in 1996.  While many shrug of pole qualifying as all engine and aerodynamics and no driver (they’ve got a point, particularly considering last year’s pole winner finished 27th in season points), I think it may be a sign of things to come, both in the rest of Daytona Speedweeks, and throughout the 2014 Sprint Cup season.  With an obviously fast car, and a good superspeedway racer behind the wheel, Dillon is an excellent dark horse pick to pull off the Hollywood ending and win the Daytona 500.

Given the history of #3, I would be far from surprised.

(By the way, Ty Dillon ran the 3 in the Camping World Truck Series after Dillon moved on, and will run it in the Nationwide Series this year after Dillon’s move to Cup.)

Further Reading:  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2013/12/11/dale-earnhardt-number-3-austin-dillon-richard-childress-2014-sprint-cup-series.html

NASCAR Season Preview

A new NASCAR season is upon us, beginning with the exhibition event, the Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Budweiser Shootout), on Saturday night in Daytona, before the official start to the new season with next Sunday’s Daytona 500.  There’s a lot of excitement down in Daytona, for several reasons.

One reason is the new points format.  Drivers will be eliminated as the season (particularly the Chase) goes along, with the top 4 drivers racing a winner-take-all showdown in the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.  The so-called “Chase Grid” has received both praise and criticism both throughout the garage area and the racing media, although most of the feedback has been positive.  More on the Chase Grid format, and particularly the 2014 edition, is coming up.  For more explanation of the format itself, read my post here:  https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/nascar-changes-chase-format/

Another change that has the garage roaring with more than just the engines is the new qualifying format.  While the lineup for the 56th Daytona 500 will be set as usual, starting with the March 2 race at Phoenix the Sprint Cup Series will begin what has been called “knockout qualifying” by some.  In the past, every car would take to the track by itself for a 2-lap time trial, with the fastest lap being recorded as that car’s qualifying time, and the fastest time winning the pole.  Now, there will be multiple cars on the track at the same time, and eliminations will be instituted for more excitement in the process.  At tracks longer than 1.25 miles (with the exception of road courses), all drivers will turn laps for 25 minutes, before a 5 minute break.  Then the top 24 will run for 10 minutes, before another 5 minute break.  The 12 fastest will run a final, frantic 5-minute stint, racing for the pole.  At tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, and at the 2 road courses, the first segment will be 30 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break and only one more segment, in which the fastest 12 will run for 10 minutes.  This format brings excitement with numerous cars on track at once, and the window of time used for a qualifying broadcast being shortened to an hour from the former 2 or 3 hour qualifying programs.

Finally, a handful of drivers are with new teams, or are new to the Sprint Cup Series altogether.  Kevin Harvick moves from Richard Childress Racing to drive the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.  He will be joined at SHR by Kurt Busch, who will drive the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet after moving from Furniture Row Racing.  Leaving Stewart-Haas is Ryan Newman, who will drive the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.  The #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet ride left by Busch will be taken by Martin Truex Jr., after he left Michael Waltrip Racing after the team lost NAPA’s sponsorship in the aftermath of last year’s Richmond debacle (https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/napa-drops-waltrip-truex-after-scandal/).  Speaking of MWR, Brian Vickers takes over the #55 Aaron’s Toyota full-time in 2014 after sharing it with Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin for parts of the last 2 seasons, including a 2013 win at New Hampshire.  AJ Allmendinger returns to NASCAR full-time after racing both IndyCar and NASCAR last year while trying to repair a reputation damaged by a 2012 drug suspension, driving the #47 for JTG Daugherty Racing, who switched from Toyota to Chevy in the offseason.

Perhaps the biggest news, when it comes to team changes, is the return of the #3 Chevrolet for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, as Austin Dillon, who is Richard Childress’ grandson, brings the fabled number back to the Sprint Cup circuit after winning both a Nationwide Series title in 2013 and a Camping World Truck Series title in 2011 driving #3.  Childress will only allow a member of the Earnhardt or Childress family to drive The Intimidator’s number.  Other rookies include Michael Annett (#7 Flying J/Pilot Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing), Kyle Larson (#42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing), Justin Allgaier (#51 Brandt Chevrolet for the newly rebranded HScott Motorsports, formerly Phoenix Racing), Alex Bowman (#23 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Ryan Truex (#83 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Cole Whitt (#26 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing), and Parker Kligerman (#30 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing).  This is the biggest class of rookies I can ever remember in my years following NASCAR.

Among those not racing full-time in the 2014 season are Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin.  Burton and Labonte will run part-time after their contracts with full-time rides expired, with Burton leaving Richard Childress Racing, and Labonte leaving JTG Daugherty Racing.  Martin began 2013 running part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing, but filled in for Tony Stewart after Stewart’s broken leg in August for 14 of the last 15 races before announcing he would continue at Stewart-Haas in an advisory role, not running any races in 2014 and beyond.

Now, let’s look at what I’m projecting to happen with the 2014 season.  First, I projected the first 26 races (picking a winner), and there were, surprisingly, 16 different winners, filling out the entire “Chase Grid” first round.  Here are the 16, in the order that they would be seeded going into the Chase:

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins), Matt Kenseth (3 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Kevin Harvick (2 wins), Kyle Busch (2 wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Tony Stewart (1 win), Clint Bowyer (1 win), Kurt Busch (1 win), Brad Keselowski (1 win), Greg Biffle (1 win), Ryan Newman (1 win), AJ Allmendinger (1 win), Marcos Ambrose (1 win).

This projection has, among others, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. missing the Chase.  Edwards would certainly be the biggest surprise, but his close calls running for titles in the past have been based on consistency, and I didn’t project him to win a race in the so-called regular season.  Other potential sleepers include Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, and Kyle Larson.  And by the way, the wins for Allmendinger and Ambrose both came on road courses.  While both may struggle on ovals (Ambrose is more likely to struggle than Allmendinger), a win on a road course would get them into the Chase.

Starting the Chase is the Challenger Round, with races at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.  Here is how the field is projected to rank after the 3 races, with the top 12 advancing:

Moving On: Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (1 win), Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Eliminated:  Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose

The elimination of Biffle, and not Newman, came down to 1 finishing position at one of the 3 tracks (I ranked the drivers 1-16 at each track, and added the results).

Next, the series moves onto the Contender Round, with races at Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega.  (You thought elimination races for the last 10 years of the Chase format at Richmond were wild; wait until we have an elimination race at Talladega!)  Here is how the field stacks up, with the top 8 advancing:

Moving On:  Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win), Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman

This time the last spot came down to a tie, with Gordon winning based on having more wins throughout the entirety of the season.  With the last race of that round coming at Talladega, I can certainly see a photo finish deciding who moves on.

With 4 races remaining, the Eliminator round begins, as the field is cut from 8 to 4 after the 3 races at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.  Here is how those 8 rank in those 3 events:

Moving On:  Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne

Once again, the final spot came down to 1 point (and it was ironically Jeff Gordon battling with Clint Bowyer, at Phoenix, the site of their brawl in 2012).  With that, it comes down to the 3 drivers who battled for the title at Homestead in 2013, with the addition of a 4-time Cup champion to the mix.  The easiest part of all these projections was the Homestead race, as it is only 1 race, and the highest finisher wins the title, plain and simple.  Here is the final projection:

Champion:  Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon

As much as it would alienate many within the NASCAR fan base, I am picking Jimmie Johnson to win his record-tying 7th Sprint Cup Series title.  While his stats at Homestead aren’t that good, each time he’s won the title there he hasn’t had to do anything spectacular, he’s just had to finish.  Johnson is very good on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead, so I think when the pressure is on, he’ll beat the other 3 to the checkered flag.  There is, after all, no one better when the pressure is on than Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Here is a season preview for each of the top 12 picked in my Chase Grid:

1. Jimmie Johnson
As mentioned, Johnson is trying to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each won 7 Cup titles, although Johnson would have accomplished the feat in a much shorter period of time.  It’s not wise to pick against him until a team consistently beats him.

2. Kevin Harvick
His first year at Stewart-Haas Racing could very well see him contend for a title.  He has finished 3rd in points 3 of the last 4 years, so the move to SHR (which pretty much uses Hendrick equipment), could put him over the hump.  Many also have him winning a 2nd Daytona 500 title.

3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, who will turn 42 in March, comes off a career year, with 7 wins and a runner-up finish to Johnson in points.  Recently there’s been a runner-up curse in the Sprint Cup Series, but I think Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliffe are too solid to fall into the trend.

4. Jeff Gordon
The 4-time champ and 88-time race winner says he may retire if he can win the title.  After being added to the Chase in 2013 due to the events at Richmond, Gordon finished 6th in points, his highest finish since 2009, and won at Martinsville, showing he’s still got some competitive fire at age 42.

5. Clint Bowyer
Speaking of the events at Richmond in September, Clint Bowyer and all of Michael Waltrip Racing are ready to put their mistakes behind them.  The best way to do that would be with a solid season, which they are more than capable of having.  Remember, Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie finished 2nd in points in 2012.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, I had Junior winning 3 races.  One was at Michigan, where his last 2 wins have come, with two others on restrictor plate tracks, where he has always run well.  He does have 19 career wins, by the way.  There will be a greater sense of urgency, as crew chief Steve Letarte will leave for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.

7. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup champ will rebound after a tough 2013 to win a couple of races and be competitive in the Chase Grid.  The talented yet controversial Michigander has already amassed 10 career wins in just 161 starts.

8. Kasey Kahne
Kahne may be picked the lowest out of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports cars, but 8th really isn’t bad, particularly when that means the team would occupy half of the 8 spots in the Eliminator Round.  Kahne made the Chase in 2013 before struggling to a 12th place points finish, a year after a career-high 4th in 2012.

9. Kyle Busch
Whether you call him “Rowdy” or “Wild Thing”, it’s clear Kyle Busch is one of best known and most talented drivers on the circuit, and a “love him or hate him” type of figure.  While many have him contending for a title, the 3 race stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega during the Contender Round will have Busch out earlier than he would have hoped.

10. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin would rather forget 2013, a year in which he missed 4 races and lost a title shot with a broken back, before suffering through a series of tough breaks on his way to a 23rd place points finish, although he did win at Homestead.  Like Busch, the stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega will prevent Hamlin from a deep Chase run.

11. Tony Stewart
Like Hamlin, Stewart is coming off an injury, although his injury is a broken leg and caused him to miss 15 races, and has Stewart, in his own words, at about 65% strength to start the season.  Expect him to start slowly (he usually does anyway), before heating up in the summer to qualify his Chevy for the Chase.

12. Ryan Newman
Newman moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Racing, where he will be the senior driver at the age of the 36.  Newman comes off his Brickyard 400 win in 2013, and has won 17 races and 51 poles in his 13 seasons.  He joins up-and-coming crew chief Luke Lambert for the 2014 campaign.

(Note:  As you might have figured out, I didn’t account for the fact that a non-Chase driver, or someone already eliminated, could win one of the Chase races.  I simply picked the driver with the highest likelihood of winning out of the drivers who were left for each event.)

NASCAR Changes Chase Format

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced today big changes to the format of the annual “Chase for the Sprint Cup”.  Beginning this year, there will now be 16 drivers instead of 12 to make the Chase, with the 16 drivers entering the “Chase Grid”.  Those 16 will be race winners from the first 26 events of the season, and the highest point-earners without a win, if there aren’t 16 winners.  The 10-race Chase will be broken up into 4 segments, or “rounds”.  The “Challenger Round” will consist of the first 3 races.  Any Chase driver who wins in those 3 races will move on to the “Contender Round”, along with the highest earning drivers in points, totaling 12 drivers in all.  After the points are reset, those 12 will compete in a similar system over the following 3 races, Chase races 4-6, the “Contender Round” to cut the field to 8, with race winners, followed by the highest drivers in points moving on.  After another points reset, those 8 compete in the “Eliminator Round” in Chase races 7-9 to cut the field to 4, with race winners and at least 1 highest points earner advancing to the “Sprint Cup Championship” at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Chase race 10.  That event will be a winner-take-all finale, with the highest finisher among those top 4 drivers taking home the championship.

Let’s start with the first 26 races; the “regular season”, if you will.  Winning a race will, in fact, almost guarantee a spot in the chase, as the 16 spots will go to up to 16 race winners and (if there aren’t 16 race winners) the highest remaining drivers in points.  By the way, drivers do have to attempt to qualify for all 26 events and remain in the top 30 in points to be eligible.  While France said part of the reason for the changes is to somewhat eliminate points racing (and instead make everyone race for wins), there will still be some points racing most years for the final spot or so, depending on how many winners there are.  Only twice has there been more than 15 winners over the first 26 races of a NASCAR season (and only once in the “Modern Era”), so it is very likely there will still be some points racing going on at Richmond in September.  One scenario flatters me, however:  it is theoretically possible for, if there are 16 or more winners, a driver to finish 2nd in every race from Daytona to Richmond and not qualify for the Chase.  Whatever happened to consistency being such a big deal?  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch all failed to win races last year, and Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Jamie McMurray all failed to win in the first 26 events before winning during the Chase, so its possible some very good drivers who have solid consistent seasons will be on the outside of the Chase (although there were only 11 eligible race winners during the first 26 races, so all of those except McMurray would have qualified; I’m just using those names to say “what if”).  Even still, I find it hard to believe that if the 30th place driver has a win at, say, Talladega, that he’s more qualified to compete for a championship than my hypothetical driver who finished 2nd every week?  I sure don’t think so.

One aspect of the regular season I question is the fact that the winner of the Daytona 500 is very likely to qualify for the Chase, having that assurance several months in advance.  If a driver wins 2 races early, they are a mathematical lock into the Chase.  I don’t know that its right for a team to be locked in after, potentially, 2 races.  That’s practically the equivalent of a team leading the division standings at the end of April to be locked in to the MLB playoffs in October, a theory that wouldn’t be reasonable for the game of baseball.

While in the Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator Rounds winning will automatically advance a driver to the next round, there will still be points racing to fill the rest of the spots.  In some ways, I don’t think the racing during those rounds will be much different, from the perspective of the drivers or the fans, other than the fact there are 3 “elimination races”.  And what’s with these names of the rounds?  Just say the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (or Semifinal) rounds of the Chase (or playoffs, or raceoffs), like every other sport.

One aspect of this system that will certainly create excitement is the winner-take-all finale.   The highest finishing driver out of the 4 still alive for the championship at the Homestead race in November will be crowned the champion.  These will be 4 drivers running well leading up to the finale, so there’s a good chance that highest finisher will be the winner of the race.  France said that simplicity, particularly for the sport’s casual fans, was important, which is why, as he put it, it was important that the last race was not a math contest, but instead was as simple as possible.  It is theoretically possible a driver could finish down in the 30-somethings and still win the title if all 4 drivers have problems, although, as France mentioned, that’s possible now.  Another possible scenario is something unusual deciding the title, such as fuel mileage.  However, I remind you of the last race in 1992, when Alan Kulwicki risked running out of gas with about 20 laps to go to stay out front and lead one more lap than Bill Elliott to get the bonus points for leading the most laps and win the title.  And that happened after a 29-race points battle, much less a one-off championship event.  (They only ran 29 races back then, and had no Chase.)

As I said, France mentioned the importance of simplicity.  And while it will be simpler to understand the championship battle during the last race, I don’t think it will be during the first 35, and particularly during the first 9 races of the Chase.  Multiple points resets, and some drivers being locked in each week while others are points racing in the final race of a given round, will likely lead to some confusion among fans, particularly those casual fans who don’t watch every lap of every race.  Also, having one set of circumstances for the first 26 races, another set for each round of 3 races, and another set for the finale will likely lead to confusion as fans (and possibly even drivers or the media) get mixed up over what rules and criteria apply for each round.  The explanation of the new system on the NASCAR news site jayski.com was nearly a thousand words long, whereas one could explain the old system in a much more efficient way.  And, by the way, I got into NASCAR at a very young age.  At that time, I could understand the points system, even with the mind of a young child, because it was a year-long, cumulative battle.  Even the original Chase format we’ve used for the last 10 years (in several variations) could make sense to a young child, even if it took a little explanation.  Try explaining this system to a 5-year old and see if they understand it.  Odds are they won’t.

This post may sound like I’m totally against this system, but that’s actually not true.  While there’s certainly bits and pieces of the system about which I’m skeptical at best, the overall concept of a “tournament”, if you will, and a winner-take-all final race will certainly bring excitement at the end of the season, and perhaps draw more fans to the racetrack and to their TVs.  I’m all for anything to spread the sport of racing, just as I am with the other sports I follow and write about (baseball, football, golf, college basketball).  While I won’t give the system a 10 out of 10 rating, a 5 is about right, because (as I mentioned) I am intrigued by the concept but have a few reservations about certain aspects of the overall format rules.

Another positive about this system is that races in the spring may be made more exciting by more aggressive racing, as drivers try to punch their ticket to the Chase while they have a chance.  In the past, while each of the first 26 races have been important, the overall importance was on points, or “the big picture” as many drivers and crew chiefs call it.  Finishing 2nd was a “good points day”.  And while that will still be true, there will be so much stock in winning that drivers will surely be more aggressive in going for wins so that “good points days” don’t matter since they’ve won a race or races.  I use races in the spring as an example, because in the past, after a 2nd place finish in a March race, a driver’s mindset may have been “There’s still plenty of time for me to get more good finishes and qualify for the Chase in the top 10 in points or the wild card.”  Now, that may change to “that may have been my best shot to win, and I just lost that chance.”

Many will say it wouldn’t be fair for a driver to be dominant all season, only to have a tire problem, or a mechanical or engine failure at Homestead and lose the title.  But many people probably said the same thing about the original Chase format 10 years ago.  And besides NASCAR’s fan base swings a little conservative (let’s be honest), so change isn’t necessarily popular anyway.  But consider this about that dominant driver scenario I just mentioned:  in the NFL, a team could go 16-0, and lose in the first round of the playoffs.  In MLB, a team could win their division by 30 games and be swept in the first round of the playoffs.  In college basketball, a 31-1 powerhouse 1-seed will eventually lose to a 17-15 small school 16-seed in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament (and if you don’t believe a 16 will ever beat a 1, choose one of the 7 instances of a 15 beating a 2 to make your argument).  Having to win in the playoffs to validate a great regular season and win a championship is part of sports, across the board.  So from that big picture perspective, seeing NASCAR as one of a number of American sports, this isn’t much different than the playoffs we all love in every other sport (there’s even one in college football starting this year, finally).

Regardless, the news of the day, which shifted a little attention to NASCAR and away from the Super Bowl, at least for a few minutes, reminded us that the NASCAR season is just around the corner.  The Daytona 500 is in just 24 days, and there will be cars on the track at Daytona in just 15 days.  And from a purely points perspective, due to the new rules this will be the biggest Daytona 500 ever, as the winner will be almost guaranteed to have punched their ticket to the “Chase Grid”.

For further reading, go to  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2014/1/30/nascar-announces-changes-to-chase-for-the-nascar-sprint-cup-format.html

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