Monday, December 28, 2015

Goals and dreams for the new year

As 2015 winds down to its last remaining days, I wanted to say a few things regarding what this blog has meant to me and how I hope to carry it forward into 2016 and beyond.
If you haven't heard my story before, I am a former employee of a small daily paper in the southwest corner of Utah who struck out on his own in June in search of his next big adventure when new powers that be came into the place and basically gutted everything.
If you had real talent and a passion for auto racing like I did, it didn't matter to them. If it wasn't getting clicks -- and I can say with dang straight certainty several of my pieces had clicks in the hundreds -- just shut it down.
Well, I decided that 10-plus years of relationships that had already been well-established weren't going to be shut down on my watch. It's all about moving forward, not three steps backward.
I am employed on a part-time basis by the community weekly in my hometown, and they have been a wonderful backbone of support in allowing me to continue writing about auto racing, a sport I love to cover and have gotten pretty good at.
And I know the audience in my home state is there -- from north or south. Just check the infield parking lot at Las Vegas in March and you'll see plenty of Utah plates on the motor homes and RVs.
This blog was born -- actually an extension from what I had produced in print and online at the old place -- in June, and this is the 58th piece I've produced, an average of around 12 per month.
Some have resonated with you more than others, but all have drawn a consistent audience. I'd love if the audience were bigger, but around 2,500 total page views in the space of those posts isn't half bad for starting from scratch.
I know I can do more, though. I'd love a little bit of help.
I've appeared on the radio in multiple venues to talk up racing with great people. I was a weekly regular on Racing Fan Radio out of Salt Lake City on 1320 KFAN for nearly 15 months and still appear on the air occasionally. I was a guest on Press Pass on SiriusXM with PRN's Mark Garrow and my friend and colleague Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports three weeks ago.
That's a national audience -- seriously cool stuff.
I've appeared on the Happy Hour Garage podcast -- -- with friends Shannon Yochim and Maureen Kelly, and that feels like another good, logical step to help me continue building a brand as a member of the motor sports media.
The first essential need is some good podcasting equipment. I've learned that recording each show with no distractions or background noise is essential to the quality of the work, too.
I can work on the show details as each week comes -- journalists are masters of planning on the fly -- but don't want to break the bank in getting the show off the ground.
Any advice or knowledge is more than welcome. You can share with me on my Twitter, which will display at the end of this post.
As for the immediate future, I'm going to enjoy the offseason and let 2016 slide into place. I'll be around and return to full-on posting here as warranted through January, then hit the ground blazing as racing at the Daytona 500 gets closer.
Thank you all for reading this blog. I hope you and yours have an awesome, speed-filled season in 2016.
Followers and comments are more than welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Surprise for Gordon caps memorable night at Sprint Cup awards

For the seventh straight year, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion’s Week celebration happened in various locations around Las Vegas, from the FanFest on Fremont Street in the downtown area to the official crowning of Kyle Busch as the 2015 champion Dec. 4 at the Wynn Hotel and Casino resort.

I was blessed beyond measure to bring the moments from Champion’s Week to everything from social media to radio, and now to print for an inside look at my favorites, starting with the NMPA Myers Brothers Awards luncheon. It’s why making the trip, even on my own dime, is worth it every single time.
-Busch was given a 24-carat gold 1/12th diecast model of his No. 18 M&Ms Toyota Camry. He gave credit to tire provider Goodyear, saying “it was a lot of fun to burn up and rip apart tires on the way to the checkered flag.”
Then came William Clement, who accepted the Champion Sponsor Award for the Mars candy company, primary sponsor for Busch.
After looking at the gold car for a moment, Clement turned toward the audience and said “the only thing better than one of those cars in gold is one made out of chocolate.”
Love the synergy that comes from something like that.
-One of the better underdog stories of the year came with Martin Truex Jr., who drives for the Furniture Row Racing team based out of Denver. Truex finished fourth in the final standings and spoke of how girlfriend Sherry Pollex’s fight against ovarian cancer shaped his attitude.
“With her determination, her fight and her spirit, she never let (her illness) get her down,” he said. “She never asked ‘why me?,’ never had a pity party. It was all about ‘what do I gotta do to beat this? I learned a lot from her that I was able to translate into making this season a successful one. Having a positive mental attitude is very important, and watching her go through what she did the way she did really helped me with that.”
-The red-carpet arrivals for the ceremony to honor Busch were loaded with celebrities, from show host Drew Carey (“The Price is Right”) to Sabrina Carpenter (“Girl Meets World”), Rachel Platten (who closed the show in awesome fashion with her hit “Fight Song.”) and even the red and yellow M&Ms characters.
Best wardrobe choice of the night belonged to Rutledge Wood of NBC Sports Network, who handled the pre-show interviews dressed in a red plaid suit with black-and-gold trim. It looked like something crossed between Bobby Knight’s 1970s wardrobe when he coached at Indiana to a test pattern on a TV screen.
I laughed openly when I got my first look at it, and that’s not a bad thing.
-As for the ceremony itself, the top 16 finishers from the Chase were all there except for Denny Hamlin, who is recovering from surgery. The favorite early highlight came from Clint Bowyer, who finished 16th.
“I’ve never finished last at anything in my life,” Bowyer lamented half-heartedly, calling the trophy a “participation award.”
When asked what he thought the family reaction would be like, good-natured humor was on the agenda.
“Even grandma’s gonna give me grief for this,” Bowyer said with a chuckle.
-Several Green Bay Packers fans are in the NASCAR garage, including Wisconsin natives Paul Menard and Matt Kenseth. As a Michigan native, Brad Keselowski counts himself – albeit quietly (a good call, by the way) as a Detroit Lions fan.
Following the Packers’ Hail Mary miracle on the final play Thursday night that beat the Lions, Kenseth related his reaction to it.
“I was looking at my phone and saw double-zero on the clock and thought the Lions had won,” Kenseth said. “My wife (Katie) came up to me and said ‘you know the Packers actually won, right?’”
Of course, Kenseth got to see the winning play soon after.
As for Keselowski, he described how he couldn’t find the CBS station that carried the game on the TV in his hotel room until he saw the fateful play.
“It was my fault,” he joked about the Lions’ loss.
-But clearly the biggest moment that made this ceremony so special came with the surprise introduction of Jeff Gordon by none other than actor Tom Cruise, who starred in a little racing movie in 1990 called “Days of Thunder,” two full years before Gordon had his first Sprint Cup start.
It was a moment to relish and savor. All that was needed was to see the tears in Gordon’s eyes and the genuine emotion that poured out in his speech.
At that point, the reality of the end of a sensational 23-year NASCAR Sprint Cup driving career settled in. We’ll always have Gordon’s 93 career wins – third on the all-time list – and four championships, but I got so much more from his work in the long-term.
There’s passion and joy that comes from bringing racing to readers each week. Racers like Gordon have helped make my passion come to life, and saying “thank you” for an amazing adventure in simple words isn’t nearly enough.
I may be writing in a small town for a publication that prints only once a week, but I know my heart for motor sports is in the right place every single day.
Thanks, Jeff. #24ever.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Busch wins crown, Gordon exits with class

An era ended in NASCAR racing Nov. 22. Jeff Gordon, the man of 93 Sprint Cup victories, four titles, and a whole lot of moments that helped the sport blow up in stature nationwide, was among the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
A fifth title was out there for the taking. All Gordon had to do was finish ahead of his three challengers – regardless of where they were in the running order – and close his career with the perfect ending.
Kyle Busch crashed the party and rewrote the script.
Despite missing nearly one-third of the season – 11 of the 36 races – Busch came through and won both the Ford EcoBoost 400 and his first NASCAR Sprint Cup crown. Adding to the history, it was the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing.
Oh, where to begin to figure out what it all means.
Gordon ended up sixth in his final race of a 22-year career, third among the final four that mattered behind Busch and Kevin Harvick. As he exited the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet for the final time, there were plenty of hugs and smiles to go around.
Harvick was going for a championship repeat himself, but had no chance of catching Busch on the final restart with seven laps to go. That’s how good the 18 car was when it counted.
As for the fourth contender, Martin Truex Jr. gave it his all, but didn’t have nearly enough to challenge. He led some laps, but finished 12th in the final running order at Homestead.
So through all the controversy, all the craziness, and all the questions, how Busch pulled the feat off was nothing short of remarkable.
 First and most important, Busch had to heal from his nasty injury in the season-opening XFINITY race at Daytona. There was doubt about when he could return from broken bones in his leg and ankle for the longest time.
The rules for his return were simple and very fair. Win a race AND have enough points to get into the top 30 to qualify for the Chase.
Busch was back in time for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to kick the comeback in motion. Five races later, he met the first requirement, winning on the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
That was the easy part. Picking up enough points was to be much harder.
Funny how more winning helped accelerate the charge to the goal.
Busch’s win at Sonoma started a run of four victories in five weeks. He still didn’t have enough points to get in the top 30, but it certainly helped.
After his seventh-place run at Darlington, Busch was officially in the Chase.
In Year 2 of the 16-driver elimination format, I was genuinely skeptical about Busch’s Chase history, especially because he hadn’t won a race in the final 10 weeks of any season since his rookie year of 2005.
But it didn’t matter.
Other than a 37th at Loudon, Busch came through with finishes that mattered at the perfect times. His runs in the Eliminator round of Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: fifth, fourth and fourth.
On the final Sunday of a crazy NASCAR season, Busch won when it counted and he has his own Sprint Cup trophy. With Kurt Busch’s title in 2004, Kyle cemented the second pair of brothers in NASCAR history as season champions, joining Terry (1984, 1996) and Bobby Labonte (2000).
Maybe being a new father made him mellower, but Busch’s performance in 2015 proved one thing. Staying focused on the journey and avoiding distractions makes the final destination that much sweeter.

Tom Zulewski will be writing one more column from Las Vegas at the Champion’s Week celebration to honor Kyle Busch on Dec. 4. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ford EcoBoost 400 race lineup

Happy race weekend, everyone. Nothing much to say here except the link for the starting order for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway can be found here. Starting positions for the Championship 4: 3rd, 5th, 11th and 13th. Check the link to see who will be where.

Now comes the hard part...saying a few prayers that we get a full 267 laps in. It would be the worst feeling ever if the season champion under the Chase bubble is decided by one race that didn't go the full distance.
Yes, it would be awful, but the rule is there. As long as the race goes halfway (134 laps in this case), it becomes official. But if NASCAR remembers how Daytona went down in July (the race didn't finish until almost 3 a.m. at the track), the fans are owed at least that much for all the chaos and craziness of the last four weeks.
I'll talk more about it once the weekend wraps up, but congratulations to Erik Jones for winning the Camping World Truck Series title at 19 years old. Props to Matt Crafton as well for winning his sixth race of 2015 despite being eliminated from a chance at the three-peat last week at Phoenix.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Random thoughts and notes heading to Homestead

In the five months since this blog was born, I've focused mostly on the racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. As much as I wanted to avoid information overload, there are three different championships set to be decided starting Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

First up, as always, is the Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). Matt Crafton took himself out of the chase for a three-peat with a 23rd-place finish at Phoenix, his second bad run in four weeks (24th at Talladega). As a result, a five-win season will fall short of the big prize.
That means the race for the title is down to Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick, who fall short of Crafton in age combined (both drivers are 19, Crafton is 39), but not in experience. Jones has three wins on the season (Iowa, Canadian Tire, Texas 2), while Reddick has two (Daytona, Dover). It will take a pretty big collapse for Jones to surrender the crown as he enjoys a 19-point lead on Reddick heading to Friday night.
As long as Jones doesn't mess up and keeps his finish out of the 20s, he'll be the champ. Reddick has some seriously long odds. After finishing 23rd at Gateway 14 races ago, Jones has been in the top 10 ever since.
That's called getting it done.
On the XFINITY side Saturday for the Ford EcoBoost 300 (2:45 p.m. ET, NBC), the situation is similar for points leader Chris Buescher. All he has to do is stay clean and he'll unseat defending champion Chase Elliott.
Right now, Buescher's margin over Elliott is 18 points. The native Texan has two wins on the year (Iowa 1, Dover 1) and hasn't finished worse than 20th (Richmond 1) all season. Like Reddick, Elliott's odds of claiming his second series crown before heading to Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car at Hendrick Motorsports are very long.
Over the last 10 XFINITY races (Road America), Elliott's average finish is 8.5. That's impressive, but in the same stretch, Buescher's average is 7.4. For a Roush Fenway Racing camp that's been struggling on the Sprint Cup side for a couple of years, the effort by Buescher is a big-time feather in the cap and provides some hope for the future.
And on the NHRA side, the remaining series champions were crowned last weekend in Pomona, Calif. Del Worsham held off Jack Beckman to win the Funny Car title, and Andrew Hines grabbed the crown in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Worsham's feat was historic in that he became only the third driver to win titles in both Funny Car and Top Fuel (Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi). Worsham won the Top Fuel crown in 2011.
Hines clinched his crown by reaching the semifinals before teammate Eddie Krawiec beat him. Krawiec went on to beat Matt Smith in the final and win the event.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rain finalizes Championship Four

After trying for more than nine hours to finish the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday night, the rain ended up cutting the 312-lap race short and giving the victory to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
More importantly, the three drivers who will join Jeff Gordon and race for the 2015 Sprint Cup title next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway were set. Joy was abundant in several camps, disappointment was strong in others.

Even though Mother Nature had the final say after 219 laps were completed on the 1-mile oval at Phoenix, the story lines for the championship battle in South Florida are already in abundance.
The biggest one of all belongs to Gordon. Stuck on four championships since 2001, the California-born driver, who came in sixth Sunday, was heading toward the twilight of a 22-year career looking like he’d finish with 92 career wins.
Then came Martinsville and Matt Kenseth’s knockout of Joey Logano. Gordon ended up being the unlikely beneficiary of the on-track feud and earned his chance at a fifth crown by winning the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 two weeks ago.
Gordon’s 93rd checkered flag closed the books on an amazing career stat. The driver of the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports had only three winless seasons – his rookie year of 1993, 2008 and 2010. He won at Homestead in 2012.
Kevin Harvick had been invincible at Phoenix with four wins in a row, but the rain derailed his bid for another victory despite leading 143 of the 219 laps. His runner-up finish was good enough to keep his dream of repeating as champion alive as he topped the points for the Eliminator round.
When Harvick won his title a year ago, he won at Homestead. As long as he finishes ahead of his challengers, no matter where it is, he’ll hold the big trophy again.
The third driver in the Championship 4 took the most amazing road of them all. Kyle Busch was on the shelf for the first 11 races of the season, but met all of the requirements to get in the Chase, winning four times.
Busch still hasn’t won a Chase race since his rookie year of 2005, but that doesn’t matter now. He was steady throughout the three rounds and is on the edge of matching big brother Kurt with a Sprint Cup trophy.
Other than a 37th-place finish at New Hampshire, Busch was in the top 10 in six of eight Chase races, including fourth at Phoenix to finish two points behind Harvick. He has three top-10 finishes at Homestead in 10 career starts, but the average of the rest is 30.2.
The last member of the quartet that will run for the title is Martin Truex Jr., who is the lone driver of the little team that could, Furniture Row Racing out of Denver. Truex won at Pocono in June to make the Chase and advanced to Homestead by doing all necessary rain dances and beating out Carl Edwards by just five points for the last transfer spot.
Truex was consistent throughout each Chase round, with his worst run a 15th at Kansas.
As his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex said on her Twitter account (@SherryPollex), it’s the stuff dreams are made of.
And big dreams are knocking on the door. One 267-lap race is left and has one goal. Finish ahead of your challengers, call yourself a Sprint Cup champion.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Homestead-Miami Speedway (1.5-mile superspeedway), Homestead, Florida.
-SPRINT CUP: Ford EcoBoost 400, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 300, Saturday, 2:45 p.m. ET/11:45 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps
2014 champion: Matt Kenseth
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 200, Friday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 201 miles, 134 laps.
2014 champion: Darrell Wallace Jr.
We'll take a look at the fight for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series titles in the next two posts, so be on the lookout.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Johnson keeps up roll, on point at Phoenix

As we get ready for the penultimate race of the 2015 NASCAR season, the black flag award goes to my local newspaper again. Upon opening today's sports section, there was no race lineup to be found anywhere.
And the sad part is there are only two races left to run. A champion is going to be crowned next weekend at Homestead.
For the race fan in all of us, a checkered flag goes to Jimmie Johnson for following up his run of success from last week at Texas with a pole run for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International/Jeff Gordon Raceway.
While Johnson looks for another win, those players looking to join Gordon to run for the title at Homestead all have good starting positions.
-Kurt Busch is in must-win mode. He'll start with Johnson on the outside front row.
-Carl Edwards is only seven points behind Martin Truex Jr., who holds the last transfer spot to Homestead. He'll start fourth Sunday.
-Truex Jr. is basically in control of his own destiny, which is a good feeling to have. He starts fifth at Phoenix.
-After missing out on a win last week at Texas despite leading nearly all the laps, Brad Keselowski is also in serious must-win mode. The Miller Lite Ford Fusion goes off from 18th on Sunday.
-Kevin Harvick is also in control of his fate and has the resume at Phoenix to come in with extreme confidence. He'll be looking for his fifth straight win at PIR and sixth in the last seven trips from the No. 8 starting spot.
-Kyle Busch still hasn't won a Chase race since 2005, but he's the clubhouse leader for Homestead as they head to Sunday. The No. 18 M&Ms Crispy Toyota starts 10th at Phoenix.
-And then there's Joey Logano, who's gone from one extreme to the other. After getting taken out by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville, bad karma bit him in the backside after a blown tire led to a 40th-place finish at Texas. Logano starts 14th at Phoenix and absolutely needs to win to get to Homestead.
Here's a link with how all 43 cars will line up for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 on Sunday

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Johnson wins at Texas, shakes up Chase

After all the chaos from a crazy week of NASCAR discussion, from so-called “driver codes” to debate over Matt Kenseth’s two-race suspension, Sunday finally arrived and a key race happened at Texas Motor Speedway.
Brad Keselowski looked like he’d be a lock to join Jeff Gordon in the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading 312 of 334 laps in the AAA Texas 500. There was one small problem at the end, though.

Jimmie Johnson made sure Keselowski didn’t lead the last one.
Johnson bided his time after a restart, survived several block attempts, and took the lead from Keselowski with four laps to go to win at Texas, his 75th Sprint Cup victory. The effects were felt far and wide for Keselowski, who now finds himself on the outside looking in instead of getting ready to race at Homestead for his second championship in four seasons.
Keselowski is 19 points behind Martin Truex Jr., who holds the last coveted transfer spot to be in the Championship 4. His Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano – the man who initiated all the hubbub and discussion after getting wrecked by Kenseth at Martinsville last week – had a far worse day, blowing out a left-rear tire nine laps in, wrecking and finishing 40th.
With only next week’s race at Phoenix left to settle the quartet who will run for the championship, the mission is crystal-clear for Keselowski and Logano.
Win on the 1-mile oval in the desert or watch title aspirations disappear. And the odds of either one getting it at Phoenix are long, mainly because Kevin Harvick has won four in a row and five of the last six there.
As I sifted through the radio chatter, social media ranting, and general white noise over the Logano vs. Kenseth incident, two very large thoughts popped into my head.
First, there were still 47 laps left at Martinsville when Logano’s No. 22 car was deposited into the Turn 4 wall by Kenseth. Logano had led 207 laps up to that point, but Jeff Gordon had a strong car that was better on longer runs.
It was far from a lock that Logano would have gotten to Victory Lane if Kenseth didn’t get to him first, which he did.
Second, NASCAR’s punishment of Kenseth wasn’t surprising, yet left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Logano took out Kenseth as both drivers were racing for a win at Kansas, and Kenseth was none too pleased, calling the 25-year-old a “liar” when Logano was quoted as saying he didn’t wreck him on purpose.
NASCAR chairman Brian France weighed in and said he didn’t see any problems with that incident, calling it “quintessential NASCAR” on the “SiriusXM Speedway” show the day after it happened.
Fast forward to Kenseth’s revenge, and the reactions from the big bosses did a flip-flop of sorts, depending on which side of the fence the fans felt was theirs to take.
But there was one major difference in Kenseth’s approach at Martinsville. He was nowhere near in contention for a victory, so NASCAR had no real choice but to hand down the punishment it did.
Kenseth had a right to feel the way he did after what happened at Kansas. He went from a realistic shot at a victory – something NASCAR put a premium on with the revised version of the Chase – to getting eliminated from contention at Talladega the following week.
But his takeout of Logano at Martinsville stepped far over the line of competition and moved into the “eye-for-an-eye” category.
You take me out? That’s fine. But I’ll make darn sure you don’t get a title shot yourself, no matter where I’m at in the running order.
Consequences be damned, I guess.
With Logano’s misfortune at Texas, it was the final capper to one of the sadder stories in recent NASCAR history. The sport has been losing fans at the track and on television, and wild-west style justice incidents haven’t helped.
It’s about time someone took a stand for sanity. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat like this ever again.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile oval), Avondale, Arizona.
-SPRINT CUP: Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 kilometers (312 miles), 312 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: DAV 200, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Lucas Oil 150, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 150 miles, 150 laps.
2014 champion: Erik Jones
Side note on the NCWTS race: Jones has his championship fate firmly in his own hands. He leads two-time defending champion Matt Crafton by 17 points and Tyler Reddick by 21 heading to Phoenix.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Keselowski on Texas pole, Logano near front

After all the hype and discussion from the controversy surrounding the dust-up between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth at Martinsville last week, we can thankfully return our thoughts to racing.
And when the dust finally settled, Logano looks like he's clearly moved on. He's qualified fourth for Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, and Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski is on the pole.
As for last week's winner (read: beneficiary of the Logano-Kenseth feud), Jeff Gordon starts 18th.
Here is your race lineup in full. Will Logano win? Even with the difficulty from last week, I think this is his best shot. As long as he wins, the fussing and fighting among NASCAR Nation will probably continue.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Kenseth suspension worth the effort?

We had to wait a bit longer than normal for NASCAR's penalty police to hand down the punishment for Matt Kenseth after his blatant, deliberate wreck of race leader Joey Logano on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
The verdict is in, and Kenseth has been sent to the sidelines for the next two races. No Texas. No Phoenix. A definite disruption in the force of what had been a pretty special playoff format that's leaving more questions behind with every incident, on-track or off.
It isn't hard to figure out why it happened. Three weeks ago at Kansas, Logano turned Kenseth sideways in the closing laps and won the race. Kenseth didn't advance after the Contender round and was seething over what happened.
Kenseth called Logano a "liar" at one point over description of the Kansas incident. On Sunday, the 2003 champion got his revenge.
But what was the real cost? According to the rules, Logano still has two more shots to advance to the four-driver championship fight at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He'll probably need a win at Texas or Phoenix, but he was going for four in a row before Kenseth got to him and took him for a ride into the wall at NASCAR's shortest track.
What's to stop Logano from getting right back on the bump and getting to Victory Lane again? Only one person -- Joey himself.
Some of my media brethren have written and discussed how NASCAR is starting to blur the dividing line between sport and entertainment. Kyle Petty called the Kenseth-Logano incident "a black eye" for the sport.
It was a punch that certainly wobbled the character a bit, but the fans are talking about it. Many vow to never return to buying tickets or watching the races on TV, but they certainly know how to vent on social media.
And there are just as many, if not more, who would give Kenseth a pat on the back in appreciation if they could. Yes, NASCAR had to hand down some sort of punishment over what happened. It would have been absolutely insane if they let him off with a fine and no suspension.
Unlike at Kansas, Kenseth was multiple laps down at Martinsville after getting tangled with Brad Keselowski, Logano's teammate. He had intent to take out Logano and did so. Justice served, racer style.
Here's one last thought. If "boys have at it" is the operating mantra for NASCAR, drivers need to quit complaining when incidents like the ones at Martinsville happen.
It may be the "wild, wild West," as Denny Hamlin described, but it beats the alternative.
If Logano can win either of the next two races and get his title shot again at Homestead, it will only prove one thing. Tough times don't last. Tough racers always do, and Logano can fit that bill perfectly in the days to come.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A crazy day in motor sports

As I sit waiting for the NHRA Toyota Nationals to run the final rounds of the four pro classes at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the emotions ride all of the extremes, from celebration to confusion to occasional bouts of irritation.
The celebration is the easy part. For the first time in NHRA's Countdown era, Las Vegas has crowned two champions a full race early. If there's one word to describe what Erica Enders-Stevens has done, the choice is easy.

Simply amazing. Oh, wait...that's two words, but a lot more superlatives would be just as appropriate.
When fans of straight-line racing talk about the greats of the NHRA, Shirley Muldowney is one of the first women who come to mind. She won three Top Fuel titles in 1977, 1980 and 1982.
Even better and a bit more recent, Angelle Sampey ruled Pro Stock Motorcycle three straight years, from 2000 to 2002.
What Enders-Stevens has done takes special to another level.
When she broke through for her first Pro Stock car title last year, the 32-year-old Texan had to sit out two races during the Western Swing as her race team had difficulty securing sponsorship. In spite of that, she somehow found a way to get past Jason Line at the Pomona final and grab the Golden Wally trophy.
As she told me at the pre-race press lunch in Las Vegas on Thursday, finding sponsorship is still a challenge, but a full season at Elite Motorsports with multiple teammates has made a difference. Enders-Stevens has nine event wins on the season and has absolutely demoralized the competition at Las Vegas with four straight event wins to go with 22 round wins in a row.
When your season is only 24 races long, that's called serious world domination.
NASCAR's only big deal among female racers is Danica Patrick. She's a marketer's dream, but hasn't produced much in the way of winning on the track. Jennifer Jo Cobb hasn't gone much beyond the Camping World Truck Series and hasn't won, either.
But the NHRA has multiple ladies who've been successful in addition to Enders-Stevens, who has 21 career victories. Alexis DeJoria has three Funny Car career wins, Courtney Force has eight wins and some famous family in father and 16-time champion John Force, while sister Brittany has been to six final rounds in her budding career.
Living proof that when it comes to drag racing, the girl power is far greater.
And to put a bow on the madness, Jeff Gordon won't be shut out of the win column in his final season after all. It came with help from the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano feud that officially reached the boiling point.
With 47 laps to go in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Kenseth -- driving a car that was far from competitive -- ran down Logano and ran him into the wall, effectively ruining his day and a free pass for the 22 into the final at Homestead in three weeks.
But while the social media universe has thrown out every bit of ugliness known to man, there's one fact that can't be ignored. Unless NASCAR parks Kenseth for next week's race at Texas, the battle is far from over. It's become personal instead of professional, and that's a shame.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Fort Worth, Texas
-SPRINT CUP: AAA Texas 500, Sunday, 2 p.m  ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 501 miles, 334 laps
2014 champion: Jimmie Johnson
-XFINITY SERIES: O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps
2014 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Winstar World Casino 350, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 350 kilometers (219 miles), 146 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Logano sweeps Contender races amid controversy

As the 500 unfolded Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, there were more than enough good storylines to get and keep fan interest.

We knew four more drivers would see their Sprint Cup title dreams come crashing to an end. We knew the so-called Big One could happen at any time with all of the inches-apart, three- and four-wide pack racing that happens on NASCAR’s biggest track that measures 2.66 miles around.
At first, there was the serious prospect that the 188-lap race would be run completely caution-free, but that thought was dashed when Justin Allgaier lost his engine at lap 132. When the only other yellow flag flew, all insanity broke loose.
And Halloween is still a few days away. Then again, what followed in the closing laps was crazy and chaotic all by itself.
That is, before defending champion Kevin Harvick got involved.
The race’s second caution came out at lap 185 when Jamie McMurray lost his engine and forced a green-white-checkered finish, the only attempt NASCAR would allow. As USA Today motor sports writer Jeff Gluck wrote, the finish became “simply a colossal embarrassment.”
It all started when, on the first restart attempt, an 11-car group at the middle of the pack got tangled before the leaders crossed the starting line.
On the second try at the first restart, Harvick, who had an engine that was basically on its last legs, turned into Trevor Bayne and caused a wreck that handed the victory to Logano over Dale Earnhardt Jr., completing a sweep of the three Contender round races.
At a track where son and his late father combined for 16 wins, including Junior’s most recent one in May, the fans in attendance were none too pleased – along with several drivers – at the end result.
With the field frozen at the point of the wreck, Harvick finished 15th to keep his chances to repeat alive. Harvick finished six points ahead of Ryan Newman, who was eliminated at Talladega along with Kenseth, Dale Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Kenseth, Hamlin, and Bayne did plenty to express their disgust at the outcome.
“What a joke we have a car with no motor wreck the field to end the race,” Hamlin tweeted afterward. “Complete crap. Sorry to anyone who spent $ coming to this circus.”
Kenseth doesn’t do Twitter, but he had plenty to say about Harvick’s intent.
“He clipped him and caused a wreck because he knew he’d make the (next round of the) Chase that way,” Kenseth said in the USA Today story.
The winner of five races in 2015 told USA Today’s Mike Hembree the closing laps “wasn’t really racing to be honest with you. It was just a bunch of games going on.”
Bayne added his thoughts this way: “That’s a crappy way for Harvick to have to get in the Chase, is to wreck somebody -- what I believe to be on purpose.”
NASCAR didn’t think so, at least not yet, following a video review by officials.
“We don’t see anything there that is suspect so far,” NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said.
Enter those fantastic key words: So far. Could there be more to come on this? Will any new evidence come to light that restores some happy vibes to a race that turned memorable for nothing but ugly reasons?
As the Chase heads to the final round over the next three weeks at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, only fortune tellers may know for sure.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval), Martinsville, Virginia
-SPRINT CUP: Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger, Sunday, 1:15 p.m. ET/10:15 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.
2014 champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Kroger 200, 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 laps, 105.2 miles.
2014 champion: Darrell Wallace Jr.
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until Nov. 7 for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Logano takes out Kenseth, wins at Kansas

He didn’t have anything to lose after his win last week at Charlotte, but Joey Logano wasn’t about to lie down for anyone as he raced for another victory in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth, in desperate search of anything resembling a shred of momentum and title-chasing hopes, found out what that meant in the closing laps around the 1.5-mile oval.

Logano pulled off the bump-and-run on Kenseth with five laps to go to take the lead and held on in a green-white-checkered finish to pick up his second straight win and give the remaining drivers in the Contender round of the Chase plenty to think about with the next elimination on deck Oct. 25 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The proof is clearly in the points. After Logano, only seven more drivers will keep championship hope alive, and second through 10th place is separated by a total of 20 points.
That will make Talladega – already an unpredictable wild-card when the Chase isn’t involved – a viewing and racing experience that will border on downright insane.
With Kansas in the rear-view mirror, Martin Truex Jr. would be the last driver to advance to the Eliminator round of the Chase. He has a six-point cushion on Kyle Busch and is eight points ahead of Ryan Newman.
And on the flip side of the coin, Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. may want to get advice from Kevin Harvick on how to win when their backs are clearly against the wall.
Kenseth may have gone from leading 153 of the 267 laps to finishing a decent 14th, but it wasn’t nearly good enough to counter last week’s 42nd-place showing at Charlotte. He’s in 12th, 35 points behind Truex Jr.
Directly in front of Kenseth sits Dale Jr. at 31 points behind the cutoff. He may have won the GEICO 500 at Talladega in May, but there’s no amount of looking at past film that can be done to figure out a way to win again. This race, the 500, is all about keeping the car in one piece and making moves toward the front at the right times. Those who do will continue on in the Chase, while the rest will be left to lament what might have been.
For those who love drag racing, the NHRA Toyota Nationals is on deck Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s the penultimate stop of the season to determine the 2015 champions in the four professional classes – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock car and Pro Stock motorcycle.
After the weekend’s action finished up at Texas Motorplex outside of Dallas, three champions could potentially be crowned in two weeks. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown enjoys a 132-point cushion over Tony Schumacher and in Pro Stock, defending champion Erica Enders-Stevens leads Greg Anderson by 154.
Enders-Stevens is not only closing in on another championship, she has ruled the day at Las Vegas with three straight event victories and an 18-round winning streak. At 20 points per round win to go with additional bonuses for qualifying position and setting new track records, don’t be surprised if Enders-Stevens exits Las Vegas with her second golden Wally championship trophy.
Brown may have the inside track on his second title in the last four seasons (2012), but Schumacher has a history of stealing thunder in shocking fashion as his eight championships in the category, including 2014, will attest.
Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle will have title fights that go down to the wire when the series hits the season finale at Pomona, Calif. on Nov. 12. Del Worsham, who won at Las Vegas last fall, also won at Texas over Jack Beckman in the final and increased his lead to 38 points.
In PSM, Andrew Hines probably breathed a sigh of relief after teammate Eddie Krawiec lost to Jerry Savoie in the final round at Texas. The end result means Hines, in search of a second straight championship, kept a 21-point lead heading to Las Vegas.
Jason Line (2012 in Pro Stock) and John Force (2013 in Funny Car) have won NHRA championship Wally trophies in the Countdown era at Las Vegas. If the current battles are any indication, it’s worth making the trek south in two weeks to see who may be next.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile D-shaped oval), Talladega, Ala.
-SPRINT CUP: 500, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 miles, 188 laps
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Fred's 250 presented by Coca-Cola, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 miles, 94 laps.
2014 champion: Timothy Peters.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Logano seizes day at Charlotte, advances in Chase

After all the rain that hit the area Saturday night, I got ready for the first day race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a very long time with one big expectation.
When the crew has to throw out all previous plans for the car and start over, all bets are off as to who has the best car. A completely different condition -- night to day...literally -- brought that feeling to the forefront of everyone's consciousness.

Joey Logano and his crew got the adjustments right and dominated the field to win the Bank of America 500 on Sunday afternoon to become the first to get the free pass to the Eliminator round, better known as the Elite Eight.
Logano and his crew were certainly elite in winning for the first time at Charlotte. The No. 22 was so good, Logano led 227 of the 334 laps. Only two other drivers led laps in double figures.
Matt Kenseth started from the pole and led 72 laps, but couldn't figure out how to avoid Ryan Newman and ended up 42nd. Sam Hornish Jr. led 22 laps, but most were during green-flag pit stop cycles as he finished 17th.
Knowing another four drivers will be denied their shot at the 2015 Sprint Cup title after Talladega in two weeks, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were none too pleased about their problems at Charlotte.
And it all involved oil on the high side of the track.
Busch (via Twitter): "You now, can’t pass anybody – single-lane race track and then you put oil on the top lane to try to make anything happen and then you put yourself in the fence, so thanks to NASCAR for cleaning that up, but just every single year it keeps going the same way.”
Busch finished 20th.
Dale Jr. backed up Busch's claims as strongly as he could, cleaned up a bit for publication:?
"We hit fluid and flew into the freakin' wall hard. That's not speed dry. I hit the wall, I know I hit oil.
"We all hit the wall. There was oil down there. It wasn't speedy dry. I've raced this (stuff) for 20-some years I know what oil is"
It's only one race, but at the same time, the pressure of trying to not only get through Talladega with the car in one piece in addition to quite possibly needing a victory to keep championship hope alive kicks up the pressure to the boiling point.
That is, for everyone except Logano. He can enjoy the racing experience at NASCAR's biggest, baddest track, even if his No. 22 Ford Fusion whacks a wall along the way.
That's the beauty of the Chase, though. One bad day can get turned around in a heartbeat, as Kevin Harvick certainly knows.
And as the Chase field dwindles to a precious few, winning will matter that much more over the next six weeks.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports. He'll have discussion this week on the upcoming NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kansas Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Kansas City, Kansas
-SPRINT CUP: Hollywood Casino 400, Sunday, 2:15 p.m. ET/11:15 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2014 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Kansas Lottery 300, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Oct. 24 for the Fred's 250 powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Kenseth wins Charlotte pole, JGR strong again

As the Contender round of the Chase begins, qualifying happened Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the final Saturday night race of the season, the Bank of America 500.
Once again, the Joe Gibbs cars were all strong and will start up front, led by Matt Kenseth on the pole. Kyle Busch -- who still hasn't won a Chase race since his rookie year in 2005 -- joins him onthe front row, Denny Hamlin starts fifth and Carl Edwards goes off from eighth.
Among the other notables in the 12 who are still alive for the Sprint Cup title, Jeff Gordon has the toughest challenge as he will start 22nd. Race winners don't come from outside the top 10 very often at Charlotte, but Brad Keselowski won the fall race at CMS from 23rd two years ago.
In fact, four of the last 10 winners have started from 15th or worse, so it really can happen. Just don't put any money down on it.
Your link to the full field for the Bank of America 500 can be found here. Thank you for checking in.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Random thoughts on the Contenders

As we hit the mid-week lull in the land of gear boxes and post-race inspections that are shown for the whole world to see online, I can't help but wonder how good this round of the Chase will be. Kevin Harvick is master of this domain, as was showcased at Dover on Sunday.
Harvick may have done his post-race burnout a little too excessively (said only by those who couldn't catch him in the race), but he did what he absolutely had to do to keep his vision of repeating alive.
With Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega on deck, here are a few more random musings on the chances of the Contender 12.
-Harvick: With his win at Dover -- after going 0-for-29 previously -- the title is his to lose. It will not matter if he's on the outside looking in when we get to Talladega.
-Matt Kenseth: Joined teammate Denny Hamlin as the other race winners of the Challenger round. Was fourth at Charlotte, sixth at Kansas and 25th at Talladega the first time around. Started on pole at CMS. With Talladega being such a terrible crap shoot to begin with, it's not a stretch to say a win in the next two races will take the heat off.
-Denny Hamlin: Was eighth at Charlotte, ninth at Talladega, but 41st at Kansas. As long as he gets things figured out at Kansas, he'll be fine. A win may not be necessary for him to advance.
-Carl Edwards: Had his 400th career start to open the Chase at Chicago, finished second to Hamlin. Won at Charlotte, but was 20th at Kansas and 32nd at Talladega. Any sort of a repeat on Round 2 is most definitely not an option.
-Kyle Busch: For all the hype of his four wins and getting into the Chase despite missing nearly half of the regular season, Busch nearly fell flat on his face. Somehow, he was able to advance with a runner-up finish at Dover. The final margin: One point...and it was complicated by Harvick's victory.
Busch's races in Round 1: 9th, 37th, second.
The first time at the tracks in Round 2: Only an 11th-place run at Charlotte, which was his first points race after the injury. In Busch's career, he's won exactly one Chase race, and that was all the way back in his rookie year at Phoenix in 2005.
Winning may be the only option that gets him through to the Eliminator round.
-Kurt Busch: Was third, 19th and 17th in Round 1, which was good enough -- by two points -- to get him to the next round.
In the first pass at the Round 2 Chase tracks, Busch was 10th, eighth and 12th. As long as he's somewhere in the neighborhood this time, it'll get him through for an Eliminator shot.
-Joey Logano: Average finish in Challenger round was 6.3. Average at Contender tracks the first time through: 17th. Highlight was a 33rd at Talladega.
No matter how good Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have been so far, NASCAR's biggest, baddest track will be a nightmare without a trip to Victory Lane before then.
Logano's average finish in the last 10 races (since Indianapolis) is 5.9, though, so it could be a wash.
-Martin Truex Jr.: Finishing order in Round 1 (Chicago, Loudon, Dover): 13th, 8th, 11th. Had issues with pre-race inspection at Dover that forced him to back of field, made a great rally to get through to Round 2.
He was solid at Contender tracks the first time around with two fifths (Charlotte, Talladega) sandwiched around a ninth at Kansas. As long as he stays out of trouble, a win will be a needed boost that carries Truex into the Eliminator round.
-Jeff Gordon: Still has a zero in the win column and 92 for his career, but the drive for a fifth championship is still very much alive. Was 14th, seventh and 12th in Round 1.
Like several of his fellow Chasers, Gordon had problems at Talladega in May and finished 31st. A win may be the only thing that gets him through.
-Brad Keselowski: Had decent, if not tremendous, first round of Chase, finishing eighth, 12th and 16th. Continuing the earlier theme, BK finished 22nd at Talladega the first time around.
Unless he has a win by then, look for the title dreams to end in this round.
-Ryan Newman: Still hasn't won a race since the 2013 Brickyard 400, but is still quietly very much in contention for another shot at the title.
Newman's Round 1 finishes: fourth, 10th and 19th. It got him through to the Contender round by a single point.
And here's more to give Newman Nation a little more hope: He was sixth, 10th and 7th at the Round 2 tracks the first time around.
Those who think a winless champion will happen need look no further than how Ryan Newman is performing. It's all about how you finish.
-Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Because Harvick won at Dover, Junior Nation didn't have to sweat. By virtue of his two wins, the 88 knocked out Jamie McMurray by winning a tiebreaker and moved on to Round 2 of the Chase.
Junior's Dover finish (3rd) basically saved him after runs of 12th at Chicago and 25th at Loudon. The 88 was solid at the next three Chase tracks the first time around with two thirds and a win at Talladega. All duplication at this point is most welcome.
And my picks for the next four to see their title dreams end: Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.
If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. I never claimed to be Nostradamus, and the way this Chase works is a big reason why.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Townley shocks world with truck win at Vegas

John Wes Townley had heard the critics. He didn’t lead laps very often, if at all, and fans gave him the derisive nickname “John Wrecks Weekly” for his alleged propensity for crashing at strange times.
In his fourth full-time year and his 87th career start overall in the Camping World Truck Series,

Townley was finally able to silence the negative vibes for good by winning the Rhino Linings 350 on Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
When two-time defending series champion Matt Crafton was forced to pit for fuel with six laps to go in the 146-lap race, Townley made his fuel last just long enough as he beat runner-up Timothy Peters by 3.842 seconds. It was the 25-year-old Georgia native’s first career victory in the series and only his fourth top-5 finish.
“When I saw Crafton run out of fuel, I remember thinking this was my race to lose,” said Townley, who led the most laps (23) in any race of his career. “I was really, really trying to be conservative, and I don’t think I would have been able to be conservative if it hadn’t been for my spotter (Terry Cook). It was the hardest five laps of my life.”
Crafton, who had three runner-up and two third-place finishes among his previous seven trips to Las Vegas, took the lead at lap 101, but his fuel window fell short as he finished eighth. It was the beginning of a chaotic sequence in a fuel-mileage fight to the finish as points leader Erik Jones and Canadian Cameron Hayley (10th) also saw their fuel tanks run dry in the closing laps.
Jones finished behind Crafton in ninth and saw his lead shrink to four points with five races remaining in the 2015 season. Tyler Reddick, who won the season-opening race at Daytona and followed up with one at Dover in May, finished seventh and is 16 points behind the leaders.
In addition to his first win, Townley also had the best qualifying effort of his career at Las Vegas, joining Crafton on the outside of the front row with a speed of 175.758 mph around the 1.5-mile oval. Crew chief Mike Shelton said the fuel was good to the end for Townley as long as the race didn’t extend beyond the scheduled distance.
“We were a half-lap to the good on fuel,” Shelton said. “We were hearing the 88 (Crafton) and 13 (Hayley) were talking about pitting, and I didn’t know if they were serious or not. We kept the pressure on the 88, and once we heard he was pitting, we backed it down as a precautionary measure.”
Once Townley took the checkered flag, he was able to do a victory burnout near the fence at the start-finish line. It was an appropriate moment that gave him a sense of relief in addition to the elation.
“Looking back, there were a lot of hardships I had to overcome, hurdles I had to jump over,” Townley said. “It was building myself back up, and it was really tough at times. I’m so glad I stuck with it because it’s definitely been worth it.”
Townley said he’ll be running the XFINITY Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 10 for Athenian Motorsports before returning to his 05 Zaxby’s Chevrolet truck at Talladega on Oct. 24.
After Peters, his Red Horse Racing teammate Ben Kennedy finished third. John Hunter Nemechek and Brandon Jones completed the top five.
The race had only three cautions for 19 laps, and the final 94 laps were run under green. … Austin Theriault suffered a compression fracture in his lower back after hitting the wall head-on in Turn 4 in a lap 15 wreck involving teammate Tyler Reddick. Theriault had to be airlifted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas for observation.
On the Cup side of the ledger, you just had a feeling something was going to give Sunday at Dover. With the first eliminations on the line at the AAA 400, Kevin Harvick was one of the four who knew a win would be a holy grail moment to preserve his chances of repeating as Sprint Cup champion.
For the third straight elimination round, Harvick got it done. After a dominating performance where he led 355 of the 400 laps, Harvick did exactly what he needed to do.
Just win, baby. It certainly kept hope alive and gave sponsor Outback Steakhouse another Monday of giving away free Bloomin' Onion appetizers with a meal purchase.
Last year at Phoenix, Harvick needed a win to advance. Done. 
At Homestead, he needed a win to win the title. Mission accomplished.
After going 0-for-29 in his previous trips to the Monster Mile, Harvick basically beat Miles at his own game and got to put him in his trophy case as a result.
Let's give credit where it's due, though. Harvick was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson at the May race, so the timing of this win couldn't have been more perfect.
While Harvick's win got him to the next round, it provided an added impact to those on the Chase bubble. Since Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended up tied for the last transfer spot to the Contender round, the tie had to be settled.
The first tiebreaker is wins, and Earnhardt Jr. has two to none for McMurray. Because Harvick won, McMurray is eliminated.
The same thing would have happened if any of the other drivers who were outside the bubble -- Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer or Kyle Busch -- had won Sunday.
Busch managed to advance on points with his runner-up finish to Harvick, but just barely. The margin was exactly one point better than Dale Jr., who finished behind Busch in third. The one point came from Busch having led 19 laps at Dover.
But the clear shocker of the eliminations came as Jimmie Johnson finished 41st in his 500th career start. The reason wasn't so much for an accident on the track as it was for a simple parts failure.
When a rear axle seal broke early in the AAA 400, Johnson's chances for a title went away with it. By the time his crew completed the necessary repairs, Johnson was 37 laps down and couldn't recover.
Such are the highs and lows of NASCAR's playoff system. Even when you think everything's in working order, you always have to stay on guard against anything that could go wrong.
When championship dreams are at stake, one misstep could easily lead to major disappointment. One bold leap forward toward the front of the pack could lead to championship immortality.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Concord, N.C.
-SPRINT CUP: Bank of America 500, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 501 miles, 334 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Friday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Oct. 24 for the Fred's 250 presented by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

As Stewart steps down, what's next?

Maybe I didn't want to believe it at first -- I wrote a post on this very blog saying he wasn't ready to do it -- but the impending announcement coming Wednesday from Tony Stewart shows me one thing.
I do not have a future as a psychic.

All self-deprecating humor aside, Stewart is set to announce his retirement after the 2016 season as a NASCAR driver. Considering what's happened to him over the last three years, it may be for the best.
We all know about the broken ankle suffered in the Sprint car racing accident in Iowa that cost him the last 15 races in 2013. We all know about the accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York that killed Kevin Ward Jr. before the Watkins Glen race last August.
Those items are all old news. Stewart still has the wrongful-death lawsuit hanging over his head in a federal court in New York to boot.
But here's the bottom line -- at least a bottom-line opinion -- on why Stewart is walking away from Sprint Cup racing after what will end up being an 18-year career.
Maybe (and we as fans and media can speculate all we want) it's just not a whole lot of fun anymore.
On the positive side, Stewart has 48 wins in 582 Cup starts. He has three championships, including the memorable all-out dogfight he had with Carl Edwards in 2011.
Before that year's Chase began, a championship was the furthest thing from Stewart's mind, a point he accentuated pretty emphatically when he thought his No. 14 race team -- which was in only its third year of existence under Stewart-Haas Racing ownership -- wasn't anywhere close to good enough to do anything in the Chase.
As things turned out, Stewart was only playing major-league mind games with the rest of his challengers.
Tony started the 2011 Chase with wins at Chicago and New Hampshire on back-to-back weeks, then won three of the final four races, including the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to end up in a dead-on flat-footed tie in final points with Edwards.
Stewart won the title because (insert drumroll here) he had those five wins to Edwards' one.
It was one of the best Chase battles up to that point.
Stewart had three more wins in 2012 and finished ninth in the Chase, but hasn't been anywhere close to his former glory.
Since his last win at Dover in the spring race of 2013 -- a stretch of 69 races and counting -- Stewart has a total of seven top-5s and 14 top-10s.
From 1999 through 2012, Stewart was averaging 13 top-5s and 23 top-10s per year. His career high in the latter category was 25 when he won his second Cup championship in 2005, and he had at least one win every year until 2013.
This year, which has been his first full season of racing since 2012, Stewart has exactly no top-5s and two top-10s -- sixth at the Bristol spring race and ninth at the Pocono race in August.
It's certainly not the way any driver wants to go out from what is most definitely a Hall-of-Fame worthy career.
And with everything else going on in Stewart's life, from the Ward lawsuit to ownership of a race team and race track (Eldora Speedway), no one should blame him for stepping away.
Being a racer may have driven Stewart all of these years, but being human always finds a way to catch up in the end.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Best of times, worst of times at Loudon

On any other day – at least one in the regular season – Matt Kenseth’s win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway would have been a bigger story for some obvious reasons. A Chase berth secured along with a chance at his second Sprint Cup championship.
While Sunday’s victory at the Sylvania 300 was the best of times for Kenseth – including a ticket to the Contender round of the Chase – it was overshadowed by the worst of times for other drivers with one more race left in the Challenger round.

Kenseth was able to keep his chances at another Sprint Cup trophy alive because defending champion Kevin Harvick got overconfident for the second straight week. This time, the fuel tank of the No. 4 went dry after leading 216 of the 300 laps and put Harvick’s chances at repeating on life support.
As the series heads to Dover International Speedway this weekend, Harvick is one of the four drivers who will be eliminated from title contention unless they do one thing.
It’s winning time.
Harvick’s misfortune came late in Sunday’s race with a 21st-place finish, but there were other exhibits of malaise that turned the standings on its collective head.
Surprisingly, Kyle Busch was the first victim. When his right front tire blew out at 160, it required extensive repairs to the No. 18 Toyota and Busch ended up 37th.
The end result: Busch fell from fourth all the way to 13th. The good news: Busch is only one point behind bubble driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 25th on Sunday.
Adding to the stress for Dover, two more drivers are adding to the potential chaos. Busch is tied with Paul Menard, and Jamie McMurray is a single point in front of Earnhardt in 11th place. Only two of the quartet will make it to the next round.
Even further up the standings, that pesky issue of restart enforcement claimed a pretty big victim at New Hampshire. Brad Keselowski was busted for jumping the restart with 58 laps to go while battling with Greg Biffle for the lead.
Keselowski fell back as far as 25th, but rallied to finish 12th and took out his frustration by calling NASCAR “an entertainment sport, not a fair sport.”
The 2012 champ is in a relatively safe position – eighth in points, 16 clear of Busch and Menard – but his comments make you wonder about how much truth is behind the words and how much is emotion.
Keselowski has an intelligent head on his shoulders, but the statement he made Sunday was as thick with emotion. When a championship is on the line, anything that throws the dream even the slightest bit out of whack brings out the competitive beast in anyone, but especially if he drives fast in circles for a living.
With one more race before the first four drivers see their title dreams fall to pieces, figure this as you get ready for this weekend’s race: winning is still the biggest point of emphasis, and a little help along the way – from rules, the fuel tank, or divine intervention – never hurts.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports. Tom will be at next week's NCWTS Rhino Linings 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 501st race in the history of the series, and have discussion on reports of Tony Stewart's retirement after 2016 later this week.
Dover International Speedway (1-mile oval), Dover, Delaware.
-SPRINT CUP: AAA 400, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET,/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 400 laps
2014 champion: Jeff Gordon
-XFINITY SERIES: Hisense 200, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Rhino Linings 350, Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Saturday, 10 p,m. ET/7 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 350 kilometers (219 miles), 147 laps.
2014 champion: Erik Jones.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bowyer penalty delivers big hit to Chase hopes

Today may be only Wednesday as this post is being made, but there's even more madness to sort through in regards to the Chase standings.
The biggest insanity came with the announcement that Clint Bowyer was docked 25 points by NASCAR for a P4-level violation, according to the lovely rule book, in opening inspection after Chicagoland Speedway.
The reason: an illegal track bar. There were four sections that were discussed in the violation, so rather than try to explain them here myself, I'll gladly defer to an article written by MRN Radio's Pete Pistone. Each part of the violation is described there.
Bowyer was 19th in the 400, so he fell to 15th in the points. Even after Kevin Harvick's bad race, Bowyer is now behind the defending Sprint Cup champ in 16th after the penalty was figured in.
Of course, Michael Waltrip Racing -- a team in its final nine weeks of Sprint Cup competition -- is planning to appeal. When you go from only six points behind 12th to 31 back, there's nothing to lose when a chance to advance is at stake.
And while Harvick is still 22 behind Jeff Gordon, the important priority lies ahead for both drivers.
It clearly involves one word. Winning.
As good as Harvick has been this season -- he's finished in the top 10 in 22 of the 27 races -- it would figure the champ doesn't have nearly as much to worry about as Bowyer does despite the post-race shoving match he tried to get into with Jimmie Johnson at Chicagoland.
Bowyer hasn't won a Cup race since Charlotte in October of 2012, 104 races ago. With a deficit this large now, pending the outcome of the penalty appeal, even back-to-back top-5 runs may not help.
The driver of the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota for MWR had his last top-5 run at Bristol last month and was third at Sonoma prior to that.
It's unfortunate the penalties were handed down at this point in the season, but favorites should never be played. NASCAR's rule book may be baffling even to those who cover the Sprint Cup series on a full-time basis, but when something's done wrong, there's no gray area when the right to hold a shiny checkered-flag trophy is on the line.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hamlin wins, Harvick fumes at Chicagoland

With all that went on from the opening race of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR fans may need a few extra minutes of water-cooler talk time to process all that went on.
The main exhibit came with Denny Hamlin. He’s part of the red-hot Joe Gibbs Racing team, but no one expected what he pulled off on a perfect day for racing in the Midwest.

Hamlin, torn ACL in his knee and all, not only survived a spin early in the 400, but led nine laps and took the checkered flag to punch his automatic ticket into the Contender round of the Chase.
Hamlin’s effort leads to Exhibit B, better known as how karma bit defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick squarely in the backside and dealt a serious blow to his chances of repeating.
Earlier in the week, Harvick flashed some serious bravado by declaring this about the JGR drivers, as written by Kenny Bruce in a story published on after Chase media days Thursday:
"I wouldn't consider us behind the Gibbs cars," Harvick said. "I've raced against the Gibbs cars. I think we're going to pound them into the ground, that's what I think. Hopefully they can beat themselves."
That certainly didn’t happen Sunday.
Strike one in the bulletin-board wars, not to mention a pretty good pounding, went against Harvick, and pretty badly at that. Hamlin came all the way from 29th – with qualifying rained out, the field was set on speeds from the first practice session – and won the race. Harvick, who started on the pole as fastest from at that same session, got together with Jimmie Johnson, took a hard hit into the wall at lap 139, and finished 42nd, matching his absolute worst finish of the season (Pocono 2).
Adding to the indignity of the moment, it was just the fifth time all year Harvick has finished outside the top 10 in 27 races. To top it all off, the other JGR drivers all finished in the top 10 – Carl Edwards was second, Matt Kenseth finished fifth and Kyle Busch came home in ninth.
Cameras caught Johnson trying to talk with Harvick at his hauler over what happened after the race, but Harvick was in no mood, giving Johnson a few good shoves before his PR guy is shown leading him into a waiting car.
Johnson never made a move toward Harvick to escalate things, and it was probably for the better.
As things stand, Harvick has every right to be mad, but it’s mainly because his mouth wrote the check his car couldn’t cash. With only two races to run before the bottom four in the standings are eliminated, Harvick basically has one mission.
It’s win or get ready to hand off the championship trophy to someone else.
History is on Harvick’s side in the battle to be the champ. One year ago, he had to win at Phoenix to advance to the Championship round at Homestead. Then he had to win at Homestead to win the title, beating Ryan Newman by only a half-second.
That was then. The odds are a lot longer now.
After Chicago, Harvick is 22 points behind Jeff Gordon, who holds the 12th and last transfer spot into the next round. The deficit is not impossible to overcome, but with only two races to do it, a win at either New Hampshire this weekend or Dover on Oct. 4 will take the pressure off.
Harvick was runner-up at Dover in May and finished third at New Hampshire in July, so the experience is there.
In order to overcome the disaster that was Chicagoland, the champ needs to keep his head down, his mouth shut, and do the necessary work to keep his title hopes alive.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile oval), Loudon, New Hampshire.
-SPRINT CUP: Sylvania 300, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 laps, 317.4 miles.
2014 champion: Joey Logano
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: UNOH 175, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 175 laps, 185.15 miles
2014 champion: Cole Custer
-XFINITY SERIES: 300, Kentucky Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval), Sparta, Kentucky, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Brendan Gaughan

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Busting out the Chase crystal ball

After 26 weeks of stories and news that went to the borderline edge of amazing -- from Kevin Harvick's early dominance to Kurt Busch's winning to Kyle Busch's amazing winning -- the 16 drivers looking to hold the Sprint Cup trophy are set to go after the 2015 title of champion.
The usual cast of characters are in the field, along with some interesting surprise guests. For those who may be new to the latest incarnation of NASCAR's playoffs, the field gets whittled down in three-race chunks. In all cases, a win is an automatic ticket to the next round, from Challenger to Contender to Eliminator
Here's my look at the Chase field with semi-coherent predictions on how they'll fare:
-Jimmie Johnson: With the contract extension signed, sealed and delivered for two more seasons, Johnson can get back to what he does best -- ruling the roost in the Chase.
Average finish in last 10 races: 13.5.
The first time at Chase tracks (2015): Won at Dover, 22nd at Loudon.
A sweep of the Monster Mile will be key, and Johnson's only won three of the last four there and 10 in his career. The timing couldn't be better to advance, but he won't last past the Contender round.
-Matt Kenseth: Part of the JGR stable that's been absolutely on fire. It's been 12 years since his only title, but the driver of the No. 20 is poised for a serious run.
Average finish in last 10 races: 11.1. Three wins, but a 42nd at Bristol.
The first time at Chase tracks (2015): 4th at Charlotte and Martinsville, 39th at Dover.
As hot as all of the Gibbs cars have been, Toyota's got a real shot to have its first Sprint Cup champion driver. Kenseth is the one who has best shot of the group.
Prediction: Championship round.
-Kyle Busch: Easily the best driver story of 2015. Four wins -- in five weeks -- and out for the first 11 races to heal from a broken foot and fractured leg.
Average finish in last 10 races: 7.1
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Win at Loudon, 36th at Dover.
Like Kenseth, as long as Busch gets past Dover in good shape, he'll be fine.
Prediction: Championship round.
-Joey Logano: Made final round a year ago, is on even better roll than Kyle Busch.
Average finish in last 10 races: 6.6. Two wins (Watkins Glen, Bristol), two runner-ups, one third, two fourths.
First time at Chase tracks (2015): 3rd at Martinsville, 33rd at Talladega.
With the roll Logano's been on, it'll be a bit of a shock if he isn't back among the final four again.
Prediction: Out in Contender round, but just barely.
-Kevin Harvick: Defending champion, and had to earn it by winning at Homestead, which is why this Chase playoff system works.
Average finish in last 10: 8.6.
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Win at Phoenix, 9th at Charlotte.
Had to do a double-take, but you read it right. Eight of the 10 Chase tracks are repeat stops, and Harvick wasn't outside the top 10 at any of them.
And even more amazing. Harvick's two wins came early in the year, but he's also been runner-up 10 times on the season. I can't imagine him not getting back to the final four.
Prediction: Repeats as Sprint Cup champion.
-Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Is this finally the year for Junior Nation to revel in their guy winning a Sprint Cup crown? There's always room to dream.
Average finish in last 10: 9.6. Win at Daytona.
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Win at Talladega, 43rd at Phoenix.
A sweep of NASCAR's biggest track will be reason to party, but that's as far as the celebration goes.
Prediction: Out in Eliminator round.
-Kurt Busch: Like little brother Kyle, didn't race the full year. Unlike Kyle, Kurt had to deal with a NASCAR-imposed suspension for legal issues in a case of alleged domestic violence.
While Kyle won in his fifth race back, Kurt won a pole in just his second race of 2015.
Average finish in last 10: 13.0
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Fifth at Phoenix, 31st at Dover.
Prediction: Out in Challenger round.
-Carl Edwards: He may not do the Twitter thing, but he's got the winning thing down cold. Has memory of 2011 tie with Tony Stewart to eradicate from his soul, and Edwards is in the right place to do it.
Average finish in last 10: 10.8.
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Win at Charlotte, 32nd at Talladega.
As stated earlier, Toyota's got a chance to be a Sprint Cup-winning manufacturer. Edwards has the desire to erase some bad history from the memory banks.
Prediction: Championship round.
Due to time restrictions, the lower half of the playoff field gets the quickie capsule analysis.
-Brad Keselowski: 2012 champion with one win on year at Fontana.
Average finish in last 10: 8.1. Only blip: a 29th at Daytona.
First time at Chase tracks (2015); 2nd at Martinsville and Loudon, 22nd at Talladega.
Prediction: Contender round.
-Martin Truex Jr.: Win came at Pocono, only the third of Truex's Sprint Cup career. Not exactly rolling into Chase.
Average finish in last 10: 18.7.
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Fifth at Talladega and Charlotte, 12th at Loudon
Prediction: Contender round.
-Denny Hamlin: This is one pick I may be fooled on, and his knee injury plays a part. He was sixth at Richmond, but that track isn't in the Chase.
Average finish in last 10: 9.1
First time at Chase tracks (2015): Win at Martinsville, 41st at Kansas.
Prediction: Eliminator round.
-Jamie McMurray: Has started and finished consistently on year -- 15.1 to 15.0 -- but it's go time now.
Average finish in last 10: 18.0
First time at Chase tracks (2015): 2nd at Phoenix, 26th at Loudon.
Prediction: Challenger round
-Jeff Gordon: It's bad enough one of the legends of NASCAR hasn't won in 2015, but he's at least got one more chance to win his fifth Cup crown to close out an amazing career.
Average finish in last 10: 16.9
First time at Chase tracks (2015): 4th at Kansas, 31st at Talladega.
Prediction: Eliminator round
-Ryan Newman: One of the most interesting stories of the last three seasons. The guy doesn't win and doesn't lead a ton of laps, but he's near the front on a consistent basis.
Average finish in last 10: 13.9
First time at Chase tracks (2015): 3rd at Phoenix, 27th at Martinsville.
Prediction: Eliminator round (and if he goes deep again, I apologize in advance).
-Clint Bowyer: Shoved aside the distraction of the closure of Michael Waltrip Racing and put a fifth Toyota in the Chase field. He's looking to make an impression for 2016 and beyond.
Average finish in last 10: 15.6
First time at Chase tracks (2015): 9th at Dover, 34th at Loudon.
Prediction: Challenger round.
-Paul Menard: This year's answer to Aric Almirola despite not winning a race. He's led one lap all season and has one win in 317 Cup starts, so it will be a miracle if he escapes out of the first round.
Average finish in last 10: 18.2.
First time at Chase tracks (2015): 3rd at Talladega, 41st at Texas.
Prediction: Challenger round.
And with that, let the Chase insanity begin.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Kenseth wins Richmond, Chase field is set

Aric Almirola tried his best to do what he had to do, but came up just short. In the end, Matt Kenseth dominated and won the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, earning his fourth victory of the 2015 season by leading 352 of the 400 laps. It was Kenseth’s second-highest total of laps led in a race in his career.

With the top 16 drivers now officially locked in for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup that begins next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Almirola made a strong push late in the race to make the playoff field for the second year in a row. After beating Kyle Busch off pit road on the race’s final pit stop, he restarted third with 17 laps to go.
The driver of the No. 43 Smithfield Foods/Waffle House Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports couldn’t challenge Kenseth and ended up fourth, just his second top-five finish of the season. It wouldn’t be good enough to make the Chase.
In total, 11 of the 16 drivers who qualified for this year’s Chase got in with race victories, down two from last season’s total of 13. Kenseth joined Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch with the highest win total of the regular season at four apiece.
Jeff Gordon is among the five non-winners in the field and will get one last shot at capturing his fifth Sprint/Winston Cup championship. Gordon has been shut out of Victory Lane in a season only three times in his 22-year career – his rookie season of 1993, 2008 and 2010. He’s been stuck on 92 career wins since last year’s fall race at Dover.
Ryan Newman and Paul Menard are also competing for this year’s title for Richard Childress Racing, and Newman could potentially surprise the field again. Newman made the championship race a year ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway and fell a half-second short of Kevin Harvick, who won the Ford EcoBoost 400 and his first Sprint Cup crown.
Newman posted only three top-10 finishes (8th at Daytona and Michigan, 10th at Bristol) in the last 10 races. He’ll need similar finishes if he wants a chance at the title again. Newman hasn’t won since the 2013 Brickyard 400 and has led only 19 laps all season.
Menard won the XFINITY race on the road course at Road America in his home state of Wisconsin last month, but has just one career win in 317 Sprint Cup starts. His last top-10 finish came at Michigan in June and he was 26th at Richmond on Saturday.
Menard has led one lap all season (Texas), but his point total was good enough to get him in the playoff field.
Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer are the other non-winners who made the Chase. Like Newman, McMurray hasn’t won a Cup race since 2013 (Talladega 2), but he’s been consistent. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been anywhere from 11th to 16th in the final running order in nine of the last 11 races, including 13th at Richmond on Saturday.
Bowyer had one of the worst distractions a driver could possibly endure when Michael Waltrip Racing announced Aug. 19 it wouldn’t be racing full-time at season’s end. Bowyer responded with a fifth-place showing at Bristol, 17th at Darlington and 10th at Richmond.
The Emporia, Kansas native has eight Sprint Cup wins in 351 starts, but none since 2012 (Charlotte 2). Bowyer had three wins that year and finished second in points to Brad Keselowski.
As for the rest of the contenders, here's how they'll line up:
-Kenseth: Wins at Bristol 1, Pocono 2, Michigan 2 and Richmond 2. Could be an interesting champion because it's been 12 years since he won his only Sprint Cup title. If he pulls it off, Kenseth matches Terry Labonte, who won his titles in 1984 and 1996.
-Johnson: Always a contender, as six Sprint Cup titles -- all in the Chase era -- can attest. Wins at Atlanta, Texas, Kansas and Dover.
Hasn't been struggling, by any means, but may be thankful Michigan isn't among the Chase tracks. He was 39th in June and 19th in August. Side note: Johnson turns 40 on Thursday.
-Kyle Busch: Story of the year with his comeback from broken ankle and fractured leg. Met every criteria to get in the Chase and may be a serious contender to match big brother Kurt with his own Sprint Cup trophy.
Wins at Sonoma, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis, all four coming in a five-week period. Only blips since starting his hot streak: 17th at Daytona, 21st at Pocono and 11th at Michigan. None of those tracks are in the Chase.
-Joey Logano: Three wins on year at Daytona 1, Watkins Glen and Bristol 2. Made final round last year, finished fourth. Since the June Pocono race, where he finished fourth, the Penske Racing driver's worst runs were 22nd at Daytona and 20th at Pocono in August.
Everything else has been no worse than seventh. That's how titles are won.
-Kevin Harvick: Has two wins on the year at Las Vegas and Phoenix, but also one other amazing stat that sticks out like Superman's chest. The defending Sprint Cup champion has finished second 10 times in the first 26 races.
A few more of those may not ease the pain of coming so close so many times, but holding the trophy again at Homestead will be as soothing as an ocean breeze.
Harvick hits the 40-year-old milestone on Dec. 8.
-Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Is this the year for Junior Nation to celebrate their driver's first Sprint Cup title? Hendrick Motorsports hasn't won since Junior did it at Daytona in July, so the curiosity factor is there.
Earnhardt's other win came at Talladega, and the field is cut to the Eliminator round after they race there on Oct. 25. Will be one huge party if he finishes the sweep.
-Kurt Busch: Wins at Richmond 1 and Michigan 1. Didn't have the injury issues his little brother did, but missed the first three races due to a NASCAR-mandated suspension for legal matters in the case of alleged domestic violence with ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll.
It's been 11 years since he won his Sprint Cup title. Since finishing second to Kyle Busch at Sonoma, Kurt was fifth at Kentucky, then 10th at Loudon and Daytona.
On the flip side, he was eighth at Indianapolis, 37th at Pocono 2, and fifth at Watkins Glen. The first three-race block will be the preferred finishing order to advance out of the Challenger round.
-Carl Edwards: Wins at Charlotte and Darlington.
The memory of finishing in the flat-footed tie for the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart not withstanding, Edwards is in a good place on a race team that's absolutely on fire. Won't be surprising if all four of the Joe Gibbs cars make it to Homestead for a title shot.
-Brad Keselowski: The 2012 Sprint Cup champ earned his win at Auto Club Speedway in March. Since finishing 29th at Daytona in July, BK hasn't missed a top-10 finish, including three runner-up efforts (New Hampshire, Pocono 2 and Darlington). It's the roll you want to be on with this championship format.
-Martin Truex Jr.: Won at Pocono 1 to earn his third career victory. The Furniture Row No. 78 may be a single-car operation based out of Denver, but the New Jersey native has benefited from being there. Truex has led 497 laps this season, second-highest total of his career (581 in 2007).
-Denny Hamlin: Saving the best for last, so to speak. Hamlin's win was at Martinsville in April.
Hamlin tore the ACL in his right knee Tuesday, yet finished sixth at Richmond.
He tore up the other knee in 2010 and nearly -- check that...probably should have -- won the Sprint Cup title.
Hamlin made the final four a year ago. Don't be surprised if he plays well through the pain and gets there again.
For the second year in a row, there are three rounds of three races each that trim the Chase field down to the final four who battle at Homestead to determine who will be celebrated as the Sprint Cup champion for 2015 in Las Vegas in December.
A race win gets a Chaser into the next round, but good finishes can also carry him through. With five non-winners in the field, it’s anyone’s guess who will hold the big trophy.
If last year’s title fight was any indication, race fans are in for another treat this time around.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Chicagoland Speedway (1.5-mile superspeedway), Joliet, Illinois.
-SPRINT CUP: 400, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affilate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
-XFINITY SERIES: Jimmy John's Freaky Fast 300 powered by Coca-Cola, Saturday, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: American Ethanol E15 225, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 225 miles, 150 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch.