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 MyAFibRisk.com 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 MyAfibRisk.com 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 NASCAR.com 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: VisitMyrtleBeach.com 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: MyAFibRisk.com 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.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Richmond race lineup and other notes

Denny Hamlin's knee injury may have been the highlight story of the week, but we've reached the weekend, so that means the final race of the 2015 Sprint Cup regular season is upon us from Richmond.
And from the "what else is new" department, the Joe Gibbs cars are well up toward the front of the field for the Federated Auto Parts 400 after qualifying Friday (the link to the full field is highlighted). Matt Kenseth joins pole winner Joey Logano on the front row, while Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski start behind them in Row 2.
Carl Edwards goes off seventh, but Hamlin didn't fare nearly as well, failing to get out of the first round of qualifying. He starts his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota from 25th.
That got the brain cells going for me. Among past Richmond race winners, we didn't have to go back very far to find that one of Hamlin's teammates could give him a good scouting report on how to get to the front at the end from deep in the field.
Two years ago at the same fall race, Edwards won at RIR after he qualified 26th. Heck, Clint Bowyer starts from there tonight and he's got two Richmond wins himself, including one from 31st in the spring race of 2008.
It can happen. Just don't bet on it -- unless you're a serious fan of the guy in the 19 car.
And don't get too comfortable with any race-watching plans right away. Rain is in the forecast for tonight at Richmond, and a lot of it. Early reports are saying up to an inch of the wet stuff can be expected.
I'm not a meteorologist -- don't even claim to play one on the radio -- but that doesn't instill confidence racing is likely to happen tonight.
A one-day postponement isn't cause for major concern, but the TV folks aren't going to be too thrilled mainly because Sunday is the first full day of the National Football League season.
Many more eyes will likely gravitate toward the opening week of the NFL season instead of the final race to the Chase. There's a reason the fall Richmond race has been run on Saturday nights, and big, bad Momma Nature is showing us why.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hamlin in world of hurt heading to Chase

In my daily check of interesting news items on the NASCAR wire, there was a story that was a serious jaw-dropper, mainly for the timing and the questionable judgment involved.
Denny Hamlin, solidly among the Chase contenders for the 2015 Sprint Cup title, put himself in a world of hurt when he tore the ACL in playing a game of pickup basketball Tuesday night.
The need for a work-life balance is always a delicate issue, even for regular working folk, but that balance sits on a razor-thin thread for athletes like NASCAR drivers.
All work and no play may make Denny a dull boy (allegedly), but Hamlin's hoops adventure doesn't inspire much confidence. He has a history of the injury, having torn the same ligament in his right knee playing basketball before the start of the 2010 season.
When it happened the first time, Hamlin initially elected to postpone the surgery until after that season. That approach lasted until the sixth race of the year, which was a win at Martinsville, the first of eight victories that season.
Hamlin was in contention all the way to Homestead, but lost the title to Jimmie Johnson. He's been medically cleared to run the last 11 races of 2015, but has a more daunting task this time around, mainly because he's 34 years old instead of 29. Injuries don't heal as fast, but it's all in the attitude.
Medical science has done wonders in allowing athletes to heal much quicker -- Tommy John surgery ring any bells? -- but what happens once Hamlin gets involved in a wreck? Does he play it too safe?
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has three straight top-5 runs -- fifth at Michigan, third at Bristol and Darlington -- and he reached the final round at Homestead last year, coming home in third place.
Hamlin already has the hard part out of the way by making the Chase. The hard work -- made harder by his creaky knees -- has only just begun.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Squier brings the throwback magic

As the Southern 500 unfolded Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, I was doing my best to head to my favorite establishment and settle in to watch the race.
It was all about retro, throwback, 1970s time machine, and embracing NASCAR's history at one of its original race tracks. This was a race that needed to be seen on TV more than heard -- no offense intended to the radio guys and gals at Motor Racing Network (and PRN), who already do a tremendous job bringing them to our ears.
There were retro paint schemes and crew guys who even dressed the part, but even more important was the presence of a broadcasting legend who returned to the NBC booth, even it was only for a limited time.

For about 40 minutes or so Sunday night in an edited package, race fans got a perfect trip in the NASCAR time capsule as Ken Squier, Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett and son Dale stepped up to the microphones -- minus any 1970s fashion statements -- to call the action.
From the restart after the second caution at lap 51, we got more than 35 minutes of simple, understated magic. No extra hype, just sharing details on what was going on. When surprises happened -- and there were plenty of them -- there was appropriate reaction.
Tosses to pit reporters Mike Massaro, Marty Snider, Dave Burns and Kelli Stavast were top-notch and solid.
When Rutledge Wood was summoned, the "special report" was pretty special, a story of how the fans transitioned from standing on top of station wagons and trucks to get a glimpse of the race to watching on large TV monitors in the infield area.
As Squier spoke, the description of what it's like to be at the track came through like it did in his heyday when he called races for CBS.
At one point, Squier called Darlington "the kingdom" and added "if you're going to see a NASCAR race, this is one you must find."
Squier spoke further to the race's rural location when he said "you may want to get some help, some local folks to find your way in. Get yourself some counseling, a couple of GPS's, or ask any of the neighbors, and they'll tell you about Harold Brasington's peanut patch."
It's exactly where the race track is located in a town that has a population of around 7,000 people.
Further racing was described with emphasis on how Darlington can drive drivers crazy over a 500-mile race. One example was discussed nicely as Squier brought in Massaro to describe issues Jamie McMurray's crew was having with the radio. A great split screen was used so fans didn't lose track of any battles for position.
About the only slip-up I heard from Squier came when he said as Denny Hamlin moved into the lead at lap 87 and said he was from Enumclaw, Washington. That's Kasey Kahne's hometown, but I'm sure Hamlin's been to the Northwest a time or two.
Let's cut a true legend a little slack here. Squier turned 80 in April. Mistakes will happen, no matter how old you are. My mom will be turning 80 in December herself.
The energy was there when Hamlin duked it out with Brad Keselowski for the lead at lap 118, losing it briefly then pulling off the crossover move to regain control.
Squier's time on the air with the Jarretts came to an end after the race's fifth caution at lap 121, so race fans got a 70-lap glimpse of how much history exists in NASCAR at Darlington and everywhere else. Special times called for special voices, and Squier enhanced NBC's broadcast of the Southern 500 in beautiful fashion Sunday night.
As Rick Allen said when he returned to the air, it was an absolute honor -- for all of us -- to listen to Squier call a race once more, even if it was only for a little while.
Thanks for the memories. Let's go make some more.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Darlington becomes Carlington at Southern 500

The Southern 500 returned to its Labor Day weekend roots Sunday night at Darlington Raceway. Everything about the race had a retro/throwback/time warp feel to it. All but a handful of the 43 cars had old-time paint schemes. The NBC crew donned sport coats that would have made Starsky and Hutch turn flush with envy, and the old peacock made a return appearance.
NASCAR broadcasting legends Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett joined in the fun, calling the race for about 35 minutes. The link of the segment is out there on the NASCAR on NBC Facebook page, and it’s definitely worth sharing.
Even the music selections used to lead race viewers in and out of commercials grabbed hold of the 1970s theme, which made for a Southern 500 that was awesome as much as it was long – nearly four and a half hours with a record-setting 18 caution flags.
Carl Edwards came through in the end and turned Darlington into “Carlington” for his first win at the legendary track dubbed “Too Tough to Tame” and second of 2015. It continued the dominance of the Toyotas in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp as the team has won seven of the last 10 races. Four came from Kyle Busch, two by Matt Kenseth, and Edwards joined in the fun.
As for the “Carlington” idea, it came when a crew member from his No. 19 Arris Toyota stuck just enough white tape – at least that’s what it looked like from the TV pictures – to turn the “D” on a portion of an infield wall into a “C.”
Darlington to Carlington, get it? All kidding aside, that was a great touch from a great broadcast of a darn good race in spite of the time length.
Thank goodness most of us didn’t have to work on Labor Day.
With Edwards’ victory secured, that means there are still five spots for non-winning drivers with one race remaining in the “regular season” on the way to the Chase. Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer are just about locked in for NASCAR’s version of postseason play, but anyone else behind them within the top 30 has one last shot to get in with a victory at Richmond on Saturday night.
McMurray and Newman have their spots for the Chase in lockdown mode. Gordon is basically in unless he has enough of a bad finish to allow Bowyer and Menard to pass him along with someone from outside the top 16 winning Saturday’s race.
Bowyer is the only one with the most to lose in the final race of the regular season. Unless he surpasses Menard in the points – Bowyer trails by 10 – he’ll be the one forced into 2016 testing mode if someone like Aric Almirola or Kasey Kahne wins at Richmond.
Those outside the top 16 aren’t exactly instilling fear among the five non-winners who would be in the Chase, though. At the Southern 500, Kyle Larson was the highest finisher among the group, coming home 10th.
Heading to Richmond, Bowyer has a 29-point lead on Almirola and 31 over Kahne. Almirola was 11th on Sunday, Kahne came in 12th, and Bowyer finished 17th. It’s clearly all-or-nothing time now for those with dreams of winning the 2015 Sprint Cup title.
The likelihood of any serious drama may be low for the fans come Saturday night, but any driver worth his salt doesn’t need to worry about details or opinions
Get in, sit down, tighten the belts, and hold on. Hope can lurk around any corner.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Richmond International Raceway (.75-mile short track oval), Richmond, Virginia
SPRINT CUP: Federated Auto Parts 400, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance; 400 laps, 300 miles.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
XFINITY SERIES: Virginia 529 College Savings 250, Friday, 7:30 p.m, ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 laps, 187.5 miles.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Sept. 18 for the American Ethanol E15 225 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Southern 500 race lineup and other goodness

Not sure what's going on at my local paper, but it seems to every so often forget to publish the Sprint Cup race lineup so race fans -- and there are plenty of them in my little corner of the world -- can see where their favorite driver will be starting for races like tonight's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Have no fear, my friends. Your intrepid gearhead/Gear Box blogger is on the case. There are just under nine hours -- as of the time of writing this sentence on the screen -- until the green flag drops on a race that will be awesome to watch. Retro paint schemes, retro wardrobe for the broadcasters, and legends of the booth (read: Ken Squier, Ned Jarrett) will bring even more excitement once their microphones are turned on and they go to work describing the action of 367 laps of racing.
The low-downforce package used at Kentucky has been tweaked to fit for Darlington. The racing was great in June, and it could be sensational tonight.
Or awesome, spectacular, marvelous. Hey, I'm not picky. Whichever superlative works for you, go for it.
And if you have a favorite food you'll be enjoying on race day tonight, feel free to share it. I'm part of the NASCAR Happy Hour and NASCAR History - 2003 to Present groups on Facebook and it'll make for interesting conversation. I could always use a few good ideas for cooking, but that's a longer story for another time.
In the meantime, here's your link to the race lineup for the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway: https://www.nascarmedia.com/news/stat_packages.aspx?LinkId=121981
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

NASCAR goes "That 70s Show" for Darlington

There's a bit of celebration going on as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series gets ready to start the final two-race run to the Chase. First up is something pretty darn special for the purists of the sport.
NASCAR officially returns to a Labor Day weekend tradition for the first time since 2003 on Sunday night when the Southern 500 brings back its name for a prime-time retro showcase.
Here's a news flash: You can see it on your local NBC station. No cable required. Same goes for the XFINITY race Saturday, the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200.
But more importantly, Sunday will be a night where NASCAR goes back in time. Maybe not quite like the old Fox sitcom that propelled Ashton Kutcher to stardom -- if you got the reference in the headline, give yourself 1,000 bonus points, just because -- but you get the idea.
Some cars will have paint schemes from the 1970s, like the 43 of Aric Almirola. Some will come from the 1980s, such as Brad Keselowski's tribute in the No. 22 to Bobby Allison's 1983 championship run.
Others will be from the 1990s, like Trevor Bayne's salute to Mark Martin and his seven race wins from the 1998 season. Even the 2000s will be saluted by Josh Wise in the No. 32 with Ricky Craven's paint scheme from the 2003 spring race at Darlington, which was only 400 miles, but had the closest finish in history.
Remember that one? Craven banged doors with Kurt Busch and beat him to the line by an insanely thin margin of about six inches.
And on the broadcast side, none other than Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett will call a portion of the race on NBC. I cannot wait to see and hear it.
Only downer: There's no official word on when they'll come on the air or for how long. With that going along with the retro paint schemes and the low-drag aero package, there's absolutely no reason to miss this race.
If what happened at Kentucky Speedway in June was any indication, the tradition of Darlington on Labor Day weekend for race fans should be something to look forward to for many years to come.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.