Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Despite strong run, Johnson’s Chase hopes end at Talladega

Despite strong run, Johnson’s Chase hopes end at Talladega
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

This year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is now, officially, a novel experience.

With four races left to determine the series champion, Jimmie Johnson is no longer a factor, and that’s a “first” in the Chase era.

Johnson remains the only driver to have qualified for every Chase since the inception of the 10-race playoff in 2004, but under a new format that eliminates four drivers every three races, he’s no longer eligible for the 2014 title.

Despite leading a race-high 84 laps on Sunday at Talladega, controlling the pace and darting between lanes to block the progress of those trying to pass him, Johnson fell short in a race he had to win.

When he steered his No. 48 Chevrolet to the outside on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish, no one went with him, and that in itself was a measure of the enormous respect Johnson’s fellow competitors have for the 48 team.

If Johnson had kept his title hopes alive by winning Talladega, chances are he would have advanced to the season finale at Homestead, given the array of tracks in the Chase’s Eliminator Round.

At Homestead, with the championship on the line, only a fool would bet against the 48 in a head-to-head matchup against three other cars.

So why help a guy who is likely to beat you? On Sunday, no one did.

And, for better or worse, the Chase now has a decidedly different flavor.

­­­Congratulations to Kyle and Samantha!

We’d have made our headline “KESELOWSKI WINS TALLADEGA THANKS TO PUSH FROM KENSETH” if the comment section below wouldn’t fill up with “Is this The Onion?”

We apologize for the tension-filled race Sunday, and sincerely hope that your stomach didn’t reach the “eliminator round,” so to speak.

So remember the finale of “Star Wars” when the final Rebel fighter is knocked out and Luke Skywalker realizes he’s all alone? That’s Jeff Gordon.

Jamie McMurray really oughta hang out with Edward Snowden, so they can just sit around and leak things together.

So Milka Duno ran the truck race. It was made out to be this giant, harrowing, catastrophic event. Turns out it wasn’t at all. If only there was anything else currently in the news similar to that.

(Follow @nascarcasm on Twitter. His unique views on NASCAR are his own – but chances are you have probably figured that out by now.)

By Reid Spencer­
­­ 12: The number of laps led by Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, a race he had to win to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Keselowski led laps 187 through 192, and after surrendering the top spot to Ryan Newman on the white-flag lap (193) retook the lead from Newman on the one that counted.
31: The number of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races run this year by Denny Hamlin, who missed the event at Fontana, Calif., in March because of an eye injury. Should Hamlin win the championship this year, he would be the first series champion since Richard Petty in 1971 to win the series title without competing in a full schedule of races.
1: The number of top-five finishes for driver Landon Cassill in 147 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts. Cassill ran a superb race in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega, avoided the pitfalls that beset other drivers and sped across the finish line in fourth place for a career-best result.
7.0: Jeff Gordon’s average finish in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Martinsville Speedway, best among the eight drivers still eligible for the series championship. Denny Hamlin is second at 8.8. Surprisingly, the driver among the eight with the worst average finish at Martinsville is Kevin Harvick at 15.8.
5.2: The average finish at Martinsville for six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has won eight times at the historic .526-mile short track. Johnson may have been eliminated from the Chase on Sunday, but it’s a virtual certainty he’ll be a contender for the victory this weekend at Martinsville—Chase or no Chase.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series kicks off the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. The points for the eight remaining championship-qualifying drivers – Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin – have been reset to 4,000. ... Jeff Gordon enters Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 (1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) in hunt of his ninth win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. The 43-year-old ranks tied with Jimmie Johnson for the lead among active drivers with eight wins at Martinsville and a trip to Victory Lane this weekend would advance him to the championship race at Homestead. Other than Gordon, Chase-contending drivers who own checkered flags at the .526-mile oval include: Denny Hamlin (four), Ryan Newman (one) and Kevin Harvick (one). … Needing a victory to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Brad Keselowski came up clutch at Talladega, taking the checkered flag. The triumph set a Team Penske record for wins in a season by its drivers with 11. Keselowski’s six victories are the most in the NSCS, while teammate Joey Logano’s five wins rank second.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday Talladega Notebook

Sunday Talladega Notebook
Notebook Items:
·         Keselowski and Kenseth: What a difference a week makes
·         Promising Chase turns sour for Kyle Busch
·         Gordon slips into Eliminator Round
Keselowski and Kenseth: What a difference a week makes
Oct. 19, 2014
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
TALLADEGA, Ala.—As luck would have it, the driver who had Brad Keselowski in a headlock on Oct. 11 helped push Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford to victory in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
With drafting help on the final restart from Matt Kenseth, with whom Keselowski had tangled on and off the track at Charlotte a week earlier, Keselowski got the win he desperately needed to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“If he (Kenseth) could have flipped him to win the race, he probably would have,” quipped third-place finisher Clint Bowyer. “That’s just competition. Matt needed to push the 2 to get his best position and get himself in an overall shot to win the race. 
“It doesn't matter if it's your worst enemy out there or your best friend, your closest friend, as far as racers go, you've got to use ‘em. He was using the 2 car as much as the 2 car was using him at that point.”
Kenseth saw the final laps in essentially the same way. He had planned to go with Kevin Harvick but circumstances dictated another course of action as Kenseth tried to finish as high as he could to earn a spot in the Eliminator Round of the Chase.
“You have to do what's best for your best finish,” Kenseth explained. “Kevin had a really good run. I pushed Kevin really hard. I didn't feel I had a ton of speed. When Kevin went up to go three wide, and Brad went to chase him, I couldn't really follow Kevin, get stuck out three wide. I figured three or four guys would get by me. Not knowing the exact points, knowing we had to finish in front of the 5 (Kasey Kahne), especially if the 2 won, I knew my path to the best finish was going to be at the bottom there.
“Got a good push off of Turn 2. If it would have been a little farther down the straightaway, I think I would have had enough speed to get under Brad and might have had a shot for the win. But he went all the way across the track and just had enough room to get down in front of me.
“Like I said, that's where I felt I had to put my car for my best chance at the best finish. All those guys were pretty quick up there. Got a good restart, got a good run. It's just how it turned out.”
If Talladega had an innocent victim, it was Kyle Busch. Caught up in a wreck not of his making on Lap 103, Busch finished 40th and failed to advance to the next round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by seven points—after entering Sunday’s race at Talladega second in the standings.
Busch’s race took a harsh turn for the worse after Aric Almirola tapped the rear bumper of JJ Yeley’s Toyota and started a chain-reaction crash on the backstretch. Busch slowed his Toyota behind the wreck, but Austin Dillon’s Chevrolet knocked Busch’s car into the inside wall, severely damaging the Camry.
Busch drove the crippled car to the garage, where his crew did yeoman work to get it back on the track. But by then, Busch was too far down the running order to recover.
Crew chief Dave Rogers was philosophical about the disappointing result, which thwarted the team’s strategy of running in the back, supposedly out of harm’s way (Busch was 28th when the accident occurred).
"It's a shame--everyone has been working really hard,” Rogers said. “I felt like we got off to a slow start early in the season, and we were advancing through the playoffs pretty well with hard work and good decisions and good teamwork. The team was performing really well and working extremely hard. I thought we were in a decent spot coming into the race and rode around in the back. 
“Kyle got checked up for the wreck and had everything saved up, but he got run over from behind. There is no safe place in here. Everyone, every time we come to a speedway everyone will strategize—we're going to ride in the back, we're going to ride in the front, we're going to do this. The truth is that, if you're out there on the race track at Talladega or Daytona, you have a pretty good chance that you're going to get in a wreck and today was our day.”
Over the last few laps of the GEICO 500, Jeff Gordon’s campaign for a possible fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship hung by a thread as drivers at Talladega swapped positions.
Ultimately, Gordon finished 26th, good enough to keep him in the Chase by three points over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, who finished 12th.
“We were in, we were out,” Gordon said. “We were in good position and bad position. Those last couple of laps were the most nerve-wracking laps of my life, so I’m glad they’re over…
“If I never have to come back to Talladega, I’ll be fine with that. I’m just excited about our chances to get to Homestead, and those chances come in these next few races—Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix. Those are great tracks for us.”
Gordon was the only one of four Hendrick drivers to advance to the Eliminator Round. Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kahne were eliminated after the Talladega cutoff race.
“We knew that Jimmie and Junior were in tough positions, but if anybody could win this race, either one of those guys could,” Gordon said. “I knew Kasey was going to race hard all day and he was in and out, in and out. I really thought he was going to make it, but I guess (race runner-up Matt) Kenseth getting that late charge may have been the game changer there.
“It’s very difficult. These are three guys that could be major factors in this championship. They are great teams, great drivers and friends of mine. I hate to see them not in there. But we’re going to try to make Hendrick proud and go out there and get ourselves to Homestead.”

Talladega Cool-Down Lap

Cool-Down Lap

Did Keselowski and the No. 2 team really win the Talladega race at Charlotte?

Oct. 20, 2014

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

TALLADEGA, Ala.—Against all odds, Brad Keselowski advanced to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, capturing victory in a race he had to win on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

To be sure, talent played a role, and talent is something Keselowski has in ample supply.

Focus was a major factor, too. Throughout the week preceding the Talladega race, during a test session at Martinsville Speedway and on Friday and Saturday at Talladega, Keselowski answered questions from reporters in terse, clipped sentences, preferring not to fuel the fire that came to a blaze on the track and in the garage at Charlotte on the previous Saturday night.

Keselowski had his blinders on, and the only point of interest was the finish line at NASCAR’s biggest oval track.

After playing bumper cars with Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin at Charlotte, and after getting jumped by Kenseth between transporters after the race, Keselowski was coming to Talladega without a friend in the world.

That, at least, was the conventional wisdom. But it wasn’t the truth.

In fact, Keselowski had plenty of friends, and a few of them were on the race track. Team Penske teammate Joey Logano gave him a critical push on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish, allowing Keselowski to take the lead and control the race on the second and final green-white-checkered.

Kenseth, of all people, stayed with Keselowski on the final two-lap run, proving once again that self-interest and expediency will trump rivalry at a restrictor-plate track every time.

The friends Keselowski really needed, however, weren’t driving race cars on Sunday, and it wasn’t the race at Talladega that brought their importance into crystal-clear focus.

That had happened a week earlier at Charlotte, when the No. 2 crew came to the Keseslowski’s defense during the fracas with Kenseth. Crew chief Paul Wolfe, a man of small stature and huge heart, waded into the melee, determined to reach his driver and break up the fight.

“I guess maybe I showed a little side of me that I surprised some people last week,” Wolfe said after Sunday’s race. “But I've told others this week that, at the end of the day, I'd stand up for anyone on this team, including the driver. I believe in every one of them.

“I guess maybe looking at it from that standpoint, yeah, definitely it didn't hurt, and showed that we're going to stick together as a team no matter what happens.”

Team owner Roger Penske likewise demonstrated his unconditional support of Keselowski, even though the driver’s “behavior penalty” for his actions at Charlotte cost Penske $50,000.

“Number one, these guys (other competitors) are jealous of the job he's done this year,” Penske said. “He's won six races. He's (won) poles. He's been up front. Nobody likes to see a guy win like that. The fact that he has a little edge on him, he's continually delivering, obviously I think makes a difference.

“If everybody understood what happened on the racetrack last week, when you get your rear fender knocked off on a restart, you get your front fender knocked off on a pass by, I want him to get mad. I don't want him to take it… If he wants to get a little upset sometimes, that's okay with me. We'll let NASCAR figure out if he's over the line or not. 

“I guess it cost us 50 grand. I'll take 50 grand and the win this week, wouldn't you?”

In fact, Charlotte was the blast furnace that has hardened the resolve of the No. 2 team and directed the them-against-us, backs-against-the-wall mentality toward a higher purpose—the second Sprint Cup title Keselowski covets so ardently.

It also underscored for Keselowski something he already knows.

“I hate comparing myself to other sports, but if you took a football team and said Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl, he would probably think that wasn't right, because everybody had a role in it,” Keselowski said after the race. “Everybody had a role in today. Maybe I have more of a role when it goes bad, but maybe the other guys don't get enough credit when things go good. But everybody plays a part in our success.

“I'm very hesitant to sit before you and say I did this one thing and that's why we're in Victory Lane today because of this, this and that, pat myself on the back. It's not really about that. It's really about us working as a collective group to persevere over countless obstacles and adversity that this sport puts up every week.

“For whatever reason, I seem to need to climb over bigger ones than other people. That's certainly something I don't want to have to do. Like I said before, it makes winning that much sweeter.”

In a very real sense, the crucial victory at Talladega was forged in the fires of Charlotte.

Four races from now, we may well be able to say the same thing about the Sprint Cup championship.

Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup title aspirations end at Talladega

Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup title aspirations end at Talladega 
Oct. 19, 2014
By Mark McCarter
NASCAR Wire Service
TALLADEGA, Ala.–-As Dale Earnhardt Jr. went spinning madly on the backstretch, careening from the wall to the infield grass, these words painted on the wall appeared clearly on television via
his in-car camera:
"This is Talladega."
As if Earnhardt and the rest of the field of Sunday afternoon’s frenetic NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 needed a reminder where they were.
NASCAR’s most precarious, unpredictable track—Talladega Superspeedway—was the setting for the most pivotal race of the season for Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the six-time premier series champion. They needed a victory to advance into the eight-driver “Eliminator” Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
When Earnhardt was caught up in his wreck halfway through the first lap of a green-white-checkered finish, he was toast. When Brad Keselowski—also needing a win to advance—bulled his way to the front on the restart, Johnson was toast. Keselowski had labeled this three-race stretch of the Chase—Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega—the “death bracket” and it extinguished the hopes of three of four Hendrick cars, with Kasey Kahne also being kayoed; only teammate Jeff Gordon advanced among the eight survivors.
As if the order of finish really mattered, Johnson ended the day in 24th, Earnhardt 31st, though Johnson led the most laps (84) and Earnhardt second-most (31).
Earnhardt leaned on his No. 88 Chevrolet on pit road, his hat turned backwards, a downcast look on his face.
“The race is over,” Earnhardt said. “It’s time to go home.”
Continued Earnhardt, “There have probably been worse things (than this finish). I’m not retiring or anything, so we’ll try next year. We’ve had a good season (with three wins) and have a lot to be
looking forward to. We’re definitely not going to get too tore up about; we didn’t run well.”
Earnhardt is the ‘Dega fan favorite, a reminder of which was provided when he took the lead on lap 75, darting inside Johnson and sending the crowd into a thunderous roar. He is a five-time winner
here, where his late father is the all-time winner, but his last visit to Talladega’s victory lane was in October 2004.
Junior held the lead for 29 consecutive laps, led two more later but soon found himself dropping deeper into the field.
“We had a real good car today and we got shuffled out,” Earnhardt said.
It was a far cry from Earnhardt’s strategy here last spring that mystified many observers and prompted more than a few second-guessers when he chose to lag deep into the field, waited too late to
make any substantial move, got caught out of sequence on pit stops and chugged home 26th.
“We worked real hard all day long trying to run up front,” he said. “I knew we needed to be up front all day long. We got shuffled to the back. I made a move trying to get up front and it didn’t
work out. So, we lost a lot of track position and never got it back.”
He was essentially out of contention when the wreck happened. David Gilliland tapped Greg Biffle’s rear bumper after exiting turn 2, sending Biffle slightly akimbo. He hooked Earnhardt’s
quarterpanel and the carnage was on.
“We were just sitting there running straight there, and it’s just hard racing,” Earnhardt said. “That is the way it goes at the end of these races. We weren’t in a good position there in the back.”
Earnhardt hustled back around to the pits for quick repairs, only to be penalized for speeding on pit road, something akin to being flagged 15 yards for a late hit right after having a game-winning
field goal blocked.
Sighed team owner Rick Hendrick, “It’s just Talladega.”