CHASE RACE 2

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parity record ready to fall in New Hampshire

Weekend Preview

Parity record ready to fall in New Hampshire

Sept. 18, 2014

Staff Report
NASCAR Wire Service

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race results at New Hampshire Motor Speedway can be summed up with one word.

Unpredictable.

Thirteen different drivers have taken the checkered flag in the last 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the Magic Mile – tied with Texas Motor Speedway for the all-time streak without a repeat winner.

And there’s a better than average chance the Magic Mile takes sole possession of the record after this Sunday’s Sylvania 300 (2 p.m. on ESPN) as Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all missing from the 13-in-13 stretch.

"The streak is a testimony to the competitive challenge our track presents to drivers. In addition to new winners, we're seeing record lead changes, more drivers than ever on the lead lap, and some great finishes," said Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of the track. "We've had part-time drivers, former champions, and first-time winners end up in Sunoco Victory Lane. We take a lot of pride in the fact that anyone can win and anything can happen here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway."

Gordon owns three victories at New Hampshire, but has not won there since 1998. He’s on the cusp of his fourth win this season after posting runner-up finishes the last two races. Despite his Granite State drought, Gordon boasts the highest average running position in the series at the 1.058-mile oval (7.7) where he has competed in all 39 of its NASCAR Sprint Cup series events – tied with Jeff Burton for its all-time starts record.

“Loudon always seems to be a good track for us, although it didn’t appear to be the case when the green (flag) waved the last time we were there,” said Gordon of his 26th-place July New Hampshire finish. “The car was ‘undriveable’ at the start and we lost a lap early, but it was because one of the tires was slowly losing air. Once we got the (chassis) adjustments back in it, the car was really fast – so that gives us some confidence as we head into this weekend.”

It’s been a while since Harvick has won at New Hampshire, too (09/17/06). In his last two races at the track, he has finished 30th and 20th, respectively. Harvick can likely count on a solid starting position, at least. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver boasts a series-best six Coors Light Pole Awards this season and has started lower than sixth once in his last eight races, coincidentally at the Magic Mile.

“(New Hampshire is) a track where you have to have a good-handling car, you have to have track position and you have to have everything going right,” Harvick said. “If you get yourself stuck in the middle of the pack you’re not going to have a very good day unless you have a really good car.”

After posting three wins, his highest total since he racked up six in 2004, Earnhardt will try to automatically advance to the Chase’s Contender Round with a New Hampshire checkered flag. He has the most starts without a win a Loudon, but has seven top fives to his credit there. Since Earnhardt’s emphatic win at Pocono, he has posted one top-10 finish in the last six races, a fifth-place showing at Michigan.

“I love New Hampshire because it’s short, and you blink an eye, 300 laps is gone,” said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief. “You have to have your pit strategy right. You have to be aggressive. That’s kind of Dale’s and my signature, being aggressive with the pit strategy. He’s committed to driving those unique pit strategies and I think that’s what allows us to consistently finish well at New Hampshire.”

Familiar faces Hornish and McDowell return to action with owner points title implications

Seven races remain on the NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule and the owner points championship looks to be a two-horse race as the season unwinds.

Currently, the No. 22 Team Penske Ford occupies the top of the standings with a 15-point lead over the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. With their typical drivers focused on the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in New Hampshire or points titles in other NASCAR series, each car has an open seat for Saturday’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS). Sam Hornish Jr. will take the reins of the No. 54 JGR car, primarily driven by Kyle Busch, while NNS veteran Michael McDowell will make his Team Penske season debut in the No. 22.

Back in action for his first race since Mid-Ohio on Aug. 16, Hornish claims one win (Iowa Speedway), four top fives and two poles in seven starts this season. He has never won in his four starts at Kentucky, but has experienced success there with one Coors Light Pole Award, two top fives (including a runner-up showing) and an average finish of 5.2.

McDowell, often the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford Fusion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, has made two Nationwide appearances this season, both in the No. 20 JGR Toyota. Both races were at Iowa, and in another twist, he tied his career-best with a runner-up finish behind No. 22 Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski in last month’s U.S. Cellular 250 presented by New Holland. Playing to McDowell’s favor, the No. 22 swept Kentucky last year and finished second in the series’ first visit to the 1.5-mile tri-oval this season.

“Driving for Roger Penske is something I have dreamed about since I was a kid racing Go-Karts,” McDowell said. “I have lived in Charlotte for 10 years and I haven’t changed my phone number during that time. When people ask why, my joke is; when Roger Penske dials my number, I want to make sure he has the same number I gave Walter Czarnecki 14 years ago.

“I told him I wanted to drive for Team Penske someday and I stayed in contact with him as I climbed up the open wheel ladder. It turned out to be a good thing I never changed my number.”

Crafton cruising towards championship repeat

Matt Crafton found himself back in familiar territory following his second-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday night. The 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion reclaimed the top spot in the standings where he holds a five-point lead over ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter.

He can further distance himself from the field with a strong showing in Saturday’s UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1 p.m. on FOX Sports 1) where the NCWTS returns after a two-year hiatus. With so many young drivers on the circuit, the 38 year old has the advantage of having 11 previous starts on the 1.058-mile oval and boasts two top-five and six top-10 finishes there.

“The [shorter] tracks are what I grew up on so I'm looking forward to the Truck Series getting back to Loudon,” Crafton said. “It's been [three] years since the trucks have raced there, but I've had some good runs there in the past; we even got our first pole there in 2005.”

If he can stay out front, Crafton will become the first back-to-back champion and the fourth multi-title winner since the series began in 1995. At the moment, Crafton doesn’t even have the points race on his mind, claiming he is only focused on winning events until the final race at Homestead.

“Homestead is going to be when we are going to worry about (the points race),” Crafton said. “We are going to go to each and every race trying to win, each and every darn race.”

Chasers Can Help Break Record At New Hampshire

Chasers Can Help Break Record At New Hampshire
Thirteen different drivers have taken the checkered flag in the last 13 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – tied with Texas Motor Speedway for the all-time record streak without a repeat winner.
And there’s a better than average chance the Magic Mile takes sole possession of the record after this Sunday’s Sylvania 300 (2 p.m. on ESPN) as Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all missing from the 13-in-13 stretch.
Gordon owns three victories at New Hampshire, but has not won there since 1998. He has been knocking on the door for his fourth win of the season after posting runner-up finishes the last two races. The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports driver will attempt to improve on his last Loudon showing in July when he finished 26th, but did lead for 19 laps. Despite his Granite State drought, Gordon boasts the highest average running position in the series at the 1.058 oval (7.7) where he has competed in all 39 of its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events – tied with Jeff Burton for its all-time starts record.
Similar to Gordon, Harvick has one win at New Hampshire, but he notched it eight years ago (September 17, 2006). In his last two races at the track, he has finished 30th and 20th, respectively. Harvick can likely count on a solid starting position, at least. He boasts a series-best six Coors Light Pole Awards on the season and has started lower than sixth once his last eight races, ironically at New Hampshire. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver opened the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a fifth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway.    
After posting three wins, his highest total since he racked up six in 2004, Earnhardt will try to automatically advance to the Chase’s Contender Round with a New Hampshire checkered flag. In 30 starts at Loudon, he has seven top fives and 13 tops 10s to his credit, but has never finished higher than third. Since Earnhardt’s emphatic win at Pocono, he has posted one top-10 finish in the last six races, a fifth-place showing at Michigan.

Keselowski Heads To Contender Round; Looks For Three Straight
Entering the Chase as the No. 1 seed, Brad Keselowski lived up to the billing by registering a win in the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, automatically advancing to the Contender Round.
The No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion driver hopes the win is a good omen. He last won at Chicagoland in the 2012 Chase-opener, the same year he clinched the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Keselowski, who also took the checkered flag in the regular season finale at Richmond, won consecutive races for the first time in his career.
Although he moves on in the Chase regardless of where he finishes at Loudon or Dover, Keselowski looks to continue momentum by finding Victory Lane in this Sunday’s Sylvania 300  -- which would mean his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series sweep . The Team Penske driver won the July race at the Loudon in dominating fashion, leading 138 of the 305 laps. He looks to become the first person to sweep the track since Kurt Busch in 2004 (Busch won series championship that season).

Joe Gibbs Racing Jumps Into Chase With Strong Showing
The majority of attention heading into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was focused on the drivers from Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske. And deservedly so. Drivers from those organizations won 13 of the previous 16 regular season races.
But, coming in under the radar, Joe Gibbs Racing made a statement at Chicagoland Sunday.
Its trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth finished sixth, seventh and 10th. It was only the third time that’s happened this season.
The first time: New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
All that’s left for JGR to assert itself into championship contender talk is for one of its drivers to take a stroll through victory lane – a feat it hasn’t accomplished since Denny Hamlin won at Talladega in May.
After posting a career-high seven victories last year in his first season with JGR, Kenseth has no checkered flags to his credit in 2014. Still, he’s been one of the most consistent drivers in the series, finishing sixth in the regular season point standings (his 17 top 10s rank second only to Jeff Gordon’s 18).
Kyle Busch has experienced an up-and-down season. He notched a quick victory at Auto Club in March and owns three runner-up finishes on the season. Simply put: At New Hampshire, he’s due. He’s finished second the last three races there, with his last win coming 2006.
The New Hampshire race also sets up well for Hamlin. He has three top-10 finishes at Loudon in his last five starts, including a victory, a runner-up and an eighth place showing in July.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The First Reid: If only I could have a spotter

The First Reid:  If only I could have a spotter
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

After Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, I have come to one inescapable conclusion: I need to hire a spotter.

My wife, Lee Spencer, and I work at close quarters. I write for the NASCAR Wire Service. She writes for Motorsport.com. We live together, travel together, and work together. On rare occasions, we have differences of opinion, as all couples do.

Similarly, Sprint Cup drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick live together, travel together and work together—on the race track. And on rare occasions, they have differences of opinion on the asphalt. In fact, they had one such “spat” on Sunday, when their cars collided and hit the wall. The difference? Both Patrick and Stenhouse have spotters who can shoulder the blame. On Sunday, Patrick’s spotter, Brandon Benesch, took the fall.

“I heard my spotter say that the 14 (Tony Stewart) was below me on track and I didn’t know the 17 (Stenhouse) was there on the high side of the track,” Patrick said after the race. “My spotter took the blame on that one.”  

How nice. And convenient. Having a spotter willing to fall on his sword certainly takes the stress and tension out of the motor coach. And it melts the icy stares that otherwise could make for an uncomfortable ride home.

I wonder if Brandon Benesch would consider moonlighting…


NASCAR NUMBERS
By Reid Spencer­
­­109: The number of green-flag passes made by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin in Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, tied for most in the first Chase race. Busch rallied from a lap down to finish eighth after a pit road spin and commitment violation. Hamlin started 24th and finished sixth after a late-race charge.
5: The number of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories recorded this season by Brad Keselowski, the top seed in the Chase. Keselowski won the final regular-season race at Richmond and doubled up on Sunday at Chicagoland. No other driver in the series has more than three victories thus far.
138: The number of laps led by Brad Keselowski in a dominating NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. The Magic Mile is host to next Sunday’s second race in the Chase, and Keselowski goes there as a favorite to extend his current winning streak to three races.
17: The finishing position of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway. Even though Stenhouse and girlfriend Danica Patrick collided with 10 laps left, Stenhouse finished ahead of Roush Fenway Racing’s Chase drivers, Carl Edwards (20th) and Greg Biffle (23rd).
3: The number of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway recorded by Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, tied for most among full-time active drivers. Jeff Burton has a track-record four wins at the Magic Mile.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
NASCAR NOTES
Brad Keselowski lived up to his No. 1 seed by registering a win in the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, automatically advancing to the Contender Round. The No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion driver hopes the win is a good omen. He last won at Chicagoland in the 2012 Chase-opener, the same year he clinched the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Keselowski, who also won at Richmond, won consecutive races for the first time in his career.  ... Thirteen different drivers have taken the checkered flag in the last 13 races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and no one has swept the track since Kurt Busch in 2004 – the same year he won the championship in inaugural Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Brad Keselowski won at the Loudon track in July and will attempt to break out the brooms in Sunday’s Sylvania 300. But some major names are missing from the 13-in-13 streak, notably Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. … After narrowly missing out on a spot in the Chase, Kyle Larson almost played the role of spoiler in the opening race of NASCAR’s postseason at Chicagoland Speedway, finishing third after battling for the lead as late as Lap 252. The 22-year-old Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner will attempt to notch the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of his career at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this Sunday where he finished third back in July.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sunday’s race was a microcosm of the Chase

Cool-Down Lap

Sunday’s race was a microcosm of the Chase

Sept. 15, 2014

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

It was a case of mistaken identity.

If you thought the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup preview took place on Thursday at The Murphy in downtown Chicago, you’re not alone.

After all, there were banners on the walls, TV and radio crews, national, regional and local reporters—and, of course, the 16 Chase drivers clad in their colorful fire suits.

As they always do on such occasions, drivers answered questions optimistically. Those entering the Chase with obvious strength explained why their excellent performances would continue.

Those who qualified for the Chase by the thinnest of margins explained why their fortunes were about to improve.

But make no mistake. That annual ritual wasn’t the real Chase preview.

The real Chase preview took place on Sunday, in the first race of NASCAR’s playoff.

The MyAFibStory.com 400 was a crystal ball that provided a clear vision of Nov. 16, 2014, the date of the final Chase race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The drivers likely to be competing for the title under NASCAR’s new Chase format were the same drivers running up front and leading laps on Sunday.

Admittedly, on Thursday afternoon, Kyle Busch singled out the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski, the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick and the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon as the strongest cars entering the Chase. But it wasn’t until Sunday that the reality hit home with the force of a wrecking ball.

It wasn’t until Sunday that what happened at Chicagoland Speedway either affirmed or silenced Thursday’s happy talk.

What Sunday’s race told us was that, barring calamity, Keselowski, Harvick and Gordon (the first, second and fifth-place finishers at Chicagoland) will be three of the four drivers who survive elimination and qualify for the final race.

What Sunday’s race told us was that six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is likely to be in a dogfight for the final spot at Homestead with the likes of Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin.

At Chicagoland, Johnson continued to run where he has been running—in the top 10 for most of the race, but without the speed to challenge the frontrunners for the victory. Johnson finished 12th and didn’t lead a lap.

The performance of the No. 48 team two weeks from now at Dover, Johnson’s personal playground, will be telling.

What Sunday’s race told us was that the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are on the upswing, but they still can’t answer “Yes” to the question “Are we there yet?”

Hamlin ran sixth. Kyle Busch started on the pole (based on practice speed because of a rainout of time trials), led 46 laps and finished seventh. Kenseth survived a spin on pit road to run 10th.

That’s the third time this season all three JGR drivers have finished in the top 10 in the same race. The first time didn’t come until the 19th race of the year, at New Hampshire, which hosts the second event of the Chase next Sunday.

What Sunday’s race told us is that the handling issues of the Roush Fenway Racing cars have not abated and that Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle may be hard-pressed to advance beyond the first elimination round.

Biffle narrowly made the Chase at Richmond with an ill-handling car. If possible, the No. 16 Ford he drove at Chicagoland was worse, as his 23rd-place finish attests. Edwards started third but soon drifted back through the field, finishing 20th.

If the RFR teams hope to be players in the Chase, they have much work to do and very little time to do it.

What Sunday’s race told us is that, after a mid-season lull, non-Chase driver Kyle Larson is ready to win a Sprint Cup race, and his breakthrough victory will probably come at one of the intermediate tracks in the Chase. That has the potential to complicate the equation for Chase drivers trying to advance to the next round by winning.

What Sunday’s race told us was that, if you have to pick a favorite to win it all this year, his name is Keselowski. His race-winning move, splitting the cars of Harvick and Larson off Turn 2, was vintage Kyle Busch.

The resilience of Keselowski and his entire No. 2 Team Penske outfit was vintage Jimmie Johnson. Twice Keselowski drove from the back to the front, the second time after front tire changer Hunter Masling had the maturity and courage to admit he hadn’t gotten his lug nuts tight.

Keselowski returned to pit road on Lap 183 of 267 to correct the problem, restarted behind a blockade of lapped cars and still found the right balance between patience and aggression that enabled him to drive back to the lead in time to win the race.

If Keselowski’s victory at Richmond a week earlier made a statement, Sunday’s win at Chicagoland provided the exclamation point.

And it told us that, after the reality check of missing the Chase last year, Keselowski is ready to win another title—and has the hunger to match.