Friday, June 29, 2012

Time is now for Kenseth ... and picks

The time is now for Matt Kenseth ... and for a lot of reasons.
It was announced earlier this week that Kenseth was parting ways after this season with the only team he has ever driven for in his 13 seasons in NASCAR Sprint Cup, Roush Fenway Racing. It seemed a bit odd that Kenseth would go elsewhere considering that he is leading the point standings going into Saturday's 7:30 p.m. race Kentucky to be shown on TNT.

That Kenseth will be changing teams next year, isn't good news for his competition. Last year's champion, Tony Stewart, proved that a team with big changes coming, can indeed win the title. That was the case when Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb split.
He has already said he has a deal in place for 2013, so he's also racing without the extra pressure to win for himself, but the motivation to win for others on his team.

Another reason Kenseth, who won the Sprint Cup title in 2003, needs to win now is that the clock is ticking for him. He turned 40 in March and while history tells us it's not impossible to win a title at age 40 or older (Stewart turned 40 during his title run last year), it also tells us that Sprint Cup titles usually go to the younger generation.
Stewart's run to the title was the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the ages of Sprint Cup winners. Of the 28 drivers to win a Sprint Cup title, only six have done at 40 years older (Terry Labonte was six days shy of his 40th birthday when the season ended in 1996, so can't count him). However, of the 63 NASCAR Sprint Cup titles won, only 11 have come when the driver was 40 or older.
Before Stewart last year, the last 40-plus year old driver to win the title was Dale Jarrett, who was 42 when the season ended in 1999. You would think, with today's emphasis on keeping in better physical condition, the trend would be for more 40-plus year old drivers to win titles. The fact is though, it just doesn't happen a lot.
Dale Earnhardt won three titles after turning 40 in 1991 and 93-94, and Lee Petty won three titles after age 40 in 1954 and 1958-59. The oldest driver to win a title was Bobby Allison, who was 45 when the 1983 season ended.
So, it won't be impossible for Kenseth to capture another crown. But the clock is not going to stop for him. So, NASCAR isn't really much different than the rest of the major professional sports. It's mostly for the younger generation. Kenseth could become another exception to the rule as early as this season. And whichever team that has apparently already signed him, heavily rumored to be Joe Gibbs Racing, knows they will be getting a quality person with no extra-curricular issues to deal with as Kenseth is one of NASCAR's good guys. So maybe that will help his odds of winning again.
But the numbers tell us different, whether we like it or not.

The Sprint Cup series makes its second trip to Kentucky Speedway and apparently the track has made significant improvements in its traffic flow patterns (mainly by adding more parking space) so more fans can actually get into their seats to watch the race instead of listening to it on the radio while they sit in long lines.
This is a bit of a difficult week to predict, since there is only one race to go off, but here we go.

Kyle Busch - He won here last year. Whether his engine can last an entire race will be the big question.
Jimmie Johnson - He's king of the 1.5-mile tracks and he's driving with a special paint scheme to commemorate classic Chevys from the 1960s, He and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each won with special paint schemes at Dover and Michigan, so why not again?
Tony Stewart - Kentucky and Darlington are the two active Sprint Cup tracks he has not won on, and other than Indianapolis, this is as close to home as Stewart will race this year. He did finish 12th at Kentucky last year.
Brad Keselowski - He finished seventh last year, but had 31 of the fastest laps run during the race, the second most behind Busch.
Matt Kenseth - Wouldn't it be dramatic to see him in Victory Lane after this week's news and he did finish sixth last year.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Clint Bowyer won last week, but that was a road course, which is, of course, much different than the usual ovals that NASCAR runs on. While Bowyer has been improving as the season has gone on, it's hard to pick him at Kentucky.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Sonoma.
 Jeff Gordon:  5th. Overcame running out of gas to rally for a good finish.
Tony Stewart: 2nd. A nice drive, coming from 24th with only two cautions all day
Juan Pablo Montoya: 34th. Sort of ironic that his ex-crew chief was celebrating in Victory Lane at the end of the day
Marcos Ambrose: 8th. He led 11 laps early, but was disappointed he didn't contend for the win.
Boris Said: 29th. Disappointed here, too, but yes, I'll pick him again at Watkins Glen.

 Here's a look at my results after 16 races and 80 picks.
 8 wins
30 top fives
38 top 10s

Grade for the week: B- No victory this week, and Montoya's effort was the killer here. Took a shot with Boris Said, but maybe not enough Said Head karma was going on Sunday. Where are the Said Heads when I need them? Stewart methodically went through the field all day. Four or five more laps, maybe he would have caught eventual winner Clint Bowyer.
One Last Thing:  This is no surprise, but in case you were wondering, Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers with wins at 1.5 mile tracks with 16.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stenhouse Jr. in, Kenseth out at Roush Fenway in 2013

Here is the press release from Roush Fenway

CONCORD, N.C. (June 26, 2012) -- Roush Fenway Racing announced today that 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will compete for the team full-time in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition beginning in 2013, while Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway will part ways at the conclusion of the 2012 season.
“Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has more than proved his abilities on the race track,” said team co-owner Jack Roush.  “We feel that he is not only a key piece of our team’s future, but a key piece of the future of the sport.  Roush Fenway is an organization with a wonderful past and present, as well as an extremely promising future, and I can’t think of a better candidate than Ricky to usher in the next era of success for the team.
“Of course, I’d like to thank Matt Kenseth for his many years of loyal service,” added Roush. “Matt has been an integral part of this organization for well over a decade, and we are extremely appreciative of his accomplishments and contributions to the team, and will always consider him a part of the Roush Fenway family.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to tap into Matt’s potential and bring him on board many years ago, and I’m proud that together we were able to combine the tools and the resources of Roush Fenway with his talent and determination to forge a partnership that yielded a championship at the Cup level and all of his 22 Cup victories, including two Daytona 500 wins,” continued Roush. “The No. 17 is positioned extremely well this season, and I’m committed to providing the team the best resources to continue their run for the 2012 championship. I have no doubt that Matt will do his part.”
“Matt and I broke into this sport together, learned the ropes and were able to bring home a championship,” said Roush Fenway general manager Robbie Reiser, who as crew chief of the No. 17 guided Kenseth to Roush Fenway’s first Sprint Cup title in 2003 before moving into his current role. “Over the 20 years we have worked with each other, Matt has been a fierce competitor and become a close friend, not only for me, but as a mentor to young drivers like Ricky.  I wish Matt nothing but the best for the next phase of his career, and know that we’ll remain close.”
Stenhouse Jr. is one of three drivers currently in development for Roush Fenway Racing. Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 champion and Chris Buescher, who has won seven races in only 42 starts in ARCA competition are also being groomed for Sprint Cup competition for Roush Fenway in the future.
“We take great pride in the depth of the bench here,” noted team president Steve Newmark. “The organization’s ability to identify and develop new talent is part of our DNA and a cornerstone of our success. I’m excited about the opportunity to bring Ricky into the Sprint Cup Series and get him into victory lane. He has an incredible opportunity to continue his winning ways, just as Matt did nearly 15 years ago.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Will it be Califorinia wine, or California whine? ... and picks

It's all different this week. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Sonoma, Calif., for the first of its two road races of the year. Yes, the first of two times this season where they will intentionally make right turns as well as the usual left turns on the ovals.
That means there will be some different drivers in the field this week, too, as the so-called road course ringers will be in play. And they will be a threat to win, too, because they understand just how to make the right turns work with left turns.
They also understand that driving a Sprint Cup car on the road course is a little different than the lighter and easier handling models they are accustomed too. Unlike with sports cars and open wheel cars, the Sprint Cup cars allow drivers to nudge slower cars in front of them out of the way. Some are  better at that than others So, for sure, during the race on driver radios, and maybe even after the race, we're going to hear some California whining, which will be appropriate since the track sits in the middle of California wine country.
So, to be good on this track, you have to understand the car your driving, and also maybe be a little bit of a bully here. If not, then it's a lot of follow the leader with restarts being the best, and one of the few, chances to make passes.
So, here's a look the five guys this week who understand when to be a bit of bully and understand the type of cars they are in and how they will handle on the 10-turn, 1.99-mile track.

Jeff Gordon - He's got five wins here and this may be his best chance to put himself in the midst of the wild-card hunt in the race to make the Chase for the Championship as he sits 20th in points.
Tony Stewart - He's still got a bit of that bully mentality in him, which is a compliment when it comes to racing on road courses. He's also got two wins and four top-fives at Sonoma and could be the first driver to win three races this season.
Juan Pablo Montoya - He may be the most skilled Sprint Cup regular when it comes to road courses. The former Formula One and Indy Car driver understands the road courses and does have a win at Sonoma and also isn't afraid to use bumper on slower cars if necessary.
Marcos Ambrose - He doesn't have a win here, but he'll be one of the favorites with his vast road course racing experience and after winning on the other road course at Watkins Glen last August.
Boris Said - This one for the Said Heads out there. There's only two races a year where he can be a legitimate pick, so we might as well go for it.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Robby Gordon. While he's not yet officially considered a road course ringer, he's pretty close to it. He's also not afraid to stick his car's nose into another's bumper to make a clear path to the next car. He does have a Sprint Cup win at Sonoma. He could either win it, or be so out of control, end up placing 30 something.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Michigan.
Dale Earnhardt Jr:  1st. I pretty much told you this was going to happen, like it or not.
Matt Kenseth: 3rd. He's been strong all year and a Roush-Fenway car at Michigan is never a bad choice.
Greg Biffle: 4th. See previous comment.
Tony Stewart: 2nd. Couldn't quite cover Junior, but a good day for the No. 14
Denny Hamlin: 34th. He had a wreck, then caught fire, just not his day.

 Here's a look at my results after 15 races and 75 picks.
 8 wins
28 top fives
35 top 10s

Grade for the week: A- Back on the winning track now, so to speak. Stewart challenged Junior for a while, but clearly wasn't as good. Kenseth and Biffle, with their history at Michigan, were must picks as well. Glad Hamlin didn't get burned by the fire. Good job by some other teams' crews helping get the fire out before it was out of control.
One Last Thing:  The last road course ringer to win a Sprint Cup Series road course event was Delaware County's (Pa.) own Mark Donohue at Riverside in 1973.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Junior is going to win, it's just a matter of when

There's really only one question to be asked this week. OK, well, there's more than one, but the main one that many are talking about: Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. win at Michigan on Father's Day? The reason it's such a big deal is that the last time Junior won it was at Michigan ... on Father's Day ... four years and 143 races ago.
And it became a bigger question after last week's race at Pocono, where Junior finished eighth, but led 36 laps, including 16 laps late in the race where he appeared to have the strongest car. But with Junior being second in the points standings, and with fuel being an issue, crew chief Steve Letarte made the call to bring him in, rather than going for the win and risk running out of fuel and finishing somewhere in the 20s.
Another factor is that Junior has 11 top-10 finishes this season, the most of any driver. Along with not getting a win, of course, the one black eye on Junior's record has been his inability to lead leaps. He has led 123 laps this season, the fewest of any driver in the top 12, with the exception of Clint Bowyer, who has just led five laps.
If Junior fans want more encouraging numbers, there are more. He is the only driver to complete every lap this season and he is also third, behind Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, in quality passes, which are defined by passing cars in the top 15 during a green flag.
Also, in 25 starts at Michigan, Junior has started on the pole twice, has the one victory, and has eight top 10 finishes. Those aren't the best numbers at Michigan, but they do offer hope.

There's also the little matter of it being Father's Day as it has been over 11 years since Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. And for sure, there have been other famous father-son duos in NASCAR, but none more polarizing than the Earnhardts. And a win on Father's Day again would sure make Victory Lane seem like a scene straight out of a Disney movie ending.

Then there is also a factor that all drivers will be dealing with and that's the new pavement at Michigan. Junior and Letarte seemed to figure it out at Pocono last week, so it would be easy to speculate that they will get it right again.
So, unlike before Talladega this year, I'm not guaranteeing that Junior will win. However, all of these factors just can't be ignored. The fact is, Junior is going to win sometime this year. He's  run too strong for too long in too many races not to find Victory Lane. Whether it happens at Michigan Sunday on Father's Day remains to be seen.
So, after all of that, here's a look at this week's picks as we basically decide how many Roush-Fenway cars to pick.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - I was probably going to pick him anyway before looking up all the facts, but now I pretty much have to.
Matt Kenseth - Roushkateer No. 1. He leads the points standings, has two wins at Michigan and an impressive 11 top five finishes in 25 starts there.
Greg Biffle - Roushkateer No. 2. He's also got two wins, to go with 10 top 10s and has been strong most of the season before engine woes dropped him to 24th last week at Pocono.
Tony Stewart - The defending champion has always been strong at Michigan with one win and 10 tops fives in 26 starts and it's about time for his usual summertime surge, which may have started with a third last week at Pocono.
Denny Hamlin - He has just 12 starts at Michigan, but there are two wins, five top fives and seven top 10s on his record already.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - My inability to not pick Jimmie Johnson here is scary. There's no doubt he could end up in Victory Lane. He hasn't won at Michigan yet, which means he might be destined and even more determined to win there.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in the first 400-mile race at Pocono.
Jimmie Johnson:  4th. Caught speeding on pit road twice and still fourth. Not bad.
Carl Edwards: 11th. Not a terrible day, but not a factor to win either.
Jeff Gordon: 19th. Another difficult day for Wonder Boy, or Underdog, or whomever.
Denny Hamlin: 5tth. Tricky Triangle never been too tricky for him.
Brad Keselowski: 18th. Last year's fall winner not a factor Sunday.

 Here's a look at my results after 14 races and 70 picks.
7 wins
24 top fives
31 top 10s

Grade for the week: C. My winning streak ends at six as Joey Logano slices up the field, and particularly, Mark Martin in Turn 1. Hamlin was reliable as always, and Johnson, who is in typical five-timer form, made this an OK day.
One Last Thing:  The No. 55 car has been driven mostly by Martin this season, along with team owner Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers. The car sits 13th in owners points heading into this weekend with Martin behind the wheel. That's not a bad ride to have. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Jeff Gordon goes from Wonder Boy to Underdog ... and picks

They used to call him "Wonder Boy". Now he's more like Underdog.
That's because halfway through NASCAR's regular season, Jeff Gordon is going to need some help if he is to make NASCAR's version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Championship.
Gordon's career statistics don't have the look of an underdog, He has 85 victories and four Sprint Cup titles.
But he's had way more than his share of bad luck this season.
The latest unfortunate circumstance for Gordon occurred Sunday at Dover. He was leading and pulling away from eventual winner, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. It was obvious that Gordon had the fastest car of the day. As good as Johnson was Sunday while leading 289 of the 400 laps, Gordon was better.
But a loose left rear wheel brought Gordon into the pits. He had to surrender the lead and surrender to the idea of being the victim of circumstance yet again. Gordon was able to stay out during a long green flag run, so he took the lead during green flag pit stops. But the tire issue put him off sequence with the rest of the field. Sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn't.
And of course, for Gordon, it didn't Sunday.
"It's always more frustrating when you've got a car that can win and you show it by going up there and taking the lead," Gordon said Sunday. "We don't care about finishing in the top 15 or top 10 right now. That does nothing for us. We need wins."

So now, Gordon sits 21st in the points standings. He has one top five and three top 10 finishes in these first 13 races. And he's also accumulated 10 bonus points for leading laps in races. Every other driver with 10 or more bonus points would qualify for the Chase at the moment.
That tells us that Gordon has been fast. But for whatever the reason, he's not been able to stay fast.
Here's a rundown of results and what happened to him during each of the first 13 races this season.
Daytona: Engine blows up after 81 laps. He did lead one lap and finished 40th.
Phoenix: Solid finish of eighth. Also led one lap.
Las Vegas: An OK finish of 12th. Did lead two laps
Bristol: 35th. Was battling for fifth when he was clipped by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sent into the wall. Did lead a lap early in the race.
California: 26th. Was running in top 5 when gas man couldn't get can out, causing a stop and go penalty.
Martinsville: 14th. Led a race-high 329 laps, but chance for win went out the window when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson were bumped out of the lead by Clint Bowyer late in the race.
Texas: 4th. A solid day, where he also led two laps.
Kansas: 21st. First race of the year where he did not lead at least one lap. Was running 9th with 35 to go when engine issues slowed him.
Richmond: 23rd. A cut tire after being hit by Aric Alimrola and bumped into Greg Biffle doomed his day early on.
Talladega: 33rd. Caught up in a nine-car accident after starting on pole
Darlington 35th. Was running in the top 10 much of the race, but night ruined by not one, but two cut tires.
Charlotte: 7th. For once a solid mostly uneventful night for the No. 24.
Dover: 13th. He had the car to win, but that loose tire doomed his chances of seeing Victory Lane.
So, there you have it. He's had pit crew issues, tire issues, accident issue, teammate issues - all kinds of things that have not been his fault.
And yes, given Gordon's past success, there's no doubt of group of NASCAR fans who don't mind seeing him struggle along. But even if you're a Gordon hater, it's hard to deny he's had a remarkable run of simple bad luck.
But here's the thing about being an underdog. While reaching the Chase may not be likely for him at this point, he does have a chance. His cars have been good enough. He easily could have won at Martinsville, Talladega and Dover. So, he's still a good enough driver and this week the Sprint Cup Series is at Pocono, where Gordon won last June. It just might be the right place for good things to start happening for Gordon.

He'll need stretch of top 10 finishes, with a win or two mixed in, in these next 13 races to make the Chase. Gordon sits 55 points behind current Chase qualifier Ryan Newman, who has one win, and 54 points behind teammate Kasey Kahne, who is stalking Newman being just one point behind him and also with one win.
It's fun to watch any race when a driver can come from the back and reach the front.
Gordon and his team are capable of making that happen in the points race this season.
And like him or not, it will be interesting to watch whether it will or not.

So, here's who to watch this Sunday at Pocono, where there is new pavement and the race has been shortened from 500 to 400 miles.

Jimmie Johnson - Wig or not, fastest car or not, he's on too big a roll not to pick. He does have two wins and 14 tops 10s at the Tricky Triangle.
Carl Edwards - He needs a win bad and Pocono comes up at the just the right time. He's got two career wins here and he needs to make it three to get back into the Chase picture.
Jeff Gordon - Yes, I know I just documented his bad luck. Just a feeling it's going to change this week as he has five wins and 17 top five finishes at Pocono.
Denny Hamlin - He has four wins in 12 tries at Pocono.
Brad Keselowski - He's young, but he's also won at Pocono and the Penske cars seem to run well on the big tracks.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, he's been close a few times to breaking his 142-race winless streak for those you snoring at home. Just wasn't amped about him this week, but maybe he'll reach the mountain on Father's Day next week at Michigan, the site of his last victory.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in the 400-mile race at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson:  1st. Not the fastest car, but no mistakes either.
Matt Kenseth: 3rd. He was good all day, but couldn't challenge Johnson.
Greg Biffle: 11th. Points leader was OK, but never led a lap at Dover.
Kyle Busch: 29th. Ambushed by a grenade engine.
Martin Truex Jr.: 7th. Did a steady job at Dover, but never a contender to win either.

 Here's a look at my results after 13 races and 65 picks.
  7 wins
22 top fives
29 top 10s

Grade for the week: B-plus. That's six winners in a row counting the All-Star race. Would have been an A week had Busch's engine not blown as he was in the top five much of the first half of the race.
One Last Thing:  It's been a NASCAR Sprint Cup record 30 races since a driver won from the pole. The last driver to start on the pole and win at Pocono was Tony Stewart in 2009.