Categories
Editorial

Power Rankings: The Fast 15

Each week during the season, Popular Speed Executive Editor Matt Weaver will provide a power rankings list for the top-15 drivers in NASCAR.

The Fast 15 is a list of intangible qualities, based on momentum, attention and overall success in NASCAR over the past several weeks, meaning that it’s entirely possible that an XFINITY Series or Camping World Truck Series driver appears over one of his Sprint Cup counterparts.

Don’t agree with the list? That’s okay! Just let Weaver know in the comments section at the bottom on this page. Here are the updated rankings following a wild Camping World 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

  1. Joey Logano (LW: 1)

One driver winning the first two races of the Contender Round at Charlotte and Kansas is plausible, given the similar characteristics of both tracks. But sweeping the entire round, with a victory at Talladega, given everything that can happen there was downright unlikely. Beyond his feud with Matt Kenseth coming back to bite him, Logano has to be considered the favorite to win this championship.

  1. Kevin Harvick (LW: 3)

Like Logano, Harvick is considered a championship favorite, but it will be interesting to see if the perception of a Talladega wrongdoing will come back to write the defending champions as well. At least three drivers, one crew chief and one owner feel maligned by what happened on Sunday so there may be consequences.

  1. Jeff Gordon (LW: 5)

For the first time all season, Jeff Gordon looks like a legitimate championship favorite. Despite suspect runs at Kansas and Charlotte and a restrictor plate fueled podium at Talladega, Gordon now has a favorable schedule ahead of him in the Eliminator Round with races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. The Drive for Five is alive, indeed.

  1. Kurt Busch (LW: 4)

Another week and another top-10. The 2004 champion is moving along to the Eliminator Round.

  1. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 8)

The Little Engine that Could fell a lap down early but rebounded to finish seventh when all the shenanigans took place.

  1. Carl Edwards (LW: 6)

Despite not having the sheer statistics of Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, Edwards is one of the two remaining Joe Gibbs Racing teammates (alongside Kyle Busch) remaining in the Chase. He’s done it on the sheer consistency that he was lacking in the first half of the season and has the moxie to win any of the next four races.

  1. Brad Keselowski (LW: 7)

While happy for his teammates’ success, Keselowski is likely thrilled that the points have reset and he’s on equal footing with the other seven remaining Chase drivers. These next three races line up well for the 2012 champion too.

  1. Kyle Busch (LW: 10)

This is the latest in the season that Busch has remained in championship contention. That, combined with his overall comfort and success with this momentum-based package, makes him a serious threat to win his first career Sprint Cup Series championship.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 11)

There’s not much more Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have done in order to have advanced at Talladega. He dominated that race and placed himself in position to win and get in, but fell victim to all the shenanigans that took place at the end of the race.

  1. Denny Hamlin (LW: 2)

For the second straight season, the top-ranked driver in points without a win failed to advance at Talladega.

  1. Ryan Newman (LW: 9)

There will not be a repeat runner-up finish from Newman, who was eliminated at Talladega, and not pleased that he never had the chance to race his way in on the final Green-White-Checkered.

  1. Matt Kenseth (LW: 14)

The 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion is still mad at Joey Logano, and it will be interesting to see if he retaliates after getting eliminated on Sunday at Talladega.

  1. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 13)

Like his Hendrick Motorsport teammates, Johnson had a race-winning car. But he wrecked late and was unable to post anything better than an 18th.

  1. Paul Menard (LW: NR)

Restrictor plate finish or not, a sixth place at Talladega always welcomed.

  1. Ricky Stenhouse (LW: NR)

Stenhouse posted his third top-10 of the season on Sunday.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

Categories
Editorial

WAID’S WORLD: At Talladega NASCAR Got What It Wanted

I think NASCAR got what it wanted. What happened at Talladega is part of the reason the Chase for the Sprint Cup was created.

At the finish of the CampingWorld.com 500, there was drama, tension, excitement, frayed nerves, boiled-over emotions and beer cans thrown on the track. Now what could be more compelling than all of that? And, to boot, the controversial finish will be a big story among the media for days.

NASCAR has to revel in the exposure. For once it might challenge the NFL for the headlines.

Yeah, that might be stretching things a bit. But the central point remains: To wit, the nature and very structure of the Chase contributed significantly to the finish of the Talladega race.

And so did NASCAR’s final-lap decisions.

You might violently disagree with the end result (you will have company) but right now I’m not sure NASCAR cares.

Let’s go back to the finish of the race at Kansas, where @JoeyLogano clipped @MattKenseth’s rear end to win the race and put Kenseth’s championship hopes in dire jeopardy.

Controversy raged. Logano stood by his innocence but many claimed he had wrecked Kenseth on purpose. The most vocal was Kenseth, whose bitter animosity carried over to Talladega.

NASCAR had no problem with the incident. It did not feel Logano had done anything out of line. In fact, NASCAR CEO Brian France claimed what happened was part of close, “quintessential” racing.

The sanctioning body declared that at Talladega, there would be only one green-white-checkered flag restart instead of the usual three. The reasoning was based on safety. Talladega has a propensity for mayhem. Green-white-checkered restarts are notorious for danger. Why risk it with more than one?

It made sense, certainly. But as it turned out it didn’t make any difference, did it?

The green-white-checkered restart came on lap 194 but, due to a two-car incident, it didn’t last long. NASCAR waved the yellow flag before the two leaders, Logano and @DaleJr., reached the start-finish line. That, the sanctioning body said, effectively negated any restart.

Some questioned the ruling. It begged the question, where does a restart take place? Is it at the established restart zone or at the line? Where is the consistency?

During the aborted restart is when we first got any indication there was something wrong with @KevinHarvick’s Chevrolet. It could not keep pace with the others.

Video clearly shows Harvick pulling up the track and out of the way of traffic. He admitted his car was unable to perform, suggesting that there was some kind of engine problem.

During the next caution Harvick’s radio chatter indicates that the only way he could advance in the Chase is to perform some kind of blocking maneuver in hopes of gaining position – at least it sounds that way.

On the second attempted restart, Harvick holds his ground. It is clear he does not move up the track and out of the way as he did earlier. As a result cars have to dodge him and one of them, driven by @TBayne6, is hit from behind and goes into a spin that creates a multi-car pileup.

This time NASCAR throws the caution and declares the race over, with Logano the winner by inches over Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR had to call the race that way. Logano and Earnhardt Jr. passed the start-finish line. After it made the earlier ruling – in which it enforced a caution period because cars had not reached the line – it had no choice.

Many fans were infuriated, especially members of the “Junior Nation.” Their man was robbed of a chance to win the race and advance in the Chase because of NASCAR’s arbitrary ruling. That’s understandable.

But they were more angered with Harvick. He was accused of starting a wreck as a means to reach his own goal.

They were not alone. Rivals such as Bayne, @DennyHamlin and Kenseth expressed their extreme displeasure with Harvick.

NASCAR didn’t ease the situation when President Mike Helton said it could not find “any evidence that what the No. 4 (Harvick) did was anything questionable.”

That set off a firestorm. Harvick, NASCAR and Helton were vilified on social media. And it’s not yet over.

Let me play the devil’s advocate.

What the hell was Harvick supposed to do? He was in a situation where he faced elimination. Given that he had to do what he could to survive.

If he did what he did deliberately is debatable, of course. But reason dictates that he deemed his actions necessary by the very nature of the Chase.

To have the chance to win a championship may require unusual and potentially dangerous strategies. Really, isn’t that what the Chase is ultimately about?

It brings great reward with victory or good performance but it is very harsh with poor showings or just downright bad luck. The Chase means pressure. During the space of just three races in each segment drivers must achieve enough to advance.

There are indeed times when that achievement requires dubious tactics. And, believe me, such tactics have been applied and will be again.

To me, that is one reason the Chase was created and taken the form it has. There will be controversy and repercussions. NASCAR will get attention – but not always in the best light.

Frankly, I don’t think it really cares.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

Categories
Editorial

MARGOLIS: One or Two Busch Brothers in Final Four at Homestead?

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the CampingWorld.com 500, race number six of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship:

  • If it wasn’t for the controversial finish to Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, there would be little else to talk about. Let’s face it, the current restrictor plate package is terrible. NASCAR has de-fanged the Cup cars to the point where no one can pull out to make a legitimate power pass for position. Now, I’m not for going back to the “lovebug” style of tandem racing, but something has to be done to make the racing even a bit more competitive. It’s not right that NASCAR shifts 43 drivers into “High Anxiety” mode for a race that in the end, just plain sucks.
  • Note to @MattKenseth: Get over your obsession with presumptive 2015 champion @JoeyLogano. It’s only right that Logano will always have it out for you. Remember, you’re the guy who took his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing.
  • The media isn’t making it any easier for Kenseth, either. During his media availability on Friday, I watched Kenseth being asked the same question ten different ways regarding Logano taking him (Kenseth) out at Kansas. I suppose one journalist in the crowd expected that he or she would be the one that would make Kenseth crack under the pressure and call Logano an a**hole. Actually, Kenseth did do just that – in so many words.
  • Don’t give up on @JeffGordonWeb yet. The wily veteran has the competition just where he wants them. Could a win at Martinsville be in the cards?
  • Let’s play hypotheticals. I’m a Toyota executive and “hypothetically” I’ve told NASCAR it’s about time my company wins the Cup championship. Now, which remaining Toyota driver do I want to be my champion? You get three guesses and the first two don’t count.
  • If there will only be one Busch brother in the final four at Homestead, which one do you think (want) it will (to) be? Which one makes for a better story this season?
  • Are the Hendrick cars (and engines) as bad as they seem?
  • Do you sometimes get the feeling after listening to @DaleJr. that he’s already accepted the fact that he will never win a Cup title? And that there’s more to life?
  • If you think @KevinHarvick didn’t plan those two restarts, then think again.
  • Remember when television used to interview @DanicaPatrick after every race no matter where she finished? I still think she’ll end up winning a restrictor plate race. Maybe even two before she calls it quits. After all, looking at some of the “one-hit wonders” who have won a plate race, it’s very possible. I mean, just about anyone has a chance at winning one.
  • Have you seen the 2016 Cup schedule? Are you disappointed by the absence of change, too? And what’s with this “NASCAR Goes West” thing? Is it supposed to mean something? Or is it some genius with the Integrated Marketing Communications group trying to tout it as NASCAR’s version of the NHRA’s long-standing mid-summer “West Coast Swing” made up of races in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma? Why not make it interesting and offer up a $1 million bonus to any driver who can win all three races – Texas, Las Vegas and (ugh) Fontana?
  • The crowd at Talladega was the best it has been in quite some time. However, most fans purchased their tickets before the “one attempt” rule was announced. I wonder how the attendance figures would have looked had they known in advance? And what will happen to the crowd after (take a deep breath) Dale Junior retires?
  • In case you missed it: the Confederate flag was alive and well (and very visible) this past weekend at Talladega. God Bless America!
Categories
Editorial

GET A GRIP: Talladega Edition

Talladega Superspeedway is often considered the wild card of the championship battle. Survival means increased odds of capturing the title while defeat has been known to eliminate a driver from contention.

The superspeedway assumed this role again over the weekend as it made an impact on the championship race. The wildness of the two events led to many memorable and game changing moments, and the best and worst are recapped on this week’s list.

Four Tires

  • @TimothyPeters17 has been unstoppable in Talladega over the last two years. He picked up his second consecutive victory on Saturday after positioning himself up front towards the finish and leading as the race-ending yellow flag waved. He will use this momentum heading to his home track of Martinsville Speedway, eyeing a second win.
  • @JoeyLogano has emerged as one of the most dominant drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since joining Team Penske last season. He scored his sixth victory of 2015 on Sunday, a single-season high for the 25-year old. With the win, he became the first competitor to sweep a round in the Chase for the Sprint Cup since the introduction of the new format. Having already secured a spot among Eliminator 8 heading into Talladega, the performance was even more impressive considering the team wasn’t facing the intensity others battled.

Two Tires

  • Restrictor plate races allow a variety of drivers to compete up front. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, this can lead to additional attention for the up and coming drivers looking to break into the sport. @Mason_Mingus had a stellar run in the Fred’s 250, scoring a career-best finish of third. Continuing to run well will be what it takes for the 20-year old to earn additional opportunities and contend for similar results.
  • @JeffGordonWeb has come alive in the Chase. After struggling for much of the regular season, he has improved his performance throughout the playoffs. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had one of his strongest races of the season in the CampingWorld.com 500 as he remained up front for much of the event. In his final appearance at the track, he came home third, tying his best result of the season. Moving to the Eliminator Round, continuing to improve could earn him a spot among the final four competitors in Miami.

No Tires

  • @Matt_Crafton is battling stout competition for the championship. This requires the two-time defending champion to be on top of his game in each race as the season finale approaches. Despite leading a race-high 43 laps on Saturday, he finished 24th after being swept up in two crashes. This puts the 39-year old 23 points behind leader @Erik_Jones with four races remaining. If the No. 88 Menard’s Toyota team hopes to compete for the three-peat, they will need to be stellar in the next four weeks to catch the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver.
  • @DennyHamlin carried confidence into Sunday, sitting second in the standings and being highest among those not locked into the Eliminator Round. However, trouble struck for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver multiple times throughout the course of the race. After experiencing trouble with roof hatch latch, the team was deep in the field late and was swept up in the race-ending crash. This put them on the outside of the top-eight, ending their shot at returning to the Championship 4.

Having survived Talladega, the title contenders face another challenge ahead in Martinsville. Short-track racing often produces heated competition that is sure to impact the championship picture moving forward. Expect nothing less than intense racing on Halloween weekend, and the best and worst moments will be recapped on next week’s list.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @NASCARJason

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

Categories
Editorial

AFTER THE FACT: Talladega Questions That May Never Be Answered

Are you upset? Do you feel cheated?

I can promise you aren’t alone.

There were so many moving parts to what happened at Talladega I’m not sure they will ever be understood or explained. At least, not well enough to comfort the participants involved or the ones who were watching.

Here’s what we know:

Joey Logano went to victory lane for the third straight week and continues to carry momentum into the Eliminator Round. Dale Earnhardt Jr. put up a great fight but wound a few points behind and one spot short.

Here’s what we don’t know:

What constitutes an “attempt?”

After instituting the one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish for Sunday, the field ended up having two. The first, technically, was an aborted attempt because NASCAR said cars had not crossed the start – finish line to “start” the attempt when a crash caused a caution.

Now, one can only assume officials didn’t plan for this type of scenario under their new rule and in the moment had to make a quick decision. The decision was to restart the race, again, which quickly raised a lot of eyebrows. But when another crash broke out after the leaders took the green and crossed the line, the race was declared official.

It never fails: no matter how many times the NASCAR sanctioning body tries to make a rule they feel is for the good of the sport, something happens to put them in a tough spot.

It’s popular to accuse NASCAR of making the rules up as they go along, but, in this case, they might have had to. Sometimes there needs to be rules within the rules to account for those split-second decisions. 

Of course, we could also join the band of anti-Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans screaming that NASCAR was putting forth every effort to try and get the most popular driver into the next round. 

Stop embarrassing yourself. There were plenty of opportunities to either throw the flag when he was inches ahead of Logano.

Let’s move along, because there was a bigger problem that quickly developed and should be scrutinized far more.

What was Kevin Harvick doing?

The simple answer is he was trying to put himself in the best spot to advance to the Eliminator Round. The question is, were his intentions a little more sinister? Was he trying to manipulate the outcome of the race?

While it’s too late to tell everyone not to immediately cry foul and draw comparisons to Richmond of 2013, it’s understandably hard not to do so. Whether Harvick intentionally spun out Trevor Bayne and caused a multicar accident – which a strong argument could be made for – there is no denying what happened changed both the outcome of the race as well as the Chase standings.

Granted, Logano might have still beaten Earnhardt Jr. and kept him from advancing. Or maybe he didn’t and Earnhardt Jr. wins, advances, and potentially eliminates three Gibbs cars. And what about the rest of the finishing order?

Harvick, for one, could have continued to free-fall and lost his Chase spot, while Hamlin might have had just enough to finish and keep his. At one point under caution yesterday, Harvick sat eighth in points but only one point ahead of Hamlin in ninth. We all know how it ended.

Or take those two drivers out of the equation. Martin Truex Jr. was also in a precarious spot, as was Ryan Newman. Who knows how it all would have shaken out when the swarming pack came back to the finish line under green flag conditions?

Regardless of what we think might have happened, we don’t know for sure. Unlike Michael Waltrip Racing a few years ago, there is not a mountain of evidence to convict Harvick. Instead, we’re left with a sinking feeling that what played out yesterday was not on the up and up.

Perhaps this is another case of assuming the worst in this sport, but it’s hard not to be left with an uncomfortable feeling.

It’s unfortunate that the notion of any kind of manipulation occurred.

As for Dale Earnhardt Jr … 

Perhaps he’s the only individual who left Talladega seemingly fine with what happened.

Maybe Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t had a chance to take a close look at what transpired behind him; he was after all focused on racing for the win. But in the end, when it came to the cautions, when it came to the green-white-checkered attempts, he said he was fine with how it all shook out.

He lost the race; he didn’t advance in the Chase, and he displayed class when dealing with it. It’s something many can learn from.

As for the race, it was a typical Talladega show from the Hendrick Motorsports driver. The class of the field by far, it was another head-shaking time when you could sit and watch the master of the draft do what he does best. Whether it was coming from the back to the front, leading the field and dictating the pace, or picking his competitors off the high lane when the field went single file, it was Earnhardt at his best.

He left everything out on the track in his final shot at advancing, as well as trying to win the race. Driving that hard for a win in the Sprint Cup Series is to be admired as it shows how hard these wins come by.

It might not have worked out for Earnhardt Jr. but he was one shining moment we can all take away from a day that will most likely be remembered for all the wrong things.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
Editorial

Gordon, Earnhardt Enter Talladega with High Hopes and Optimism

Brace yourself …

After the checkered flag drops on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, it’s entirely possible that there will be no Hendrick Motorsport drivers remaining in the Chase for the Championship for the start of the penultimate round.

That’s a heavy statement given the lofty expectations placed upon the Chevrolet megapower each and every season. Halfway through the playoffs and only Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. remain in the hunt for the organization.

Remarkably, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was eliminated in the first round, while Kasey Kahne didn’t even crack the initial Field of 16.

Of the two, Gordon is in the best position, holding sixth on the Chase Grid with a seven-point cushion over ninth-place Kyle Busch. Meanwhile, Earnhardt faces a must-win predicament as he enters the final race of the Contender Round in 11th and having to make up 31 points on eighth-place Martin Truex Jr.

Once the CampingWorld.com 500 ends on Sunday, the bottom four drivers on the Chase Grid without a win will be eliminated from contention. Given the random and chaotic nature of restrictor plate racing, only Joey Logano (with wins at Charlotte and Kansas) is guaranteed to make the Eliminator 8.

While most of the remaining Chasers are hoping to merely survive and make it to the finish, Earnhardt and Gordon view the volatile wild card race with realistic expectations to win for the first time during the playoffs and both advance to the next round.

The Earnhardt name and Talladega are synonymous, with Dale Jr. winning in Alabama six times during the course of his career. Despite facing a tremendous amount of adversity this weekend, Earnhardt has said there is no other track he would rather face a do-or-die scenario.

“I wouldn’t rather be going anywhere else than Talladega for the next race if we need a win,” he said. “That is a good opportunity for us. Even over Daytona, I think we can go to Talladega and do the job.”

Adding to his confidence is that he’s won two of three restrictor plate races this season, including Talladega in May. He also won the July race at Daytona International Speedway.

Even though the results do not reflect it, Gordon and his 24 team have been one of the best on the superspeedways as well this season. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 in February and led the most laps (87) before getting caught up in a last lap crash.

It was a similar story for Gordon at Talladega in May as he led the third-most number of laps before crashing out late. He also finished sixth at Daytona in July and considers the plate package a strength for Hendrick Motorsports.

He knows he will have the car, but learned over the three prior superspeedway races that he will have to do a better job of aggressively protecting his position. If he doesn’t he expects to get shuffled to the back and be at risk for again getting bit by the Big One.

“You have to be a little more aggressive,” Gordon said. “I watched Dale Jr. and a few other guys who protected their position when they’re up front aggressively. There’s a fine line that can get in trouble really easily as well.

“But I can tell you that it’s a lot harder when you get shuffled back to work your way toward the front than it used to be. People are smarter, cars are more equal, and the draft and aerodynamics are different than they used to be. It’s hard to make that work if you get behind. Hopefully we qualify up front.”

Even though it’s been a challenging season for both Gordon and Earnhardt, there is cause for optimism. Gordon looked like a sure fire bet to win at Martinsville in the spring, while Earnhardt is the defending winner at the Virginia paperclip short track.

Simply getting the final round before the Championship race and posting a good result to start that three-race stretch could be pivotal for their championship chances. Hendrick Motorsports is down, but don’t count them out, if Earnhardt and Gordon survive Talladega.

The deck and schedule is stacked in their favor.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Editorial

WEAVER: Logano’s Kansas Move Already A Championship Distraction

Joey Logano enters this weekend at Talladega as the only driver assured of advancing to the next round of the Chase for the Championship, but his title hopes may have taken a dramatic turn the moment Matt Kenseth spun off his front bumper last weekend at Kansas Speedway.

One week later and Kenseth is still feeling surly about what happened.

Already facing a must-win situation at Kansas, Kenseth believes he was taken out by Logano, a driver already locked-in to the Contender Eight by virtue of his victory the week before at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

And while most of the sport, including Chairman Brian France, believes Kansas was just the byproduct of hard racing between two championship favorites, Kenseth is talking like a man who will not let Logano and his decisions go unpunished.

More than just the contact between the two, Kenseth does not appreciate how Logano has continued to defend himself publicly over the past few days, and made that point perfectly clear on Friday afternoon at Talladega.

“Yeah, some day he might mature a little bit,” Kenseth said. “But, first of all, he should have stopped running his mouth, ‘A,’ and, number two, he’s lying when he said he didn’t do it on purpose because he lifted (my) tires off the ground offset to the left and he’s too good a race car driver to do that by accident.”

Following the race, Logano said he only raced Kenseth as hard as he was raced himself, and the contact in question was a result of two drivers going for the same piece of real estate.

Logano was clearly faster than Kenseth and had already backed off several laps prior after an apparent block by the 2003 Sprint Cup champion. After feeling like Kenseth put him in the wall with seven laps remaining, Logano wasn’t going to back off again.

“With 15 to go I got to the outside of him down the backstretch, and I had to lift not to wreck both of us at that point,” Logano said on Sunday during his victory press conference. “And then kind of got put in the same situation down the front stretch, and then we just happened to go in the same corner and we both went for the same piece of real estate.

“I wanted that middle lane and so did he, and we collided there. So good hard racing, you know. We ran each other hard. He ran me hard, I ran him hard back.”

On one hand, Logano didn’t have to race as hard as he did. After all, he was already guaranteed a spot in the Eliminator Round, regardless of what happened at Kansas. Ultimately spinning Kenseth may not be the best long-term strategy should there be any kind of retaliation.

On the other hand, Logano also had a chance to bury his competition, again forcing Kenseth into a must-win situation at Talladega, where anyone had a chance of going to Victory Lane. At some point this season, Logano was going to have to defeat Kenseth in order to win this championship.

Alongside defending champion Kevin Harvick, Logano and Kenseth entered this round as the three best bets to win the whole shebang. Allowing Kenseth to get away and win, could have come back to bite Logano, and he raced like a driver who knew it too.

But wrecking him, intentionally or not, could also have consequences.

With five wins, a 7.9 average finish and prior experience in the Championship Race at Homestead, Logano had to feel pretty confident about his championship chances. But after listening to Kenseth on Friday, the driver formerly called Sliced Bread may have to spend just as much time looking back as looking ahead.

Even if nothing comes of it, Kenseth is already in Logano’s head, which is more than he can afford entering the final five weeks of the season.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Editorial

Power Rankings: The Fast 15

Each week during the season, Popular Speed Executive Editor Matt Weaver will provide a power rankings list for the top-15 drivers in NASCAR.

The Fast 15 is a list of intangible qualities, based on momentum, attention and overall success in NASCAR over the past several weeks, meaning that it’s entirely possible that an XFINITY Series or Camping World Truck Series driver appears over one of his Sprint Cup counterparts.

Don’t agree with the list? That’s okay! Just let Weaver know in the comments section at the bottom on this page. Here are the updated rankings following the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

1.) Joey Logano (LW: 1)

It’s pretty easy to justify how Logano raced Matt Kenseth in the closing laps at Kansas. Logano is paid to win races, regardless of where he is on the Chase Grid. But he also had an opportunity to back Kenseth, one of his toughest rivals, into a corner entering a must-win Talladega. Beyond that, Kenseth walled him and blocked him to the bottom. It was just hard racing true to NASCAR heritage.

2.) Denny Hamlin (LW: 3)

Outside of a 18th at Dover, Hamlin hasn’t finished worse than sixth since Watkins Glen. He’s following the same script that saw him land in the Championship Four last season and it’s not hard to picture him finishing the job, should he get there again this season.

  1. Kevin Harvick (LW: 2)

The defending champions ran into several issues on Sunday at Kansas but made the most of it to the tune of a 16th place finish. Not that it matters with Talladega looming on the horizon, but Harvick is still sixth in points and somewhat controls his own destiny.

  1. Kurt Busch (LW: 5)

The 2004 champion is having a Monster of a season (see what I did there) and is continuing to do what everything he’s supposed to do to make it to Homestead with a shot at the championship, opening this round with a fifth and sixth place finish.

  1. Jeff Gordon (LW: 7)

There’s something to be said for old age and trickery because that’s how Jeff Gordon is continuing to contend despite a package that doesn’t suit his driving style and the overall ineffectiveness of Hendrick Motorsports. Talladega has long been his kryptonite over the past decade though so Gordon must finish this race to continue the Drive for Five.

  1. Carl Edwards (LW: 4)

Edwards opened the Contender Round with two top-10s, which is all you can ask for entering the Talladega Chase race. They have a cushion (+12) but that goes as far as the Big One in North Alabama.

  1. Brad Keselowski (LW: 8)

The 2012 champion and defending winner of the Talladega Chase race has six points over the playoff cutoff but you had best believe Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney are going to do everything possible to again push their teammate to the front.

  1. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 6)

Truex entered the race at Kansas with a lot of confidence during his pre-race media conference but only managed to post a 15th. As a result, he’s the final driver on the provisional Chase Grid and has just six points over the cutoff. Like everyone else, this is a big race for the little engines that could.

  1. Ryan Newman (LW: 9)

Several readers have fussed at me for using the made-up verb Newman-ing earlier this week to describe how the Rocket Man continues to attack this playoff format. Look folks, it’s a compliment. He finished second last season at Homestead and has put himself in position to have a chance once again in 2016. I would love for my driver to Newman in the Chase … if I had one.

  1. Kyle Busch (LW: 10)

Kyle Busch enters the weekend at Talladega six points out of a Chase transfer spot. He is also looking for redemption after entering last year’s race 33 points to the good and getting eliminated due to a crash that had absolutely nothing to do with him in the first place.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 11)

After a 21st place finish at Kansas, Dale Jr. is 31 points out and needs a win to advance, more than likely. With that said, his six wins at the track are tied for the most amongst current drivers with Jeff Gordon and his win here in May broke an 11 year winless streak at Dale-a-Dega.

  1. Jamie McMurray (LW: 13)

Despite a mere 20th at Kansas, McMurray is showing a lot of speed during the Chase, which can only help build confidence and momentum for next season. He’s also a former winner of the fall race at Talladega.

  1. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 14)

Credit where it’s due. Even though they were eliminated from Chase contention, Johnson still hasn’t lost his competitive edge and once again led laps on the way to a third-place finish at Kansas.

  1. Matt Kenseth (LW: 12)

See what was written above, under Joey Logano. It is what it is and Matt Kenseth is now, again, in a must-win situation at Talladega. On the bright side, he has won here and is a superb restrictor plate driver.

  1. Aric Almirola (LW: 15)

Like McMurray above, Almirola has had an impressive Chase as well.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Editorial

WAID’S WORLD: Gordon Broke The Mold And Ushered In A New Era

If not for @JeffGordonWeb, @JoeyLogano would have never won consecutively at Charlotte and Kansas. He would not be the leader in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Why? Because without Gordon, who was the catalyst in NASCAR’s discovery that young talent does not necessarily dwell in the South, Logano likely would not be here. He’d be racing somewhere else.

Without Gordon it’s a real possibility we would not see the likes of Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Trevor Bayne, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, the Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick, and, yes, Jimmie Johnson – along with several others.

Sound farfetched? Trust me, it is not.

Gordon’s long and spectacular career comes to an end after this season. He will move into the broadcast booth and other ventures. He has received many accolades during his career. Many more have been bestowed upon him in 2015 and others are to come.

Gordon deserves every bit of praise and honor given him past and future. He is an icon whose path to the Hall of Fame will be smooth and uncluttered. He has put up the numbers to assure that.

But he has done more. He has been a NASCAR statesman and role model. In this age when many professional athletes become involved in things nefarious, Gordon has been untouched.

With this NASCAR, fans and even the sometimes-cynical media will agree.

However, there is one more thing about Gordon that needs to be said as his career reaches its conclusion:

Gordon is the man who ushered in a new era for NASCAR – one that has helped it grow and become a haven for new, young talent that might have otherwise never been discovered. He didn’t set out to do this. But his early impact on NASCAR forced team owners to take a new approach when it came to acquiring drivers.

It was in 1992 that Rick Hendrick, a powerhouse owner who was not averse to employing young, unknown talent (Tim Richmond) became aware of Gordon. He was amazed over the skill of a kid driving in what was known as the Busch Series. Hendrick told us that he “could not believe how hard that boy was driving his car.”

Hendrick nabbed Gordon, who ran the final Winston Cup race of the 1992 season at Atlanta. Over the next four years Gordon became the hottest driver in NASCAR. He won 19 races and the championship in 1995.

He was a baby-faced kid with a wispy moustache who beat the likes of Earnhardt, Wallace, Martin and Elliott.

He broke the mold.

In the years before his arrival a young driver stood little chance of making it in NASCAR. The established drivers held complete sway. If one left a team he had a place at another. It was a case of merely “swapping” rides.

The younger talent that did manage to find a foothold in NASCAR did so with a family-owned team (Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott), or displaying his talents with a second or even third-tier team (Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Ken Schrader, Dale Jarrett).

Davey Allison convinced noted engine builder Robert Yates to buy a team so they could race together. The results speak for themselves. But after Gordon things changed. The reason was simple: Almost every team owner wanted to find the next Jeff Gordon.

As such they began to look almost everywhere. They scouted young talent and when it was found, they incorporated it into their organizations.

It was only a matter of experience and time before the talent was elevated to the highest level.

For example, fledgling Joe Gibbs Racing hired Jarrett in 1992. Along came Bobby Labonte and then outsiders Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch (nurtured by Hendrick) and Logano.

Roush Fenway Racing – once noted for its “Gong Show” to find talent – put Kenseth in the lineup in 2000 and he was joined by Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Edwards. Then there was Bowyer and Harvick at Richard Childress Racing.

Even Hendrick again got into the act when he hired Johnson in 2001 at Gordon’s behest. And, of course, Hendrick signed young Elliott to a contract before the driver ever set foot in a Sprint Cup car. He will drive the No. 24 next year.

This is the way it has been for several years now. You are surely quite familiar with the young talent that permeates the sport – and it comes from all over the country.

There was a time when such was rare indeed; I daresay almost non-existent.

It all changed when Gordon hit NASCAR like a whirlwind and forced owners to change their philosophy for the better. As much as anything else he has accomplished, that should always be remembered.

Indeed, it is a significant part of his legacy.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

Categories
Editorial

MARGOLIS: Best Could Be Yet to Come for Jeff Gordon

Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, the halfway point of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship:

  • Race winner @Joey Logano proved once and for all that he’s got the serial killer instinct that we always suspected was lurking beneath that “aw shucks, ma’am” exterior. His punt of @Matt Kenseth was the stuff of champions, even though he has been excoriated in the press. To me, his “Get out of my way, I’m going to the front” move on Kenseth was classic Penske. The Captain is seen by everyone as a shrewd businessman and a successful race team owner in both NASCAR and IndyCar. I see him as a “kill or be killed” competitor; a man who chooses his drivers by who will win at any cost. Having the best equipment is only part of a winning formula for success. The will to do whatever it takes, with the courage and commitment to deliver a win at any cost — that’s the hard part. Logano is one of those drivers who can do it. So is his teammate Brad Keselowski. So, think what you will about Logano, but Kenseth’s post-race comments had sounding a bit like a whiner, don’t you think?
  • The mindset to winning the Sprint Cup championship meant that you had to have 10 mistake-free races. It’s still that way. But now, the new format means you can make up for a mistake with performance. Case in point: the pit road errors on Sunday by the Furniture Row and Budweiser teams (Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick). Both teams made grievous mistakes on pit road that cost them a win, but both teams have the capability of bouncing back and moving on to the next round. I could list the number of pit road mistakes the 4 car has made in the past three years, but there’s not enough space here.
  • While regular portion of his swan song season in NASCAR sucked, @Jeff Gordon is showing no signs of giving up on the opportunity to win another title. Not even a little bit. He showed his veteran’s cool throughout the race, despite having another car he deemed not suitable for prime time. Has his struggle to deliver this season been the car or has it been him? I say its a bit of both. Nevertheless, Gordon sits solidly in the top half of the dirty dozen drivers left in the Chase with one of his (and Hendrick Motorsports’) best tracks coming up this weekend.
  • Will someone (read: Ford) up the ante and find a good home for Ryan Blaney? This second generation driver needs a place where his talent can continue to grow.
  • Just when we thought they would fade into the background, Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the rest of the 48 squad remind us once again why they have won so many championships. They still have a win (or two) left in their kit bag this season. Maybe not Talladega, but Martinsville and Phoenix look like winners to me.
  • Although Claire B. Lang with NASCAR SiriusXM radio will often throw softballs at her interview subjects, I find her presence in the garage both pre and post race to be invaluable. She frequently will catch a driver or crew chief in a rare emotional moment that delivers the goods. I would, however, like to see her take the gloves off a bit more often. What do you say, Claire B?
  • If you don’t know who Jim Hunter was and what his relevance is to NASCAR, then you’re missing out on a big part of the sport’s history. Greg Engle’s feature will get you up to speed.
  • I know it’s the Chase and the spotlight will naturally turn to the teams involved in the run to the title, but there are thirty-plus other cars and dozens of sponsors still racing in every Cup race every weekend. If they are going to be non-existent during race coverage, why even race at all? Essentially they act as a moving obstacle for the Chase teams. Why not save money and just have a race with the Chase competitors? Sounds crazy, I know. But so did group qualifying when I talked about it ten years ago. Times change. When other major sport leagues begin their playoffs, the rest of the teams watch from the couch. Same should be true for auto racing.
  • For those who dislike the France family and how they run NASCAR, take a minute to watch this and imagine how things would be if we had a cretin like Bernie Ecclestone running the sport.

EMAIL BOB AT bob.margolis@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @BobMargolis