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NASCAR Cup Series

Bowyer Admits ‘MWR stepped over that line’ at Richmond

By Kelly Crandall – Clint Bowyer will finally escape the controversy surrounding him for a couple hours today when he climbs aboard his Toyota for practice at Chicagoland.

The last time Bowyer was behind the wheel of his No. 15 he spun off turn four at Richmond, igniting a firestorm that’s followed him, the Michael Waltrip organization and NASCAR all week. Including penalties on Monday that took teammate Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase, which Bowyer’s spin had helped lock in.

It’s been non-stop for Bowyer since. His reputation seemingly trashed because of one spin where he was being a team player. From ESPN to Twitter and finally at Chase media day on Thursday, Bowyer hasn’t been able to avoid comments, heckling and questions about last weekend.

“You asked about a line being crossed and obviously MWR stepped over that line,” Bowyer said Thursday in Chicago. “We got penalized. The one thing that I’m most looking forward to is getting this Chase started off right. We’ve had a great season and as far as that’s concerned, we know where the line is.

“The line was crossed and there was penalties – the largest penalties we’ve ever seen in this sport. Certainly, again, one more time, we have found the line.”

To recap, result of Bowyer’s spin as well as Brian Vickers role in the race manipulation, MWR was fine $300,000 and all three cars lost 50 driver and owner points, which is what took Truex from the final wild card spot to the outside of the Chase with Ryan Newman replacing him. Ty Norris, who had been spotting for Vickers and is the general manager for MWR, has been indefinitely suspended.

The Chase begins this weekend in Chicagoland, where Bowyer enters the eighth seed. He’s winless on the year and looking for his first championship. That’s the last thing being mentioned however, when it comes to the driver. Richmond still hangs in the foreground as fresh and angry as ever.

“It’s unfortunate, but penalties are, they’ve always been a part of this sport,” Bowyer said about the discipline from NASCAR. “We’ve always had penalties in this sport and for our sport the most important thing is a great Chase fixing to start and it’s going to start in a couple days. I’m looking forward to it for our sport and for my race team.

“For me personally, this is the best shot I’ve ever had at winning championships. I’m with a great team. We’ve got fast cars and it’s fun to be able to come to the race track knowing that you’ve got at shot at running up front. The last three weeks in a row, we’ve been up front.”

It could have been argued Bowyer was one of the best drivers leading into the Chase. The last three weeks: Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, he led laps and was in contention for each win. Spun by a lapped car while leading at Bristol then blew an engine while leading at Atlanta. Richmond, before he spun, he had led as well. That’s 170 laps led and nothing to show for it, but Bowyer still remains excited about his chances, believing this is the team that has everything in place to win a championship.

This weekend however, might be the most important in trying to achieve that. Starting when he finally gets back in his car, expecting everything to fall away as it becomes tunnel vision on the season’s goal.

“I’m looking forward to the weekend. I really am. I’m excited about the Chase. I’ve been excited about the Chase for weeks, for months,” said Bowyer. “We had a great season. We’ve had a tremendous amount of fun. I haven’t won a race this year. My teammates have won. Lots of great things have gone on in our sport and we’ve got to get down to the biggest part of our sport and that’s the championship at the end of the year.

“Had a rough couple of days – no question about that – but I’ve got that behind me and I’m focused on getting a helmet on and getting the most out of my race car this weekend.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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NASCAR Cup Series

POWER RANKINGS: The Fast Fifteen

One of the wildest weeks in NASCAR history continues with massive sanctions against Michael Waltrip Racing, a reshuffling of the Chase field and eventually the first race of the postseason at Chicagoland Speedway. It made updating the Fast 15 Power Rankings quite the task but the results can be found below.

1. Kurt Busch (LW: 8)

Based on his one-car team standing, Kurt Busch may seem like a stretch for the top spot in the Fast 15 but he has more momentum heading into the Chase than any other driver. Could his first win come in the early stages of the Chase? Conventional wisdom says no but Furniture Row Racing has defied the odds all season.

2. Carl Edwards (LW: 12)

The book on Carl Edwards all season was that he needed to win to off-set the potential that he was due for some bad luck. That bad luck may never come at this rate and he picked up his second win at Richmond. That combination may make him extremely dangerous for the next 10 weeks.

3. Matt Kenseth (LW: 7)

The 2003 Sprint Cup Champion enters the Chase as the top seed by virtue of his season leading five wins. Top seeds haven’t always fared well in the Chase but it seems like Matt Kenseth and the rest of the field in Sprint Cup this season.

4. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 6)

The worst professional streak of Five-Time’s career coincided with a highpoint of his personal life as Jimmie Johnson welcomed his second daughter (Lydia) into the world on Friday. He followed it up with a 40th-place finish at Richmond, his fifth consecutive bad race. But of course, the Chase means it could — and will likely — all turn around on Sunday at Chicagoland.

5. Kevin Harvick (LW: 9)

Consistent and steady trend for Kevin Harvick. It’s not flashy but “Happy” is in a good spot leading into the Chase.

6. Kyle Busch (LW: 1)

A miserable day in Richmond led to some fireworks between Kyle Busch and his crew during the race and a 19th place finish. But it all goes away heading into Richmond. At four wins and pretty remarkable consistency, Busch is a legitimate championship favorite.

7. Ryan Newman (LW: 14)

What can be said about Ryan Newman’s situation that hasn’t already? The Clint Bowyer spin, whether intentional or not, likely took a win and Chase berth away. But he gets back into the Chase based on the 50-point penalty to Michael Waltrip Racing and Martin Truex Jr. Now he’s going to try to win a championship for a team he is departing for at the end of the season — and one he borderline insulted after Richmond for their pit road performance.

8. Jeff Gordon (LW: 11)

The four-time Sprint Cup champion did everything within his power to earn a berth in the Chase for the Championship and did — but likely had it stripped from him under questionable circumstances. NASCAR is still looking into the Logano/Gilliland radio transmissions but the evidence says Gordon might have a case that he should be in the Chase. He’s campaigned for it too.

9. Joey Logano (LW: 2)

The book is out on Joey Logano’s standing until NASCAR announces a follow up to the allegations that his team may have coluded with Front Row Racing to strike a deal for an extra position on the track that may have got him back into the top-10 of the standings. At face value, Logano sneaks into the top-10 and had been on the strongest run of his career until his Richmond stuggles.

10. Clint Bowyer (LW: 4)

Mixed results weekend for Clint Bowyer at Richmond. He led laps and was in solid position for a top-15 result before spinning out with seven laps to go. The evidence suggests that it was an intentional spin but NASCAR couldn’t find conclusive evidence. As a result (and the positive of Richmond), he enters the Chase with no penalty against his starting spot.

11. Kasey Kahne (LW: 5)

His two wins at Bristol and Pocono came in handy as difficult nights at both Atlanta and Richmond dropped him out of the top-10. He gets into the Chase as a wild card but has questions surrounding his consistency and luck.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 3)

Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski have been recent mid-level Chase performers to have success and win the championship. Could Dale Earnhardt Jr. be the next? Beyond pinpoint consistency, his lack of wins doesn’t predict Chase success but both Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte are proven winners in the past Chase races.

13. Greg Biffle (LW: 10)

A 12th place finish at Richmond is on par with his consistent 15th-place average in the regular season but won’t win him the championship. The big question is if Biffle can turn up the aggression on restarts without sacrificing the consistency that earned him a Chase berth in the first place.

14. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 14)

MTJ drove one of the hardest races of his career to finish seventh. At the time, it had earned him a Chase berth. But the penalty to all three Michael Waltrip Racing cars knocked him out of the Chase. The worst part is that it appeared Truex Jr. had no idea what had happened to first get him into the Chase.

15. Brad Keselowski (LW: 15)

Too little, too late. The defending champions just didn’t have enough at the end to get into the Chase. They didn’t have enough wins (0), enough consistency or enough good luck. The team showed the speed to win all season and they’re championship caliber but it just didn’t come together this season. Expect them to pick up their first win of the season in the Chase though.

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NASCAR Cup Series

More Fallout Looming at MWR

By Kelly Crandall – The fallout from Michael Waltrip Racing’s attempt to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase on Saturday night, continues today as one of their major sponsors announce they’ll be reviewing their partnerships with the organization.

Clint Bowyer spun and brought the caution out while Brian Vickers made a surprise pit stop. It resulted in Truex Jr. taking the final wild card spot in the 2013 Chase, at the expense of Ryan Newman who had been leading the race and likely would have raced himself into that position.

Late Monday night NASCAR handed down their penalties to MWR including a $300,00 fine, general manager Ty Norris indefinitely suspended with all three cars losing 50 owner and driver points. The penalty took Truex Jr. out of the Chase and Newman replaces him.

Now sponsors for both all three drivers are speaking out.

On Tuesday 5-hour ENERGY, which is a primary sponsor for Bowyer, wrote on their Twitter page, “We respect NASCAR’s penalties against MWR & are addressing our sponsorship relations internally. We appreciate your understanding & patience.”

Bowyer will compete for this year’s championship as the eighth seed entering Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland. He has yet to win a race this season.

Truex, who appears to have been an innocent recipient of the MWR race manipulation, has the only sponsor in NASCAR who appears on his car for every race, something publicly acknowledged and lauded by NASCAR in an age where fully funded cars are becoming rare.

NAPA has been with Truex since he joined MWR in 2010 but have been connected to team owner Michael Waltrip even longer. They were the sponsor on his No. 15 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003.

They were also on Waltrip’s car when he started the organization in 2007 and was caught in a cheating scandal. NASCAR found his car to have illegal fuel when he attempted to qualify for the Daytona 500. Both Truex and NAPA recently signed contract extensions.

But said NAPA on their Facebook page, “The actions take by Michael Waltrip’s Racing team this past weekend leading to the penalties assessed by NASCAR, are very concerning. We are disappointed that a partner associated with our organization would make such a significant error in judgment. In addition, we have launched our own review to determine the future of our partnership with Michael Waltrip’s Racing team. The NAPA AUTO PARTS organization is proud of its long-standing NASCAR relationship. We share a passion with our customers for high qualify racing and seek to determine the best course of action for our customers, NASCAR fans, and the NAPA organization.”

Aaron’s, the sponsor of Vickers No. 55 which he’ll race full-time in 2014 in hopes of making the Chase, also wrote on their Facebook page after the penalties were announced, “Aaron’s appreciates your concern about Richmond’s race and your loyalty to NASCAR. We respect the decision NASCAR made today and do not condone any practices that violate NASCAR rules.”

Any sponsor fallout or moves will be seen over time. However, in the past sponsors have pulled back when the drivers associated with them became involved in controversy. Most notably, M&M’s pulled their name from Kyle Busch’s No. 18 for the remainder of the 2011 season after Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday during a Camping World Truck Series race. They returned for the beginning of the following season and remain Busch’s sponsor, but it sent a clear message.

Norris not only spots but handles sponsors relations for MWR. In statement on behalf of the company, Waltrip revealed that it was Norris who made the split second decision in order to help Truex get into the Chase. His actions carry far-reaching consequences for MWR and whether their sponsors remain for the future.

On the entry list for this weekend’s event, Aaron’s and NAPA appear as primary sponsors for Vickers and Truex. However, Peak Antifreeze will adorn the No. 15 for Bowyer in one of their scheduled sponsored races.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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Editorial NASCAR Cup Series

300K, Bowyer Can Still Play

By Matt Weaver – After a detailed review of Saturday night’s Sprint Cup event at Richmond, NASCAR could not find conclusive evidence that Clint Bowyer and the No. 15 team intentionally spun out in order to change the outcome of the race. They were able to find enough to penalize Michael Waltrip Racing as a whole for the actions of the No. 55 team in bringing Brian Vickers down pit road before the final restart.

The sanctions delivered by NASCAR are sizable and precedence setting but not massive enough given all the indisputable evidence.

Ultimately, team general manager Ty Norris became the fall guy (suspended indefinitely) and NASCAR has set a price tag on altering race results and the season championship. And in my estimation, it was too cheap a price tag.

The 50 points and $300,000 is largely equal to what Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team was given in April for a too-light engine following their Kansas victory. (The penalty was later reduced on an appeal) But one could argued that NASCAR sees what happened on Saturday as the rough equivalent to a faulty part — and it just isn’t.

NASCAR should be commended for being proactive and trying to stay ahead of the issue. But if Monday’s penalty was intended to curb future occurrences of foul play leading up to the Chase, it was not nearly strong enough.

The 50 points deducted from all three MWR cars were assessed before the Chase, which explains how Martin Truex Jr. was booted from the playoff in favor of Newman but it does not negatively affect the team for the remainder of the season.

Bowyer remains locked into a Chase spot and will be within 15 points of Matt Kenseth entering this weekend. There were no additional repecussions against the No. 15, because as NASCAR executive Mike Helton explained, there wasn’t conclusive enough evidence of an intentional spin.

The court of public opinion and that in the garage is starkly different.

NASCAR has now established a precedent that the penalty for contriving a finish is 50 points, $300,000 and the suspension of an executive. When asked, Helton simply explained this would be enough deter him from making those decisions in the future. But is it really that heavy of a penalty?

If I have a car that is at least 51 points ahead of 10th place, $300,000 is a small price to pay to do whatever it takes to help a teammate battle his way into the Chase, especially given the millions of dollars at stake.

Essentially nothing has change for MWR given where they are were standing with eight laps to go in Richmond on Saturday night. They still have just one car in the Chase and they paid $300,000 for the opportunity to gamble on a chaotic scenario that could have (and briefly did) send their second car into the playoffs.

If the gamble had worked it could be seen as a price worth paying and a chance to try it again in the future.

While the wrong done to Newman was righted, it also does nothing for Jeff Gordon who was the other victim on Saturday given what the No. 55 was found guilty of doing. If the No. 15 spin eliminated the No. 39 out of position to win, it was both Vickers’ and Bowyer’s slow pace for the remainder of the race that negated all the work Gordon had done up to that point to earn his spot in the Chase.

NASCAR’s intent was never to right a wrong but it did put a glaring omission worth noting as Newman is back in the chase but Gordon remains on the outside.

The Sanctioning Body had to do something to send a message that this would no longer be tolerated but that goal was not accomplished. A team could still risk what Michael Waltrip Racing did as long as they have the cache to pay for it and what good does that do in the long term?

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NASCAR Cup Series

AFTERMATH: The MWR Penalties

By Amanda Ebersole – With the penalties levied, Michael Waltrip Racing is now dealing with the aftermath of Clint Bowyer’s spin to earn Martin Truex Jr. a Chase berth.

Even with Bowyer’s 50 point penalty, he remains in the top 10 in points and the Chase reseed leaves him unaffected. It seems unjust however, his actions are the cause of the penalties. While I could argue that he was following team orders, he was the only one in the cockpit of  that car. He could have claimed a radio issue and ignored the apparent pre-determined signal, ironically as Truex did a year ago when asked to help Toyota teammate Kyle Busch make the Chase. But in the end, Bowyer made his decision and now has to live with it. But it leaves some important questions. 

Can MWR and more importantly Clint Bowyer put the drama behind them and contend for their first championship?

My short answer is no.

NASCAR is a sport that has 42 other drivers on the track each week. That is 42 other people who were affected by Bowyer’s actions and 42 chances at payback. While I don’t expect any of the former wild card contenders to blatantly wreck Bowyer or any of the MWR cars, I think their competitors are going to be less than forgiving with passing one another.

Innocent in the matter?

Perhaps the most innocent party in the MWR melodrama is  Truex. Was he involved in the call for Bowyer to spin, I highly doubt that. That was a call made by general manager Ty Norris and perhaps team owner Michael Waltrip. In the Chase and then out, Truex is paying the price for a team decision whether that is fair or not.

Is Ty Norris a team scapegoat?

Michael Waltrip threw Norris under the bus and backed over him a few times over in the team issued press release.

“What occurred on the No. 55 radio at the end of Saturday night’s race in Richmond was a split-second decision made by team spotter Ty Norris to bring the No. 55 to pit lane and help a teammate earn a place in the Chase. We regret the decision and its impact. We apologize to NASCAR, our fellow competitors, partners and fans who were disappointed in our actions. We will learn from this and move on. As general manager, Ty Norris has been an integral part of Michael Waltrip Racing since its founding and has my and (co-owner) Rob Kauffman’s full support.

While this statement may be true in part, it just reflects the actions of the 55 team and not the 15 team. Something stinks and Ty Norris is being put out to pasture in what appears to be a team decision. If Norris did act on his own accord, then by all means, shame on him. We will never know the full answers but the puzzle seems to be missing a few pieces.

What about the sponsors?

The sponsors of any given team are what keep a car on track and running week in and week out. How will NAPA and Aaron’s feel about now being branded with a team that attempted to cheat their way to competing for a championship? I imagine that is not in their business model of how they envision their brand being represented.

Both sponsorships are secured for the long term but I would have to imagine that there is going to be lots of conference calls this week as far as how to handle this.

While the team has announced they will not appeal, this drama is far from over. The Chase has gotten off to an interesting start and the green flag hasn’t even dropped.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Historic Fines Handed to Michael Waltrip Racing

After reviewing the end of the Federated Auto Parts 400, NASCAR has handed down penalties to the Michael Waltrip Racing organization.

Per the NASCAR issues press release, “MWR was found to have violated Section 12-4 (Actions detrimental to stock car racing). As a result, MWR’s three teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (No. 15, 55, 56) have been penalized with the loss of 50 championship driver and 50 championship owner points, respectively.

These point penalties are assessed following the season’s 26th regular season race and not after the seeding for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Therefore, the point total for the No. 56 car driven by Martin Truex Jr. is reduced to 691, putting him in 17th position and eliminating him from the second Wild Card berth for the Chase field. Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 car, now moves up into the Chase as the second Wild Card participant.

NASCAR has also fined the MWR organization $300,000 and indefinitely suspended Ty Norris, MWR Executive Vice President/General Manager and spotter for the No. 55 car, for violating Section 12-4. The three crew chiefs – Brian Pattie (No. 15), Scott Miller (No. 55) and Chad Johnston (No. 56) – have all been placed on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31.

“Based upon our review of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Ryan Newman is the Newest Driver at Richard Childress Racing

By Summer Bedgood – Richard Childress Racing will have a new driver in the No. 31 Chevrolet next season. Ryan Newman will be the driver of the No. 31 car next season. Burton announced last week that he would be leaving the team at the end of the 2013 season.

“This is a great opportunity for our team,” said Richard Childress. “I am very proud to have Ryan in our No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet starting next year. We have high expectations for this No. 31 team. Ryan has proven himself to be a great driver and I’m looking forward to winning races with him.”

The announcement comes just a couple of days after the final race in NASCAR’s regular season and the cutoff point in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Ryan Newman was on his way to winning the race and making the Chase on Saturday night, when a spin from Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer brought out a caution that would ultimately be to Newman’s detriment. With a bevy of controversy surrounding the spin due to several suspicious radio communications between Bowyer and his team and the fact that the spin benefited Bowyer’s teammate Martin Truex Jr., Newman was on the short end of the stick and ended up missing the Chase because of it.

The disappointment was evident for Newman after the race, and it wasn’t the only time Newman has been on the losing end of some shady dealings. Earlier this year, Newman was said to be out of a  ride at Stewart Haas Racing next season because the team didn’t have room for a fourth car. With Kevin Harvick moving to the team next year, Newman was the odd man out. However, several weeks later, while team owner Tony Stewart was in the hospital for a broken leg sustained in a sprint car race, Gene Haas took matters into his own hands and played a role in signing Kurt Busch into a fourth team that SHR doesn’t have for the 2014 season. Though Newman played off the announcement in public, Newman certainly was dealt a bad hand in silly season this year.

It appears now, though, that Newman has found a ride with RCR. Sponsor Caterpillar is expected to stay with the team, and Newman will most likely be teammates with Paul Menard and Richard Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon in 2014.

“I’m very pleased Richard and I were able to put this deal together for me to drive RCR’s No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet,” said Newman. “About five years ago, Richard and I talked about me joining RCR before I signed with my current team, but things just didn’t work out. However, we were able to make it happen this time and I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my career. RCR has a long history of winning races and championships, and I want to add to that tradition.

Newman has a total of 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories, including the 2008 Daytona 500. He has finished as high as sixth in the points twice and has an average career finish of 17th.

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @SummerBedgood

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NASCAR Cup Series

Almirola Pleased with Progress, Looks for More

By Matt Weaver – Aric Almirola is having a career-best campaign for Richard Petty Motorsports this season but feels as though he and teammate Marcos Ambrose were capable of so much more if not for a rash of bad luck.

Both drivers will be back at RPM next season and Almirola will look to finish the mission he started in the first half of this season by making his first Chase for the Championship.

Four DNFs derailed his title-contending plans for this season but Almirola is still excited for the rest of 2013, especially Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway. Almirola is an avid short track racing supporter and explained why similar events are needed in the Cup Series in an exclusive interview with Popular Speed.

His thoughts on short tracks, Late Model racing and his off-season plans can be found below.

Popular Speed: You guys have improved each season since moving to Ford and working with Roush — can that continue into next season?

Aric Almirola: That’s the plan. We’re real close on finishing everything. The continuity of keeping everything the same and working with this team and (crew chief) Todd Parrott will be a huge advantage. All the guys on this team do a good job and they understand these cars and what it takes to make them go faster.

We’re looking forward to building on that next year.

PS: Does RPM have a handle on the Gen-6 car now?

AA: Yeah, I think it’s been good. It’s been a work in progress for sure, for everybody. I feel like we came out a little slower than where we wanted to be but we got going pretty good after a month or so into the season and into the summer. But we kind of lost our edge a little bit after — the guys have been working really hard on getting that advantage back. We’ve been working with Roush and the guys from Ford to get things back on track and where we need to be.

I feel real good about the direction we’re headed and where we are as a program.

PS: How much of NASCAR is momentum and how much of it is week-to-week?

AA: It’s certainly about momentum. I’d say leading into Darlington we had four top-10s in a row and we had that bad night at Darlington and we kind of lost our momentum. Now we’ve got some of it back and it’s been week-to-week. We have fast cars — Todd has been bringing me real fast cars to the track. We’ve had silly things happen, like Pocono where we had a car capable of running in the top-10 and have a flat left-rear tire. We go to Bristol, run in the top-10 in the first half, pit for four tires, lose track position and get in someone else’s wreck. There’s just been so many things like that — things that are out of our control that have resulted in finishes that don’t reflect how well we’ve run.

PS: You were competing for a Chase spot earlier in the season. Will that sort of pressure benefit you next season, now knowing what that feels like?

AA: Yeah, absolutely. We’re certainly focused on this year still and we have some strong tracks coming up but I feel like this season has given me confidence that we can race with those top guys for a Chase spot.

PS: Richmond has been one of your better tracks, historically.

AA: Yeah, I think we finished eighth there earlier this year. I typically run well there in a Nationwide car too. It’s our home track, a home track for our sponsor Smithfield, right down the road in Smithfield, Virginia. So it’s always a big race when we go to Richmond and we always look to run well there for our sponsors.

PS: We’ve really decreased the number of true short tracks, like Richmond, at the Sprint Cup level. Would you like to run more of them and which tracks would you like to see added?

AA: Umm, I think it would be neat for us to go to Iowa. It’s a great race and they always put on a great show for Nationwide and a lot of fans always show up.

I was there for the inaugural Nationwide Series race and it was a packed house. So I think it would be good for us to get to some short tracks because we run a lot of mile-and-a-halfs.

PS: When you look at the success “The King” (Almirola’s car owner, Richard Petty) had on short tracks, are there any of those tracks, like North Wilkesboro or the Nashville Fairgrounds that you wish you could have raced on in the No. 43?

AA: There are a lot of tracks that I wish I could have raced on. In fact, I think we should go to a lot more tracks, and only visit each one once a year. When I was racing my Late Model, I really enjoyed showing up to a new race track that I haven’t been to, with the challenge or adapting to a new track. So there’s a lot of tracks that still want to knock off the bucket list.

PS: You were schedule to knock off one of those races, the Snowball Derby, but had to cancel because of a family emergency. Could we see you try to make it again this year?

AA: Yeah, I don’t know. We still got a lot going on with the family. It’s close to Christmas time and I don’t get to go down to Florida and spend a lot of time with the family. Usually I get to see them on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But the Snowball Derby is one that I would love to go down there and have a shot to win but the thing is that everything has to be right, the timing has to be right and I have to get my wife to sign off on it. I race 40 weeks out of the year and throwing one more race is kind of pushing my luck. (laughs)

PS: Beyond any possible off-season races, have you made any off-season plans?

AA: Just spending time with the family. We have a growing family and it’s been a lot of fun to watch my little boy growing up so I’m really looking forward to Christmas this year.

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NASCAR Cup Series

KURT BUSCH: “Furniture Row Racing – Welcome to the Chase!”

By Amanda Ebersole – Kurt Busch, you just earned Furniture Row Racing their first Chase berth and unbeknownst to you, you are now the poster boy of second chances.

It was back in 2011 during the season finale race that Kurt Busch’s world started to unravel. After an already rocky season, he was videotaped unleashing a verbal tirade on ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch. Subsequently Busch lost his ride at Penske Racing and was later picked up by Joe Garone at Furniture Row Racing.

Fast forward to present day and the words Kurt said over the radio as the checkered flag fell at Richmond, “Furniture Row Racing – welcome to the Chase!”

An emotional Busch spoke to ESPN after the race and could barely compose himself. Thanking girlfriend Patricia Driscoll and her young son, Houston, it appears that the Busch we all remember from 2011 is long gone.

As he stood in a bit of disbelief after the race, Busch spoke to ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch and said: “It’s been a journey. It’s been a great ride of trying to persevere and going up against the odds when certain things are against you that are out of your control and sometimes you induce things that put you in a position where you have to dig hard and keep working. This shows to people that when you can just pull through and believe in yourself and find good people like Patricia and little Houston, he said he wanted to go to victory lane this summer and I didn’t get him to victory lane yet, but we’re going to celebrate on the Chase stage. I’m getting all emotional about the eight year old hanging out with me.”

“But to make the Chase with these guys is an unbelievable feeling. It’s been an 18‑month work in progress, and I’ve been through a lot, and I’ve learned a lot, and I feel like I’m better ready for the Chase and life in general as a 35 year old.”

“I’ve got a little one that’s in a go‑kart looking up to me now. Just these guys, it’s an unbelievable feeling; Barney Visser started this in Colorado years ago, and here we are in the Chase. You get a guy like Todd Berrier that comes in and helps arrange things, starts cutting weight out of cars and knows his way around the garage, he’s a veteran leader, and I’ve always loved veterans and car guys. Todd Berrier reminds me a lot of Jimmy Fennig, who’s a guy that helped me win a championship years ago. We’ve got some muscle in us. We haven’t won a race yet this year, but we’re in the Chase, and we’ve got a good 10 weeks ahead of us where we can do some good things.”

My take on Kurt

I have been a skeptic of the “new Kurt” knowing the temper that he holds deep inside. That kind of anger and hatred just doesn’t disappear overnight. Listening and seeing him post-race at Richmond, my mind is swayed to the side that he is a changed man. Perhaps losing his ride at Penske, seeking anger management counseling and his new-found personal relationship was enough to change Busch. Why shouldn’t we, as race fans, give him the benefit of the doubt.

While Kurt still has his temper on the scanner, he has learned to control it much better than before. His radio rants are far and few between and it really shows the progress he has made as a man, not just as a driver.

Joe Garone and the entire Furniture Row Racing team took a chance on Busch and that chance is paying off ten times over as the single car team prepares to make history. Kudos to them for taking a risk and now reaping the benefits of that.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Johnson Concerned but Focused on Experience as Chase Begins

By Kelly Crandall – A season that was holding much promise for Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team has been slipping away the last four weeks.

No, Johnson hasn’t lost his chance at competing for the 2013 Sprint Cup Series championship but he might have lost his edge. Saturday night in Richmond capped four weeks of trouble for the Lowe’s team when they finished 40th after slowness, a faulty battery and then a flat tire made for a long night.

“Unfortunately tonight here at the track things did not go well. We would literally wear the right front tire off the car as the night would go on,” said Johnson. “But I look at the string of bad races we’ve had here over the last four weeks, the majority of the tracks that resemble the Chase, we’ve been fast. We had a blown engine and tire failure at Pocono. Bristol, here, tracks we don’t see in the Chase, we’ve had our issues.

“I’m glad Richmond and Bristol aren’t in the Chase. I feel the 10 tracks that are in the Chase are very good for the 48 team. We’ll start over on a clean sheet of paper next weekend and go at it.”

Because of the birth of he and wife Chandra’s second daughter, Lydia Norriss Johnson, on Friday morning, Johnson did not practice or qualify his Lowe’s Chevrolet. Starting the race last he made his way into the top 25 before stalling out and beginning to feel something was wrong with the car.

At one point Johnson was told he needed to pick up his speed, but seemed confused as to how he was going to make the car respond. He was lapped, got caught speeding on pit road and soon found himself with the hood up and then in the garage because of a battery problem. He re-entered the race only to blow a right front tire and hammer the wall with 58 laps to go.

After seeding Johnson is second in points as the Chase gets ready to begin next weekend in Chicago. But all momentum he had just weeks ago and talk about being the title favorite are gone. For the first time in his career Johnson finished 25th or worse over four straight weeks.

Johnson locked himself into the Chase early thanks in part to a 77-point lead, the largest in Chase format history. Soon after the troubles started with poor finishes stacking up and his point lead dwindling. Before reseeding on Saturday night, he would have been second in points to Carl Edwards.

“There’s always a little concern. Without a doubt you want to enter the Chase with momentum,” he said about the last few weeks, which he had engine trouble, two crashes and then a bundle of problems on Saturday night.

“I think every team falls back on past history. We have won championships without momentum going into the first race. So we’re going to fall on our experience and also the experience of knowing the Chase is so different than anything else. You’re only racing 12 guys, not 43. So things change a lot.

“We’re going to go to a track that is very good for us. We had a tire test there earlier in the year. It went really well. I’m going to reserve any major concern or overwhelming confidence until after Chicago. I’m going to go in there with confidence I can go out and win because I know that I can. We’re going to enter nice and smooth and see how Chicago goes.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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