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NASCAR Cup Series

Matt Kenseth Five Times a Winner

By Reid Spencer (BRISTOL, Tenn.) — We’ve seen this script before, Matt Kenseth holding off Kasey Kahne in the closing laps of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

It happened at Las Vegas in March. It happened at Kansas in April. And it happened again in Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

On inferior tires and with a fuel tank bordering on empty, Kenseth won a heated battle against Kahne to claim victory in Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, after Kahne moved into the second position on Lap 473 of 500.

The victory was Kenseth’s fifth of the year and it guaranteed the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at least a wild card spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Juan Pablo Montoya ran third followed by Brian Vickers and Joey Logano.

The victory was Kenseth’s third at Bristol and the 29th of his career but it was anything but a cakewalk. Several times in the closing laps Kahne either pulled alongside or nosed ahead of Kenseth’s Toyota but was unable to complete a pass.

“I think, at the end of the day, I just don’t wreck people,” Kahne said plaintively after the race, clearly disappointed that he had failed to win with a superior car.

Kenseth can thank Kahne for his restraint, especially in light of four incidents earlier this season in which JGR drivers have wrecked Kahne’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

“When he got there with about eight (laps) to go, I knew we had our work cut out for us,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t know what would happen. The interesting thing about this track is that there’s only one really fast groove, and I knew I couldn’t let him outside of me…

“He almost cleared me into (Turn) 3 one time. I had to drive in really, really hard to make sure he couldn’t get up in front of me. That’s when I had that rubbing together off of (Turn) 4. There wasn’t a lot of extra room there. It was an intense race. Kasey’s got a great reputation. He’s a really hard racer, really talented and he’s also a really fair racer.

“I thought he was going to pass me. I thought he was going to get around me there but we had just enough to hang on.”

Kahne felt he couldn’t have cleared Kenseth’s car without putting both drivers in jeopardy.

“Yeah, I thought Matt did a good job of just running as hard as he could as close to the wall as possible, which helped him a lot, and then I was just trying to gain speed,” Kahne said. “I had a better car. We were on the right strategy and I just couldn’t clear him. There was a couple shots I took and I had to have been close, but I could feel him on the right side of my car and I just didn’t clear him.

“I didn’t figure out how to get by. It’s disappointing not to win here. I thought we had the best car the last 200 laps and it was a lot of work. We didn’t start the best, but (crew chief) Kenny (Francis) made a lot of good calls and our strategy was perfect at the end. It was a great night for us, good for the points and things, but yeah, I wish I could have figured out how to get by him.”

Montoya, watching the battle from a safe distance in third place, was hoping for contact between the first- and second-place cars.

“I was hoping they were going to wreck on the white flag (lap), to be honest,” Montoya said.

Kenseth led the field to green for a restart after a wreck in Turn 1 involving Montoya, David Stremme and Jeff Burton caused the ninth caution of the evening. By Lap 430, Kenseth had opened a lead of more than one second over Jeff Gordon.

Caution for debris on the frontstretch slowed the field for the 10th time on Lap 439. Kenseth and  Gordon, both saving fuel, brought the field to green on Lap 447, but before the cars could complete the circuit, contact between the cars of Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin ignited a massive wreck in Turns 3 and 4 that dealt serious blows to the Chase hopes of Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

Truex finshed 35th and fell two spots to 14th in points but still holds a provisional wild card berth with two races left before the Chase field is set at  Richmond. Keselowski came home 30th and fell from eighth to 11th in the standings with no victory to offer him safe haven as a wild card.

Logano, on the other hand, moved into the top 10, as did Kahne. Kurt Busch finished 31st thanks to a loose wheel and a lengthy stay in the garage and dropped from ninth to 12th in points.

After a stoppage of four minutes 27 seconds for debris clean-up from the Lap 447 wreck, Montoya surged from fourth to second on the Lap 454 restart and took off in pursuit of Kenseth, With a full load of fuel and fresh tires, however, Kahne slipped past Montoya for second on Lap 473, caught Kenseth and waged an intensely competitive battle over the closing laps before falling short by .188 seconds.

Note: With a 14th-place finish, Clint Bowyer clinched a spot in the Chase. Bowyer remained second in the Cup  standings and narrowed Jimmie Johnson’s lead to 18 points, after Johnson broke the radiator on his No. 48 Chevy in a Lap 358 wreck and finished 36th.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Martin’s Last Stand

By Matt Weaver (BRISTOL, Tenn.) — Mark Martin is still chasing that elusive first Sprint Cup Series championship.

And while it appears that a title was never meant to be for the 54-year-old veteran driver, Martin has suddenly found himself right in the middle of the owner’s championship as he will pilot Tony Stewart’s No. 14 car for 13 of the remaining 14 stops on the schedule (Austin Dillon will compete for the team at Talladega).

But first, Martin has to put that car into the owner’s Chase for the Championship.

The format for that Chase is the same as the driver’s playoff but also takes into account cars that have had multiple pilots, such as the Michael Waltrip Racing No. 55, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 and now Stewart’s No. 14 — all cars that Martin will have driven this season.

The No. 14 enters the Night Race at Bristol tied with the No. 56 Waltrip car for the second wild card. So before Martin can even start thinking about the owner’s title, he must first get into the playoffs.

But don’t let the fact that Martin has never won the driver’s championship fool you into thinking the No. 14 can’t be a contender deep into the season. Martin is battle-tested, having finished second in the standings five times and third four other times.

And it wasn’t that long ago — 2009 to be precise — that he took Jimmie Johnson to the wire in a losing battle for the Sprint Cup crown. He also owns 40 Cup wins and seven over the last decade negating the idea that Martin is far from over-the-hill as an elite-level athlete.

Most importantly, Martin doesn’t have a lot left to accomplish in his career or a lot of time to do what remains. There is no guarantee that Martin will have a place to compete next season and this could perhaps be his last chance to leave one final mark in the sport he has given so much to.

Martin is a champion in every sense of the word but 2013 may provide one last chance for him to earn the hardware that comes with it.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Busch on Bristol and His Brother

By Matt Weaver (BRISTOL, Tenn.) — Kyle Busch says there is no reason to even try to find speed on the bottom line at Bristol Motor Speedway right now as the repave and subsequent grinding of the track has completely eliminated that option.

The bottom line used to contain the ideal racing groove before the 2007 reconfiguration and Busch says that the old layout made it easier to win with a lesser-handling car too. But that’s just not the case anymore.

“It’s a lot harder (to win) now,” Busch said on Friday before final practice. “They ruined this race track when the grinded it. There’s no bottom groove — only the top. As soon as you get up to the top and run your right sides in the smooth ground stuff, it’s two-tenths faster.

“But you’re right on the razors edge because once you overstep those boundaries, you’re in the fence.”

Busch expects Saturday’s night’s Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race to be a “train race around the top” but that drivers will also have to be careful to not drift too high or risk losing grip. Both Busch and championship leader Jimmie Johnson were amongst the drivers to have their hands full in first practice and just barely keep it off the wall.

Busch won the Camping World Truck Series race at the track on Wednesday night and says that he was surprised to see that much of the rubber from that event was still there. That could present extra passing opportunities for drivers willing to risk moving up the track.

“That’s the highest the groove has been in practice here in a long time so guys just know they have to go up there and set up their cars because of what it is on the bottom. You can run a lap around the top at a 15.50 and try to move to the bottom and you’re in the 15.90s.

“So there is absolutely no way you’re going to be able to pass low.”

Kyle not surprised at Kurt’s Stewart-Haas offer

Kyle Busch also said that he was not surprised to learn that his brother (Kurt) was offered a job next season at Stewart-Haas Racing, adding that Kurt had confirmed his free agent value this season at Furniture Row Racing.

“I think it’s great for Kurt to have an offer like that,” the younger Busch said. “But I’m not surprised because we’ve seen him run really well for where he’s at right now. It’s entirely up to him what he does and I haven’t talked to him about it.”

The elder Busch is currently ninth in the championship standings with Furniture Row and is seeking his first win with the team to boost his Chase chances.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Is Stewart-Haas Racing REALLY the Best Place for Kurt Busch?

By Jerry Bonkowski – I would never stand in the way of someone pursuing what, at least on the surface, may be a better situation than the current one he or she finds himself in.

Such is the case with Kurt Busch.

First of all, there is no question of the immense talent the elder Busch brother has. Plus, he’s a former Sprint Cup champion, having won the first Chase playoff in 2004.

Granted, Busch has had some issues in his career, most notably his forced departure from Penske Racing after an ugly incident with ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch in the final race of the 2011 season at Homestead.

To his credit, Busch has worked his way back, worked on himself and the results have shown in a big way with what he’s done for Furniture Row Racing in 2013. What makes Busch’s achievements thus far this season all the more to be appreciated is he’s in only a one-car operation, yet has raced his way up to ninth in the standings with three races left to make this year’s edition of the Chase.

He has a real chance to become the first driver from a one-car team to ever make the Chase.

That says a lot.

But this week’s numerous news reports, media speculation and fan consternation about Busch potentially going to Stewart-Haas Racing next season are somewhat confounding.

Given what he’s done at FRR and what appears to be perhaps one of the best ownership situations he’s ever been part of, not to mention Kurt being happy where he’s at, it’s probably a likely safe bet that Busch could stay there as long as he wants.

But let’s face it, the one-car FRR operation doesn’t have the resources that other multi-car teams that have been rumored to be part of the Kurt Busch sweepstakes have, including Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and now Stewart-Haas Racing.

I’m glad to see Busch having so many options. Who knows, maybe he may have a few others that haven’t been publicized. As the saying goes, “Good on him!”

But is SHR really the best place for Busch?

Consider:

1) Team co-owner and No. 1 driver Tony Stewart hasn’t exactly had the most friendly relationship at times with Busch over the years.

2) Kevin Harvick will join SHR in 2014 and by default will become the No. 2 driver on the team. Harvick and Busch have had a long dislike for each other over the years. Are they immediately going to kiss and make up if they become teammates?

3) Danica Patrick will remain a big part of SHR’s 2014 plans and beyond.

4) Rumors have SHR’s other co-owner, Gene Haas, footing the bill to sponsor a full-time car in Cup for Busch next season.

That leaves Kurt, in essence, to be the No. 4 driver on what would be an expanded four-driver team. (Okay, maybe I would rank him No. 3, ahead of Patrick.)

And, maybe it’s just me, but why hasn’t there been more said about how Ryan Newman was told before last month’s Brickyard 400 that he wouldn’t be coming back to SHR next season, with one of the main reasons cited being sponsorship – and yet, less than two weeks later, Busch and SHR were reportedly talking a deal for an in-house sponsored car?

Newman will likely take Quicken Loans’ 18-race sponsorship with him wherever he winds up at in 2014, which is a big plus. But how can SHR justify cutting loose a guy who has a half-season sponsorship deal in his back pocket, to bring on a guy who will likely run an in-house sponsored car (pending the addition of more sponsorship if Busch does indeed sign with SHR)?

Sorry, but the math doesn’t compute there. Or are there other reasons why Newman will be leaving at season’s end? It does make you start to wonder, doesn’t it?

Why wouldn’t Busch want to become the No. 1 driver at EGR instead? After all, he’s done a heck of a lot more in his career than Jamie McMurray has and could reenergize EGR with Juan Pablo Montoya bidding adieu at season’s end.

Or why wouldn’t Busch want to go to RCR as either No. 1 or No. 2 in 2014 with Harvick leaving at this season’s end?

What about Busch going to Richard Petty Motorsports, which would immediately improve with him on their team?

Do you honestly think Busch will be happy being No. 4 or maybe No. 3 (if you rank him above Danica) on a four-car team when he could achieve so much more as a top driver somewhere else?

Admittedly, it’s been a very strange season at SHR. Danica won the pole at Daytona, finished eighth in that race and then has essentially faded from view ever since. There’s also been far too much – and unnecessary coverage in my mind – of her relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (whose business is it, really, right?).

Then Stewart got off to the worst start of his Cup career before starting to find his way around mid-season … only to see his 2013 campaign come to an abrupt end nearly three weeks ago when he broke his leg in two places in a sprint car crash in Iowa.

Will SHR be stronger in 2014 with Stewart back and Harvick in the fold? Yes, that’s very likely. Will it be stronger if Busch joins the team? Yes, very likely as well.

But I just can’t see how Busch, who has been so used to being No. 1 at Roush Fenway Racing (for at least his championship season), Penske Racing, Phoenix Racing and now Furniture Row Racing, will be happy playing second-, third- or even fourth-fiddle at SHR.

If he’s that far down on the totem pole, will he get as good of equipment as Stewart or Harvick or even Patrick? Will he become the designated test driver for the other three?

And if those scenarios do play out, how long will Busch remain happy if he gets lost in the crowd of the four-car team?

Even though I wish Busch the best, wouldn’t anyone else be a bit suspect of making a deal with a team that only a couple weeks earlier cried poor and let Newman go at the end of the season, only to start talking a deal with Busch shortly thereafter?

And what happens if Newman makes the Chase three weeks from now as SHR’s lone representative and then pulls a Brad Keselowski-like move and somehow wins the championship – only to be without a job the following day? Shades of Darian Grubb in 2011, wouldn’t you say?

Maybe that’s the solution: Busch should talk to Grubb or Newman about what he might potentially be getting himself into at SHR before he signs on the dotted line.

Just sayin’.

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NASCAR Cup Series

POWER RANKINGS: The Fast Fifteen

By Matt Weaver – Joey Logano’s victory on Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway changed the complexion of the race to the chase. Meanwhile, the Nationwide Series battled to a knock-out prize fight at Mid-Ohio, ending with the second road course victory of the season for AJ Allmendinger. The result was a sizeable shakeup in the Fast 15 Power Rankings.

1. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 1)

There’s no reason to take Johnson out of the top spot. The No. 48 team is likely experimenting with all manner of things leading into the Chase and they’ve earned that right.

2. Clint Bowyer (LW: 2)

Mulligan! A minor accident on the first lap didn’t prevent another strong outing from Clint Bowyer. He finished fifth but still is looking for the first victory of the season.

3. Carl Edwards (LW: 5)

Top-10 after top-10 this season for Carl Edwards. At some point, Edwards needs to turn the consistency into a win or risk the lack of DNFs catching up to him during the Chase.

4. Kasey Kahne (LW: 7)

A seventh place isn’t so bad when compared to day endured by his Hendrick teammates. Kahne is so close to the top-10 (with two wins) that he can touch it. Look for him to break back in after a visit to Bristol — where he won in the spring.

5. Kevin Harvick (LW: 9)

The Closer is closing in towards a few late-season wins. He’s trending in the right direction heading towards his final Chase attempt with Richard Childress Racing.

6. Kurt Busch (LW: 6)

Also trending. The Little Engine that Could finished third at Michigan and returns to one of his favorite tracks in East Tennessee.

7. Brad Keselowski (LW: 4)

The defending champion and team sacrificed a shot at the win for points, choosing to pit for fuel rather than chase the win. These kinds of decisions should get him into the Chase and then they can take the cast of the No. 2 team.

8. Joey Logano (LW: 14)

In three weeks, his victory will be seen in one of two lights — “too little, too late” or “the moment that Logano arrived in the title picture.” But which will it be?

9. Sam Hornish Jr. (LW: 8)

Sam Hornish finished third while his Sprint Cup teammate won the race and earned zero driver points for it. They’re starting to add up. On the other hand, Hornish finished ahead of his title rivals and stretched his NNS lead to 14 over Regan Smith. It amounts to a good day.

10. Kyle Busch (LW: 3)

Sunday at Michigan was one of two things. A blip on the radar for a resurgent Kyle Busch’s season or the beginning of his usual fall swoon. We’re thinking the former.

11. Matt Kenseth (LW: 12)

The hottest driver at the start of the season has been relegated to “just a guy” over the past few months. They could be in experiment mode or just regrouping before the Chase. But I’m sure they’d like to finish the regular season with a little more momentum.

12. AJ Allmendinger (LW: NR)

The Dinger is doing everything right in trying to get back to full-time competition. He won his second straight road course for Penske Racing and appears to have a lot of options for next season.

13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 13)

Dang nabbit. Trending the wrong direction at the wrong time. Another bad finish like Watkins Glen and Michigan can put him on the fringes of the Chase bubble at the wrong time of the season. He doesn’t have a win to fall back on either.

14. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: NR)

Doing everything he can to stay in the Wild Card battle. On Sunday that meant finishing 16th.

15. Greg Biffle (LW: NR)

A top-10 at Michigan wasn’t enough to get Greg Biffle any hugher than 10th in the standings. He’s feeling the heat of this increasingly more intense Wild Card bubble chase. One more ‘meh’ finish could toss him right in the middle of it.

EMAIL MATT AT: matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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NASCAR Cup Series

Will Bubble Pop on Logano, Keselowski?

By Jerry Bonkowski – Joey Logano’s win Sunday at Michigan was rather ironic.

While it boosted Logano into contention to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it didn’t exactly do much for the fate of teammate and defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

Sure, the numbers heading into Saturday night’s race at Bristol show Keselowski in eighth place in the standings and Logano in 13th, just seven points out of 12th and ever so close to capturing one of two wild-card berths for the Chase.

But here’s where the irony comes in: With Saturday night’s race at Bristol, next weekend at Atlanta and the final Chase qualifier at Richmond in two weeks, Logano may wind up making the 10-race playoffs and the defending champ may not.

It’s a matter of numbers.

Keselowski is just four points out of 10th position. If he has one bad race in the remaining three – or worse, two bad races in the next three – it’s likely he’ll fall out of the top-10.

End of making the Chase. End of defending last year’s championship.

If that were to happen, Keselowski would become at least the third driver in recent memory who either won a championship or came agonizingly close to doing so one year, and failed to make the Chase the following season.

Think about it: Tony Stewart won his second Cup crown in 2005, only to miss the Chase in 2006 by just over a dozen points.

Then there was Carl Edwards, who tied with Stewart for the Cup championship in 2011, only to lose it on a tie-breaker. Rather than come back even stronger and more motivated in 2012, Edwards missed the Chase.

Keselowski isn’t far from suffering the same fate that Stewart’s and Edwards did.

And in another twist of irony, Logano could still overtake his teammate and make the Chase – while Keselowski doesn’t – because of one simple thing.

Wins — or lack thereof, in the case of Keselowski.

Logano earned his first win of the 2013 Cup season at Michigan, while Keselowski still has not visited victory lane thus far in NASCAR’s premier series this season.

That’s something I just don’t get. The Michigan native looked extremely strong in the first part of the season, with either a third- or fourth-place finish in each of the first four races, only to ride a roller coaster of performance from that point on.

You would think that surely the defending Cup champ would have at least a win or two by now. But Keselowski hasn’t. What’s more, he has just one runner-up finish this season, two weeks ago at Watkins Glen.

By contrast, at this time last year, Keselowski already had three wins and would earn two more during the Chase and en route to his and team owner Roger Penske’s first respective Sprint Cup  championships.

Of the three remaining tracks before the Chase starts, Keselowski has had the best success at Bristol, with two wins and another top-five in seven starts at the fabled short track.

At Atlanta, he has one top-five and another top-10 in four Cup starts. And at Richmond, he has just two top-10s in eight starts.

That’s why Saturday night’s race is so important for both teammates. Logano said after Sunday’s win that his team realistically needs top-10 finishes in at least two of the last three races to hopefully secure a Chase berth (and that still may not be enough).

Unfortunately for Logano, he’s going to have to elevate his game like he never has if he hopes to finally make his first Chase. At Bristol, he has just one top-10 in nine career starts. Atlanta is worse: his best finish in six starts to date has been 18th, achieved this spring there.

And then there’s Richmond, where Logano has a pair of top-fives in nine career Cup starts.

I’m sure that while it’s an exciting time around Penske Racing, knowing that one and possibly both of its Sprint Cup drivers are on the either side of the cusp to make the Chase.

There’s a lot of hard work still left to do to assure Keselowski and Logano both make the Chase – because one twist or turn of fate could ultimately result in one, if not both, failing to make the playoffs.

Yes, Penske Racing is riding the Chase bubble perhaps as much as any other team. The question is whether or not that bubble doesn’t ultimately burst for both of its drivers in the next three races.

 

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NASCAR Cup Series

The Science of Kurt Busch

By Mike Calinoff – There’s a saying that “cats always land on their feet.” It’s true – they have a built-in righting reflex as a result of a flexible backbone and no functional clavicle. I sound pretty bright, huh? Well, I’m as knowledgeable as anyone else who has the latest and greatest smartphone. Check out the animation.

 

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I’ll get to the point — which is Kurt Busch.

We’ve all heard the profanity-laced in-car audio. We remember all of the banter with other drivers, race officials and NASCAR itself. There was the 2012 Dover episode where reporter Bob Pockrass was threatened. We cringe at the thought of how he spoke to Roger Penske over the radio and we’ll never forget the incident that subsequently took what was once a blue chip stock and diminished it to pennies – the berating of Dr. Jerry Punch in 2011 at Homestead. Roger Penske had exhausted every bit of patience and tolerance that he had with Kurt Busch and fired him. That was it. Done. Game over.

Well, not exactly.

James Finch came along, offered Kurt a ride for 2012 and he took it.

It was a no-brainer for Finch, who’s never really been able to attract the caliber of driver that would help bring his team to the next level. And it was a no-choicer for Kurt, who knew that staring at the phone won’t make it ring. It seemed like the perfect union – for while anyway.

Busch tried to oversell his talents with a team that wasn’t prepared enough to execute. Results were sub-par and the self-proclaimed “fun times” were short-lived.

And his phone remained silent.

When I heard the announcement about Kurt’s one-year deal with Furniture Row Racing. I thought, “Wow, it’s come down to this. What a shame.” At the time, that team was marginal at best. I figured it was his last stop.

Then, I thought about the events leading up to this point and reminded myself that Kurt Busch is a Champion in our sport, having won the 2004 title by inches. It was one of the most dramatic moments we’ve ever seen in a championship race.

Over the following years, Kurt’s behavior had diluted his championship honor for many of us – but the facts are the facts. That Sunday afternoon in 2004 when he escaped disaster and narrowly got onto pit road, inked his name in the record books.

Although winless to date, Busch has had a remarkable season. He sits 9th in the standings with 11 top-tens and 6 top-fives heading to Bristol, arguably one of his best tracks. He’s demonstrated how championship experience along with a level head, can make a difference. He’s added his flavor of driving to an organization that’s had resources, but no one to channel them in the right direction. And he’s also pretty much relegated Regan Smith to the Nationwide Series for the foreseeable future.

Over the weekend we learned that Stewart-Haas Racing has made Busch a formal offer to join their team in a fourth entry. It’s rumored that the team would be self-funded through Haas Automation. And that’s probably based on the fact that Kurt Busch hasn’t quite earned the trust of potential sponsors. That’s the risk verses reward factor.

But, Kurt now has options. How he weighs them and plays them will be interesting.

Going to SHR would be a sweet deal for the driver that many had written off as damaged goods. But there still could be looming unknowns such as on-track history with two of his three teammates. Kurt hasn’t exactly made it easy to like him.

Then there’s the pecking order. Where would he stack up in the stable? My guess is that he’d literally and figuratively be the fourth team. Gene Haas is a smart guy who could easily take a wait-and-see approach with Kurt. After all, the co-owner is paying the bills and the other three cars are funded as a result of the driver relationships with their sponsors. Kurt doesn’t have that luxury and is thus somewhat unprotected. A tirade or two could potentially send him packing.

At Furniture Row, there are endless possibilities.

The single-car team has made amazing strides with Busch at the controls. They are now contenders for the Chase. Would you have ever guessed that?

Now, take what Kurt has accomplished at Furniture Row Racing, add the experience of Todd Berrier and a rejuvenated car owner in Barney Visser – and you’ve really got something to build on.

I think that Kurt Busch would be best served by staying right where’s he’s at. If FRR adds a second or even third car to their fleet at some point, Kurt’s still the main guy and has a better control of his destiny.

At 35-years-old, his career is far from over. Some say the best is yet to come if he can keep his emotions in check and focus on the task at hand. And while one season doesn’t make a career, his chances of success are way above average. He’s still got races and Championships to win.

We’ll see how it all unfolds in the coming weeks, but either way the cat is going to land on his feet.

 

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NASCAR Cup Series

Nationwide Hard Knocks Paying Off for Cup Rookie Stenhouse

By Kelly Crandall – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won back-to-back Nationwide Series titles before moving into the vacated No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.

But it wasn’t those two years that prepared the youngster for the rocky road a rookie can have in the NSCS. Success in one series doesn’t necessarily correlate to success at NASCAR’s top level, sometimes a driver has to learn the hard way and for Stenhouse, the learning curve was steep.

He brought back more broken cars to RFR than finishes and when owner Jack Roush benched him in late 2010; it was the shakeup Stenhouse needed. Now, over halfway into his first full season in the NSCS, in which he leads the Rookie of the Year (ROTY) standings over girlfriend Danica Patrick, Stenhouse has used that lesson to stay on track.

“I think we’ve been really consistent this season. I haven’t put myself in many positions that are going to get us wrecked,” Stenhouse said on Monday during a media teleconference.

“We finished every single race this year. We blew a tire at Texas and that took us out of contention of running well. We got crashed at Pocono. We blew a tire this weekend [while running 10th at Michigan]. I think we’ve been really consistent throughout the year, not taking too many chances at pressing the issue and tearing our car up. That was something that took me forever in the Nationwide car to figure that out.”

When Stenhouse was reined in the results started to show up. He won the Nationwide Series ROTY in 2010 and went on to become a champion. Still running hard, never fearing his competition and often finding it difficult to back down, Stenhouse always had it under control and made it work.

This year, while he hasn’t found Victory Lane yet, Stenhouse and his Best Buy team led by another rookie, crew chief Scott Graves, have been running at the end of every race and even sat in Chase contention early in the year. Heading into Bristol this weekend they’re just outside the top 20.

“Ten races into this season, we were close to top 10 in points. We had a wild card spot for a little while,” he said. “That was just running consistent. We weren’t very fast, we weren’t contending for wins or running top 20, but we were consistent and we were finishing races.

“That’s something I learned in 2011, 2012 carrying into this year. I think we’ve gained a ton of experience this year just by finishing these races and being out on the racetrack, something that I feel like I jeopardized in 2010 racing for Rookie of the Year in the Nationwide Series. I crashed a lot. I didn’t get the experience I needed. Lucky we got a lot of experience at the end of 2010 that carried us on to 2011, 2012.”

And Stenhouse is enjoying the experience he’s been getting this year. Which he looks forward to the years when it pays off. But with just 13 races remaining in the season, including tracks that he’ll return to for a second time with the team, Stenhouse acknowledges the room for improvement, giving his team a solid C grading.

“We’ve had some strong runs. We’ve had speed. We’ve made good decisions. We haven’t got everything to fall our way to capitalize on those,” Stenhouse said.

“In these Sprint Cup races, you have to have everything fall in place and you have to be fast every week to get those good finishes you’re looking for. We definitely got a lot of room for improvement. I knew it was going to be tough coming in.

“I’m still hoping for that strong finish like we had in our Nationwide Series rookie campaign in 2010 so that we can carry some momentum into next year. Definitely a lot of room for improvement, but we’re working hard at it.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Cards Getting Wild!

By Matt Weaver – With a Sprint Cup victory on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway in the Pure Michigan 400, Joey Logano formally entered the discussion for the Chase for the Championship

After being on the fringes of contention the past few weeks, Logano has surged to 13th in the standings, 17 points out of the top-10 and just seven markers behind Martin Truex Jr. for the final wild card spot.

Both drivers (Logano and Truex) have one win while the first wild card occupant (Kasey Kahne) has two. The first six drivers in the championship standings are pretty much secure (Jimmie Johnson has locked his spot) but it’s still interesting from seventh on back to 17th.

With three races remaining, here is the wild card picture heading into the unpredictable Bristol Night Race.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 679, 0

8. Brad Keselowski, 667, 0

9. Kurt Busch, 665, 0

10. Greg Biffle, 663, 1

11. Kasey Kahne, -4 behind Biffle, 2 wins

12. Martin Truex Jr., -10, 1

13. Joey Logano, -17, 1

14. Jeff Gordon, -26, 0

15. Ryan Newman, -27, 1

16. Jamie McMurray, -41, 0

17. Paul Menard, -64, 0

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — NASCAR’s most popular driver is heading the wrong direction with finishes of 30th and 36th the past two weekends. He needs just one real good finish over the next three weekends to solidify his Chase status. But without a win, Earnhardt’s season could spiral out of control under the wrong circumstances.

Brad Keselowski —The defending champion played a conservative strategy to finish 12th on Sunday. While his teammate Joey Logano proved that Penske has the speed to win races, Keselowski may be better served to continue scoring top-10s to earn a Chase berth.

Kurt Busch — The 2004 champion has seven top-10s in his last 10 races, good enough to crack the top-10. He needs to avoid a bad finish over the next three races but appears poised to make his first Chase since 2011.

Greg Biffle — The No. 16 team has some security with their win from earlier in the season and feels like a safe bet to make the Chase. An increasing number of drivers from 11th to 20th also has at least one win meaning that Biffle will need to maintain consistency.

Kasey Kahne — Virtual playoff lock. At just four points out of the top-10, Kahne still seems destined to cash in those wins for Chase seeding.

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex doesn’t have a large margin for error but he does have the flexibility to earn a Chase berth by ether breaking into the top-10 (10 points behind) or maintaining his second wild card standing.

Joey Logano — Surging. He has a tougher climb to get in the top-10 at 17 points behind but is just seven points behind Truex for his second wild Card spot. This has all the makings for a dogfight.

Jeff Gordon — How bad does that restart at Pocono look now? Gordon just can’t gain any momentum and is both winless and 26 points out of the top-10. His best tracks have been spoiled by misfortune this season and he’s failed to perform at some of his lesser favored races. Gordon is in ‘win now’ mode for the rest of the season.

Ryan Newman — Also in “win now” mode. He’s 26 points out of the top-10 but has a win. A second win would let him leap frog back into wild card contention

Who do you think will make the Chase? Give us your feedback on our Facebook page or on Twitter @PopularSpeed and @MattWeaverSBN.

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EMAIL MATT AT: matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Montoya May Shed Fenders in 2014

By Summer Bedgood – Juan Pablo Montoya could be making a return to the IndyCar Series soon if Michael Andretti has his way. According to a conversation Andretti had with the Associated Press, Andretti had a conversation with Montoya after the announcement was made last week that Montoya would not be returning to the No. 42 car at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014.

“I have talked to Juan about IndyCar and told him ‘Hell yeah, let’s find a way to put something together,’ ” Andretti told The Associated Press on Monday. “I’ve driven against him and I think he’s one of the best drivers I’ve ever driven against. It just comes down to sponsorship. So we’re looking, and if it’s a possibility, we want to do something with him.”

Montoya has not raced in any open wheel series since leaving Formula 1 in 2006. Montoya has only one IZOD IndyCar Series starts and a total of 40 starts in the now defunct CART series. Montoya scored a total of 10 wins in CART and won the 1999 championship.

Meanwhile, Montoya’s NASCAR career has had mixed results. Though he has a combined three wins in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series, he has finished outside of the top 15 in points every season except one since he first began competing full-time in 2007.

If Montoya does race for Andretti Autosport and the team keeps their current crop of drivers, the addition of Montoya would make the team a five car organization.

 

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

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