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DO THE MATH: Texas Two-Step Suits Busch the Best

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolls into Texas Motor Speedway this week for the AAA Texas 500.

Three Chase contenders (Brad @keselowski, @KurtBusch, and @joeylogano) are currently more than 23 points away from fourth place in the point standings. These drivers will likely need a victory to keep their Championship 4 hopes alive. Will one of them revive their championship hunt today?

Before the green flag flies, here are some interesting stats to consider:

• After the events of last week, Logano is now in jeopardy of missing the Championship 4. With only two races left in the Eliminator Round, Texas could be his best chance at clinching a win. Last year, he gained his first victory at the 1.5-mile track. Additionally, his last five starts have resulted in four top-five finishes. He begins fourth.

• Coming off his victory last week, @JeffGordonWeb looks for another win. While he visited victory lane here in 2009, his past five starts have not reflected that success. During that time, he collected three finishes of 29th or worse. However, the No. 24 team managed to place seventh earlier this year. They begin 18th today.

• Of the remaining eight Chase drivers, @KyleBusch has the best stats at Texas. In his last five starts, he accumulated four top-fives, including a victory in 2013. This evening, will Busch gain his fifth victory of the season and a spot in the Championship 4? He begins third.

• In the past six races here, @JimmieJohnson has captured four of his five victories at Texas. While the Lowe’s team has already been eliminated from the Chase they will be a threat for the win later today. During their 24 starts here, they have amassed the best average finish, 8.8. Johnson has not won since May – will he change that today? He begins eighth.

@erik_jones will be subbing for @mattkenseth this week in the No. 20 Toyota, marking his second start in the Sprint Cup Series. The 19-year-old has already found success earlier this weekend, grabbing the victory in the Camping World Truck Series and placing fourth in the XFINITY Series event. Additionally, he placed in the top-10 in the only Cup Series practice and later qualified sixth.

• In the past eight races here, each winner held a top-five starting position, with the exception of one event (2014, Logano – 10th). Could Keselowski, @KevinHarvick, Busch, Logano, or @KyleLarsonRacin continue this trend?

EMAIL STEPHANIE AT stephanie.adair@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @S_Adair98

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. 

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WAID’S WORLD: NASCAR Must Separate Hard Racing From Chaos

NASCAR might be feeling like Dr. Frankenstein. It wanted to create new life and now that it has it, it has lost control – and it has to take it back.

Where the control was lost was in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 when @MattKenseth deliberately and obviously rammed @JoeyLogano into the wall. This was a result of other recent incidents and the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup itself.

When the championship format was introduced in 2014, NASCAR CEO Brian France said he thought it would produce some “game seven moments.”

Now, couple that with his edict of a couple of seasons ago – “Boys, have at it” – and you have a formula that could produce mayhem.

There’s more. Prior to Martinsville, NASCAR seemed to encourage rough tactics. When Kenseth and Logano tangled for the first time in Kansas – Logano punted Kenseth to put him out of the Chase – we were told Logano was not going to be convicted for anything.

Fact is France described the incident as “smart … quintessential NASCAR.”

Kenseth certainly didn’t see it that way. He maintained that Logano knew he had intentionally wrecked him.

“My rear wheels were off the ground,” Kenseth said. “If he doesn’t say he did it deliberately he’s a liar.”

Then, a week later at Talladega, Logano brake-checked Kenseth on pit road. That action prompted Kenseth to shout over his radio that he was going to, and I paraphrase, “kick his butt.”

Also at Talladega, @KevinHarvick, in his underpowered Chevrolet, did not move out of the way on a restart. He hit @TBayne6 and triggered a big pileup.

NASCAR said there was no wrongdoing.

Harvick was unapologetic. He said he had to do what he could to salvage points and move ahead in the Chase. I don’t believe he intended to wreck Bayne and, as I’ve said before, given his position what else was he supposed to do?

So coming into Martinsville we had a still-irate Kenseth bent on revenge, or at least retribution, some angry fans that had no use for Logano and a tense atmosphere at a track where payback is common.

With its rulings – or lack of them – NASCAR helped create the situation. Not intentionally, but I have to think it perhaps gave Kenseth the mindset he could do pretty much what he wanted.

Thus, the monster was loose – “Ugh! I go kill!”

Understand, this was not entirely a bad thing. Following Talladega NASCAR got more media attention than in months. It shared multiple headlines with the NFL – which, incidentally, was one of the Chase goals.

The monster did its thing at Martinsville. When Logano was hammered into the wall the crowd stood and cheered, which seemed to indicate its pleasure that Logano – not overly popular after Talladega – had gotten his comeuppance.

To some Kenseth was something of a hero because he had taken care of business. But to others he was nothing more than a thug.

NASCAR did not think well of Kenseth’s actions, which was clear the moment it parked him and soon after summoned him, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and owner Joe Gibbs to a post-race meeting in the hauler.

NASCAR had to do something. Previously it declared no fouls as debate raged. At Martinsville, there was no question a wrong had been done and it had to act – and when it does it’s likely to come down hard on Kenseth.

But I will again say that, behind closed doors, NASCAR had to be elated. The Martinsville race was a media darling. Footage and interviews were broadcast repeatedly on national TV. The race was the subject of pundit debate and the rage on social media.

Once again NASCAR stood its ground against college football and the NFL.

The fact that @JeffGordonWeb was the winner and has advanced to the Championship Round, with an opportunity to win a fifth title in his last active season, helped considerably.

NASCAR’s task now is to separate racing from chaos. If unchecked, mayhem can escalate and that is not good. It has to reel in the monster. There has to be an end.

And it must come before something dire occurs.

That said, I think that the Martinsville race was one of the season’s best for many reasons.

Not least among them is that for the many fans who have hungered for the past – when racing was “tougher and rougher,” drivers gave no quarter and had no qualms over paybacks – got a pretty darn good taste of it, indeed.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

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. 

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FRANCKLY SPEAKING: Be Careful For What You Wish For

NASCAR got a black eye Sunday in Martinsville. And it might be a self-inflicted wound.

The debate over the Kenseth/Logano incident has reached shouting levels in some circles.

Going back to the dirt track, pre-NASCAR, times drivers regularly got even for some wrong during the races.

As NASCAR grew into the coast-to-coast national sport with Fortune 500 sponsorships suddenly the drivers went from leather jacketed, chain smoking, beer drinking, common man heroes to corporate spokesmen. In the growth spurt of the 1990s corporate sponsors needed their spokesmen to clean up their act on and off the track.

The sanctioning body reacted also; limiting the type of behavior that made the late Dale Earnhardt both the most loved and hated Intimidator he was. Television’s multi-billion dollar contract, which started in 2001, implicitly called for racing to mirror other professional sports.

The combination of squeaky-clean drivers racing under the Marquis of Queensbury-like boxing rules did a lot to drive away hordes of fans that missed the rough and tumble drivers and racing of the past.

“Give us back our heroes and payback” fans said.

And it was only five years ago that the series granted their wish. NASCAR Robin Pemberton VP told the media that the fans wish would be granted. “Boys, have it at” became the buzzword.

Only there didn’t seem to be any guidance on where the line of acceptable behavior was drawn.

The other issue in NASCAR’s growth was that the Cup championship awarded consistency over wins. The worst epithet an early NASCAR driver could face was that he was a “points racer.” For years we were fed a steady diet of post-race interviews with “it was a good points day.”

Not inspiring words are they?

The Chase was born after @MattKenseth’s 2003 mostly consistent championship. His public image was so robotic that new sponsor Sprint used that as a theme of their television commercials.

Something more was needed. Maybe not the fans, but certainly NASCAR wanted a “seventh-game” moment in Homestead. Only early Chase rules continued to award consistency over wins.

Then last year, in the latest iteration of the Chase, we now have a knockout championship formula with elimination rounds. With attendance down and sponsorships slipping away the new Chase makes every threshold race more desperate for the teams to advance and keep their dwindling sponsors.

While ramping up the urgency and taking off the gloves NASCAR has increased the tension in the hearts and minds of the drivers making virtually every lap count in their own futures.

The desired side of the urgency is where drivers battle each other with vigor for every win. The undesired side is that a driver may feel wronged when “robbed” of a win and take it out on the rival driver while not racing for position.

And that’s what’s happened in the past few weeks in Kansas and Martinsville.

The bottom line is the sanctioning body and fans can’t have payback all-the-time. There has to be a certain line drawn where contact is acceptable. Otherwise the damage won’t only be a black eye.

The sport might be shooting itself in the foot.

EMAIL LEWIS AT lewis.franck@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @LewisFranck

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. 

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GET A GRIP: Martinsville Edition

Short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway brings out racing’s range of emotions. From the jubilation of victory to the frustration of defeat, the “paperclip” shaped the championship battles moving forward.

The shortest track on the scheduled produced some of the biggest storylines of the season. This led to many memorable moments, and the best and worst are recapped on this week’s list.

Four Tires

  • After being swept up in trouble at Talladega Superspeedway, @Matt_Crafton needed to bounce back in Martinsville to remain alive in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship race. He entered the weekend striving to earn every point possible and left having accomplished this goal. After scoring his second career victory at the track, he cut the points deficit to 10 points with three races remaining. Now he will set his sights on chasing down @Erik_Jones in order to compete for his third consecutive series championship.
  • In a season where @JeffGordonWeb has struggled to perform as well as many expected, everything changed in the Goody’s 500. He turned his year around in an instant by capturing the No. 24 AARP Members Advantages Chevrolet team’s first victory of the season. They have come alive since the Chase began, and their efforts were rewarded with a spot in the Championship 4. Gordon’s approach to what could be his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race ever changes drastically now as he will have a shot at capturing his elusive fifth championship.

Two Tires

  • After showing tremendous speed in qualifying and starting second, @CameronNHayley had an impressive Halloween afternoon in Martinsville. He ran up front for much of the Kroger 200 and scored a career-best series finish of third. It was his fourth top-five finish of the season and serves as a momentum booster for the final three races.
  • Had it not been for a late-race caution, @JamieMcMurray would have challenged Jeff Gordon for the victory. The 39-year old continued to close in and gain ground as the laps wound down. However, the late restart placed McMurray in the undesired outside lane against the Martinsville master Gordon. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was able to hang on and finish second in one of his most impressive performances of 2015.

No Tires

  • It was a Team Penske show at the front of the field for much of Goody’s 500. Brad @Keselowski and @JoeyLogano were the strongest competitors and were able to control the tempo with ease. However, one bad restart spelled trouble for the blue deuce as he broke loose on the backstretch, slamming into @MattKenseth and triggering a crash. This put the team behind the wall for a couple of laps as they repaired the car to salvage a finish. After dominating the race, Logano was involved in an accident with Kenseth less than 20 laps later. This took both of Roger Penske’s entries out of contention after they proved to have the best cars in the field. Now both will eye a win in the next two races to advance to the finale.
  • @KurtBusch was an innocent bystander during the Lap 434 accident involving Keselowski and Kenseth. He was tagged by a spinning Kenseth, which lifted his tires off the ground briefly before he hit the inside wall. This put the Stewart-Haas Racing team behind the wall where they repaired the damage and tried to save as many points as they could. Busch ended up 34th and now joins the Penske teammates in the group of drivers likely needing a victory to make it to Miami.

As fans witnessed last season, the intensity of Martinsville will carry into the season’s final three races. With so much on the line, it will be a wild battle in Texas. The competitors know the importance of wins and running up front at this point in the season and will continue to duel as Miami approaches.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @NASCARJason

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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. 

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AFTER THE FACT: Jeff Gordon Story More Than a Fairytale

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The screams said it all.

“We’re going to Homestead!” Jeff Gordon yelled both over his radio upon taking the checkered flag and in Victory Lane as he continued to jump around the Martinsville frontstretch.

It was his ninth time celebrating in that very spot, but his first this season. A win that for the longest time didn’t seem would ever come. More importantly, as Gordon emphatically noted, it locks him into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

If Gordon’s emotion weren’t enough to get you going, the fans made sure to play their part. Repeated chants of “Homestead! Homestead! Homestead!” broke out across the night as Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team continued with their post-race celebration and customary hat dance.

His fairytale ending suddenly doesn’t seem so unrealistic.

Since January, when Gordon announced he would be retiring, collectively as a group – fans, drivers, and media – there’s been the hope of seeing him go out as the champion.

That hope has dominated headlines, talk radio and social media timelines. But it’s hard for it not to because Gordon is now the sports story we all love – an athlete fighting to go out on top.

This is Derek Jeter with the game winning hit in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium. It’s Jerome Bettis leaving the game of football as a Super Bowl champion. Or Michael Jordan, the first time he retired, after the NBA Finals.

For Gordon, each weekend he enters the media center of whichever racetrack the series is competing and talks about how he’d like his career to end. He answers the same questions over and over. Can this team win the championship? How emotional would it be to win the championship in your last season?

And now, let it sink in.

Let what we’ve talked about for 33 races, nearly 10 months of racing sink in because it’s now very much reality. Jeff Gordon could potentially win that elusive fifth championship. Even better, Jeff Gordon could win that elusive fifth championship in his final season.

“Why can’t we win at Homestead? That’s what I say,” Gordon replied when asked if his team should be feared now. “I think a lot of people didn’t think we could do this, and we have. There’s no reason why we can’t do it there as well.”

It’s OK to get chills.

There have been some, including yours truly, who have made it known this 24 team is not the same we saw a year ago. Gordon was arguably the best driver in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 from start to finish. Kevin Harvick might have taken home the championship, with Gordon not even making it to Homestead, but Gordon was always the favorite and led the regular season point standings.

This year, Gordon went under the radar. He had fight for a Chase spot. Getting to Victory Lane became the wish of his fans. It wasn’t long before the tune went from Gordon was going to win the championship in his final year to let’s just hope he wins at least one more race.

Sunday night Gordon admitted his AARP team was getting their butts kicked at the start of the season. The performance was nowhere near where it should have been. Then the Chase came, and it was evident from the first race in Chicago they were ready to rise to the occasion.

Even still, Gordon has not been the fastest car, and often should have finished worse than he did. But in a format built on survival, Gordon has succeeded. While his competition continues to self-destruct in one way or another, Gordon has climbed through the standings. He’s avoided the drama and self-inflicted wounds to remain championship eligible.

Suddenly, Gordon was telling himself if he got to Martinsville he had a shot. Not long after that many others began to share the same thought. Sunday he proved to all of us his confidence had been spot on. Sunday he showed everyone it’s not yet time to give up on adding a new chapter to the book of great sports moments.

Said Gordon, “I absolutely think that we’re just as capable as anybody else that’s going to be in that final four.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

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 staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.