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NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: 9 Best Active Drivers Who’ve Never Won the Brickyard 400

For whatever reasons, the Brickyard 400 is a hard race for drivers to win, and it tends to be dominated by a few superstars.

Jeff Gordon won the first Brickyard 400 in 1994 and went on to win this race five times, one more than his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson. And in each of the last two seasons, Kyle Busch has won big at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But what about the active drivers who’ve never won this race? There are some very big names in the group.

Here are the nine best active racers who’ve made at least five Brickyard 400 starts but have never won this race. Six of these nine are currently eligible for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Clint Bowyer

In 11 starts in the Brickyard 400, Bowyer has only two top-five finishes and he’s led just six laps here. In his rookie season of 2006, Bowyer finished fourth in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. He’s never bested that.

Kurt Busch

The elder Busch has won NASCAR majors like the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and the Monster Energy All-Star Race, but he struggles at the Brickyard. His best finish was fifth as a rookie in 2001 and he hasn’t led a lap here since 2003.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In 16 starts in this race, Earnhardt’s best finish was a fourth in 2012. That’s his only top five and one of five top-10 finishes he has in 16 appearances in this race. Earnhardt missed this race last year while sidelined with a concussion.

Denny Hamlin

Last weekend’s New Hampshire winner, Hamlin is good here, but has never won the Brickyard 400. He’s finished in the top five in each of the past three Indy Cup races and his best results are third-place finishes in 2008 and ’14.

Kasey Kahne

As a rookie in 2004, Kahne finished fourth in the Brickyard 400, and a year later, he was the runner-up to Indiana legend Tony Stewart. Since then, his only top five was a third-place finish in 2013.

Matt Kenseth

 

The 2003 champion has an impressive record at the Brickyard. He was second in this race last year to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and has finished seventh or better five times in the last six years. But he’s still looking for his first victory here.

Brad Keselowski

Although he’s led laps in five of the last six Brickyard 400s, the 2012 Cup champion’s best finishes here are a pair of ninth-place runs in 2011 and ’12. And team owner Roger Penske has never won the Brickyard 400, despite having 16 Indy 500 victories here. Crazy.

Joey Logano

Like Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, Logano is looking for his first Brickyard victory, although he’s run really well in recent years, including in 2015, when he led 28 laps and was runner-up to Kyle Busch.

Martin Truex Jr.

Over the last two seasons, Truex consistently has been one of the sport’s drivers to beat. But at Indy, he’s only led three laps in 12 races, with a best finish of fourth in 2017.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @tomjensen100

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

Categories
Commentary

6 Drivers Who Need to Win the Brickyard 400

As the hot summer grinds on, the pressure to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs ratchets up with each passing week.

Eleven different drivers already have punched their playoff tickets by winning a race and passing post-race inspection. A 12th winner, Joey Logano, doesn’t get to count his victory because his Team Penske Ford flunked tech after winning at Richmond in April.

With that in mind, here are six drivers who are in serious need of a race victory and how their prospects look for this Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott

There’s no question that Elliott is really, really good. He made the playoffs as a rookie last year and he’s on track to make them again. That said, Elliott is still looking for his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory after 60 starts. Elliott’s father, Bill, won here in 2002 in one of Ray Evernham’s Dodges. A Chase Elliott victory would be a great story, but in two starts here he’s not finished better than 15th.

Joey Logano

Faced with a 52-point deficit to the last playoff spot, Logano’s back is against the wall. The good news for him is he’s been in that position before and won. Last year, Logano won playoff elimination races at Talladega and Phoenix to advance to the next round both times. Still, neither of the Penske Fords has the speed they had early in the season. Logano has finished no worse than eighth in the last four Brickyard 400s.

Matt Kenseth

Right now, Kenseth is on the playoff bubble, although he does have a seemingly comfortable 52-point lead over Joey Logano. Kenseth was in contention to win last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing outfit has picked up speed lately. Kenseth has twice finished second in the Brickyard 400, including last year. He has a 4.50 average finish here in the last four races. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In his final season as a full-time Cup driver, Earnhardt will need to win one of the next seven races to make the playoffs. Lately, the entire Hendrick Motorsports squad has been missing a little speed — they’ve been OK, but not great — and Indy has been one of Earnhardt’s toughest tracks. In 16 starts here, he has only one top-five finish, a fourth-place run in 2012.

Clint Bowyer

Although Bowyer has had a solid and steady first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s riding a 168-race winless streak dating back to the fall Charlotte race in 2012. The good news for Bowyer is that he’s 10th in points and inside the playoff window right now, but he desperately wants a victory.

Kyle Busch

Now we come to the most intriguing choice. Busch is the two-time defending Brickyard 400 winner, a driver who’s dominated this track lately. But he hasn’t won a single Cup race since winning here in 2016 and has had a tremendously frustrating season this year. Busch has led 953 laps in 2017, second only to the 1,252 led by Martin Truex Jr. Busch has to win sooner or later, right? If Busch is to make a serious run at a second championship, this would be a good place for him to start.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @tomjensen100

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

JENSEN: Now That I’m Back…

After three weeks on the sidelines, I’m very happy to be back writing about NASCAR for PopularSpeed.com. Mike Calinoff and I are longtime friends and I’m thrilled to contribute to this growing website and work with the quality team Mike has assembled. We’re going to have fun and build something cool in the process.

With that in mind, let’s get caught up on some news that took place during my absence:

Matt Kenseth

It was disappointing that Joe Gibbs Racing decided to let the 2003 champion go in favor of Erik Jones, who will take over the No. 20 Toyota next year. Jones is one of many rising young talents in the sport and he’ll do a good job for his team and his sponsors. But Kenseth can still win races and, wherever he goes, he’ll make his new team better. You can count on that.

Bubba Wallace

In four starts subbing for the injured Aric Almirola, Wallace did better each week than he did in the race before. He opened a lot of eyes and performed impressively. Plus, he and close friend Ryan Blaney delivered the best visual of the summer, with Wallace and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford dueling with Blaney and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. For old-school fans, seeing those two iconic cars fighting for the lead at Daytona was sublime, almost like a snapshot come to life.

Silly Season

This is going to be the wildest NASCAR Silly Season in a long, long time. The big announcement everyone’s waiting on is who will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports next year. Certainly, Alex Bowman deserves consideration and there likely will be some good veteran talent available, too.

But William Byron might be the right choice. In his last five XFINITY Series races, Byron has two victories, four top-five finishes and an average finish of 2.8. Yes, he will tear up some equipment as a rookie — all first-year drivers do — but he’ll learn more in his rookie Cup season than he will in a second season in XFINITY.

Streaks

Much was made of the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing was winless in the first half of the season, a streak Denny Hamlin broke at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday. And while that streak was rightly the subject of much speculation, there’s another one that’s interesting: The last time a Hendrick Motorsports driver not named Jimmie Johnson won a Cup race was at Phoenix in November 2015, a full one-and-a-half seasons ago, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a rain-delayed race that ran deep into the night. Johnson’s brilliance obscures the fact that as a team, Hendrick has work to do.

Winners

So far, 12 different drivers have won Cup races, although Joey Logano’s win at Richmond Raceway carries an asterisk because his Team Penske Ford flunked post-race inspection. Led by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, there are at least half a dozen drivers with good chances of winning one of the final seven races of the Cup regular season. I doubt we’ll end the regular season with 16 different winners, but it’s certainly possible. Busch, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Toyota rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are among those to keep an eye on.

Categories
Commentary

(UPDATE) CALINOFF: How My Spotting Career Came to an Abrupt End

Just one year (and nearly 70 lbs.) ago, my spotting career was defined with a 24-hour, 37,000-foot, ten-mile drive experience that has proven to be one of the best days ever. 

Unplanned. Unexpected. Unbelievable.

It was a race – but much more than a typical race. It was my last. I hung-up the headset and capped-off twenty-five years of doing something I loved.

I wrote about it a few days later, because I needed to let emotions subside. Yeah, it was that big for me.

If you didn’t read it the first time, I hope you do now – because it showed me that a simple text from a buddy could cultivate an amazing memory that overflows with humility.

For those who have already seen it, there’s a very cool update at the end.

____________________________________________________________

 

“One and done.”

It’s a widely-used phrase that is somewhat idiomatic, so based on its application, it can mean different things to different people.

For college basketball, it applies to student athletes who play for a year and then head to the pros. Other sports use it to refer to a team that makes it to the playoffs but doesn’t advance.

The term is notable in NASCAR as well, and describes drivers who score a win or have a particularly strong day, then fade into oblivion. The phrase might even define a car owner in lower-tier series if he shows up at Daytona with a bag of money and a shiny fleet of top-notch equipment that subsequently goes to auction after Homestead.

They are one and done.

Once Upon a Time …

My spotting career has far exceeded any of my expectations. It began by merely being in the right place at the right time.

NASCAR Whelan Modified Tour star Reggie Ruggiero — for whom I was doing some public relations work — needed a last-minute spotter for a Friday night show in Winchester, N.H. His son did it regularly, but he felt ill right before the 50-lap feature.

I said to Reggie, “Who else can we get?”

“Nobody,” he said. “Go get a headset.”

We won.

Then we won on Saturday night in Agawam, Mass., and then again the following afternoon in Thompson, Conn. Three days later we raced in Riverhead, N.Y. and finished second. I was really disappointed.

I had unleashed my competitive spirit and winning felt great. The more you win, the more you want to win and the greater it feels.

I decided, after a full season of spotting,  to take a leap. There had come a point when spotting was more than just a fun hobby. It grabbed me enough to try and make a career out of it. It was a long shot for sure.

The thing was, there were thousands of Modifieds and Late Models throughout the country, but only 120 spots on the roof for NASCAR’s top three National Touring Series. 

Dale Jr. Didn’t Understand

I don’t believe I got to NASCAR by accident (that’s a spotter joke), but I know that I certainly didn’t get here by myself. None of us do.

I was encouraged to move south by the late Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s Vice President of Corporate Communications. I had gotten to know him through friends, and he took an interest in my career. He was a good man and a friend. His voice of reason is still in my ear.

As my career progressed, the level of competition increased and the races became harder to win.

First, I worked with long-time friends — Brett Bodine and then Ricky Craven. In the 1999 Coca-Cola 600, Ricky had engine issues in qualifying and missed the race.

I don’t remember exactly how this all unfolded, but I wound up wearing a Budweiser uniform and spotting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his Cup debut. It was a low-key, under-the-radar event that was completely ignored by the media. So there was no pressure.

At the first caution, I asked him if everything sounded okay, and if I needed me to be doing anything differently. He said, “See what you can do about that accent because I don’t think I can learn ‘Yankee’ in the next 500 miles.”

We finished 16th with all of the original sheet metal attached.

Crew Chief, Tony Eury, Sr. came up to me after the race and shook my hand.

“You did a good job,” he said. “I have no idea what you were saying, but we didn’t wreck – so good job.”

They already had a guy in place for 2000, so spotting there wasn’t an option. But it was just as well. It was going to be a gig with immeasurably-high expectations. And they talked funny.

Then the Phone Rang

I got the call. It was Crew Chief Robbie Reiser from Roush Fenway. He asked if I’d like to try out for Kenseth. (That’s Matt Kenseth for those of you who may be new or have never heard of Martinsville Speedway.)

Our first race together was March 12, 2000. It was in Atlanta, the fourth race of the season. We started fourth, and the engine exploded on Lap 199. We came out of there with an impressive 40th-place finish. It wasn’t my fault but, I had it in my head that I was one and done.

For the next five or six races, Matt insisted the engine failure was my fault. That’s when I knew that working with him was going to be fun.

Try Not to Get Emotional and Tear-Up

I’ve written a good bunch of stories over the years, and probably half of them have some tie to Kenseth. You can do that when you own the site.

So, I write about Kenseth because his successes have impacted mine. And, on a different level, he’s an important person in my life. He’s a good friend and a confidant.

When my dad passed away in 2004, he fired-up his plane and took me to Long Island to be with my family the same day. That’s just one example.

The people in my world that I could tell anything, and not be judged, can be counted on five fingers. I’m proud to say that Matt (I can’t wait until he reads this) is right in the middle.

(It took me 10 minutes to finish writing that line because I cracked myself up.)

But you get the point: I’m his biggest fan across the board.

Fast Forward

At the end of 2012, Kenseth felt he needed a change left Roush Fenway for Joe Gibbs Racing. I stayed at RFR for the 2013 season to work with the Cup team for Stenhouse Jr. (That’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for those of you who may be new or have never heard of … well, you get the idea.)

We had eight XFINITY wins and two Championships. Every one of those wins was an ass-kicker. Half of them had the right side destroyed because nobody ran the top like him. We won at Iowa, wrecking in our own oil at the start/finish line. That was the first time I was ever in victory lane without a car. Good stuff!

I didn’t return to RFR after 2013, but I still have many great friends there. They’ve been instrumental in helping grow my businesses through sponsor relationships.

After that, I spotted some K&N and late model races. But it got to the point that if someone would ask me to spot, I’d check the weather. If the chance of rain exceeded three percent, I had a “prior commitment.” I had gotten tired of not winning for a couple of years.

With Kenseth, I knew that every time we showed up at a track, we had a legitimate shot to win. It was the same with Ricky in the XFINITY Series.

Okay, here we go…

A week ago Monday at about 7:30 p.m., Kenseth texted me and asked if I “want to go tomorrow.”

I didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely!” I replied. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Where are we going?”

“Slinger,” he said. “It’s a quarter mile, so please bring your binoculars.”

The eyesight jokes are never-ending.

I had forgotten that the Slinger Speedway Nationals in Wisconsin were that week. It’s one of the most prestigious races in the Midwest, and he had won it a record six times.

Saying yes was a no-brainer for me. I love that track. Plus, I didn’t have much planned. My car was washed, and I was caught up on laundry.

We got on the plane, and I told him about a decision I made on the way to the airport.

“This is the last race that I’m ever going to spot,” I said. “I mean, like forever. No short-track stuff, no top-tier fill-ins. I’m done.”

His eyes were glued to his phone. He never looked up and said, “Oh, OK.”

I could have said, “Hey, the right wing fell off, the windshield is missing, and Jack just put on his WWII flying goggles,” and gotten the same response. I think he was caught up in that Pokémon Go thing.

Once we were airborne, I said it again.

“I’m done spotting after tonight. This is it for me. I want my last race to be with you.”

I thought my friend might be at least a little moved. Maybe he’d say “That would be great. I’d like that.”

Nope.

“Your last race was with me,” Kenseth said. “You stopped spotting in 2002. I just kept you around and added more mirrors.”

When it comes to jabs and sarcastic insults, there’s nobody better — or quicker.

And, just so you know, he’s one of the most annoying people I have ever met. And I’m not easily annoyed.

In the car ride from the airport to the track I had to take a business call — it was kind of important. Every time I spoke he’d lower his voice three octaves, repeat what I was saying and laugh. It’s a five-mile trip, and I’m riding with an echo. Welcome to 8th grade.

Fast story: We’re at Dover. He’s in the middle of three and four. I’m going to give him the lap count as soon as he exits. He keys the mic and says, “What lap are we on?” I said, “I was just about to tell you. It’s like you read my mind.” He comes back with, “I did. It was like reading a children’s book.” Like I said, better and quicker. There are no less than 100 stories I could tell you. 

In total, I have been part of three Championships — two with Ricky — two Daytona 500s, an All-Star Race and 31 wins in two series with Matt. I figured there was nothing else for me to accomplish, and the likelihood of another chance to spot for him was probably at zero.

So, today would be the day. My final show. The last hurrah. A three-hour farewell tour.

Who Wrote the Script?

Jones (That’s Eric, except with a “k”) raced us pretty hard for the last 15 laps. He’s a great driver with an amazing future, but I think his depth perception and peripheral vision might have been temporarily impaired about eight times. Once, he started his turn four exit on the backstretch. That’s what it looked like to me. You can watch Video No. 2 and make an official ruling.

Well, the wind-up of the whole deal is that we won. And we did it in pretty exciting fashion — on the last lap following a subtle “pardon me.”

Nevertheless, it was a great way to go out, and I felt like it put an exclamation point on my spotting career. I couldn’t have written it any better. The craziest part was the timing. Kenseth sent me a casual text, and 24 hours later I was wearing a headset.

Same Old, Same Old

It was so much fun. I mean really, so much fun. Just like old times. I felt like we established a rhythm right away. The phrase “U got it!” was tossed around throughout the race. The origin of that is a story in itself. If you see me, ask me, I’ll tell you.

He criticized my eyesight and did the echo thing again. I jabbed him about his restarts and called him “Joey” a few times. It was an honest mistake.

In victory lane, he said the same thing he’s said every time we won. “Are you getting a tattoo?” If you aren’t familiar with the tradition, I got a commemorative tattoo when we won the Championship, got one for each Daytona 500 and a few more. You can Google “Calinoff tattoo” and you’ll see some stories and images.

What Does it All Mean?

If I had to rank the milestones, here’s the list:

  1. Championship 2003: That’s the biggest prize. It’s what you strive to achieve. It pays a nice bonus.
  2. Daytona 500s in 2009 and 2012: It’s the freakin’ Daytona 500. And jet-dryers burst into flames.
  3. Slinger Nationals 2016.
  4. Everything else.

You see, last week wasn’t just about a race. And it wasn’t just about a win.

It was about making a circle — starting at Point A and ending at Point A. Grassroots beginning, grassroots ending. I had my first big win with Matt and my last big win with Matt.

It was about the circumstances and how a random text put the wax on my spotting career. I don’t believe in coincidences. This is the way it was supposed to be.

I traveled the country 38 weekends for twenty years. I could write this story 50 different ways and still be unable to express the emotion and satisfaction that I experienced on one Tuesday night in Slinger, WI. Moments like that are a premium. Not everyone has the opportunity to bring to a close something they love and do it on their terms.

I am so blessed to have had such a fulfilling career and to do it with great people. The memories I have feel just as good today as they did when they happened.

And then I thought: I could have just as easily been one and done.

 

ABOUT THE VIDEOS:

No. 1Of course.

No. 2These are the final ten laps with Erik Eric Jones at Slinger. There are a couple of cautions in there, and the last restart is a Green-White-Checker. Matt is in the No. 8, and Eric is in the No. 20.  

No. 3As far as videos go, it’s P1 on my list. It has been viewed over 27,000 times, and 26,000 of them are mine. You’ll recognize the content, but not the commentary. Order the Miso Soup – it’s fabulous!  

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing it. NASCAR has the best fans in all of professional sports – and I appreciate all of you.

 

Video No.1 

Yes, it’s real.


Video No.2

Video No. 3   (The audio is low. You’ll need to raise the volume)

   

UPDATE

And Then There was This

Roughly ten days after I first published this story, my friendly FedEx guy knocked on my door. He had a three-foot box next to him on the porch. 

The sender was from Wisconsin — which excited me because I was running low on cheese. I prayed for Sharp Cheddar. But it wasn’t to be.

The contents were packed with more bubble-wrap than Denny Hamlin should be wearing when he plays basketball. 

It was the trophy. Probably one of the most coveted in all of midwest Late Model racing. It’s a cool piece. 

Then it hit me. 

We were on the plane, about halfway home. Kenseth starts looking around and we had this exchange:

MATT: “Where did you put the trophy?”

ME: “I didn’t touch the trophy.”

MATT: “I specifically asked you not to forget the trophy.”

ME: “You’re specifically delusional because I never heard you mention the word ‘trophy’.”

MATT: “Yep. Can’t see, can’t hear. Great spotter.”

Then he shook his head and mumbled something under his breath.

ME: “Did you really say it?”

MATT: “Absolutely not.”

ME: “Nice. You made me feel terrible.”

His face lit up.

MATT: “Really!?”

ME: “Absolutely not.”

 

I called him when I got it. 

He said it was purposely left it behind so that the track could have his name added.

I told him that his touching gesture will make it even more valuable — on eBay.

 

 

 

I wrote this story is in memory of my dad, who encouraged me to do what I love, and love what I do. It’s worked out pretty well.

Lenny Calinoff
Len Calinoff

______________________________________________________________________

TONIGHT

 

 

 

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth, JGR Looking to Change the Narrative at New Hampshire

Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing are in need of a change in the storylines surrounding both heading to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Last week, Kenseth revealed the news that he wouldn’t be back in the No. 20 car for JGR next season and that his future is uncertain in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

JGR can’t seem to escape their winless streak as it continues to dominate headlines heading into the second half of the season.

Many would assume at least one JGR competitor would have won through the first 18 races considering they have one of the strongest lineups in the sport and that Toyota has shown tremendous speed with Furniture Row Racing. However, week after week, the team has continued to show promise and fall short by the finish.

Now 2017 marks the second-longest winless drought the team has faced to begin a season in the last 20 years. They last went this deep into the year without a win in 1997 when the then one-car stable only won the season finale at Atlanta with Bobby Labonte.

New Hampshire presents an opportunity for both Kenseth and his teammates to perform well and change the narrative.

The organization has been among the best at the 1.058-mile over the past few years, winning four of the last seven races with Kenseth earning three victories and becoming one of the best in the sport at New Hampshire in the process. 

The difference maker in his success? Joining Joe Gibbs Racing. After scoring five top-five’s in his first 26 starts with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s earned five top-five’s in last eight events.

The 45-year-old nearly swept both races last year after winning in July and finishing second in September. 

The win was added insurance for his playoff run as it marked his second victory of the season. This season tells a different story as he currently sits just seven points above the Chase cutoff line with a hungry Joey Logano one position below him, and a win seems critical to securing a playoff spot.

While there will be seven more opportunities to win before Chicagoland and he could still get in based on points, visiting the winner’s circle would alleviate some pressure for the No. 20 team.

JGR is off to a promising start this weekend as all four cars qualified in the top-15 with Kenseth leading the way in third-place.

The focus is on the future for Kenseth and JGR, and a victory would significantly help both parties moving forward as they look to assert themselves as top championship contenders in the second half of the season.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Toyota Shows Signs of Improvement at Charlotte

After dominating the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last year, Toyota teams didn’t show as much strength through the first 11 races of the season.

Martin Truex Jr. has been the only competitor to reach Victory Lane as he has captured two wins at Las Vegas and Kansas. However, his teammate Erik Jones and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have struggled to match his success.

After winning last weekend’s Monster Energy All-Star Race with Kyle Busch, the Toyota camp entered the Coca-Cola 600 with added confidence.

It paid off as they excelled on Sunday by winning the first three stages as Busch, Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin all picked up a valuable playoff point.

While they ultimately didn’t win the race as Austin Dillon stretched his fuel mileage in the Final Stage for his first career victory, four Toyota competitors finished fifth or better for the first time since the 2016 DAYTONA 500.

Busch passed Truex Jr. on the final lap to finish second, and Matt Kenseth ended up fourth followed by Hamlin in fifth.

One year ago, Truex Jr. put on a historic performance and led all but eight laps of the race en route to victory. He showed similar signs of dominance by leading a race-high 233 circuits on Sunday.

Both Busch and Hamlin also paced the field for a combined 73 laps, marking the third consecutive race Busch has been out front.

Running well at Charlotte Motor Speedway also shows improvement on 1.5-mile facilities that will be crucial when contending for the championship this fall, especially when returning to the speedway in October. 

Now carrying this momentum into the upcoming races at a variety of venues will be the next test for the manufacturer to overcome. 

Heading to Dover where Toyota drivers swept last season with Kenseth and Truex Jr., and Pocono where the two drivers also swept in 2015 shows that they have run well at the tracks before and can again in the next two weeks. 

If the Toyota competitors are back to their dominant ways after thriving at Charlotte, more strong showings could be ahead in the next month and throughout the summer stretch. 

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Improving Now Will Be Crucial for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Playoffs

An organization that can perform well at 1.5-mile tracks may prove to be more successful than at other layouts in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as a majority of those venues make up half of the playoff races.

It’s crucial for teams to find the best mile-and-a-half setup early in the season to run well once the championship battle begins.

After dominating at intermediate facilities last year, Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled through the first three events in 2017.

The organization had one car finish in the top-10 at Atlanta with Matt Kenseth placing third, two at Las Vegas with Denny Hamlin sixth and Kenseth ninth, and zero in the most recent race at Texas as Kyle Busch finished highest in 15th.

While Atlanta and Las Vegas have only one date on the schedule, their struggles at Texas are most concerning as its second race is in the Round of 8 of the playoffs.

Now with three 1.5-mile events in May beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway and both of the Monster Energy All-Star and Coca-Cola 600 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, improving their intermediate program will be vital.

Not only will performing well this month show that JGR has advanced past its early season struggles, but it will provide a basis to build off at Kansas and Charlotte in the playoffs.

Following Charlotte, only one mile-and-a-half track will remain. In July, Kentucky Speedway plays hosts to the final opportunity for intermediate success before the title battle begins at Chicagoland Speedway in September. Teams will want to come out of the gate strong at Chicagoland as it will set the tone for the playoffs, and starting behind the curve will make it difficult to gain any momentum through the final nine races.

Kyle Busch’s victory at Kansas last May should provide confidence heading into Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400. Busch led 69 laps en route to victory, and Martin Truex Jr. paced the field for a race-high 172 laps, showing Toyota’s prowess.

Matt Kenseth also secured a fourth-place finish last year and has yet to finish outside the top-10 in the Kansas May race since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, including a win in his debut year of 2013.

While the team didn’t perform as well in the All-Star Race last year, after Denny Hamlin’s win in 2015, next weekend’s non-points event provides a perfect opportunity to search for the speed that could deliver a Coca-Cola 600 victory the following week.

Toyota’s strength was showcased in the the series’ longest event last year, as Truex Jr. won after leading a record-setting 392 laps. Hamlin and Kenseth each earned top-10 finishes.

Daniel Suarez will visit both tracks for the first time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this month. He finished in the top-10 in each of his two XFINITY Series starts at Kansas, and in three of four races at Charlotte, proving that he knows what it takes to run well at both tracks. 

With a month passing since Texas, JGR has had ample time to target areas of weakness on intermediate tracks and work to improve their package.

Now they will be put to the test at Kansas and Charlotte as they look to return to their dominant ways of 2016 and learn what it will take to succeed at 1.5-mile facilities in the playoffs.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Dominance Thwarted by Bad Luck is a Continuing Trend for Kenseth

The past two seasons have begun similarly for Matt Kenseth. After looking poised for an impressive run, bad luck has taken the No. 20 Toyota team out of contention numerous times, and this trend continued at Richmond International Raceway.

The weekend started well for Kenseth as he captured his first pole of the season. That advantage allowed him to lead the opening 100 laps of Sunday’s race and win Stage 1, picking up his first playoff point of the season.

These laps marked the first the Wisconsin veteran has led this season, ending the longest drought to begin a season in his career.

After finishing second in Stage 2, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver remained within the top-10 for much of the second half of the Toyota Owners 400 before trouble struck in the final 50 laps. Contact with Chase Elliott off Turn 2 cut down Kenseth’s right rear tire, and its debris brought out the eighth yellow flag of the race.

While Kenseth would go a lap down, he fought back to earn the Free Pass at the next caution, but it wasn’t enough to salvage an otherwise impressive day. He finished 23rd after leading 164 laps with, arguably, the dominant car.

Despite the poor finish, Richmond marked Kenseth’s strongest performance of 2017. With Joe Gibbs Racing still looking to match the speed and strength of other teams this season, the No. 20 car leading the most laps attests to the strides being made within the organization.

Running well but ultimately having an issue take him out of contention is a situation Kenseth has become familiar with through the start of the last two seasons.

He collected five finishes outside the top-15 through the first nine races of each year. This inconsistency has been a result of crashes and issues similar to Sunday’s cut tire developing late in races.

However, Kenseth mounted a turnaround last May. He scored four consecutive top-10 finishes from Kansas to Pocono, including a victory at Dover.

While Kenseth may be suffering a good-turned-bad beginning to his season, the immediate future could spark a turnaround for the past champion.

He has won at every venue the series visits in May and the first three events of June.

That, combined with Kenseth’s prowess of joining the conversation when it counts and his inherent patient demeanor, may favor a resurgence as we approach the heart of the season.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News

Kenseth Nabs First Pole of Season at Richmond

By Reid Spencer (NASCAR Wire Service) – RICHMOND, Va. – Matt Kenseth won’t have to come from the middle of nowhere, as he did last Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he started 22nd, charged toward the front in the closing laps and finished fourth.

Quite the contrary. In Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (on FOX at 2 p.m. ET) at Richmond International Raceway, Kenseth will lead the field to the green flag in the ninth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season after winning the pole during Friday’s knockout qualifying session.

Kenseth posted a lap at 121.076 mph (22.300 seconds) to edge Ryan Blaney (120.854 mph) for the top starting spot by .041 seconds. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota claimed his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his second at Richmond and the 19th of his career.

Kenseth was fast enough to make the cut for the first two rounds despite running a single lap in each, and the tire conservation paid off in the money round.

“We had enough speed in our Circle K Toyota Camry that we only had to do one lap each of the first two rounds to get us into the third round, and we improved a little bit the second lap (in the final round). It was a good qualifying effort for us. Feels good to be on the pole.

Kenseth is 20th in points after bottom-five finishes at Daytona, Phoenix and Fontana, and qualifying rainouts hurt him at Bristol and Martinsville, where he had to start mid-pack on owner points.

“This year has not been a good year for us, obviously, so far,” Kenseth said. “We finished strong at Bristol, but we didn’t get to qualify because of the rain, and that put us in the middle of the pack – there and Martinsville.

“We haven’t been getting any stage points. We’re buried in the points back there and we finally got a decent finish last week, so hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and hopefully collect some of the stage points. But most importantly we’re in the mix for a win at the end of the day.”

Martin Truex Jr. (120.681 mph) will start third, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (120.471 mph) and Joey Logano (120.380 mph).

It was the third second-place qualifying effort of the season for Blaney, who also put the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford on the front row at Phoenix and Texas.

“We weren’t great the first round but kept getting steps better each round, which we’ve done a really good job of this year,” Blaney said. “I thought that’s where we struggled a lot last year. We didn’t improve last year, we would go backwards. This year we’re improving round-to-round.

“It’s just communication and knowing what we need to change in our car. That’s something to be proud of. That’s a lot of second starts now. I really want to race the Clash at Daytona (the season-opening exhibition race primarily for pole winners). That’s my biggest thing right now. It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole. I think our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion is good—we’ll find out in race trim.”

Both Kenseth and Blaney saved their fastest laps for the final round. The same couldn’t be said of Logano, who ran the fastest lap of the afternoon (121.468 mph) in the second round but couldn’t sustain his speed in the third.

“We just lost a little bit there the last run,” said Logano who tied Kevin Harvick for the fastest lap in the opening round at 120.870 mph. “We got loose into (Turns) 3 and 4, missed it the first lap and did the same exact thing the second lap.

“It’s so frustrating when you win the first two rounds and the one that pays the money, you’re not there. That’s always frustrating. I guess we have decent speed in our car… it is just frustrating. I don’t know what else to say. It just sucks.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Texas Presents Turnaround Opportunity for Joe Gibbs Racing

Joe Gibbs Racing emerged as the most dominant team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last season. A total of 12 wins and placing two championship contenders in the season finale at Homestead-Miami attested to their strength.

Six races into 2017, it’s apparent JGR isn’t displaying the dominance that defined its 2016 season.

At this time last year, JGR had 11 top-five finishes and two wins. Through the same number of races in 2017, they have three top-five results and no visits to victory lane.

Texas Motor Speedway may be the perfect place for the organization to mount a turnaround. JGR swept last season’s events with Kyle Busch winning in April and Carl Edwards in November.

Busch’s victory capped off a race dominated by Toyota. Martin Truex Jr. led a race-high 141 laps, Edwards paced the field for 124 and Busch was out front for 34 as he captured back-to-back wins. The event kicked off a string of four wins in the next five races. Edwards won two consecutive events at Bristol and Richmond, Busch captured his first career Kansas victory, and Matt Kenseth won at Dover.

JGR seemed unstoppable following this winning streak. However, a year later, they seem unable to match this level of performance.

When NASCAR introduced the current rules package in three events at both Michigan races and Kentucky last season, JGR struggled.

Whether they opted to place more focus on performing well in 2016 rather than fine-tuning the 2017 lower downforce package, or just didn’t hit on what works best, they weren’t up to par with other teams.

Edwards came home highest among all JGR drivers in these events, scoring three top-10 results. Besides Edwards, only one other JGR car finished in the top-10 as Denny Hamlin placed ninth at Michigan in August.

When the package was first utilized this season at Atlanta, only one JGR team placed inside the top-15 as Kenseth finished third. Busch has been the only driver to lead a double digit amount of laps this season as he led 114 at Phoenix and 274 last weekend at Martinsville.

These struggles have been reflected in the points standings as Busch sits sixth, Hamlin 16th, Daniel Suarez 21st, and Matt Kenseth 22nd. While Suarez continues adjusting in his first full-time season, Hamlin and Kenseth deep in the standings is a combination of bad luck and uncharacteristic performances.

Now with the new surface and reconfiguration of Turns 1 and 2 at Texas, many unknowns exist heading into the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. This will likely even the playing field and give JGR the opportunity to rebound.

Success on Sunday and beyond in the upcoming races will be very telling. JGR has won two consecutive spring races at Bristol, and Edwards and Busch went head-to-head on the final lap last April at Richmond before Edwards bumped Busch high off the final corner to win.

The variety of tracks on the schedule over the next month will also aid the evaluation as a 1.5-mile track, two short tracks, and restrictor plate event at Talladega will test many elements of the organization’s performance.

While it’s too early to determine whether JGR’s current struggles will have a lasting impact throughout the season, this next month of competition will be crucial for them to show signs of improvement.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.