Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

2015 Engine Rules to Impact Cost and Competition

By Vito Pugliese – It was revealed Saturday at Auto Club Speedway that NASCAR is actively pursuing efforts to reduce engine horsepower for the 2015 season for the Sprint Cup Series. The move is aimed at not only reducing the amount of power that engines are producing – which prior to this season’s addition of tapered spacers was in the 900hp range – but also extending the life of the engines as well. In an interview with Tom Jensen at FoxSports.com, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton detailed some of the changes that have been discussed with Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota.

How would this be accomplished and what would it mean for teams and the on-track product?

Chevrolet and Toyota are advocating a 5.0L mill, down from the current maximum size of 5.8L. This makes sense since the Ford FR9 is the newest and most advanced engine of the three, allowing the other two back on a level playing field as far as generation of engines are concerned. For Ford, this could be a boon for them as well, as their 5.0L Coyote engine will continue to be an engine offering in the new F-150 and Mustang GT set to be released later this year. Ford has suggested continued use of tapered spacers to help reduce engine output – and development cost.

A move to a newer engine configuration could also potentially help lure Chrysler back into the fray. Following their 2012 championship-winning season, Dodge disappeared from the sport after they were unable to find a new engine supplier after Team Penske elected to go with Ford for the foreseeable future. Dodge also has the Charger slated for a refreshing in 2015 with a nose similar to that of the current Camaro. No Dodge Gen6 cars exist at the moment, and there are a few hand-me-down ex-Penske Challengers sprinkled through the Nationwide Series. With Dodge abruptly pulling its Viper from competition at LeMans this week, might they be pondering a return to NASCAR – or is this another total abandonment from motorsports given parent company Fiat is now the sole owner of the Pentastar brand?

NASCAR has tinkered with reduction of engine power and aiding longevity before. It wasn’t too long ago that a 9.0:1 compression ratio was entertained, but the reduction of power was accompanied with a marked increase in exhaust temperatures which translated into driver discomfort. In 2002, teams were no longer permitted to run engines exclusively for qualifying, so they in turn needed to be more robust, with only valve train components allowed to be changed to freshen them prior to race day. Some teams benefited from this, particularly Roush Racing, who was a bit down on both power and balance the previous year, while others struggled a bit at first. With only a handful of engine suppliers in the Cup Series (Ford having just Roush Yates, and Toyota having TRD and Triad), a new engine format might help create some additional vendors than what currently exist.

The tapered spacer – which is by any other name, a restrictor plate – was originally floated for 2014, but was put on hold in favor of aerodynamic changes which increased drag. The tapered spacer has worked well in the Camping World Truck Series, but did not exactly promote competition in the Nationwide Series a few years back. While engine longevity is helpful for some of the lower-budgeted teams, it would really only be beneficial if teams are forced to run engines for multiple weeks before rebuilding or replacing them. If a new engine size is initiated, it would be years before any cost savings or economies of scale would come into play, as it would require new parts, pieces, and testing to make it a viable product.

And as with engines, if you make it smaller, the only way to make more power is to spin it faster. That means higher RPMs, lighter pieces and materials, and a new horsepower war that will see the smaller engines whizzing past 10,000rpm in a few years. If a smaller engine is used, expect the horsepower reduction to last about six months, until teams find ways to gain back whatever power was lost to begin with. If durability is what the mandate brings, heavier pieces are what will help dampen the output and maintain the integrity of the original goal.

While cost concessions are a concern, the main target here is on-track competition. With the number of intermediate tracks that dominate the circuit, the downforce monster that is the Gen6 car coupled with engines that are tickling 900 ponies have conspired to make huge speed – but at the expense of close competition. Cars sailing off into the corner at 215mph might have made sense in the superspeedway glory days of the late 1980s – but not at Texas or Atlanta. At Michigan International Speedway – NASCAR’s new fastest track – in 2012, a day of testing and practice saw cars approaching 220mph headed into Turn One.

What might look impressive and eyeball popping on a television telemetry readout or atop a scoring pylon, loses its luster if another car can’t get within 50 yards of it due to the aero wash it’s plowing into.

It is true that speed kills – competition – once they get going too fast. This aspect was exacerbated with the arrival of the Gen 5 COT, but addressed with the aero tweeks made to the Gen6 this past off-season. There is still a bit of work to do, as teams continue to build more power and get the cars to faster, they’ll soon outgrow the fixes that were put in place for this season. More aero adjustments are likely on the way as well, and coupled with a horsepower reduction, NASCAR may hit the perfect balance between power and grip that they had in the mid-late 90’s and early 2000’s.

At least until the teams catch up and gain it back once more…

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Editorial

The Mayor Makes His Season Debut This Weekend For MWR – And None Too Soon

By Vito Pugliese – To say that 2013 was a tumultuous year for Michael Waltrip Racing would be a bit of an understatement; tantamount to saying the Hindenburg experienced a bit of a backfire.

The team that was one of the brightest success stories of 2012 was suddenly walking the tightrope over the abyss as 2013 drew to a close. By the time the checkered flag fell as Homestead the team suffered the following:

–          Martin Truex, Jr. forcibly removed from The Chase

–          Clint Bowyer treated for itchy arm syndrome (IAS)

–          Flagship sponsor NAPA promptly departed

–          Brian Vickers hospitalized with a recurring blood clot issue

–          Mark Martin departing mid-season for Stewart-Haas Racing

–          Martin Truex, Jr. leaving to take over the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet

–          Rodney Childers leaving as crew chief of the No. 55 to join SHR

–          Chad Johnston leaving as crew chief of the No. 56 to join SHR

Had it not been for that 2012 season, 2013 very well could have seen MWR dry up and blow away like so much chafe in the wind. Survivor that he is, Michael Waltrip carried on, and has added a new stabilizing force within the team in Jeff Burton, who will make his first start of the season this weekend in Las Vegas, driving the No. 66 Let’s Go Places Toyota Camry. It will be the first start of the season for Burton who was replaced by Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing after nearly ten seasons of service.

This year hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts for the company, with Vickers and Waltrip wrecking in the Daytona 500 while Bowyer had an engine go south. This past weekend at Phoenix the No. 55 of Vickers slapped the wall after having a tire go down, while the No. 15 of Clint Bowyer was largely a non-factor leading just one lap and coming home 13th. Albeit third best among Toyotas and just one spot behind corporate compadre Matt Kenseth.

For Burton, it is an opportunity to race a limited schedule before he goes full-time TV guy next year with NBC Sports. This year, he essentially is filling the role vacated by his long-time friend Mark Martin, as the veteran presence on the team. Granted it is in a limited capacity, but having spent the last 18 seasons with two of the largest organizations in the sport with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, Burton is not a job hopper and knows what is required to make a team function. It also serves as a reunion of sorts with Scott Miller, competition director at MWR who was Burton’s crew chief during his most productive seasons at RCR.

So should we expect to see “The Mayor” on the pole this weekend? Probably not; give the guy a chance to knock the rust off first. However, with the knockout qualifying in its infancy, a year that has been slow to get going, it’s things in preparation and procedure that Burton can help identify and improve, as well as provide fresh feedback and perspective on car performance. It is a boon as well for NBC Sports, to have a driver still active in the series providing commentary this year on its “NASCAR America” show, and next season in the booth when he clambers out of the car to call the second half of the season. Most former driver commentators today haven’t been in competition for over five years; others a decade or more.

For Burton it’s a chance to remain involved in the sport and slowly back away, rather than going all-out with a farewell tour of sorts. After all, that’s not really his style, plus he has said he’s feared getting out too quickly after having talked to other former drivers, as he told MRN’s Dustin Long.

As he did with the other two super teams he has competed for, Burton will leave MWR in better shape than it was when he arrived. The same will be said for the broadcast booth when he straps into that seat full-time in 2015.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

No Spotter Leaves Hamlin Disappointed With Daytona Result

By Chris Owens – Many drivers have been in the position that Denny Hamlin was in Sunday, but none have actually accomplished the sweep of Speedweeks. That trend continued on Sunday night when Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to victory lane.

While Hamlin would settle for second, one position shy of the sweep, he’s not hanging his head. While there’s a lot to be disappointed about, there’s a lot more to be happy about.

“There’s a lot to be disappointed about, but there’s a lot to be happy about. After we came back from the rain my radios weren’t working so I had to wing it those last 150 laps on my own,” said Hamlin.

“It was intense. Everyone was content not to run the top line, which was good. I thought for sure we’d wreck more cars, but still that was a great race for the fans. It was a great race from my standpoint.”

Hamlin’s second place finish didn’t come without problems though. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver fought radio issues for much of the final 160 laps. At times, he was unable to hear his spotter at all, a guy who is a key part of any superspeedway race.

Even with the radio problems, Hamlin was able to rebound and claim his best Daytona 500 finish in his ninth career start.

“It was a solid run for us. We didn’t have the speed that we had before the rain came. I thought the Duels and the Unlimited, I felt like our car didn’t have quite the speed. But, for some reason, whether guys picked up their intensity, it was tougher to pass out there.”

With no eye in the sky for much of the event, Hamlin had to decide on pitting to replace the radio. A move that would have given up valuable track position, something the Virginia driver said was key on Sunday night.

“It’s tough. I wasn’t going to pit for a radio, that’s for sure,” he said. “We had to keep all of the track position we could so tried to do the best we could with what we had.

“It was just so hard to pass, similar to when we got out front. You can block your way to a victory, and really Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) just played it perfectly once he got out front on that last fuel run; everyone else is just side by side and you really can’t make any moves.”

Having no spotter on the final restart of the Great American Race, Hamlin was left wondering what to do.

“With not having a spotter there on that last green-white-checkered I didn’t know whether to back up more.  They give us vital information for you to get runs so that’s why we kind of lost our luster after we came back after the rain.”

Hamlin says he’s disappointed in the end results, but says he spent the remainder of the race trying not to get into trouble or wreck anyone.

“But, it was just me trying not to wreck anyone, trying not to get into any trouble, trying to spot all six corners by myself. Still a great run, but I am a little disappointed.”

“If I cut anyone off I’m sorry, just trying to do it out there on my own.”

EMAIL CHRIS AT chris.owens@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ChrisOwens62

Categories
Development Journalists

Dillon the Perfect Fit to Race and Honor the No. 3

By Jordan Dodson – A week ago today Richard Childress Racing officially announced Austin Dillon will drive the No. 3 Dow Chemicals and Cheerios Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series beginning with the 2014 season.

The announcement by RCR about bringing back the No. 3 came as no surprise to anyone. Dillon has raced in the Truck and Nationwide Series the past four seasons with the number. Ty Dillon has also used the number in his career. But bringing the No. 3 back in the NSCS hasn’t been done since 2001 after the passing of Dale Earnhardt.

For many, the No. 3 represents a legend that will never be replaced. In one way or another, Earnhardt impacted everyone in the NASCAR community, on and off the track. It’s understandable to see how it may be difficult to see the number back with all the emotions that come along with it. But with the number comes history and a man that defined NASCAR.

Seeing the No. 3 next season and beyond will serve as remembrance for what Earnhardt did for NASCAR. He was that person anyone could relate to. He was a simple man who fought his way to the top and worked hard to get there just like everyone else who watched in the grandstands or TV.

He was a person who pushed to be the best. Most of all, Earnhardt represented the common man or woman in America. A working class individual who was trying to do their best. And not to mention, he was one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen.

But why Dillon in the No. 3? In Wednesday’s press conference, Richard Childress, owner of RCR and long-time friend of Earnhardt, stated that after having discussions with Earnhardt and others in the past that only an Earnhardt or family member of Childress would step back in the No. 3. Dillon, grandson of Childress, is a CWTS and NNS champion. There isn’t anyone more deserving with proven credentials that has the potential to be successful in the No. 3 car.

Childress said of his decision to put Dillon in the No. 3, “I know in my heart … that Dale Earnhardt is smiling down.”

When Dillon makes his first official lap in the Daytona 500, lets remember what the number represents and the man who made NASCAR what it is today. And may it serve as a reminder to young fans of the importance and place the number will always have in the sport.

Jordan Dodson is a Popular Speed Developmental Journalist. 

Categories
Development Journalists

Greg Biffle Looks to Homestead for Strong End to Season

By Stephanie Adair – Greg Biffle may not be contending for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship but he will be competing for his second win this year. The driver of the No. 16 3M Fan Appreciation Ford is looking for his fourth win at Homestead Miami Speedway.

He currently sits seventh in the point standings, three points outside of sixth and 20 points from fifth place. These positions are held by Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. respectively. A win or even a top five finish could bring the 43 year old up to the top five in the standings, depending on how his competitors finish.

Earnhardt Jr. has had his best Chase ever but statistically has not fared well at Homestead. He only has one top ten and an average finish of 22.1.

Gordon, on the other hand, has had much better luck at the last race of the NSCS season. He has seven top fives and 11 top tens, capturing his first win at the track last year.

Biffle’s stats compared to his competitors are fairly good. His three victories at this track came consecutively between 2004 – 2006. He also has five top tens and four top fives including last year when he placed fifth.

Biffle will have some tough competition as he fights to move forward in the point standings, but his stats show it’s possible. In the last four races, he has finished with a position of 13th or better. As the season comes to a close, watch for Biffle and the No. 16 team as they fight to end the season with momentum.

Stephanie Adair is a Popular Speed Development Journalist. 

Categories
Editorial NASCAR Cup Series

Phoenix Victory a Fitting Conclusion for Harvick, Childress Pairing

By Matt Weaver — Barring a remarkable set of circumstances, Kevin Harvick will not win his first Sprint Cup Series championship this season.

Even with his victory on Sunday night at Phoenix International Raceway, Harvick is still 34 points behind Jimmie Johnson and separated from him by Matt Kenseth who is 28 points back. But the fact that Harvick is even in the conversation is remarkable by itself.

It’s been over a year since Harvick announced that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing (eventually for Stewart Haas Racing) and it was assumed that the team would struggle as a result of that lame duck status. But Harvick scoffed at the term from the moment he arrived in Daytona for Speedweeks and he backed-up that defiance with four victories this season and two other non-points victories at Daytona.

Harvick, crew chief Gil Martin and Richard Childress all agreed to give each other all they had this season and the team has responded with weekly contention and an outside shot at the championship.

No one has held back at Richard Childress Racing.

“We committed to each other early in the year that we’d give 100 percent, and we have, and Kevin has,” Childress said Sunday after the race. “We’ve had a great relationship, and when this race is over (in reference to the season), I haven’t got a driver that’s driven for me…I can’t walk up and talk to and that’s the way we want this to be.”

That relationship has been strained over the course of the season, especially after Martinsville when Harvick was critical of the next generation of RCR drivers – Childress’ grandchildren — in Ty and Austin Dillon following an accident with the former in the Camping World Truck Series.

Harvick said that the Dillon brothers have had “everything spoonfed to them” and that they were the reason he was leaving the team at the end of the year.

Harvick says that there was no better way to respond to the strain that was created than going out and performing over the final three weeks of the season, especially after he and Childress had conversations after Martinsville that should see everyone involved remain friends in the coming years.

“I said some things that I shouldn’t have and put everybody in a position that was not good, but I think we had conversations about things after that, that made us closer as people, and I think as we move forward will make us closer as friends.”

It was important that Harvick and Childress returned to Victory Lane one last time before going their separate ways because it serves as a more fitting final impression of their time together than Martinsville. If not for the Jimmie Johnson championship buzzsaw, fans and media could arguably be talking about a perennial championship behemoth in Harvick and RCR.

What the two have done together is pretty remarkable when you remove the Hendrick Motorsports shadow that has hovered over the league since 2001 — Harvick’s first season in the Sprint Cup Series.

The tandem has accumulated 23 victories, seven Chase berths in 10 chances and two third-place finishes in the championship with the No. 29 on pace to score another by next weekend. In recent seasons — likely some of the toughest for RCR as an organization — Harvick has been a pillar of consistency, winning multiple races in every season during this decade except for 2012 where the team still managed to win once at Phoenix.

Harvick has been a thorn in the side of Johnson and other contenders and could be poised for a real breakout season over the next few years once he settles down at Stewart-Haas due to their Hendrick affiliation.

Harvick is one of the bigger stars in NASCAR and that’s a testament to the combined commitment of everyone involved at RCR from the driver, crew chiefs and Richard Childress. It’s been one heck of a run and it’s a fitting ending that the group gets one more positive moment before splitting up to remind them of what they’ve done together.

“At the end of the day, the one thing that we both do have is a word called respect,” Childress said. “And we’ll always have that.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Mutual Respect Drives Johnson, Kenseth Title Fight

By Kelly Crandall (MARTINSVILLE, Va.) – Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are not only engaged in a battle for the Sprint Cup championship but a friendly banter as well.

The two have gone back and forth all week leading up to Martinsville, site of the sixth race in the Chase. Kenseth joked Johnson shouldn’t ask him for advice about how to run at the paperclip with Johnson sharing their text message exchange.

Friday it continued during media availability, first with Kenseth then followed by Johnson five minutes later.

But jokes aside, the two recognized the importance of Martinsville weekend. Johnson enters with the point lead for the first time since the regular season, holding a four-point advantage. Arguably Martinsville is (one) of Johnson’s best tracks, he has eight victories, including the spring race and this event a year ago.

Kenseth has been on the opposite side of the spectrum, but has teammates who are equally as good as Johnson here. Sunday, the man who’s won seven races this year won’t be worried about the where his competition is, which for Kenseth, can often be penciled in.

“The field is so competitive that I think you approach every week trying to win and if you win then you know everybody is behind you so I think you go out and try to qualify the best you can,” Kenseth said about the weekend’s outlook.

“I think you go out and race as hard as you can, finish as high as you can and after it’s all over I guess you look at it (points) and see where you are. You can’t control what anybody else does or how anybody else runs or how anybody else finishes. All you can do is control your own car and team and I think you just try to focus on that.”

What makes the battle of Johnson versus Kenseth all the more intriguing is that the two aren’t strangers. They’ve battled for one in the past (2006) and put on a great show in Texas – where the NSCS heads next week – in November 2007. All the way down to the wire they went at it, Johnson pulling out the win.

Second would have been fine but it wasn’t in his DNA. It’s the same attitude both have this year. Not wanting to let the other get any advantage.

“I’m not going to put my guard down here even though it is one of our better tracks. I look forward to a battle all the way to the last lap at Homestead with him,” Johnson said, while noting that if they slip Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon are close enough to pounce.

But in terms of 2013, it’s a story of Kenseth and Johnson, even before the Chase set up that way. The two won the most races during the regular season and seemingly couldn’t get away from each other.

Each tried to up the other with a win as they were tied for most of the season. Then came Kentucky when Johnson had the race won before Kenseth appeared late and snookered him on a restart. It’s just one thing Johnson keeps in mind, reminding himself that it’s never over because Kenseth has a habit of appearing late.

“I don’t know how I can defend against it, but it is on my mind. Charlotte was another good example of it. I think he ran around the top five, fifth, sixth, seventh somewhere throughout the night in that position,” Johnson said of a race that he dominated.

“Then when the checkered fell he was one spot ahead of me. He is a great driver, great team, and there is no quit in those guys. It just means we need to be buttoned up until the end. It’s not secret that we have missed opportunities throughout the year. The final laps of a race, restart situations, there have been a handful that have gotten away. At this point I can’t let that happen anymore.”

Now, as the two go at it again it’s with a newfound respect for each other, their teams and how they race. Keeping the five-time champion on his toes while giving Kenseth the confidence in his team to go against a group many once found to be invincible.

“I feel that confident about my team and my equipment. Hopefully we can have a good day today and still be in it when we leave here and hopefully within single digits or hopefully be ahead,” Kenseth said.

“I really feel like the next three weeks if we do everything right and just everything goes even then I feel like we can race with anybody. We can race anybody head-to-head for it. I feel good about that. You never know what’s going to happen, but I feel like we’re certainly capable.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

The Stories Behind the Story: New Hampshire

By Matt Weaver – A lot of ballyhoo was made of NASCAR’s decision expand the Chase for the Championship to 13 drivers following the events that transpired at Richmond. The end result was the literal biggest Chase of all time, not that it matters much after the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth became just the third driver to open the Chase with two consecutive wins and with it has turned the playoffs into a three team battle following Sunday’s race in New England.

For the second straight week, Kyle Busch — Kenseth’s teammate — finished second and Jimmie Johnson scored a top-five. The end result is just three teams within 36 points of the top spot — the top three separated by 18. The biggest Chase in NASCAR history is suddenly a three-car breakaway with eight races remaining.

Here are the top three stories to emerge from the Chase race at New Hampshire:

Kenseth defies odds

On Friday, I wrote that Matt Kenseth was not yet the favorite to win the Chase due to his previous results at New Hampshire. The 2003 champion entered Sunday’s race with a 13.8 average finish and a 16th-place average over his past 12 starts. But I also wrote that a good finish could establish his place as the favorite, speculation he exceeded by pulling into Victory Lane.

The victory is his seventh of the season and extends his own personal best marks — at 41 years old and in his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

To those counting on Talladega to catch Kenseth, do so at your own risk as the Toyota driver has been one of the two most dominant plate aces (alongside Johnson) this season. Kenseth, powered by JGR and crew chief Jason Ratcliff may just have found an unbeatable combination in the 2013 Chase.

Elimination Sunday

In college football, some weekends are considered “elimination Saturday.” Sunday’s race at New Hampshire took on the form of an elimination race, perhaps ending the championship hopes of the bottom four Chase contenders.

Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the race at the back end of the standings and didn’t do enough to negate their problems at Chicagoland, finishing 14th (Logano) and sixth (Earnhardt). At this point, two wins are likely required to negate each bad result.

Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer were the latest to have their Cup hopes dashed. Kahne’s late-race accident relegated him to a 37th place finish while a delayed final pit stop dropped Bowyer to 17th.

On its face, Bowyer’s result wasn’t crippling but at 10th in the standings, nine teams may be too many to jump with eight races left in the season. This is especially true given the pressure and scrutiny the team faces following “Speedgate” at Richmond.

And the reality is dictating that no one is going to catch Kenseth if he continues to perform at his current pace.

Don’t fix the Chase if it isn’t broke

It is somewhat ironic that the Chase was instituted as a result of Matt Kenseth winning the championship with consistency and only a single victory in 2003.

It’s ironic because Kenseth is again running away with a championship and doing it under the format he helped necessitate. This has left some questioning the competitiveness of the current playoff format.

Look — nothing can be done to squash dominance.

The best teams and drivers will take whatever system you throw at them and eventually beat it. Sure the Chase could benefit from some added diversity in the form of a short track and road course but the 1-48 championship system — plus the Chase — is a valued aspect of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.

What were your instant takeaways from an eventful Chase race at New Hampshire? Tell us on Facebook or contact the author on Twitter @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Weaver: Jeff Gordon Will Contend

By Matt Weaver – The Richmond incident lit a fire under Jeff Gordon that just may propel him to a fifth Sprint Cup championship.

The most common complaint levied against his inclusion into the Chase is that he had 26 races to get the job done and failed — and that’s simply not the case.

With eight laps to go at Richmond, Gordon had indeed raced his way into a playoff spot and was legitimately wronged out of that position. Sure, you can argue that the evidence was inconclusive or that NASCAR couldn’t guarantee how the race would have played out and those opinions are somewhat valid.

I agree with some of those sentiments and wrote as much yesterday.

But agree with it or not, Gordon is in the Chase and will be a factor moving forward and it would be foolish to think otherwise.

It’s a fact that the Hendrick Motorsports veteran has not won a race this season.

But neither has Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Clint Bowyer — all perceived championship contenders.

Gordon has not set the NASCAR world on fire this season but it’s not from a lack of speed. Like his Hendrick teammates, Gordon has power, especially on the long run. It is his restarts and the short runs that have proven the most problematic this season.

For whatever reason, Gordon hasn’t adapted well in the era of double-file restarts and that may continue to work to his undoing in the Chase. In an era where passing has become more difficult than ever before, restarts have become the most important element of Sprint Cup racing.

A Chaser-leading five DNFs have also hampered his stats this season — he’s been incredibly unlucky.

His potential victories at both Bristol (spring) and Texas were negated by wacky accidents and contributed to his bubble standing for much of the year. While that’s also an argument for why he can’t contend, it also makes you wonder what could be if the bad luck is completely out of the way.

Gordon says he expects to contend at eight of the 10 Chase tracks and got his renewed Drive for Five started on a high note on Friday by qualifying sixth at Chicago.

He’s one of just three drivers to have an average finish in the single digits at Martinsville and Hendrick power could make him a player at Talladega if he avoids the Big One like he did last October when he was the runner-up to Matt Kenseth.

And don’t forget that he’s the defending winner at Homestead, site of the season finale.

If Gordon can repeat his performance from much of last year’s Chase but eliminate some of the distractions, he will definitely be a player deep into the season.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Driver Analysis

Popular Speed has produced a driver-by-driver guide of the 12 13 challengers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Provide your analysis and opinion on our Facebook page and on Twitter at @PopularSpeed and @MattWeaverSBN. Staff predictions (made before the Jeff Gordon announcement) can be found here.

Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota

Strengths: Like any perennial Chase driver, Matt Kenseth has thrived on the intermediate speedways this season. Four of his five victories have come on the high-baked at Las Vegas, Kansas, Darlington and Kentucky. That bodes well for his championship chances as the season includes another stop at Kansas.

Kenseth is also an ace restrictor plate racer, having dominated at Daytona and Talladega in recent seasons, despite not winning a race on those tracks this season.

Weaknesses: A champion like Kenseth doesn’t stick around as long as he has without having mastered each of the disciplines in Sprint Cup. The bane of Kenseth’s season has been mechanical reliability, having tied Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne for most DNFs amongst (the original) Chase drivers this season — three. (Gordon now eclipses them with five)

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Everywhere — but especially the intermediate tracks, the reason for Johnson’s dominance in recent seasons. Of Chase tracks, Johnson has especially been stout at Martinsville (seven wins), Charlotte (six wins), and Kansas (two wins).

Weaknesses: From the outset, Johnson doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. He’s won four times this season (twice at Daytona, Martinsville and Pocono) and led the standings for most of this season before the worst stretch of his career led him to four straight finishes of 28th or worse. That is his biggest concern going into his record 10th Chase appearance — that he won’t be able to turn it around.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Joe Gibbs Toyota

Strengths: Of Chase tracks, Busch won from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway in April and had strong runs at Martinsville and Kansas. “Shrub” is capable of winning at all 10 Chase tracks and has avoided his signature prolonged slump this season, making him one of the title favorites.

Weaknesses: Like teammate Matt Kenseth, Busch has struggled with sporadic mechanical failures this season. While not enough to hamper his ability to make the Chase, it could cost him over a 10-race playoff.

Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Charlotte remains his go-to track amongst Chase venues, having picked up four wins in 19 championship point-paying events. Other safe bets include any high-horsepower tracks, especially Homestead where he has four top-10s in nine starts.

Weaknesses: This is just his fourth Chase appearance. Despite hitting his personal stride with crew chief Kenny Francis, is the duo prepared to chase their first championship together after finishing fourth last season?

Carl Edwards, No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford

Strengths: With 13 top-10s and just one DNF, Carl Edwards has been Mr. Consistency this season and was the regular season “champion” after surpassing Jimmie Johnson for the spot following his victory in Richmond.

Edwards is strong at every type of track and is starting to visit victory lane with more frequency after going through a prolonged slump that saw him miss the Chase in 2012. If Edwards can recapture his 2008 pace, where he won three Chase races, this could be Edwards’ long-awaited title run.

Weaknesses: The lack of wins will cost him over the course of 10 races, just like it did in 2011 when he lost the championship due to a tiebreaker on trips to victory lane. That question may have been silenced last weekend at Richmond.

Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Richard Childress Chevrolet

Strengths: Making his seventh Chase for the Championship appearance, Kevin Harvick is battle tested, having finished third in both 2010 and 2011. He is particularly strong at Chase tracks Phoenix, Homestead and Talladega.

Weaknesses: Lame duck. Harvick doesn’t like to hear it but there’s legitimate questions surrounding Harvick with his impending departure for Stewart-Haas Racing next season. But being the only RCR driver to make the Chase will likely offset those concerns.

Greg Biffle, No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford

Strengths: The Biff has a combined 10 wins at five of the 10 Chase tracks over the course of his career. Of those, he’s particularly strong at Homestead (3 wins), Texas (2), Dover (2) and Kansas (2). He has a strong track record of increasing his performance in the Chase having finished second in 2005 and fifth most recently in 2012.

Weaknesses: Biffle has endured a lengthy cold spell this season. Outside of his Michigan breakthrough, Biffle has been a consistent 15th place finisher. He made the Chase based on his consistency — 0 DNFs and has only three top-5s and 10 top-10s.

Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Michael Waltrip Toyota

Strengths: Amongst Chase tracks, Clint Bowyer has been both consistent and stout at New Hampshire and Talladega (two wins a piece). Toss in his pinpoint consistency from 2013 and Bowyer should be a solid threat to win the championship this year except…

Weaknesses: Spingate. Veteran drivers were not happy with what appeared to be an intentional spin at Richmond in order to help Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase. Bowyer might have a more difficult time in traffic than he has all season and he’s still winless through 2013 — not recipes for winning a championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Perhaps the most consistent season of his Hendrick tenure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears long past the phase of his career where making the Chase is a big question mark.

This is his third straight appearance in the playoffs and he may be poised to make his first legitimate title run since 2004. Earnhardt has won at five of the 10 Chase tracks but all of that success came while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Weaknesses: NASCAR’s most popular driver just isn’t winning right now. That’s it. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have found good chemistry and consistency but they need to start winning. And his starved fan base probably can’t think of a better time than the 2013 Chase.

Kurt Busch, No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet

Strengths: Making the Chase with one-car operation Furniture Row Racing might have been the result of Busch’s career-best drive.

Sure, Furniture Row has Childress backing but they’ve had it in years past without Busch. The 2004 champion made them a weekly contender and it did on largely on his qualifying efforts. His six front row starts made it easier to maintain track position and that’s exactly what the 78 team did.

With RCR only qualifying one team (Harvick) into the Chase, don’t be surprised if Furniture Row receives additional support as we get deeper into the playoffs.

Weaknesses: The Furniture Row equipment can only go saw far and Busch still hasn’t been able to park it in victory lane.

Ryan Newman, No. 39 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet

Strengths: Someone had to make the final Chase spot. Both he and wild card rival Martin Truex Jr. were largely statistically interchangeable. The 2008 Daytona 500 winner has three wins each at Chase tracks Dover and New Hampshire but is marginal everywhere else.

Weaknesses: He has an average finish of 16.1 this season. Newman also didn’t do himself any favors at Richmond in throwing his pit crew under the bus when he believed he had not made the Chase before the MWR penalties.

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Strengths: Jeff Gordon is a four-time Sprint Cup champion. He’s won at every track except Kentucky and has shown speed that isn’t indicative of his results this season. He’s the defending winner at Homestead and has had recent success at Chicagoland and Phoenix. He’s one of only three drivers to have a single-digit average finish at Martinsville Speedway.

Weaknesses: Jeff Gordon has struggled to finish races this season. He has 5 DNFs (which leads the updated Chase field) and has no consistency from week-to-week. Gordon always seems to find himself in the middle of the Big One at Talladega and Charlotte has proven to be a challenge in recent seasons for the No. 24 team.