Champions Duel For No. 1 Chase Seeding
Matt Kenseth held the advantage with three quick victories. Now he’s got a companion in fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who recorded his third win of the year on Sunday at Pocono Raceway. Each win is worth three bonus points when the Chase begins in mid-September.
The scene now shifts to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 (TNT, MRN Radio, SIRIUSXM Radio, 1 p.m. EDT), where Kenseth has won and Johnson has not.
Kenseth, a two-time Michigan winner, arguably has been the season’s fastest commodity leading 11 of 14 races. The 2003 series champion’s pace has sometimes proved too fast for his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which has suffered two engine-related DNFs.
Kenseth’s three wins are offset by three finishes of 35th or worse. At Michigan, Kenseth boasts a Driver Rating of 105.5 – second only to last August’s winner Greg Biffle. Kenseth finished third in last year’s Quicken Loans 400.
JGR entries have won three of the past six races at Michigan. Both of Kenseth’s teammates – Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – have Victory Lane visits in the past two seasons.
Johnson peaked early, winning the Daytona 500. Nothing’s happened over the next 13 races to suggest that’s anything but a good thing. In fact, his best vote of confidence comes from crew chief Chad Knaus following Sunday’s dominant victory.
“Jimmie and I are in a really good spot. Jimmie is switched on right now,” said Knaus. “He’s as good or better than I’ve ever seen him.”
In four of his five championship seasons, Johnson won two or more races through the first Pocono event. Johnson has finished among the top five in seven of this season’s 14 races and led a combined 271 laps in his past two starts. Michigan is one of five tracks on which Johnson has failed to win. He’ll visit the other four – Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami – later this year.
Still, the five-time champion’s Michigan statistics are remarkable – a fourth-best Driver Rating of 104.2 and most laps led (484) over the past eight seasons. He finished second in 2011 and was fifth last June. In August, he held the lead with seven laps remaining, but the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet succumbed to engine failure.
Johnson’s HMS teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne claim a combined Michigan victory total of five. Earnhardt is the race’s defending winner.
Smoke Signal: Stewart’s On Another Tear
Doing the improbable is nothing new for Tony Stewart. Case in point: winning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title in 2011 after stating he didn’t even belong in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
Stewart’s latest feat is disproving a theory that the current points system works against recovery from an early season filled with misfortune. It took Stewart just three races to erase that misconception.
Ranked 21st in the standings after Darlington – and without Chase eligibility – Stewart rocketed back into contention with a victory, two top fives and three top 10s. He currently holds a Chase Wild Card berth based upon his Dover win.
But most importantly, Stewart is only 17 points out of the Chase-qualifying top 10 – a net gain of 45 markers in less than a month.
Granted, he’s had help. Four competitors Stewart leap-frogged – Aric Almirola, Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jeff Burton – failed to score a top-10 finish during the three-race span.
But Stewart also bypassed Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman, drivers posting a combined three top fives and eight top 10s.
Stewart’s led two of the past three races. He led just once in the season’s first 11 events.
Stewart’s only Michigan victory came in 2000, the driver’s second season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Stewart-Haas Racing has yet to win at the track. SHR’s third driver, Danica Patrick, will make her first Michigan start in the series.
Earnhardt Confident On Anniversary Of Hallmark Victory
It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster year for Dale Earnhardt Jr., from the early season heights of a pair of second-place finishes and the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead to the depths of three finishes outside the top 20.
Through the season’s first 14 races, however, Earnhardt has maintained an attitude of optimism.
“We have been carrying momentum for a good solid year now,” he said following a third-place finish in Sunday’s event at Pocono Raceway. “We are all right. We know what we need to do. Confidence is there.”
Earnhardt should be confident as the series moves to Michigan International Speedway where, last June, Junior broke a four-year, 143-race winless streak. He finished fourth in the track’s second race – making 2012 his best year in terms of average finish in the Irish Hills.
Both Pocono and Michigan were repaved before the 2012 season. Those conditions suited Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet team then and – if last weekend’s Pocono race is any indication – his success should carry over into Michigan. Earnhardt’s Pocono performance was the driver’s first top five since Auto Club Speedway’s race in late March. It also moved Earnhardt back to fourth in series points.
Roush Revels In ‘Home Track’ Advantage
Jack Roush’s single-car team needed only four races to crack the top 10 at Michigan, and only six to win there. With Mark Martin driving the No. 6 in both, a foundation of unparalleled success was laid.
Roush’s team, whether the old Roush Racing incarnation or its current Roush Fenway Racing form, would collect 11 more victories over the next two-plus decades, catapulting past the Wood Brothers at the top of the all-time Michigan wins list with 12.
Michigan, a fast two-miler, has evolved into “home track” status for RFR. Roush, whose Roush Industries is headquartered in nearby Livonia, Mich., has threatened to win just about every time the series rolls to Michigan.
Five different drivers have tallied Michigan victories under the Roush banner – Martin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, winner of the last MIS race. Only Edwards and Biffle remain with the team, and are now joined by Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – who still seeks his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series top-10 finish.
Biffle, who ranks first in Michigan Driver Rating at 108.9, was one of two drivers to sweep the top five at Michigan in 2012 (Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the other). Biffle won in August and finished fourth in the June event.
Edwards, a two-time MIS victor, finished sixth during his last visit to MIS and finished in the top five during three of the five visits to 1.5- and two-mile tracks this season.
Stenhouse will make his Michigan NSCS debut, but does have three Nationwide Series starts there with a top finish of second in 2011.
First Time’s A Charm: Tricky Triangle Kind To Rookies
Ford and Chevrolet head home, in the shadows of Detroit, one aiming at a milestone befitting its years of excellence, the other riding a winning streak destined to blossom into another manufacturer championship.
Ford, coming off its 200th NASCAR Nationwide Series victory, creeps closer to the 1000th victory for Ford Motor Company. It reached 999 with Trevor Bayne’s Nationwide win at Iowa. The breakdown: 614 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins by Ford; 96 NSCS wins by Mercury; four NSCS wins by Lincoln; 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series wins by Ford; and 85 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins by Ford.
Chevrolet has won the last three NSCS races, each with a different driver and a different team. Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson won at Pocono, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart won at Dover and Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The streak has ballooned Chevrolet’s manufacturer standings lead from two points after Darlington four races ago to its current cushion of 13 (101-88). Chevrolet has won the NSCS manufacturer championship for 10 consecutive seasons, and boasts an unprecedented 36 manufacturer titles. Chevrolet and Ford split at Michigan last year, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chevrolet winning the June event and Greg Biffle’s Ford winning in August.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Two NNS championship contenders will make starts this Sunday at Michigan: Austin Dillon and Trevor Bayne. Bayne, in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, has yet to crack the top 10 in five starts this season. Dillon will drive the No. 33 Chevrolet for the second time this season, and first since the Daytona 500. His best finish this season was 21st at Las Vegas. … This is the final week The NASCAR Foundation will be accepting nominations for the 2013 Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award, which celebrates passionate NASCAR fans making an impact with children. Nominations are being accepted at NASCAR.com/Foundation and close on June 14. The recipient will be gifted $100,000 from The NASCAR Foundation toward the children’s charity of their choice.
Bayne, Kelley Starting To Make Strides Together
Stepping into the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford this season, Trevor Bayne knew there was going to be a lot of pressure on him to perform.
He took over the seat vacated by two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who posted a combined eight victories in 2011 and 2012 en route to his titles. So, Bayne knew all eyes would be on him in 2013.
As the series heads to Michigan for Saturday’s Alliance Truck Parts 250, Bayne knows he has an experienced crew chief in Mike Kelley, who guided Stenhouse to both of his titles, and a solid team behind him.
“No matter what happens each weekend, I know I can walk in the shop and have a team that is standing by me,” said Bayne, whose best finish in three starts at the two-mile track is fifth.
Despite some early-season struggles, Bayne and Kelley are finally starting to click with finishes of sixth, fourth and first in the last three races. The recent uptick in on-track performance isn’t coincidental.
“One of the big things that kind of helped us was about four weeks ago we sat down and looked at some simulation; the first time on track all year long that I could compare anything with Ricky and Trevor was the Texas Cup race,” Kelley said.
“I could go home and take the Cup data and run through simulation and find the differences of what Ricky and Trevor had in the same car on the same track on the same day. I started applying that to our Nationwide setups from Ricky before. I don’t want to say it was like a light switch, but it started answering a lot of questions and his feedback has been spot on.”
Bayne hopes to continue his recent success as he stands just on the cusp of title contention in ninth place, 80 points behind leader Regan Smith.
Dillon Goes For Record Fourth Consecutive Pole
What do Sam Ard, Trevor Bayne, Austin Dillon, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip have in common?
All six drivers have won three consecutive Coors Light Pole Awards in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, a record in the series.
Only one of them, however, has an opportunity to break the six-way tie with a fourth consecutive pole this Saturday for the Alliance Truck Parts 250 at Michigan International Speedway.
Dillon, who is fourth in the standings behind leader Regan Smith, arrives in Michigan with a streak of three consecutive poles (Charlotte, Dover, Iowa). Unfortunately, the strong starts have not resulted in trips to Victory Lane. He did although turn his pole at Iowa on Sunday into a runner-up finish.
His three poles in 2013 already match Dillon’s career high from a year ago. His first pole in the series came last year at Michigan. He went on to finish the race fifth. Dillon was able to capitalize on his other two poles last season by posting a win in both races at Kentucky.
Dillon’s only other series start at the two-mile track in Brooklyn, Mich., was 39th in 2009. He improved on his starting position by finishing 19th in that race. In 2010, he also captured a pole at the track in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and finished fifth.
Shake-Up In the Top 10
Fortunately for all NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers not named Regan Smith, there are still 22 races in the season to catch Smith, who holds a 23-point advantage over runner-up Sam Hornish Jr. heading into Saturday’s Alliance Truck Parts 250 at Michigan.
After Sunday’s DuPont Pioneer 250 at Iowa, there was some movement in the top 10 in the standings – most noticeably Brian Vickers. After finishing a disappointing 29th in the race, Vickers dropped four spots from third to seventh. Smith and Hornish held strong in the top two positions.
Aided by top-10 finishes at Iowa, Justin Allgaier and Austin Dillon both moved up one spot in the standings to third and fourth, respectively. Elliott Sadler used a third-place finish to jump two positions to fifth. Parker Kligerman and Brian Scott remained sixth and eighth.
Race winner Trevor Bayne swapped spots with Kyle Larson to move into ninth place.
NASCAR Nationwide Series, Etc.
Trevor Bayne’s victory in the DuPont Pioneer 250 at Iowa marked Ford’s 200th victory in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Mark Martin gave Ford its first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory in May 1987 at Dover. … Bayne, Mike Bliss, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Joe Nemechek, Josh Wise and J.J. Yeley will all be doing double-duty this weekend at Michigan. … Saturday’s race marks the first race in a five-race sponsorship deal between Takagi Tankless Water Heaters and TriStar Motorsports. Takagi will be the primary sponsor on the No. 44 Toyota driven by Cole Whitt, who recently signed a five-race deal with the team.
Hillman Calls Victory With Rookie Driver ‘Awesome’
Mike Hillman Jr. is certainly no stranger to Victory Lane as he has led former champions like Todd Bodine to post-race celebrations on numerous occasions. But last Friday night’s Texas Motor Speedway trip with Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Jeb Burton might be one to remember for the second-generation wrench turner. Burton’s win came in only his 12th start in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
“Every win is sweet but this win was awesome because it came so early in Jeb’s career,” Hillman said. “I have had some cool wins in Texas with Todd, and after Jeb’s win last week I now have six wins there as a crew chief.”
With as much experience as Hillman has on the pit box, he is able to notice differences between calling a race for a veteran like Bodine versus a rookie like Burton.
“I find myself calling a race differently for Jeb than I did for Todd,” Hillman added. “With a young driver you spend more time talking about what to do in the race and that was fun with Jeb last week helping through those final laps.”
Hillman also feels fortunate that he has had the opportunity to experience wins with young and veteran drivers and that his time with the crew, drivers and team make it all worthwhile.
“I just love being with people and I am blessed to have great guys to work with at Turner Scott Motorsports,” he said. “I love teaching people, and Jeb is doing a great job and he believes in me and I believe in him and we have a great line of communication between one another.”
Quiroga Raises Bar For Mexican Competitors
While winning races and championships is nothing new for three-time NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series champion German Quiroga Jr., Friday night’s third-place finish in the WinStar World Casino 400 at Texas Motor Speedway was a first. Quiroga became the highest finishing Mexican-born driver in NASCAR’s three national touring series.
Pedro Rodriguez, the late Formula One and sports car competitor, is the only other Mexican-born driver to post a top-five finish in one of NASCAR’s top three series when he finished fifth in Charlotte’s 1965 600-mile race in what’s now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
While podium finishes might be new for Quiroga in the United States, the Mexico City native has enjoyed success in the NASCAR sanctioned series in his home country.
He feels more and more comfortable after every start in the truck and enjoyed the solid performance last week in Texas.
“The No. 77 Net 10 Wireless Toyota Tundra was great,” Quiroga said. “I knew we were fast, we just need to work on pit strategy; I need to get better. Of course, we were very fast on the track and we gained the position we lost here.
“I’m very happy and very proud of the whole team and all the guys back at the shop. I’m looking forward to my first win for Mexico.”
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Father’s Day observed: After his Texas victory last week, Jeb Burton was joined by his Daytona 500-winning father Ward in Victory Lane. Among fathers and sons who have competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series are Jim and Johnny Sauter (as well as brothers Jay and Tim); Tommy Houston, who joined sons Andy and Marty for a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1999; and Bob Keselowski and son Brad, series driver and team owner. … The next race for the series is the June 27 UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway.
Trio Of Next Drivers Make A Statement
Michael Self, Ryan Preece and Cameron Hayley were part of the group of 13 drivers announced for this year’s NASCAR Next program. And the trio didn’t waste any time making a statement following Friday’s introduction at Iowa Speedway.
Self, coming off a win on the road course at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway, became the first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver to pick up the overall win in the combination event with the East at Iowa Friday night. The 22-year-old from Park City, Utah, then made it three in a row with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West win at Lebanon I-44 Speedway.
Preece, who was able to make Friday’s program when his scheduled race at Stafford rained out, flew back East and drove to the win in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Modified division race – the Richie Evans 100 – at Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway.
Preece tweeted after the race: “It’s really an honor to win the Evans @NASCARHall race, anytime Richie’s name is attached, it makes it really special.” #NASCARNext #NWAAS”
Preece’s good news continued Tuesday as it was announced he would make his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at New Hampshire Saturday, July 13.
While Hayley didn’t get a win, he picked up his second pole award of the season at Lebanon and led a race-high 91 laps on the high-banked .375-mile oval. While the 16-year-old missed out on the win after a late spin when he and teammate Greg Pursley went three-wide with Self for the win, his strong run showed his first NASCAR points win isn’t far off.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- Next Race: Quicken Loans 400
- The Place: Michigan International Speedway
- The Date: Sunday, June 16
- The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
- TV: TNT, 12 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 400 miles (200 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- Next Race: Alliance Truck Parts 250
- The Place: Michigan International Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, June 15
- The Time: 2:15 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ABC, 2 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 250 miles (125 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- Next Race: UNOH 225
- The Place: Kentucky Speedway
- The Date: Thursday, June 27
- The Time: 8 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 7:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 225 miles (150 laps)