Gordon Returns To Top 10; Next Stop…Victory Lane
One step forward, a heckuva lot more steps back. Until recently, that’s been the road map of Jeff Gordon’s 2013 season. For much of 2013, any signs of momentum have been quickly squashed by trouble and bad luck.
That ninth-place finish at Phoenix that catapulted him into the top 10 in points? It was followed by a 25th at Las Vegas and a 34th at Bristol. That third at Martinsville? The encore was a 38th at Texas. Another third at Darlington? After that, a 35th at Charlotte. And so on, and so forth.
But no more. Gordon has shed those stumbles of late, and finds himself back in the top 10 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings for the second time this season – and first since Phoenix. Comparatively, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have set up camp in the top 10 all season long. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been in the top 10 in points for all 20 races this season. Kasey Kahne has been ranked in the top 10 for 13 of the 20 weeks.
Gordon’s recent climb was built on consistency. He finished second at Sonoma, eighth at Kentucky, 10th at Loudon and seventh at Indy – that’s four top 10s in the last five races. He has chipped away at the deficit toward the top 10 necessary for a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth, climbing from 16th five races ago to his current position of 10th.
So after all that, what now? To paraphrase Jake Taylor, the captain of the Cleveland Indians in the classic movie Major League: “Well, then I guess there’s only one thing left to do. … Win the whole freakin’ thing.”
And it starts now. No one has more wins at Pocono than Jeff Gordon. No one has led more laps at Pocono than Jeff Gordon. Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway just might signal the start of Gordon’s victory march to Chicagoland Speedway, the host site of Chase Race No. 1.
Gordon has four top 10s in the last six races at Pocono – two of which were victories. He won this race last year (his sixth win overall at the Tricky Triangle) after starting 27th to become only the third driver to win at Pocono after starting outside the top 25.
And it shouldn’t stop at Pocono. Gordon has 24 wins and a driver rating of 97.3 at the remaining tracks in the Race to the Chase.
Bubble Boys: No One’s Safe Around The Top-10 Radius
Six drivers, eight championships, 180 wins – all separated by 12 points – all competing for one major goal: a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
A scant 12 points separate eighth-place Greg Biffle and 13th-place Brad Keselowski. The names between those two: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.
A spot in the top 10 is big, especially for those with wins in the “regular season” – something all those names have, with the exception of Keselowski and Gordon.
After race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway, the top 10 in points will make the Chase. Spots 11 and 12 will go to drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. Each Chase driver will have their points reset to 2,000, with three bonus points tacked on for each win during the regular season. One caveat – only the top 10 drivers get the bonus points. Wild Card contenders get shutout.
Three points could be the difference between a championship and runner-up. Famously, in 2011, Carl Edwards finished in a tie with Stewart for the title, but lost on a tie-breaker. One more win in the regular season would have made the difference.
Coincidently, since 2008, five of the six drivers mentioned above have won at Pocono (Truex has not).
With Indy In Rearview Mirror, Johnson Looks For Pocono Sweep
It’s doubtful that Jimmie Johnson has the bitter taste completely out of his mouth. A fifth victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was within his grasp, but all he left the Brickyard with was a runner-up finish and 73 laps led.
Oh, and an even larger points lead, which ballooned to 75 points over second-place Clint Bowyer.
And now Johnson heads to Pocono Raceway, a race track he completely dominated in June during the series’ first trip there. During that event, he led 128 laps and racked up a near-perfect driver rating of 148.1.
Pocono has now joined the likes of Charlotte, Martinsville, Dover, Auto Club and Phoenix among the tracks at which Johnson thrives – almost automatically. The win was his third overall. More recently, Johnson has four top fives in the last five races and six top 10s in the last seven.
He’ll look to become the first driver to sweep Pocono since Denny Hamlin did it as a Sunoco Rookie in 2006. Johnson accomplished the feat in 2004.
Right now, for all intents and purposes, winning is the only thing that matters for Johnson. That 75-point lead will evaporate once the Chase starts and the points are reset. He’s now looking for Chase bonus points
Johnson wants to clinch as early as possible, and it’s something that could happen as early as Watkins Glen in two weeks. Even with a Pocono win, Johnson cannot officially clinch this weekend. There exist mathematical possibilities where Johnson, Matt Kenseth and, say, Kyle Busch fall out of the top 10 and Johnson would be the odd man out of the Wild Card. So as unlikely as that is, it still won’t be official.
Jockeying For The Two Wild Card Spots Is Getting Wild
In six weeks the standings will be shuffled as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins the 10-week Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The top-10 drivers in points after the Richmond race will be locked in and receive bonus points for each win during the first 26 races, while drivers between 11th and 20th will need wins to claim the two Wild Card spots.
As the series heads to Pocono for the GoBowling.com 400, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. hold the provisional spots into the Chase. Stewart and Truex currently rank 11th and 12th, respectively, and both have wins this season. Stewart won at Dover, while Truex triumphed at Sonoma.
Ryan Newman is the only other driver between 11th and 20th with a victory, after winning at Indy on Sunday. He is 16th in the standings, only 20 points behind Truex. Brad Keselowski, who is currently one point behind Truex, is also in the running for a Wild Card spot; however, he first needs to win a race.
Of the four, only Truex has never won at Pocono. He has two top fives and five top 10s and finished 23rd in the June race. Stewart has experienced the most success with two wins (2003, 2009) to go along with 12 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. Newman also won in 2003 and has eight top fives and 11 top 10s. Stewart and Newman finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in June. Keselowski won the August 2011 race and has two top 10s. He finished 16th in his last trip to Pocono.
Earnhardt Needs Win To Protect Chase Birth
Although fifth place in the standings allows Dale Earnhardt Jr. a little bit of wiggle room to ensure that he makes the Chase, a win on Sunday at Pocono would definitely strengthen his case for the postseason and create even more breathing room.
Earnhardt is one of only three drivers currently in the top 10 without victories this season. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon are the other two.
In 26 races, Earnhardt has never won at Pocono, however, he has performed admirably there, especially in recent visits. He has four top-10 finishes in his last five race at the 2.5-mile triangular track, including a third-place showing in June.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Actor/comedian Dane Cook, who is the star of Disney’s new animated film, Planes, will serve as Grand Marshal on Sunday. A crop duster reflecting the design of Dusty, Cook’s character in the movie, will do the flyover. … If Kevin Harvick finishes in the top 10 on Sunday, it will be the 200th top-10 finish of his career. … The Pocono race will be Ryan Newman’s 425th start in the NSCS. He is currently 47th on the all-time series starts list.
Three Weeks, Three Different Point Leaders
Austin Dillon leads the NASCAR Nationwide Series points for the first time in his career – a somewhat surprising statement for a driver who threatens to win an almost weekly basis.
But it’s true. Austin Dillon used a 12th-place finish at Indy to move into the points lead for the first time, and becomes the third different leader in as many weeks.
Two races previous, Regan Smith held a slight five-point advantage over Sam Hornish Jr. with Dillon seven points further back. Then after a runner-up finish at Chicagoland the following weekend, Hornish leapfrogged over Smith to take a seven-point lead over Smith with Dillon eight points back.
It’s now Dillon’s turn to carry the banner as the series returns to Iowa Speedway for the U.S. Cellular 250 Presented by Enlist Weed Control System. He leads Smith and Elliott Sadler by six and 13 points, respectively. Hornish dropped to fourth in the points, one marker behind Sadler.
Dillon, who has four finishes in the top three but is still looking for his first win, returns the No. 3 Chevrolet to the points lead for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening race at Daytona in 2002. It’s been since 1999, however, that the No. 3 was atop the standings this late in the season. Earnhardt went on to win his second consecutive title later that season.
Could the same be in the cards for Austin Dillon? If Dillon is to keep his perch atop the standings for the remainder of the season, he’ll most likely need to add a victory or two to his resume. His past success at Iowa makes this weekend as good a time as any to make a mark in the wins column.
On his last trip to Iowa back in June, Dillon dominated the race by leading 207 of 250 laps, finishing second to Trevor Bayne. In five other series starts at the 0.88-mile track, Dillon has four top-15 finishes. Additionally, his last two visits to the track with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series resulted in a win and a runner-up finish.
Drive For Diversity Driver Gifford To Make National Series Debut
When Winchester, Tenn., native Ryan Gifford wakes up this Sunday morning he will be awaking after a night that he will never forget – a night where a dream was surely fulfilled.
On Saturday night, the 24-year-old NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver and current NASCAR Next member will make his NASCAR national series debut driving the No. 33 Menards/Rheem Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing in the NNS race at Iowa Speedway.
Gifford has competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East for the last five seasons and won his first race this past April at Richmond. In 48 series starts, he has compiled 15 top fives and 19 top 10s. He made his only career NASCAR K&N Pro Series West start in 2009 at Iowa where he finished sixth.
He has also driven a dirt late model for Team Dillon Racing, the team owned by Austin and Ty Dillon. In addition to his driving responsibilities, Gifford works in RCR’s shop.
NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate and current NASCAR Next member Kyle Larson is already proving he has the chops to compete in the series every week. He’s finished in the top 15 in each of the last 11 races, including a fifth-place performance at Iowa in June.
Kelley Knows Winning Combinationa At Iowa
Sometimes crew chiefs go unheralded despite their around-the-clock work and dedication to provide drivers with top-notch race cars and winning race strategies. It is well-known, however, that they are often the glue that holds a championship-caliber team together.
Just like drivers, crew chiefs have their favorite tracks… or at least tracks where they know the exact winning combination to lead their driver and race car to Victory Lane. One of those tracks for Roush Fenway Racing crew chief Mike Kelley is Iowa Speedway.
Over the past five NNS races at Iowa Speedway, Kelley’s drivers have captured four of the checkered flags. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won both trips to the 0.88-mile track in 2011, and then returned in May 2012 to seize his third consecutive victory there. Then earlier this season, Trevor Bayne drove the No. 6 Ford to Victory Lane.
Stenhouse finished fifth in the August race last year, keeping Kelley from being able to claim five consecutive wins at Iowa. Bayne did not compete in the race.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Michael Annett (Des Moines) and Joey Gase (Cedar Rapids) return to their home state this weekend for the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway. … Travis Sauter, whose uncles are Johnny and Jay Sauter, will make his national series debut this Saturday in the No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota. … Richard Harriman, who competed in four NCWTS races back in 2009, will make his NNS debut at Iowa, while a trio of drivers will make their track debut in the series: Brett Butler, Danny Efland and J.J. Yeley.
Coulter Eyes Pocono After Strong Run At Eldora
All season long Joey Coulter looked forward to the inaugural Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway. Coulter, who has experience on dirt tracks, knew he could have a chance to run well at the historic track and it showed last week in Ohio.
Although Coulter didn’t win the event at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, he was the highest-finishing NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular (fourth). Coulter, who also competed in the invitation-only Late Model event prior to the trucks hitting the track, strategically made his way through traffic and finished in the top five after starting 11th in the star-studded field.
The fourth-place showing was his best finish since a second at Kansas in April. It was also his second consecutive top-10 finish, and fourth this season for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The Miami Springs, Fla., native now sets his sights on Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, where he picked up his lone series win last year. Coulter moved up from his fourth-place starting position in last year’s race at Pocono and took the lead on lap 44 of the 50-lap event. The win came in his 36th career NCWTS start.
The Tricky Triangular suits Coulter’s driving style, as he finished sixth in his only other truck start at the Long Pond, Penn. track. Last week’s solid performance also moved Coulter up one spot in the points standings to 12th.
Pocono Feature Halfway Point Of Season
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ fourth visit to Pocono Raceway also marks the halfway point of the 2013 season.
Matt Crafton’s impressive streak of 10 top 10s in each of the first 10 races this season is still intact and his lead over Jeb Burton has grown to 48 points.
Crafton has used his consistency to propel him past teammate Johnny Sauter after the fourth race of the season and he hasn’t looked back since. Crafton also picked up his first series win since 2011 and became a father for the first time this spring – the only thing left for a personal trifecta would be his first NCWTS title.
One of the many drivers on his heels is Jeb Burton. Burton moved into second place in the standings after Charlotte and has remained behind Crafton ever since.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Two-time series champion Todd Bodine will return to action with a new team at Pocono, driving the No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet. Bodine began the season driving the No. 13 truck for ThorSport Racing scoring a pair of 11th-place finishes at Daytona and Martinsville, respectively. Bodine finished 18th in his most recent start at Texas Motor Speedway in June. Bodine will pilot the same No. 30 truck that Kyle Larson took to Victory Lane at Rockingham and finished second to Austin Dillon last week at Eldora Speedway. … Pennsylvania natives Todd Peck and Kyle Martel will attempt to make their first starts of the season at Pocono while Dominick Casola also returns to the series attempting to make his first start since 2010 at Talladega.
K&N Pro Series Heads To Iowa
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series returns to Iowa Speedway on Friday for the second East-West combination race of the season. NASCAR Next driver Dylan Kwasniewski has twice received credit for wins at Iowa. But both instances have left him without a chance to celebrate in Victory Lane. In the combination races at Iowa, the highest finisher from each series is credited with a win and first-place points, but only the driver that’s first to the finish line gets the trophy. Michael Self, also a participant in the NASCAR Next program, was the overall race winner in the season’s first combination event in June.
The NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour makes its annual visit to Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday. Series points leader George Brunnhoelzl III looks to make it four wins in a row after victories at South Boston (Va.) Speedway and two wins at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C. He is the defending race winner at Bowman Gray, notching his first victory at the historic quarter-mile track in 2012.
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour heads back to Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway on Friday for the third of four series events at the track. Justin Bonsignore collected his first win of the season in the last event on July 27 at Monadnock (N.H.) Speedway, edging out defending series champion Doug Coby. Points leader and NASCAR Next driver Ryan Preece won the tour’s last race at Stafford in May and is the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series SK Modified Division points leader at the track.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- Next Race: GoBowling.com 400
- The Place: Pocono Raceway
- The Date: Sunday, August 4
- The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN, 12 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- Next Race: U.S. Cellular 250 Presented by Enlist Weed Control System
- The Place: Iowa Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, August 3
- The Time: 8 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 218.75 miles (250 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- Next Race: Pocono Mountains 125
- The Place: Pocono Raceway
- The Date: Saturday, August 3
- The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 12:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 125 miles (50 laps)