Sunday, February 24, 2013

Johnson Wins Daytona 500, Patrick Makes History

 Originally written for CLNS Radio.

The 55th Annual Daytona 500 will always be remembered as the first points race with the new Gen 6 car, as well as the first race with Danica Patrick as a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver.  But Jimmie Johnson decided to make history of his own.  By winning the Daytona 500 he joined a list of drivers, one that includes Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dave Marcis, and Dale Earnhardt, who won in their 400th career starts.

Johnson celebrates his second Daytona 500 win (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Danica Patrick made history before the race even began when she became the first woman to win the pole for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, and she led Jeff Gordon and the rest of the field to the green flag to begin the Daytona 500. Heading through Turn 2, Gordon was able to get a side draft off of Patrick to take the lead.  Kevin Harvick was trying to make the inside line work, but for the first few laps the high line prevailed, with the top five cars running single file.  By lap six Harvick got the inside line working, and had worked his way up to third.  He was looking to challenge Gordon and Patrick for the lead, but he couldn't stay there and the inside line once again fell back.

By lap 12, the top nine cars had broken away from the pack and were running single-file.  After about two laps, however, the rest of the field caught up to the pack and the whole field began running single-file.  On lap 15, David Gilliland pulled his car onto pit road so his team could take a look at his engine.  He had fallen off the pace, and his engine sounded like it was down on power. 

On lap 20, Gordon began complaining of his engine temperature rising to above 240 degrees.  As he was leading, the field caught up to the lapped car of Joe Nemechek, and Gordon tried to use him to get the debris off of his car.  The closing speed was too great, however, and he couldn't get it off without having to give up the lead.  On lap 26, Gordon got the break he needed when a caution came out for debris on the backstretch.  Gordon led the field down pit road, and most of the teams took only two tires.  Gordon won the race off pit road, and was followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne.  Patrick, who came down pit road in second, came out in ninth place.

The race restarted on lap 31, and Gordon was able to keep the lead after restarting on the high side.  But heading through Turn 2, another Hendrick Motorsports driver, Jimmie Johnson, was trying to get the lead away from Gordon with help from Matt Kenseth.  Going through Turns 1 and 2 on lap 32, Johnson got a good run, and was he able to get around Gordon for the lead, and he brought Kenseth with him.  Coming through the trioval on lap 33, Kahne got turned by Kyle Busch in front of most of the field, and Kahne got turned into Juan Pablo Montoya.  The wreck also collected Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, and Kevin Harvick.

Stewart's wrecked race car is taken to the garage (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The race restarted on lap 37, and Johnson and Kenseth were able to pull ahead of Patrick to take first and second.  Coming through Turns 3 and 4, Kenseth jumped out of line and was looking to take the lead away from Johnson.  He lead the lap at the line, while he and Johnson were still side-by-side racing for the lead.  On lap 38, Kenseth was able to jump in front of Johnson to complete the pass.  On lap 40, the inside line, led by Clint Bowyer, was looking to take the lead from Kenseth, but he couldn't stay beside him and the inside line began falling back again. 

By lap 44, the lead pack had gotten single-file, with Kenseth still the leader.  On lap 54, Kenseth began to tell his team that he had a vibration, and it may have been a loose lug nut, which would be disastrous at Daytona.  Kenseth stayed out about ten laps, and the team decided that it wasn't a loose lug nut, so they stayed out until pit stops. 

On lap 70, rookie Austin Dillon pitted by himself, and then the next lap Keselowski and Mark Martin pitted.  On lap 72, a group of leaders that included Johnson, Patrick, and Gordon made their green-flag pit stops.  On lap 73, Kenseth brought the rest of the leaders down pit road.  While pitting, Kyle Busch's car fell off the jack, and he lost a lot of track position. 

After the round of pit stops, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were scored as the leaders, while Kenseth was third after pitting with the lead.  On lap 78, Danica Patrick, who fell back to eighth place after pit stops, began to complain of a vibration. 

Patrick drives en-route to a career best finish (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
On lap 85, the caution came out for debris in Turn 3.  Hamlin brought the field down pit road, and Patrick was able to win the race off pit road.  Patrick restarted second when the race went back green on lap 89.  Michael Waltrip didn't pit under the caution, and he was the leader.  But Patrick was able to get the lead, and pulled Clint Bowyer up into second place. 

On lap 92, Hamlin was able to pull up alongside Patrick heading into Turn 3, and he was able to take the lead with help from Kenseth.  On lap 93, Kenseth was able to pull ahead of his teammate to retake the lead.  By halfway the field had once again gotten into a single-file line as everyone was content to ride along and wait to make a move. 

On lap 123, Waltrip brought his car to pit road.  Waltrip had to pit before everyone else because he didn't pit during the lap 85 caution.  On lap 126, some of the leaders pitted, handing the lead over to Patrick.  On lap 129, Patrick brought her car down pit road, along with Johnson.  Gordon also came in, and he had fallen back due to his engine overheating.  After pit stops, Kenseth was able to regain the lead. 

The caution came out on lap 138 for a multi-car accident.  Keselowski got bumped from behind by Trevor Bayne when the field stacked up in front of them.  Keselowski was able to save his car, but Bayne spun down in front of Carl Edwards.  The wreck also collected Austin Dillon, Josh Wise, Terry Labonte, David Ragan, and David Gilliland.

The race restarted with 54 laps to go, and Kenseth was able to pull up in front of Hamlin to take the lead.  With 52 laps to go, Kenseth's car began smoking, and it looked like he had a tire rub.  But with 51 laps to go, Kenseth pulled out of line and he brought his car to pit road.  The team went under the hood, and diagnosed it as a drivetrain issue.  Kenseth took his car to the garage, ending his chance at a third Daytona 500 win.  With 48 laps to go, Kyle Busch, Kenseth's teammate, pulled onto pit road after his engine also blew up.

Kenseth's team looks at his engine after it blew up (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
While his teammates were blowing up, Denny Hamlin was the leader of a pack that was running single-file.  With 28 laps to go, most of the leaders pitted for what would be their final green flag pit stop.  The rest of the leaders pitted on the next lap, led onto pit road by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Regan Smith. 

With 25 laps to go, Martin Truex Jr. reported that his engine was blowing up.  Truex was the third Toyota driver using TRD engines to have a problem.  With 24 laps to go, Jeff Burton pounded the outside wall, bringing out the fifth caution.  The caution caught Scott Speed in the lead, as he was one of the only cars who had not pitted.  When Speed pitted under the caution, it handed the lead over to Brad Keselowski, who had been involved in the lap 33 accident.

The race restarted with 19 laps to go, and Keselowski was getting pushed by Greg Biffle down the backstretch, helping the first five cars of the outside line get past Johnson, who was on the bottom line.  With 17 laps to go, the inside line began to catch the leader, as Johnson was able to pull up alongside Gordon in fourth.  Johnson was able to pull up alongside Keselowski going into Turn 3 on lap 186, and he was able to lead the lap.  With 12 laps to go, the field started stacking up 3-wide behind the top six cars.  With 11 to go, Keselowski was able to pull ahead of Johnson, and he was by himself in the lead.

With 10 to go, Johnson began pulling up alongside Keselowski in Turn 2, but he was able to stay ahead of the 48 after a push from Biffle.  On lap 191, the sixth caution came out for debris in Turn 2, resetting the field. 

The race restarted on lap 194, and Johnson was able to pull ahead of Keselowski as the leader.  Johnson was getting pushed by Biffle, who was getting pushed by Patrick.  The top three cars were able to clear the bottom line, and they were trying to bring Earnhardt and Martin with them.  Keselowski was finally able to find a space in line, and he pulled in behind Martin in sixth. 

On the final lap, a wreck erupted in back of the pack in Turns 1 and 2, but the race stayed green.  Heading down the backstretch, Martin gave Earnhardt a huge push heading into Turn 3, but Johnson was able to pull down in front of them to block.  Johnson would cross the line first to win his second Daytona 500.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, and Mark Martin was third.

Brad Keselowski's battered Ford Fusion was able to finish fourth, and Ryan Newman finished fifth.  Greg Biffle was sixth, and Regan Smith was seventh.  Danica Patrick finished eighth, and became the highest-finishing woman in Daytona 500 history.  Michael McDowell finished ninth with Phil Parsons Racing, and J.J. Yeley finished tenth driving the No. 36 for Tommy Baldwin Racing.  Clint Bowyer finished 11th, and Denny Hamlin finished 14th.  Jeff Gordon fell behind late, and he finished 20th.  Michael Waltrip, running a Sandy Hook Elementary School Memorial paint scheme, finished 22nd.  Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch finished 33rd and 34th, respectively.  Kasey Kahne returned to the track after his accident, and he finished 36th.  Matt Kenseth finished 37th after leading 86 laps.  Tony Stewart was 41st and Kevin Harvick was 42nd. 

The Daytona 500 is in the books, and both Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick made history.  A new season has begun, and with it, it brings about change.  But some things never change, and Jimmie Johnson is once again atop the Sprint Cup Series standings.  Johnson hopes to continue his quest for a sixth Championship next week at Phoenix, where he always runs well.  The Subway Fresh Fit 500 will be next Sunday at 3 p.m., and can be seen only on FOX.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Harvick Dominates Sprint Unlimited

There were many unknowns heading into the Sprint Unlimited.  No one knew how the new Gen 6 cars would react in the draft, and no one knew how the race would play out after numerous fan votes would decide how the drivers raced.  There were also the debuts of Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth with their new teams, and many didn't know how those would play out.  But after the Sprint Unlimited, it was clear that everyone had a better understanding of how the new cars drive, and that Kevin Harvick will once again be strong at Daytona.

Harvick celebrates his Unlimited win (Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
The fans voted on the starting lineup, and Carl Edwards and Mark Martin were on the front row.  Due to a practice crash on Friday, both Edwards and Martin had to start from the back, so Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle led the field to the green flag.  Kahne got help heading into Turn 1 from Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. was lined up with Biffle.  Biffle was able to get out front on lap one, and Kahne was able to get behind him in second.  Truex, running on the outside line, was able to take the lead away from Biffle on lap four.  On lap five, Matt Kenseth, in his first race with Joe Gibbs Racing, was able to take the lead.

On lap 15, Tony Stewart cut down in front of Marcos Ambrose, and nearly spun out of control.  He saved it, but while other cars were checking up a big wreck erupted.  The wreck collected Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Mark Martin.  Kurt Busch also took his car to the garage.  For Martin, it was the second car he had wrecked in two days.  "Gosh, we didn't very far did we," Martin said.

This wreck on lap 15 ended the race for many would-be contenders (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Kenseth led Stewart and everyone else to the green flag on lap 20.  Stewart shot out to pull alongside Kenseth for the lead, but Kenseth was able to hold him off.  On lap 22, Biffle got a run coming off Turn 4 and he dove below his former teammate to take the lead.  He led the lap by a nose, but then Kevin Harvick was able to pull up to Kenseth's bumper to push him back to the lead. 

On lap 28, Stewart pulled alongside Kenseth, but he couldn't pass him for the lead.  On lap 30, Stewart took the lead, ending segment one.  The drivers had to make a four-tire stop, as voted on  by the fans.  Stewart led the field down pit road, but Harvick's team got him off pit road first. 

The race restarted with a 25-lap segment, and Harvick chose to restart on the outside line.  Stewart and Harvick fought side-by-side down the backstretch, but Stewart was able to pull ahead in Turns 3 and 4 to take the lead.  Harvick was able to pull alongside Stewart on the backstretch every lap, but he wasn't able to make the pass.  Finally, on lap 34, Harvick got a big push from Biffle to go to the lead.  Stewart lost his drafting help, and he fell to the back of the pack.

On lap 42, Stewart was able to work his way back to the front, but he wasn't able to get around Harvick for the lead.  Around lap 50, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made contact with Stewart, and Earnhardt fell to the back of the pack.  He quickly lost the draft due to the damage to the right-rear of his car after the contact with Stewart.

On lap 55, Harvick led the final lap of the second segment.  Harvick led the field down pit road, but this time the teams had no need to rush.  There was a 2-minute break, and NASCAR would line the cars up in the order they finished segment two.  The fans also had the ability to decide how many drivers would be eliminated at the end of the segment.  They chose not to eliminate anyone, but it wouldn't have mattered due to the big wreck on lap 15.

Harvick fights with Stewart for the lead (Nick Laham/Getty Images)
The race restarted with Harvick in the lead, and Stewart pushed Harvick ahead of Biffle, who restarted second.  Kenseth had a huge run coming through Turn 4 and pulled up alongside Harvick, but he wasn't able to complete the pass.  On lap 57, Kenseth got pushed by Biffle alongside Harvick again, but he still couldn't complete the pass.

With six laps to go, Harvick led Stewart and the rest of the field in a single-file line.  With four laps to go, Kenseth and Truex jumped out of line and tried to get to the front, but it didn't work and Truex jumped back into line.  After Kenseth jumped out of line, the top six cars broke away in a single-file line.  On the final lap, Joey Logano and Kenseth jumped out of line, and they tried to work their way to the front.  Stewart and Harvick jumped down in front, and then Harvick jumped back up to block Biffle coming on the high side.  Stewart jumped behind Biffle, and no one was able to get around Harvick to steal the win.  Harvick went on to win his third Sprint Unlimited. 

Greg Biffle finished second, and Joey Logano finished third in his first race with Penske Racing.  Tony Stewart finished fourth after running a strong race, and Matt Kenseth finished fifth after leading 26 laps early in the race.  Aric Almirola was sixth, Kasey Kahne was seventh, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was eighth.  Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the Top 10.  Marcos Ambrose finished 11th, and was followed by Carl Edwards in 12th.  Kurt Busch took his car to the garage after the accident on lap 15, and finished 13th.  After wrecking early, Jimmie Johnson was 14th, Denny Hamlin was 15th, Kyle Busch was 16th, Jeff Gordon was 17th, and Mark Martin was 18th.  Terry Labonte took his car to the garage on lap 2, and finished 19th.

The Sprint Unlimited is always a good kick-off to the Sprint Cup season, and now it is time for the big show.  Sunday is Daytona 500 qualifying at 1 p.m. on FOX, and Thursday is the twin qualifying races for the Daytona 500 on SPEED, starting at 2 p.m.  Then, Sunday, February 24, the Daytona 500 can be seen at 1 p.m., only on FOX.  All I can say is, I'm excited for a new NASCAR season!

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2013 Chase Predictions

Saturday is the Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Budweiser Shootout), and that means the 2013 Sprint Cup Season is about to begin!  But before it does, it's that time of year where everyone puts their money where their mouth is, and makes themselves look like idiots when the Chase rolls around.  So here are my 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup predictions!

1. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin was strong last year, and was in the championship hunt until he had some mechanical issues late in the Chase.  I look for Hamlin to rebound this season, and finally win his first Sprint Cup Championship.

Hamlin earlier this winter at Daytona Testing. (Courtesy SPEED)
2. Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne was strong last season.  If not for a dreadful first couple weeks of the season, he may have been in championship contention when the field was set after Richmond.  I think Kahne will have a strong start to the season, and he'll prove that he belongs at Hendrick Motorsports.

3. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson will be strong yet again this season.  He and crew chief Chad Knaus will be strong early in the season when they figure out the new Gen 6 car, but the rest of the field will catch up by the time the Chase rolls around.  Johnson will be a part of another great championship fight, but he'll fall short of his sixth Spring Cup title.

Johnson at Charlotte testing earlier this year (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
4. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Champion will have another great season in 2013.  But with his team switching to Ford, along with the Gen 6 car, Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing will not be able to find the same magic that led them to a Sprint Cup Championship.

5. Kyle Busch
If it wasn't for a season filled with bad luck, Kyle Busch may have been a championship contender last year.  Instead, he was mired back in 13th place in the standings, not even a part of the title fight.  This year, Busch's team will get their ship turned around, and they'll be strong throughout the season.

6. Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer surprised everyone last season when he and Michael Waltrip Racing made the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Bowyer finished second to Keselowski last season, but he won't be able to do it again.  He'll get a few wins this season, but his team will have trouble getting acclimated to the Gen 6 car.

7. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon will have a decent season this year.  He'll get a few wins, but he will be nowhere near where he was when he won his four championships.  Gordon's best days are behind him.

8. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth will have a new team this year, and he will help take the No. 20 team back in the Chase.  He won't be as strong as he was at Roush-Fenway Racing, but he'll have a multi-win season, something that the 20 team hasn't seen in a long time.

9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The defending Nationwide Series Champion will surprise everyone in his rookie season by making the Chase.  The switch to the Gen 6 car will help Ricky Stenhouse Jr. acclimate to the Sprint Cup Series faster, and he should pick up a few wins and easily win Rookie of the Year.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR's Most Popular Drive will get at least one win this season.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be strong during the season, but when the Chase comes around, he'll run into problems again, and he will round out the Top 10.

Edwards' car during the Sprint Cup Media Tour (Courtesy SPEED)
11. Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards had a nine-win season in 2008.  Since then, he has only had four wins in NASCAR's top series, and he hasn't won a race since 2011.  This will continue to plague Edwards this year.  He will return to victory lane, but it won't be enough to hang with the title contenders.

12. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart will have a more consistent season this year.  He will win a few races, but he will struggle to run in the Top 10 the rest of the time.  And with Danica Patrick joining Stewart-Haas full-time in 2013, Stewart's focus won't be completely on the No. 14 team.

If you don't agree with my picks, that's okay.  I'll probably look like an idiot in September and an even bigger idiot once the Chase is over in November.  Let me know who you would have on your list by commenting below or letting me know on Twitter.