Sprint Cup Series News (8036)
If Kevin Harvick truly is one of the heavy favorites to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, he’s going to have to prove it on Sunday.
Fighting a loose handling car during Friday’s time trials, Harvick brushed the wall at Martinsville Speedway and qualified 33rd. Starting that deep in the field for Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 presents a litany of complications for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
With the 33rd pick of a pit box, Harvick won’t have a stall that will lend itself to making up ground under yellow. Starting that close to the rear of the field in the first event of the Chase’s Eliminator Round, Harvick will have to tax his equipment to keep from getting lapped.
“You start back there, and it’s tough for a lot of reasons,” said second-place starter Joey Logano, when asked to describe the problems Harvick will face. “Obviously, the leaders are going to be there in a second, so you’ve got to go pretty hard. But, really, when you’re that far back, the line checks up so much… the inside lane just keeps checking up a lot into the corners and you can shove the nose in pretty quick there and really be trying to take care of yourself, and the next thing you know, you’re in the back of a car.
“So I think that will probably be something you’ve got to be aware, and obviously guys fighting to the bottom and the sense of urgency back there is very high, so you’re not really saving any tires because you’ve got to go. If it’s a long run, that’s where you can get in trouble pretty quick--if it’s a long green flag run on the first run. I’ve been there before. That’s how I know.”
All that said, the main things mitigating against Harvick are history and statistics. Only once in the annals of the legendary .526-mile track, over the course of 131 races, has a driver won a Cup race from a starting position outside the top 24.
That was in 2002, when Kurt Busch collected the first of his two Martinsville wins from 36th on the grid.
The good news is that Harvick was fifth fastest in race trim during Saturday morning’s Sprint Cup practice session and fastest during Happy Hour.
The bad news is that he has a lot of cars to pass on Sunday.
Now that the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has entered the Eliminator Round, with the number of drivers eligible for the championship to be cut from eight to four after the Nov. 9 race at Phoenix, Denny Hamlin’s attitude has shifted to all-out aggressive.
“You have to have all the pieces together, now that you’re part of the final eight, because the four that move on will be the four that stand out, I think, in this round,” Hamlin said.
“It’s not going to be about surviving or backing your way (in). I don’t think anybody other than the race winners (at Martinsville and Texas) will be going into Phoenix thinking, ‘OK, let’s just have a solid week here and move on to Homestead.’ There’s no more hanging back and trying to be conservative from here on out. You’ve got to be fast.”
A four-time winner at Martinsville in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Hamlin is the only non-Chevrolet driver to take a checkered flag at NASCAR’s shortest Cup venue since the spring race of 2004.
And Hamlin showed excellent speed in Friday’s qualifying session. He’ll start fifth in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 on Sunday.
Chase drivers occupied four of the top 10 spots in Saturday’s final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice session at Martinsville, with Kevin Harvick topping the speed chart at 97.322. Brad Keselowski was third fastest, with Jeff Gordon fifth and Joey Logano ninth.
Gordon paced the field in average speed over 10 consecutive laps, running 96.550 mph to edge Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
After Happy Hour, championship contender Carl Edwards has cause for concern. Edwards’ No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was 33rd fastest in single-lap speed and 32nd quickest in 10-lap average, neither a good omen for the first race in the Eliminator Round of the Chase on Sunday.
Edwards will start 11th in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, but he’ll need to find more speed to hold that position at a track that hasn’t been particularly kind to him in the past.
When the green flag waves to start the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), it won’t be a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who leads the field to the start/finish line.
Touring the .526-mile short track in 18.954 seconds (99.905 mph) in his No. 1 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Jamie McMurray upstaged the championship contenders on Friday in winning the pole for the first race in the Eliminator Round of the Chase.
In claiming his second Coors Light pole award of the season, his second at Martinsville and the 11th of his career, McMurray beat title contenders Joey Logano (99.605 mph) and Matt Kenseth (99.318 mph) for the top spot.
Tony Stewart (99.297 mph) qualified fourth, followed by Chase driver Denny Hamlin (99.266 mph). Six of the eight eligible remaining Chase drivers qualified in the top 12. Brad Keselowski will start sixth, Ryan Newman ninth and Carl Edwards 11th.
In McMurray’s case, practice made perfect. His pole followed a productive recent test session at the historic short track.
“We tested here a couple of weeks ago, and I thought we had one of the best tests that I’ve been a part of, really since I started racing,” McMurray said. “Really well organized… We made the car better throughout the test and hit on a couple things that really had a lot of speed in it.
“So I was pretty excited about getting here this weekend. Our cars have been so quick the past two or three months—really all year, but more so in the past few months. This is a great track for me, and we had a really good test. When things are going well, you get excited to come back to the track. It was really great that we were able to take that test and use that toward earning the pole today.”
Jeff Gordon, one of the pre-race favorites, narrowly missed advancing to the second round of knockout qualifying and will start 13th. The real casualty of Friday’s time trials, however, was Kevin Harvick, who scraped the wall in the 30-minute first round and will start 33rd.
“We just missed it today,” said Harvick, whose career-average finish of 15.8 at Martinsville is worst among the eight remaining Chase drivers. “We were way too loose. We struggled in practice and just missed it in qualifying.
“We’ll just have to get it better (in Saturday’s practice) and be ready to go on Sunday.”
Gordon, who missed advancing to the second round by .003 seconds, shrugged off his position on the grid.
“I don’t mind starting 13th,” he said. “It’s not a bad place to start. You just want that really good pit stall, and so we’ll definitely suffer with a pit stall a little bit.
“But we can definitely still win it from there. Our car is really good.”
Now that he’s eliminated from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship picture, Jimmie Johnson plans to spend as much time as possible working on his effort for 2015.
On several occasions, including Friday at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson has referred to likely changes on his team next year.
“This does open up an opportunity for us to work on ’15 from a personnel standpoint and even from a 2015 test plan,” Johnson said before opening practice, in preparation for Sunday’s race (1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).
But Johnson made clear that, as far as he’s concerned, potential changes to the No. 48 team do not include crew chief Chad Knaus. The six-time champion did concede, however, that the day will come when Knaus is no longer on his pit box.
“Yeah, that day is out there,” Johnson said. “I think a crew chief’s lifespan is much shorter than a driver’s. They live in dog years, and drivers can carry on much longer. I’ve been accused of being loyal to a fault in the past—that’s me. I have no plans or desires to make a change. When Chad decides he’s had enough of being the guy on the box, it will be his decision to step down.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve made it 13 years in this thing. I want to see it go as long as it can. We’re honest with each other and know each other well enough to work through the bad times.
In what has been a difficult year for Johnson, despite his three victories, radio chatter between the driver and crew chief has been strained on occasion, to say the least.
“It might not be pretty, and I’m sure you guys have heard things on the radio that got your attention,” Johnson said. “We’re like family, and we fight like family. We can call each other out on that stuff, and you only hear a piece of it on the radio.
“There is plenty more that goes on behind closed doors and in meetings. It’s more of a time frame of when Chad says, ‘I’ve put in my time here as crew chief, and I need to slow down a little bit.’”
But until that day comes, Johnson won’t be pushing for a change.
Though she has shown obvious progress in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year with Tony Gibson on her pit box, Danica Patrick on Friday expressed an open-minded attitude toward the crew chief and team changes that will take Gibson to Kurt Busch’s car and Daniel Knost, Busch’s current crew chief, to Patrick’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, effective after Sunday’s race at Martinsville.
Gibson is an old-school racer who worked as car chief on championship teams of Alan Kulwicki and Jeff Gordon and as crew chief for Steve Park, Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman before taking over as pit boss of Patrick’s car near the end of the 2012 season.
Knost is an engineer, more typical of the background of crew chiefs Patrick worked with in the IndyCar Series before transitioning to NASCAR racing. So does the change reflect a move Patrick felt she needed to take to sustain her progress in the sport?
“I’m not sure,” Patrick reflected. “I think that things had started to definitely take a nice turn in a better direction the last part of the year, and so I was open-minded to anything. Like I said, ultimately, at the end of the day, these decisions are not made by me, so I feel like things have been going in a nice direction, but, again, there’s a bigger scale of things going on than just me.
“So the rearranging took place, but I’m very open-minded, and I’m not scared of change. I definitely am one that believes you can’t know if something could be better unless you try it. So I’m ready for the challenge and the change and the possibility of it being better than what it is.
“I am afraid of changing my hairstyle, though—I have never done that.”
Asked how he felt about advancing to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Matt Kenseth summed it up in one word during Friday morning’s question-and-answer session at Martinsville Speedway.
“Good,” Kenseth said, and that was it.
“Could you elaborate on that?” asked the moderator.
“Great,” Kenseth deadpanned, then smiled broadly.
That Kenseth made it to the final eight in the Chase is something of a surprise, given that the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hasn’t won a race this year.
But with a spot in the final four on the line, Kenseth would like nothing better than to break his drought on Sunday at the .526-mile short track, where he matched his career-best finish with a second-place run in last year’s Chase race.
“To be able to win at Martinsville, especially the way it was my first however many years coming up here, would definitely be a career highlight,” Kenseth said. “Honestly—which none of us is this lucky—but if you got handed a menu before the season started, winning a race at Martinsville would be in my top two or three wishes, for sure.
“That would certainly be a career highlight. I haven't been real close to winning here except for last fall. We had a pretty good shot. We just had too long of a run at the end there and Jeff (Gordon) got by me. Certainly that's something I want to do.”
Of course, there’s an added incentive this year. A victory in any of the next three races, at Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix, guarantees the right to race for the Cup title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It may seem strong talk from a driver who has only one win this season – but now that he has advanced to the Eliminator 8 Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Denny Hamlin said he figures his chances of winning it all are as good as anyone’s.
“I believe we have all the tools necessary,” Hamlin said of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota team Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where the eight drivers remaining in the hunt for the 2014 championship gathered to speak with the media.
Not only that, but Hamlin likes where the Sprint Cup Series is headed for the three races of the Eliminator Round. He owns a total of seven career wins at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, and would need to add only one more to secure advancement into the final winner-take-all championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he has won twice. That includes his win there in last year’s final race.
Of the seven career victories he owns at the next three venues, five have come at .526-mile Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin’s average finish in 17 career starts at the track is 8.8 – second only to Jeff Gordon’s career average finish of 7.0 among the drivers left in this Chase.
“There is no reason we can’t be as competitive as these seven guys we’re racing against over these last four races,” said Hamlin, whose lone victory so far this season came at Talladega in the spring. “And truth be told, if you asked me where I would like to run one race, heads-up for the championship, I would pick either Martinsville or Homestead.
“I almost would pick Homestead, because we’ve had a lot of success there over the last few years. No one saw us coming there last year. We had been running 15th every week, and then we went out and won Homestead. It’s hard to pinpoint favorites and underdogs at this point, because there are so many variables. Plus we go to two of these short tracks (including the one-mile venue at Phoenix), where speed is not that big of a factor.”
Matching the speed of the Team Penske Fords and the Chevrolets fielded by Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing at the bigger tracks has been a problem for Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates much of this season. Hamlin said he realizes that may come into play at 1.5-mile Homestead – but again, that’s a track he likes and has performed well on in the past, and he just wants to make it there still alive in the Chase.
Earning a sixth career win at Martinsville this Sunday would do the trick. Despite finishing a disappointing – and uncharacteristic – 19th there in the spring race after he qualified second, Hamlin said he is very confident.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Hamlin said. “As average as our team has been in general this year, when we go into a short track where horsepower doesn’t matter, aero doesn’t matter – and it’s about the driver and mechanical setups – I feel like those are our strong suits.
“As bad as we ran there in the spring, you can’t compare it to the fall. There was no practice in the spring. We went to a race track and tested for Martinsville a week after the spring race – for this race right here. I think I’ve got three or four true days testing on a race track just for this Martinsville and trying to perform well in this particular race, knowing this is a great shot for us. If we can win here, we’ll get that shot at Homestead that I feel ultra-confident in.”
Hamlin said JGR found a track in Sandusky, Ohio, that resembles Martinsville – and since it’s a non-NASCAR-sanctioned track, they could test there as much as they wanted this season. Next season, NASCAR is doing away with testing at all tracks for individual teams.
“Normally I wouldn’t give that information away, but there’s no more testing now,” Hamlin said. He knows he almost didn’t make it this far in the Chase. He spent most of last Sunday’s Talladega race riding around toward the back, trying to avoid trouble. He narrowly did so and then still found himself in jeopardy of being one of the four drivers eliminated when Brad Keselowski, who needed to win to advance, did just that.
In the end, Hamlin’s 18th-place finish was good enough to put him in the next round with seven points to spare.
Claiming his last couple laps at Talladega were the most nerve-racking of his life, four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon survived the unpredictable Alabama track to move on to the eight-driver Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and continue his drive for five titles.
“It goes to show just how intense this is and how much this format has changed your mindset,” said Gordon, a 23-year NSCS veteran with 757 starts to his credit. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous through a race weekend than this past weekend. I’m kind of glad we experienced that. I’m glad we survived it.”
This weekend, the 43-year-old travels to a more welcoming site in the hunt for his elusive fifth title – Martinsville Speedway. Gordon, along with the other seven remaining Chase contenders – Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin - will be on equal ground as their points were reset to 4,000 following Talladega. A first-place finish in any of the next three races would automatically advance a member of the Eliminator 8 to the Championship Round race at Homestead.
Piloting the No. 24 AARP Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Gordon will go for his ninth victory at the .526-mile oval in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 (1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). He currently ranks tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for its wins lead among active drivers.
“My goal this whole year when I knew we had fast race cars and a shot at the championship was to get through this last (Contender) Round and to make it through to this (Eliminator) Round,” Gordon said. “This to me is where we’re going to shine. There’s such a very realistic chance for us to not only win a couple of these races coming up, but seriously get ourselves to Homestead with a real shot at winning this thing.”
At Martinsville, Gordon will have to contend with fellow championship-qualifying driver and track ace Hamlin. The No. 11 FedEx Toyota pilot boasts four wins at the Virginia track and claims the third-best average running position (9.0) and driver rating (109.6) there. He stated during Eliminator Media Day he would pick either Martinsville or Homestead to run “one race, heads-up for the championship.”
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Hamlin said. “As average as our team has been in general this year, when we go into a short track where horsepower doesn’t matter, aero doesn’t matter – and it’s about the driver and mechanical setups – I feel like those are our strong suits.”