The Chase for the Sprint Cup is approaching. Jimmie Johnson, the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, is searching for consistency.
Johnson is coming off of three straight rough races. After recording back-to-back 42nd-place finishes, the No. 48 team finished 14th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, it is not the first time that the Hendrick Motorsports crew has struggled at this point in the season. Entering the Chase last year, Johnson had three consecutive events of 28th or worse – spanning from Bristol until Richmond. In the past, the same thing has happened to the team nearly every year.
“It’s no secret that the middle portion of the year has always been a challenge for the No. 48 team. At the start of the season and end of the season – a lot of those tracks are the same venues that we go to. The Chase era has been an advantage for us. The summer stretch has just been tough for us – it always has been. There have been years where we make it through similar than others, but this year – we have been as inconsistent as any other performance,” Johnson said on Friday morning.
“We want to stop that and start here with a very smooth weekend and successful weekend, and carry on to the Glen. Bristol is out there. That is a tough track for us. There are still a few challenges ahead, but literally – when the Chase starts – we roll into our 10 best tracks. We’ll try to maintain sanity until then. Obviously, we have to keep progressing our cars.”
The No. 48 Chevrolet has been known to have a rough stretch during the summer months, yet this year seems to be more consistent than year’s past. Through 20 events, his average finish is 13.9. Although that ranks sixth in the Cup Series, it is below his career-worst average finish of 13.6 in his rookie season back in 2002.
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, is attempting to lead the team back to championship form. But before they do that – the inconsistency must dissolve. The team has 12 top-10s this year, but six finishes of 23rd or worse.
“We are not running as well as we need to. I think everybody knows that. We have had some struggles this year. We’ve won a few races, which is great. But on a consistent level we are not as fast as what we want to be. Quite honestly I don’t think anybody is,” Knaus said.
“Well nothing matters leading into the Chase, it’s what happens once you get into the Chase obviously. Look momentum is a great thing. We all understand that. Momentum on your side is always good; it’s always good to have the sun on your face and the wind in your sails. Let’s be honest because everyone is always happier. But the fact of the matter is you can overcome anything if you have the right tools. That is what we are fighting for right now to make sure that when we show up in Chicago, Loudon and all those races that we have the proper race cars.”
On Sunday morning, just hours before the Brickyard 400, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Carl Edwards’ departure from the organization. Edwards’ story is well known. He snuck into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage area to hand out business cards, and after racing for the Mittler Brothers, Cousin Carl caught the eyes of Jack Roush.
Over the past several seasons, the team’s performance has depreciated, and it has shown since Edwards finished second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings in 2011. With Edwards departing the only team he has known in NASCAR’s top-tier division, Roush has to move on – whether they want to or not.
“We made him an offer, but I believe his decision was not based on – NASCAR racing, Cup racing is a big-time sports entertainment thing today. Like football and baseball and basketball, athletes move around. We wish it wouldn’t happen, but there’s curiosity about what another team’s situation would look like and I think that although I shouldn’t speculate, I think Carl wanted to try something different before he saw his career get in its middle term and its final years,” Roush said on Sunday morning.
Replacing Edwards will be Trevor Bayne – the 2011 Daytona 500 winner. Bayne has struggled with his health over the past several years, and announced late last season that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – a disease that disrupts the nervous system. Fortunately, the 23-year-old doesn’t have any serious symptoms of the disease, and it will not have an effect on his career. He’s been racing on a part-time schedule for the Wood Brothers – a Roush satellite team, but with Advocare moving up the ranks with him, Bayne will be able to race full-time at NASCAR’s top division.
This will leave Greg Biffle as the team’s lead driver. Biffle has struggled on a higher level compared to Edwards this year. He has just five top-10s along with a pair of top-fives. With 3M likely resigning as Biffle’s primary sponsor, Roush does have some long-term security. However, as a 44-year-old, he might be nearing the end of his prime.
“It doesn’t look different than when Mark Martin stepped away and we were left with Greg and Carl to go forward. We’ve been in this business, as I said, for 27 years counting and we have made it our habit, our practice, our preference to bring drivers in,” Roush said. “We’ve brought in 23 drivers that had never been part of NASCAR before and 19 of them are still in this sport and 17 of them have won races, so we’re pretty much on time. We may have more rookies, but Ricky and Trevor and Greg are gonna be great. I’m real excited about that for next year and not less excited than I’ve been at any time in the past.”
“Certainly the focus of our leadership is gonna be with Greg Biffle and the things that he does with the race car and the leadership he provides for the engineering initiatives we take. We had that split with Carl and Greg together this year, so that will be a little different next year, but Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) is ready to step up.”
Now, Stenhouse will be the team’s No. 2 driver. Like Biffle, he has struggled this year as well. In a season in which he has been reunited with Mike Kelley – the same crew chief that led him to two Nationwide Series titles, the sophomore driver has four top-10s, but sits 27th in points. However, the team has faith in him – just like they did with Edwards and Biffle over a decade ago.
Roush has certainly struggled with consistency this season. Their strength has moved away from the intermediate tracks, and is slowly reeling towards the short tracks – the minority of the schedule. Edwards has been the team’s lead driver since Matt Kenseth made the move to join Joe Gibbs Racing after the completion of the 2012 season. However, neither Edwards nor Biffle have been able to step up to the plate. Although he has to wins this year, the 34-year-old has struggled, and he understands that.
"Right now, the mission is to win this championship, this race. This is my decision. It's a decision I made, and I didn't take it lightly,” Edwards said. “Sometimes you just want to make a change, and opportunities present themselves and you say, 'Hey, what was that like to not take that opportunity?'"
It is likely that Edwards will be joining Joe Gibbs Racing – a Toyota organization – in a fourth vehicle. The team has run a fourth car in the past with David Gilliland and Joey Logano in 2008, as well as Elliott Sadler in select races last season. However, they have never run a fourth car on a full-time basis after starting the No. 11 team with Jason Leffler in 2005 before Denny Hamlin took the reins of that car.
As he stated, Edwards’ deal has been completed with another organization. Although he did not admit to signing the Missouri-native, team owner Joe Gibbs, admitted to having discussions to start a fourth team. If this were to happen, Edwards would be driving a non-Ford owned car for only the second time in his career. The lone occasion which he didn’t race a car with the blue oval on the nose was in 2002 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Gateway with Fred Bickford where he raced a Chevrolet.
“Carl Edwards has been a part of the Ford family for a decade, and it will certainly be tough to see him leave Ford and Roush Fenway Racing. During Carl’s time with Roush, he has represented Ford Motor Company with the utmost class, both on and off the track. We at Ford Racing did everything to facilitate keeping Carl a part of the Ford Racing & Roush Fenway family, but in the end that option did not come to fruition,” said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing.
For the future, Roush does have some promising drivers moving up the ranks. Chris Buescher, winner of the 2012 ARCA Series title, is racing the team’s No. 60 car in the Nationwide Series, and sits seventh in points. Buescher is a candidate for Bayne’s part-time ride at the Wood Brothers and would be the ideal scenario for both sides. However, Ryan Reed is also in the Nationwide Series. Reed has struggled slightly more than Buescher, but is starting to gain momentum after being labeled one of the series’ most frequent crashers earlier in the year.
The Roulo Brothers team in the ARCA Series – Roush’s satellite team in that division, has Kyle Benjamin and Kyle Weatherman in their stable as well. They are expected to move up the ranks like Buescher and Reed over the next few years – giving Roush some stability for the future.
“Our goal when we bring drivers up through the system is to retain them – to have them start with us, to win championships and then to retire with us, so this is all part of the process. I think if you talk to Greg and Jack they would tell you that they have some unfinished business. They set out a while ago to be the first tandem to win the Truck, the Nationwide and the Cup championship,” said Steve Newmark, President of Roush Fenway Racing. “It’s always disappointing when you lose a driver that you bring up through the organization. I think everyone is aware that we pride ourselves on being a driver development program. It’s in our DNA and our heritage.”
It’s been since August 8, 2004. The journey to return back to Victory Lane at the most famous track in motorsports history has finally concluded for one Indiana man.
20 years ago, Jeff Gordon took his rainbow-soaked No. 24 Chevrolet to the winner’s circle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for NASCAR’s inaugural race at the speedway. On Sunday afternoon, Gordon drove his No. 24 Chevrolet back to Victory Lane at the yard of bricks for the fifth time in the 21st running of the Brickyard 400.
Scoring his 90th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, Gordon tied Formula 1 driver, Michael Schumacher, for the most wins at Indianapolis with five triumphs. His last Brickyard 400 victory came in 2004 where he dominated the race – holding off Dale Jarrett to get his fourth win at the track.
“This team came prepared. That was an awesome Axalta Chevy SS, and we had so much support. With five (laps) to go I was trying to look up in the grandstands, but it is the biggest race in my opinion. I know the Daytona 500 is a big race, but to me personally, this race means so much because of the fans. Because of the history of this track, but I couldn't help it,” he said on his historic victory.
Although he did not lead the most laps, the 42-year-old arguably had the fastest car throughout the 400-mile event. In the 21st running of this event, Gordon had to pass his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, for on a late-race restart after the caution came out for Ryan Truex – who was off the pace on the apron of the race track. During the restart, Gordon passed Kahne on the high line, and set sail after that.
“I’m not very good on restarts and wasn’t very good today. I finally made the restart of my life today when it counted most. I knew we had a great race car. We just needed to get out front. Kasey (Kahne) kind of hung back and I kind of got a little ahead of him and I had to back up and was able to stay on his quarter panel and once we got down into (Turns) 1 and 2, I could hear him get loose. I was kind of glad he took the inside because I really wanted the outside,” Gordon said after the race.
Kahne dropped to the fifth position after getting passed by the three Joe Gibbs Racing cars, and then Joey Logano took a top-five away from the man that led a race-high 70 laps.
“I think we finished where we deserved to finish, we just need more speed in our car.” A GOOD RUN. “That’s about what we ran all day is where we finished. The guys did a good job. We got this thing better from the way we unloaded. We weren’t very good to start off this weekend, but every time we went out for practice or went on the race track we got a little bit better – through practice, through qualifying and even the race,” Logano said.
Kyle Busch used pit strategy to his advantage to come home in the second position, yet slipped over two seconds behind Gordon after the restart. This was Busch’s second runner-up finish at Indianapolis in two of the last three races at the 2.5-mile circuit. Throughout the day, he was racing outside of the top-10, but came on strong as his team took advantage of the multiple green-flag pit stops which took place in the first half of the race.
Busch was followed by his JGR teammates, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth – providing a solid day for the Toyota organization. However, since Toyota entered the Sprint Cup Series in 2007, they have yet to record a victory at Indianapolis.
During the race, there was talk of rain in the area. Following the competition caution on Lap 20, multiple drivers were reporting rain in certain areas on the track. However, after a few minutes of drizzling on the speedway, the rain diffused and the drivers were able to focus on the racing. But because of the speculation that rain was surrounding the track, there were several different strategies on the day – providing an added level of excitement for a race that many presumed would be the polar opposite.
Entering the Brickyard 400, pole sitter Kevin Harvick was labeled as the favorite to win the event. Moreover, after starting out the race with the lead, he was passed by Gordon after the two roared by the start/finish line to begin the second lap of the day. Harvick led 12 laps in Sunday’s spectacle, and sits 12th in points after finishing in the eighth position at Indianapolis.
Here are some notables from the Brickyard 400:
- Austin Dillon earned his third top-10 finish of 2014. This is Dillon’s first career top-10 at a non-restrictor plate track in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition. He currently holds the final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup as he sits 14th in points.
- Jimmie Johnson came home in the 14th spot after coming off of back-to-back 42nd-place finishes.
- Carl Edwards finished 15th in the Brickyard 400. Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush announced on Sunday morning that they will be parting ways at the conclusion of the season.
- A.J. Allmendinger finished 17th on Sunday. Allmendinger struggled with the handling on his No. 47 Chevrolet. He started the race in the 36th position, and steadily worked his way through the field. With his top-20 finish, Allmendinger gained three spots in the standings and sits 23rd in points.
- Juan Pablo Montoya earned a 23rd-place finish in his return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a stock car. Montoya won at Pocono Raceway a few weeks ago in the Verizon IndyCar Series while driving for Team Penske. This was his second of a pair of scheduled starts at NASCAR’s top-tier division for the 2014 season. He currently sits fifth in the IndyCar Series standings.
- Danica Patrick was racing inside of the top-15 when she broke the right rear axle on her No. 10 Chevrolet. Patrick finished in the 42nd position after bringing her car into Gasoline Alley following a burst of smoke billowing out from her car on pit road.
- Trevor Bayne finished 43rd for the first time in his young career. During the same announcement about Edwards departing RFR, Roush stated his faith in Bayne piloting the No. 6 Ford on a full-time basis in 2015 with funding from Advocare – his sponsor in the Nationwide Series.
Kevin Harvick is quite happy once again. The 25-time winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shattered Ryan Newman’s track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by setting a time of 47.647 seconds to win his 10th career pole.
By setting the quickest time, Harvick has broken the 14th track record this year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in what will be the 20th event of the season. This will be the second time in 14 starts at the yard of bricks in which the California-native will lead the field to the green flag. In 2003, he won the pole for the Brickyard 400, and also won the race after pacing the field for 33 laps.
“After the first lap I was probably more nervous than I have been in a while for qualifying. I wasn’t really expecting to have the car run that fast. From there they are all looking at you ‘alright if you screw this up it’s on you buddy’. It’s great to have fast cars they do a great job preparing the cars and just being able to come to the race track and know the cars are going to be fast takes a huge burden off of everybody’s shoulders just to get the balance right," Harvick said.
Jeff Gordon, the inaugural winner of the Brickyard 400 in 1994, will start in the runner-up position after coming up .178 seconds off of Harvick’s time in the final round of qualifying. Gordon was the second quickest car in each of the three rounds behind the No. 4 Chevrolet, and will start on the front row for the fourth time in 20 starts at Indianapolis. Along with Gordon, Bobby Labonte will be the only other driver to have raced in each of the 20 races at Indianapolis.
"To have that off of a day and be back this close, I got a little bit tight off to Turn 4 or we would have been a little bit closer to Kevin, but I’m still really proud of this effort. Qualifying second, qualifying is so huge here. To be on that front row and 20 years after that first Brickyard 400 I get excited about that," Gordon said.
Last year’s winner of the Brickyard 400, Ryan Newman, will start this year’s edition of the race from the fourth position. Juan Pablo Montoya makes his return to Indianapolis after racing at Michigan earlier in the season for Team Penske. After struggling with the handling of his No. 12 Ford during the first practice session of the weekend, Montoya will start from the eighth position.
Missing the race were Brett Moffitt, David Stremme and Matt Crafton. Labonte made the race on having the past champion’s provisional, albeit the No. 37 Chevrolet owned by Tommy Baldwin had no previous attempts entering this weekend’s event. Crafton was attempting to start his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race after winning the 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title. Moffitt was attempting to make his third career start in NASCAR’s top-tier division after signing a contract with Michael Waltrip Racing.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has finally returned from a well-deserved off-weekend. As the Chase for the Sprint Cup is rapidly approaching, teams are gearing up for what they hope to be a championship run. Besides the multiple organizations that will contend for a championship, NASCAR is also gearing up for their first year with a new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.
NASCAR is treating fans in Chicago for a preview of the Chase by inviting fans for the debut of a one-of-a-kind event. The Chase Grid™ Live program will be held on the Wednesday and Thursday in downtown Chicago preceding the first race in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
“There’s no better way to introduce our new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format than by inviting our fans – the most loyal in sports – to be a part of the celebration,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR chief marketing officer. “We are fortunate to have partnered with two world-class brands in Toyota and Sprint to provide an unforgettable fan experience as we embark on this significant moment for our sport.”
In the past, NASCAR has had events similar to the Chase Grid™ Live. These events included the Chase Contenders Live in 2013, which was held at the Navy Pier on the coast of Lake Michigan.
Due to a conjoined effort by Sprint and Toyota, NASCAR will be able to bring fans access to each of the 16 drivers that will be battling for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crown. As seen in the past, NASCAR has been able to bring companies together that likely would not have formed a partnership without America’s most popular form of motorsports.
“Toyota is proud to once again partner with NASCAR and Sprint in Chicago for this annual celebration of the Sprint Cup Series championship contenders,” said Ed Laukes, vice president of marketing, performance and guest experience, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. “With this season’s new Chase format and 16 worthy competitors vying for the championship trophy, this is an event Chicagoans and NASCAR fans will certainly want to attend. Being from Chicago, I know it’s a great venue and knowing NASCAR it will definitely be a must-see event.”
Besides have the experience to watch a two-hour event, there is also the Chase Grid™ Live Sweepstakes, which fans can enter via NASCAR.com. The contest lasts until August 29, and the Grand Prize winner will receive a VIP experience to the Chase Grid Live event, along with a pair of VIP passes to each of the three NASCAR-sanctioned races being held to start off the Chase at the Chicagoland Speedway, amongst other prizes.
ESPN will also play a key role in Chase Grid™ Live – providing exclusive features and interviews with a large amount of the drivers that competing in the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.