The leader in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings doesn’t have a win yet. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Well, Matt Kenseth is a man that won the 2003 title with just one victory, and he might just do that again.
However, with the new championship format, going win-less throughout the 36-race schedule could severely hurt a driver’s ability to contend for the title. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the 2013 crown, but that was the exact opposite of what NASCAR is expecting this year.
Kenseth took over the championship points lead after Dover as Jeff Gordon finished 15th even though he ran inside of the top-five throughout the day. Entering Pocono, he holds a two-point lead over Gordon, and has a good cushion over third-place Carl Edwards.
With the new format, 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Those drivers will have to earn at least one win to qualify, and if there aren’t 16 different winners, the point’s leader will automatically qualify for the Chase along with the next amount of spots available in the Chase that are winless but are high in the standings. Now, questions have risen about whether or not Kenseth should worry about winning if he stays as the leader in the championship standings as positions in the Chase are filling up left and right.
“It is definitely different. It was a radical change from what we had. We sit here as the points leader, but it’s a little confusing at times. Hopefully, we can get a win,” Kenseth said.
After Dover, Kenseth and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team have earned 10 top-10s along with five top-fives. However, he is going back to the way he used to race with Roush-Fenway Racing – starting out races rather slow, but picking up the pace by the halfway mark. Kenseth stated during a press conference on Friday morning that the team has adjusted better to the new aero package than he thought, but they have just not been able to seal the deal.
“It doesn’t change at all really,” Kenseth said about his approach now that he has the points lead. “Every week, you go out there with the idea of trying to win. You try to do everything you can to win the race. People always ask about changing strategies or trying harder, but if it were that easy – we would be winning every week.”
In 28 starts at Pocono, Kenseth has yet to score a win at the Tricky Triangle. However, he contended for the victory during the 2003 edition of the Pocono 400, and is expected to run well this weekend even though he finished outside of the top-20 in both Pocono races last year.
Kyle Busch is two for two this weekend at the Dover International Speedway. After dominating the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event on Friday afternoon, Busch scored his 66th career win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and now has a total of 134victories in NASCAR’s top-three divisions.
Busch led 124 of the 200 laps in the Buckle Up 200, providing the eighth win at Dover for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series. He restated his dominance, especially on restarts as he was able to pull out front within the first two laps of each restart, providing the No. 54 car with a comfortable lead for the long green flag runs. Entering this weekend’s events at Dover, no driver had previously won both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series events at the Monster Mile. Busch will be looking to complete the Dover triple on Sunday afternoon during the FedEx 400.
Late in the race, Trevor Bayne was able to get around Joey Logano, who had won four straight Nationwide Series contests at Dover prior to this weekend. Logano led 59 laps on Saturday’s spectacle, but just didn’t have a car capable of keeping up with Busch who was setting a staggering pace after the second round of pit stops.
"This team has made some really big gains this week. We have been eighth to 10th every week and it kind of stinks to be that close. I will never complain about a second place finish, but when you can get that close, you want to keep going," Bayne said.
After being more than two seconds behind Busch, Bayne close the gap to less than half of a second with 15 laps to go. However, Bayne just could not keep up with Busch who showed signs of getting stronger within the concluding 10 markers. This marks Bayne’s second top-five of the year, and now sits fourth in points.
Regan Smith leaves Dover with a four point lead over Elliott Sadler as the two were battling for the ninth position late in the race. After leading the race early, Chase Elliott ended up finishing fifth, and is now 22 points behind his teammate, Smith, for the points lead.
Cale Conley was running 18th, just trying to earn experience when James Buescher got loose off of Turn Four, and slid into Ryan Reed. Reed tried to save it, but slammed into Conley, tossing his No. 33 Chevrolet into the outside wall in Turn One.
Dylan Kwasniewski had a track bar issue late in the race, sending his No. 31 Chevrolet to pit road where he went 12 laps down.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series is back at the Dover International Speedway this weekend for the 33rd running Buckle Up 200 presented by Click It or Ticket. Joey Logano has dominated the past four Nationwide Series events at the Monster Mile. However, Logano has yet to win in NASCAR’s second-tier division in multiple starts this year as he has been enjoying success in the Sprint Cup Series with Team Penske.
If anyone will stop Logano’s dominance at Dover, it will occur this weekend. The Nationwide Series regulars have won nearly half of the events this season, and a track such as Dover falls into the hands of some younger drivers which often race well at the shorter tracks.
Regan Smith enters Dover with the points lead after 11 events in the Nationwide Series in 2014. After winning at Daytona to start off the year, Smith has been extremely consistent – finishing inside of the top-10 during each race this season. However, he has not led at any tracks this season other than the two restrictor plate races. In eight starts at Dover in Nationwide Series competition, Smith has recorded one top-10 finish.
“We just need to put ourselves in situations to get up front and lead laps. We are not lacking that much really. I think all three of our cars are capable of winning. Chase has two intermediate wins, and as you said – we have been top-10 all season long. It is just the little stuff. Maybe we need a better pit stop here or an adjustment there, or maybe a little better qualifying at some places,” Smith said. “I think in the first five/six races, we were really learning each other. We really had some struggles with the No. 7 car in particular. Around Darlington, we really started making a turn, getting better each week.”
Kyle Busch will be attempting to score his third victory of the season this weekend, and his fourth win at Dover in what will be his 18th career start at the track. Busch has finished inside of the top-five at each race he has been entered in this year, and is looking to score his 66th career Nationwide Series victory. Busch’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, is also racing in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. This will be Kenseth’s ninth start of the 2014 season, but he has been winless this year, albeit leading 253 laps.
“There’s always the argument being made that there are certain tracks where it is nice to get extra track time. It’s good at a track that you go to once a year and take two tires or something like that. It’s nice to get some extra time,” Kenseth said on how running the Nationwide Series races effects his Cup Series effort.
There are 40 drivers entered in the Nationwide Series event this weekend. Paulie Harraka is making his first start for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 44 Toyota. Todd Bodine returns to the Nationwide Series for his second start of the year in the No. 55 Chevrolet. Joe Nemechek will not be racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event this weekend, but is making his fifth Nationwide Series start of the year for his self-owned NEMCO Motorsports team. Morgan Shepherd is making his return to the Nationwide Series as well this weekend. Shepherd, 72, will make his 352nd career start in NASCAR’s second-tier division after resetting his previous record of being the oldest driver to start a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Phoenix earlier this year.
The Buckle Up 200 presented by Click It or Ticket starts at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon.
Sam Hornish Jr. is back in victory lane. However, this time, it is with a new organization. After making the move to Joe Gibbs Racing from Team Penske over the off-season, Hornish is running a part-time schedule this season.
On Sunday afternoon, the 35-year-old Ohio native was able to capture his first victory with his new team. Hornish dominated the Get to Know Newton 250 at the Iowa Speedway, leading 167 of the 250 laps. In just his second start of the year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, last year’s championship runner-up held off Ryan Blaney throughout the day. Blaney and Hornish were the only two drivers to lead during green flag conditions, swapping the lead eight times amongst each other.
The victory marks the second straight for JGR after winning at Talladega with Elliott Sadler, and it is the organization’s fourth victory of 2014. The win is also JGR’s second victory at the Iowa Speedway with the lone other one coming in 2010 with Kyle Busch, who usually pilots the car Hornish drove to victory lane.
“We had a great car all day long. The Monster Energy No. 54 was just awesome. Adam Stevens made some great calls. I am so blessed that this opportunity came around. It is pretty darn awesome,” Hornish said in victory lane.
The JR Motorsports tandem of Regan Smith and Chase Elliott ended the day in the third and fourth positions. However, Smith ran outside of the top-five for the majority of the race, struggling to find the handle on his No. 7 Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Elliott had a competitive car on the long runs, but took approximately 20 laps to run lap times which were equivalent to the leaders.
Track position proved to be extremely important on Sunday afternoon. Landon Cassill took two tires on a late pit stop, attempting to get some track position after running just outside of the top-10. However, the strategy proved to work as Cassill stayed inside of the top-10 for the duration of the race, earning his second consecutive top-10 finish.
Elliott stretched out his points lead to two markers over Elliott Sadler, who finished fifth after having a tangle with Brian Scott where both drivers simultaneously were loose off of turn four heading onto the frontstretch. Both drivers were able to save their cars, but were not able to advance their positions due to the ground they lost while battling side-by-side.
Michael McDowell finished seventh in his season debut for JGR. McDowell was racing with Hornish and Blaney for the lead throughout the day, and was the lone driver to take the lead besides those two. Chase Pistone finished 14th in his first career Nationwide Series start for Turner Scott Motorsports. Pistone was sent to the back of the pack to begin the race along with Ryan Reed, but was able to capture a solid finish. Austin Theriault also made his Nationwide Series debut at Iowa, and was able to run approximately 10th at certain points during the race. Theriault finished 15th in his first race for JR Motorsports. Cale Conley was running inside of the top-15 early in the race, but started to drop back as his No. 33 car evidently had a tire going down.
Sam Hornish Jr. made a daring move over the off-season. It was a questionable move at first, but so far, it is paying off for the former Indianapolis 500 champion, even though he has only run two races for his new team.
After getting let go from Team Penske coming off of a runner-up finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series points standings, Hornish was left searching for a ride. He could have gone full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series once again, but he would not have been competitive. Hornish chose to race for Joe Gibbs Racing. However, the deal is just for seven events in the No. 54 Toyota which is usually piloted by Cup Series driver, Kyle Busch.
Hornish had a chance to replace Denny Hamlin at the Auto Club Speedway in March. Although it was at the last minute, Hornish capitalized on the opportunity - racing inside the top-15 during the second half of the race before finishing 17th. Prior to that event, Hornish had not even tested a car with Joe Gibbs Racing, and was not in a racecar since the season finale last year at Homestead.
"I think this is a great starting point with a great sponsor in Monster Energy and being at JGR. I feel like this year is the first time that I have my foot in the door and I will have the opportunity to go out there to race and to be in excellent equipment," Hornish said during the Bristol race weekend.
"This is probably the best opportunity as far as equipment wise that I have ever had on the stock car side. I don’t have any opportunity yet to know how it is all going to turn out, but I am looking forward to it and I think it is going to be good. You never know, but if you look at a lot of the stats from last year, I was second to Kyle in a lot of stats-as far as cars passed a lap after a restart or driver rating wise, laps led, top-three finishes and stuff like that. I feel like it should be a pretty good thing for us to work together. I am excited about it."
On Saturday's running of the Aaron's 312 at Talladega, Hornish finally had his chance to prove he is capable of contending for wins. In his first time racing a Toyota in NASCAR's second-tier division, Hornish won his sixth career Nationwide Series pole award. Even with mediocre results at Talladega in the Cup Series, the Defiance, Ohio native earned a top-five finish. He was able to stay out of trouble, and earned valuable points for the No. 54 car which will help the team contend for the owners title.
While his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Elliott Sadler, won the race - Hornish helped get him there. Sadler fell back late in the race. However, Hornish and he were working together. Hornish was ahead of Sadler, but then Hornish enabled Sadler to squeeze in front of him, and the two lost little to no track position. That bold move enabled the two to work their way back into contention, giving JGR two cars in the top-five even though their teammate, Darrell Wallace Jr., was out of contention due to a wreck.
The move might have been questionable for Hornish. Running full-time might have given him a shot at contending for top-10s on a weekly basis. However, he wants to contend for wins. Hornish did that on Saturday.
He will have six more chances to do so in the No. 54 this year. He will be in the Monster Energy Camry at Iowa in two weeks as well as Road America, Chicagoland, Mid-Ohio and Kentucky. Moreover, the biggest part of Hornish's decision was what can come out of this opportunity if he capitalizes in each event.
"I’d like to go out there, I have seven races on the schedule right now, and I’d like to go win (all) seven races. That is not really what is expected of me. What is expected of me is to maximize the amount of points on the days that we have together. If we have seven second place finishes, I’m sure we would be happy with that too. I just have to be smart about it. I think we’re going to have some good races and be successful. You never know until you go out there and do it. I feel like I have an opportunity here to be really good."