Published On: Thu, Aug 2nd, 2012

‘Five Time’ Joins Battle For Top Chase Seeding

It’s getting crowded at the top

Photo: Chad Knaus, Jimmie johnson, and daughter; Brickyard 2012Jimmie Johnson’s third victory of the season – and record-matching fourth win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – creates a trio of drivers fighting for top seeding in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.

He joins reigning champion Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. Each would begin the post season with nine bonus points, three points for each victory on top of a base of 2,000. Johnson, whose perfect 150.0 Driver Rating was the first in the series since the final race of 2010 (Carl Edwards), looks more and more like the competitor who won five consecutive championships.

Over the past seven races beginning with a fourth-place performance at Pocono Raceway, Johnson has a victory and four top-five and six top-10 finishes. Stewart and Keselowski also have won during that span.

Johnson, 36, makes no secret of his ultimate goal: eight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, one more than the seven of NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty was 42 when he won his last title; Earnhardt was 43.

“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been. We’ve had issues late in a race that’s cost us track position for a variety of reasons and that’s the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase,” said Johnson, who won for the 58th time, second among active drivers.

Career Numbers Propel Earnhardt To No. 1 Ranking

Two challenges met. One remains.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who snapped a lengthy victory drought in June, has completed the long, nearly nine-year road back to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings.

Junior and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team truly can focus on the biggest prize, their first championship.

And it’s certainly not a stretch to mention Earnhardt and championship in the same sentence.

“Give me a reason why not,” said crew chief Steve Letarte when asked for reasons why his driver could win the 2012 title.

Earnhardt is, in fact, on a career pace. His numbers through 20 races speak for themselves:

  • Nine top fives, matching his previous best in 2004
  • Fifteen top 10s
  • Average finish of 8.1
  • A perfect 20 lead-lap finishes, including last Sunday’s fourth-place run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dating back to last season, he has a record-sharing 21 consecutive lead-lap finishes.
  • Second-best career Driver Rating through 20 races of 102.0 that trails only the 102.6 of 2008

Earnhardt last officially led the standings onSept. 19, 2004, following a third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a span of 281 starts. He also sat atop the points after theOct. 3, 2004race at Talladega Superspeedway, but lost it midweek after a 25-point penalty stemming from a post-raceVictory Laneinterview.

“All season long we’ve been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we’ve done,” Earnhardt said following his Brickyard finish. He’s been outside the top five in points just once. “We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in Chase.”

Earnhardt snapped a four-year winless streak on June 17 at Michigan International Raceway. He’s finished in the top five in three of the subsequent five races with his only real stumble a 23rd on the road course at Sonoma.

There’s no single key to Junior’s turnaround, which has been more like a continuing process. His first season with Letarte put the team in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ for the first time with a final finish of seventh. Pairing the No. 88 team in the same shop as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 – and a closer relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus – has paid dividends as well.

That association isn’t lost on Johnson, who may wind up being Earnhardt’s chief rival for the championship.

“There’s a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams and the communication is as good as it’s ever been,” said Johnson in hisIndianapoliswinner’s press conference. “I’m happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them and it’s a two-way street.”

Time Quickly Expiring For Chase Hopes Of Many

Sunday’sPennsylvania400 isn’t quite a must-win race for competitors in the Chase “wild card” derby. But it’s close to it. Just six races remain until the 12-driver field for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ is set following the Sept. 8 event at Richmond International Raceway.

Nothing changed atIndianapolis. Kasey Kahne, with two victories, continues to hold the first of two “wild cards” available to drivers ranked 11th through 20th in the standings with most wins. Kyle Busch follows, 11th in points – 55 out of the top 10 – with one win.

Ryan Newman (14th) and June Pocono winner Joey Logano (17th) each need another trip toVictory Lane.

Time is running out for two pre-season favorites who qualified for the Chase in 2011. Carl Edwards, who lost the 2011 title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, finished 29th atIndianapolisand dropped to 12th in the points.

“We have to go race. We can do that, we can race like that,” said Edwards, who has a pair of Pocono victories. “It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins.”

Five-time Pocono winner Jeff Gordon faces the same reality – ranked 15th and 79 points out of 10th Gordon finished 19th at Pocono in June after a litany of issues cost him track position.

Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton also remain “wild card” eligible based upon points. None have a Pocono win.

Pocono A Mixed Bag For JGR

Two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers love the unique layout of Pocono Raceway. The other finds the Tricky Triangle just that.

Joey Logano, winner of June’s Pocono race, placed himself in the Wild Card conversation with a pass for the lead of Mark Martin with three laps remaining. That same race, teammate Denny Hamlin rung up a typical top-five Pocono finish, another in a line of solid Pocono performances that include four career wins at the 2.5-mile track. Logano looks to become the first driver to win three consecutive Coors Light Poles at Pocono since Bill Elliott in 1984-85.

But then there’s the curious case of Kyle Busch, dominant at almost any venue he enters – except for Pocono. In June, he finished 30th. And it wasn’t all that surprising. In 15 starts, Busch has four finishes of 30th or worse. His Pocono Driver Rating of 86.5 makes the track his fourth-worst in terms of the Loop Data statistic. His average Pocono finish of 18.3 makes it his fifth-worst track.

But there have been glimmers of brilliance from Busch at NASCAR’s most unique venue. Prior to June’s race, Busch ripped off two consecutive top-five finishes, including a second-place finish in this race last year.

Momentum, as well as a sense of urgency, envelopes Busch as the regular season comes to a rapid close. Busch finished second last week atIndianapolis, his first top-five finish since the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Prior to the Indy run, Busch had an average finish of just 22.6 in the previous seven starts. His second-place run pushed Busch to 11th in the standings, 55 points outside the top 10.

Pocono Has Been ‘Black Hole’ For Childress Drivers

Kevin Harvick and his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Series Chevrolet are likely to qualify for the Chase for the third consecutive year. Harvick ranks sixth in the standings with a 65-point cushion over 11th-place Kyle Busch.

That’s the good news. The bad? Harvick and RCR are winless in 2012. The team is riding a drought of 30 races dating to the beginning of last year’s Chase. Harvick’s last victory, of four, came atRichmondlast September.

There’s still time for Harvick to improve his seeding – or for teammates Paul Menard (16th) and Jeff Burton (20th) to qualify as a “wild card.” Pocono, however, wouldn’t appear to be a likely place for that renaissance.

RCR’s last of two Pocono victories – both by Dale Earnhardt – came in 1993. The organization has not posted a finish better than fourth since 1994. RCR’s average finish at the 2.5-mile triangle is 15.8 – fractionally higher than Harvick’s average of 14.0. Qualifying has been the team’s Achilles’ Heel: a single pole, by Mike Skinner in 1999, with average start of 17.6 on a layout where track position is crucial.

June’s results were solid but not spectacular. Menard was ninth, one of four top 10s this season. Harvick was 14th andBurton15th.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Kasey Kahne will make his 500th NASCAR national series start on Sunday. The breakdown: 308 starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; 186 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and five in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He has a combined 26 wins in the three series. … Ryan Newman continues the hunt for 50 Coors Light Poles. Newman has two poles at Pocono, the last coming in 2007. …John Wes Townley will make his series debut in the No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford on Sunday. … Drivers Denny Hamlin, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Joey Coulter visited Philadelphia Eagles training camp last Friday to promote this weekend’s races.

Will Stenhouse Continue Dominance AtIowaSpeedway?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. should be excited about returning to Iowa Speedway this weekend. In his last three trips to theSpeedwaywith the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Stenhouse has left victorious.

OnMay 22, 2011, in only his third trip to the track in the series, Stenhouse led 41 laps and beat Carl Edwards to the finish line by 0.435 seconds. Three months later, he followed up with another victory atIowa, once again besting Edwards to the checkered flag, after leading 25 laps.

Earlier this year, in the series’ first visit toIowa, Stenhouse led 209 of the 250 laps to run away with the victory by 1.465 seconds overElliott Sadler. He now goes for four wins in a row. Kyle Busch most recently won five consecutive series races at Texas Motor Speedway between 2008 and 2010

A winning performance inIowawill not only continue Stenhouse’s streak at the track but, more importantly, place him in a better position to make a serious run at his second NASCAR Nationwide title. He also sits in third in the standings, 13 points behind leader Sadler and 12 points behind Austin Dillon.

The U.S. Cellular 250 could be Stenhouse’s last hurrah at theMidwesttrack as he steps up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to pilot a Roush Fenway Racing Ford next season.

Future Stars Getting Opportunities With Powerhouse Teams

Ryan Blaney, whose mother is fromIowa, Brett Moffitt and Darrell Wallace Jr. will all be behind the wheel of a NASCAR Nationwide Series car this weekend at Iowa Speedway. All three are drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, but have an opportunity to prove their mettle driving for strong NASCAR Nationwide teams.

Blaney will compete for Penske Racing in the U.S. Cellular 250. Racing a partial schedule in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East this season, he has made three starts with two top-five finishes and is currently 22nd in the standings. This will be his fifth start in Nationwide with a best finish of seventh atRichmondearlier this year.

Moffitt, who currently sits atop the standings in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, will be piloting a race car for RAB Racing. He has two wins, seven top fives and eight top 10s in nine starts in the regional series. This will be Moffitt’s first NASCAR national series start.

Wallace returns to Iowa Speedway with Joe Gibbs Racing’s NASCAR Nationwide team. His trip toIowaearlier this year where he finished ninth is his only start in the series. He sits in 10th in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standings with one win, three top fives and four top 10s in nine starts.

Dash 4 Cash Wraps Up At Iowa

It all comes down to Dillon, Stenhouse, Sam Hornish Jr. and Michael Annett as they make one final attempt to grab an additional $100,000 bonus.

Annett, a Des Moines native, is on a career-best roll as the NASCAR Nationwide Series stops at his home track. In the last five races, Annett has three top-five finishes and a sixth-place performance in last week’s inaugural race at the Brickyard. TheIndianapolisfinish was good enough to earn him the $100,000 bonus for Round 3 of the Nationwide “Dash 4 Cash.”

Dillon also has seen success on the track recently. In his last five races his finishes are first, fourth, third, sixth and fifth. Hornish had a runner-up finish at Indy last week and has posted seven straight top 10s. In the last five races, Stenhouse has posted five top-10 finishes with two runner-up performances.

As in years past, the four drivers will each be paired with a fan for the last leg of the “Dash 4 Cash.” In addition to the highest-placing driver receiving a $100,000 bonus, the fan paired with that driver will also win a $100,000 prize.

NASCAR Nationwide Series

Kurt Busch will pull double-duty this weekend by appearing in the U.S. Cellular 250 for brother Kyle’s No. 54 team and in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race for Phoenix Racing at Pocono Raceway. … Jason Leffler makes his return to the NASCAR Nationwide Series in the No. 30 for Turner Motorsports. …Iowanative Joey Gase of Cedar Rapids will run for Go Green Racing. … Jeremy Clements andTravis Pastrana are both coming off career days atIndianapolisafter finishing third and 10th, respectively.

New Asphalt Among Challenges Of Pocono Raceway

When the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series hits the asphalt at Pocono Raceway in thePocono Mountains125 on Saturday, it will be the third time the series has competed at the 2.5-mile track, but the first time on the newly repaved surface.

The new surface has potential to throw a wrench in the competition and shake up the championship hunt. However, statistics show the hunt for the win could come down to the front runners in the points battle.

Three drivers inside the top-five in the championship standings – Timothy Peters, Justin Lofton and James Buescher – all have top-10 finishes at the famed Tricky Triangle. Peters increased his championship standings lead following Chicagoland to 23 points over Ty Dillon, Lofton, Buescher and Parker Kligerman.

Dillon and Lofton are both former winners at the track in the ARCA series

ThorSport Racing teammates Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter also are likely to figure in the equation. Crafton, who’s moved from 21st to sixth in points on strength of four straight top-five finishes, finished third at Pocono in 2010. Sauter, winner inTexasin June, took fourth in last year’sPocono Mountains125.

Hamlin Ready To End Busch’s Winless Drought

Six top-10 finishes in 10 races would be considered a pretty solid record – unless you’re Kyle Busch Motorsports. For the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ owner champion in its debut season, that’s just on the north side of unsuccessful.

KBM, a 16-time series winner, still looks to crackVictory Laneas the mid-point of the season looms.

Saturday’s race, which will see four-time NSCS Pocono winner Denny Hamlin at the controls of the No. 18 Toyota, may be the icebreaker. Hamlin won at Martinsville last October and was poised to nab a second victory when weather prematurely ended the 2011 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I really enjoyed driving the No. 18 Tundra for KBM the couple of races I did last year and I’m looking forward to working with Rick [Ren],Eric [Phillips] and all the guys over there again,” said Hamlin, who finished ninth in the inaugural Pocono Mountains 125 in 2010. “Pocono is obviously one of my better tracks, so I think that we’ll have a good shot at adding another banner to the rafters at Kyle’s shop.”

“Visitors” from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series won both previous truck races at Pocono – Elliott Sadler in 2010 and Kevin Harvick a year ago. Neither is entered in Saturday’s race, although the track’s defending NSCS winner Brad Keselowski will be in the lineup. Keselowski bids to become the 24th driver to win in each of NASCAR’s three national series.

Trucks Readied Dillon For SomeIndianapolisHard Driving

In a word, “awesome” pretty much describes Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Ty Dillon’s NASCAR Nationwide Series performance last weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Dillon upstaged just about everyone except race winner Keselowski – and his older brother, 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck champion Austin – in qualifying and finishing third in the NNS debut at the Speedway.

Dillon, 20, was quick to praise his home series for preparing him for a strut on a very big stage

“I think a lot of the credit is to the truck series. Every time you unload, you’re wide open for the first 20 laps and you have to drive as hard as you can in that series,” Dillon said. “Just having that attitude … it sounded like we were really going to have to hustle these Nationwide cars.”

Dillon continues to pursue his first truck victory with a best finish of second at Martinsville Speedway. He opened the season with nine consecutive top-10 finishes, a Sunoco Rookie of the Year record. He’s 51 points ahead of Cale Gale in rookie points standings.

He’s the third points-eligible driver to taste success while venturing into one of NASCAR’s other national series. Buescher won the season-opening NNS race at Daytona Beachwhile Nelson Piquet Jr. was the Nationwide winner in June at Road America.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc

Todd Bodine is taking his talents off the track this weekend in advance of Saturday’sPocono Mountains125. The former series champion will host the Third Annual ‘Onion Slice Open’ on Thursday, Aug. 2. The golf tournament will be held at the Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club. Proceeds from the event will benefit the pediatric patients suffering from traumatic brain injury at Allied Services Rehabilitation in Wilkes Barre, Penn.… Pocono completes the first half of this year’s 22-race campaign. Four of the final 11 races are on tracks visited earlier: Iowa, Kentucky, Martinsville and Texas Motor speedways.

Fast Facts

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES

The Race:Pennsylvania400

The Place: Pocono Raceway

The Date: Sunday, Aug. 5

The Time:1 p.m.(ET)

TV: ESPN,12 p.m.(ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XMCh.90

Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)

NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES

The Race: U.S. Cellular 250

The Place: Iowa Speedway

The Date: Saturday, Aug. 4

The Time: 8 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XMCh.90

Distance: 218.75 miles (250 laps)

NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The Race: Pocono Mountains 125

The Place: Pocono Raceway

The Date: Saturday, Aug. 4

The Time:1 p.m. (ET)

TV: SPEED, 12:30 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XMCh. 90

Distance: 125 miles (50 laps)

Photo: Chad Knaus, Jimmie johnson, and daughter; Brickyard 2012
7/29/2012 | Tyler Barrick/Getty Images
Source & Image Credit: NASCAR

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