Brad Morgan · Tuesday October 15, 2013
After the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, it appears that many of the championship contenders will need to win at least one race before Homestead to catch up with Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
Unfortunately for them, Brad Keselowski captured that honor this week and looks to do it again when the series visits Talladega Superspeedway.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not highlights an exciting Sprint Cup debut and details an organization’s future post cheating scandal.
Two drivers continue to dominate the Chase, posting comparable finishes on a regular basis, and their likeness was evident again at Charlotte.
Matt Kenseth looked in danger of losing his hold on the standings after rolling off the grid in 20th position, but sound decisions by crew chief Jason Ratcliff allowed the championship leader to challenge for a top 5 when the stakes were highest. A debris caution with 27 laps to go set Kenseth up nicely, and he ended a potentially rough weekend with a third-place finish.
The No. 20’s good fortune was yet another contributing factor to an already upset Jimmie Johnson’s post-race remarks. Johnson expressed ill feelings towards the same caution that benefitted his Joe Gibbs Racing rival because it had the reverse effect on his night. Despite leading 130 laps compared to Kenseth’s one, Johnson finished fourth after he was unable to get back around teams that gambled on two tires during the final set of pit stops.
This all means that Kenseth was able to expand his lead over Johnson to four points as the drivers remain the clear favorites to capture the 2013 Sprint Cup title, with Kevin Harvick 29 points back.
Their battle has the potential to shift dramatically in the series’ next stop. Talladega will present a unique list of challenges for the yet unscathed duo, the first of which being mere completion of the 500-mile event without involvement in the dreaded Big One.
Saturday’s Bank of America 500 was a night of firsts for reigning champion Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski claimed his only victory of the season to date at Charlotte, his first ever at the 1.5-mile speedway, becoming the first non-Chase driver to win a playoff race since Kasey Kahne in 2011.
The No. 2 team rallied from several near disastrous breaks—including a severe tire vibration and a jack that was left underneath the Fusion on the subsequent stop—which could have contributed to another disappointing showing. But he passed Kahne with nine laps remaining to claim the checkered flag. Keselowski’s first win driving a Ford moves him up to 14th in the standings.
The resilient effort was reminiscent of many races during the Penske Racing driver’s run during the 2012 Chase through the early portion of this season. Beating out the Chasers bodes well for Keselowski, but it was by no means a weak performance for the 11 others not named Kenseth and Johnson. Those two might have a slight advantage moving forward, but the playoff standings are still very tight from top-to-bottom after all 13 Chase drivers finished inside the top 18.
The deficit between Kenseth and Kahne stands at only 81 points, meaning that every playoff contender still has a viable chance at the title – especially with tracks like Talladega looming. Of those drivers, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer would appear to have the best shots at cracking victory lane Sunday.
The Sprint Cup debut of Kyle Larson drew a lot of attention over the weekend, and the rookie proved worthy of the hype, however he couldn’t produce a solid finish to go along with it.
Larson was running 16th when his engine expired on Lap 247, relegating him to a 37th-place finish. While disappointing, the 21-year-old driver seemed comfortable inside the No. 51 Chevrolet after starting 21st. He ran competitive laps in the midst of several Chasers in his time on the track, and looked more impressive than Brian Scott (who also made his Cup debut).
The engine failure inevitably hurt the outcome for Larson, but that might have simply been the result of inferior equipment compared to what he’s accustomed to at Earnhardt-Ganassi. Larson will try to avoid another DNF when he returns to Sprint Cup action at Martinsville.
For single-car organizations to perform as well as their highly funded counterparts mistakes of all types must be limited, and that wasn’t the case for Casey Mears at Charlotte.
Mears’ 31st-place finish was highlighted by two separate yet identical pit violations that could have been easily avoided. His No. 13 team was forced to start at the tail end of the pack twice after there were too many crewmembers over the wall, first on a lap-27 stop then again on Lap 88.
The Germain Racing group has lacked respectable finishes for several months now (their last top-20 mark came during the Coke Zero 400) and they will hope to turn things around at Talladega.
Michael Waltrip Racing received some devastating news regarding one of its drivers and released some bad news itself Monday.
Brian Vickers will miss the remainder of the 2013 season because of a blood clot in his calf. The clot was discovered during an examination Monday morning, and Vickers has been placed on blood thinning medication as a result. Fortunately, doctors are confident that Vickers should be able to return for the 2014 Daytona 500 and compete full time.
MWR will rely on Michael Waltrip to fill the void left inside the No. 55 Aarons Dream Machine at Talladega, but the organization has yet to announce a replacement for the remainder of the schedule.
The organization also announced that it will restructure operations for 2014 and compete with only two full-time teams. The major losers here are Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Chad Johnston, who won’t be returning and are free to negotiate with other potential suitors.
The cutback can be directly blamed on MWR’s loss of long-time primary sponsor NAPA after the No. 56 car contributed to an attempt to manipulate the finishing order at Richmond. This seems like the worst possible scenario following NASCAR’s investigation of those events and will likely affect MWR moving forward.
Michael Waltrip also announced that the organization will place a greater emphasis on research and development efforts and run a third part-time car next season. In all, MWR will lose roughly 15 percent of its current workforce because of the plan to restructure the organization.
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