The one-mile oval up in Loudon, New Hampshire is often referred to as the “Magic Mile.” Problem for the underdogs is, that magic typically only applies to them when the rain starts to fall (rookies Ryan Newman and Joey Logano both owe their first career Cup victories to Mother Nature cutting the venue’s 300-lappers short). While bright and sunny conditions were great news after a week of dismal forecasts threatened to make Cup racing another Monday affair, they also proved to create a challenging, slick racing surface. Coupled with long green-flag runs and a general lack of attrition, Sunday was a hard-fought event for those at the back of the Cup garage.
_Monday marked the start of the Chase, and just as expected, the top 12 drivers that have now been set apart from the rest of the field they race in were the talk of the broadcast. In their defense, they were dominant in the finishing order to boot: the top-6 finishers at Chicagoland were all competing for the championship._
_In terms of those chasers, it was a day full of upsets, with Tony Stewart shaking off an ugly regular season campaign to score a long overdue first win of 2011 and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. coming out of nowhere to score his first top-5 finish since Kansas in the spring. But in terms of the actual underdogs of Cup racing, it was a much more subdued day, with scattered success for some and harsh reminders of just how unforgiving this sport is for others._
*Did You Notice?* … NASCAR gets so focused on the postseason we often forget there’s 31 other cars on the grid each week? So, in honor of giving you a breather from the onslaught of Chase previews let’s look at a few “spoilers” set to win or wreak havoc during the season’s final ten weeks.
*A.J. Allmendinger.* Quietly, Richard Petty Motorsports has put together a remarkable comeback season just months removed from near bankruptcy. Marcos Ambrose has already won, victorious at Watkins Glen but it’s been the ‘Dinger who’s emerged as more consistent. The best full-time Cup driver yet to win a race, he’s positioning himself to take that next step under the helm of new crew chief Greg Erwin. That change, made despite an already successful start under long-term head wrench Mike Shiplett has really stepped the performance up another level. In just the last five weeks alone, the Californian’s collected a 10.4 average finish while failing to dip lower than 12th in any race.
_While talk of the Chase and its composite field dominated race coverage from the Richmond International Raceway this weekend, there was, as any other weekend, a battle of David vs. Goliath carrying on throughout the field. For as the big dogs of stock car racing were fighting for their playoff lives, others were struggling for improvement, relevance, and even survival. Was Richmond a weekend for the underdogs, or the latest bump in the road for the rest of the Cup field?_
*Score One for David*
Casey Mears and the No. 13 team went through a roller coaster weekend, even without experiencing serious troubles over the course of 400 laps Saturday.
A night that opened seemingly poised to have a dramatic impact on the 2011 Nationwide Series title chase ended up being more of the same: the Cup drivers stealing the show. Carl Edwards dominated early, but Kyle Busch in the end used strength on pit road to muscle out front late and take home the checkered flag. Together, those drivers led a combined 234 of 250 laps, with Busch holding off Edwards and an upset bid by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. early in the final run. Ryan Truex and a surprising Kenny Wallace rounded out the top-5 finishers.
*Did You Notice?…* The circumstances behind Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon’s fantastic finish? If NASCAR needs a road map for its return to national prominence, have officials watch the last 10 laps at Atlanta, let their mouth drop and make that the standard for how any race ending should unfold.
The sad part is the situation creating the drama is just as rare: neither Johnson nor Gordon had any “title concerns” to worry about. Both found themselves solidly inside the playoffs, clinching their spots one week earlier at Bristol and were simply focused on a three-point Chase bonus for the victory. If the No. 48 lost it on Turn 4, giving 110% that final lap? No big deal; Johnson’s DNF would affect nothing but the body shop, forced to rebuild a car that probably wouldn’t get back on-track the rest of the season anyways (NASCAR won’t visit Atlanta again until next Fall).
Looking at A. J. Allmendinger today–14th in driver points and a win away from a possible Chase berth–it’s easy to forget that just a year ago, Allmendinger’s team was reportedly facing bankruptcy and was not expected to be in the Sprint Cup Series this year. Allmendinger and his teammate Marcos Ambrose have defied the odds, bringing back Richard Petty Motorsports from the brink of disaster. Ambrose grabbed the team’s first win of the season at Watkins Glen and Allmendinger is having the best points season of his career, sitting on the brink of the Chase. Frontstretch.com’s Amy Henderson sat down with Allmendinger in Atlanta to discuss the turnaround, his relationship with NASCAR’s King, and the state of the sport.
Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Talking NASCAR TV, where we have to deal with delays just like everyone else. This weekend’s postponement of the Sprint Cup Series Advocare 500 to Tuesday morning (and it’s unclear whether it will even be able to start at 11am as of now) means that it will not be covered in this critique. Whenever the race actually runs, look for a potential NASCAR NonStop preview at some point during the Cup race. ESPN desires to test their new setup in order to make sure there aren’t any issues prior to it’s use in the Chase. By all indications, it’ll be pretty good. Remember that it will only show up in the second half of Chase races.
As if making the jump from IndyCar to an open-wheel machine wasn’t drastic enough of a change, Milka Duno’s start to 2011 threw a geographic oxymoron into the mix. One year ago, driving for Dale Coyne Racing in the Indy ranks, Duno ended mid-April having gone from paradise, the illustrious road course of Long Beach, with only a stop at the ultra-modern Kansas Speedway sitting between open-wheel racing and its crown jewel month of May: the Indianapolis 500.
Fast forward to mid-April, 2011. Duno had capped her career debut on the Indian burial ground at the Talladega Superspeedway with a lead-lap finish, then went straight from there to Salem, Indiana, to turn test laps on a short track in the middle of nowhere. It’s a track famous not only for its high banks, but for having two-inch divots in the frontstretch asphalt and a paving job in turn 3 that more resembles the gravel out in the hauler lot.