Driver Reports: Through turbulence, Junior shines
July 29, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
1. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48)
Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Johnson leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with 740 points.
Last week: At first, it looked like another Johnson cakewalk. The No. 48 was in the lead as the laps ticked away, his car outstanding on both restarts and long runs. Then came Ryan Newman. Johnson’s 48 and Newman’s 39 were on different pit strategies. Johnson’s last pit stop came before Newman’s, and it was slow -- 17-seconds slow. Newman came in later and took only two tires, leaving his pit box in seven seconds. That gave the Stewart-Haas Racing driver a major edge when he got back on the track, and Johnson, though he led a race-high 73 laps, settled for second place.
What he said: “There is definitely disappointment there, but this is racing that stuff happens. I have given away a couple late in the race myself this year. We win as a team we lose as a team, it’s just how it is. I wouldn’t take another race team out there. I’m very proud of this KOBALT Tools Chevrolet team and everything that goes into it.”
This week: In 23 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Johnson has three wins, 10 top-fives, 16 top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Pocono, Johnson ranks second out of 52 drivers with an average place of 9.3. Johnson won the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Johnson was closing in on another win at Pocono just as the rain clouds closed in on the track. A four-lap caution period wore down tires, and the ensuing restart on Lap 91 was a daring display from all cars as drivers knew the race could be called at any moment. Leading the field, Johnson lost his handle and drilled second-place car Matt Kenseth. Both incurred damage in what turned into a five-car incident. And then the rain came, eventually ending the race under yellow after 98 laps. Johnson was 14th when that final caution came out, and that’s where he was scored in the final results.
2. Clint Bowyer (No. 15)
Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota
Where he stands: Bowyer is second in the standings with 665 points.
Last week: Bowyer actually got credit for leading a lap Sunday, which he did at the very end, but with his strategy not paying off, the No. 15 team was hoping for a caution flag. That didn’t come, sending Bowyer by himself onto pit road and dropping him to 20th, which is where he finished. It was the driver’s second consecutive finish outside the top 10, but he still holds second place in the point standings.
What he said: “The No. 15 RK Motors Toyota was just a handful today. Crew chief Brian Pattie made a few good calls on pit road to get us back on the lead lap. We will go back to North Carolina and regroup for Pocono.”
This week: In 15 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Bowyer has one top-five and seven top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Bowyer ranks 21st out of 52 drivers with an average place of 18.2. He finished 15th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Bowyer was among the drivers disappointed to see the rain come in. His Toyota was set up for the long haul, and the No. 15 team felt a late extended green flag run would have gained Bowyer some spots. It’s not that Bowyer finished poorly, though. He finished eighth. It’s just that it could have been a top-five showing.
3. Carl Edwards (No. 99)
Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
Where he stands: Edwards is third in the standings with 655 points.
Last week: Edwards elected not to get into the mix on a wild Lap-119 restart that saw Tony Stewart dive to the bottom of the track to make it four-wide heading into Turn 1. As a result, Edwards lost major ground and fell down near 20th (he started third and ran in the top 10 through Lap 80, for perspective). The No. 99 Ford, though, had enough in it to climb back up to 13th by the time the checkered flag fell.
What he said: “The early part of the race went real well. We had track position. This whole event track position was key. We lost our track position on the restart and Tony made it four wide. I made the decision to not go down there and wreck everybody and that cost us a lot of track position. We made it back to 13th.”
This week: In 17 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Edwards has two wins, five top-fives and eight top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Edwards ranks 11th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 14.4. He finished 18th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Edwards gained 10 spots over the race’s 98 laps and had a Ford he felt was capable of winning. The No. 99 was in seventh place when the race was called for rain, and that’s where he finished. It continued a familiar trend. In the past three seasons, Edwards has finished better in the second Pocono cup race than he did in the first one.
4. Kevin Harvick (No. 29)
Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Harvick is fourth in the standings with 648 points.
Last week: Harvick’s nine-race streak of finishing in the top 10 ended with a thud at the Brickyard. Harvick qualified 24th at Indianapolis and finished 19th. He was credited with leading two laps near the end as he was one of several drivers on a different pit strategy. But when a caution flag didn’t come, Harvick was forced to pit late and lost all of his ground.
What he said: “This definitely wasn't the finish the Jimmy John's team was going for today. We just couldn't get the handling of the car where it needed to be. We'll continue to take this season one race at a time, put this one behind us and start focusing on Pocono.”
This week: In 25 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Harvick has five top-fives and nine top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Harvick ranks ninth out of 52 drivers with an average place of 14.0. He finished ninth in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Harvick’s efforts were simply washed away on a dreary day in which the No. 29 car was in the middle of the pack. Harvick was credited with a 16th-place finish after starting 21st.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88)
Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Earnhardt Jr. is fifth in the standings with 616 points.
Last week: Somehow, Earnhardt Jr. persevered through travails both on and off the track to finish sixth. It may have been his most impressive outing of the year. For starters, Junior had to pit early when he thought one of his rear wheels felt loose. Crew chief Steve Letarte confirmed Earnhardt’s read after examining the machine on pit road. A fortuitous caution flag got Junior back on the lead lap, but his pit strategy was still off from every other driver -- and the 88 team executed it flawlessly throughout the race. And all of that came hours after Earnhardt learned his uncle Randy, brother of the late Dale Earnhardt, had passed away.
What he said: “We had a loose wheel on the start of the race; that was weird to have a loose wheel then. We changed our strategy and made it work. The car had good speed. Right at the end, we were either running out of gas, or had a little bit of an engine problem the last two or three laps. I almost lost another spot. …
“(Sunday) was really tough. Randy helped me through a lot of challenges when I was trying to become a race car driver. He was always there. It is just very, very sad, but I am glad his suffering is over with. He was loyal to Dad, and really looked after everything that was there and that was my father's and what would have been important to him as far as material things. Randy really looked after that. He is going to be missed."
This week: In 27 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt has six top-fives, 10 top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Pocono, Earnhardt ranks 14th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 15.1. He finished third in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: The trend of Earnhardt Jr. running strong at Pocono stopped in this race last year. Junior busted the transmission in his No. 88 Chevrolet while running in second and had to go to the garage, where fans got to see just how focused the driver was. He pulled into the garage, climbed out of the car with his helmet still on and jacked up the car himself as the rest of the team filtered in. He made it back onto the track and finished 32nd. It’s his only finish outside the top 10 in his past five races at the Tricky Triangle.
6. Matt Kenseth (No. 20)
Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
Where he stands: Kenseth is sixth in the standings with 615 points.
Last week: This was Kenseth’s first top-five of the year that wasn’t a victory. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota finished fifth at Indianapolis after starting 13th. Kenseth knew he didn’t have the speed of Ryan Newman (first) or Jimmie Johnson (second), but his car was well set-up, and a two-tire pit stop with 30 laps remaining was the catalyst to springboard him into the top five.
What he said: “None of them are easy, but today was difficult. We had really, really great pit stops from my Dollar General crew and Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) made a great call to get us some track position. That’s really what got us our top-five. We didn’t have a car that good today. We never hit it exactly right.”
This week: In 27 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Kenseth has three top-fives and 10 top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Kenseth ranks eighth out of 52 drivers with an average place of 12.8. He finished 25th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Kenseth ran in the top five all day until the final ill-fated restart. When Jimmie Johnson took out Kenseth’s No. 17, the driver knew he’d lose ground in the points standings. And he did, following a showing of 23rd. Kenseth said he wasn’t mad at Johnson and it was a “racing deal,” but also added that he gave the 48 plenty of room down low.
7. Kyle Busch (No. 18)
Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
Where he stands: Busch is seventh in the standings with 610 points.
Last week: Busch had reason to celebrate after finagling a top-10 effort out of a track that, at times, has given him trouble. One day after kissing the bricks following a win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Busch steered his No. 18 Toyota to a 10th-place effort. On Busch’s final pit stop, the team elected to take four tires, and that grip made a difference as Rowdy sped around the track. He gained 12 spots over the final 40 laps to keep the Earnhardt-Kenseth-Busch points battle intriguing.
What he said: “Our M&M’s M’Prove America Camry was really good, at times. There were times earlier in the race that we were very fast but just needed some track position. But when we got a little bit of track position, I just couldn’t get the car to turn. We got behind there with 40 laps to go, but we had a good stop there at the end and Dave (Rogers, crew chief) made a good adjustment and we were able to pass some guys at the end.”
This week: In 17 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Busch has four top-fives, six top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Pocono, Busch ranks 17th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 15.7. He finished sixth in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: It was another tough Pocono performance from Busch, who finished 33rd and went to the garage after 74 laps. He gave a detailed description of his No. 18 Toyota’s issue after the race: “We just blew out the rear brake rotors -- disintegrated it and then blew out the rear caliper after that.” He couldn’t know it at the time, of course, but bad-luck showings like this one combined to keep Busch out of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
8. Greg Biffle (No. 16)
Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
Where he stands: Biffle is eighth in the standings with 565 points.
Last week: A poor-handling car and extended green-flag runs weren’t a good combination for Greg Biffle. At a track where his No. 16 Ford usually runs in the top 10, Biffle finished Sunday’s race in 24th-place, one lap down. The Biff’s standing in the standings didn’t change -- he’s still eighth -- but his lead over 10th-place Kasey Kahne is just six points.
What he said: Biffle was unavailable for comment.
This week: In 21 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Biffle has one win, three top-fives and five top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Biffle ranks 10th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 14.3. He finished second in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Biffle was bummed -- angry might actually be a better word -- with his 16th-place finish. And it’s hard to blame him. In the No. 16 Ford, Biffle was fourth on what turned out to be the final restart. When Jimmie Johnson spun out, collecting Matt Kenseth and bringing out the caution, Biffle had to drive himself up the track to the point where he scraped the outside wall. He then jammed the brakes and went back to the inside to avoid Kenseth’s spinning machine. It was a great bit of driving, but he was scored 16th by the official data, and rain halted the race after that.
9. Kasey Kahne (No. 5)
Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Kahne is ninth in the standings with 564 points.
Last week: Once again, Kahne had one of the best cars in the field. This time, the No. 5 Chevrolet stayed out of trouble and had no mechanical issues en route to a third-place finish. It was Kahne’s best showing since the Coca-Cola 600 (second), and the May race was his most recent top-five before the Brickyard.
What he said: “It’s a pretty neat track to race on. We got back there a few times and we were able to work our way back through. It was (an) awesome Great Clips Chevrolet and tons of Hendrick horsepower so it was enjoyable to drive this car. We just never got to the lead, but at times I think we were the fastest car we just never got up there.”
This week: In 19 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Kahne has one win, four top-fives, six top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Pocono, Kahne ranks 15th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 15.2. He finished 36th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Kahne avoided trouble on the last restart and, as a result, gave Hendrick Motorsports a 1-2 finish. Jeff Gordon was the winner, and Kahne was right behind him in second place after leading one lap on the afternoon. The finish helped Kahne put a pretty rotten Pocono stretch behind him. In the previous five races at the Tricky Triangle, Kahne’s best finish was 12th and he finished outside the top 25 three times.
10. Jeff Gordon (No. 24)
Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Gordon is 10th in the standings with 559 points.
Last week: Just listening to Gordon’s radio, one could surmise that the veteran wasn’t at all happy with his car. And yet as the laps ticked off, there was Gordon running in the top 10 at a historic track where he’s won four times. The seventh-place effort boosted Gordon into 10th in the points standings, the final automatic spot for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. That’s critical, because Gordon doesn’t have a win to fall back on for one of two Wild Card spots. Gordon must keep it up, though -- he’s just one point ahead of 11th-place Tony Stewart.
What he said: “We are in full-on aggressive mode. Do we have to win? No. But do we have to put (six) really good races together? Yes. In order to put good races together, I'm talking top-fives. You look at the guys we're racing against and they can easily do that. We have to push and not pull back.”
This week: In 41 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Gordon has six wins, 18 top-fives, 28 top-10s and two poles. He is the defending race winner. In the past eight years at Pocono, Gordon ranks third out of 52 drivers with an average place of 10.5. He finished 12th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: The 2012 season was full of uncharacteristic bad luck and misfires from Gordon and his No. 24 team. That’s what made the Pocono victory so special. Gordon was third on what was the final restart. When leader Jimmie Johnson spun out in front of him, collecting second-place Matt Kenseth as well, Gordon was in the lead as the caution flag came out. The race was called due to rain, giving Gordon a win that would be the difference in him ultimately making the Chase. “Miracles do happen,” an elated Gordon said afterward.
11. Tony Stewart (No. 14)
Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Stewart is 11th in the standings with 558 points.
Last week: Can it get any better for Stewart? Days after the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ran a remarkable race on dirt at a track Stewart owns, the Indiana native finished fourth at the Brickyard. Perhaps even bigger than that, Stewart earned an Indianapolis win as an owner as departing teammate and close friend Ryan Newman steered his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to victory.
What he said: “I have been waiting for the day we could get Ryan (Newman) in Victory Lane like this at a big one. Man, it is just awesome. I’m proud of our guys, we had a solid day too. What a great job by Stewart-Haas Racing.”
This week: In 29 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Stewart has two wins, 12 top-fives, 21 top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Pocono, Stewart ranks sixth out of 52 drivers with an average place of 11.9. He finished fourth in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: After a bad final practice, and an even worse qualifying effort -- 28th -- Stewart tasked crew chief Steve Addington to come up with a setup that more closely resembled how the car came off the truck. Addington and crew took the challenge to heart and produced a No. 14 Chevrolet that was much better than the one Smoke had in qualifying. And Stewart made the most of a new machine, driving up through the field to finish fifth. Entering this weekend’s race, Stewart has three consecutive top-fives at Pocono.
12. Martin Truex Jr. (No. 56)
Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota
Where he stands: Truex Jr. is 12th in the standings with 554 points.
Last week: Truex Jr. gained an astounding 27 spots in Sunday’s race. After qualifying 38th, the driver finished 11th at Indianapolis, showing the kind of fortitude he’ll need to make NASCAR’s postseason for the second consecutive year. With Ryan Newman earning his first win of the season, there’s still no room for error for the No. 56 team, which has a win itself and is 20 points ahead of Newman in the standings.
What he said: “It was a hell of a battle out there all day. We had our hands full all day long -- that’s for sure. Just kept fighting hard -- kept fighting, fighting, fighting. We didn’t get a lot of cautions so we had to do a lot of it when the field was strung out and that made it tough. We did have the one caution and we did get a real good restart and we were able to get a couple there. Just had a decent car on the long runs -- we weren’t blazing fast by any means, but we were just steady. Just dug deep and did what we had to do for the Chase deal.”
This week: In 15 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Truex Jr. has two top-fives and five top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Truex Jr. ranks 18th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 17.0. He finished 23rd in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Last year: Despite not having a win, Truex Jr. solidified his Chase chances in 2012 with a third-place run at Pocono. That effort helped Truex Jr. get up to fifth place in the standings just five races before NASCAR’s 10-race postseason commenced. The third-place effort was the best in the field for a Toyota and tied Truex Jr.’s best finish at the track.
Five in the rearview mirror …
Brad Keselowski (No. 2)
Penske Racing, Ford
Where he stands: Keselowski is 13th in the standings with 553 points.
Last week: Keselowski lost four spots in the standings one week after gaining four spots. That means in two weeks, the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has essentially gained no ground in terms of position. The blue deuce came across the finish line in 21st place Sunday, losing 16 spots over the final 20 laps after not winning a fuel strategy gamble. With no wins in his back pocket, Keselowski has to be concerned, even though he’s just six points behind 10th-place Jeff Gordon.
This week: In seven career starts at Pocono Raceway, Keselowski has one win, two top-fives and two top-10s. In the past eight years at Pocono, Keselowski ranks 19th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 17.1. He finished 15th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Kurt Busch (No. 78)
Furniture Row Racing, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Busch is 14th in the standings with 546 points.
Last week: Busch ran in the top 10 for most of the day before settling for a 14th-place effort. It wasn’t dynamic, but it was a consistent day, and that’s not a bad thing when you consider how up-and-down the year has been for the No. 78 group. Still, Busch called the finish “unacceptable” after his machine struggled with grip throughout the race.
This week: In 24 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Busch has two wins, nine top-five, 13 top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Pocono, Busch ranks fourth out of 52 drivers with an average place of 10.8. He finished seventh in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Jamie McMurray (No. 1)
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
Where he stands: McMurray is 15th in the standings with 537 points.
Last week: As a past Brickyard winner, Indianapolis tends to hold good memories for McMurray. He didn’t add to that memory bank on Sunday with a 15th-place showing that was solid, but not spectacular. Still, McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya (ninth-place finish) combined to give Earnhardt Ganassi Racing just its second performance of the season in which both its drivers finished in the top 15. The other? At Pocono, where the Sprint Cup Series is headed this week.
This week: In 21 career starts at Pocono Raceway, McMurray has four top-10s and one pole. In the past eight years at Pocono, McMurray ranks 24th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 20.4. He finished 13th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Ryan Newman (No. 39)
Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet
Where he stands: Newman is 16th in the standings with 534 points.
Last week: Hello, Newman. The driver without a job for 2014 grabbed the headlines again -- in a positive way this time -- by winning the Sprint Cup Series’ 20th race at the Brickyard. His No. 39 Chevrolet was blazing, and Newman surged passed Jimmie Johnson during the final set of pit stops to win his 17th career Cup race. The victory also puts Newman in the Chase conversation with six races to go until NASCAR’s postseason is set.
This week: In 23 career starts at Pocono Raceway, Newman has one win, eight top-fives, 11 top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Pocono, Newman ranks fifth out of 52 drivers with an average place of 11.1. He finished fifth in the first 2013 race at Pocono.
Joey Logano (No. 22)
Penske Racing, Ford
Where he stands: Logano is 18th in the standings with 524 points.
Last week: We saw Logano’s No. 22 Ford lead laps Sunday for the first time since Kentucky. In fact, at one point, Logano and Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski were running 1-2. Like his teammate, though, Logano was running a different strategy than most and gave up the lead to pit. It still worked out in the form of an eighth-place finish, which was a tremendous result given that the driver was coming off back-to-back 40th-place efforts.
This week: In nine career starts at Pocono Raceway, Logano has one win, one top-five, two top-10s and two poles. In the past eight years at Pocono, Logano ranks 15th out of 52 drivers with an average place of 15.5. He finished 10th in the first 2013 race at Pocono.