Willwerth: NASCAR Notebook

By Brian Willwerth 

There is just one race left – one race to determine the 2011 NASCAR champion.  And if you’re looking for drama, boy do we have it. A mere three-points heading into next weekend’s finale at Homestead separates Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, which again should make for an exciting finish, right?

More on the championship battle in a moment, but first – a look back at Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway.

Kasey Kahne – the favorite driver of yours truly – finally took the checkered flag in the #4 car. It was his first win in his last 81 races. You have to go all the way back to ‘09 at Atlanta to find the last time Kahne celebrated in Victory Lane. He is not in the Chase for the Championship, yet only Stewart and Edwards have been better than Kahne over the past nine races. Kahne will be joining Hendrick Motorsports next season.

Edwards and Stewart finished second and third at Phoenix, which sets up a tremendous finale. This is the closest any two drivers have been heading into the final race, since the Chase format began in ‘04. Even if neither driver is contention for the win at Homestead, expect ESPN’s cameras to be focused on these two guys the entire way. Every car passed means a critical point earned in the standings.

It’s going to be fun.

Willwerth: NASCAR Notebook

Matt Kenseth had a great night on Saturday!

By Brian Willwerth 

We are halfway through the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. The title is still up for grabs, although three drivers are starting to separate themselves from the pack.

One of them is Matt Kenseth, who drove his #17 car to victory lane Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was his first win of the playoffs, and third of 2011, (he also won at Texas and Dover back in the spring.) With the victory, he moved into third place, just seven points behind leader Carl Edwards. Kevin Harvick remains in second, five points behind Edwards.

On Saturday night, Kenseth passed Kyle Busch on a restart with 25 laps remaining, and never looked back.  Busch had been in control for much of the race. Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top five.

The other headline involves five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. His bid for another title took a major hit – literally. Late in the race, he got loose coming off Turn 2, spun around, and then his #48 car went slamming nose-first into the outside wall. He finished 34th on Saturday night, and is now eighth in the standings.

The other big on-track incident was also in Turn 2. Kahne, Jeff Gordon and David Ragan were three-wide. There was contact, and when it was all over, all three drivers were sitting idle along the inside wall. Gordon finished 21st, as his struggles in the Chase continue.

NEXT WEEK: Talladega.  Need I say more…

Willwerth: NASCAR Notebook

Expect Jimmie Johnson to continue making an impact going forward.

By Brian Willwerth 

For those of you who all but counted Jimmie Johnson out of contention for a sixth straight title, you might want to take a look at the most recent standings.

Johnson dominated the race Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway, leading 197 laps. It was just his second win of the season and first since Talladega back on April 17.

This was all #48, all the time. Yes, he had to survive a green-white-checkered finish at the end when Jeff Gordon’s engine went “poof” with three laps to go. But Johnson took care of business on the final shootout, holding off Kasey Kahne. Johnson is now in third place in the standings, a mere four points behind Carl Edwards. Kevin Harvick is just one point behind in second place.

On Sunday, Kahne was second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Edwards. Chase drivers took four of the top five spots, with Kahne being the exception.

NEXT WEEK: they’ll be racing under the lights Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  We all remember what happened there back on Memorial Day weekend. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was half-a-lap away from victory, only to run out of gas and watch Harvick go cruising by for the win. There are six races left in the Chase.

Stewart Picks Up The Win on Sunday in New Hampshire

Tony Stewart won an impressive race in Loudon on Sunday!

By Brian Willwerth 

LOUDON, NH – What a difference a couple of weeks makes.

Earlier this month, there was a chance Tony Stewart would not even make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Now, two races into the sport’s playoff, one of NASCAR’s more popular drivers is leading the way.

Stewart drove his #14 car to victory lane for the second race in a row Sunday afternoon, taking the checkered flag when Clint Bowyer ran out of fuel with about two laps to go. It was a reversal of déjà vu: the exact opposite thing happened to these two drivers in last fall’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“We may not have been the best car at the end, I mean Clint was just a tick better than us,” said Stewart, who said he didn’t know that Bowyer was short on fuel.

This was a very clean race with only three cautions. While there was passing, most of it was not for the lead. Whoever was leading the race did so for long stretches at a time. Pole-sitter Ryan Newman led the early stages. Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin all took turns out front.  Stewart did not lead until the final two laps. When Bowyer’s #33 car ran out of gas, Stewart said ‘thank you very much,’ and that was that.

Brad Keselowski continued his torrid second half of the season with a second-place finish. Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers rounded out the top five. Bowyer, who nearly won this race, ended up 26th.

There are still eight races remaining in the Chase. Stewart is not taking anything for granted.

“We hope the next eight weeks go this way,” he said.  “You look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now… there are guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five or top three in the points right now and it shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick.”

THE WRECK WRAP: Carl Edwards sent Matt Kenseth for a spin-o-rama in Turn 2. This is one teammate spun out the other. Both drivers stayed in the race, and in fact, ended up with Top-10 finishes.

NEXT WEEK: We go from the Magic Mile at Loudon to the Monster Mile at Dover. Stewart leads Kevin Harvick by 7 points, Keselowski by 11 and Edwards by 14. The rest of the Chasers are further back.

Willwerth: NASCAR Notebook

Paul Menard is certainly a NASCAR name that one needs to know!

By Brian Willwerth 

The list of first-time winners in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series just keeps growing.

The latest: Paul Menard, who pulled off a big upset Sunday in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was Menard’s first win in 167 career starts.  He is the fourth driver this season to win his first Cup race, joining Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and David Ragan.

This one was decided by pit and fuel strategy. Menard played his cards perfectly, and was able to hold off a fast-charging Jeff Gordon in the closing laps. Had the race been two or three laps longer, the outcome probably would’ve been different.

Gordon finished second, followed by Smith, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.  Chevrolets took the top four spots.

Carl Edwards hung on the points lead, despite finishing 14th. Menard jumped five spots in the standings, to 14th. Win Sunday’s win, he’s in contention for one of the two wild card spots for the Chase.

THE WRECK WRAP:

This was a clean race for the most part, with one exception. Landon Cassill went for a spin, as he was four-wide heading into Turn 3.  Cassill spun out. Kasey Kahne avoided the wreck, but briefly turned his #4 car into a lawnmower, as grass ended up all over the racetrack.

NEXT WEEK: the second race of the year at Pocono.  Gordon won there back in June.

Willwerth: NASCAR Notebook

By Brian Willwerth 

The latest from the world of NASCAR

BAD PANS: 

NASCAR has fined Joe Gibbs Racing’s three crew chiefs $50,000 apiece. The reason: they all brought unapproved oil pans to Michigan International Speedway for last weekend’s race. The crew chiefs have also been placed on probation through the end of the year. The teams were not penalized by losing points, however.  JGR’s three drivers in the Cup series are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. This didn’t have much of an impact on the team; Hamlin won at Michigan, while Busch came in third.

NO BULL: 

The owner of Red Bull announced plans to leave NASCAR at the end of this season. Red Bull Racing Team (RBRT) hasn’t had much to celebrate in victory lane since joining the Sprint Cup Series four years ago. Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers both drive for RBRT, although Kahne will be leaving at the end of this year to join Hendrick Motorsports. What will happen with Vickers?  We shall see.

READY TO TURN LEFT….AND RIGHT: 

This Sunday, the Cup series heads to the road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. This means drivers like Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya could have the edge to get a much-needed win. All three of those guys could certainly use a trip to victory lane.  There is only one other road course on the Cup schedule – Watkins Glen in mid-August.

Willwerth: NASCAR Notebook

By Brian Willwerth 

The 2011 Coca-Cola 600 will be remembered more for who didn’t win the race, than who did.

In the end, it was Kevin Harvick bringing his #29 car to victory lane for the third time this season.

But the headline centers around Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. He hasn’t won a race in nearly three years. Yet there he was, on the verge of breaking his long losing drought, in NASCAR’s longest race. He had the lead on the final lap. Then the unthinkable happened for Junior and his followers:

His gas tank went dry.

He ran out of fuel on the backstretch. Heading into Turn 4, Junior slowed down considerably. That allowed Harvick – and several other drivers -to go cruising past him. Earnhardt settled for a seventh place finish.

The drama began to unfold when Jimmie Johnson‘s engine blew up with four laps to go. That set up a green-white-checkered finish.  On the final restart, Earnhardt raced past Kasey Kahne for the lead. Kahne got hit from behind by Brad Keselowski, causing other cars to wreck. But the race stayed green, so it was up to Junior to conserve fuel. He took the white flag as the pro-Junior crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway went into a frenzy. But that frenzy turned to disbelief in the end.

You have to go all the way back to Michigan in 2008 to find the last time Earnhardt Jr. went to victory lane – a span of 105 races.

David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger rounded out the top five.

 Since a lot of people enjoy NASCAR for the wrecks, it’s time for first-ever Noontime Sports “Wreck Wrap.”

*The biggest one was a three-car incident involving Mark Martin, Ryan Newman and David Gilliland.

*Landon Cassill got spun around by Regan Smith, and Cassill ended up with a big mouthful of the infield.

*Kyle Busch wrecked on his own – twice. He spun out in Turn 4, then whacked the wall in Turn 2 a few laps later.

*Paul Menard brought out the caution when he hit the wall in Turn 2. Shortly after the yellow flag waved, Brian Vickers ran into the back of Martin Truex Jr.

*Jamie McMurray blew an engine early in the race while battling Matt Kenseth for the lead.