|Defending champion Keselowski could miss Chase|
|Monday, July 01, 2013 9:46 PM|
Tony Stewart’s defense of his 2005 championship doesn’t look so bad on paper and it sure seemed to be soaring during his laborious celebratory fence-climb following his July win at Daytona.
It was his second win of the 2006 season and it pushed him to fifth in the championship standings. Little did he know that hot summer night atop the flag stand would be his crowning achievement of the year.
Disastrous finishes in the next two races dropped Stewart to 11th in the standings with only seven races to recover. It was too big of a hole and Stewart stunningly became the first defending NASCAR champion to miss the cut for the Chase for the Championship in what was then a 10-driver field.
In true Stewart fashion, he didn’t go out with a whimper: Stewart won three of the 10 Chase races but wasn’t eligible to challenge Jimmie Johnson in what became the first of Johnson’s five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
Now here we are, seven years later, and another defending champion is in a similar hole.
Brad Keselowski heads into Saturday night’s race at Daytona ranked 13th in the standings and winless this year. He’s got nine races left to claim a berth in the 12-driver field and is among a handful of elite drivers jockeying for the final few spots in the Chase:
— Keselowski: BK had three wins at this point last season but finds himself on the outside looking in after Sunday’s disappointment at Kentucky, where he had hoped to repeat last year’s victory. His problems Sunday started 48 laps in the race — so early that Keselowski said “there is no reason to drive like an animal” — when Kurt Busch drove on the apron, then shot back up the track into traffic and into Keselowski.
It created a messy accident that stopped the race for nearly 20 minutes and it dropped Keselowski four spots in the standings to 13th. To earn a Chase berth, he either needs to be ranked inside the top 10 in points, or needs wins to be eligible to claim one of two wild card spots.
Crew chief Paul Wolfe knew the ramifications the moment Busch hit the No. 2 Ford.
“We were just holding onto the top 10 there and we were one bad race away from falling out,” he said after the race.
There is an upside to Keselowski’s situation. He is only 14 points behind 10th-place driver Joey Logano, his Penske Racing teammate. That’s not bad considering the No. 2 team has been docked 31 points this year in a pair of NASCAR penalties. If Keselowski still had those points, he’d be ranked eighth.
But he doesn’t have those points and has two months to make up the difference.
— Busch: The 2004 champion is in the second year of trying to resurrect a career that fell apart when his anger issues cost him his job at Penske Racing. He’s doing it now with Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team that’s not supposed to challenge for a Chase berth.
But Busch is in decent shape at 14th in the standings and only 16 points out of 10th. He’s gotten there behind four finishes of seventh or better in the last six races, including Sunday, when he managed to come back from the early incident on the apron to finish sixth. All told, Busch has seven top-10 finishes this season and has climbed from six spots in the standings in three races.
“We came through when we needed to and had another good points day,” said Busch. “We’re creeping up in the points and need to avoid major slips in the next nine races.”
— Stewart: The 3-time champion won at Dover last month and that victory is enough to make him eligible for a wild-card berth.
But his situation is shaky because he’s tied with Aric Almirola for 16th in the standings and he could find himself locked out. It’s a real possibility considering Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle, who have one win each, aren’t securely inside the top 10 and Kasey Kahne is 11th with just one victory.
Working against Stewart is that he really hasn’t been running all that well this season. The No. 14 team had only one top-10 finish before Memorial Day. He was seventh at Charlotte and won at Dover for his first back-to-back top-10s all year. He carried the momentum into Pocono and Michigan with a pair of top-5s and he’d suddenly climbed from 21st in the standings to 10th.
But the last two weeks have been two steps back, with a 28th at Sonoma and a 20th-place finish Sunday.
“Not the greatest showing but we did what we could with it,” he shrugged.
— Denny Hamlin: He’s never missed the Chase since his 2006 rookie season but time is running out on Hamlin’s comeback story this year.
In fairness, a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back sidelined him for four races and likely cost him any chance at the Chase, anyway. But he returned determined to grab a wild-card. He finished second at Darlington in his first full race back, then won the pole at Charlotte and finished fourth to go from 31st in points to 24th.
He won the pole the next week at Dover but a crash ended his streak of top-5 finishes. He was also wrecked at Sonoma and had a hard hit Sunday at Kentucky. Now he’s 25th in points and must win over the next nine weeks to keep his Chase hopes going. At this stage, it will likely take him at least two wins to make it happen.
Team owner Joe Gibbs dismissed talk of Hamlin getting out of the car anytime soon to fully heal, insisting the goal is to salvage the season.
“I think Denny wants to stay after it and we have a chance to get some wins,” Gibbs added. “Who knows what’s going to happen? We could get hot. I know he’ll be the favorite at several of these race tracks we have down the stretch over these next nine weeks. Who knows? Maybe a miracle in there. You can’t have a great comeback unless you’re behind, so we’ll just go after it and do the best we can. He’s got a good attitude and we’ll keep swinging.”
NASCAR drivers like results at Indianapolis test
INDIANAPOLIS — Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya like what they’ve seen from the new Cup cars at Indianapolis.
On Monday, the two former Indianapolis winners joined a growing list of test participants who have raved about everything from handling to quicker speeds to tire wear on the 2.5-mile oval that has often caused so much consternation for NASCAR drivers.
“Our car has been quick at a lot of tracks where it has not been really fast in the past and the testing has been pretty good today,” said McMurray, who won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in 2010. “It’s our first time here with this car and it seems like some of the setup stuff is a little different from what we’ve been doing here the last couple of years.”
McMurray and Montoya are part of a small contingent — five cars from the Cup Series and four from the Nationwide Series — that is testing at Indy through today.
Also testing was Denny Hamlin, who was cleared to drive Monday morning after a hard crash Sunday at Kentucky. After the race, Hamlin complained of headaches but Indy’s medical team found nothing that would prevent Hamlin from climbing into the No. 11 car and turning laps in excess of 200 mph. Neither Hamlin or his team took questions.
With cool temperatures, overcast skies and light winds, the weather was ideal for top speeds, though rain postponed most of the scheduled afternoon session.
But the common them coming out of all the tests at Indy is this: The new car is outperforming the old one.
On a warmer, sunny day in April, Jeff Gordon and Trevor Bayne walked off the track and said they were impressed with the way the cars handled in those conditions, too, and both noted that even the tire wear was better than usual. That’s become a recurring question since the 2008 race turned into a series of short sprints when tire problems brought out so many cautions.
Goodyear, the series’ tire manufacturer, has since softened the tire compound, which produced far better results. That part hasn’t changed.
“They’ve figured it out,” said Montoya, who won the 2000 Indianapolis 500. “The grip level is really good today.”
Will that be the case in hotter conditions? The Brickyard 400 has traditionally been one of the hottest races in the series.
One possible solution to the heat is adding lights at the speedway, either permanent or temporary. Speedway officials believe running in the cooler nighttime temperatures could make the race better and perhaps boost attendance, which has been dwindling since the 2008 tire fiasco.
Most Cup drivers who have come through Indy, including McMurray, seem to embrace the thought of running Indy’s first night race.
“I think if they do that, it would be for the fans. I’m not sure from a driver’s perspective that it would be that much different,” McMurray added. “But if they do that, I think it would be great.”
FIA allows in-season testing over tire trouble
LONDON — Facing a revolt from teams over exploding tires at the British Grand Prix, Formula One’s governing body allowed in-season testing on Monday to allay safety fears.
Jean Todt, the International Automobile Federation president, revealed in a statement the young drivers test scheduled for July 17-19 at Silverstone would be open to all F1 drivers, although Mercedes would be excluded after it was reprimanded for holding unsanctioned tire tests in May.
Todt announced the unprecedented move — in-season testing was banned in 2009 over cost concerns — follows Sunday’s race where tires exploded on four cars including Lewis Hamilton’s and Felipe Massa’s.
“Our priority is to ensure safety for all in Formula One and we believe the incidents at Silverstone represent a genuine safety concern for the drivers,” Todt continued. “We have thus taken the decision to alter the young driver test to allow teams to use drivers they deem fit to carry out tire development work in a bid to solve the problems we saw at the British Grand Prix. I believe it is fitting to carry out this work at the circuit upon which the issues were manifested.”
Todt added he would seek approval to amend FIA regulations to allow changes in tire specifications without the approval of all teams — addressing a concern that some teams in the past have stymied efforts to make changes during the season.
He also called for F1’s sole provider of tires, Pirelli, to offer “assurance that there will be no repetition of the tire problems at this weekend’s German Grand Prix or at subsequent grand prix.”
The move to allow testing comes a day after drivers nearly crashed after their tires blew while racing at speeds upward of 180 mph.
The sight of large chunks of debris showering cars and, in one case, a huge strip of rubber flying across the track, almost led to the race being called off and prompted concerns F1 was sacrificing safety for excitement.
“Our greatest concern revolves around safety,” Massa, who was nearly killed when hit by a piece of debris at the Hungary GP in 2010, said on Sunday. “It’s unacceptable having to drive knowing you are not safe. Even if, luckily, nothing serious happened, what we saw is very dangerous.”
Pirelli was investigating the problems but ruled out a new bonding process for the tires that was introduced ahead of the British GP.
The company has been called to a meeting on Wednesday in Germany of team sporting directors and the FIAbut had no information on the testing.
“There have been obviously some issues with rear-left failures which we have not seen before,” Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery said. “We are taking the situation very seriously and we are currently investigating all tires to determine the cause as soon as possible ahead of the next grand prix in Germany.”
The tire trouble at Silverstone is the latest controversy to hit F1’s sole tire provider, which has come under fire over concerns its tires are wearing down too quickly and leading to races being decided by pit stops rather than action on the track.
It was reprimanded along with Mercedes for holding unsanctioned testing in May in a bid to improve the safety of its tires.
With the German GP this weekend, several teams on Sunday called for Pirelli to quickly sort out the problem.
“We had five tire failures here. Lots of people have a lot of theories about what that is, whether it is fatigue failure or puncture caused by debris,” said McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, who heads the F1 teams’ association. “We have been lucky that no one has been hurt.”
Whitmarsh suggested going back to the 2012 tires, while 3-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart said the FIA should lift the ban on in-season testing immediately so that all teams can test their tires this week.
He went even further, suggesting the time may have come for eliminating pit stops altogether and introducing a tire that can last an entire race — rather than the current situation that requires two or even three stops.
“We don’t need to have pit stops to make motor racing exciting,” Stewart added. “We can have tires that will do the full distance in order to get the safety element in place. If we have to make stiffer tires, a heavy tire, a bigger tire, let’s do that and have no pit stops if that is what it takes to get over this hurdle.
“If we went into another grand prix or two and saw this happening again and something really nasty were to happen, we would never forgive ourselves for not doing something.”