Keeping Pace

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News And Notes - Stewart-Haas Continues To Roll

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

With 14 races in the books, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, competing in their first year as teammates in Stewart’s new ownership collaboration with Carl Haas, find themselves first and fourth in the current point standings.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

The duo of Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) and Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet) at Stewart-Haas Racing continues to roll on.

With 14 races in the books, Stewart and Newman, competing in their first year as teammates in Stewart’s new ownership collaboration with Carl Haas, find themselves first and fourth in the current point standings, respectively. With his win this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Stewart not only claimed the 34th win of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career, he became the first driver/-owner since Ricky Rudd in 1998 to win a points race. That’s a span of 375 races

And for the second consecutive week, the two-time series titlist is atop the leader board heading to this Sunday’s LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

“Last year, there certainly were a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of headaches going to bed,” Stewart said following his win on Sunday. “Once you get it all together and you get a good group like this and you’ve got a group that’s as hungry as this group is, they feed off each other. Really, all I have to do is walk in there and pat those guys on the back, because they are a lot smarter people than I am.”

Newman, Stewart’s running mate and fellow Hoosier, has put together a string of six straight top-10 finishes. He was 32nd after the season’s fourth race, but has moved up 28 spots over the past 10 races. This is Newman’s best start to the season since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup began in 2004. After 14 races in 2008, Newman, then competing for Penske Racing, was 14th in points.

“We’ve worked hard as a team to obtain our recent finishes,” said Newman. “Whether it has been pit strategy or just fixing mechanical problems during a race, it’s really been a team effort. We’re pleased with the recent results and where we currently stand in points, but we still haven’t reached the ultimate and that’s going to Victory Lane. We’re all excited about Tony’s win at Pocono and know that we can also get there.”

Both Stewart and Newman have enjoyed a fair amount of success at Michigan. Stewart has one win — a race-shortened victory in 2000 — to go along with nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Newman is a two-time winner at MIS — winning in 2003 and again in 2004. He also has posted four top fives at the two-mile oval. Stewart’s Average Running Position of 10.4 is second best on the circuit in 2009, while his Driver Rating of 101. 2 is fourth best.

Cut-Off For The Chase Is As Tight As Ever

The battle around the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup “cut-off bubble” is as tight as it gets. A single point is the difference between competing for a championship and missing out altogether.

Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet) is 13th, one point behind Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota). Only one other time in the Chase era (2004-present) have the standings been this close at this point of the season. After 14 races in 2005, when the Chase was a 10-driver field, 11th-place Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) trailed 10th-place Tony Stewart by a point.

The gap between 12th and 15th place is only 62 points. Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) is 14th, 60 points behind Hamlin, while Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) is 15th and 62 points out of 12th place.

Michigan Is Roush Country

Michigan International Speedway is considered to be the ‘home track” for veteran NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Jack Roush.

Roush’s home is Livonia, Mich., located just 45 minutes from MIS and is also the site of his business interests — Roush Industries.

Roush Fenway Racing drivers have won 10 times at Michigan, second only to the Wood Brothers’ 11 victories. His teams have won three of the last five races there. Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford) has won twice at MIS, including the race last August. Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) has also won two times at Michigan, as has Matt Kenseth (No. 17 CARHARTT Ford). Heading into this week’s LifeLock 400, Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth rank 6-7-8 in the series standings.

MIS Site Of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Last Victory

It was Father’s Day weekend, June 15, 2008, at Michigan International Speedway and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) was back in Victory Lane. Fast forward a year later and the sport’s most popular driver hasn’t tasted victory since and has experienced more than his share of ups and downs on the race track over the past 12 months.

While that win was the 18th of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career and first while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, that victory didn’t generate the type of momentum that the No. 88 team had hoped it would. Earnhardt did make the Chase in 2008 — finishing 12th — but currently finds himself 20th in points and 245 points out of the cut-off 12th position. His team experienced a crew chief change a couple of weeks ago, with Lance McGrew taking over the duties from Tony Eury Jr. Since that switch, Earnhardt has finished 12th at Dover and 27th at Pocono. While Earnhardt is the defending race winner, his performance at Michigan over the years has been so-so at best. In 19 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at MIS, Earnhardt has the one victory, six top-10 and three top-five finishes, to go along with two poles. His Average Finish is 16.7.

Always A Threat: Penske Racing Usually Contends For MIS Wins

Roger Penske is another team owner that has historically enjoyed successful afternoons at Michigan International Speedway. Penske owned the race track from 1973 until 1999.

During his ownership, the track experienced significant growth, as the grandstands expanded from 25,000 to more than 125,000 seats, and numerous buildings were added to the property, including three garages, 28 pit terrace suites, an administration building, two ticket offices, a maintenance building, a warehouse, souvenir shops, a Competition Tire Building and a Motorsports International Building.

Penske drivers have won six times at MIS, tied with Robert Yates for fourth best all-time among owners. Former Penske driver Rusty Wallace won three times at Michigan, while Ryan Newman, who drove for Penske from 2000-08 is a two-time winner there. Current Penske driver Kurt Busch won at MIS in 2007.

“Double-File Restarts — Shootout Style” Debut

NASCAR announced a change to its race format last week with the addition of “Double-File Restarts — Shootout Style” and the debut of the new procedure in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was deemed a success last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

Having the leaders line up side-by-side as the green flag flies for each restart proved to be a popular revision for the drivers and fans alike. Race winner Tony Stewart is a big fan of the change.

“Everyone knew it was going to be an adjustment period, and it still is,” said Stewart, “but it worked great today. It was awesome not having to deal with lap cars on restarts.

“It was nice knowing that everybody you were around was battling for position. Pocono was the perfect place to try this.

“Michigan will be another great place to have it. I think the great thing is that we have a sanctioning body that is proactive and listens to its fans and cares. It worked great (Sunday) and I think it’s something the fans are going to enjoy.”

MIS Sports Rich Racing Tradition

Cale Yarborough won the first NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway on June 15, 1969 — next Monday will mark the 40th anniversary of that win. Driving the Wood Brothers’ famed No. 21 car, it marked the first of 11 victories for that racing organization at MIS — most by any race team.

This Sunday will mark the 80th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan. Other than 1973, which had just one race, there have been two races each season since 1969.

The first Michigan race was 500 miles in length; the second was scheduled for 600 miles. Except for the last race in 1970 and both races in 1971 (when the races were 402 miles in length), all of the other races at MIS have been 400-milers.

David Pearson leads all drivers with nine victories at Michigan. Yarborough is next with eight wins. Among drivers still active, Bill Elliott tops the list with seven wins at MIS. Mark Martin is next with four. Speaking of Elliott, he has a chance this weekend to move past Ricky Rudd for most laps completed at Michigan. Rudd’s track record is 10,609 and Elliott has run 10,413 laps there.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) has won twice at this two-mile oval located in the Irish Hills of Southeastern Michigan.

“I love Michigan and would have to say it’s my favorite track,“ says the four-time series champion.

“You would think my favorite track would be one that I’ve won a lot more at, but I love Michigan. It’s big and wide and fast; it has multiple grooves and you can run from the white line to the wall. You can change your angles in and off the corners. You can do so much there that to me, it’s just an all-around great track.”

Rock Around The Track At Michigan

Race fans attending the event this weekend at Michigan will have some entertainment opportunities at their disposal.

Detroit’s own Kid Rock will serve as Grand Marshal for the LifeLock 400 on Sunday. The multi-platinum recording artist will headline pre-race activities, including being recognized during driver introductions, give the famous command for drivers to start their engines and ride in the Grand Marshal car leading the field during the ceremonial parade laps. In addition, Kid Rock will join Robby Gordon (No. 7 Red Stag/Kid Rock Toyota Camry) in the speedway’s fan hospitality club, Acceleration, on Sunday morning.

Kid Rock has a connection with several NASCAR drivers, including Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet). In 2004, Kid Rock sponsored Stewart’s car in the first NASCAR Nationwide Series race for Kevin Harvick Inc. at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

NASCAR fans will be treated to live entertainment in the New Holland Fan Plaza throughout race weekend. The headliner act on Saturday is “Majestic,” a tribute band to the ever-popular late 70s, early 80s sensation, Journey. Majestic will perform at 6:20 p.m. Opening for Majestic at 4:30 p.m. will be MIS crowd favorite cover band, “The River.”

Reutimann Won’t Go Away

Just when you thought you’d seen the last of David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota) contending for a berth in the Chase, the likable Florida native is back in the picture, giving all indications he’s here to stay.

Reutimann, who won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race a couple weeks back at the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600, posted another strong third-place finish at Pocono to move back into the top 12; he’s currently 11th in points.

Reutimann was a fixture in the top 12 for seven weeks earlier this season (races 2-9) before dropping outside the Chase cut-off following a 28th-place showing at Richmond. Reutimann said that his team is just now realizing its potential.

“At the end of last year, I was like, man, if we can just do this and do a couple things better, I think we might be able to be in contention for the Chase,” said Reutimann.

“It’s worked out so far. We’ve definitely had some races that we would like to forget, but for the most part it’s been a pretty good year. You look at the results we’ve had in previous years compared to this year; there’s just no comparison.”

With 12 Races Remaining Prior To The Chase, Bonus Points Are Vital

Twelve more races remain in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 26-race “regular season,” meaning 120 potential bonus points are left to be had.

For each win during the first 26 races, a driver earns 10 bonus points toward his Chase seeding. For those well above the Chase cut-off of 12th, victories — and the bonus points that come with them — are vital.

Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) leads with three wins (and 30 bonus points). He’s followed by Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet), Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin (two wins apiece).

Three of the above four are strong at Michigan, and could help their cause of gaining the top seed with a Michigan win. Martin, though, has had some Michigan struggles and currently resides outside the Chase bubble, in 13th place.

Of those drivers with multiple 2009 wins, Johnson owns the best Michigan statistics. Since the inception of NASCAR’s Loop Data stats, Johnson has a Driver Rating of 106.9 (second-best), an Average Running Position of 9.4 (third), 114 Fastest Laps Run (second) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 79.4% (third).

Oddly, Michigan is one of six active tracks at which Johnson has yet to win.

The same drought is felt by Kyle Busch, whose best Michigan finish was second last August. Still, also like Johnson, his stats are solid. At Michigan, Busch has a Driver Rating of 95.7 (seventh-best), 69 Fastest Laps Run (eighth) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 71% (sixth).

Kenseth, though, has won twice at Michigan and has finished in the top five in four of the last five races there. He has a Driver Rating of 106.4 (third), an Average Running Position of 11.5 (fifth), 76 Fastest Laps Run (sixth) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 79% (fourth).

While Martin has won four times at Michigan, he hasn’t been victorious there since 1998. He has finishes outside the top 20 in three of the last four races (including two DNFs during that span). His statistics are so-so: a Driver Rating of 83.2 and an Average Running Position of 16.2.

Up Next: Toyota/Save Mart 350 At Infineon Raceway

Infineon Raceway is the site of race 15 of the 2009 season.

The 1.99-mile road course is one of two road courses in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; the other being Watkins Glen International.

Kyle Busch won the 2008 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon, his first win on a road course. The victory gave Busch wins on all four type tracks in NASCAR’s premier series. Busch led twice for 78 of the 112 laps raced — leading all but two of the final 80 laps. David Gilliland (No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet) scored a career-best second-place finish, while Jeff Gordon, a five-time winner at Infineon, finished third.

Gordon’s five wins lead all drivers at Infineon while his nine total wins at NASCAR road courses (including Watkins Glen) tops all drivers. Tony Stewart is a two-time winner at Infineon and has six total road-course wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Fast Facts

The Race: LifeLock 400

The Date: Sunday, June 14

The Track: Michigan International Speedway; 2-mile oval

The Time: 2 p.m. ET

The Distance: 200 laps/400 miles

TV: TNT, 12:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN and Sirius Satellite (Local affiliate WDTW- FM, 106.7 ) 

2008 Polesitter: Kyle Busch

2008 Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Schedule: Friday—Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. Saturday—Practice, 11-11:45 a.m. and 12:20-1:20 p.m.

2009 Top 12 Drivers

    Driver                Points
 1 Tony Stewart       2,043
 2 Jeff Gordon          1,972
 3 Jimmie Johnson   1,940
 4 Ryan Newman     1,840
 5 Kurt Busch          1,819
 6 Carl Edwards       1,762
 7 Greg Biffle           1,753
 8 Matt Kenseth       1,745
 9 Kyle Busch          1,731
10 Jeff Burton           1,725
11 David Reutimann  1,701
12 Denny Hamlin      1,679




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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.





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