04/17/12 11:26PM Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR, Nationwide, Sprint Cup

NASCAR National News And Notes: Enough Is Enough? Hendrick’s Wait Nears End

April 17, 2012

Enough Is Enough? Hendrick’s Wait Nears End
Thirteen races have passed since Hendrick Motorsports’ last win at Kansas Speedway in October. That doesn’t sound like many, but for the powerhouse squad, it kind of is.
That’s the longest drought Hendrick has had since the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, when it went 15 races without a win. Coincidentally, that streak began after a Kansas win, as well.
Six teams have won at least one race since Hendrick’s last win, including Red Bull Racing, which doesn’t race in 2012.
Stewart-Haas Racing has five wins since Hendrick’s last victory.
Hendrick has been close, painstakingly so. In those 13 races, the team has four runner-up finishes, and 14 top fives overall.
Yet optimism bubbles over this weekend for Hendrick. The stable placed all four of its cars in the top 10 at Texas Motor Speedway last Saturday night for the first time since April 2011 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Plus, the team enjoys plenty of success at Kansas. Hendrick won the first two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races held at Kansas Speedway, in 2001-02, with Jeff Gordon behind the wheel. Since then, Jimmie Johnson has added two more Hendrick wins, in 2008 and again last October. Hendrick holds more wins than any other owner at Kansas with four.
So who might wear the crown of Mr. 200? Most signs point to Johnson, who has led 501 laps at Kansas, more than any other driver in the track’s history. Johnson also boasts Kansas’ top Driver Rating, at 120.6. Watch, too, for Kasey Kahne, who was the runner-up to Johnson in October, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second in this race last season.
Hendrick has the unique opportunity of celebrating two milestones in one this weekend. It’ll at least check one off the list. At Kansas, Hendrick will make its 3,000th start, becoming the first team to reach that milestone. Its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start came on Feb. 19, 1984, with driver Geoff Bodine.

NASCAR Ladder System Produces Stars on Track, Pit Road
Take it from Texas Samsung Mobile 500 winner Greg Biffle: NASCAR’s ladder system works and not just in developing driving talent. Biffle broke a 49-race winless streak last weekend with crew chief Matt Puccia, who worked his way to NASCAR’s premier series after getting his start with Roush Fenway Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
"There's a lot of guys, some of the guys on the team that I think Richie [Letendre], the car chief, this is his first full-time Cup deal," said Biffle. "Richie came from the Nationwide shop as a car chief."
Puccia isn’t the only "ladder graduate" making crucial decisions on pit road. Among them are:
Jason Ratcliff, who led Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota team to a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series titles, graduated this year to back the No. 20 Toyota of Joey Logano. He joined Dave Rogers, a former NASCAR Nationwide championship crew chief, who has won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup races with Kyle Busch.
At Penske Racing, Paul Wolfe got the call to move up after winning the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series title with Brad Keselowski. The pair won three times a year ago, qualified for the Chase and finished fifth in points.
Kevin Manion won two Nationwide championships with Martin Truex Jr. Now Jamie McMurray’s NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates pair won the 2010 Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Keselowski Looks To STP 400 To Rebuild Missing Momentum
Last year’s STP 400 victory wasn’t Brad Keselowski’s first in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It was, however, the most significant in what became a coming-out season for the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. Keselowski didn’t exactly overpower the competition at Kansas Speedway, winning the race by saving enough fuel to make one fewer pit stop than his rivals.
But the "W" he posted was a preview of things to come later in the summer. Despite injuries suffered in a testing crash at Road Atlanta, Keselowski won at Pocono and Bristol to qualify as the top "Wild Card" entry for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He finished fifth in final points standings.
The return to 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway couldn’t come at a better time for Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge team. The season, so far, has been an up-and-down ride.
Keselowski won a second straight race at Bristol and has led four of seven starts. Conversely, mechanical issues have plagued the team, which has finished on the lead lap just three times. His average finish is 19.0. Keselowski enters the STP 400 ranked 15th in the standings, which is significantly better than a year ago when the 28-year-old was outside the top 20.

Long-Shot Puccia Was Biffle’s Best Shot
Call Matt Puccia’s appointment as crew chief for Greg Biffle the NASCAR version of a "hail Mary."
Mired in a season-long slump during which nothing seemed to go right either on the track or pit road, it became obvious 18 races into the 2011 season that Biffle wasn’t going to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Enter Puccia, a winner for Roush Fenway Racing in both NASCAR Nationwide Series and Camping World trucks but without crew chief experience on the sport’s biggest stage.
Chemistry between driver and crew chief was immediate as Biffle finished the campaign with 11 top-15 finishes over the final 18 races. Biffle finished fifth in last fall’s stop at Texas Motor Speedway, where the No. 16 Ford won the Coors Light Pole.
Further reorganization over the winter months has Biffle channeling 2005 – a season in which the NNS and NCWTS champion won six times and finished as the standings runner-up. Last weekend’s Texas victory further cemented a championship lead – 19 points over Daytona 500 winner and Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth – that Biffle has held since early March.

No Place Like Home For Three Big Guns
Three drivers from the Kansas/Missouri area, sprinkled all throughout the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, want this one badly.
First up, Clint Bowyer from Emporia, Kan. Bowyer won last year’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at his hometrack Kansas Speedway but has thus far come up empty in NASCAR’s premier series. Currently 10th, Bowyer has enjoyed a splendid start with his new employer, Michael Waltrip Racing. His best career finish at Kansas was a runner-up result in 2007.
Carl Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., is a different story. Despite a points position that’s just one marker behind Bowyer, most would consider 2012 a bumpy start for last year’s almost-champion. He has alternated between top-10 finishes and runs outside the top 10, with a 39th place at Bristol a big blow to his points standing. His 11th-place position is the lowest after seven races since 2006 – the last season Edwards failed to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Like Bowyer, Edwards won a truck race at Kansas (in 2004) and has a best NASCAR Sprint Cup finish of second (2008).
Jamie McMurray, from Joplin, Mo., currently sits 23rd in points and likely will need to rely on the Wild Card to make his first Chase appearance. The 2010 Daytona 500 winner’s best Kansas finish was seventh in 2004.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
President Barack Obama honored 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and the rest of the 2011 Chase drivers on Tuesday at the White House. To watch the live stream on Tuesday afternoon at 4:50 p.m. ET, click here. … Sam Hornish Jr. will make his first attempt of the 2012 NSCS season in the No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge. His last start came at Pocono Raceway in June of last season. Hornish is currently fourth in NASCAR Nationwide Series points. … Milestone Marker: Ryan Newman continues his hunt to become the ninth driver with 50 Coors Light Poles. Kansas Speedway is one of eight tracks at which Newman has not won a pole. … Greg Biffle needs 16 more laps led to reach 5,000 in his NSCS career. … Earth Day falls on NSCS race day and a number of initiatives are taking place. NASCAR Green is on track to launch their website, www.NASCAR.com/Green, and official twitter handle, @NASCARGreen. The NASCAR Green logo will also be integrated into various places throughout the weekend. Miss Sprint Cup will be wearing green fire suits to tout Sprint’s at-track recycling efforts and the walls at Kansas Speedway will be painted green.

Sadler, Stenhouse Previewing Epic Championship Battle?
Sports can create irreplaceable memories for fans. Even though it’s early, the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ close competition is providing plenty for fans to cherish.
Just four points separate standings leader Elliott Sadler and second-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. following Stenhouse’s victory at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend.
 Six races into the books and the all-too-familiar rivals have similar stats. Each has two wins, four top fives and five top 10s. The difference comes down to Sadler’s 12 bonus points to Stenhouse’s 11 and the one Did Not Finish (DNF) by Stenhouse after an incident on the last lap at Daytona.
Though Sadler holds the top spot in the series driver standings, Stenhouse bests him in three key season-to-date Loop Data categories: Driver Rating - Stenhouse (118.3), Sadler (113.6); Average Running Position - Stenhouse (5.7), Sadler (6.3); and Green Flag Passes - Stenhouse (445), Sadler (378). 

Strapped In And Ready To Win
Despite the season being only six races old, it seems like the days of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers dominating NASCAR Nationwide Series races are fading. Over the last nine events, seven have been won by drivers who don’t receive championship points in NSCS. Six of those victories have come courtesy of NNS driver championship contenders – including last Friday night’s win at Texas by reigning series champion Stenhouse. The other win was the opener at Daytona by NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular James Buescher, who’s scheduled to compete in nearly half the NNS races this year.
Series regular drivers are taking notice of their recent accomplishments against full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers.
"It builds confidence in me to be able to go out and do that," Stenhouse said after winning at Texas last weekend. "We just have to be consistent; you know we have been running up there with those guys (NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers) all year long. We just have to keep it up."
An average of 5.6 full-time NSCS drivers has competed in each NNS race this year. Joey Logano is the lone full-time NSCS driver with a win (Auto Club) in the NNS. Last season, each of the first six races of the season was won by NSCS championship-contending drivers.
Can the NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars continue their winning ways? History says it will be tough. Since Johnny Sauter won Richmond’s 2003 fall race, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points chasers have won 16 consecutive times at the Virginia track, host of the series’ next race on April 27.

Everyone In To The Talent Pool
One of the key elements of the NNS and the NASCAR ladder system is that it keeps a healthy rotation of fresh faces in the driver’s seat. And with new talent to the series comes a learning curve. Here are some of the drivers this season who have started to get ahead of that curve. 
Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon is currently third in the series driver standings, just 20 points behind Sadler. Dillon also leads the rookie of the year standings, 22 points ahead of Cole Whitt in second. Though Dillon has yet to visit Victory Lane this season, he has rallied off four top fives and five top 10s in the first six races.  His season-to-date Driver Rating is 100.7.
Danica Patrick, in her first full series season, is just outside the top 10 in the standings. Following a season-best eighth-place finish, also her second-best career result, she’s now 11th, 15 points out of 10th – a nice comeback considering she was 26th following Daytona.  Her season-to-date Driver Rating is 71.3. 
Michael Annett is not new to the series, but has hit his stride early this season. Annett is fifth in the standings, 64 markers behind Sadler in his fourth full-time season in the NNS. He posted his second top-10 finish of the year (ninth) last Friday night at Texas. That marks the highest ranking the Des Moines, Iowa, native has attained in his NASCAR national series career. His previous best was eighth following last fall’s Phoenix race. This year he’s changed teams, bringing Richard Petty Motorsports into the series for its first fulltime season. His Ford Mustang sports Petty’s iconic No. 43.

NASCAR Nationwide Series, Etc.
Sam Hornish Jr., fourth in the standings, returns to the NSCS at Kansas this weekend for Penske Racing while Tim Andrews will attempt to qualify Go Green Racing’s first NSCS effort there. … Points leader Elliott Sadler is gearing up for softball season, which starts this weekend. He plays with semi-pro players on several teams throughout the summer in southern Virginia. … Johanna Long will meet and greet fans at the Keen Parts Trailer from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Friday, April 20, at the Spring Charlotte Auto Fair. Keen is on board to sponsor her No. 70 ML Motorsports Chevrolet for four races this year. … Racing resumes April 27 at Richmond, where Travis Pastrana is set to make his long-awaited series debut. Pastrana will drive under the RAB Racing banner as RAB and Michael Waltrip Racing announced an alliance that will feature RAB equipment and MWR technical and marketing support. The No. 09 Toyota now becomes the No. 99. Ryan Blaney, 18, son of NASCAR veteran Dave Blaney, also is ready for his series debut at RIR, driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Points Leader Peters Hopes This Kansas Trip Is Different
Timothy Peters can’t be blamed for tempering good fortune with a bit of déjà vu heading into this week’s SFP 250 at Kansas Speedway.
Peters grabbed the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points lead from Red Horse Racing teammate John King with a fifth-place finish in Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 at Rockingham Speedway. Sunoco rookie King, the leader through the season’s first two events, fell to eighth after involvement in an early race accident.
This isn’t the first time that Peters has gone to Kansas with the championship lead. He did so in 2010 but finished 23rd and dropped out of the No. 1 spot the following week at Dover International Speedway.
His Rockingham post-race comments suggest this time will be different.
"I’m looking forward to going to Kansas next week. Our season has been going well," said Peters, whose Toyota is three-for-three in top-five finishes in 2012, including a second place to King at Daytona International Speedway. "At this point, I would rate our season as an ‘A-plus’ and we’re running up front.
"If we keep executing, our win will come." 

Kahne Gives Turner Motorsports Long-Sought Truck Victory
Make Steve Turner’s magic number 134.
Those were the starts required to finally take his Turner Motorsports team to Victory Lane with Kasey Kahne’s picture-perfect, come-from-the-rear triumph in NASCAR’s return to The Rock on Sunday afternoon.
Texan Turner has four NASCAR Nationwide Series wins including James Buescher’s surprise victory at Daytona International Speedway in February.
Turner, however, had been frustrated in trucks, where his team made its NASCAR national series debut in 2009. His team counted 24 top-five finishes, including a trio of seconds prior to Sunday’s race.
The organization has become a powerhouse entry in both trucks and Nationwide, making a concentrated effort to win titles in both during the same season. The organization fielded four Chevrolets at Rockingham: Kahne, Buescher, Keystone Light Pole winner Nelson Piquet Jr. and Miguel Paludo.
Buescher finished second to Kahne and stands fourth in the points standings. Piquet, seventh after a pit road speeding penalty, ranks sixth on the championship.

Sauter, Crafton Can Shake Up Standings In Kansas
Rockingham may have been a game-changer for under-performing ThorSport Racing, whose Toyotas were sub-par through the season’s first two races. Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter posted their first top-five finishes – third and fourth – of the year and vaulted back into the championship conversation.
Crafton led 40 laps and moved to 11th in points. Sauter also ranks among the top 15.
Figure Kansas Speedway as a place where Sauter, the 2010 Sunoco Rookie of the Year and last season’s second-place finisher overall, can do some damage. The Wisconsin driver finished second to 2011 Kansas winner Clint Bowyer and won the event the previous season in a stirring battle with four-time NCWTS Champion Ron Hornaday Jr. The pair tangled between turns three and four and slid side-by-side down the track before recovering to finish one-two.
While Bowyer isn’t expected to compete in this year’s race, Sauter, Crafton and other series points-eligible drivers expect stiff competition from 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series Champion and last year’s Chase qualifier Brad Keselowski. Keselowski continues his bid to post victories in all three NASCAR national series. He also fields Ram trucks for Parker Kligerman, who ranks fifth in series points after finishing ninth at Rockingham.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
If there’s a dark horse title contender, it’s Justin Lofton – and he’s not flying under the radar any longer. Lofton failed to score a top-five finish in 2011 but moved to second in points – six behind Peters – with his third top 10 for Eddie Sharp Racing. … Ty Dillon was the highest-ranked Sunoco rookie contender in Rockingham, finishing eighth. Dillon is third overall, seven out of the championship lead. … Kansas marks the fourth and final time 2010 owner championship points will be used to determine teams locked into starting lineup. … Dakoda Armstrong will visit the race title sponsor’s headquarters on Wednesday, April 18. He will tour the SFP Lab and participate in a Q&A session with local farmers.