|Right where he wants to be|
A pair of runner-up finishes at Chicagoland and New Hampshire Motor Speedway has pushed the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion into familiar territory; the top of the 2012 championship standings. Johnson overcame a mid-pack qualifying effort to finish second behind winner Denny Hamlin Sunday, just enough to edge him ahead of Keselowski in the championship standings. With eight races remaining, Johnson totals 2,096 points to Keselowski’s 2,095. Hamlin is third, another six points back.
“We were best in class today and did a great job,” said Johnson, with a respectful nod toward Hamlin’s dominant Toyota. “We beat our average (finish) here and it’s very important and helpful in the Chase. Everybody is racing for position. Everybody is racing for wins and the points fall where they fall.”
Next up for Johnson is the Monster Mile at Dover, a track his Lowe’s Chevrolet team has dominated in recent seasons. In 21 career starts there, Johnson has seven wins, 10 Top-5 and 15 Top-10 finishes, with an average finish of 8.8. “(It’s) a place I love,” admitted Johnson. “Hopefully we have a good, smart day and get the finish we hope to have.”
In past seasons, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have relied on similarly fast starts to the Chase, racking-up Top-3 finishes in the first half of the playoff schedule to separate themselves from the bulk of the field. It appears that strategy is being employed with equal success again this season.
…One can only wonder how dominant Hamlin might have been Sunday, had it not been for a bizarre qualifying miscue that saw his team inflate his tires to race-day air pressures, rather than qualifying pressures. Despite starting 32nd Sunday, the FedEx Toyota needed just 93 laps to claim the lead. Hamlin eventually led 193 of the 300 laps, including 193 of the final 206.
|Edwards in disarray|
...If Ford Motor Company is going to contend for the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship, they need to get their flat-track program figured out, in a hurry. The Blue Oval was a non-entity at New Hampshire, with Matt Kenseth’s lukewarm, 14th-place finish the best of the day. Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards were 18th and 19th, respectively, the only other Fords in the Top-10. While the FR9 powerplant gives Ford an edge at intermediate and restrictor-plate venues, they continue to lag far behind on shorter, flatter tracks. Martinsville and Phoenix lie ominously on the horizon, and FoMoCo engineers have little time to shore up their sagging fortunes.
…Speaking of Edwards, crew chief Bob Osborne’s decision to step down in mid-July has done nothing to improve the performance of the Aflac Ford team. Edwards started fifth Sunday, but plummeted almost immediately from the Top-10. He has 20th at the halfway mark and finished 19th at the drop of the checkered flag. Edwards’ best finish in the last five weeks was a 17th at Richmond, and the No. 99 team is quite clearly in disarray.
…Sprint Cup Series team are now officially worried about the lack of body panels for the new, 2013 cars that will debut at the Daytona 500 in February. NASCAR has given final approval to the new, more stock appearing 2013 bodies, but neither Ford, Chevrolet nor Toyota have begun stamping out needed panels for distribution to teams. NASCAR has set an exhaustive schedule of tests for the new 2013 package, beginning Oct. 3 at Talladega and continuing Oct. 9/10 at Texas, Oct. 24/25 at Phoenix and Nov. 6/7 at Charlotte. All those tests are considered critical for teams and Goodyear tire engineers alike. Fiberglass mockups will almost certainly be used in those tests, even though weight differences between fiberglass and steel make the results less useful.
|Headed to Furniture Row?|
…Kyle Busch’s season – and Busch himself – went further south Sunday, when engine problems once again ruined a solid early performance at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. After reporting a loss of power to crew chief Dave Rogers, Busch displayed his frustration with a long and disappointing 2012 campaign when asked to check his gauges for possible temperature or oil pressure issues.
"They're fine,” snapped Busch. “I would tell you if there was something wrong. I'm not stupid.”
Don’t be surprised to see major changes on the No. 18 M&M’s team during the offseason.
…Despite repeated statements of satisfaction with current driver Regan Smith, it appears that Furniture Row Racing is gearing up for a major 2012 retooling, after all.
Smith confirmed Friday that he is unlikely to return next season, and sources say the seat in the No. 78 Chevrolet is Kurt Busch’s for the asking. FRR general manager Joe Garone first expressed interest in Busch months ago, while insisting that he was merely investigating options for a possible second entry. Busch admitted that talks have taken place with Furniture Row, saying, “There (are) a handful of contracts sitting on my desk and it's just a matter of going through some detail with each of the teams."
Make no mistake about it, Busch is a prohibitive favorite to replace Smith in 2013.
…Brian Vickers bolstered his case for a full-time NASCAR ride yet again Sunday, wheeling Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota to a ninth-place finish. In seven starts this season, Vickers has now claimed three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes, and looks nothing like the desperate, hair-triggered driver who feuded with both Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth a year ago, in the final weeks of his ride with the lame-duck Red Bull Racing team.
Vickers’ 2012 efforts have not gone unnoticed. The North Carolina native is believed to be headed for a full-time Nationwide Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing next season, and could possibly retain his part-time Sprint Cup job at MWR, as well. After sitting out much of the 2010 season due to potentially career-threatening health issues, Vickers is NASCAR’s “Comeback Kid” of 2012.
…Jeff Gordon’s championship plight came into full focus Sunday, when his Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet started on the pole at New Hampshire and ran well all day before finishing third behind Hamlin and Johnson. That solid showing gained Gordon exactly two points in the standings, however, and he remains a distant 12th in the title chase.
“We are going to have to win a lot… and keep those top results going like we got today,” admitted Gordon afterward. “And we are going to need some help. This is the first step in the process and this is definitely what we needed.”
Photos: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images North America, Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR, Zeus/Cal Sport Media