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Friday 5: Mark Martin still a dealmaker after all these years

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Matt Kenseth’s start with Roush Fenway Racing began with Mark Martin, and Kenseth’s return also was initiated by his former teammate.

It was Martin — two decades after he pushed car owner Jack Roush to sign the Wisconsin driver — who put things in motion for Kenseth to reunite with Roush Fenway Racing this week.

Kenseth will drive the No. 6 Ford in select races this season, sharing the ride with Trevor Bayne. Kenseth’s first race in the car will be May 12 at Kansas Speedway. Kenseth also will drive in the All-Star Race the following week. The rest of Kenseth’s schedule has not been announced.

Kenseth told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider after Wednesday’s announcement that Martin was the first to reach out to him about returning to Roush Fenway Racing.

“I’ve heard a lot from Mark over the last couple of weeks, last few weeks,” Kenseth told Snider. “Jack has meant a lot to Mark. Mark has meant a lot to the organization. He was instrumental in trying to get all the parties together to make something happen.’’

An intermediary was needed. Roush admitted he struggled to get past the hurt feelings from when Kenseth left the team after the 2012 season for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I still had a little bit of a rawness over the fact that he left me when he did,’’ Roush said. “We had another championship out there, I thought, that we could have had in short order. I missed that, so it took me a little while to get over it.”

Martin was just as forceful in getting Kenseth in the beginning. Martin sought Kenseth two decades ago before a drivers meeting at Talladega in what is now the Xfinity Series. They talked for several minutes.

“I knew where I came from,’’ Martin said, referring to Midwest short-track racing. “I knew where Rusty came from. I knew where Alan Kulwicki came from. I knew what it took to do what we did. I knew that Matt had been doing what we did. That was enough for me. That was enough for me to seek him out.

“I talked to him. I went straight from him to the trailer with Jack and I told Jack right then — because I don’t mess around — I said: “You’ve got to get this dude, we’ve got to get this guy signed. I know you don’t have a place for him, I know you don’t have anything to do for him, (but) you’ve got to get this guy. He’s the guy.’ ‘’

Kenseth signed a testing contract with Roush before the 1998 season and ran five Cup races in 1999 for the team. He went on to win Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2000 and the 2003 Cup title.

“He delivered something I was never able to do – Jack Roush a Cup championship,’’ Martin said of Kenseth. “That means a lot. To me that is big. In other words, it feels good to be right.’’

Now, Martin looks to be right again.

2. Restrictor-plate nuances

After leading a race-high 118 laps in the Daytona 500 and finishing seventh, it would have been easy for Ryan Blaney to look back upon the season-opening race with regret.

Blaney, who also won his qualifying race at Daytona that week, admits he watched the 500 twice that night before moving on.

“You can’t dwell on things too much,’’ Blaney said. “If you dwell on that, you’re taking your mind off the important things like what’s upcoming.’’

But there’s one thing Blaney is looking back upon. Daytona Speedweeks was the first time for the no ride-height rule at restrictor-plate tracks and it made an impact.

“Honestly, we were learning new things because those cars drafted a lot differently with the no ride-height rule,’’ Blaney said. “It was harder to be the leader and block lanes and runs were massive and your car didn’t handle as good.’’

The three major crashes in the Daytona 500 all started in the top three and were a result of a car getting a big run or blocking. Cars made big runs throughout the race and that made it more difficult to time blocks.

“I’m sure some drivers talked about it was hard to make aggressive moves and make sharp turns because the cars were all over the place,’’ Blaney said. “Now I think they’re going to change that up a little bit to where our cars can drive better. You have to have speed, obviously, but you have to be able to make sharp turns and moves and we saw some wrecks in the 500 because guys couldn’t do that or they tried and it didn’t work. I think we will have a better idea of this package, things like that this weekend.’’

But Blaney also admits that leading still could be challenging at Talladega.

“Talladega is just a lot wider, there’s more room to make moves but that is tougher because if you’re the leader you’ve got to block more in spots so that is kind of hard, just depends on what spot you’re in,’’ he said.

3. Waiting to celebrate

Hendrick Motorsports continues to seek its 250th Cup win. This is only the third time since 2002 that Hendrick Motorsports has gone so deep into the season without a victory.

Hendrick needed 11 races to score its first victory of the season in 2012. The team needed 10 races to score its first victory in 2002. Sunday’s race at Talladega marks the 10th race of the year.

Hendrick Motorsports’ last win came in July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Kasey Kahne — 25 races ago.

4. For the cash

Saturday’s Xfinity race is another Dash 4 Cash race — meaning no Cup regulars in the field. This is the first time the Dash 4 Cash event has been held at Talladega

Those racing for the $100,000 bonus are Elliott Sadler, Christopher Bell, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

5. Five winners

So far only five drivers have won in Cup this season — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer.

This is the fewest number of winners in the first nine races of a season since 1997 when the winners were Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin.

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NASCAR America: The top five Bristol moments from spring races

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NASCAR America’s countdown of the top-five Bristol moments from the spring race is highlighted by a feud that developed between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano as well as two incidents involving Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.

In 2013, Hamlin got into the back of Logano which sent the driver spinning out of the race. The confrontation that spilled over into the garage area is still shown in highlight reels five years later.

Gordon holds down the No. 2 and No. 1 slots.

In 1997, Gordon was racing for his third consecutive spring win and was not going to allow Rusty Wallace to get in his way. He employed the bump-and-run to get to Victory Lane.

“The bump’s not the hard part, it’s the run,” said Steve Letarte, who was the tire specialist for the team in that race. “And if you’re going to do the bump, you’ve got to do the run and get away from that competitor.”

Gordon did not fare as well in the No. 1 moment from 2006, so watch the above video to see how that race was resolved.

Friday 5: As the youth movement progresses, should there be minimum age limits?

Photo: Jake Garcia Racing
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By his father’s account, 13-year-old Jake Garcia fared well while becoming the youngest driver to compete in a Late Model race at historic Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville last weekend.

Garcia finished 13th in a 19-car field in a race won by Michael House and placed ahead of former Cup driver Sterling Marlin, who was 15th. The performance came about two months after Garcia’s Late Model debut — before he had turned 13.

Garcia’s first Late Model race, though, was actually late when compared to Timmy Tyrrell, or Mini Tyrrell as he’s know around the track. Tyrrell made his first Late Model start when he was 9 years old in 2014 at Shenandoah (Virginia) Speedway. Tyrrell has won the past two Late Model track championships there.

As NASCAR celebrates a youth movement in Cup — more than 20 percent of the drivers in Monday’s race at Martinsville Speedway were age 24 or younger — children are moving up to the Late Model ranks at an earlier age.

There remain some barriers. The minimum age for a NASCAR license is 14 years old, so no one under that age can race in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at a NASCAR-sanctioned track. Tracks without such sanctioning can decide if to allow youngsters to race and some do.

That also leads to questions of if it is right to put a child in a Late Model car before they are a teenager or just as they reach that age. There are those who raise concerns since auto racing can be dangerous even with all the safety enhancements.

Timmy Tyrrell, father of Mini Tyrrell, said he’s heard the “nasty comments” about putting his son in a Late Model at such an early age and the accusations of him being “reckless” with such a decision but says that is not the case. 

“As a father, first and foremost, I want to wrap my kid in bubble wrap whatever he does,’’ Timmy Tyrrell told NBC Sports. “Nobody wants to see their child hurt. I go above and beyond, making sure his seats are perfect, his helmet, his HANS, everything.’’

Tyrrell said the decision to move his son to Late Model wasn’t done by just him but based on evaluation of others in racing. That’s the same approach Stevie Garcia used before allowing his son, Jake, to run Late Models. Jake Garcia is in a driver development program set up by Willie Allen, the 2007 Rookie of the Year in NASCAR’s Truck Series. Jake Garcia tested four times at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville — a .596-mile venue that once hosted Cup races — to learn the car and track and showing he could handle racing there.

Allen said they had cameras on the car and some data acquisition devices to help Garcia study those tests and understand what he needed to do to race there.

Garcia impressed Allen with how he performed.

“He’s super calm and composed for his age,’’ Allen told NBC Sports. “I see a lot of other drivers that worry about the wrong stuff at the race track all the time. He’s just focused on how to make himself better and attacking the track and that’s what it is all about.’’

Garcia or anyone else younger than 14 cannot run in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at South Boston (Virginia) Speedway because it is a NASCAR-sanctioned track, but General Manger Cathy Rice wonders if there will be a day when the minimum age requirement is lowered.

“Kids mature so much now, so early,’’ Rice told NBC Sports. “I’ve been in this sport, this is 30 years this year that I’ve been here, I’ve seen the trend of the maturity in the kids. Maybe NASCAR will look at 12 or 13, I don’t know, the insurance and everything you have to deal with, there’s a lot to it.’’

Former Cup champion Kyle Busch, who started in Late Models at age 15 before he was caught for being too young, says there can be cases for younger drivers to race in Late Models.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing as much as it’s an experience thing,’’ he said. “I look at go-karts, how did that particular individual do in go-karts and Bandoleros or Legend cars – what has his history been in vehicles? Has he won races? Has he been good? Has it been worth him moving up each and every time that he gets to a new vehicle?

“I don’t think it’s smart to just start at 10 or start at 13 in a Late Model, that absolutely should not be possible.’’

Busch admits the move to Late Models was significant when he made it.

“I was scared to death of the thing,,’’ he said. “With how much faster it was than a Legends car, how much cornering speed it had more than a Legends car and what anything I had ever been in and what I had been used and accustomed to as far as what the grip level was and the G-forces and things that it gives you.

“It was just a big deal at 16 years old for me. I think that there’s kids that can handle it, obviously. I don’t think that it’s all that important to be as young as some of these cats are getting in Late Models and stuff at 10 or 13 years old, whatever it is, because I look at myself not being 15 doing that, and I look at William Byron not being 15 or 16 and doing that. He got a late start like I did, so you can still have a late start and still be good and be able to make it to the big time.’’

Reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. admits that “I’m sure there are some kids that are ready for it and obviously we’ve seen kids at 13, 14 or 15 be successful at short track racing, Late Models or whatever, you name it.

“I would say that there is nobody that should say you can’t do it. I guess the hard part is what happens when somebody is thrown in there that really can’t do it or he thinks he can or parents think you can.

“For me at 13, I would say I probably could have driven a full-size car, obviously it was illegal and I wasn’t allowed to in New Jersey, I had to be 18. I lost quite a few years in racing because of that, but I think I was mature enough and knew enough about racing so I guess it’s more about the individual than it is a generalization. I can’t imagine what I could have learned from the time I was 14 until I was 18 – you’re talking about four years of racing, that’s a lot of races, a lot to learn and a lot of divisions to get up through as well.’’

2. Kyle Busch Double

Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish Monday at Martinsville Speedway marked his 43rd career second-place finish. He also has 43 career Cup victories.

Busch ranks 12th in the modern era (since 1972) for most first- and second-place finishes in Cup.

Here’s the top 12 in first- and second-place finishes since 1972:

1. Jeff Gordon … 168

2. Dale Earnhardt … 146

3. Darrell Waltrip … 142

4. Jimmie Johnson … 129

5. Richard Petty … 126

6. Cale Yarborough … 112

7. Bobby Allison … 109

8. Mark Marin … 101

9. Rusty Wallace … 97

10. Tony Stewart … 93

11. Kevin Harvick … 90

12. Kyle Busch … 86

3. Leader of the pack

Kevin Harvick has led the most laps in Cup this season at 433, but he also ranks third in the Xfinity Series in laps led at 141.

Combined, he’s led 574 of the 2,667 laps run in both series — 21.5 percent — even though he’s not run in every Xfinity race.

4. No fooling

What do Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson have in common?

They all won a Cup race in the modern era (since 1972) on April 1, according to NASCAR stats.

Dale Earnhardt’s first career Cup win came at Bristol on April 1, 1979. He also won at Darlington on April 1 (1990).

Newman (2012) and Johnson (2007) won at Martinsville on April 1. Jarrett won on the date in 2001 at Texas. Waltrip won on that date in 1984 at Bristol. Pearson won on that date in 1973 at Atlanta.

5. Last break of the year

While there are two more off weekends this season for Cup (June 17 and Aug. 26), those off weekends will include Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

This is the final weekend without any type of NASCAR racing through the end of the season — Nov. 18 in Miami.

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Brad Keselowski to drive Rusty Wallace’s 1990 scheme in Southern 500

Lionel Racing
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Rusty Wallace is synonymous with driving the No. 2 for Roger Penske during his NASCAR Hall of Fame career.

But there was a time when Wallace was winning Cup races with a different numeral and a different team.

Brad Keselowski will pay tribute to that era of Wallace’s career in this year’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. After sporting Wallace’s famous “Midnight” scheme in the race last season, Keselowski will drive the scheme that preceded it.

The No. 2 Ford will resemble the No. 27 Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac that Wallace drove in 1990 for owner Raymond Beadle.

That year, Wallace won two races including the Coca-Cola 600. He finished the season sixth in the standings.

See the scheme below.

MORE: Kurt Busch’s Southern 500 paint scheme

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman climb up NASCAR record book

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A bit overlooked from last weekend’s race at ISM Raceway was that both Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman moved up a spot for most consecutive Cup starts.

Both started their 580th consecutive Cup race last weekend. That moved them ahead of Ken Schrader (579 career starts) into ninth on the all-time list. Kevin Harvick has 572 consecutive starts. He’s set to pass Schrader at Kansas in May.

Next for Johnson and Newman is Mark Martin, who made 621 career Cup starts.

Jeff Gordon is the record holder with 797 consecutive starts. At this point, both Johnson, who is 42 years old, and Newman, who is 40, would need six years to reach Gordon’s mark.

To put the streak Johnson and Newman have compiled into perspective, rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. would each need to not miss a race for 16 years to match them (provided there continues to be 36 points races a year). Both Byron and Wallace will need 22 seasons to match Gordon’s mark.

Most consecutive Cup starts 

797 – Jeff Gordon

788 – Ricky Rudd

704 – Bobby Labonte

697 – Rusty Wallace

655 – Terry Labonte

648 – Dale Earnhardt

628 – Jeff Burton

621 – Mark Martin

580 – Jimmie Johnson

580 – Ryan Newman

579 – Ken Schrader

572 – Kevin Harvick

571 – Matt Kenseth

548 – Jamie McMurray

521 – Tony Stewart

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