By Mark Ashenfelter
LONG POND, Pa. -- Kyle Larson started first at Richmond earlier this season, but that's because he "won" practice on a day when rain canceled qualifying. Friday at Pocono Raceway, he went out and beat Joey Logano for the top spot.
"I had butterflies in that last round," Larson said. "... I was nervous and I hit all three corners about as good as I could, so I was really excited about that. Thanks to Target and everybody at the shop. They're making the cars faster and faster every week, and we're getting better and better. I really think a win is coming soon, maybe before the Chase starts."
Larson sits 13th in points with six races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set. With only 11 race winners thus far, Larson would make the provisional field as the points standings fill the remaining five spots.
But with additional winners still a possibility, Larson knows he has work to do to ensure a Chase berth.
Larson has struggled with shifting in a Cup car, something that's a priority here. He ran the ARCA race here in June, winning it a day before finishing fifth in his Cup debut at the track. This weekend, he's running the Camping World Truck Series race to get ready for Sunday.
"I think anytime you can get laps around here at Pocono, it helps. This place is so different," Larson said. "Each corner is different. It really helps with your rhythm and things. We've been fast in every car I've run here so far."
With just 43 cars entered, everyone made the field on a day when Team Penske's drivers qualified second and third.
By Mark AshenfelterDale Earnhardt Jr. didn't want to play a major role in choosing his new crew chief, content to leave that decision to current crew chief Steve Letarte, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, and others in management at Hendrick Motorsports.
Greg Ives, announced earlier this week as Earnhardt's crew chief for 2015, was Knaus' engineer for five consecutive championships with Jimmie Johnson. So a strong working relationship with Knaus will be crucial as the Johnson and Earnhardt teams share a shop at HMS. Doug Duchardt, the team's GM, and owner Rick Hendrick also played key roles in the decision.
Earnhardt already has a strong relationship with Ives, who is in his second year as a crew chief at JR Motorsports, the Nationwide Series team in which he has an ownership stake. Much of the relationship has been built over friendly banter and trash talk as the two have been in a fantasy football league together since 2008, so the relationship goes beyond racing.
That's important to Earnhardt, who didn't want to simply find a clone of Letarte to sit atop his pit box. Even if he wins a title with Letarte before the crew chief moves to the broadcast booth next year, Earnhardt's focus is on getting better.
"Steve would want us to get better. We are not trying to photocopy Steve and plug in a guy just like him. We want to try to get better," Earnhardt said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "I think we have [focused on that] in making this decision. I haven't been able to really talk to the guys yet, but the ones that I have been able to talk with, they feel like that is what we have done.
"We are going to be a better team for it once we get going next year. I mean, it's a big relief to get it off my shoulders and not worry about who we are going to be working with. What kind of personality he is going to be and whether or not we are going to get along or whether he is going to work and whether the chemistry is going to be good and the cars will be fast. I don't have to worry about that. I feel good about it."
Knaus also feels good about the decision, saying that while there are no easy decisions in NASCAR these days, this one was a "no-brainer" considering how Ives worked his way up from a mechanic to setting up Johnson's chassis and then to the lead race engineer with the team.
The shop is also excited to have Ives back in the fold, Knaus said.
"We have seen him come [to HMS] as a young man, get married, have kids, grow, turn into a crew chief, win races in the Nationwide Series, lead the points over there. Everybody is really excited to have him back," Knaus said. "I think he's going to be a positive influence to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.
"We are sad that Steve is leaving. ? We all like Steve, but much like Steve and [ Jeff Gordon's crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and myself, Greg has gone up through the system. Everybody knows him, everybody respects him. He understands the Hendrick way, so it's good. I think it's going to be a great thing."
The June race here was a great thing for Earnhardt, as he took advantage of Brad Keselowski slowing in an attempt to use the air off a slower car to dislodge a piece of paper that was covering his grille. Earnhardt was dealing with a similar issue, but gambled his engine would last despite increasingly high temperatures, and it did just that.
As is the case with his next crew chief, Earnhardt knows the status quo likely won't be good enough on Sunday. Keselowski was the class of the field here in June, so the No. 88 team needs to be better.
"We didn't go into the race thinking that we had a very good chance of winning, we were just going to try to do the best we could and felt like we had a top-5 car, but there were certainly some guys much faster than us in practice," Earnhardt said. "We want to definitely find some speed on Saturday [during the two practice sessions] and give ourselves a little more breathing room, a little more comfort and confidence going into the race.
"We are confident. Anything can happen here. You get out front, it's going to be hard to pass. It's easy to pass from 15th on back, but when you get up there and the competition gets so tough in the top five, you just have to be in the lead or in second somewhere around the top three or four even on those last two restarts. The last restart you need to be on the front row to have a real shot at it."
By Mark Ashenfelter
Greg Biffle says he had options and considered leaving Roush Fenway Racing before signing a new, three-year contract nearly two months ago.
The agreement was announced Sunday at Indianapolis, but Biffle said the team made re-signing him a priority once it knew Carl Edwards would be leaving after this season. Now that his future is set, the priority is finding speed in the team's Fords.
Sure, Edwards has a pair of wins, but the season has largely been a struggle for the team, which includes Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Biffle was optimistic after the first practice on Friday but wound up 25th in qualifying. Stenhouse placed 23rd, and Edwards, who had hard contact with the wall, wound up 26th.
"It feels like we're getting back to where we need to be to compete and win races," Biffle said before qualifying. "That's the most important thing here is to win races. Listening to Jeff [Gordon] talk about the win at Indy, that's hopefully us talking about winning here or Michigan or one of these next couple of races because we certainly need it and we're capable of it.
"We just have to continue to close the gap. I think before we unloaded here last time we were 32nd and now we're sixth, so we're on speed, we feel. We need to work on closing the gap from eighth to first, and I think we can do that."
When Matt Kenseth left Roush Fenway after the 2012 season, Biffle was viewed as the veteran leader while Edwards was viewed as the face of the team because of his outgoing nature and on-track performance.
Biffle says his results have stacked up well against Edwards' the past few years even though Edwards nearly won the championship in 2011, losing on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Regardless, with Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne as teammates next year, Biffle is now the team's clear leader.
"I'm ready to spend more time at the shop and try and help this organization get faster," Biffle said. "We've worked really hard for the last month and have gained tremendously on it, so I look forward to kind of carrying the flag and leading this organization. None of us are happy right now, but we're getting a heck of a lot better."
By Mark Ashenfelter
All told, winning the Brickyard 400 couldn't have come at a better time for Jeff Gordon.
A companywide luncheon at Hendrick Motorsports already had been scheduled for this week to celebrate owner Rick Hendrick's 65th birthday, not to mention the 30th anniversary of the Sprint Cup juggernaut. The luncheon also turned into a celebration of Gordon's win.
On a personal level, the Gordons were having a birthday party for son Leo before Jeff headed to Pocono Raceway.
But in the what-have-you-done-lately world of NASCAR, none of that really mattered once Gordon reached Pocono.
"And yet we get here and it's back to business. We're certainly going back to business with a different mindset of what we're capable of doing as a team and what cars we're bringing to the racetrack and things like that," Gordon said. "This is Pocono. It's similar to Indianapolis, but it's unique and different enough as well that we've had to work today pretty hard to try to get some more speed out of the car."
Although speed was the focus on Friday, Gordon enjoyed having a few days to reminisce with his co-workers and family. It helped him appreciate the magnitude of what he accomplished in winning a fifth time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Being that he hadn't won one of the sport's top races in years, the win was extra-special.
"Those are the greatest moments as a race car driver or competitor that you can go through," he said. "I just feel fortunate that not only did we win, but the event I told you about at Hendrick and to be able to go there and have the whole organization patting you on the back and saying thank you and shaking your hand; to get that opportunity and then to have the birthday party where you're around your closest friends and family and have those same kinds of conversations, it just doesn't get much better than that."
By Mark Ashenfelter
By Mark Ashenfelter
If Kasey Kahne rallies to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he'll have a familiar face to thank.
When Ray Evernham returned to a competition role at Hendrick Motorsports, much of it was undefined. As Kahne struggled to start the season, owner Rick Hendrick asked Evernham to spend time with the No. 5 team.
Kahne welcomes the attention, saying Evernham -- who brought him to the Cup level when he owned Evernham Motorsports -- brings out the best in him.
"I really like working with Ray because he holds you to your part. He makes you step up. He makes you know," Kahne said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "He talks to you about the things you did right and the things you didn't do right. You are accountable for that when he's around.
"It's nice to have someone like that. He gives me confidence. Every time he's at the racetrack, we run better. When he's with my team, with [crew chief] Kenny Francis, with myself, and I think that is just because he's been really good to me in the past, yet he's been tough on me at times, too. There haven't been too many people that have really held me accountable over the years."
Kahne says Evernham's strength is finding ways to get Kahne to communicate better with his team, whether that's by poring over notes from previous races at a track or by simply showing up with a better frame of mind.
With four top-10 finishes in the past six races, Kahne, although winless on the season, sits 15th in points with six races before the Chase field is set. He's just four points behind Austin Dillon, the last winless driver who'd make the 16-driver field as it now stands.
Leading a race-high 70 laps at Indianapolis did a lot to bolster Kahne's confidence heading to Pocono, where he won this race a year ago.
"To lead a lot of laps at Indianapolis and run up front throughout the whole race was good for my confidence," Kahne said. "What I liked the most about the entire weekend was the team stepped up. It was the first time of the season we have put a full race together.
"From me driving, to them on pit road, to pit calls, everything about it was right. That is something that we haven't done this year. We haven't even come close to doing that. It was a big weekend for all of us, and we got some momentum out of it, some confidence, I think, on all of our parts. Hopefully, we can carry that into this weekend and especially Sunday."
By Mark Ashenfelter
ESPN NASCAR analyst Rusty Wallace offers his insights on Jeff Gordon's future in the sport, racing his Corvette and more. Listen
By Mark Ashenfelter
With four Brickyard 400 wins, Jimmie Johnson was among the favorites last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Then they waved the green flag.
While he avoided the wrecked race cars that left him 42nd at both Daytona and Loudon, Johnson was a nonfactor as he finished 14th. Since winning at Michigan in June, he's led just one lap in the last five races, that coming on the road course at Sonoma.
Johnson is at his best early in the season and during the Chase; one key ingredient is that the Sprint Cup Series season begins and ends at many of the same tracks.
"The summer stretch has been tough on us. It always has," Johnson said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "There have been years that we make it through a little smoother than others. This year has been as inconsistent as probably any of them for us.
"So we certainly want to stop that and start here with a very smooth weekend and successful weekend, and carry that on through The Glen and Bristol, that's a tough track for us. There are still a few challenges ahead. But literally, when the Chase starts, we roll into our 10 best tracks. So we're trying to maintain sanity until then and obviously keep progressing our cars through the end of summer."
Under crew chief Chad Knaus, the No. 48 team has always been ahead of the curve, and that may explain the struggles last week at Indy. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who shares a shop with Johnson's team, was ninth and also an afterthought compared to teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, who share the other shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson said his team focused on trying to maximize its speed via its aero package at Indy, while Gordon and Kahne took a different approach. Sure, teams share info, but Johnson said he's not that worried about what worked for his teammates.
"We've built speed in our cars and have won races and championships by a certain mindset. And it's not been by looking and digging through others' information and looking over our shoulder at what somebody else is doing," Johnson said. "It's always about pushing technology and trying to find an advantage.
"At times, especially with single-car speed, we were the fastest in all the practice sessions. So that kind of sucked us in, thinking we had a fast car. We'd run one fast lap and then unfortunately dropped off too much after that. So we'll make notes and go back to Indy next year and try not to make that mistake again."
Knaus said it's no secret his team lacks consistency, and it would be nice to have momentum heading into the Chase. Then again, the team has shown repeatedly that it can flip a switch when it matters.
"The fact of the matter is you can overcome anything if you have the right tools," Knaus said. "That is what we are fighting for right now, to make sure that when we show up in Chicago, Loudon and all those races that we have the proper race cars."
By Mark Ashenfelter
With his team appealing a penalty from Indianapolis that has crew chief Darian Grubb and car chief Wesley Sherrill starting six-week suspensions at Pocono Raceway, Denny Hamlin is focusing on the positives.
He's finished sixth, eighth and third, respectively, in the past three races and says his finish in the Brickyard 400 would have been the same no matter what. In postrace inspection, NASCAR took issues with several of the coverings in the car's rear firewall.
The coverings are meant to keep cars from gaining an aerodynamic advantage. Grubb also was fined $125,000 and the team docked 75 driver and owner points. Solidly inside the top 30 in points and with a win to his credit, Hamlin is all but a lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"You use stuff like this as motivation to go out there and prove that you can run fast no matter what and you can run well," Hamlin said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "We were on a run there [the] last month and a half to two months that I feel like our cars were really starting to turn the corner. So, really, I'm excited about what these next six weeks brings. We've got some great racetracks ahead of us -- a lot of them which we feel like we can win."
Mike Wheeler is filling in as crew chief during Grubb's absence. Although the suspensions of Grubb and Sherrill could be lessened upon appeal, they are serving them immediately to ensure they'll be back for the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Although Grubb won't be at the track, he's allowed to communicate with Wheeler and the team. That's just one of the reasons Hamlin isn't worried about the transition hurting his team.
"I'm in pretty good hands. I'm with the guy that I've been with for 10 years. I've been with Mike Wheeler longer than I've been with anyone in the Cup series," said Hamlin, who is also reunited with Chris Gillin, who was his car chief in the past. "We worked together a lot, and [I'm] pretty confident in the job that he's going to do. ? Even though it's tough losing those guys and it's tough for them especially, I don't think things will change at the racetrack too much."
That said, six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson knows Hamlin's team will go through a few rough spots while Grubb is sidelined. He's won races with an interim crew chief while Chad Knaus was suspended but was amazed that was the case.
"The element of truly having a conversation with someone and understanding how tight the car might be, or how uncomfortable you might be [with the handling], that element is so vital," Johnson said. "And when somebody is in North Carolina and the others are at the track, it's impossible to get that pulled together."
By Mark Ashenfelter
As Matt Kenseth sat down in the media center at Pocono Raceway, it was mentioned that the room had recently been repainted. Kenseth replied that he wasn't familiar enough with the room to notice.
With just three top-5s and 10 top-10s in 29 starts at NASCAR's most distinct track, he wasn't joking. Still looking for the win that would lock him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kenseth knows he won't be among the favorites come Sunday afternoon.
In three Pocono starts with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth hasn't finished better than 22nd. The good news is that he's a solid fourth in points and a strong candidate to make the Chase on points assuming five other winless drivers this season don't notch a victory in the next six weeks.
Kenseth thinks all of JGR has picked up the pace of late, but that's no guarantee things will go his way at Pocono. Some races he's run well here, but circumstances have led to a mediocre finish. Other times, he just hasn't been competitive on the 2.5-mile triangular layout.
"I guess naturally you're better at some places than others. Maybe it's the track you struggle a little bit more at or you've got to work harder at or your feedback is not as good or whatever," Kenseth said. "I feel like when our cars run good, all three [JGR teams] seem to run pretty good no matter what the track is. We seem to be able to help each other and feed off each other and get running better."
It's been a frustrating season for JGR as Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have just one win apiece. Hamlin is without crew chief Darian Grubb this weekend as he begins serving a six-race suspension following a violation at Indianapolis.
The JGR trio finished second, third and fourth at Indy, and Kenseth sees things continuing to trend in the right direction.
"I think whenever you run good really anywhere except maybe a superspeedway, it gives you confidence going into next week even if it's a totally different kind of racetrack," Kenseth said. "I feel like at Loudon all three of us had top-5 cars, and we all ran well at Kentucky. We all ran well last weekend, and those are all very different racetracks. So it gives you some hope that in general and on average you're getting your stuff better, and it's getting faster, and we seem to be gaining on it toward the right time of the year."
By Mark Ashenfelter
What car would JJ like to buy? "I haven't even thought about that, man. I have a wife and two daughters. And they like shoes."— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) August 1, 2014