USG Sheetrock 400 News and Notes

USG Sheetrock 400 News and Notes

Chicagoland Preview
By Micah Roberts
VegasInsider.com

Chicagoland fits the mold as a cookie cutter, but it is different from the others in its own unique way. If you had to compare it to a current track, you could get away with saying Chicago is similar to Michigan, California, and Kansas. Chicago is a mile and a half tri-oval with 18 degrees of banking in the turns and 11 degrees on the front stretch.

Before we start saying Chicago and some others are like comparing apples to apples, we had better clarify a bit more. The trends of the past say that just because a driver and team is good at one of those tracks, they aren’t really going to be a success on the others. On tracks like New Hampshire we see crew chiefs bring the same chassis they ran at Phoenix or Richmond. At Chicago, it isn’t a given that the same winning chassis Carl Edwards had at Michigan is going to be brought this week.

Jeff Gordon is the only driver to win on all four of the tracks that appear similar on paper. He’s a multiple winner at California, Kansas, and Michigan, but didn’t get a Chicago victory until his sixth try there last season and he also has won all those races at varied points of his great career. In the last two seasons Gordon has done some crossing off on his checklist of tracks to win at. Last season he took Chicago off the list and this season he flipped Phoenix. All that remain is Homestead, where he’s 0 for 8, and Texas where he’s 0 for 13.

Kevin Harvick won the first two races at Chicago in 2001 and 2002, but then didn’t ever do well at California, Michigan, or Kansas. In 2003, Ryan Newman won at three of the four tracks taking the checkers at Michigan, Kansas, and Chicago. But then we go back to an oddity, Dale Earnhardt Jr won at Chicago in 2005 and hasn’t come close to sniffing a victory at Kansas, California, or Michigan.

So I guess the point of all this is that there really isn’t any trend to go off of coming into this race. Newman is the only driver with any semblance of consistency between all tracks. We know Jimmie Johnson is going to be good, not just because he’s good everywhere, but because his average finish in five races there is 3.6 with a worst of sixth last season. Jeff Gordon is going to be solid again, just because he’s Jeff Gordon.

After you get through the “Dynamic Duo” you start looking at the likes of Tony Stewart. When is this guy going to win a race? After opting to run poor in the race to the chase last season Stewart rolled impressive wins during the chase that he wasn’t in. One of those wins was at Kansas. However, he’d be a hard sell this week because the guy is on absolute tilt right now. In Tony’s world everyone is wrong and he never is. He is the master of all to do with racing after the fact. Meanwhile his teammate, Denny Hamlin, who wronged him last week is second in points and has a great shot at winning it all.

Things have going pretty good lately for the bettor that takes a shot with some quality mid range drivers to win. We’ve had Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr, Casey Mears, and Jamie McMurray get big wins paying over 20 to 1 in each case. McMurray was seen over 30 to 1 at a few places last week prior to winning at Daytona. In half of the Chicago races, they were won by drivers expected to do so, or at least drivers with odds of 8 to 1 or less. In the other cases, the drivers that won were mid range odds guys at about a 14 to 1 average. I’d like to hope we get someone like that again this week.

Obviously we can take a strong look at Edwards based on the strength of his win at Michigan and in the same instance, also look at Martin Truex Jr who finished right behind Edwards at Michigan. Both of those drivers will be in the 15 to 20 to 1 range. Matt Kenseth comes in at 13 to 1. He led the most laps in this race last season. We’ll go with him and hope for the best. A Ford has never won in Chicago, but we’ll take our chances after what Ford did on a track that has been dominated by Chevy’s last week at Daytona.

TOP 5 Chicagoland Finish Prediction:

1)      #17 Matt Kenseth (13/1)
2)      #99 Carl Edwards (18/1)
3)      #1 Martin Truex Jr (20/1)
4)      #24 Jeff Gordon (5/1)
5)      #20 Tony Stewart (8/1)

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RacingOne Power Rankings

The latest edition of the RacingOne NEXTEL Cup Series Power Rankings as the series heads to Chicagoland Speedway for Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400, which features NASCAR's comprehensive statistical ratings system using a detailed formula to calculate each driver's performance.

Editor's Note: Top 10 rankings are generated by a formula combining the following categories: Wins, Finishes, Top-15 Finishes, Average Running Position While on Lead Lap, Average Speed Under Green, Fastest Lap, Led Most Laps, Lead-Lap Finish. Maximum: 150 points per race. Must have raced in 75 percent of scheduled point-paying races.

1. Jeff Gordon: Gordon maintained his lead in the power rankings after capturing his 17th top 10 at Daytona International Speedway. He posted the ninth-best average driver rating en route to a fifth-place finish in the Pepsi 400. This weekend Gordon will look to continue his ride at the top of the rankings at Chicagoland Speedway where he heads into Sunday's event as the defending winner.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 10.2
Chicagoland Wins: 1

2. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson gained 0.7 of a point on Gordon in the rankings at Daytona International Speedway after spending the entire Pepsi 400 running in the top 15. He finished 10th and posted the fourth best average driver rating at 109.0. Johnson could make up more ground on Gordon at Chicagoland Speedway where he has yet to finish worse than sixth in five starts.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 3.6
Chicagoland Wins: 0

3. Tony Stewart: Stewart slipped 2.8 points in the rankings after his tangle with teammate Denny Hamlin in the Pepsi 400. As a result of his 38th-place finish, Stewart was able to break a tie with Hamlin for third and now sits with an average driver rating of 99.5 on the season. Stewart has four top fives at Chicagoland Speedway that are sandwiched in between two finishes of 33rd and 32nd. In 2004, he won at Chicago from the 10th starting position.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 12.7
Chicagoland Wins: 1

4. Denny Hamlin: Like Stewart, Hamlin took a hit in the rankings falling to fourth after finishing 43rd in the Pepsi 400. This weekend he will look to get back on track at Chicagoland Speedway where he finished 14th in his rookie season in 2006.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 14.0
Chicagoland Wins: 0

5. Kyle Busch: He might be an outcast at Hendrick Motorsports, but Busch continues to have strong runs as of late. His second-place finish in the Pepsi 400 was his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Busch led all drivers in the Pepsi 400 with an average running position of 4.4 and had the fastest speed in both Turns 2 and 4. Busch will need to capture his second consecutive top five at Chicagoland Speedway in hopes of catching the fourth-place driver in the rankings by the end of July.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 8.5
Chicagoland Wins: 0

6. Kurt Busch: Busch jumped from ninth to sixth in the rankings after posting the best average driver rating in the Pepsi 400. He did it driving the same car that was damaged in a crash with Tony Stewart in the season opening Daytona 500. This weekend he will look to continue to gain ground on brother Kyle in the rankings at Chicagoland Speedway where he's coming off two eighth-place finishes.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 17.3
Chicagoland Wins: 0

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr: After getting caught up in the accident between Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr. fell two positions in the rankings after finishing 36th in the Pepsi 400. In 2005, the Budweiser Team used pit strategy to win at Chicagoland Speedway. If Junior can score his third consecutive top five at Chicago expect him to move back towards the top five.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 14.5
Chicagoland Wins: 1

8. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth is coming off his 12th top 10 in 31 restrictor-plate starts. His 110.1 average driver rating in the Pepsi 400 was third best among all drivers and tops amongst the Fords. Over the past two years at Chicagoland Speedway, Kenseth had the best car, leading the most laps, but doesn't have a win to show for it. Last year he appeared to be on his way to a win or his second career Chicago top five, but contact from eventual winner Jeff Gordon took him out of contention.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 11.5
Chicagoland Wins: 0

8. Carl Edwards: Edwards' fourth-place finish in the Pepsi 400 was his career best in 12 career restrictor-plate races. If Edwards plans on increasing his position in the rankings he will have to do better than his 29.5 average finish at Chicago, which is his worst among all tracks.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 29.5
Chicagoland Wins: 0

10. Jeff Burton: Burton remains 10th in the rankings, but gave up some more points, to 11th-place ranked Martin Truex Jr., after finishing 16th in the Pepsi 400. This weekend Burton will be going after his second consecutive top-five finish at Chicagoland Speedway.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 21.3
Chicagoland Wins: 0

Power Mover(s)

Tie - Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer

McMurray gained 1.3 points in the rankings with his first win in 166 races. He could have gained even more points, but because of his pass through penalty early in the race, McMurray was only able to post the eighth-best average driver rating in the Pepsi 400. Hopefully this weekend's trip to Chicago will bode better than last year, where he finished 39th in his first track start with Roush Fenway Racing.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 20.5
Chicagoland Wins: 0

Bowyer led the most laps in the Pepsi 400, but the an ignition box problem and late race restarts saw Bowyer lose his shot of that elusive first win. Last year at Chicago, Bowyer finished ninth in his first start at the track.

Chicagoland Finishing Average: 9.0
Chicagoland Wins: 0

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Who's Hot and Who's Not in Nextel Cup : Pepsi 400 Edition

Saturday was supposed to be the luckiest day of the year – July 7th, 2007 (7/7/07). On that fateful night, some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers were lucky, indeed, finding no problem pulling the lever and hitting that jackpot on the slot machine of restrictor plate racing known as Daytona International Speedway. While Jamie McMurray snagged the biggest payout, Kyle Busch discovered you make your own luck, and for all the talk about numerology, Clint Bowyer ended up just where he was destined to…in seventh place. In the midst of it all, Saturday night’s race provided the usual restrictor plate fireworks that we’ve all come to expect. There were teammate squabbles, finger pointing, bashed-in race cars and fiery tempers, all of which led to a gambler’s delight on wheels – one of the closest finishes ever recorded in NASCAR history.

So, which drivers were blessed with a visit from Lady Luck down south, and which ones were left alone to contemplate what might have been? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Nextel Cup to find out.

Hot

Jeff Gordon:
Not even a crew chief suspension and 100 point penalty can derail the Gordon Express in 2007. With a comfy 277 point lead over Denny Hamlin, Gordon leads almost every statistical category on the circuit – and looks to be nothing short of untouchable this season. In the last 14 races, only a wreck at Charlotte has kept him out of the Top 10, a streak not seen since the glory days of his third title in 1998. And make no mistake, the No. 24 is clearly at the head of the class. For example, Gordon scored Top 5 number 12 on Saturday night; the next closest competitor in that category hasn’t even hit double digits yet. There’s not much more to be said about Gordon’s success so far in 2007; the only concern now is that he hasn’t peaked too early, finding the bad luck he has avoided so far this season during the ten race Chase instead.

Kyle Busch:
After seeing how apprehensive his teammates were to play nice with Kyle Saturday night, you get the feeling that Busch will have to go it alone if he is going to make a championship run in his final year with Hendrick Motorsports. That probably suits him just fine, though, and to be honest, he’s currently running plenty good enough to pull it off. Following some bumps in the road, it’s been smooth sailing for Busch in the last five races, scoring all Top 11 finishes in each while climbing to eighth in the standings. Whether or not he has friends on the track, the Chase field appears likely they’ll have to deal with Busch; and trust me, revenge can be a powerful motivator.

Matt Kenseth: Following two poor finishes at Michigan and Sonoma, it’s been back to business as usual for Kenseth and the No. 17 team. Two straight Top 10 finishes at New Hampshire and Daytona have helped him reclaim the third spot in the standings with just eight races remaining before the Chase. The only problem Kenseth needs to overcome is that he hasn’t been running up front – neither leading nor in position to win. In fact, he led more laps at California (133) than he has in the other 17 races combined (122). But multiple race win seasons aren’t really his style. Kenseth’s M.O. is running consistently and not making big mistakes, and he’s following that to a T so far this year.

Warm

Jimmie Johnson: In the last six weeks, Johnson and his Lowe’s Chevrolet team have suffered both a midseason slump and a 100 point penalty from NASCAR, but both seem to be emerging towards the other side of the fence just fine. No Top 10 finishes in a four race span dropped Johnson back to fifth in the standings, but thanks to two straight Top 10 finishes, he has reclaimed fourth place, sitting 24 points behind Matt Kenseth in third. On the horizon are two great tracks for Johnson, too, which should put Kenseth and Hamlin on the defensive ahead of him.

Jamie McMurray: With a pole and a win in the last three races, you can feel both momentum and confidence building within McMurray. His thrilling win on Saturday night broke a nearly four-year-old winless drought and moved him up to 13th in the standings; in fact, that’s just 50 points out of the Chase. However, while the No. 26 team has been running well all year long, it’s important to note he’s not too far from where he was at this point in 2006. What the team will want to avoid this year is the downward spiral things morphed into during the second half of the year, when Jamie scored just one Top 10 in the final 19 races. Unlike last year, however, McMurray does have the boost from the trip to Victory Lane to keep him on top of the mountain.

Robby Gordon: If before the season started, you had to guess what track Gordon would have his only Top 10 at this point of the year, most likely you would have guessed Sonoma…and you’d be wrong. His only Top 10 of the year so far came at Dover six races ago, kicking off a streak of solid runs for Gordon that has helped him climb up seven spots in the standings to 24th after his 15th place finish at Daytona. While Gordon is still likely feeling some of the disappointment from Sonoma, where he led the most laps only to finish 16th, he should take pride in the five Top 20 finishes he’s accumulated in the last six races. That may not mean a lot to some of the powerhouse teams out there, but for a single car effort, it does remain quite an accomplishment.

Cool

Mark Martin:
Remember all the talk about Martin possibly making the Chase despite going part-time? At the time, it seemed like a wild possibility, considering how the No. 01 Chevrolet started the year with four Top 10 finishes. But now, it seems like a crazy notion considering how the team has cooled down in recent months. In the last seven races that Martin has run, he has scored just two Top 10 finishes and now sits in 18th place in the standings. Obviously, Martin didn’t suddenly forget how to drive and it’s not like he’s in and out of the car every other week; but the results have dwindled. The telltale sign that something might be amiss is the fact that Jamie McMurray was inches away from the winners’ circle at Daytona in February, and Saturday night, he wasn’t a factor at all before finishing 17th. Is the team only now showing its true colors…or is team owner Bobby Ginn too busy wooing free agents to focus on his current stable?

Juan Pablo Montoya:
Despite earning his first NASCAR Cup victory just three races ago, it seems like Montoya is doing everything in his power to make the battle for Rookie Of The Year honors a close one. After his win at Sonoma, he had a chance to build up a wider margin on David Ragan, but more mediocre finishes have left Ragan just ten points behind. Whether you blame the problems on Ganassi Racing, Dodge, or Montoya still learning the ropes, the team does seem to have an issue on their hands. As the season progresses, you would expect Montoya to become more comfortable and the finishes to be better. But in the first seven races of the year, he had just two Top 10s. In the last 11, only his win and his 19th place run at Loudon helped him clear the way from what has otherwise been a disastrous stretch. That’s not really the sign of a team making strides in the right direction.

Dave Blaney:
A 35th place spot in the driver standings isn’t all that impressive, but when you look at Blaney’s circumstances, you have to give him a little bit of credit. By far, the No. 22 Caterpillar Camry has been the class of the Toyota field this year. He gave the manufacturer their first pole in the midst of qualifying for 16 of 18 events, the best of any Toyota driver. But there has been a downside, one where he’s run into his fair share of bad luck and poor judgment this year. Blaney has six DNF’s, a list which includes being parked in the Daytona 500, three crashes, and two engine failures. Ranked 36th, the team has plenty of work ahead of them if they want to be the only Toyota team in the Top 35 of owner points; but with a little change of luck, Blaney just might be able to pull it off.

Cold

Dale Jarrett:
Speaking of Toyota, one of the drivers who doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of making the Top 35 is Jarrett. Right from the get go, the entire MWR organization has been behind the eight ball, but Jarrett and his six free passes seemed to be looked at as a glimmer of hope. But those golden tickets were used up long ago, and Jarrett now finds himself in the group of drivers fighting for scraps on qualifying day. He did manage to make the first nine races of the year, but has missed five of the last nine since that point, not able to run well when he’s managed to make the field. Three straight engine failures had to take a major toll on the team, and while he has finished the last two races he’s run in; he’s been practically invisible.

Elliott Sadler: Let’s get the good news out of the way; Sadler’s No. 19 team have managed to make every race, but have yet to post a DNF. That is where the bright side ends. On the other side of the coin is a year full of disappointments, struggles, and underachieving. It seems like a lifetime ago when Sadler took over this ride from Jeremy Mayfield, giving this team an automatic surge if they could only put themselves in position to make the Chase. In the last 12 races, Sadler has managed to lead just five laps, posting just two finishes in the Top 15. The way things are going at Evernham Motorsports this year, don’t expect a turnaround anytime soon.

Kenny Wallace: In comparison to the multi-car powerhouses, Robby Gordon and his single car team seem to be thriving. But on the other end of the spectrum are Kenny Wallace and the Furniture Row Racing team. Herman is batting .500 when it comes to making races this year, a percentage that makes it hard for any team to get any semblance of momentum going. Even when the No. 78 car does make it to race day, the team has struggled, posting three DNF’s in nine starts to go along with no finish higher than 21st. With the current qualifying system stuck in place, it will take a miracle for things to improve…at least at the rate they’re going now.

Next up for Nextel Cup is a trip to the Windy City. Will the three-week streak of different winners hold up, or will a fresh new face grace Victory Lane this weekend? Can Jamie McMurray go two-for-two after going winless for so long? Will Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin kiss and make up…or will they take each other out, standing helpless by their cars while they watch Hendrick streak by towards yet another win?

We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot… and Who’s Not.

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NASCAR - USG SHEETROCK 400 - Odds to Win

Jimmie Johnson     5-1

Jeff Gordon     5-1

Tony Stewart     7-1

Denny Hamlin     15-1

Matt Kenseth     8-1

Kevin Harvick     12-1

Kyle Busch     12-1

Carl Edwards     15-1

Jeff Burton     15-1

Dale Earnhardt Jr 12-1

Kurt Busch     25-1

Mark Martin     30-1

Martin Truex Jr 12-1

Ryan Newman  25-1

Clint Bowyer     25-1

Greg Biffle        35-1

Jamie McMurray     35-1

Kasey Kahne     40-1

Casey Mears     25-1

Juan Pablo Montoya  50-1

Scott Riggs     100-1

Elliott Sadler     100-1

Reed Sorenson     100-1

Bobby Labonte     100-1

David Stremme     100-1

Joe Nemechek     100-1

Dave Blaney     100-1

JJ Yeley     100-1

Jeff Green     100-1

Ricky Rudd     100-1

Tony Raines     100-1

David Gilliland  100-1

David Ragan     100-1

Field (Any Other Driver) 50-1

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USG Sheetrock 400 Preview
The Sports Network

Date: Sunday, July 15th

Start Time: 4 p.m. (et)

Site: Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet, Illinois

Track: 1.5-mile banked asphalt tri-oval

Laps: 267

Miles: 400.5

Year: 10th

On TV: TNT

On Radio: MRN/XM Satellite

Race record: 136.832 m.p.h. (Kevin Harvick, 2002)

Qualifying record: 188.147 m.p.h. (Jimmie Johnson, 2005)

2006 Finish

Defending champion: Jeff Gordon

Pole winner: Jeff Burton (181.647 m.p.h.)

Top 10:

1. Jeff Gordon (Start: 13)

2. Jeff Burton (1)

3. Kyle Busch (23)

4. Kevin Harvick (4)

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr (25)

6. Jimmie Johnson (5)

7. Reed Sorenson (18)

8. Kurt Busch (19)

9. Clint Bowyer (38)

10. J.J. Yeley (10)

Average speed: 132.077 m.p.h.

Time of race: 3 hours, 3 minutes, 59 seconds

Margin of victory: 0.461 second

Caution flags: 8 for 34 laps

Lead changes: 18 among 10 drivers

Past winners

2006 Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 132.077 m.p.h.

2005 Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 127.638 m.p.h.

2004 Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 129.507 m.p.h.

2003 Ryan Newman, Dodge, 134.059 m.p.h.

2002 Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 136.832 m.p.h. (race record)

2001 Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 121.200 m.p.h. 

Notes

Last season, Jeff Gordon knocked Matt Kenseth out of the way late in the race to captured USG Sheetrock 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway. The No.24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the finish line 0.461 of a second ahead of Jeff Burton. The victory was Gordon's second of the 2006 season and 75th of his Nextel Cup career, moving him just one win shy of Dale Earnhardt's career total. Gordon, who now stands sixth on the all-time list with 79 victories, reclaimed the lead with only seven laps remaining to clip pole sitter Burton. Matt Kenseth dominated the race leading four times for a total of 112 laps, however he faded down the stretch and placed 22nd.

The win last year helped to propel Gordon into the Chase for the Nextel Cup after missing it in 2005. With the win, Gordon began a streak of top-10 finishes that is still current at 37. Gordon leads the series standings and is in position to make the Chase for the third time. Gordon has four wins this season, which will give him 40 bonus points once the Chase starts. He currently would be the top seed in the Chase.

While the 37-week streak is impressive, it is only the second highest active streak. Burton has been in the top 10 for 44 consecutive weeks, dating back to Darlington last May.

In 2005, Dale Earnhardt Jr defeated Kenseth by less than a second for his 16th career Nextel Cup title and the first of 2005. Kenseth dominated the race, leading a whopping 176 laps, but it was Earnhardt Jr who took the lead on lap 257 and held on the rest of the way for the win. Jimmie Johnson, who started on the pole, finished third. Earnhardt Jr started from the 25th position.

The furthest a driver has come from to capture the race was 32nd in 2002 by Kevin Harvick. Harvick is the lone multiple champion of this race, having won back-to-back titles in 2001-02.

Jimmie Johnson has recorded five top-10 finishes in his five races at Chicago, with four top-fives. Johnson finished sixth last year. He has a Driver Rating of 105.4 (fourth-best), 19 Fastest Laps Run (sixth-most), a 10.0 Average Running Position (ninth-best) and 440 Laps in the Top 15 (sixth-most).

Of the six previous races at Chicagoland Speedway, the winner has not come from the top-five. In fact, only two champions have come from the top-10, Kevin Harvick in 2001 when he started sixth and Tony Steward captured the race in 2004 when he began 10th.

There have been eight NASCAR Nextel Cup races held in Illinois, two in the 1950's. The first one was held at Santa Fe Speedway in Willow Springs and the second at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Speedway is located 30 miles southwest of downtown Chicago on Old Historic Route 66. The grandstand is 15 stories tall with grandstand seating for 75,000 spectators, 37 luxury suites and camping areas. The $100 million dollar project is owned by Raceway Associates and opened in 1998. Chevrolet has dominated this race winning five of the six runnings. Dodge captured the 2003 event.

The next race in the Nextel Cup championship is scheduled for July 29th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Allstate 400 at The Brickyard, as Jimmie Johnson defends his title.

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Chicagoland: Round 19 preview

McMurray's Win Propels Him Back Into Chase Contention

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 10, 2007) -- Jamie McMurray's (No. 26 Crown Royal Ford) win on Saturday night did more than return him to Victory Lane for the first time in 166 races. The victory catapulted McMurray into 13th place in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series standings, just 49 points out of 12th -- the final position in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

McMurray had struggled of late, finishing 24th or worse in three of the previous five races. However, he was able to gain 135 points on 12th place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) who finished 36th after a Lap 14 accident.

With eight races left until the Chase begins, the field is far from set. At the same point in 2005, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 USG Ford) was 16th in the standings, 202 points out of a Chase berth. He put together six top-10 finishes, including a win, heading into the Chase to earn a spot.

"I think everybody in the top 15 thinks they are going to make the Chase," McMurray said. "If you're within a couple hundred points, you feel like you can make that up. I think we're running well enough to make it, but you can't make any mistakes or have any failures."

Chicagoland Kicked Off Gordon's Top-10 Streak

Last year, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) was 12th in the standings heading to Chicagoland Speedway. After missing the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup in 2005, Gordon was determined not to miss it a second-consecutive season.

Gordon won at Chicago, holding off Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet) by 0.461 seconds. The win propelled the four-time champion to 10th place, a position he has not been below since.

The streak of consecutive weeks in the top 10 -- currently at 37 -- seems to be safe for the rest of the season. Gordon leads the series standings and is in position to make the Chase for the third time. Gordon has four wins this season, which will give him 40 bonus points once the Chase starts. He currently would be the top seed in the Chase.

While the 37-week streak is impressive, it is only the second highest active streak. Burton has been in the top 10 for 44 consecutive weeks, dating back to Darlington last May.

Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) had a 105-race streak until he finished 39th in this year's Daytona 500. The all-time leader is Dale Earnhardt, who spent 174 consecutive weeks in the top 10 from 1986-1992.

Close Finishes The Norm For 2007

Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) set the tone for tight races in 2007 when he beat Mark Martin (No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet) to the checkered flag by 0.02 seconds in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Half of a season later, that finish -- the ninth closest since the advent of electronic timing in 1993 -- was outdone, on the same stage.

Jamie McMurray's 0.005 second victory over Kyle Busch (No. 5 Carquest/Kellogg's Chevrolet) on Saturday night tied for second-closest finish. The tightest margin involved Kyle's big brother Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), who finished second to Ricky Craven at Darlington in 2003.

Saturday's last-lap battle was as intense as the finish, as McMurray and Busch swapped the lead seven times. The close battle may be indicative of the rest of the season. In 18 races, there have been 10 finishes under one second. In addition, the average margin of victory for the season is 2.031 seconds.

Part of the reason for the close competition is the Car of Tomorrow, which has produced finishes of under one second in six of the eight races in which it has been run. The new car will be used at eight of the remaining 18 events. The next scheduled race with the car is August 12 at Watkins Glen International.

In The Loop: Kenseth Dominates Chicagoland Loop Statistics

If you subscribe to the "due" theory, go with Matt Kenseth at Chicagoland Speedway this Sunday.

Over the past two years at Chicagoland, Kenseth leads in just about every statistical category except one -- wins.

Kenseth finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2005, but led a race-high 176 laps. Then last year, Kenseth was leading before Jeff Gordon got into the back of his No. 17 Ford and knocked him out of contention. Kenseth again was the race's lap leader, this time with 112 laps led.

Since 2005, Kenseth sits atop the following pre-race Chicagoland Loop Data statistics, and in most instances is far and away the leader:

- Driver Rating (130.0 compared to second-place Kevin Harvick's 112.1)
- Average Running Position (3.4 to Harvick's 5.9)
- Fastest Laps Run (128 to Jeff Gordon's 52)
- Laps in the Top 15 (529 to Harvick's 499)
- Laps Led (288 to Jeff Burton 60)

The numbers certainly suggest Kenseth will visit Victory Lane sooner than later.

Harvick, with his bevy of impressive numbers, also seems in contention for the win. But so does Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt, who finished 36th at Daytona last weekend, needs a solid finish if he wants to regain some of the Race to the Chase cushion he lost after Daytona. Earnhardt sits just 49 points ahead of 13th-place Jamie McMurray. Earnhardt, though, has fared well at Chicagoland. He has the third-best Driver Rating (106.8), the seventh-best Average Running Position (9.5), the third-most Fastest Laps Run (37) and the third-most Laps in the Top 15 (473).

Jimmie Johnson is another driver who falls under the "due" category. His career Chicagoland finishes are as follows: fourth, third, second, third and sixth. He has a Driver Rating of 105.4 (fourth-best), 19 Fastest Laps Run (sixth-most), a 10.0 Average Running Position (ninth-best) and 440 Laps in the Top 15 (sixth-most).

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2007 Chicagoland Driver Handicaps

Jeff Gordon
– Gordon won this race last year and has Top 5 finishes in four of his six starts at Chicagoland. With a 10th place average finish, Gordon doesn’t beat around the “Busch,” although some days, we are sure he’d like to.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin finished 14th here last year in both the Busch and Cup races.

Matt Kenseth
– Kenseth finished second here in 2005 and is averaging a twelfth place finish in six Chicagoland starts.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson has finished sixth or better in all five of his Cup starts at this track, with his best result coming back in 2004, when he placed second. Chicagoland was also the site of Johnson’s only Busch Series victory to date – a win that made a lot of pundits finally think Rick Hendrick hadn’t flipped his lid after all when he chose Johnson for a Cup ride.

Jeff Burton – Burton won the pole last year and led 60 laps en route to a second place finish, the only Top 5 he has recorded here throughout his career.

Tony Stewart – Stewart won here in 2004 and has Top 5 finishes in four of his six starts at Chicagoland.

Carl Edwards – Whoops… Edwards may have momentum, but this is not the house for him. He’s averaging a 30th place finish here after his first two Cup starts at the track. He did finish second in last year’s Busch race, also.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick is the only repeat winner at Chicagoland, taking the checkers in 2001 and 2002. After avoiding the giant bouncing inflatable fruit debacle and not taking sides in Muppet Madness, he has posted Top 10 finishes in four of his six Joliet starts.

Kyle Busch – Busch finished third here last year and was never endangered by any giant rolling inflatable pieces of drywall.

Martin Truex, Jr.
– Truex finished 16th here last year in his only Joliet start. We think he’ll do much better than that this year.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer finished ninth here last year in his only Chicagoland Cup start.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
– Earnhardt won here in 2005 and finished fifth here last year. His 15th place average finish in six starts at Chicagoland is just average, at best; but the fans love him for it anyway.

Ryan Newman
– Newman won here in 2003 but hasn’t finished better than 29th in the three Joliet Cup races run since.

Jamie McMurray
– McMurray is averaging a 21st place finish after four Cup starts at Chicagoland, but now has momentum from his Daytona victory on his side. His best finish came in his first start at the track in 2003, when he placed eighth.

Kurt Busch
– After six Joliet Cup starts, Busch has finished eighth three times and sixth once. It is the other two finishes of 35th and 39th that drag his average down to 17th.

Greg Biffle – Biffle has four Cup starts at Chicagoland, scoring a pair of 11th place finishes in 2005 and 2006. He also recorded a couple of 20th place results in 2003 and 2004. Unfortunately, they don’t hand out trophys for consistency.

J.J. Yeley – Yeley started and finished 10th last year in his only Cup start at Chicagoland. Didn’t we already tell you that they don’t hand out trophys for consistency?

Mark Martin
– We find it hard to believe, too, but Martin has never scored a Top 5 at Chicagoland. In six starts, he has recorded three Top 10s and an average finishing position of 14th; when the checkered flag flies, he’s never finished worse than 24th.

Casey Mears
– Mears’ performance has been all over the board in Joliet. He has one Top 10 finish and one DNF here for a 21st place average. Luckily for him, they don’t hand out a trophy for consistency.

Bobby Labonte
– In six Chicagoland starts, Labonte has never finished better than 12th and has two DNFs in his last two starts here.

Others to Watch

Kasey Kahne
– Despite Kahne’s reputation for being a mile-and-a-half track ace, he has never finished better than 23rd at Chicagoland.

Reed Sorenson
– Sorenson has an impressive average finish of 7th at Chicagoland, until you realize that it is based on his one and only start at the track.

Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya will be making his first Chicagoland start this weekend. Besides, do we really need a statistical reason to watch the Brazilian Rookie?

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Fantasy Picks 'N' Pans : Chicagoland Edition
Cami Starr and Mike Neff

The Nextel Cup Series heads to Joliet, IL this weekend to kick off the second half of the season at one of NASCAR’s newest – and most predictable – facilities. Despite its reputation for being just another 1.5 mile “cookie cutter” track, Chicagoland Speedway is showing her age, developing a wider racing groove capable of supporting side-by-side racing.

The Summer sun bakes the track’s surface, making it slippery. Handling is always a priority but, when you take into consideration the heat wave that that has been gripping most of the country, it will be of the utmost importance this weekend. While track position has been critical in the past, the wider racing groove is taking that out of the equation more and more. When choosing your fantasy lineup, pick teams that typically make their car handle the best; they will be the ones to prevail.

Which teams will spend their weekend heading in a perfect racing line mentioned above, and which ones will find themselves led astray? Read on to find out who to sit and who to keep in this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.

Cami’s Race Rewind:


Jeff Gordon crossed Chicagoland Speedway off his list of tracks where he had yet to score a win in controversial fashion last year. Gordon caught leader Matt Kenseth with three laps to go and as the pair went into turn two, they made contact, which sent Kenseth’s Ford spinning through the infield grass. Kenseth, who led the most laps and appeared to have a dominant car, said the contact was no accident and stated “(Gordon) just ran over me.” The caution set up a green-white-checker finish and Gordon easily beat Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to the line. Things managed to get even worse for Kenseth, who crashed with David Stremme as they came to the checkered flag; he ended the day 22nd.

Mike’s Keys to the Race:


Summer is here, making for slick asphalt. This places drivers’ ability as the biggest factor in selecting the your fantasy team. When the tracks heat up, the cars slide around more, and drivers that maintain the best car control usually come to the forefront.

This is one of two intermediate tracks left on the schedule before the Chase. A good indication of teams that will be strong in this race are teams that have been strong on 1.- mile tracks in the past. The Hendrick brigade is obviously a good choice; Gordon is a Chicagoland winner and Jimmie Johnson has never finished below sixth in his five previous races there. The Richard Childress Racing cars will also be a factor. Harvick is the track’s only repeat winner, recording victories in the first two trips to Chicago, and Burton finished second there last year. Also, don’t count out Tony Stewart. He has a win and four Top 5s in six races in the Windy City.

Mike’s Picks:

Crank ‘Em Up:


Jeff Gordon has been on fire this year in the Cup Series, recording only one finish outside of the Top 12 this season. He started the year with a second at both California and Vegas, to go along with a fourth at Texas – all successful performances on intermediate tracks. He is also the defending winner of this race and has an average finish of 10.2 over the next six events. Even though he does not have his Crew Chief on the wagon again this week, expect him to have another strong run.

Tony Stewart generally heats up when the weather gets hot. So far this Summer, he has been having a little trouble getting on track, but Chicago should offer the perfect remedy to that situation. Stewart has finished in the Top 5 in four of the six races that have been held at the track, and has an average finish of 12.7. He won this race in 2004 and should be chomping at the bit to put on a good run this weekend after his sub-par showing at Daytona.

Sit ‘em down:

David Stremme has fallen back into some old habits that are not too promising for fantasy owners. Since Charlotte, he has not finished higher than 22nd and that was this past weekend at Daytona. Try as he might, Stremme just does not seem to be able to gain any momentum toward finishing races in the upper third of the field. In his two previous races at Chicago, he has come home 16th and 21st, which would actually be improvements compared to most of his finishes this year. Don’t expect anything spectacular this weekend from Stremme; he just doesn’t seem to be hitting on enough cylinders to make it happen.

David Ragan has been very impressive this season,for a rookie. He has been bringing the car home in one piece, although sometimes scathed from spinning out. With this being his first trip to Chicago, it is a safe bet to leave him on the bench for this week and let him take his knocks without costing you points.

Roll the Dice

Kurt Busch has been hit or miss at Chicago. He has four Top 10 finishes, and two finishes below 34th. As poorly as the Penske organization was running at the start of the season, they are beginning to show signs of life. It is a roll of the dice, but there is at least a 50-50 shot this weekend that Busch will come home with a decent run. I think it is worth the gamble.

Cami’s Picks:

Crank ‘Em Up:


Last year, Jeff Gordon won his first race at Chicagoland; this year, teammate Jimmie Johnson would love to follow suit. In five starts at the track, Johnson has scored four Top 5s and five Top 10s, with his “worst” finish coming here last year when he was sixth…but he has yet to find Victory Lane. After a mini-slump, Johnson and the No. 48 team are back on track, entering this weekend’s race with back-to-back Top 10s. Look for Johnson to make a big push at getting season win number five and Chicago win number one this weekend.

The last two years at Chicagoland have been full of frustration for Matt Kenseth. In 2005, he led 176 laps before finishing second, and last year led 116 laps before late race contact with Jeff Gordon spoiled his day. Like Johnson, Kenseth is rebounding nicely after a couple of rough weeks at Michigan and Sonoma. He should be contending again this weekend; hopefully, the third time will be the charm and he can finally score a win to make up for past disappointments.

Sit ‘em down:

Elliott Sadler’s woes this year have been well documented. After sparking a turnaround for the No. 19 team last year when he took over for Jeremy Mayfield, expectations were high for Sadler et al heading into 2007. So far, they have failed to deliver, and Chicagoland will most likely present more headaches for Sadler and his team. He has managed just one Top 10 at Chicago in five races and has an average finish of 29th in the last three races run there. Don’t let Kasey Kahne’s Top 10 run at Daytona trick you into getting back on the Evernham bandwagon.

Another Dodge driver you will want to avoid this weekend is Bobby Labonte. Labonte enters this weekend’s race with finishes of 30th or worse in three of the last four events. While his record at Chicago isn’t terrible, he has failed to crack the Top 10 and has an average finish of 22.7. Labonte has shown some signs of improvement this year, but not enough to take a gamble on using him this Sunday.

Roll the Dice

Greg Biffle, fresh off his surprising sixth place finish at Daytona last week, looks to make it into the Top 10 for the first time at Chicago this weekend. With finishes of 11th place in the last two races here, he has shown he can run up front but always manages to come up just a little short. With two Top 10s in the last three races, perhaps that momentum will give him just the little extra added push he needs to break into the Top 10. Plus, now that Jamie McMurray has won, that leaves Biffle as the only veteran Roush Fenway driver yet to win this year. I can’t imagine he’ll stand for that too long.

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Driver Handicaps: Chicago

This weekend the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Speedway for the USG Sheetrock 400. To help you make your Dale Jr. Reality Cup Racing fantasy picks, RacingOne brings you our weekly detailed look at some of the field for the 267-lap event.

Who's HOT at Chicagoland
* Jeff Gordon is the defending race winner and is tied with three other drivers with four top 10s.
* Jimmie Johnson, who has made five starts, leads all drivers with an average finish of 3.6.
* Kevin Harvick is the only multiple winner.
* Matt Kenseth, who finished second in 2005, has led a combined 288 laps in the last two events.
* Tony Stewart has one win and is second in most laps led with 276.

Keep an Eye on at Chicagoland
* Carl Edwards will be back behind the wheel of the same car that won at Michigan last month.
* Kurt Busch has completed 74 quality passes in the last two events at Chicagoland.
* Jeff Burton is driving the same car that he won the pole and finished second with at Chicago in 2006.
* Reed Sorenson, Clint Bowyer and J.J. Yeley all finished in the top 10 in their first start at Chicagoland in 2006.
* Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are both driving cars that performed well at Michigan.
* In 2007, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin have posted respective average finishes of 6.3 and 7.0 on tracks exactly 1.5-miles in length.
* Ricky Rudd will make his return to Chicago driving the same car that he posted his best finish in 2007 with at Charlotte.

Track Performers
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead all drivers with eight wins each on tracks exactly 1.5-mile in length. Johnson is the most recent winner among the two after his win at Las Vegas in March. Mark Martin (7), Tony Stewart (6) and Jeff Burton (6) round out the top five in wins. Martin leads all drivers with 46 top-10 finishes, followed by Gordon with 40. Ryan Newman is the current pole leader on 1.5-mile tracks with 10. In 2007, Gordon and Matt Kenseth lead all drivers in finishing average (three races) at 6.0 and 6.3, respectively.

Chicagoland Rookie Report
None of the Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidates have made a NEXTEL Cup Series start at Chicagoland Speedway. Paul Menard and David Reutimann are the only ones of the group that have made at least one start in the Busch Series at Chicagoland. Menard has made the most starts with three and has finished in the top 10 once, achieving the feat in 2005. Rookie leader Juan Pablo Montoya tops the group in finishing average, 19.3, on tracks exactly 1.5-miles in length in 2007. Montoya was also the top finishing rookie (fifth) at Atlanta - a track 1.54-miles in length. Rookie Standings

Qualifying Tidbits
Jeff Burton won the pole in 2006 at Chicagoland Speedway, giving Chevrolet its fourth consecutive pole at the track. In 2005, Jimmie Johnson set the qualifying record in with a lap of 188.147 mph. Johnson's pole was the second-straight for Hendrick Motorsports after Jeff Gordon took the top spot the year prior. There has been a different pole winner each season since the inaugural race in 2001 when Todd Bodine won the pole in a Ford. Brian Vickers, who will need to qualify on time Friday, has the best starting average among all drivers with three or more starts at 3.7. Four times the race winner has started from within the top 15, the last instance coming with Gordon in 2006. Kevin Harvick won from the furthest position (32nd) in 2002.

Top 20 Driver Notes - Based on Current Standings

1. Jeff Gordon (Points: 2773): Last season Gordon scored his first win at Chicagoland Speedway from the 13th starting position. The previous year Gordon scored his first DNF at Chicagoland after Mike Bliss hit him from behind and the two crashed in Turn 2. Gordon finished 33rd, his first finish outside the top 20 in six starts at the track. From 2002 - 2004 Gordon finished in the top five and led a combined 61 laps. In 2004, Gordon won his first pole at Chicagoland and led 14 laps en route to his second consecutive fourth-place finish.

2. Denny Hamlin (Points Behind: -277): Last year, Hamlin finished 14th in his first start at Chicagoland Speedway after a loose wheel put him a lap down early in the race. This weekend he will be back in the same car (chassis No. 183) that finished 14th in its first start last month at Michigan after pit road incident took him out of contention.

3. Matt Kenseth (Points Behind: -383): Last year, Kenseth finished outside the top 15 for the first time at Chicagoland Speedway after he was spun out while leading the race with only four laps to go, then ran out of fuel to finish 22nd. His best finish, second, came in 2005 after dominating the race, leading 176 laps, en route to a second-place finish. The last two seasons saw Kenseth's first top 15 starts at Chicago of fourth and eighth. The team will run chassis No. RK-323 in the Cup race with a special USG Sheetrock paint scheme. This is the same car that led 112 laps last year at Chicago.

4. Jimmie Johnson (Points Behind: -407): Johnson has finished sixth or better in his five starts at Chicagoland Speedway, giving him the best average finish (3.6) among all drivers. After leading a combined 79 laps in his first four starts, last year marked the first time Johnson did not lead a lap. Johnson's Chicago primary car (chassis No. 48363) is the same car that won at Las Vegas earlier this year and finished 10th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May. Chicagoland is the site of Johnson's only Busch Series win.

5. Jeff Burton (Points Behind: -428): Burton is coming off his best performance at Chicagoland Speedway after he won the pole and finished second in his second track start with Richard Childress Racing in 2006. With the exception of the 2004 race when he finished sixth, Burton has finished 18th or worse in his four other starts and did not finish the race in 2002. He will drive chassis No. 173 in Sunday's race. This is the same car that finished fourth at Lowe's in last month's All-Star Challenge and raced at Chicago last year.

6. Carl Edwards (Points Behind: -465): Edwards will be looking to turn his Chicagoland Speedway record around by driving the same car (chassis No. RK-272) that won at Michigan last month. Edwards 29.5 average finish at Chicago is his worst among all tracks.

7. Tony Stewart (Points Behind: -539): Stewart led 160 laps en route to his 2004 win at Chicagoland Speedway. His finishing average of 12.7 is coupled by a 33rd-place finish in his first start and a 32nd-place finish in 2006. This weekend Stewart will be behind the wheel of a new car (chassis No. 143) that the team believes matches the wind tunnel numbers of chassis No. 120, a car that has won three times.

8. Kyle Busch (Points Behind: -583): Last year Busch lowered his Chicagoland Speedway finishing average to 8.5 with a third-place finish.

9. Kevin Harvick (Points Behind: -601): Harvick won the first two events at Chicagoland Speedway in 2001 and 2002. He won his second race from the 32nd position, which is the deepest any Chicagoland winner has started. The win also gave him the distinction of being the only multiple winner at the Joliet track. Harvick, who finished fourth last year, is third in laps led at Chicago with 228. This weekend he will pilot the same car (chassis No. 179) that won the All-Star Challenge in May.

10. Martin Truex Jr. (Points Behind: -616): Truex Jr. started 29th and finished 16th in his first start at Chicagoland Speedway in 2006. He will be back in the same car (chassis No. 053) that finished second last month at Michigan. Truex calls the chassis a "Hot Rod."

11. Clint Bowyer (Points Behind: -631): Bowyer started 38th and raced his way to a ninth-place finish in his first career start at Chicagoland Speedway in 2006. This weekend, he will look to capture his 10th top 10 of the season driving the same car (chassis No. 170) that he used to capture his career-best Cup finish with at California last year.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Points Behind: -733): Earnhardt Jr. is coming of a fifth-place finish and a win in the last two races at Chicagoland Speedway. A late race pit stop decision to take on two tires proved to be the winning move for Junior in 2005. Earnhardt's only other top 10 in the six starts came in the 2002 race when he led four times for 81 laps en route to a 10th-place finish. He will be racing one his best cars (chassis No. 039) for intermediate tracks in the USG Sheetrock 400. This is the same car that most recently finished fifth at Michigan last month.

13. Jamie McMurray (Points Behind: -782): McMurray has raced in four events at Chicagoland Speedway posting an average finish of 20.5. Last year he captured his worst finish at the track, 39th, in his first track start with Roush Fenway Racing. In his first race, he led his only lap after starting a career-best 10th. This weekend, McMurray will be racing the same car (chassis RK-450) that finished eighth at Michigan last month.

14. Ryan Newman (Points Behind: -794): Newman posted two top-five finishes, including one win, in his first two starts at Chicagoland Speedway. Since then, Newman has gone on to post an average finish of 33.0. Last year's race saw Newman's worst performance at the 1.5-mile speedway after he finished two laps down in 36th place. In his first race at the speedway he won the pole and led 87 laps en route to a fifth-place finish. Newman, who has led three times for a total of 163 laps at Chicago, will drive a new car (chassis No. PRS-108) that was tested at Nashville last week.

15. Kurt Busch (Points Behind: -854): Last year Busch captured his second consecutive eighth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway. The only time Busch has not placed in the top 10 at Chicago came in the 2003 and 2004 when he finished 39th (his only DNF) and 35th, respectively. Busch, who has not led a lap at Chicago, will be racing a new car (chassis No. PRS-109) in the USG Sheetrock 400.

16. Greg Biffle (Points Behind: -937): Biffle posted his best finish at Chicagoland Speedway in the last two races, finishing 11th, breaking a string of consecutive 20th-place finishes. In 2005, Biffle led for the first time at Chicago, holding the No. 16 up front for 34 laps. In doing so Biffle was able to post the seventh-best driver rating. He will be driving the same chassis (RK-421) that finished 38th at Michigan last month after a mechanical failure took him out of contention.

17. J.J. Yeley (Points Behind: -969): Yeley finished 10th and finished 10th in his first start at Chicagoland Speedway. This weekend he will be the only driver to pull triple duty, running in the Silver Crown, Busch and NEXTEL Cup Series.

18. Mark Martin (Points Behind: -999): In six starts, Martin has finished in the top 10 three times at Chicagoland Speedway with his best finish, of sixth, coming in 2001. Martin, who has held the lead in four Chicago races for a total of 44 laps, will be making his first track start in a Chevrolet with Ginn Racing.

19. Casey Mears (Points Behind: -1012): Mears, the defending Busch winner at Chicagoland Speedway, will be making his first track start in a Cup car with Hendrick Motorsports. His previous four starts came with Chip Ganassi Racing where he posted an average finish of 20.8.

20. Bobby Labonte (Points Behind: -1030): Labonte's best finish at Chicagoland Speedway came last season after finishing 12th in his first track start with Petty Enterprises. His only finishes outside the top 20 came when he posted DNFs for an engine problem in 2001 (finished 39th) and an accident in 2003 (finished 36th).

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USG Sheetrock 400 HOT! Sheet    
       
It has been a nice turnaround for Ryan Newman this season. After finishing outside the top 20 in 5 of the first 8 races, he has only done so twice ever since. At Dover and Pocono he put together back-to-back runner-up showings. More recently, at New Hampshire he led for a few circuits before going home 10th. Then last week at Daytona he ran consistent as he started and finished 14th. He’s one of the five former winners at this track and is hungry to get his first of this season, so look for another strong run.

Another driver on the rise up the rankings is Carl Edwards. His average finish over the course of the last 8 races is about 9th, which has helped his team climb up to 6th in the standings. He broke a long winless streak when he finally got a chance to do the patented back-flip at Michigan. That came in the middle of a 7-race streak in which he led at least one lap. That was broken this past weekend at Daytona, however he still managed to finish 4th. This track is very similar to Kansas Speedway, a place he’s seen a lot of success at. Consider him a must have this weekend.

His teammate Greg Biffle has also seen his stock rise recently. On the road course at Sonoma, he weaved his way from a 17th starting spot all the way up to 5th at the conclusion. This past weekend at Daytona he also improved 12 spots from start to finish as he started 18th and wound up 6th. He’s been pretty consistent at this track, posting back-to-back 20th place showings his first two attempts followed by back-to-back 11th places. He is a decent option this Sunday.

We can’t say the same for a couple of other teammates. David Stremme only has two finishes all season inside the top 10 (Texas and Talladega). As you can see from our chart below, his average finish in the last 3 races is 27th and in the last 6 it’s right at 30th. If you’d like to look on the positive side of the #40 team, they are coming off their best finish in the last 6 events as they posted a 22nd place showing at Daytona. With his inexperience really shining through, we don’t recommend you putting him on your roster.

His Ganassi Racing teammate Reed Sorenson is also showing how green he is to the series. He has only finished inside the top 20 in 5 races in the first half of the season. The team has managed to complete a race on the lead lap in just 2 of the last 6 events. Even when things look to be turning around they end up going sour. At New Hampshire, he qualified with a very impressive 3rd place run. However he quickly found himself struggling and wound up loading the hauler in 26th. Until he can show signs of starting and ending a race up front, we advise you stay away.

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Chicago Style

It has been nearly two months since the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series drivers got to bring out their unrestricted, intermediate cars and they will be more than ready to use them this week after tearing up a bunch of SuperSpeedway cars at Daytona International Speedway.

Chicagoland Speedway is much like its "cookie-cutter" brethren. It is a 1.5-mile unrestricted, intermediate speedway whose banking and general layout are very similar to the other tracks of that size, namely Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Lowe's Motor Speedway. The funny thing about Chicagoland is that it is particular about who it likes.

There are some drivers who have excelled at Chicago but struggle on the other such tracks, such as Kevin Harvick. Then there is someone like Carl Edwards, who has done well on the other 1.5-mile ovals, but has yet to crack the top-10 at Chicago, which means fantasy owners need to look at the overall picture. If a driver can handle the other "cookie-cutter" tracks, then he can handle Chicago.

Favorites
What separates a driver from the rest of the pack this week is not only performing well at Chicago, but having a proven track record on all the "cookie-cutters," and for the last 10 years, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have shown the way on these tracks.

Jimmie Johnson has never won at Chicagoland, but he has never finished lower than sixth there, either. In fact, that sixth-place finish last year was the first time in four tries that he didn't earn a top-five. He already has two wins on the "cookie-cutter" tracks this year, giving him five top-fives and six top-10s at those tracks since last fall. Start him with confidence on Sunday.

Tony Stewart is the only driver who can rival Johnson's claim to the "cookie-cutter" throne. He won three of the last four 1.5-mile oval races in 2006. "Smoke" ran second at Atlanta and was on his way to another "cookie-cutter" victory at Lowe's when he pitted for fuel, leaving the lead to a few gamblers. He limped home 32nd last year at Chicago, but prior to that, he had a win and four consecutive top-fives there.

Dark Horses
The "cookie-cutters" have been good for dark horse picks this year. In March, Juan Montoya surprised just about everyone by racing his way to a top five in his first trip to Atlanta. When filling out the fantasy roster, don't forget about your sleeper picks.

Reed Sorenson is not having the greatest follow-up to his rookie season, but he is proving to be a consistent threat on the "cookie-cutter" tracks. He earned three top-10s on the 1.5-mile ovals in 2006, which includes a seventh in his first career start at Chicago. Sorenson is having another strong "cookie-cutter" season this year, as he was seventh at Atlanta and fourth at Lowe's.

Going into the Coca-Cola 600, J.J. Yeley knew that he was driving for his job. That weekend, he had his strongest run of the season, stayed inside the top 10 throughout most of the race and grabbed a second-place finish for his effort. He will keep that pace going at Chicago, where he earned a 10th last season. It doesn't hurt that the No. 18 Chevrolet has a history of success on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways.

Avoidance Principal
Rhythm is a key ingredient to winning on a "cookie-cutter" track. Whether it is on race day or in the preceding weeks, having positive momentum can get a driver into the top 10 on these tracks. At the same time, problems have a way of being amplified on such speedways.

Kasey Kahne had an amazing season in 2006 and he dominated on the "cookie-cutter" tracks. He is far from that pace this year, but he actually started losing his momentum on the 1.5-mile ovals at Chicago. Entering that weekend, he had three wins and four consecutive top-fives on the "cookie-cutters." He ended that day in 23rd. In the four such races after that, he had a win sandwiched by three finishes of 33rd or lower. He has yet to earn a top-10 on anything but a SuperSpeedway in 2007, so there is nothing to suggest that he is ready to contend this weekend.

Since Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500, things have not gone his way. He has especially struggled on the "cookie-cutters" this year, not having earned anything above a 21st on those tracks in 2007. "Happy" tends to bring his best game to Chicago; he won the first two races in Illinois and he has never finished outside the top 20 there. However, with his troubles this season, he should be taken with a cautious approach.

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Mears edges Truex Jr. for pole in Chicago
July 13th, 2007

Joliet, IL (Sports Network) - Casey Mears captured the pole for Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway. The No.25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet circled the 1.5-mile oval in 29.580 seconds (182.556 m.p.h.), just 0.013 seconds ahead of Martin Truex Jr.

The pole victory was Mears' first of the season and third of his Nextel Cup career. His last pole was at Indianapolis in 2004.

"It's a great day for the National Guard/GMAC team, the guys have been doing a great job," said Mears. "This is the car that we won Charlotte with so everyone is pretty pumped this weekend."

Truex Jr.'s time was 29.593 seconds (182.476 m.p.h.). Ryan Newman (29.595) and Mark Martin (29.622) will make up row two.

Other drivers of note and their starting positions: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth), Jimmie Johnson (eighth), Matt Kenseth (10th), Jeff Gordon (11th), Denny Hamlin (13th) and Kevin Harvick (14th).

Gordon ended his Joliet, IL winless streak last July and climbed into the top-10. He has been in the top-10 ever since - 37 weeks. It is the second longest active streak in Nextel Cup behind the 44-week streak by Jeff Burton. (The all-time record is held by Dale Earnhardt - 174 weeks from 1986 - 1992.)

Gordon has been almost perfect in 2007 winning four times and posting 16 top-10s in 18 starts. Even after being penalized 100 points for a COT infraction, Gordon owns a 277-point lead over Hamlin. With just eight races left before the start of the "Chase for the Nextel Cup," Gordon can coast into the "playoffs." He is 733 points ahead of 12th-place Earnhardt Jr.

Also safely ensconced in the "Chase" are Hamlin, Kenseth, 2006 Nextel Cup champion Johnson, Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards.

The final six playoff positions are being contested by 11 drivers. Currently, two-time Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Daytona 500 winner Harvick, Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Earnhardt Jr. hold the positions. But Jamie McMurray, winner of last week's race in Daytona, is just 49 points back. The win was his first in 166 starts.

"That guy (McMurray) works as hard or harder than anybody down here; he deserves it," said Edwards, his teammate at Roush Racing.

Also within striking distance are Newman (-61), Kurt Busch (-121), Greg Biffle (-204) and J.J. Yeley (-236).

The race is scheduled to drop the green flag on Sunday at 4 p.m. (et)

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Green Flag: USG Sheetrock 400

Neither drivers nor fantasy owners have any time to rest on their laurels or complain about how unfair this sport can be. If you were one of the many players with Tony Stewart on your team at the start of last week's Pepsi 400, he made his own bad luck by driving into the back of teammate Denny Hamlin. If you had Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the roster, the fact that he was swept into the aftermath of the race is just one of those unfortunate incidents that plague the restrictor-plate SuperSpeedways.

Either way, it's time to put the past behind you and prepare for the USG Sheetrock 400. Chicagoland Speedway is one of the six "cookie-cutter" courses, along with Atlanta Motor Speedway, Lowe's Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, and what it lacks in an original configuration is made up for with a deep pool of data that can be used to evaluate a driver. From time to time, defenders of these tracks attempt to point out how different each course is, and while there are subtle alterations from track to track, the proof in there similarity can be found in the number of drivers who are strong on all of them.

Tier One
Qualification is in the books, and it really didn't add much to our understanding of who should or shouldn't be favored. Where a driver starts really doesn't have much bearing on where he finishes, and it is notable that the driver who won after starting the furthest forward and the furthest back are both Kevin Harvick. He qualified sixth in the inaugural race and was 32nd the next year before crossing under the checkers first.

Pre-race favorites Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon continue to be your best bets at this level, and that impression has not changed with their relatively modest qualification runs. Johnson rolls off the grid eighth, and traditionally he is a much better finisher on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks than a he is a strong qualifier. Starting in the top 10, it won't take long to find the lead pack, and that is where you can expect to see him all afternoon.

Matt Kenseth will start 10th. One spot back in 11th is still two spots better than Gordon started last year en route to victory. The replay of the no. 24's bump-and-run over Kenseth in 2006 will continue to get a lot of airplay until the green flag waves, and it is interesting that these two combatants line up next to one another, but they insist that particular hatchet is buried. We believe them—at least until the closing laps come around and the checkers are in sight again—but that is 400 miles down the road and a lot can happen in the meantime to separate them. If Gordon stays true to form, he will spend most of the afternoon in the top five, while Kenseth will be in second half of the top 10 during much of the race. At the end, however, both drivers will be in a position to win.

Tony Stewart can be his own worst enemy, a fact he's proven in both Daytona International Speedway races this year. For a while, he seemed to have mended some fences with the media, but now that they are hounding him about something he doesn't want to discuss—namely his bad behavior in the Pepsi 400—he is surly and distracted. That distraction kept him from posting a very strong lap in qualification and he rolls off from the dead center of the pack. He could still rise to the challenge, but he is too much trouble to worry over this week.

Tier Two
About the only thing that qualification changed was our impression about Casey Mears. We were not overly enthused by his cookie cutter credentials entering the race despite the fact that he won his first NASCAR Nextel Cup event on the similarly configured speedway at Lowe's a few weeks ago. However, in the last five races at Chicagoland, the pole winner has finished fifth or better, and that makes this Young Gun worth another look.

Sophomores continue to be extraordinary as well. With Tier One's Martin Truex Jr. qualifying on the outside of the front row and Clint Bowyer rolling off the grid seventh, they put their best foot forward in time trial. J.J. Yeley starts much deeper in the field in 36th, but if he can find the right race trim setup in practice, this 400-mile sprint race still gives him enough time to get to the front.

Tier Three
No one really stood out in qualification in Tier Three, although Bobby Labonte's 12th-place qualification run was certainly noteworthy, especially in light of John Andretti's top-10 qualification run in the team car.

For that reason, we are also going to stick with our sophomore theme at this level and take the Ganassi guys. Last year, all of the rookies finished 21st or better, with David Stremme taking the final spot in 21st. His teammate Reed Sorenson, however, was the top finishing freshman in seventh. Both drivers have been good values at times on the "cookie-cutter" tracks in 2007, with Stremme sweeping the top 20 in the first four races and Sorenson posting top-10s at Atlanta and Lowe's. Even rookie Juan Montoya has gotten in on the picture with top-10s at Atlanta and Texas, so Chip Ganassi Racing could be a pleasant surprise.

Meanwhile, another pair of teammates did not fare very well in qualification and they looked listless in Friday's practice as well. Ricky Rudd and David Gilliland had the two slowest cars in qualification and they were so far off the mark that we really don't think they can rally to finish strong. Certainly, this race can be won from anywhere in the field, but to come from behind you have to find the perfect setup and these teams haven't had that on anything other than a restrictor-plate SuperSpeedway all season.

Tier Four
We were prepared to say good things about Brian Vickers, but he didn't make the race, which leaves Dave Blaney to carry the Toyota banner. He did so in qualification by posting the fastest speed among those drivers required to qualify on time. In 2007, when the Camrys have made their way into the shows, they have logged some pretty impressive laps and lately have been able to seal the deal with top-10s by Vickers and Michael Waltrip.

Bill Elliott continues to snub the past champion's provisional that he has at his disposal, and while the Wood Bros. No 21 Ford is still well outside the top 35 in owner points, they still have five remaining free passes into the race. With 17 more qualification sessions ahead of them, it's beginning to look like Elliott is going to have the ride for most—if not all—of the year, and also that he is going to continue to get the car qualified on speed. The more seat time he gets, the better he will be and that will translate to increasingly strong results, and Elliott is eventually going to become the stud of Tier Four.

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USG Sheetrock 400 PostQ    
       
The way it stands the race at Chicagoland Speedway will have plenty of drama as Jimmie Johnson sits in the No. 1 spot on the PostQ forecast and disgruntled “teammate” Kyle Busch is in the second position. There has been plenty of media coverage concerning the issues at Hendrick Motorsports since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was signed on to replace Busch a few weeks ago. Busch has not taken kindly to the switch and had some choice words for his (former) teammates last weekend at Daytona. Johnson and Busch each look to have strong cars with the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet qualifying in the 8th position while sitting in the top spot on the Speed chart paving the way in a couple of the practice sessions. Johnson should be the car to beat but Busch would love nothing more than to knock his (former) teammate from victory lane. Busch has been fast as well sitting 3rd on the Speed chart while qualifying a few positions better than Johnson. All of the Hendrick cars have looked good this weekend but it remains to be seen if Busch’s teammates will work with him during the race. Expected plenty of excitement if the pair is racing for the win.

With the exception of the road race at Infineon Martin Truex Jr. has been on a tear in the last few months. He has seven top 20 finishes in the last eight races with a win and four top 3s. He is proving to be a contender in the series after struggling in his first full season at the Cup level. Truex will be the flagship team come 2008 when Earnhardt Jr. moves to Hendrick and he is showing that he can shoulder the load. The #1 Bass Pro Shop Chevrolet looks once again to be competitive ranking 2nd on the Speed chart while qualifying on the outside of the front row – his best starting spot of the season. Now all Truex has to do is follow it up with a solid top 5 and he will nearly solidify his position in the Chase for the Championship.

Looking for that sleeper driver of the weekend it may be Dave Blaney. Blaney has struggled for the majority of the season posting just three top 20s on the year but two of those have come on the high-banked superspeedways (Lowe’s and Michigan). He has looked good in the practice sessions as well as qualifying as he will start in the 15th position while ranking in the top 10 on the Speed chart. Blaney tends to fade during the race but he should be able to maintain a top 20 finishing position.

Although Roush Racing has been strong at Chicagoland in the past the team has had some struggles this weekend, especially Jamie McMurray. McMurray, coming off the first win in his own car (he replaced an injured Sterling Marlin when he won in 2002), is sitting within striking distance of the valuable 12th place in the point standings. He needs to put together a string of big runs but the #26 Crown Royal Ford has had some problems this weekend. He had to settle for a 34th qualifying position but does rank in the top 20 on the Speed chart after picking it up in the final practice but McMurray still gets our “buyer beware” tag of the week.

Robby Gordon had the car to beat at Infineon but pit strategy and fuel mileage by his competitors relegated him to a 16th place finish. Gordon, however, has put together a string of solid runs as he has five top 20s in the last six races including his lone top 10 finish of the season (Dover). Gordon heads into Chicagoland with plenty of momentum but thins may come to a screeching halt as he has looked horrible this weekend. Gordon has to settle a provision starting position as he will bring up the tail end of the field in the 39th starting position while ranking no better on the Speed chart in the 33rd position. He has come from the back of the pack to post decent finishes this season but it may be too much for the #7 Jim Beam Ford to overcome this weekend.

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Drivers hope for good racing at Chicagoland
July 14, 2007

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) -Chicagoland Speedway is beginning to show its age, and that could be groovy for fans of side-by-side racing Sunday.

Most new or recently repaved tracks tend to have only one ``groove,'' a narrow lane of broken-in pavement around the bottom of the track where cars have the best traction. The track becomes more slippery as drivers veer out of the low groove and up the banking, making it difficult to complete a pass on the outside.

But as the pavement gets broken in, a second groove can develop in the middle of the racetrack, allowing drivers to race side-by-side more easily. Drivers are beginning to see that happen at Chicagoland, which hosted its first Nextel Cup race in 2001.

``Already I've seen where the grip level has gone away, which is a good thing,'' said Jeff Gordon, who won at Chicagoland last year. ``It's going to make for more side-by-side racing for the groove to widen out and I think we're going to see an incredible race this weekend.''

Drivers have complained about one-groove racing at new tracks for years. But Matt Kenseth, whom Gordon spun out near the end of last year's race at Chicagoland, says the tire design currently being used in the Cup series makes it easier to run side-by-side.

``I think the track will be real wide,'' Kenseth said. ``They have been for the last couple of years, no matter where we've been - even Charlotte, with new pavement, was pretty wide in the spring. So, I think whatever reason, with these rules and tire package, we've been able to run high a lot more than we used to. So I think there will be two good grooves, and the racing will be good.''


COMING TOGETHER: Only weeks after the death of former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., it has been another difficult week for the NASCAR community.

A moment of silence was held before Saturday's Busch Series race at Chicagoland Speedway to commemorate the victims of a small plane crash that killed five people, including Dr. Bruce Kennedy, husband of International Speedway Corporation president Lesa France Kennedy, and Michael Klemm, a pilot with NASCAR Aviation.

An adult and two children also were killed in homes that caught fire in the crash.

Veteran driver Jeff Burton said the NASCAR community tends to rise above its day-to-day bickering in times of trouble.

``It's a terrible time for the France family to lose Bill and then Bruce, that's pretty hard to imagine,'' Burton said. ``I feel really bad for Lesa and her son and the whole family. It's hard to imagine what they're going through. I feel really bad for a 15-year-old boy, to lose your granddad and a father within that amount of time. I feel really bad for him.''


KAHNE OF BEERS?: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is cutting his corporate ties with Budweiser at the end of the season, perhaps making Kasey Kahne next in line to become NASCAR's Bud man.

After Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday that Earnhardt wouldn't be bringing the Budweiser sponsorship along with him when he leaves Dale Earnhardt Inc. to drive for Hendrick in 2008, Earnhardt acknowledged speculation that Budweiser might end up sponsoring Kahne - and deemed Kahne worthy.

Kahne said he hadn't spoken with Budweiser representatives but certainly doesn't mind the attention.

``It's very flattering,'' Kahne said. ``They're one of the greatest sponsors in sports and in racing. It's very flattering that I'm on their list and that Ray Evernham is on their list. It's a big deal. It feels good when you're on that type of a list.''


INFIELD INDIGESTION: As part of its sponsorship deal with Chip Ganassi Racing and driver David Stremme, Tums surveyed Chicago area residents to determine the city's top indigestion-inducing hot spots - then they sent Stremme to deliver the awards in person last week, wheeling his Dodge race car around the city streets.

Stremme stopped outside Chicago's iconic Billy Goat Tavern - once made famous by John Belushi's cheeseburger skit on ``Saturday Night Live'' - which is the city's ``most Tums-worthy'' restaurant, according to the survey.

Chili Mac's Five-Way Chili won the ``hottest heartburn'' category, and Portillo's was voted ``most likely to inspire indigestion.''


SPARK PLUGS: Mark Martin was more than a little disappointed after crashing his No. 01 Chevrolet during the first practice session on Saturday. ``I'll probably never get over it as long as I live,'' Martin said. Martin will have to use his backup car for Sunday's race and start from the back of the pack. ... Elliott Sadler will also be forced to use his backup car after his Dodge hit the wall hard during the final practice session on Saturday. ... Jimmie Johnson was fastest in the final practice on Saturday.

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Practice wreck sends Martin to rear

JOLIET, Ill. -- In a split second, Mark Martin went from the second row to the back of the field for Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Exiting Turn 2 during Saturday's first practice session after his crew had made a shock change, Martin spun and backed into the wall, damaging his No. 01 Ginn Racing Chevrolet beyond repair. As a result, he will relinquish his fourth-place qualifying position for Sunday's race and start from the rear in a backup car.

After the wreck, Martin must have felt like kicking himself all the way from Joliet to Lake Michigan.

"It's just absolutely inexcusable," Martin said. "This U.S. Army team built me one of the best cars I've ever had in my life, and there is just no excuse for me letting that happen.

"I'll probably never get over it as long as I live. I've really never seen a shock change make that much of a difference, but that should not have happened."

Martin's primary car was a new chassis. The backup car he will drive Sunday last ran at Michigan, where he finished 29th on June 17. Before that, Martin drove the backup to a seventh-place finish at Pocono on June 10.

Elliott Sadler was 16th fastest in Happy Hour (final practice) but suffered the same fate as Martin, wadding up the rear end of the No. 19 Dodge against the outside wall late in the session.

Sadler had qualified 31st but will drop to the rear in a backup car to start the race.

BIFFLE PLAYING CATCH-UP


The recent resurgence of Roush Fenway Racing doesn't include Greg Biffle, who hasn't come close to joining teammates Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray as a race winner this year.

Perhaps the turnaround for Biffle started Saturday. After qualifying 33rd on Friday for the USG Sheetrock 400, Biffle found some speed in Saturday morning's first practice session after wholesale adjustments to the No. 16 Ford.

As a result, the car was sixth fastest in morning practice.

"We switched our car around a quite a bit, and then we put it back how we ran it last year, some, and it's better," said Biffle, whose contract with Roush Fenway runs through 2009. "We still have a little ways to go, but, yeah, I definitely think it's better...

"We've been running better as a group, but it seems like the 16 is really not running any better. Today we are, and that's exciting for us."

CAMPING ADVENTURE WITH BOWYER

With an extensive background in RV camping as a child, Clint Bowyer is comfortable in his role as a standard-bearer for Camping World, an RV and outdoor supplies retailer that is expanding its presence in NASCAR racing.

Bowyer visited the Chicagoland Speedway media center Saturday as part of Camping World's announcement of its sponsorship of the Labor Day weekend Busch Series race at California Speedway.

As a young motorcycle racer, Bowyer used to travel to events in an RV driven by his father. En route to Oklahoma City one night, according to Bowyer, his father grew tired and let Bowyer's brother, who was 14 or 15 years old, drive the vehicle for the first time.

The trip proceeded without incident until Bowyer's brother fell asleep at the wheel, and the RV careened across the median into oncoming traffic, then bounced back across the median to safety.

"It threw my father from his seat," said Bowyer, who was playing Nintendo with a couple of friends in the back of the RV. "We were playing Excitebike, and as soon as I hit a jump, the RV jumped, too.

That was pretty cool."

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Top 5 and 5 to watch: Chicagoland
Sporting News.com

Here's a look at the top five in points and five drivers to watch in Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. All statistical references are for Cup races at Chicagoland unless otherwise indicated.

1. Jeff Gordon. Gordon won last year after sending leader Matt Kenseth spinning with a love tap with less than five laps to go. The way Gordon has been racing this year, he might find himself ahead of Kenseth this time. Would Matt tap back?

2. Denny Hamlin. Hamlin started seventh and finished 14th last year in his first race at Chicagoland. His relationship with teammate Tony Stewart, not his past performance at the track, will be the bigger topic this weekend.

3. Matt Kenseth. Kenseth has been by far the most dominant driver in the past two Chicagoland races. He has led 288 laps (Jeff Burton is next with 60) and has turned the most fastest laps with 128 (Gordon is next with 52). That kind of dominance is reflected in Kenseth's 130.0 driver rating. He finished second two years ago and 22nd last year, thanks to Gordon. Kenseth deserved better.

4. Jimmie Johnson. Johnson has the fourth-best driver rating at 105.4. If loop data were around longer than the past two years, Johnson's driver rating would be higher than the Sears Tower. In Johnson's five races, his finishes are 4, 3, 2, 3, 6. What happened last year?????

5. Jeff Burton. Burton won the pole last year and finished second. His driver rating, a 12th-best 88.9, is lackluster because he finished 30th the year before.

Five to watch:

Tony Stewart, 7th
. Do stats matter anymore with Stewart? He pretty much has boffo statistics wherever he races - Chicagoland included - but that has meant little this year. If he's not having bad luck, he's challenging and banging into people for no apparent reason. I just hope he makes it past Lap 14 this week.

Kyle Busch, 8th.
Busch finished third last year and 14th the year before in his first race at Chicagoland. When Hamlin and Stewart are not being asked about their relationship, Busch will be grilled about his comments toward Gordon. I'm betting the extra attention will have zero effect on Busch come race time.

Kevin Harvick, 9th. Harvick's 112.1 driver rating is second best. He won the first two races at Chicagoland (which are not used to determine the driver rating) and finished fourth last year. His worse finish is 19th, two years ago. He's very strong on this track and in his six races has led 228 laps.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 12th. Junior's lead over the 13th-place driver, now Jamie McMurray, is down to 49 points. Two weeks ago it was 127 over Ryan Newman. Junior is really on the bubble now. He has a very good record at Chicagoland, including a fifth and a first in the past two races.

Jamie McMurray, 13th. McMurray is coming off a spectacular win and has the momentum. But he has finished progressively worse in each of his four races at Chicagoland. He followed up an eighth-place finish in 2003 with a 13th, 22nd and 39th. His driver rating is 47.1, a canyon-like 40th.

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Stewart tops off to finish on top
July 15th, 2007

Joliet, IL (Sports Network) - Tony Stewart passed up new tires on the final pit stop and the strategy worked as he captured Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway. The No.20 Home Depot Chevrolet driver crossed the finish line 1.727 seconds ahead of Matt Kenseth.

The victory was Stewart's first of the season and 30th of his Nextel Cup career.

"The Home Depot guys (pit crew) won us the race today," said Stewart. "They got us the track position we needed...Being out front, being in clean air was everything."

Pole winner Casey Mears brought the field to the green flag. Mears lasted until the end of the sixth lap when Martin Truex Jr. slid to the bottom of the track for the lead. Mears continued to drop as he complained of a tight car.

Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson took off after Truex Jr. who had built a lead of nearly one second. He caught Truex Jr. on lap 17 and passed him two laps later.

Johnson's Chevrolet was working very well and by lap 28 his lead was 1.395 seconds and growing. He began to lap slower traffic and still his margin grew to two seconds. Johnson's pace was such that after 48 green-flag laps, there were just 28 cars on the lead lap.

Through the first round of green-flag pit stops and Johnson was still the leader. The only casualty was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed pit road and had to make an extra lap. He came out 13th after running sixth.

A Jeff Green spin sent everyone down pit lane, but this time there were different strategies used. Johnson came in first and left in 10th place after he took four tires. In front of him were drivers who took zero tires or two right-side tires.

Kevin Harvick and Reed Sorenson didn't come in at all and led the race. Newman came out first after his fuel only stop and was third on the track.

Harvick quickly built a four-second lead, but if there was another long green- flag run, he might be in some trouble. Johnson's four new tires were working and by lap 75 he was back up to seventh place.

On lap 85 Stewart, in second place, began to cut into Harvick's lead. Johnson was still on the move, now in fourth place. By lap 95 Stewart had cut the lead in half while Johnson, faster than both of them, was in third place and still flying. Stewart caught Harvick on lap 110 and when the No.29 pitted, the Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet took over the race lead.

The cars cycled through their pit stops and they returned to the track with Harvick leading Johnson and Stewart. But Johnson didn't like following Harvick and on lap 120 he passed underneath him for the lead.

At the mid-point of the 267-lap race, Johnson held a 0.876 second lead over Stewart and 3.963 seconds over a fading Harvick. Harvick continued to drop as Kyle Busch passed him as well.

Johnson and Stewart continued to show the way, building the lead to six seconds over third place as the field reached the 150-lap mark. Then Jamie McMurray slapped the way on lap 155 and Johnson's big lead disappeared in a split second.

Stewart beat Johnson off pit road to grab the lead as the race restarted on lap 160. With clean air Stewart began to pull away from Johnson until lap 165 when Robby Gordon spun into the outside wall.

Just like the last restart, Stewart and Johnson quickly separated themselves from the pack. By lap 185 they had built a gap of two seconds between themselves and third-place Kenseth.

On lap 187 Johnson went to the top of the track and drove around Stewart for the lead. Stewart didn't stay in second for long, it's not his style. A couple of laps later he zoomed back into first place and was still there after 200 laps were completed.

Dave Blaney brought out the caution flag when he blew a tire on lap 202 and slammed the wall. There were 63 laps remaining when cars pitted for what they hoped would be the final time. But with a maximum of 50-55 laps on a tank, teams would still need about eight more caution flag laps to reach the checkered flag.

The race went back to green on lap 207.

Stewart got off to a great restart and quickly built a half-second lead on Johnson. Meanwhile, both Earnhardt Jr. (power steering) and Truex Jr. (engine) had problems and were off the pace.

For the third time Stewart and Johnson built a big lead on the field. But trouble found Johnson on lap 223 as his right-rear tire exploded sending him into the turn three wall and ending his day.

Everyone took the opportunity to top off fuel and take it out of the equation. Stewart took about two seconds of fuel, barely stopping, before he was off. Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Harvick followed.

The green flag dropped with 37 laps to go. Stewart and Kenseth immediately jumped out front and Kenseth went to the bottom getting side-by-side with Stewart. But Stewart fought him off and Kenseth had to get back into line.

"We just didn't quite have the car," said Kenseth. "I got a run on him and we ran side-by-side, but just getting down into (turn) three I thought I was going to lose control and take out both of us."

Caution flags, for a J.J. Yeley crash and a Joe Nemechek spin, set up a 12-lap shootout for the win.

Stewart, Kenseth, Harvick and Carl Edwards easily cleared the lapped traffic and set up a four-man race to the checkered flag. Edwards got around Harvick, but was still more than one-and-a-half seconds behind the two leaders.

Stewart built his lead over Kenseth to 1.428 seconds with six laps to go and he was never challenged over the final half dozen laps.

Edwards, Harvick and Mears completed the top-five.

After a week off, the Nextel Cup Series will return on Sunday, July 29th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Ten Points to Ponder After Chicagoland

1. They call it “cookie cutter” for a reason – Sorry guys, but that just wasn’t a very exciting race. Stewart got out front with a fuel-only pit stop and was never challenged in the closing laps after holding off a single pass attempt by Kenseth. There were several long green flag runs and not a lot of lead changes, unless you count the ones achieved through pit cycles, and most of the attrition was due to single car incidents. The only good news to report: the race didn’t last that long.

2. He took the words right outta my mouth – Tony Stewart said that team owner Joe Gibbs had to break away from his vacation to referee the feud between Stewart and teammate Denny Hamlin. Tony described it as Gibbs “coming to babysit his two kids.” Hey, that’s just what I was thinking. Of course, Stewart is ten years older than Hamlin and, as the senior driver at JGR, shouldn’t really need a babysitter – should he? But wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall in that meeting? Like always, Tony’s keeping it interesting.

3. And thanks also, Tony – For helping prove me right. A few weeks ago in this column, I noted that Tony had (at that time) six Top 10 finishes in seven races; also, I predicted that he was starting to hit his summertime stride. Well, after finishing 38th at Daytona after the wreck with Hamlin, Stewart came back strong for the win today and moved up one spot in the points to sixth. OK, it didn’t take rocket science to make that prediction …but still.

4. Note to Kyle Busch – If you think you’ve been thrown under the bus by your teammates, you’re entitled to that opinion. But airing all your dirty laundry in public is not helping your reputation, and when asked if this concerned you, you said, “My perception has been horrible since I came into this sport, so it doesn’t really even matter any more.” That’s a very cynical attitude for someone so young. There are many examples of drivers out there who were once hated and ended up being loved – and vice versa. The bottom line is clear – if you want to be liked, it can be achieved. But you have to want it, and you have to be willing to work for it.

5. Busch, Take Two – On the other hand, if Kyle Busch is trying to get fired from Hendrick Motorsports, as seems to be the case, there are indications tonight that he might get his wish sooner rather than later. Stay tuned.

6. Raganomics – Have you seen that Discount Tire commercial with David Ragan, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle? It’s a spoof of the classic Mean Joe Green commercial, but instead of offering a jerseylike souvenir to a young admirer, Ragan tosses a tire at him. The tire circles around and lands behind the kid, who promptly turns around and kicks it. “I think he just wanted an autograph,” deadpans Edwards. It’s pretty cute.

7. I’m Thinkin’ Arby’s – Speaking of commercials, when Matt Kenseth pitted around Lap 60 with a vibration, did you have a picture flash through your mind of Kenseth on pit road shaking a box of those new Popcorn Chicken Shakers?

8. Who knew – … that the group Hanson of Mmmbop infamy could do such a nice job with the National Anthem? The harmonies were quite good and I loved the fact that all three young men had their hands over their hearts, as it should be.

9. Plans for the off weekend? – Most NASCAR fans dread the prospect of a weekend without racing…but most drivers and teams relish it. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lost his power steering during the race and had to manhandle his car around the track, he joked that he needed to start working out. Asked if that’s how he would spend the off weekend, Junior replied, “No. I’m gonna sit on the porch and drink some cold beers.” And you know he will, too.

10. As D.W. said – What else can be done in light of last week’s horrible plane crash tragedy except, “pray and pray and pray.” Along with the loss of Dr. Bruce Kennedy and Michael Klemm from the NASCAR family, three civilians were killed on the ground, civilians which included a mother, her son, and a little four-year-old girl. All the families affected need to be remembered in our thoughts and prayers.

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Re: USG Sheetrock 400 News and Notes

Bubble Breakdown : Little Changes in Top 35 Picture as Gap Widens to 225 Points
Monday July 16, 2007

With the Daytona debacle now in the rearview mirror, the battle for the Top 35 in car owner points continued this week in Chicagoland; but after an uneventful day for the majority of the cars on the bubble, little changed as far as positions go. In fact, the gap between 35th and 36th place is now the widest the margin has been all season long.

For more on what happened with those teams on the bubble this weekend at Chicagoland, as well as an update on the potential changes to the Top 35 rule next season, check out this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

Biggest Mover(s)


The Wood Brothers decision to put Bill Elliott in the No. 21 car in an effort to propel the team into the Top 35 in owner points has paid dividends so far. This week, a 28th place run hit the spot, enough to move Elliott and the No. 21 team up and into the 36th spot in owner points. His problem? The same team he’s driving for is now a season-high 225 points behind Johnny Sauter and the No. 70 for a “locked-in” spot in the field each week.

Elliott (No. 21) – Moved from 36th to 35th in car owner points.

Honorable Mention

Andretti (No. 45) – With a new driver in the No. 45 this week, Petty Enterprises got a strong showing from John Andretti. Andretti’s Top 20 finish (18th) moved the team one spot further from 35th; the team now ranks 33rd.

Biggest Loser

When Dave Blaney cut a tire on lap 202 and received major damage, any hope he had of becoming the first Toyota to crack the Top 35 vanished, at least for this race. A DNF resulted in a dismal 40th place finish for the Caterpillar Camry, and now, Blaney finds himself yet another spot away from the bubble.

Blaney (No. 22) – Fell from 36th to 37th in car owner points.

Tracking Toyota

With Dave Blaney’s hopes of a decent finish literally shredded away, Toyota had little representation in the top half of the leaderboard. Jeremy Mayfield wound up the top Toyota, but still finished a mediocre 26th place while Michael Waltrip made the race this weekend and finished 30th. David Reutimann was the fourth and final Camry in the race, but mechanical problems forced him to retire on lap 43, eventually leaving him helpless and finishing 43rd.

Top 3 Finishing Toyotas:

Jeremy Mayfield (No. 36) – Finished 26th
Michael Waltrip (No. 55) – Finished 30th
Dave Blaney (No. 22) – Finished 40th

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