NEWS

NASCAR centerpiece: Who’s headed for the hall?

Rob Sneddon

The recent opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte raised an intriguing question: Which active drivers might someday join inaugural inductees Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.? (Two of the five inductees in the inaugural HOF class, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr., were honored for their contributions as NASCAR administrators.) Here’s the breakdown.

LOCKS

Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson

The inaugural HOF class set lofty standards for drivers. Johnson, Petty and Earnhardt all had at least 50 career Sprint Cup wins, including the Daytona 500. In addition, Petty and Earnhardt each won seven driving championships. While Junior Johnson never won a championship as a  driver – largely because he never ran a full schedule – he won six titles as an owner. Among active drivers, only Hendrick teammates Gordon and Johnson have won at least 50 Cup races, including the Daytona 500, and multiple championships.

ON THE FENCE

Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott

With two championships and 37 career wins, Stewart is in the best position among this group to achieve the benchmarks of the inaugural class. And even if his career statistics fall short, his successful transition to owner/driver strengthens his case. Martin and Elliott are more problematic. Martin (40 career wins) has never won a championship or the Daytona 500. Still, he warrants strong consideration for his Ripkenesque performance at a high level year in and year out. (He’s riding a streak of 22 consecutive seasons with at least 10 top-10 finishes.) Elliott has more career starts than Martin, more wins (44, including 2 Daytona 500s) and a Cup championship (in 1988) but has hurt his case with a seven-year coda as a part-time field-filler. 

LONGSHOTS

Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya

These drivers can make it only if they mount unlikely late-career charges (none is even halfway to 50 wins, and McMurray, who just turned 34, is the youngest) or if the hall expands the criteria for induction. Should Junior’s status as the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver count for anything? What about Burton’s laudable contributions as an advocate for safety reform? Or the strides that Montoya, a native of Colombia and a star in open-wheel racing, has made for diversity?

TOO SOON TO TELL

Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr.

Each of these drivers has shown enough potential, and all are young enough (Newman, at 32, is the oldest) not to rule them out just yet. Truex (just one career win) faces the longest odds; Kurt Busch (22 career wins and the 2004 Cup championship) the shortest.

NOT HAPPENING

Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte, David Reutimann, Michael Waltrip

Put all of their accomplishments together – 40 Cup wins, a pair of Daytona 500 victories, and the 2000 Cup championship – and they don’t even match Bill Elliott’s borderline HOF resume. And since each is over 40, their individual numbers won’t improve enough.

NEXT RACE Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500, Pocono Raceway

THE LOWDOWN Fox Sports signed off for the season after the 600. Despite close finishes and plenty of controversy, Fox saw its ratings decline in a majority of the 13 races it covered, including the Daytona 500, which was delayed by track repairs. Two other races, Martinsville and Texas, were postponed to Monday because of rain. TNT, with new play-by-play man Adam Alexander joining analysts Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach in the booth, kicks off the cable network’s six-race “Summer Series” at Pocono.

PAST WINNERS

2009 Tony Stewart

2008   Kasey Kahne

2007   Jeff Gordon

2006   Denny Hamlin

2005   Carl Edwards

ABOUT Pocono

TRACK: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.), 2.5-mile paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 200 laps, 500 miles

FIRST RACE: 1974

SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Quote of note

“I guess all that nice respect stuff he talked about earlier is out the window.” – Kyle Busch, on his post-race confrontation with Jeff Burton at Charlotte

Where to watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on TNT starts at noon EDT, followed by race coverage at 1:00.

ONE TO WATCH: Jeff Burton

WHY HE MATTERS: He’s the latest Cup driver to feud with Kyle Busch.

WHAT HE SAYS: “When he gets over-aggressive and I pay the price, I’m just not gonna tolerate it.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: The price was a cut tire and a 25th-place finish at Charlotte.

UP TO SPEED

Pokey at Pocono

Rank the top 20 drivers at Pocono by average finish (see chart), and the striking thing is not who is on the list but who isn’t. Of the current top 20 in Sprint Cup points, only Kyle Busch and David Reutimann are not in the top 20 at Pocono (Joey Logano, with just two career Pocono starts, is not included). Busch, who is second in Cup points, could absorb a bad Pocono finish with little harm. But for Reutimann, who sits 125 points out of a Chase spot after his fifth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, Pocono looms as a make-or-break date.

Where have you gone, Jimmie Johnson?

Early in the Coca-Cola 600 Jimmie Johnson seemed to have recovered his equilibrium. He led 36 laps – but then ended up 36 laps down after a pair of spins. The second spin ended in a hard crash, the third time in five races that Johnson has wrecked. His 37th-place finish dropped him three spots in the standings, to seventh, and leaves him closer to the Chase bubble than to first place.

Multiple milestones

With Dario Franchitti’s victory at Indianapolis last Sunday, Chip Ganassi become the first car owner to win the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in the same season. And Jamie McMurray, the Daytona 500 winner, almost gave Ganassi a milestone-within-a-milestone Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. No car owner has ever won Indy and Charlotte in the same day, and McMurray came within one spot of completing the historic sweep for Ganassi. But he was denied by Kurt Busch, who was driving for Ganassi’s primary Indy rival, Roger Penske. “Roger, this one’s for you,” Busch said in Victory Lane. “I thought about that Ganassi car behind us. He wasn’t gonna get by.” In winning, Busch achieved a milestone of his own. He became the seventh driver to win Charlotte’s All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 in the same year. 

WEEKLY STATS

Average finish at Pocono*

RANK        DRIVER     STARTS         AVG. FINISH        

1        Denny Hamlin  8              9.5

2        Jimmie Johnson    16            9.8

3        Jeff Gordon    34            10.0

4        Mark Martin         46            10.8

5        Tony Stewart  22            12.3

6        Ryan Newman16            13.4

7        Carl Edwards   10            13.4   

8        Matt Kenseth  20            14.1

9        Kasey Kahne   12            15.5

10       Kevin Harvick  18            15.7

11       Martin Truex Jr.    8              16.0

12       Jeff Burton          32            16.4

13       Kurt Busch          18            16.5

14       Dale Earnhardt Jr.20            17.4

15       Clint Bowyer   8             17.5

16       Greg Biffle      14            17.6             

17       Bobby Labonte     34            18.5

18       Sam Hornish Jr.    4              20.0

19       Jamie McMurray   14            20.5     

20       Juan Montoya6              20.6

*Active, full-time drivers with at least 4 Pocono starts