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NASCAR: Pastrana Prepares To Make Long-Awaited Nationwide Debut

US Race Report’s Chris Leone breaks down action sport superstar Travis Pastrana’s transition from the world of X Games to the world of NASCAR. Pastrana will make his Nationwide Series debut tonight at Richmond International Raceway after an injury-induced delay of nearly a year.

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NASCAR: Can Anybody Catch Greg Biffle?

Through the first seven races of the Sprint Cup season, Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle leads the point standings. US Race Report’s Chris Leone breaks down Biffle’s hot start and predicts more strong finishes in the upcoming weeks.

Reutimann Gets The Wrong Kind Of Break At Martinsville

Photo credit: Tommy Baldwin Racing (via Facebook)

David Reutimann has to be the unluckiest driver in the Sprint Cup garage these days. The poor guy just can’t seem to catch a break.

Remember where he was a couple of years ago? The Florida native was flying high, coming off of his first career win in the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 for Michael Waltrip Racing. He won again the next season, after chasing down and passing Jeff Gordon at Chicagoland, and Waltrip was so impressed that he gave Reutimann a juicy contract extension.

That’s when the wheels began to come off. Last season was a disaster for Reutimann and MWR, as he fell to 28th in points with only one top five finish and a wild DNF at Watkins Glen that say his car flip violently. When Mark Martin became available for a partial season, Reutimann was let go; the move came so late in the offseason that any good rides were already long gone.

Reutimann managed to piece together a full schedule between BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, but running for a pair of lower-tier teams does not a competitive season make. Reutimann crashed out at Daytona for BK, blew an engine at Phoenix with Baldwin, and finished the first five races of the schedule just barely holding onto a spot in the top 35 in Baldwin’s #10 car.

Forget the fact that Reutimann is trying to relaunch his career. If that car falls out of the top 35, then its other, higher-profile driver – Danica Patrick – may have to qualify for her first Sprint Cup races on speed. A once-secure future has deteriorated to racing from week to week, praying for just one swatch of good luck to replenish the frayed fabric of a career tattered by one bad season.

Then, as if on cue, Stallgate happened.

Photo credit: John Trainor (CC BY 2.0)

The incident saw Reutimann stop entering the first turn at Martinsville yesterday with only three laps to go. Understandably so: the resulting caution broke up an intense battle for the lead between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, and the chaos on the resulting restart eliminated both from winning contention.

Many who watched the end of the race in disbelief criticized Reutimann heavily for the mistake. The motor had been skipping for the last few laps of the race, but Reutimann attempted keep driving around the track in an ill-fated attempt to gain one more position and remain in the top 35.

He failed on both accounts.

To his credit, Reutimann has been more than conciliatory in his explanation. He’s accepted every word of criticism thrown his way, from Clint Bowyer’s frustration (“That was ridiculous”) to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s confusion (“I don’t know what he was thinking, driving around there at 15 miles per hour”). He’s even accepted the harshest criticism of all, delivered by Brad Keselowski, who thinks that NASCAR should park him for a week.

In numerous interviews, the hurt and frustration has sliced through his apologies, as he explains away the broken part that failed and caused the motor to quit. He’s been almost inconsolable in adamantly telling anybody who will listen that he never would have stopped on the race track. More than once, the exasperated driver has pleaded with his critics to give him a break.

For the first time in a while, he got one on Sunday. Unfortunately, it was the wrong kind. And, if Keselowski gets his way, it may go from a mechanical break to a forced break of a different kind.

– Chris Leone

Prop Bets: Daytona 500

The fun thing about the Daytona 500 is that nobody ever has any idea what’s going to happen. Who honestly predicted Trevor Bayne to win last year’s race? Part of the fun of Daytona is heading into the race with little to rely on in the way of making accurate predictions. It’s a guessing game, really – and so is this.

For entertainment purposes only (but you knew that, right?), here are our 10 challenge questions for the 2012 Daytona 500. Chances are, nobody’s going to get more than half of these right – remember, Daytona is a big guessing game – but it’s fun to throw darts at the board and see how things shake out. Feel free to comment with your selections at the bottom of the page, and any person to properly predict all 10 might receive a shout-out.

Have fun, and enjoy today’s race.

Who will post the better finish in these pairings?

1. 2011 championship rivals – Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards

2. Most popular drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick

3. Current vs. former Penske Racing drivers – Kurt Busch or A.J. Allmendinger

4. Roush Fenway Racing’s Nationwide Series drivers – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne

5. New Michael Waltrip Racing drivers – Mark Martin or Clint Bowyer

6. Traditional start-and-parkers – Phil Parsons Racing (Michael McDowell) or NEMCO Motorsports (Joe Nemechek)

7. Teams backed by fast food franchisees – Front Row Motorsports (Taco Bell/Long John Silver’s franchisees, Tony Raines, David Ragan, or David Gilliland) or BK Racing (Burger King franchisees, Landon Cassill or David Reutimann)

Over/under predictions:

8. Cautions: Over or under 10.5

9. Lap leaders: Over or under 26.5

10. Lead changes: Over or under 76.5

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Smaller Teams and Part-Timers

Photo credit: Ned Leone

Not every Sprint Cup team came together in time this offseason to warrant a full preview leading up to the Daytona 500. In fact, a lot of the series’ smaller teams have just finished putting the pieces together in their bids to seize a lower top 35 spot in owners’ points. Many of these teams have been start-and-park outfits in the past, but the majority are attempting to run the full schedule this year.

The newest addition to this list is BK Racing, made up of a group of former TRG Motorsports investors and Burger King franchisees, which has purchased Team Red Bull assets in order to field cars for Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil (and David Reutimann in the Daytona 500 in Kvapil’s place). They’re guaranteed to make the first five races of the season, after which they hope to remain in the top 35 for the balance of the season.

Other full-time teams include David Stremme and Inception Motorsports, who move up to full-time status (save the road courses) after a half-season run last year; J.J. Yeley and Robinson-Blakeney Racing, moving up from the Nationwide Series with America-Israel Racing sponsorship; Timmy Hill and Rick Ware Racing, who will run for Rookie of the Year after Daytona (where Mike Wallace will fill in, as Hill isn’t approved to run superspeedways yet); Joe Nemechek and NEMCO Motorsports; and Michael McDowell and Phil Parsons Racing, which will partner with Dusty Whitney and Mike Curb in an effort to run full races in Fords this year after years of starting and parking.

A handful of other teams will run the full season while campaigning multiple drivers. Frank Stoddard’s FAS Lane Racing will field Terry Labonte in the Daytona 500, Ken Schrader in nine races with Federated Auto Parts sponsorship, and other drivers on a race-by-race basis. R3 Motorsports will move up from the Nationwide Series and split its ride between Robert Richardson III and Scott Riggs. Michael Waltrip will run superspeedway races and the Kentucky event for his own team, driving the #55 when Mark Martin is off, and six races remain unfilled for that team. Front Row Motorsports returns with a third car this season, rechristened the #26; Tony Raines has locked it into the Daytona 500 field, but who will drive the car beyond Daytona is undetermined.

Plenty of other drivers will attempt part-time schedules. Scott Speed has moved to Leavine Family Racing, where he will attempt 16 races in their #95 Ford. Tim Andrews, son of longtime Sprint Cup crew chief Paul, will attempt 10-12 events in a #19 Ford for Go Green Racing, one of many Nationwide Series teams moving up. Brendan Gaughan will drive the #33 for Richard Childress Racing in four of the first five races of the season, as Childress attempts to keep the former full-time team in the top 35 and sell off the owners’ points; Austin Dillon will also drive one race later in the year with American Ethanol sponsorship. Turner Motorsports moves up to the Sprint Cup level at Daytona in July, as Wal-Mart fields a car celebrating their 50th anniversary with Bill Elliott behind the wheel.

And of course, plenty of drivers have landed one-off rides for the Daytona 500. Waltrip will attempt the race for Hillman Racing, formed by ex-Germain Racing manager Mike Hillman, in its #40 Toyota. Kenny Wallace and Nationwide Series team RAB Racing will attempt the race with American Ethanol sponsorship. Childress will field Elliott Sadler, fresh off a runner-up performance in the Nationwide Series, in a Kroger-sponsored #33 Chevrolet. Elliott will drive a second car for NEMCO Motorsports, hoping to either race his way in or use a past champion’s provisional.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Carl Edwards

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway/Best Buy/Kellogg’s/Cheez-It/UPS Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: August 15, 1979

Home: Columbia, Missouri

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Making the Chase was no problem for Edwards, who spent a total of four races ranked below third in points and was never out of Chase contention in points, even in the early stages of the season where points are shuffled around. Then, when he got there, he had the best Chase average in history, an eye-popping 4.9, partially buoyed by three consecutive second place finishes to finish the year. When all was said and done, he was tied for the points lead with Tony Stewart, the only time that has ever happened in Sprint Cup history.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: And yet it wasn’t enough. Because Stewart won five races in the Chase and Edwards only won one all season, he took the tiebreaker. Edwards won the pole and led the most laps in the season finale at Homestead, but if Stewart won the race, it wouldn’t matter. That’s exactly what happened. “That’s all I had,” Edwards lamented after the race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Anybody who hates the trend of former full-time sponsors combining to back one team and subsequent related collapse of the racing die-cast market should probably view this team as Public Enemy Number One. After Roush Fenway Racing signed Aflac to a $26 million (annually!) contract to sponsor Edwards, the company had to auction off plenty of races to other companies. That wasn’t a difficult sell, as Edwards is a top-flight driver with a generally well-received personality, but many of those who are now footing the bill used to pour much more money into the sport. This year, the team will add UPS (which shifts its money from Edwards’ former teammate David Ragan) and Best Buy (which backed A.J. Allmendinger full-time at Richard Petty Motorsports last year).

But all the money in the world may not be enough to buck the Edwards trend of following up a good season with a relative stinker. After Edwards won nine races and scored 27 top 10s in 2008 and still lost the championship, he followed it up with a winless 2009 and 11th place points finish. Edwards took a page out of teammate Matt Kenseth’s book last season by winning only one race but posting an average finish that was actually better than in 2008; he still lost the title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. He’s still never missed the Chase as a a full-time driver, and don’t expect that to start now, but as Denny Hamlin showed last year (and Edwards showed in 2009), it’s hard to keep performing at a high level after losing the Chase in such a heartbreaking fashion. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500 will help, but can he stay on top all season?

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

Born: October 10, 1974

Home: Kannapolis, North Carolina

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Last year was a step up for Earnhardt Jr., as team owner Rick Hendrick switched around the crews of all three of his drivers not named Jimmie Johnson. Paired with Steve Letarte and Jeff Gordon’s former crew, he scored double-digit top 10s for the first time since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He also made the Chase for the Sprint Cup after two consecutive seasons outside the top 20th in points, and managed to rank a respectable 7th when all was said and done.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: It’s still been over three years since Earnhardt Jr. won a race. His best chance in 2011 slipped away when he ran out of gas while in the lead at Charlotte in May. He also only led 52 laps all season, a career low.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Trying to analyze the son of the Intimidator is always a risky proposition. It’s difficult to look at his career statistics and discern a reasonable pattern, as there are just as many good seasons as bad ones on his resume. But when dealing with the sport’s most popular driver by a wide margin, it’s tough to say much that’s negative without catching hell for it, such as pointing out that he’s only had six wins in national NASCAR series since 2005, and noting that half of those came in the Nationwide Series.

Here’s the most likely scenario for this season: Earnhardt Jr. will be a fringe Chase driver or one of the first to miss the cut through 26 races. His performances in the weeks immediately preceding the cutoff should dictate his Chase performance; if they’re mid-pack, he won’t be much of a threat, but if they’re consistent top 10s, he could be this year’s so-so driver with a surprisingly strong Chase. Even if he misses the Chase, he should break his winless streak this season. He almost has no choice.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Regan Smith

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

#78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing

Born: September 23, 1983

Home: Cato, New York

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Smith got his first (official) Sprint Cup win in exciting fashion, beating Carl Edwards to the line in a green-white-checkered finish at Darlington. He and his Furniture Row Racing team developed a habit of running well at big races, finishing seventh in the Daytona 500 and third at Indianapolis, and Smith developed a high-profile drafting partnership with Kurt Busch on superspeedways.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Six consecutive finishes outside of the top 30 after the Daytona 500 killed any chances at a decent season for Smith, who found himself 30th in points heading to Texas in April. The win would have given him a chance at a wild-card Chase spot if he could have cracked the top 20, but he never saw those heights again after Phoenix in February. At season’s end, Smith ranked 26th in points.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After failing to even score a top 10 together in 2010, Smith and Furniture Row took a quantum leap forward by scoring five last season, buoyed by the Darlington win. That resume led Roger Penske to consider hiring Smith to replace Kurt Busch in his #22 car, though A.J. Allmendinger got the job. But Smith will return to the team for a fourth season (their third competing full-time together), and with those accomplishments under their belt, they can enter the 2012 season with further elevated expectations.

Crew chief Pete Rondeau returns, as do the Earnhardt-Childress engines that powered the team last year. In fact, the biggest change has been Smith’s marriage in the offseason. That consistency during the offseason should only help Smith improve on his results once the green flag finally drops. A Chase berth will likely be too much to ask, but cracking the top 20 shouldn’t be, and anything short of the top 25 in points will be a disappointment.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Martin Truex Jr.

Photo credit: Jerry Edmundson (CC-BY-NC-ND)

#56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing

Born: June 29, 1980

Home: Mayetta, New Jersey

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: For the first time since 2008, Truex had multiple top fives in a season. His best track turned out to be Bristol, where he led 63 laps in March and scored a season-best second place finish in August. He also scored a pole at Dover in October, and he improved to 18th in points after two consecutive seasons of finishing outside of the top 20.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Two crashes at Martinsville and Texas in April dropped Truex from 13th to 21st in points, which proved to be his general rank in points for the rest of the season. He also couldn’t make anything of his Dover pole, only leading two laps and finishing 30th, four laps down.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Truex will be looking forward to having one consistent crew chief for the 2012 season. Last year, Pat Tryson was replaced by Chad Johnston after Kansas in May, but after an illegal windshield led to Johnston’s suspension for the final four races of the season, both Tryson and Scott Miller took turns as replacements atop the pit box. Johnston will return this year, with the goal of keeping Truex up front during races; last year, the team led laps in 16 events, but Truex failed to finish in the top 10 in 11 of those events.

With new teammates Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer on board, Michael Waltrip Racing has taken a serious step up for 2012, and Truex should be a beneficiary. There’s no doubt that MWR is hungry for its first ever Chase appearance this season, and while Bowyer may be more likely to seal the deal than Truex, the two-time Nationwide Series champion will certainly give Waltrip and highly supportive sponsor NAPA plenty of exposure this season – if not on the track, certainly during commercial breaks.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Mark Martin

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

#55 Aaron’s Rent Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing

Born: January 9, 1959

Home: Batesville, Arkansas

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Martin took two poles in 2011, in the second races at both Daytona and Talladega. He also scored 10 top 10 finishes, with his runner-up finish at Dover in May his best run of the year. Meanwhile, Martin took his then-record 49th Nationwide Series win at Las Vegas in March, giving Turner Motorsports its first series victory.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: As a lame duck driver at Hendrick Motorsports, to be replaced by Kasey Kahne at the end of the season, Martin had the kind of year that leads many to brand a driver as “over the hill.” Martin got the short end of the stick in a preseason crew swap between three Hendrick teams, finishing a disappointing 22nd in points. He hasn’t won in Sprint Cup since 2009, when he scored his fifth career runner-up points finish.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After three years of full-time competition in Hendrick Motorsports’ legendary #5 car, Martin returns to the partial schedule that reinvigorated his career in 2007 and 2008, this time with Michael Waltrip Racing. He’ll split the #55 car and Aaron’s sponsorship with Waltrip himself (and, in the non-Aaron’s races, with other drivers to be determined) as the team expands to three full-time cars for the first time since 2008. Martin will drive 25 races, running a schedule not too far off from his time with Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.

Don’t be surprised if Martin’s early season performance this year is similar to his early 2007 hot streak, in which he almost won the Daytona 500, led the points, and was repeatedly asked if he would reconsider running limited schedules in order to go for one last championship run. Martin is the kind of driver that, when he’s really excited about an opportunity, rises to the occasion, and this one fits that category. He’s unquestionably the best driver that Waltrip has ever had, and should be able to put up results that reflect that. Martin himself won’t make the Chase as a part-timer, but he’ll run well enough that, had he chosen to run every race, he’d be in.

– Chris Leone