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Around the Track: Hendrick and Penske headed for tight title fight

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2014, file photo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) gets a push from teammate Jeff Gordon (24) as Brad Keselowski (2) makes a run on a green flag restart on the next to last lap of the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates take up three of the top-five spots in the Sprint Cup standings. Keselowski, who picked up his third win of the season last week, is ranked third and eager to make a run at another Sprint Cup championship. It's shaping up to be a Hendrick vs. Team Penske rivalry down to the wire. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

By
From page B3 | July 17, 2014 |

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hendrick Motorsports seems to have the edge, at least on paper, in the race with Team Penske for the top organization in NASCAR.

Hendrick has three drivers ranked in the top five of the Sprint Cup Series standings, and Jeff Gordon has been the points leader for 12 of the last 13 races. Combined, Hendrick drivers have six victories this season.

Team Penske has both its drivers in the top nine in points, with Brad Keselowski charging hard after Gordon’s lead. Keselowski’s victory last week at New Hampshire was his third of the season, tying him for the most in the series with Jimmie Johnson.

With only seven races until the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, it’s shaping up to be a Hendrick vs. Penske battle for the title.

“You’ve got the Ford versus Chevy, and both organizations seem to be on top of their game right now,” Gordon said. “To me, there’s that competitive rivalry that we have among all our competitors, and when one rises to the top, then they put a target on their back and you go after it, and you have that sort of rivalry.”

But Gordon doesn’t want to be drawn into a personal rivalry with the Penske organization or drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano.

“There’s been a little bit here and there, but you know, I think Brad certainly doesn’t mind a little controversy and stirring it up as we’ve seen social media wise and just in the media,” Gordon said. “For us, it’s just going about our business trying to be the best that we possibly can, and those guys seem to be the teams to beat right now.

“If there’s any rivalry, it’s just that we’re working hard to go out there and be the most competitive team out there,” he added.

Keselowski has indeed been vocal about Penske’s pursuit of the Hendrick team. He felt Penske had taken huge strides toward the top in 2012 when Keselowski beat Johnson for the championship, but has complained through 2013 and this year that it’s a challenge to keep up with the Hendrick organization.

Now that Keselowski and Logano are winning and seem to be the most consistent qualifiers, Keselowski was asked if Penske is in the same position as 2012.

“I think in a lot of ways we’re stronger than that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. I think there’s potential left, so that’s all very encouraging to me. I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. More to come.”

IT’S A BOY: Kyle Larson announced he’ll be a first-time father last month, and now the Sprint Cup Series rookie knows he’s having a boy.

Larson and girlfriend Katelyn Sweet learned the sex of the baby on Tuesday night during a gender reveal party. The two then shared the news with fans on social media, with Sweet posting photos of her and Larson, who was wearing a blue shirt and pink shorts, holding up a sign that declared “It’s a Boy.”

“Exciting day for us,” Larson posted on Twitter. “Ready to go go kart racing again!”

CHASE CARS: NASCAR will celebrate the 16 drivers that qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with several elements to make their cars stand out on the track.

Cars in the Chase will have the roof number, front splitter/front fascia and the windshield header colored yellow. The cars will also have a Chase logo affixed to the front quarter panel of the car.

The paint schemes will be changed at the opening round of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 14. Once a driver is eliminated after one of the Chase’s first three rounds, the paint scheme will be removed from the car. The changes are designed to ensure fans are able to easily identify each championship contender as the Chase progresses.

BY THE NUMBERS: Brad Keselowski’s victory at New Hampshire on Sunday was the fourth consecutive win this season for Ford, marking the first time since 2001 the blue oval brand has been to Victory Lane four-straight times.

The 2001 streak was set by Dale Jarrett at Darlington, and was followed by Elliott Sadler’s win at Bristol, and then Jarrett victories at Texas and Martinsville. Ford drivers will now look to win five straight next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ford is a long way away from setting NASCAR’s record streak of wins for a manufacturer. That was done in 1965 when Ford won 32 straight races and 48 of 55 in a season in which NASCAR banned some engines and Chrysler pulled out of the series. General Motors didn’t field cars in 1965.

DIXON RETURNS: Scott Dixon used IndyCar’s doubleheader in Toronto last year to pull back into the championship race and hopes to do the same this weekend.

Dixon swept the doubleheader last July, giving him three wins in seven days. He’d scored his first win of the season the week before at Pocono Raceway, and the three-race winning streak jumpstarted his march to the series title. Dixon jumped from seventh to fourth in the standings during the winning streak.

“To win three-races in a seven-day period was pretty crazy to put us one back in the championship,” Dixon said. “It did start the first of two or three vaults to the championship.”

He returns to the streets of Toronto winless this season, but is coming off a fifth-place finish at Pocono and a fourth on Saturday night at Iowa. He’s currently eighth in the season standings, and 140 points behind series leader Helio Castroneves.

“The big thing for us (last year) was we had just come off an unexpected win at Pocono and the team was pumped, and we had a big test in Sebring to develop the engine a little bit for more drivability and straight-up power and fuel mileage,” said Dixon. “We weren’t quick in every session but we had one pole and two race wins.

“When you win the first one of a doubleheader you’re obviously looking for big things for race two,” he said. “To have it go the right way twice within a two-day spread with the competition you have is almost impossible.”

 

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