NASCAR: Live from New Hampshire

Keselowski rolls to pole; JJ fails inspection

The crowd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway let out a big sigh when Jimmie Johnson knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. off the provisional pole midway through Friday's qualifying.

The jeers turned to cheers minutes later as Brad Keselowski knocked JJ, the Sprint Cup points leader, off the pole.

Don't throw dirt on the Chase hopes of Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup champion, just yet.

The Penske Racing driver won the pole for Sunday's race with a track record 135.922 mph. It was a much-needed boost for a driver and team that is 13th in points after consecutive finishes of 21st, 33rd and 21st.

"There's a sense of urgency, not a sense of panic," Keselowski said after winning his third career pole and second at New Hampshire. "There's a big difference in the two. We're hungry. We can do it, but I don't feel there's a sense of panic.

"We've got fast race cars. If we do our part, we don't need any help."

If Keselowski does over the next eight races what he did in the first eight of the season, he'll be right where he needs to be to defend his title when the Chase starts. Take away a 26th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway in California, and Keselowski's average finish in the other seven races was 5.0 to kick off 2013.

That would be more than enough to make up the 11-point difference between him and 10th-place Tony Stewart.

"I feel this is our time," Keselowski said.

Johnson, tied with Matt Kenseth with a series-best four wins, earned the second spot but will start from the rear because his car was too low in the front in post-qualifying inspection.

Kurt Busch will move up to the front row, followed by Earnhardt, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon.

Keselowski is worried only about his team.

"We have a really fast race car," he said. "The Blue Deuce has been fast since we unloaded here, and we came here and tested a few weeks back and the guys did a great job giving me an awesome car. I don't feel like I nailed a perfect lap, but my guys carried me with that car.

"Hopefully it will be this fast on Sunday when it really counts."

-- David Newton



Knaus manages time (and media)

Want to know why Chad Knaus is considered one of the best -- if not the best -- crew chiefs ever?

He came into the media center late Friday afternoon to explain the mistake his team made that caused Jimmie Johnson's car to be too low in post-qualifying inspection so Knaus wouldn't have his Saturday interrupted by reporters chasing him.

By the way, don't get excited into thinking Johnson's having to start from the back will slow down his recent dominance.

"The car is good,'' Knaus said when asked whether Johnson would have had the fastest instead of second-fastest speed if the car had been legal. "The car is really good. It's going to be plenty fast.''

-- David Newton

Wedding bells for Danica and Junior

Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have wedding plans during the upcoming off weekend.

No, it's not to each other.

And it's not their own.

"Somebody else's wedding," said Patrick, who is dating Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. "No, I didn't just drop a big bomb right there. It's somebody else's wedding. I love weddings. I love love. So it will be fun."

-- David Newton

Time for a change -- in beer

LOUDON, N.H. -- Tony Stewart upgraded Stewart-Haas Racing in more ways than driver talent by adding Kevin Harvick to his lineup for 2014.

He upgraded in beer, too.

Announcing primary sponsor Budweiser will stay with Harvick as he moves from Richard Childress Racing after this season means the co-owner of SHR will end his non-sponsor-related long-term relationship with Schlitz beer.

"Yeah, I'm finally upgrading to the good stuff," the three-time Sprint Cup champion said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the first time he has talked officially about signing Harvick to a multiyear deal. "Feel like the Jeffersons; now I've moved up.

"Yeah, it's the end of my Schlitz era. I can't say that it's terribly disappointing. Now I get to drink the good stuff every day guilt-free."

He probably won't have to pay for the Bud, either. Not that Schlitz was setting him back that much.

But he will have to pay for Harvick, and it will be worth every penny.

Nothing against Ryan Newman, the odd driver out at SHR because of this move -- as SHR has no plans to expand to four teams -- but Harvick is a definite upgrade. He has 21 career wins, including two this year, and has finished the past three years eighth, third and third in the standings.

He has made the Chase in six of nine seasons and is almost a lock to make that seven; he ranks fourth heading into Sunday's race.

Newman has 16 career wins -- just four in the past eight years -- and currently ranks 16th in points. He's made the Chase only four times. He also doesn't draw sponsorship the way Harvick has with Budweiser and Jimmy John's, likely a candidate to fill out the 16 races Budweiser isn't on the hood.

While Stewart said Newman pushed him to perform better, he expects that and more from Harvick.

"It's something that because of our working relationship when I drove [his] Nationwide car, I know how competitive he is," Stewart said. "I know how much he pushes the guys. I know how he pushes myself as a driver and I know how we communicated, and that's a big factor is communication."

The free Budweiser is just a bonus.

And a definite upgrade.

-- David Newton



Danica in the buff?

In case you're wondering why NASCAR driver Danica Patrick hasn't appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue (after you saw NHRA star Courtney Force in the latest one), Patrick has been asked to pose.

Every year since it began five years ago.

And every year she has turned it down.

"You know, I just never felt that was something I needed, wanted to do," Patrick said behind her hauler at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "A lot of the stuff I've done, any scantily clad has always been swimsuit stuff.

"I was also asked to do the painted section of [Sports Illustrated's] swimsuit issue. I was asked to do that the second year after I was in it the first time [in 2009]. I asked one of my most liberal friends if I should do it. She's like, 'Um, that's naked, right? Last I checked that's naked.' "

Well, it is. But it's done artistically.

"Would I feel comfortable?" Patrick continued. "I'm sure it would be a little bit borderline. There's a difference to me between going to the beach and wearing a swimsuit and going to the beach and wearing nothing or paint. That's just pushing the limit a little bit. I mean, as far as artistically it would be really fun.

"But it's not things I need to do push the issue with my brand.

"There's already enough stuff I do that pushes that. I'd rather stay in my full comfort zone than go that far."

That doesn't mean it won't happen one day for the GoDaddy representative.

"When I speak to them and they ask me each time, I say, 'Don't stop asking. I might change my mind one year and it might be something that parallels something else I'm doing or where I'm at or how I'm feeling,' " Patrick said. "Just not right now."

Who knows, maybe one day, Patrick and her boyfriend, Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., will do a couples segment for the issue.

"I think the swimsuit issue tried a couples thing and that didn't work, so I'd be surprised," Patrick said.

-- David Newton



Why the 4?

Kevin Harvick doesn't have a history of driving the No. 4, so why will that be his number next season at Stewart-Haas Racing?

"I think the 4 is just something that's with the 14," he said of co-owner Tony Stewart's number. "The number was something that I don't want to say didn't really matter to me, but it's something that you want to see consistent with the team and the things that they have going on. That was a number that was available and seemed like it was a pretty common tie to the 14."

In other words, 14 minus 4 equals Danica Patrick's (10).

-- David Newton

Logano launches foundation

Joey Logano will host 200 members of the Connecticut State Police and their families on Sunday to launch the Joey Logano Foundation.

It is one of five JLF events designed to serve individuals in race communities. The other tracks to host events this year are Michigan, Atlanta, Charlotte and Phoenix.

Shell Pennzoil and the NASCAR Foundation jump-started the foundation with donations of $10,000 each.

-- David Newton

Too late for Denny?

Welcome to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, known affectionately as the Magic Mile. But it will take more than magic for Denny Hamlin, whose 7.9 average finish here is the best among active Sprint Cup drivers, to get into Chase contention.

It will take a miracle.

Some want to say this is the last stand for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to extend his streak of making NASCAR's 10-race playoff every year since joining the series full time in 2006 -- based on past history, which includes a victory and five top-3s in his past seven trips to New Hampshire.


Hamlin's last stand ended four weeks ago, when he finished 30th at Michigan to fall to 26th in points. And if it didn't end there, it surely did in one of the last three races with finishes of 23rd, 35th and 36th.

Hamlin is 26th in the standings, 122 points outside the top 20 needed to make a win wild-card worthy. That's 46 points worse than he was when he returned fully from the back injury that forced him to miss four races.

He's crashed in his past two races and in three of the past six. And that can't be good for a driver who is in this hole because of back issues that were a problem even before he wrecked in the March 24 race in California.

Hamlin has insisted over the past few weeks that there are no immediate plans to look into surgery or long-time rest that could enhance his long-term future in the sport.

Team owner Joe Gibbs said three weeks ago at Kentucky that Hamlin wants to continue and pick up as many wins for the organization and sponsor FedEx as possible.

New Hampshire is one of the better possibilities. Hamlin led 343 of 601 laps in two races here a year ago, finishing second in this race and winning the Chase event in September.

Before a 29th-place finish in the 2011 Chase race, Hamlin had consecutive finishes of third and second here. "Obviously, it's a race that we think we can win and our approach now is to go out and win as many races as we can," Hamlin said in his prerace media release.

So when you look at favorites to win on Sunday, you have to begin with Hamlin.

But when you look at favorites to make the Chase as a wild card, it's time to look anywhere but Hamlin.

-- David Newton



How old is too old?

NASCAR has a minimum age of 18 for driving in the Sprint Cup Series. It needs a maximum.

In case you haven't heard, 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd will break the record for oldest driver to participate in a Cup race on Sunday. He will shatter the record held by Jim Fitzgerald, who was 65 when he competed at Riverside, Calif., in 1987.

This isn't a record that needs to be broken.

But this is a record that should encourage the governing body to set a limit so that nobody else tries to break it.

This isn't to suggest that Shepherd, who hasn't driven in a Cup race since 2006, is a hazard to others on the track.

But statistics show reaction time slows in senior citizens. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported last year that seniors account for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities and 17 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.

Shepherd may be the fittest 71-year-old on the planet, but he doesn't belong in NASCAR's top series.

-- David Newton

Smoke worried about a road course?

Tony Stewart admits the next three races at New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Pocono set up well for him as he attempts to lock down a spot in the Chase.

The fourth? Not necessarily for someone who was once considered one of the best -- if not the best -- road-course driver in NASCAR.

"Watkins Glen. I mean, I'm nervous about Watkins Glen now," said Stewart, who is 10th in points with a victory. "We were so bad at Sonoma that we're definitely going to have to go to work and find a lot to get our car better." Stewart was 28th at Sonoma, one spot ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick. He didn't lead a lap and was never a threat to win.

It was only the second time in the past seven Sonoma races he didn't finish in the top 10, and the other time was due to a crash.

That Stewart has finished 19th and 27th in his past two trips to Watkins Glen, where he's a five-time winner, probably adds to his trepidation.

"I can't even spell trepidation," Stewart said. "The biggest thing is we seemed to be so far off at Sonoma, so we underestimated how we thought our car was going to be for the race. I just feel like we've got a lot of work to do."

-- David Newton