July 16, 2014 at 8:26 pm


Hendrick, Penske face tight Sprint Cup title fight

Brad Keselowski, right, celebrates with his team and a lobster after winning the Sprint Cup series race in New Hampshire last weekend. (Cheryl Senter / Associated Press)

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 (Rochester Hills) 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.

“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,” Gordon said.

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.”

Age prompts debate

It’s been almost two decades since Morgan Shepherd last ran a full Sprint Cup season, and his last victory was in 1993.

He’s now 72 and drew scrutiny last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when he caused Joey Logano to crash.

Shepherd was 40th, 16 laps off the pace, when second-place Logano tried to pass. Replays show little, just that Logano ended up with a wrecked car. He then questioned if there should be driving tests for some competitors.

NASCAR officials dismissed Logano’s notion, pointing out Shepherd has been approved to drive since 1970. There is no rule in place — except for drivers under 18 years old — stopping someone from competing in a national level NASCAR race.

Shepherd put the blame on Logano and said his age was not a factor.

“When he laid close to me, it caused me to slip into him,” Shepherd said. “It’s got nothing to do with my age or anything else. I’ve always said if I go out and I start hitting the wall and stuff, making mistakes, I’ll get out of the car.”

In the pits

Darlington Raceway president Chip Wile is stepping out from behind his desk and driving in a celebrity competition Saturday at Dillon Motor Speedway in South Carolina. Wile is among several area leaders racing at the track, a paved oval of about four-tenths of a mile.

... Trucks series driver Erik Jones was docked 10 points after his winning truck failed a postrace inspection (truck was too low) last week in Iowa.