Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rating the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season: 2 Stars **

The 2012 Sprint Cup Series struggled to keep the momentum created by the closest championship battle in series history in 2011 when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards by a tiebreaker. The 2012 version was defined by lots of green-flag racing, which isn’t a bad thing, but the excitement level was noticeably down this year. The 2012 season gets a 2 Star Rating.
Brad Keselowski helped add some spark (and suds) to the finish of the season as he beat five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to win the title. However, the number of memorable races can probably be counted on one hand.
Here’s the breakdown of this year’s ratings, which includes the Budweiser Shootout and Sprint All-Star Race. It does not include the annual “You Rate the Race” event, which this season was at Kentucky Speedway.
5 Stars: 5 races
4 Stars: 10 races
3 Stars: 8 races
2 Stars: 10 races
1 Star: 4 races
This year had the most 1 Star races in the history of Monday Morning Crew Chief, and the number of 5 Star races dropped from eight to five.
Let’s revisit some of the most memorable races of the season. Click on the links to see the rating for each race mentioned.
We’ll start with Daytona Speedweeks, which included a very exciting Budweiser Shootout and bizarre Daytona 500. Kyle Busch drove through turns 3 and 4 sideways early in the shootout, sending sparks flying from his car. The damage wasn’t enough to slow him down, though, and he came back to win the race by a few feet ahead of Tony Stewart at the finish line in a race that started the season with a 5 Star Rating.
The Daytona 500 was definitely the strangest of the season, and perhaps one of the strangest in the history of the sport. Rain postponed the race until not only Monday, but Monday night in primetime. Busch sent sparks flying in the shootout, but Juan Pablo Montoya did him one better by crashing into a jet dryer under caution. The impact created an explosion and fire in Turn 3 that put the race under a red flag. Matt Kenseth ended up winning the race that got a 3 Star Rating because of the day-and-a-half rain delay.
Once the series left Daytona, the long green-flag runs set in. The racing was remarkably clean, which is good, but the drivers stayed spread out enough on tracks such as Phoenix, Fontana, Texas and even Richmond that any excitement from Speedweeks or the previous season had disappeared. Just six races following Speedweeks received a rating higher than 3 Stars until the series went back to Daytona in July for a 5 Star race.
The second half of the season started to gain momentum as drivers such as Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon battled back from early season troubles to make the race. Kahne grabbed a wild-card spot, and Gordon snuck by Busch by one point to claim the 10th and final Chase spot based on points. That final regular-season race at Richmond received a 4 Star Rating, and Clint Bowyer took home the trophy.
Johnson won another Brickyard 400 this year, his fourth, but the race was less than thrilling in part because of his dominance. It received a 2 Star Rating.
However, things got interesting two weeks later at Watkins Glen as Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose slide through oil as Busch wrecked on the final lap. Keselowski and Ambrose had the best final-lap battle of the season, and Ambrose came out on top to win for the second year in a row on the road course. That final lap bumped the race to a 4 Star Rating.
The late-season fireworks first showed up at the, once again, newly reconfigured Bristol Motor Speedway during the August night race. The shaved top groove brought back the old-style beating and banging, although this time at the top of the racetrack. Stewart and Kenseth crashed while battling for the lead, and Stewart threw his helmet at Kenseth’s car, bouncing it off the hood of Kenseth’s #17. Danica Patrick also wrecked and angrily shook her finger at Regan Smith. Denny Hamlin ended up winning the 5 Star Race. He won again the next week at Atlanta and a month later at New Hampshire, but too many mechanical problems ended his championship run.
Once the Chase began, Keselowski took charge by winning at Chicago and Dover, neither of which were particularly action-packed races. They both got 2 Star Ratings.
The action-packed Chase race this season was at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick rose from the desert dust to win his first race of the season, but he was a mere footnote to the craziness of that 5 Star afternoon. Gordon and Clint Bowyer battled late in the race, and Gordon cut a tire from the battle and crashed. He then waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and intentionally wrecked him. Bowyer’s pit crew was waiting for Gordon when he drove back to the garage, and they immediately jumped him, inciting one of the largest brawls the sport had seen in years. Patrick also played a hand in this crazy race. She wrecked as the field came to the white flag, put down oil in Turn 4 coming to the finish line, and a half-dozen cars piled up as they crossed the line.
That all set the stage for the championship race at Homestead. Keselowski came into the race with a 20-point lead of Johnson and qualified third to Johnson’s 10th. Johnson made a run to the front that night and might have won the title until a loose lug nut penalty cost him time on the track and a problem in the drivetrain sent him to the garage early, effectively handing Keselowski the championship.
This year marked the end of the Car of Tomorrow body style NASCAR introduced in 2007. A new model will be used next year. As is the case with every new model, NASCAR officials say it will race better than the previous version. That wasn’t the case the last time around, but at least the new cars look better.
Next year will also have its fair share of new drivers with new teams. Most notably, Kenseth will move to the #20 car, while Joey Logano takes over the #22 ride. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will fill the #17 car, and Kurt Busch will continue to try and revive his career in the #78 car, formerly driven by Smith.
The 2012 season had its exciting and interesting moments. Let’s just hope there are more in 2013.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rating the Ford EcoBoost 400: 3 Stars ***

For the first time in eight years, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has a first-time champion. Brad Keselowski won the championship, and Jeff Gordon won a race that had a lot of storylines, although few that made for a really exciting race. The final race of the 2012 season gets a 3 Star Rating.
Gordon won the race after Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had to pit for fuel late in the race, and he beat his nemesis from Phoenix, Clint Bowyer. My how a week changes things. Last week those two were involved in garage fights and had torn up race cars; this week they had the two top finishes.
The best racing of the day came from Busch and Truex Jr. As he did in both the truck and Nationwide races this weekend, Busch led nearly all of the first 100 laps, but then a debris caution came out and bunched up the field.
At that point, Truex Jr. challenged for the lead and the two drivers ran next to each other the remainder of the race. They traded the lead a few times, and Truex Jr. hounded Busch’s bumper for much of the night.
It’s too bad the race couldn’t have come down to a battle between those two drivers. The finish likely wouldn’t have ended as close as Friday’s truck race between Busch and Cale Gale, but it would’ve been better than Gordon beating Bowyer by more than one second.
But the championship was the focus of the day anyway. Johnson put up a good fight throughout much of the race and had a shot to win the championship after pit strategies worked in his favor with a little more than 50 laps remaining.
Then his night quickly took a turn for the worse. His pit crew missed a lugnut on the left-rear tire on lap 213 and by lap 227 he was in the pits with a blown drivetrain that would end his night and hopes of a championship.
Johnson did make the title fight dramatic for a bit, though. After Keselowski chose to stay on track under caution after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecked on lap 154, Johnson took the opportunity to get tires and set up his fuel strategy for the rest of the race.
Had Johnson been able to avoid his late-race problems, he just might have squeaked out his sixth championship.
It wasn’t meant to be, however, and Keselowski is the Sprint Cup Series champion in just his third full season in the series. And what a ride he has had to the top.
Keselowski won his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in April 2009 in the famous finish that sent Carl Edwards flying into the fence. That race he drove the James Finch-owned #09 car to its first victory.
Since then he’s won eight more races, made the Chase in two of his three years with Penske Racing and now has the championship. Oh yeah, he also won the Nationwide Series championship for owner Roger Penske in 2010. Both of his championships are Penske’s first championships in each series.
That is a remarkable run of success, and he has earned it. It has been fun to watch Keselowski enter the sport and go from a part-timer looking for a full ride to a brash kid who upset veteran drivers to a champion.
Whether or not he wins more championships in the future, Keselowski's career will be a success. Congratulations to him and the entire #2 team on winning the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship.
Unfortunately, the end of the championship race also means the end of the season and no more Sunday afternoons filled by a NASCAR race. That is always a sad time and takes somewhat of an adjustment for many fans after they’ve had the same routine for eight months.
But as always, Daytona Speedweeks will open a new season in mid-February and NASCAR life will begin anew. Hopefully the days between now and then are filled with happiness and holiday celebrations with friends and family.
Thank you for following the Monday Morning Crew Chief ratings again this season. It’s been a fun year and expect more in 2013. Also, look for the rating of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season, which will be posted following the champion’s celebration Nov. 30 in Las Vegas.
Have a great offseason, everybody.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

If NASCAR doesn’t suspend Jeff Gordon, it should have only one explanation

NASCAR officials had a difficult decision on their hands as they went to bed Sunday night following a wild race at Phoenix International Raceway.
Jeff Gordon incited a massive brawl that involved him, his #24 team and several members of Clint Bowyer’s #15 team Sunday after he intentionally turned Bowyer into the wall Sunday as the field came to the white flag.
While the fight was the most eye-catching part of the incident, the part of the situation that will likely receive the most scrutiny is Gordon’s punting of Bowyer into the wall on purpose, even though Bowyer still had a mathematical chance to win the Sprint Cup Series championship.
Bowyer had gotten underneath Gordon and made contact a few laps before the wreck that started the fight. The fender rub caused Gordon’s tire to blow and he crashed in Turn 4. The part of the wreck that should be the focus of NASCAR’s decision is what happened next.
Gordon waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and then turned him straight into the wall while also wrecking Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. He also nearly ruined another championship contender’s day because Brad Keselowski was right behind Logano when the wreck happened.
Anyway, Gordon’s actions looked a lot like what Kyle Busch did to Ron Hornaday Jr. last year at Texas Motor Speedway in a Camping World Truck Series race.
Hornaday Jr. was in championship contention heading into the race, but he and Busch traded paint early in the event. The caution came out shortly thereafter, and Busch drove Hornaday Jr. up into the Turn 2 wall, effectively ending Hornaday Jr.’s shot at winning the title.
The only difference between Busch’s actions and Gordon’s actions was the presence of the yellow flag. Busch wrecked Hornaday Jr. under caution while Gordon wrecked Bowyer under green-flag conditions.
That should also be the only reason NASCAR doesn’t suspend Gordon for next week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Everything else about the wrecks is essentially the same.
If NASCAR doesn’t suspend Gordon and says they made the decision based on something other than whether the wreck happened under caution, the sport will be thrown into a mess that would once again tarnish the integrity of the sport.
NASCAR dropped a major punishment on Busch last year by parking him for both the Nationwide and Cup races at Texas following his intentional wreck. Sure, Busch is considered a brash, pain-in-the-butt by many in the sport and Gordon has the reputation of a four-time champion that time has helped mold. But none of that should factor into whether NASCAR allows Gordon to race next Sunday.
Some people might say a punishment by NASCAR would prevent rough racing in the future and continue to make a sport that has dwindling excitement even more mellow. I doubt it. NASCAR has delivered punishments for all kinds of actions on the track and in the garage area through the years, and we still end up with arguments and even fights from time to time.
It would be better for the integrity of the sport to suspend Gordon, if for nothing else than to establish a little bit of consistency in the sport’s rulings.
Others might say the Busch incident was different because he wasn't a full-time competitor in the truck series, but that shouldn't make a difference. He was on the track that night trying to win the race just as much as the other 35 drivers in that truck race, just as Gordon did Sunday against a full Cup series field.
Whether Gordon’s actions Sunday deserve a suspension will be debated for a long time, but NASCAR set a precedent last year by suspending Busch for his wreck at Texas.
That is, unless officials say they won’t suspend Gordon because he intentionally wrecked a championship contender under green-flag conditions.
Anything else would further diminish the integrity of a sport that already has enough of those problems.

Rating the AdvoCare 500: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series’ final trip out West turned into an old-fashioned bar fight, a down-and-out team won for the first time in more than a year situation the championship situation changed dramatically amid all the noise. The wild day at Phoenix International Raceway gets a 5 Star Rating.
Like it or not, Sunday’s race had everything, and all of it was unexpected.
First, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson hit the wall coming out of Turn 4 on lap 235 after his right-front tire went flat. That incident relegated him to a 32-place finish and put him 20 points behind Brad Keselowski, who finished sixth.
But that was only the beginning of the mayhem that took place Sunday in the desert.
Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish Jr. had their weekly spat as Hornish Jr. tapped the side of Danica’s car on lap 299 coming out of Turn 4. The contact cut down Hornish Jr.’s left-front tire and eventually sent him into the wall.
Then the big one happened. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon made contact in turns 3 and 4 on the restart, and Gordon ended up slapping the wall. He then waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and turned him sideways, wrecking Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the process.
Once Gordon got to the garage area, Bowyer’s team was waiting and ready to pounce. They did, and a huge brawl broke out behind the #24 team’s hauler as members of both teams started throwing punches. Bowyer sprinted to the garage area to get in on the action, but he and Gordon never met until after the race inside the NASCAR hauler with officials.
After that excitement settles down, NASCAR restarts the race with a green-white-checkered finish. Patrick wrecks in Turn 4 as the field comes to the white flag, but NASCAR doesn’t throw a caution. The entire field then slides through the oil from Patrick’s car as they come to the finish line and a major wreck ensues.
Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard all sustain major hits as they plowed through the oil and into Patrick’s car. Keselowski got hit coming to the line, but he didn’t get turned.
To put the finishing touches on a crazy day, Kevin Harvick won the race. It was the first time he and the #29 team had gone to Victory Lane since September of last year at Richmond.
The win was surprising because Harvick and the entire Richard Childress Racing organization had shown no signs of contending for a win for nearly the entire season. Harvick finished second at Phoenix in the spring race, but he hadn’t even had a top-10 finish in the Chase up until Sunday.
Maybe the win will boost the Childress teams, but they still have a lot of work to do to be competitive on a weekly basis, especially at larger tracks.
People will likely debate for days about what NASCAR should do about the Gordon-Bowyer incident and what penalties it should or should not hand out. The one issue from Sunday’s race that shouldn’t be disputed is NASCAR’s incorrect call to throw the caution flag for Patrick’s wreck.
Week after week NASCAR officials call for a caution flag for water bottles and sandwiches or whatever incidental piece of debris is on the race track, yet they didn’t call a caution when Patrick’s #10 car slid sideways through Turn 4 after hitting the wall.
That’s what caused the big wreck on the final lap. Officials always talk about the importance of safety in the sport, but they put drivers in harm’s way on the final lap when they allowed the race to finish under green.
Robin Pemberton’s excuse that officials couldn’t see fluid on the track shouldn’t justify NASCAR’s actions, or lack of action. The caution comes out for small incidents all the time when the leader has put together a big enough lead to keep the race from being exciting.
NASCAR should’ve thrown the caution flag for Patrick’s wreck. Period.
Anyway, Johnson will take a 20-point lead into Homestead to try to win … Wait, not Johnson. Keselowski will take that lead to Homestead to try to win his first championship. He needs to finish 15th or better to win the trophy. If he does, he will become the first driver to go head-to-head with Johnson in the Chase and beat him since Tony Stewart did it in 2005. That’s a pretty impressive feat, and Keselowski and the #2 team have had a very impressive season.
Have a great final week of the 2012 season, everybody.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Rating the AAA Texas 500: 3 Stars ***

Sprint Cup Series championship contenders Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski spiced up the end of an otherwise stale race Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Thankfully, the championship was in play or Sunday’s race might have received worse than its 3 Star Rating.
Johnson and the #48 team trotted out their dominating ways quickly last weekend. Johnson smoked the field in qualifying, beating second-place Greg Biffle by more than 0.10 of a second. That doesn’t sound like much, but it was the largest difference between any two top-40 qualifiers.
Johnson then went on to lead the first 100 laps, and he did so with more than a four-second advantage over second place. Then NASCAR had to throw a debris caution to give the field a chance to keep Johnson from stinking up the entire show.
Overall, Johnson got the necessary results by leading 168 laps and winning the race. But his challenger, Keselowski, put up another strong fight at a track he previously hadn’t finished higher than 14th.
Keselowski finished second Sunday and nearly stole the win. He took two tires twice while the rest of the field took four tires, and he even roughed up the #48 car a little by bumping him on the frontstretch to take the lead on the penultimate restart.
That last section of the race is what saved the AAA Texas 500 from a lower rating. The first 275 or so laps were very boring. For whatever reason, the intensity level jumped dramatically after the final debris caution of the day on lap 275 and continued to the checkered flag.
Alas, Johnson still ended up in Victory Lane and extended his lead in the championship standings to seven points. The lead would’ve been just two points if Keselowski had won and Johnson finished second.
That means Johnson will head to Phoenix, the second-to-last race of the season with a lead that is longer than an eyelash. If Johnson beats Keselowski again next week, the #48 team will strut into the final race at Homestead with another sizeable lead that would require Johnson to finish well outside the top 10 to even have a chance to lose the championship.
Still, Keselowski has put up an admirable fight throughout the Chase, and the entire season for that matter. Whether or not Keselowski wins the championship, this season could be a sign of things to come in the future for him and the # 2 team, provided their switch to Ford next year goes smoothly.
In any case, the series will head to Phoenix next week for what could easily be another Johnson-Keselowski show. There might be a non-Chaser jump in the top five or pull off Kasey Kahne’s feat from last year when he won a race that was dominated by the 2011 championship contenders, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
Kyle Busch could pull that off this year. Remember last year at this time he didn’t even have a ride after NASCAR suspended him following a truck series wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas.
Busch finished third at Texas this year and could pull off an upset win next week, but otherwise the championship race will likely be the sole focus of the weekend.
Have a great week, everybody.