Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rating the Sharpie 500: 4 Stars ****

The highly anticipated Bristol night race brought with it a little bit of everything this year. There were several long green runs, yet there were also several wrecks. Finally, as things came to a finish under the threat of rain Kyle Busch held off Mark Martin in a race deserving of a 4 Star Rating.

Once again, Hendrick Motorsports dominated most of the night, but in spite of all the laps led, they could not put a driver into victory lane. It is kind of amazing that every week right now there are two HMS drivers that take hold of both the lead and second place early in the event. Most often it has been Martin and Jimmie Johnson, and Saturday night’s race was no different. Thankfully, qualifying was not rained out because it allowed several drivers not in Chase contention to start near the front and also made big names have to come from the back of the pack.

Overall, when it came down to it, the usual suspects were up in the front of the field, but it took them a while to get there. It was nice to see guys like Michael Waltrip, Martin Truex Jr., and David Gilliland drive inside the top 20 for much of the race. However, one-by-one, each of these guys was taken out or had something go wrong on their car. The one exception was Marcos Ambrose. Wow, did he drive a great race or what? About midway through the race he broke into the top 5 and then was shuffled out after a round of pit stops. Then, later in the race he drove himself back to the front for a terrific third place finish. This guy is the real deal. Let’s hope he can continue to improve into next season.

Finally, if Bristol did not have the progressive banking, Martin may have laid the bumper on Busch at the end. But, the way that Bristol races now, there is more side-by-side racing throughout the majority of the event. As in everything, there are pros and cons, but I’m starting to warm up to the new Bristol.

Alright, next week is the final off week of the season. There are only four breaks in the entire schedule but it sure does feel like there are about twice as many on the schedule. But, with all of the rainouts it will be good for the teams to have a week at home. Then it’s on to Atlanta under the lights for the first time. They have qualified at night for many years and the high speeds on a cool track should make for a great race. That’s it for me until Labor Day. Have an enjoyable and safe two weeks.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rating the Carfax 400: 4 Stars ****

The second race at Michigan this season brought with it another good old fashioned fuel mileage race. Just like the race in June, things set up perfectly for a nail-biting race to the finish. In typical Michigan fashion, there were not many wrecks, and lots of green flag racing with several teams on different strategies at the end. The reward for a good strategic race with major Chase implications is a 4 Star Rating.

The man who was able to outlast them all in the final run to the checkered was none other than Brian Vickers, and man did he work a long time to make it happen? Vickers showed early on in his Nationwide career that he could run well in NASCAR by winning the Nationwide Championship in 2003. However, once he made the step up to the Cup Series with Rick Hendrick in the #25 car he found himself battling to stay relevant in the sport. After one win in three years with Hendrick, Vickers moved over to the newly formed #83 Red Bull program that was starting from scratch along with Toyota in 2007. Now, after two and a half years with the #83 team, Vickers was finally able to pull off the long-awaited victory at Michigan.

This was not really a fluky win like some fuel mileage victories turn out to be. Vickers was right on Johnson’s tail during most of that final run, a move that may have lead to him winning the race because of the draft he was able to use down the straightaways. But, if both Johnson and Vickers did have enough fuel to run like normal in the final laps I think Vickers may have been able to pull off the pass for the win. Plus, Mark Martin would have been right in the mix.

As for the Chase standings, Martin took a big hit, while Vickers was able to pull within just 12 points of the final transfer spot. The great thing about how this battle is shaping up is that it’s not just the driver in 12th that has to look over his shoulder in the final three races. With Biffle, Kenseth and Martin all within just 32 points inside the Chase, there are many drivers that are still not sure if they will make the Chase or not. The past couple of years it has seemed like there was really just a one-on-one battle for that final spot. Not this year. Kurt Busch in fifth is probably safe, but with three races to go in the regular season anyone from sixth on down could still miss the Chase come Richmond.

With the final regular season fuel mileage race out of the way, next up is the great short track in Bristol, TN. Fuel will not be a factor there. Instead, keeping the fenders on the car will go a long way towards victory lane and the all important bonus points. 13 drivers have been to victory lane this year, surpassing the total from a year ago. I would actually expect a few more different winners yet this season as there are still good drivers and good teams that have not yet won a race. Have a good week!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Rating the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen: You Rate the Race!!

The second and final road course race of the season brought with it lots of turns, strategy, and big hits. But, this week it’s up to you to put a rating on what you saw/heard/followed on Monday. Thankfully the race went off at noon ET or else the race may have been shortened due to weather because the drops started to fall during post-race interviews. So, take a look at the Rating System and sound off on what you thought of the race.

Tony Stewart and the #14 team continued their roll towards the Chase this weekend. This is shaping up to be a Johnson vs. Stewart battle to the finish. But, there are plenty of other drivers that could put up a good fight.

My question along with the rating is who do you think will still be in contention for the Championship come the final race at Homestead? Will it be a runaway the way Stewart did in 2005, or will it be a several driver battle to the final lap? While both scenarios are entirely possible it has been awhile since there has been a really good fight for the title in the final race. The first Chase Championship in 2004 comes to mind but other than that there have not been any hold your breath finishes to the season. It would be nice to have something like that shape up this season.

Alright, the rating is in your hands this week. Good or bad, the race had several storylines and subplots that will carry on later in the season. Several guys that needed to survive Watkins Glen were able to get out with a top 15 finish, while other Chase contenders were stuck in the back of the pack nearly all race long.

Anyway, next week is the final fuel strategy track for awhile, as Bristol comes up following Michigan. So enjoy another short week as the fight for the Chase heats up with Kyle Busch inching ever closer to getting his spot in the Chase back. When the Shrub has to go all out every week, things are bound to be interesting.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rating the Pennslyvania 500: 4 Stars ****

An emotional day at Pocono brought with it plenty of excitement and intrigue. There were guys upset all over the place on Monday. Plus, some close racing throughout the second half of the event gives Pocono its second 4 Star Rating of the year.

Things started off as normal with Jimmie Johnson jumping out to his mandatory two second lead during the first run. While that happened I was thinking “O boy, this is going to be a long one today.” Johnson, however, ended up having plenty of other issues to make his day stressful. Although none of the problems were able to take him out of the race. I don’t know if the #48 team just has more luck than anybody else, or if they are so good that nothing can ever knock them out of contention. If they had that type of problem at any other track their race would have been over with no questions asked. Only at Pocono and the restrictor plate tracks could have left them with any chance. This team will be right there once again in contention at Homestead.

Aside from the #48 saga, there were plenty of other battles Monday that had people fired up, and things just got tighter and tighter as the race wound down. First, Robby Gordon and David Stremme had about three dustups on the track before NASCAR stepped in and slowed them down. Robby kind of seems like an older version of Kyle Busch. He is a great all-around racer, but he can never keep his cool when something goes wrong. I guess I thought he would have matured past that eventually.

Then, on the final caution of the day at lap 180, David Ragan runs up the back of Bobby Labonte going down into turn 1 and send Labonte flying into the wall while collecting five other cars. Labonte was obviously upset after the wreck because Ragan basically bump-drafted him going down into the corner over 200 mph. Not a great move on Ragan’s part after struggling for much of the weekend.

Finally, coming up to that final restart, Denny Hamlin told his crew while sitting in sixth with only 13 laps left that “I’m going to win this race,” and crew chief Mike Ford responded, “I know you will.” Four laps later the #11 would take the lead and never look back. With his grandmother’s passing weighing heavily on his mind, plus pure relief that he finally returned to victory lane; Hamlin’s victory celebration was as emotional as any this season.

So, a pretty good Monday in the Pocono Mountains means the week is one day shorter before things get started up in Watkins Glen. This will be another race where the road specialists show their stuff. However, it will also be a huge test for guys like David Reutimann. He will need to have the best road course race of his career in order to remain in serious contention for a Chase spot. On the other hand, next week’s race gives guys like Juan Pablo Montoya a chance to solidify their spot for the final ten races.

Get your rating hats on for next week as it will be a “You Rate the Race!” weekend. Then it’s back to more traditional ovals, but next week will still have good racing, only twisted.