Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rating the AAA 400: 3 Stars ***

The Monster Mile chewed up and spit out a bunch of cars on Sunday, but Hendrick Motorsports was unaffected as they once again brought home a 1-2 finish. Once again, when Jimmie Johnson goes out and dominates it’s difficult to have a really exciting race, so the second race of the Chase gets a 3 Star Rating.

Just as we have seen many times over the last half decade, Jimmie Johnson jumped out to the mandatory two second lead on the first run. Thankfully, he got put back in the field a bit after the first pit stop and really didn’t make much headway back in traffic. But, once he did get back out front it was all over.

The way Johnson runs races these days reminds me of Jeff Gordon in his prime. There were races where Gordon would dominate all day and easily lead the most laps, but there were also days when he wouldn’t pop up until the very end and steal a victory. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, though; Johnson was mentored by Gordon and has maintained that same driving style.

For the most part, this was a pretty clean race. Every once in a while somebody would blow a tire, but other than Joey Logano’s wild ride, things were pretty serene. However, the wreck that Logano had was spectacular. People don’t come to Dover expecting cars to flip over seven times. That stuff is usually reserved for Daytona and Talladega.

“It just really scared the heck out of me,” Logano said. “It started rolling, and I was in there, thinking, 'Man, just make this thing stop.' It wouldn't. It just kept going and going.”

Overall this year has seen its fair share of wild crashes. From Carl Edwards at Talladega to Kyle Busch at Daytona to Sam Hornish Jr. at the Glen; there have been some hard licks and yet nobody has come away with much more than a few bruises. The safety of these cars is amazing, and that was NASCAR’s top priority in building the new car.

While the safety of the cars has been a bright spot, NASCAR continues to hurt their credibility when they throw the debris caution with 30 or so laps left in the race. Every time a race looks like it may go green to the end and the leader has a comfortable lead, here comes the debris caution, which just causes more cautions when they line the cars up double-file. I know NASCAR is excited about the double-file restarts, but please stop messing with the finish of these races.

The final northern swing of the season is finished and now it’s on to the heartland and Kansas Speedway. I happened to visit the track earlier this year so it will be cool for me, personally, to watch the race. Hopefully the racing is pretty good. This is another race where an unexpected winner can emerge and fuel mileage can sometimes come into play. That’s it for this week, and the great thing about this time of year is there are no more off weeks, just two straight months of racing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rating the Sylvania 300: 3 Stars ***

The first checkered flag of the 2009 Chase has flown, and Mark Martin remains on top. After a couple of crazy weeks with teams fighting just to get into the Chase, everybody kind of held their own at New Hampshire. Other than Kasey Kahne blowing an engine and Dale Jr. being a tad upset with David Reutimann, things pretty much held true to form with a 3 Star Rating.

New Hampshire is a tough track to handle, especially with the COT. Personally, I am not a huge fan of tracks that put a premium on rolling through the corner. If a couple of cars do not get hooked up in a battle, passing becomes so hard that the entire field pretty much falls in line throughout the run.

As for the action on the track, the Chase contenders showed why they belong in the postseason as ten of the top 15 finishers Sunday were in the top 12 in points. Every year it seems that one driver has a really bad first race, but in the end there has been mixed results at the end of the season for that driver. This year Kasey Kahne was the one Chase contender that suffered such a problem. Thankfully for him, nobody had a huge lead coming into the Chase so the damage is not as bad as it could have been. In 2006, Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in this race, yet still came back to win the championship. However, the #9 team has used their mulligan and will have to really be on top of their game the rest of the way.

With only 24 laps to go, NASCAR again threw the debris caution flag and bunched up the field for a final sprint to the finish. Luckily, Mark Martin was still able to hold on for the victory, because NASCAR could have been the reason for an alternative ending. Also, the caution brought David Reutimann and Dale Jr. close together and Reutimann turned Jr. up into the wall. Afterward, Jr. was not happy, saying, “My car is tore up and he ain’t got enough talent to run in the top five, I guess. He ran into the side of me and spun me out late in the race.” Sounds like a guy who has gone through a season with an average finish of 21.9.

Next up is the Monster Mile in Dover. The track is roughly the same length as New Hampshire, but it races completely different. High banks where drivers can float the car down into the corner and make a move without having to root someone up out of the groove. Last year Ford stole the show with three Roush-Fenway drivers fighting for the win. It will be tough to duplicate that success this time around. Ford is noticeably going through a rough stretch; one that may not level out until next season with a new engine package.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rating the Chevy Rock & Roll 400: 5 Stars *****

A tension filled evening in Richmond brought with it the closest Race to the Chase battle the sport has ever seen. That, plus some really good battles on the track – especially between Hamlin and Gordon – gives the final regular season race a 5 Star Rating.

I have always loved this particular race because of how many different things are going on throughout the event. There are battles on the track all over the place, the points are extremely close, and for some reason pit road usually plays a fairly large role in the event. I think most everybody was surprised that Kyle Busch missed the Chase; however this sort of thing is not without precedent. Actually, history points us in the other direction. In years past there has always been at least one big name just miss the Chase. Gordon, Stewart, and Earnhardt Jr. have all been on the wrong side of the cutoff. No matter how many cars they allow into the playoff, I would bet that there would still be a driver that many people think should have a spot in the Chase not get in.

As for the racing on the track Saturday night, once again, Richmond International Raceway did not disappoint. They say that track produces racing perfection; while I would not want every race to be like RIR, the track does put on really good shows twice a year. Thankfully for Denny Hamlin, that last caution did not cost him the race. There have been many times where the #11 has dominated a race but had something go wrong right at the end. It even happened to him at Richmond last year when he had a flat tire. Also, it was great to see him finally win at his home track. Both of his wins this year have been highly emotional.

Now with regards to the Chase, the battle that Vickers and Busch had at the end was as good of a points battle that I can remember since the 2004 season ending race at Homestead when Kurt Busch beat out Jimmie Johnson by only eight points. The magnitude of the moment was great because at times during the final run only a one position change could have made the difference in an entire season for those two drivers. I do feel bad for Kenseth though. A professional in every sense of the word, it was hard to see him go through some tough times after his season started off so promisingly with two victories. Ford needs to get that new engine in those cars as soon as possible.

The Chase begins next week at New Hampshire and it always seems that somebody comes out of that race rather upset. Something about the racing at that track brings out the emotions in drivers. Maybe it is the design of the track. Gateway is a similar layout and there were several truck guys pretty upset over the way that race finished. So, buckle up and settle in for the final ten races to determine the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion. History was already made by the closest Race to the Chase ever; maybe the Chase for the Championship will produce similar results. Have a great week!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Rating the Pep Boys 500: 4 Stars ****

After another long two week break from racing action, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series got things fired up by bringing the Labor Day race back to the Southeast and going under the lights for the first time in front of a full house. The best COT race at Atlanta gets a 4 Star Rating for the holiday weekend show.

This race felt more like race at Atlanta in years past. There were truly racing grooves all over the race track and guys were able to go side-by-side at many points throughout a run. Also, the tires fell off so much that it felt like the race could have been at Darlington anyway.

As the race went on, new drivers continued to show up at the front of the field. For the first time in a while, Hendrick Motorsports didn’t have two cars at the front of the field for over half of the event. To begin, the front row of Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne was a bit different then has been the norm throughout the summer. I was really surprised to see the Richard Petty Motorsports cars qualify well and then run where they qualified for much of the race.
The other great aspect to Sunday’s race was the variety of drivers up near the lead. In that sense, it felt a bit like a restrictor plate race. The drop-off in the tires created a big difference in cars that were set up for a short run vs. those set up for a long run. Also, with the conditions of the track changing so much throughout the race different cars would hit on a set-up that worked really well while other guys fell through the field like a rock.

As for the Chase standings, this is shaping up to be one of the best regular season finales since the first Chase season in 2004 when Jeremy Mayfield won the race and made the Chase field. Both Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch could do just that, but there are still four drivers that could potentially fall out of the Chase by the end of the night. In the past few years there have been only a spot or two open going into Richmond, but this year there is any number of drivers that still have their playoff hopes hanging in the balance.

So, thankfully the final off-week has been passed, and now things are shaping up for a great run to the finish. If the final run at the championship is anything like the Race to the Chase, this is going to be a great ending to the season.