Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rating the TUMS Fast Relief 500: 4 Stars ****

The final short track race of the season was a good old-fashioned slugfest. The majority of the cars pulled into the garage Sunday afternoon looking like they had been to the local demolition derby. But, that is what Martinsville is all about. Bent fenders and crinkled hoods is part of the charm of the paperclip. Sunday’s race gets a 4 Star Rating.

Jimmie Johnson did not win this one. Should we be concerned? Has the #48 team lost their edge? Is the Chase still wide open like every TV network was telling us two weeks ago? Nope. Johnson finished second and ahead of anyone that he needed to beat. However, just like back in some of the Winston Cup years, when the points battle isn’t all that close the racing on the track is still worth watching.

Sunday’s race was incredibly similar to the spring race at Martinsville earlier this season. Seven drivers that finished in the top 10 in March also finished in the top 10 this time around. Also, at a few points during the final 60 or so laps it looked like the finish might turn out to be exactly the same as well.

Now, while Sunday’s race was good, next Sunday’s race could be awesome. Personally, I have been waiting for Talladega since maybe late July. This could easily be the most exciting race in the Chase, and two of the three restrictor plate finishes this season have had incredibly exciting finishes. There is nothing like having 30 cars lined up three-wide going 190 mph for several laps at a time. One thing is for sure, the finish will be a close one, and there is really no way to predict a winner because almost anyone could come away with a Brad Keselowski-type miracle this week. Even Paul Menard has come close to winning at that track.

That’s it for this week. Enjoy this weekend because it is the best race left on the schedule. Over the last several weeks, unless you are a Johnson fan, there has not been much hope that your driver could bring home the trophy. That will be different at Talladega and maybe we will finally get that 14th different winner of 2009.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rating the NASCAR Banking 500: 4 Stars ****

The final Saturday night race of the season was a big upgrade compared to the previous races in the Chase to this point. Yes, Jimmie Johnson won again, but the racing throughout was better and all 10 cautions were for a legitimate reason. Therefore, a 4 Star Rating is appropriate.

In the final race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Johnson and the #48 Lowe’s team wind up in victory lane. This may have actually been their most impressive weekend to date. All three practices showed Johnson at the top of the board, he won the pole, led the most laps, and won the race. A team cannot have a better weekend than that.

This is why coming into this weekend everyone was saying that the Chase was over. Many of the Chasers had issues, while Johnson stayed at the front of the field. Now, with the Chase halfway complete, Johnson has a 90 point lead over second place Mark Martin, the only driver within 100 points of the lead. This is the biggest lead any driver has had at this point in the season since the Chase was started in 2004. Sorry folks, it will take a semi-miracle for somebody to prevent Johnson from winning his fourth consecutive championship. However, as with Albert Pujols and Peyton Manning, we will all be able to tell stories to the younger generation that we saw these great players do incredible things the way people talk about Willie Mays and Joe Montana today. Jimmie Johnson is certainly in that category.

Racing at Charlotte will always be better than it is at Kansas and California just because of how the track is laid out, but there is something about the tracks in the Southeast that just make it feel like the team is in for a home stand, just coming back from a West Coast swing.

There was good racing throughout much of the race, and the fact that some non-Chasers scored top 10 finishes was very refreshing. This race was similar to the Atlanta Labor Day race except that the #48 team is on their game now. There is no reason to think that they won’t go out and dominate at Martinsville next week as well. They have actually had more recent success at that track than they have had at Charlotte.

Finally, and I hate to keep bringing this subject up, but at the end of the race Juan Pablo Montoya complained that there was debris on the track several times during the race and NASCAR didn’t throw a caution. First off, thank you NASCAR; the race was better for it. Also, there were no cars involved in a wreck that was caused because someone ran over a piece of debris. This is what I was saying last week; more cars would have been damaged if those cautions had been waved, rather than allowing the race to unfold itself, because wrecks would have happened on the restarts as they did last week in California.

So, we now understand why NASCAR was artificially messing with the races, because Chase drivers were going to have races like they did at Charlotte and the points would have been even more spread out than they are currently, but when a team is as dominant as the #48, nobody is going to slow them down. They are amazing. We also learned that even as much as the television networks tried to tell us the opposite, people were right when they said the Chase is over now that the #48 is on top. If Johnson doesn’t win the championship, something much different than what has happened in the first half of the Chase is going to have to happen in order to prevent a four-peat.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rating the Pepsi 500: 3 Stars ***

Everybody came home Sunday night unsurprised as Jimmie Johnson once again took home the trophy from Southern California. A normal California race that was made eventful late, earns a 3 Star Rating.

Coming into the event, Johnson was clearly the favorite to win on Sunday. Once he took the lead at any point in the race, he absolutely drove away from everybody else in the field, at one point having over a seven-second lead. The only reason Johnson didn’t lead 90% of the laps was because he consistently lost positions on pit road. Even in traffic he was able to move up better than anyone else. The #48 team definitely has Auto Club Speedway figured out.
Other than Johnson winning again and taking the points lead, the only other issue of the day was, once again, debris cautions. NASCAR made a great move last week in announcing that the start times will be moved up for next year. Now, the next move they need to make is to quit throwing debris cautions. Finally, a driver made my case for me this weekend.

“NASCAR threw a debris caution for no debris…that caused the whole next wreck on the frontstretch,” Kasey Kahne, driver of the #9 Budweiser Dodge, said. “It’s disappointing we had a bad race because kind of a caution to put a show on for the fans…we have to keep the fans excited, but sometimes it ruins people’s days and today it was our day.”

Now I will ask you, NASCAR fans. Is this the kind of show that we want? Would it have been alright for the final 68 laps to go green and Johnson win the race anyway? Yes, I know Tony Stewart was spared a bad finish because of that caution, but in saving on Chasers day, NASCAR ruined three others. Kahne, Biffle, and Hamlin are all pretty much out of championship contention because of the debris caution Kahne spoke about earlier. Maybe, things could play out naturally and it would still come down to multiple drivers having a chance to win the cup at Homestead. I thought that was why the Chase was created in the first place. If everything is going to be controlled by cautions, let’s dump the Chase because a close points finish could be manufactured anyway. The way Stewart was running for a few weeks combined with what Johnson is doing would certainly have made for a close finish.

Alright, I want to thank Kasey Kahne for speaking out against the ongoing debris problem. Next week everyone comes back home to Charlotte. Now, Lowe’s Motor Speedway usually produces good racing, so long as Johnson doesn’t stink up the show. But, even if that happens, he has earned the right to blow everyone else away. He should not have to line up double-file with 20 laps to go because he was too far ahead.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Green Flag to Drop Earlier in 2010

In its best move since Brain France became CEO and chairman, NASCAR has announced that they will be moving up the start times for most of the races next season.

Many of the Sunday afternoon races will be moved to 1 pm ET. This was a change that was sorely needed. Yes, everybody loves prime time television, but NASCAR is not set up to be that week in and week out. The Saturday night races are fun, but the majority of the schedule should be run on Sunday afternoons right after everyone gets home from church and the race can be finished without having to turn any lights on. This will be evident in the coming weeks at Texas and Homestead where it will be almost completely dark when the race is finished.

My favorite thing about the change is that the Daytona 500 will return to a true day race. I always thought that the Indy 500 and Daytona 500 were special because of their prestige, and because they started early in the day. It was something to look forward to right away before anything else could get in the way. Also, I like having the 500 winner celebrate in daylight. Something about those pictures of past winners at Daytona is so special because it’s still in the afternoon. The night time stuff works great for things like the Budweiser Shootout, All-Star Race, and most of the Saturday night events, but the early Sunday afternoon races are what make those weekends special. Everything else can wait until later in the day because there is time left afterwards to attend to other matters. Let’s face it, when the races starts mid-afternoon, many fans sit around watching pre-race shows waiting for the race to start anyway.

This move is also good in many practical ways. When the at-the-track activities are finished, there is still time to get out of the complex before nightfall and possibly get home before it is really late. Combine this with the probable returns of the Brickyard 400 and Charlotte Motor Speedway; things will really start to feel comfortable.

Truthfully, there seem to be very few, if any, drawbacks to this change. For the first time in a very long while, NASCAR made a change that looks like it is totally for the better, and after last week’s debacle, this sort of thing was needed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rating the Price Chopper 400: 2 Stars **

The NASCAR teams are not in Kansas anymore, but the race Sunday afternoon left plenty to chew on. Some not-so-exciting racing, combined with some rather questionable calls from NASCAR during the event gives this Kansas race a 2 Star Rating.

As expected, Hendrick Motorsports came out and filled up the front of the field early. Surprisingly, the #88 car led the field throughout the first run. But, in what has become all too typical for them this season, a problem on pit road – this time a loose lug nut – put Dale Earnhardt Jr. a lap down and he was not heard from again until the end of the race when his engine started to leak.

Another surprise Sunday was the race put together by Greg Biffle and the #16 team. For much of the season the Ford camp has really struggled, but in the last two weeks they have had a car in the top five. Granted, Biffle got to the front because he took two tires, but he was able to hang on to the lead both times they used that strategy. This was unexpected because I thought the tires would give up a lot more than they did. However, Ford still needs to start getting that new engine on the track. Their cars simply cannot run up front on a consistent basis with the package they currently are running.

Alright, now let’s discuss NASCAR’s putrid day in the control tower. Many fans have grumbled about NASCAR playing favorites before, but this week that issue came to the front and center. Brad Keselowski had a great weekend in the #25 car. He qualified third and ran in the top five for much of the race before getting shuffled back on a round of pit stops and a poorly timed caution. Then, he gets in a battle with Juan Montoya and races him hard, even trading some paint. Okay, finally there is a side-by-side battle on the racetrack. However, while this is going on NASCAR issues a warning to Tony Eury Jr. advising him to tell Brad to back off because he is racing a Chase contender. This is absolute bogus. NASCAR took away the old points system because they wanted to inject more excitement into the latter part of the season. Yet they issue warnings telling the non-chasers to give the other guys plenty of room so they don’t cause these drivers to lose valuable points that will keep the standings close as the Chase wears on. This is exactly what everybody feared would happen when the Chase was announced. The big complaint back then was that only the Chasers would be focused on and everyone else would be forgotten. NASCAR made a huge mistake here. If this is how it’s going to be, please bring back the old points system. Even if the standings weren’t close – and many times they were – at least every driver had a chance to give everything they had to try and win a race. That is what the sport is about after all. We don’t tune in each week to see how close the points battle is, we tune in to see drivers go door-to-door to try and win that particular race.

Secondly, Dale Jr.’s engine leaked fluid at the end of the race. Maybe. The fluid was never shown but isn’t it amazing that the caution came out with 31 laps to go in a race that was shaping up to be a fuel mileage finish. Here comes my conspiracy theory. It seems to me that many of the leaders, including Jimmie Johnson, were well short on fuel and it would be a big stretch to make it to the end. But, there were a few teams saying they were really close and could possibly make it. Now, we saw what happened at Michigan both times this year when some of the leaders ran out of fuel. They finished back around 30th or so. Had that happened Sunday, there possibly would have been a few Chase drivers run out of gas and drop way back in the finishing order, thus losing many points in the Championship Chase. NASCAR is already hurting for TV ratings and a finish like that would have really spread out the points battle. So, instead Tony Stewart wins in a boring finish and the points are still really tight. Congratulations NASCAR, I too hope there are at least six drivers with a chance to win the Cup at Homestead.

That’s it this week. If you made it this far, well, thankfully I don’t have much more to say. Next week is the ever exciting Jimmie Johnson domination show at Auto Club Speedway in front of a bunch of red and yellow bleachers. After next week, however, some better tracks are on the schedule and the racing should be better as we move in on halfway in the Chase to the Championship.