Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rating the Ford 400: 3 Stars ***

The 2009 NASCAR season came to a close Sunday with Jimmie Johnson making history and taking home his fourth consecutive title. Denny Hamlin also spanked the field in the final run and won his fourth race of the season. A season finale filled with history and emotion gets a 3 Star Rating.

Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson and the entire #48 team. What they have accomplished since becoming a team in 2002 is ridiculous. Never have they finished outside the top five in points and now they are right there in the conversation of the greatest teams in the history of NASCAR. Also, throughout the race Johnson was surrounded by guys who were not taking it easy. Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. were on edge all day, and provided a couple hold-your-breath moments for the eventual champion.

As for the race, I hate it that the winner always gets overshadowed. Even though it is the last race of the season, I find it extremely hard to remember who wins at Homestead. Sometimes it even feels like Johnson has won this race the last four years. But, Denny Hamlin finished off a very good year with his victory Sunday evening. If the Gibbs cars ever put together some consistency, look out. They seem primed for a strong comeback campaign in 2010.

I thought it was interesting that everybody seemed to be less willing to give up a spot in this race. They certainly were content to ride in place the week before. Anyway, the battle between Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart was classic. If there is one guy in the field willing to blatantly deliver some payback, it’s Montoya. It was also good to see the RCR cars up front and contending. We all know they have had a terrible year, but the racing is better when a few of those guys return to the front, including Jeff Burton who finished off the season with two impressive second place finishes. He may have even won this race had the mandatory debris caution not flown with 51 laps remaining (I told you I would gripe about it again this week). Burton was horrible on the restarts all night and never had a chance on the final run.

So, as we now face the 83 days that make up the NASCAR offseason, I want to wish everyone here a safe and enjoyable winter. Remember to throw the debris caution and take time to be with family and friends during the holidays, but of course you know that means a double-file restart at Daytona is soon to follow.

Thank you to all of the readers of this blog. It is enjoyable for me to share thoughts about the race each week and I hope you feel the same. Look for the Monday Morning Crew Chief season wrap-up on December 8, the Tuesday after the awards banquet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rating the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500: 2 Stars **

The penultimate race of the 2009 NASCAR season was anything but ultimate in the excitement level it generated. I’m sorry, but there are practice shows more interesting than the race at Phoenix on Sunday. Phoenix brings home a 2 Star Rating this week.

Once again, Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team dominated the race. There were a few other contenders. Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin all maintained spots in the top five for much of the race, but there was no drama in this one. Anytime somebody seemed to be making up time on the leader, the lead would suddenly stabilize and things would continue as usual. Also, everybody thought short races were the next great thing to generate excitement, but I think last week would have been better had it been a 400 or 500 mile race. Shortening the length of races opens the door for more races like this one.

There were some positives on Sunday, but NASCAR once again touched that mean little button because, well, we don’t really know why they push the caution button every once in a while. The green flag racing was nice, but the race could have gone all 312 laps under green. However, NASCAR threw the caution flag for debris twice, and both times it caused wrecks soon after the following restart. Like I have said a million times here, more cars are damaged because of the debris cautions than there would be if the supposed “debris” was just left alone. Sure Dale Jr. may have still had an oil leak, but he would have caused an 11 car pileup if that incident had happened on the previous green flag run.

So, next week I will be back to gripe about the debris cautions for the final time, but in the meantime, there will likely be plenty of championship build up as the week goes on. It will be devastating if Johnson does not bring it home, but that does not look likely. As for Homestead itself, there have been good races at the track in the past; it’s just unfortunate that the race always gets overshadowed by the Championship. Just a quick note for all the Chase haters out there, under the old points format Jimmie Johnson would lead Tony Stewart by only 13 points heading into the final race next week. But hey, that system never produced any exciting finishes. I’m just saying. Have a good Championship week everybody.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rating the Dickies 500: 4 Stars ****

The last 500 mile race of the season brought with it plenty of intrigue as the points leader crashed on lap 3, opening the door for someone to jump back into the Chase. Whether or not somebody actually does have a chance to catch Jimmie Johnson is yet to be seen, but the race at Texas gets a 4 Star Rating.

Obviously, the big news coming out of Sunday’s race was that Johnson wrecked. However, the fat lady was still singing in victory lane at Texas. Johnson still has a larger lead in the standings than he did at this point last year, and if he were to lose the championship, it may be one of the biggest meltdowns NASCAR has ever seen. It is still going to be tough to beat the #48.

The race itself was pretty clean Sunday. It was nice to once again see a different face in victory lane, and fuel mileage races are always exciting at the finish. I want to thank NASCAR for not throwing a debris caution during that last run because I am sure there had to be something on the track with all of those wrecked cars out there trying to maintain minimum speed. That caution at halfway for the hot dog was pretty lame, but otherwise the race played out the way it should have. What made the fuel mileage race surprising was the fact that everybody pitted later in the race this year than Carl Edwards did in the same race in 2008. In that race he was able to run 69 laps after his final stop, while this year nobody made it more than 63 laps That makes Sunday’s race all the more surprising.

Also, there were some great paint schemes on the track this weekend. A.J. Allmendinger’s Petty blue Ford was beautiful, as was David Ragan’s blue colors for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Sunday’s winner, Kurt Busch, also had a very cool paint scheme with Operation Homefront on the hood. Plus, Busch won Michael McGee $1 million because McGee picked Busch to win the race. I’d say those two had a pretty good day.

Next week the series heads out west for the final time in 2009. Mark Martin is primed to have a very good race after dominating at Phoenix in the spring. If Johnson for some reason has another bad day, things could be pretty interesting heading into Homestead. Have a good week!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rating the Amp Energy 500: 5 Stars *****

Well, did anybody enjoy that race? Yes, there were issues with parts of the race that will need to be worked out, but this is just another example of why restrictor plate racing is bar none the most exciting racing in the world. Talladega gets a 5 Star Rating.

An unexpected winner, two cars flipped on their roofs, and plenty of water cooler talk capped off a great season of restrictor plate racing. It was very refreshing to see new faces at the front of the field throughout the event. Everyone was complaining about the smaller restrictor plate, but that was the one change that probably helped the racing. Sometimes at these races there will be one car that is just better than everyone else. Tony Stewart had that car at Daytona in July. On Sunday, however, there was not a dominant car throughout the race. With 60 lead changes among 26 different drivers – yes 60 among 26 – there was always somebody new at the front. That was also the second most different leaders a Cup Series race has ever seen. It was nice to have a race where the Chase seemed not to matter.

Before we go any farther, huge congratulations should be extended to Jamie McMurray and the #26 team. They are the 14th different team to visit victory lane this season. Things have not gone the way anybody had hoped when McMurray signed on to drive the #26 car, and very rarely do guys win a race late in a year when they know they will be moving on to a new team the following season. McMurray has always been a good plate racer and hopefully he will find what he is looking for in 2010.

Alright, on to the controversial/bad things about Sunday’s race. The most obvious thing to criticize about Sunday’s race is the new rule about not bump drafting in the corner. People talk about this every time there is a restrictor plate race, and now NASCAR actually did something about it. Yet, other than creating a single file race for much of the first two-thirds of the race, the new rule did not prevent the big wrecks that everyone is scared about.

Over the years many things have been done to try and prevent “the big one” from happening. The restrictor plates get smaller and smaller, the yellow line was put in place, and now penalties will be handed out for bump drafting in the corner. None of these solutions have prevented big wrecks. This week’s race was one of the worst as far as the number of bad wrecks that occurred. Sure they happened really late in the race, but they still happened. Maybe NASCAR and everybody involved will just have to accept that this is what you get at Daytona and Talladega. They are great races to watch, and NASCAR has done a great job of making the cars and the walls safer when those wrecks happen.

I still wish NASCAR would take out the yellow line. That thing has created more controversy and caused about as many wrecks as it has prevented. I thought it was really cool to see cars six-wide through the tri-oval with cars stretching from the grass to the wall. Dale Jr.’s wreck in the Daytona 500 was partly because of that line. Otherwise, he may have been able to take his time before moving back up onto the track. Also, Regan Smith would have a win since he was the first to cross the finish line in this race a year ago.

Overall, this was a great weekend of racing. Talladega and Daytona are the two best tracks on the schedule and nothing NASCAR does will change that. If they are going to continue to complain about this type of racing, about the only thing they can do to fix it is to take the tracks off the schedule, and that will never happen.

So now there are three races to go. Personally, I kind of hope Jimmie Johnson is able to clinch the championship before Homestead. I have a feeling this is not what NASCAR was looking for when they implemented the Chase format in 2004. The final three races will probably be like the rest in the Chase, but at least this weekend was awesome.