Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rating the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: 4 Stars ****

The 36-race trek that began and ended in Florida in 2010 ended the same as the past four years with Jimmie Johnson on stage in Las Vegas delivering his acceptance speech for winning the Sprint Cup. However, the way he got there was vastly different than in the past. The 2010 Sprint Cup Series season gets a 4 Star Rating.

This season had its ups and downs. But, there were plenty of ups and the downs weren’t nearly as low as past seasons. The restrictor-plate package this season produced the best big-track racing since the early 2000’s, and the change to a rear spoiler instead of a wing made the racing better at many of the other tracks the series visited.

Finally, the championship finally came down to an all-or-nothing shootout among Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in the final race at Homestead. Last year at this time complaints surfaced everywhere in the NASCAR community. One year later, that same community is relatively content. Whether the head NASCAR administrators agree or not is yet to be seen. I’m just saying, this is one year where change is nothing but a bad thing.

So, let’s take a look at the breakdown of ratings throughout the season, which excludes the two non-points events and the reader’s choice edition for the fall race at New Hampshire:

5 Stars: 5 races

4 Stars: 10 races

3 Stars: 14 races

2 Stars: 6 races

1 Star: no races

2010 was the first season Monday Morning Crew Chief has not handed down a 1 Star Rating and, once again, we had five races of ultimate excitement.

Other than the Daytona 500, which was unfortunately delayed by a pothole, the beginning of the season got off to a rather slow start. The three races following Daytona at California, Las Vegas and Atlanta did not get above a 3 Star Rating. The short tracks, however, ignited the fire to really get the season started.

As we have seen in the past, the 5 Star races tend to be at short tracks or restrictor-plate tracks. However, this year one intermediate track made the cut.

The first 5 Star race of the season came at Martinsville in the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500, as Denny Hamlin brought home another grandfather clock as he sliced through the field in the final laps and came out on top after a crazy green-white-checkered finish where Matt Kenseth had the lead in Turn 1, but Jeff Gordon punted him out of the way in Turn 3 to allow Hamlin to squeeze by for the win. This race would prove to be Gordon’s best chance at a win, as he was merely feet from the white flag before the final caution flew.

The next race worthy of a 5 Star Rating was the historic Aaron’s 499 at Talladega that had everything. This race smashed records, as twenty-nine drivers swapped the lead 88 times. However, that wasn’t enough for this race. The first race with three attempts at a green-white-checkered came down to a drag race between Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick. As the pair came through the tri-oval, Harvick timed his move perfectly and pulled underneath McMurray to take the win by inches. This race had to end in a photo finish; it was just that kind of a day.

The third 5 Star race of the season came at the other restrictor-plate track, Daytona, in the Coke Zero 400 and the final race on the old pavement. This race had only 47 lead changes, but drivers ran in tight packs while they held onto their cars through the bumps to make for a great race. Only 17 cars finished on the lead lap in this one, and 19 cars got caught up in the “Big One.” Kevin Harvick continued his restrictor-plate racing domination as he brought home the “other” trophy from Daytona this season.

Nearly three months went by before the next 5 Star race rolled around and, once again, it came at Talladega in the Amp Energy Juice 500. With just four races left in the season and Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick locked in the tightest Chase battle in its history. Although Hamlin fell a lap down and Harvick suffered front-end damage in a wreck, all three came out of the race with a shot at the title. In addition to the championship drama, there were the second-most lead changes in series history, 87, and Harvick nearly pulled off the win, but the caution flew on the final lap when A.J. Allmendinger flipped upside down and Clint Bowyer happened to be in the lead. Another photo finish, but it happened in Turn 1, not the finish line.

The final great race of the season came at Texas in the AAA Texas 500. All kinds of stuff went down in this one, including a fight on the backstretch, a bird through a windshield and a mid-race pit crew swap. All of this happened while Denny Hamlin took the points lead with two races to go. The season all kind of came together in this one race. The drivers showed emotion, the racing on the track was close and the points battle was as close as possible.

So, with a great year under its belt, hopefully NASCAR can build on that momentum and carry the excitement on through next season and beyond. The championship battle was close this year, and there is little reason to think it won’t be that way again in 2011.

Throughout the offseason Monday Morning Crew Chief will have a variety of articles about news, rumors and opinions. With testing at Daytona this year, there will only be a few weeks where cars won’t be on the track. Hopefully the offseason blues will be a little less dark this time around. Thank you for reading this season and have a terrific holiday season.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hendrick shuffles crew chiefs and teams for 2011

Just days after winning his 10th championship, Rick Hendrick has swapped the crew chiefs for 75 percent of his organization and switched which teams will work in the same shop together for the 2011 season.

Steve Letarte will move from Jeff Gordon’s #24 team to lead Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team. Earnhardt Jr.’s former crew chief Lance McGrew will take the position with Mark Martin’s #5 team previously held by Alan Gustafson, who will call the shots for Gordon in 2011.

The only team left intact this offseason is the championship winning #48 team with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. However, it is still unclear whether the old #48 pit crew will return to pit Johnson’s car in 2011 or if it will remain with the #24 group. Also, the #48 team will be affected by the changes because it will no longer be able to work side-by-side with the #24 team. Instead, the often dysfunctional #88 team will move in alongside.

Obviously, Hendrick wants to make Earnhardt Jr. as competitive as possible, but is he risking the overall success of his organization to do so? The #48 and #24 teams have both finished in the top 10 in the final standings in eight out of the last nine seasons, or every year but one of Johnson’s career.

The main issue at hand is the performance of the #88 team. If Earnhardt Jr. had made the Chase and Martin came nowhere close, I don’t think we would have seen these changes. Overall, as with most changes, there are pros and cons to the move.

First, if Earnhardt Jr. isn’t successful in 2011, he’s never going to be successful at Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick promised in 2010 to give the #88 team all of the resources necessary to put a competitive car on the track, yet Earnhardt Jr. was rarely in contention at any race. So, now Hendrick has gone to the edge. He broke up the dynasty that was the 24/48 shop. The success out of that shop has been unmatched in the sport for a decade, but now it may finally come to an end.

For those who love to hate Johnson and Gordon, 2011 might be the year those two slip. Knaus and Johnson will still be right at the top of the standings in 2011, but they will also be carrying the weight of the #88 team, even though Letarte and Knaus will still be able to work together. I guess we’ll finally find out whether it’s the driver or the car that hasn’t been able to make the #88 team go.

Overall, the crew chief change will probably work out well for Gordon, because Gustafson knows what he is doing on top of a pit box. That guy is good. However, the other two moves might not work out quite as well.

If Letarte hasn’t been able to win with Gordon in almost two years, why would he suddenly find Victory Lane with Earnhardt Jr.? But, the most confusing move in all of this is the thought of McGrew working with Martin. I just don’t see those two personalities meshing very well. McGrew is a tough guy who was brought in to bring some discipline to the #88 team and get away from the family/buddy team Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. had assembled.

Martin is a professional in every sense of the word, and he doesn’t need a hard-nosed guy to lead his team. At this point, Martin also knows what he needs out of a car better than almost any driver in the field, and a technical guy on the pit box can work with him to dial it in. McGrew is not that type of guy. He is there to motivate people, something Martin does not need.

Maybe these changes won’t noticeably affect the performance of the Hendrick cars, but the door is now open for the Hendrick dynasty to come to an end. NASCAR has hurt itself in the past decade by making short-sighted changes; maybe Hendrick just made such a change.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rating the Ford 400: 4 Stars ****

The 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship came down to the wire Sunday in Homestead. The then-four-time-defending champion stepped into the #48 car in second place in the points standings, but once again jumped out on top. The championship race at Homestead gets a 4 Star Rating.

Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson, the #48 team and the #24 pit crew. This was by far the most challenging championship season for this group. In the past, they had dominated the competition by so much throughout the first nine Chase races that they could come to Homestead and cruise to victory. However, this time they had to go out and take it from the grasp of Denny Hamlin and the #11 team.

This race certainly didn’t go as planned for any of the championship contenders. It did, however, for Carl Edwards. The #99 car took the lead on lap 4 and led 190 total laps to dominate the final race of the season. Martin Truex Jr. had a car that could hang with Edwards, but a cut tire on a restart with 68 laps to go took the #56 car out of contention and ended a mediocre season for that group.

So, qualifying did matter. As Hamlin tried to make his way through the field after starting 37th, he pushed the issue and spun down the backstretch after contact with Greg Biffle on lap 23 that started a tough day for the #11 team. Hamlin admitted before the race he was nervous, and those nerves may have come into play and resulted in the wreck. They say you have to lose one before you can win one, and that was true for Johnson, so maybe this is just part of the learning and maturation process for Hamlin. One thing is for sure, a Joe Gibbs Racing car is going to be in contention for many years to come.

With 81 laps to go, Harvick’s pit crew got him out first and he was set to lead the field to the restart with Johnson eighth and Hamlin ninth, almost the exact scenario needed for Harvick to win the title. Then the crushing blow hit the #29 team square in the face, Harvick had sped down pit road. While it may not have mattered in the end, the penalty destroyed most of Harvick’s chance at the championship, as he had to spend the rest of the race making up ground he lost on the penalty.

Johnson is now a five-time champion, and that is simply amazing. Sure, people like to hate him and the #48 team for being great; that’s fine, at least they care. But, don’t bash NASCAR because Johnson continues to win. If Hamlin or Harvick would’ve won Sunday, those same people would be thrilled and say everything in NASCAR is great. Instead, there will be those who say the racing is not exciting anymore. That is simply untrue.

This season was filled with everything a motorsports fan could want. Nearly every change NASCAR made during the offseason turned out to be a positive this season. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn around and make changes this offseason just for the sake of making changes. There have been plenty of times in the past decade NASCAR has gotten in its own way. Don’t do it again this year. Most of the races were fun to watch, even at some tracks that aren’t known for exciting racing, the leader rarely jumped out to a huge lead right after a restart, there were less debris cautions and the championship came down to a fantastic three-way battle. What’s to change?

Now we’ve come to that time of the year again, where the cars roll back under the cover of a garage for the winter and the NASCAR gear goes back into the closet until those beautiful February days roll around at Daytona. Is it too early to get excited about Speedweeks? Only 89 days until the 500.

Thank you to all the Monday Morning Crew Chief readers this season. It has been a pleasure to discuss my favorite subject each week. Look for the final rating Dec. 7, the Tuesday after the awards ceremony where the season will be rated and have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rating the Kobalt Tools 500: 4 Stars ****

Just when it looked like we might have a good idea of who would bring home the 2010 Sprint Cup Series title, Denny Hamlin pitted from his second-place position while Jimmie Johnson held on to finish fifth. Now, the champoinship battle is tighter than ever. The second-to-last race of the year gets a 4 Star Rating.

Overall, much of the race was pretty typical Phoenix-style racing. Similar to New Hampshire, it is really hard to pass, and therefore the leader can stay out front forever. However, and I think the spoiler has helped this issue in the majority of races this season, the leader never immediately jumped out to a two-second lead. The car in second was able to hang with the leader for long stretches throughout the race. Mark that down as a change that worked.

As the race headed into its final 100 laps, it looked like Hamlin would finish off a dominating performance and take a Johnson-type lead with him into Homestead next week.. Instead, the caution with 79 laps to go set the stage for what turned into a stomach-churning, drama-filled finish. This had to be one of the “game seven” moments NASCAR had asked for when it debated changing the Chase format. Harvick’s missing lugnut could have ended his chances, Johnson could have run out of fuel and Hamlin likely would have run out of fuel if he hadn’t pitted. Not only was the race on the line that last run, but the season was on the line.

Fuel-mileage races always bring with them an added amount of drama, but the addition of a championship battle made it all the more tense. This race actually had the feel of what most of the fall Richmond races are like, ironically, except for this season. I said at the end of the regular season I would take a good championship battle instead of a close battle for 12th at Richmond, and that is what we have.

People have talked a lot about possible changes to the Chase, and many ideas centered around an elimination-style format. But, that type of format would have actually taken some of the drama out of the finish to this season. Right now Hamlin and Johnson will go toe-to-toe next week and whoever finishes higher will likely win the title, but the fact that Harvick is still well within striking distance brings in an added element of excitement. If Hamlin and Johnson both falter, the #29 car will do burnouts after the race.

So, now that we have the closest championship battle in the Chase’s short history, let’s dream a little bit. Johnson is only 15 points behind Hamlin. Now, depending on who has what as far as bonus points are concerned, 15 points could be the difference between first and second. Carl Edwards got 20 more points than second-place finisher Ryan Newman, who didn’t lead a lap. Think about this, Hamlin and Johnson drive their way to the front throughout the race and end up first and second on the final run. They then give it everything they have and end up in a battle simlar to the one Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven had at Darlington in 2003, and the race comes down to a photo finish for the race and the championship. That would be thrilling.

Before we move on, congratulations to Edwards and the #99 team. It’s been a long time coming, but the Ford camp has picked up its game during the second half of this season and might well have somebody in the championship hunt at this point next season.

So here it is, the race we’ve all been waiting for. This year’s Chase will go down as one of the greatest ever, and the stage is set for the race at Homestead to be one that NASCAR fans for years to come will look back on and say, “Wow. What can we do to make the racing more like it was in 2010?”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rating the AAA Texas 500: 5 Stars *****

A terrific race at Talladega is followed up with possibly an even more exciting race at Texas. The final 500-mile race of the season included a record amount of lead changes, a new championship leader and there was a fight. Texas gets a very well-deserved 5 Star Rating.

What more can this sport offer right now? We have an incredibly close championship battle between Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, 5 Star excitement in back-to-back races and the emotion is back. Football is great, but right now every week is hold-your-breath excitement at the race track.

As he said earlier in the season, all Hamlin does is win. He brought home trophy #8 and now leads the points standings by 33 points with two races to go. For the first time since 2005, somebody other than Johnson leads as the series heads to its penultimate race.

Along with the Chase excitement, plenty of action took place on the track, not the least of which was the backstretch throwdown between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. After an altercation coming out of turn 4 before the caution flew, Gordon drove up alongside Burton to express his displeasure (he wasn’t the only one Sunday who exercised his freedom of expression) for what had happened. Burton then turned Gordon straight into the wall and both cars came to a rest on the backstretch. What happened next was a scene straight out of a movie.

Gordon walked down the backstretch to meet Burton where the two dropped the gloves and had at it. There have been several feuds between drivers this season, but this one takes the cake. There have even been drivers get out of their cars on the track and yell and push each other, but this fight brought back images to the finish of the 1979 Daytona 500 between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers.

The other driver who had issues expressing his displeasure Sunday was Kyle Busch. First, he gets spun out and, while trying to stay on the lead lap, speeds on pit road. Then as he sits in the pits for his penalty, not-so-subtly tells the NASCAR official he or she is #1. That cost him two more laps in the pits and took him completely out of contention.

Finally, the other unusual occurrence during the race happened when Chad Knaus replaced his own pit crew with the #24 team after Gordon wrecked. Now, this is a team that has won the past four season championships, and their crew chief decided to replace them in one of the most important races of the season. It’s incredible. Granted, the #48 crew struggled early in the race and the #24 group was flawless on the final three stops. Still, it added another dramatic element to the race and now the rest of the season, as the #24 guys will pit the #48 car the rest of the season.

So now the stage moves out west where the wild show goes to a one-mile track that acts like a short track. There’s nothing better to follow up a highly emotional race such as what took place at Texas. If people aren’t tuning in now, it’s not NASCAR’s fault. This sport is on top of its game right now.

For everybody who loves this sport, congratulations. These are the moments that make us remember why this sport is so great. The competition is as tight as can be, and the tension will only climb now that Johnson is behind. These next two weeks should be fascinating. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

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

As expected, Talladega brought with it plenty of drama Sunday, including as close to a traditional photo-finish as possible in this technology age. It didn’t take a full week for NASCAR to decide the winner, as it did at the first Daytona 500, but the suspense lasted well after the checkered flag flew. The final restrictor-plate race of the season was worthy of a 5 Star Rating.

The constant shuffle of drivers to the front was certainly intriguing, and something that only happens in two races each year -- both of the Talladega races. Heck, Joe Nemecheck charged from his fourth-place starting position and led the the first lap.

What’s better than a race with more than 85 lead changes in one season? Two races with more than 85 lead changes. The 87 lead changes in Sunday’s race fell one short of matching the series record for lead changes in one race that was set the last time NASCAR visited its largest track. During the 388 laps run at Talladega this season, there were 175 lead changes. That is simply remarkable.

This race really had something for everyone, well maybe except for the fans of the 17 drivers who didn’t lead a lap, but hey, they probably got close at some point during the day. There were huge packs, long runs with green-flag pit stops, spectacular wrecks and a flurry of activity throughout the field for most of the race. If the finish line had been in turn one, this race may have ended similar to the 2007 Daytona 500 where Kevin Harvick edged out Mark Martin for the win. Instead, it finished similar to the 2008 July race at Daytona where video replay had to confirm the winner.

Many people expected this race to offer up the 2010 Sprint Cup Series Champion. Instead, the Chase among Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick just got tighter. However, none of the three drivers had an easy, normal day. Johnson sustained damage in one of the early wrecks, Hamlin fell a lap down after he tried the “stay at the back and hope the big one happens” strategy and Harvick smashed into Marcos Ambrose as he slid down across his nose in turn three.

Now, Johnson leads Hamlin by 14 points and Harvick closed to within 38 points of the lead with three races left. This is as close to a straight-up, head-to-head-to-head battle as NASCAR is ever going to see. People have begged for a close Chase in the past several years. Well, folks, here it is. Enjoy it or go home, but don’t complain that the racing is boring and the Chase has sucked the life out of the sport. It’s fair to wish for the old points format, but enjoy the excitement when it’s here.

So, next week the series heads west to Texas. It’s anybody’s race now, and Texas Motor Speedway has produced a variety of winners throughout its history. Plus, it’s another 500-mile race. Those last 100 miles usually separate the best from the rest, so expect Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick to be near the front as the laps wind down. Have a great week.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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

The final short-track race of the season brought plenty of tight racing that led to a tight championship battle. Martinsville gets a 4 Star Rating.

Throughout the race, cars bounced off of each other left and right. Jimmie Johnson sent Marcos Ambrose’s day down the tubes when they collided early in the race, and once again, teammates got frustrated with each other. This time Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton traded bumps a few times throughout the race. Burton drove his car incredibly hard all day, but it may have cost him in the end, as he faded to ninth after leading the most laps.

However, it was nice to see the beating and banging at Martinsville. The first half of the Chase was incredibly clean, but the cautions started to fly last week at Charlotte and the flag man carried that momentum into Martinsville, throwing the yellow 15 times for 90 laps, or 18 percent of the race. Up to this race, only about 11 percent of the laps had been run under caution.

While the race was good, it also continued the championship intrigue. After Charlotte, the standings showed only three drivers to have a realistic shot at the title, and only two with a chance to beat Johnson. So what do Denny Hamlin and Harvick do? They come out with a win and a third-place finish, respectively.

So, maybe wins actually do matter enough in the current points system. Had Hamlin finished second, he would have been 21 points behind Johnson instead of six. That’s quite a difference for just one position and is equivalent to five positions back in the field. I think most people would agree there is a fairly large difference between finishing 15th and 20th. Well, in terms of points, that’s the same difference between first and second.

The six-point margin that separates Johnson and Hamlin is the smallest lead a driver has had at this point in the season in Chase history. The thing is, Johnson still had a top-five finish. Since his 25th-place finish at New Hampshire to start the Chase, Johnson has finished first, second, third, third and fifth in the following five races. Yet, he only has a six-point advantage. The competition this year may well be the toughest Johnson has faced in the past five seasons.

Now the intensity ratchets up even another notch as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway, the largest track on the schedule. Everything in the Chase up to this point has been qualified with the “wait until after Talladega” disclaimer. Well, that time has come.

After a race in the spring that had a record 88 lead changes and the driver who now sits third in the standings as the winner, the excitement/intensity level for this race may be unmatched except for the Daytona 500. This race could decide the championship. NASCAR said they wanted “Game Seven” moments, and here it is. The championship trophy won’t be handed out Sunday, but the engraver will likely be able to start buying templates.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rating the Bank of America 500: 3 Stars ***

More drivers fell out of championship contention Saturday night in Charlotte while a non-Chaser broke through for the first time in this year’s Chase. The final race before the megascreen at Charlotte gets a 3 Star Rating.

Jamie McMurray did it again, and the best season of his career continues. Thankfully, there are things outside of the Chase that still matter at this point in the season, and his win is one of them. He had a good car all evening and couldn’t even be slowed down by a late debris caution. It looked like his car was set up for the long run, but nobody at the front took tires and McMurray was able to hold on.

A line of Chasers followed McMurray to the checkered flag, and Jimmie Johnson extended his lead in the points standings. It’s often said a team shows they have championship potential when they make a good day out of a bad start, but they usually don’t come back from spinning out to finish third. Only the #48 can pull that off.

As I said last week, Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are the only drivers left who have a real chance of winning the title. However, Hamlin and Harvick look to be the strongest competition Johnson has had in several years. Usually he has one main challenger and someone else who hangs on for a while, but this time Hamlin and Harvick both look like they have staying power. Plus, good tracks lay ahead for both drivers.

Overall, Saturday’s race was OK. McMurray’s win will likely go down similar to David Reutimann’s victory at Chicago earlier this year. People were happy he won, but the race itself wasn’t terribly exciting. However, the second-place driver caught the leader several times throughout the night. They rarely made the pass, but back in the days of the wing nobody caught up to the leader.

With the Chase halfway complete, things move north to southern Virginia at Martinsville Speedway, the final short track race of the season. After a stretch of intermediate tracks, the two unknowns are next. The shortest track at Martinsville will give way to the longest one at Talladega. Both should be fun and have the potential for great races.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rating the Pepsi Max 400: 2 Stars **

After the race at Kansas it looked like as many as 10 drivers had a chance to make a run at the championship. Just one week later, that number has been cut in half. The final fall race at California gets a 2 Star Rating.

I said last week it would be important for every Chaser not named Jimmie Johnson to have a good week so they didn’t fall too far behind. Well, many of them are now too far behind. While Jimmie Johnson posted a third-place finish Sunday, every Chaser except Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin had significant issues throughout the day. Who said Johnson wouldn’t recover after New Hampshire? He has a win and an average finish of second in the three races since.

As for the race itself, it was typical NASCAR at California. The racing was pretty good for the first third of the race, but then drivers started to stretch out long leads and the cautions kept falling like leaves off of trees.

The three debris cautions are what they are. This race wasn’t good enough to have a lot of integrity to protect, and NASCAR had been doing a better job in the several races leading up to this point. Also, the debris-caution issue has come up in three of the last five races at California. Does NASCAR just come into these races knowing the race will have to be manipulated because the track is so darn boring? In any case, this one did not provide much drama. The ARCA race Saturday at Rockingham showed where the race should have been this weekend.

Once again, Stewart became the beneficiary of the debris caution pit stop, as he has been for his last three wins. Had he not run out of gas at New Hampshire, Stewart would be a major player in the Chase. He lost 94 points when he crawled across the finish line in 24th in that race. Had there been another half gallon or so in that tank, Stewart would be right on Johnson’s tail, just 12 points behind. But, such is the case in many aspects of racing. The gamble he took in the first Chase race was the correct call, even though things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped.

Finally, the three Roush-Fenway Racing Chasers all had issues Sunday and will need to be perfect the rest of the way just to get back into contention. Plus, Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the three drivers who are most likely to go into Homestead with a chance to win the title, will all have to get caught up in the Big One at Talladega.

Next week the series moves to the only night race of the Chase, and one of the best. Charlotte usually puts on a good show, and Johnson has had some issues at the track recently, which just means he will go out and dominate this week. But hey, there’s hope somewhere. Anyway, Chase or no Chase, the race at Charlotte should be a bit more fun than the last couple races have been. Have a great week.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rating the Price Chopper 400: 2 Stars **

After a couple of weeks on traditional one-mile ovals, NASCAR moved out to Kansas and added an additional half-mile. However, the added distance did not mean added excitement. Kansas gets a 2 Star Rating.

Congratulations to Greg Biffle, the #16 team and the entire Ford stable. The Roush-Fenway Racing cars have finally come to life, with three cars in the top 10, and the Richard Petty Motorsports cars swept the front row in qualifying.

Coming into the season, one of the most often asked questions were about whether or not the Roush and Richard Childress Racing organizations would improve on sub-par 2009 season. The Childress group jumped out front early and has debatably been the best overall organization this season. Roush, on the other hand, continued to struggle through much of the regular season. Several Roush drivers would put down consistent finishes, but they were never really a threat to win.

Then came Sunday. At one point Ford held the top four positions on the track. What is the difference? One obvious answer is the new engine program finally has the kinks worked out and is running full speed ahead. However, the cars are handling much better.

On a track that caused drivers such as Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson to spin out in practice, Biffle’s car was on a rail for much of the day. Lots of cars can make horsepower, but the ones that carry speed through the corners will be at the front in the end.

The only real drama Sunday dealt with the points standings. While Johnson once again has the lead in the Chase, the overall standings are as close as ever. Eight drivers are still within 100 points of the leader, the most ever in the Chase era.

So far all of the folks hoping for a close Chase battle have been treated to exactly what they were looking for. Now, the possibility of having an elimination format has been thrown around so much it might as well already be in place. But why would NASCAR want to eliminate drivers early in the Chase? Right now 11 of the 12 drivers could mathematically leave California next week in the lead. Wasn’t one of the main reasons for the Chase to have more drivers compete for the title? Well, they’re competing — but Johnson is once again in the strongest position.

A positive from Sunday’s race was the lack of cautions. As I said earlier in the year, this group of drivers has, for the most part, been on the track together for a while now. The lack of developing Nationwide drivers has helped, but right now each and every week there are surprisingly, and refreshingly, long stretches of green-flag racing. NASCAR helped hand last year’s race at Kansas to Tony Stewart when it threw a debris caution late in the race and everyone came in to pit.

This time, however, Biffle had a Denny-Hamlin-at-Michigan-type lead and NASCAR allowed it to finish under green. Kudos, NASCAR. The integrity of the race is has remained intact of late. Now that Clint Bowyer penalty situation, that’s a story for another day.

Next week the series moves out to the final fall race at California with Johnson in the lead. The racing may not be the greatest, but the race will be important in terms of the championship situation. Hamlin and the rest of the Chase field have to put up a good finish to keep Johnson from running away for championship number five.

Even if Johnson wins, the championship isn’t over. The #48 team has struggled at more tracks than normal this season and the competition has remained in stride for much of the season. Be ready, Homestead might actually mean something this year.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rating the AAA 400: 3 Stars ***

All of the off-the-track drama to center stage early this weekend in Dover, but everybody settled down for what was another in a growing string of clean races. Overall, the race with a three-letter name gets a 3 Star Rating.

Once again, Jimmie Johnson dominated Dover. Sunday’s race was his sixth win at the track and Hendrick Motorsports’ seventh win at the Monster Mile in the last 10 years. But, this race kind of went backwards compared to most Johnson-dominated races, and that was because of A.J. Allmendinger.

The driver of the #43 has had several good runs lately, but Sunday he took it to another level. After starting second, I think most people expected him to steadily fall through the field and become a non-factor. Instead he passed the eventual winner, Johnson, on lap 14 and flat out drove away from the field for the first half of the race.

Unfortunately, he ran over a washer that got stuck in a tire and created a slow leak that eventually forced him to pit road and off pit sequence, something that really set him back when Matt Kenseth brought out a caution with his blown tire. He was able to make his way back to 10th by the end of the race, but this is just another case of something unusual happening to keep someone other that the usual suspects out of contention for a victory.

A similar situation happened at Homestead last year when Marcos Ambrose led early but had tire issues and spun out, turning a potential winning day into a very frustrating day. Why does this sort of thing happen to these guys? One could say they lack experience at the front of the field and don’t have cars that can maintain a winning pace for 400 miles, but these are freak problems that theoretically could happen to anyone.

There have been a few times this year where the surprise guy did hold on and finish off a great day with a win. David Reutimann did it at Chicagoland, but that is certainly the exception rather than the norm. Of the 28 races this season, Reutimann and Jamie McMurray could be considered the only surprise winners all season. Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer, maybe, but both have been in the Chase before.

Speaking of Bowyer, his crazy week culminated with a frustrating 25th-place finish. My, how a season can change in one week. At this point last week people were debating whether or not Clint Bowyer could hang around and have a shot at winning the title. Now he will be an afterthought for the rest of the season other than news about his penalty. That whole situation certainly set off some interesting events this weekend.

Denny Hamlin stepped up to the microphone Friday and told the world his view on the situation.

“You can talk about how small the thing was off and you can really try to say that 60-thousandths didn't help him perform any better," Hamlin said. "That is a crock. (It wasn't like) he wasn't speeding on pit road by a half-a-mile per hour. He was speeding by 5.5 mph.”

Obviously, the Richard Childress Racing bunch wasn’t too happy, and Kevin Harvick took matters into his own hands when he bumped the #11 a few times at the start of practice Saturday. Then, the two teams push and yell at each other when the cars come back to their garage stalls, which were conveniently located right next to each other.

The whole thing stopped there, for now. The ruling on Childress’ appeal will happen Wednesday and that will probably be the end of it, but it was fun while it lasted.

Next week the series moves on to Kansas Speedway, the first of three consecutive tri-ovals. Don’t expect any surprise winners here. Six of the nine winners in the track’s history are in the Chase this season and, as expected, Johnson comes in on a roll.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rating the Sylvania 300: You Rate the Race!!

In another relatively clean race, the Chase started with none other than a classic fuel-mileage finish. Some Chasers soared while others faltered. The big question is, was it a great race, terrible race or somewhere in between? This week it’s your turn to put a rating on the race, so take a look at the Rating System and voice your opinion.

Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart both took the big gamble on the final run. Bowyer had enough fuel to make the finish while Stewart came up two laps short; so much for these guys playing it safe in the Chase. However, NASCAR should also be commended for putting the yellow flag in its pocket the last couple of weeks.

So, is this the start of something big for Clint Bowyer or will he begin to struggle as the turns become more and more banked in the coming weeks? The stat about the championship winner not finishing worse than sixth in all but one year at New Hampshire has been thrown out there plenty this weekend, but does it really matter? In some cases it has, but Johnson still won the championship in 2006 when he finished 39th in this race.

The long final run Sunday was kind of surprising, as New Hampshire certainly isn’t known for that type of a finish. In general, fuel-mileage races don’t happen in the Chase for one reason or another. The only other one that comes to mind was Greg Biffle’s victory at Kansas in 2007.

Along with the Chase picture, several non-Chasers had good runs this week, which doesn’t always happen at this point in the season. Had Jamie McMurray been more consistent during the regular season, he would be in a similar position to Bowyer right now.

And how could we forget Dale Earnhardt Jr.? His fourth-place finish was his best outing since he finished fourth at Daytona in July, and his only top five-finish at a track other than Daytona this season. Plus, this run kind of came out of nowhere. The Hendrick Motorsports cars ran better overall this weekend, and New Hampshire has been a pretty good track for Earnhardt Jr. throughout the years. In any case, his run Sunday surely has Jr. Nation excited that brighter days lay ahead.

Next week is on to the other one-mile oval in the Chase: Dover. The Monster Mile will be tough as always, but I expect the Fords to have a better showing this week. Other than Carl Edwards lately, the Fords have struggled for a while now on flat racetracks. The larger tracks should help, and Miles the Monster might just hold a Roush-Fenway Racing car in Victory Lane at the end of the day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rating the Air Guard 400: 4 Stars ****

The regular season came to a close Saturday night at Richmond with one of the cleanest short-track races ever. A race with few interruptions comes out with a 4 Star Rating.

Similar to the thought that every race won’t end in a photo finish, not every Race to the Chase will come down to a close battle between several drivers. Actually, it’s been remarkable so many of them have throughout the years. Two crashes and some rain were the only things that could slow the guys down this week.

However, this was not a 400-mile parade. The guys did race hard throughout the field, it just turned out they did a good job of keeping their cars under them. Kyle Busch said he could have dumped Denny Hamlin late in the race but chose to race him clean. Maybe Busch learned a thing or to from what happened at the All-Star Race. Overall, green-flag racing is better than watching cars ride under yellow anytime.

On to some specifics, even after qualifying 14th, Hamlin said he had a good car in race trim, and he was right. Usually the cars that start up front at Richmond stay there because passing on a short track is far from easy. That was not the case Saturday night, though. Joey Logano was the only driver to finish in the top five that started in the top 10.

Clint Bowyer put together a very solid weekend and kept the questions about the pressure of sitting 12th in the points standings to a minimum. Unfortunately, the Race to the Chase turned out to be a dud this year, but I’d rather the regular season finish quietly than the actual end of the Chase.

People continue to say this may be one of the closest Chases ever. I don’t want to be an excitement killer, but many of those same people said the same thing last year, and then Jimmie Johnson nearly wrapped everything up before the final race of the season.

It’s highly unlikely the championship will come down to just a few points as it did when Kurt Busch won in 2004, but there are reasons to believe this year’s Chase will be a bit more exciting than the past several years.

First, both the Gibbs and Roush cars are running better at this point in the season than either group has in a while, and both organizations traditionally run well at several of the upcoming tracks. Drivers from both camps no longer seem to be intimidated by the fact that the #48 could go out and post top fives in most of the next 10 races.

Second, this year’s regular season was better than years past. In nearly every race, there has at least been a contender that has a good chance to take over the lead late in the race. There haven’t been many Johnson shows at places such as Phoenix and California this year, but we’re saying this now before the Chase begins. It could well be a completely different story in two months.

So now it begins, the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup will commence Sunday at New Hampshire, a track with some similar characteristics to Richmond. We’ve gone a few weeks now without a major blow up between two drivers. Maybe everyone just settled into their Chase spots and waited to get things going this weekend. Every year one or two Chasers has a bad New Hampshire race, and except for the invincible Johnson, nobody has been able to come back and win it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rating the Emory Healthcare 500: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series dropped in to the heart of Dixieland for one of the better race weekends of the season. It’s not Darlington, but Atlanta is the next best thing. The 2010 Labor Day race gets a 4 Star Rating.

Something about Atlanta always produces great racing, and it’s a shame the series will only visit once a year from now on. After watching this race, it’s laughable to have two races at tracks such as New Hampshire or Kansas. But, it is what it is. Atlanta put on a great show to finish up its season.

At many tracks, even with the spoiler, the leader jumps out to a several-second lead and can’t be caught without the aid of a caution. Sunday night, however, drivers traded the top spot 12 times during the first 132 laps of the race.

When the track was reconfigured and repaved in 1997, the track was the fastest on the circuit and the racing was fantastic. Now, the surface has weathered a great deal and has become Darlington slick, but the racing remains terrific. Drivers were able to run both the low and high lines with equal success and stay side-by-side for several laps.

The battle between Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson with about 40 laps to go was as good as any this season, it’s just too bad the caution came out and disrupted it. Johnson gained considerable ground on Kahne each lap by running the high groove while Kahne ran the low line. Then, when Johnson got within striking distance, Kahne moved up high to take away his line. That set off a side-by-side battle that would have made for a fantastic finish, but the night wasn’t finished and Kahne ended up in the garage nose-to-nose with Ryan Newman.

After a caution, Newman got into Kahne as he fell through the field. To gain control, Kahne slammed into the side of Kurt Busch and the two were set to barrel into the Turn 3 wall. However, Busch and Kahne both did a terrific job to keep their cars straight, but their chances of victory were gone. Then, after the race, Kahne discussed things with Newman in a professional manner. No pushing, no pointing. Maybe now we know who went too far after the race at Michigan; it wasn’t Newman.

Instead, Tony Stewart took the win and picked up some bonus points to strengthen his chances for the Chase. The Race to the Chase may be the most boring ever, but the actual Chase could be quite exciting. Johnson has at least given the rest of the field hope with his run of bad luck. But, he could very well dominate at Richmond and, just like that, we will be back to that old familiar season-ending chorus of a 10-race stretch dominated by the #48.

So, after the longest break of the season, the shortest break follows with consistently one of the best races each year. There won’t be the usual points drama, but Richmond has good enough racing that it doesn’t matter. With the way the drivers took to Atlanta, there’s little reason to think there won’t be more of the same, with increased contact, at the final regular season race of the year.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rating the Irwin Tools Night Race: 3 Stars ***

The annual night race at the bullring that is Bristol Motor Speedway returned Saturday night with a stadium that was ready to rock. Big time drivers fell out of the race like flies, and Shrub finally got his broom. This one gets swept into the history books with a 3 Star Rating.

Well, it finally happened. Kyle Busch had tried many times to win all three races in a NASCAR weekend. He even won the truck and Nationwide races in the same weekend twice but was unable to close the deal in the Cup race. This time, however, Busch dominated all three races, including going Dale Earnhardt on Brad Keselowski near the end of the Nationwide event.

That little situation set the stage for what many, definitely ESPN, thought would be a knock down, drag out type of race. Instead, it was rather mild. Jimmie Johnson jumped out to his seemingly mandatory lead at the start of the race and led for 171 of the first 172 laps before Busch completed his march to the front.

Johnson and Busch combined to lead 458 of the 500 laps in the race. However, the top five behind those two leaders continued to change throughout the night, with a few unexpected names showing up near the front, including David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray.

McMurray continues to shine in the big time races this season. Four of his seven top fives have come in what could be considered NASCAR’s crown jewel events. He won both Daytona and the Brickyard, while finishing second and third in the Coca-Cola 600 and Saturday’s Bristol night race.

He isn’t yet in the Chase, but McMurray is putting together by far the best year of his career. To top things off, he now sits 13th in the points standings and 100 points behind Bowyer for the final spot.

Some people think the field is already set for the Chase, and realistically there is only one spot left in doubt. But, a 100-point difference is certainly not insurmountable. Each year at the end of the season, whoever’s turn it is to run second to Johnson for the championship runs well in the final few races and makes up ground to make it within reaching distance once Homestead rolls around.

This wasn’t one of the greatest races at Bristol, but people need to remember that not every race at Bristol is going to be terrific. The atmosphere at the track was amazing, but sometimes a race doesn’t come right down to the wire with cars crashing into one another. The Nationwide race took care of that this weekend. Saturday night’s race will be remembered for the historical achievement and that’s fine. Busch put together a weekend full of races that looked like old Jeff Gordon tapes.

Now we move on to the final off week of the season. Doesn’t it feel like we just took a week off? In any case, the next two races are usually two of the better races each season, and there is little reason to expect anything different this year.

Atlanta could really put on a show, as the cars will hit the track for the first time with spoilers under the lights on Labor Day weekend. Maybe we will get one of those fantastic Atlanta finishes, as well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rating the Carfax 400: 3 Stars ***

The stars, and even the regular field fillers, of the Sprint Cup Series rolled into the Irish Hills (Was that referenced enough throughout the weekend?) of Michigan for the final northern race of the summer. The track was big, wide, and fast and made for a race worthy of a 3 Star Rating.

Kevin Harvick put to rest any talk that the #29 team was merely consistent during the regular season. This team is very strong and will likely be a top contender for the championship. The Richard Childress Racing organization struggled mightily last year, and maybe some still believe that such a remarkable turnaround is not possible at this level. Sorry folks, RCR is as good as they come this year.

The transition actually began late last year, as Jeff Burton in particular came on strong at the end. After going 18 races without a top-10 finish, Burton finished in the top 10 in each of the final four races, with two second-place finishes to complete the season.

Unfortunately, money got in the way of Childress’ latest personnel decision. The entire organization seemed to suffer when RCR added a fourth car in 2009. So, this year it contracted back to three cars and has been arguably the top organization in the sport. Then, last week Childress announced that he signed Paul Menard to come drive a fourth car in 2011. Not only does this not make sense given the history of the organization, but Paul Menard? That sponsorship money has gotten Menard a career-best finish of 26th in the final points standings for 2008. He is currently 23rd in the points this year.

Go ahead and say he hasn’t been in great equipment up to this point in his career. That’s not quite fair, though. He hasn’t been in a Hendrick car, but up until this year an RCR car wouldn’t have looked much better than where he has been the past few years. Anyway, good luck to RCR in 2011. However, it just signed a driver who will finish fourth out of the teams four cars almost every week next year. Good thing he brings in a bunch of money.

Another week, another heated battle between two drivers. The previous race at Michigan this season saw Casey Mears take out his then-teammate Scott Speed. This time, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman got into it coming through turn 4. Newman pinched Logano tight to the bottom of the track, Logano’s car got loose and he had to chase it up the track, where it caught the rear corner of Newman’s car.

After the race the two drivers had a discussion about what happened. This situation actually looked fairly similar to the incident between Logano and Harvick at Pocono several races ago. It’s understandable that Logano got loose and couldn’t hang on, but his comments make one think he made sure he caught the back end of the #39 in the process.

"I'm down there just hanging on and hanging on," Logano said. "I saved it three times before I'm like, 'I can't save this one; he should have given me room by now.’”

After a little dust-up, there is no better place to go than Bristol Motor Speedway. Although drivers can run side-by-side without wrecking each other at Bristol these days, it won’t take much for someone to jump out of their car upset after the race, or wreck, is over.

Anyway, the long, strung-out races are over, and this next stretch of races is one of my favorites. Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond are three of the best tracks on the schedule and should make for some great racing leading up to the start of the Chase.

Get settled in quickly this week, the truck race is tomorrow night already and will lead into what should be a fantastic weekend of racing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rating the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen: 2 Stars **

After the long trek that was the race at Pocono a week ago, the race at the Glen Sunday finished in nearly half the time. But, half the time did not mean twice the excitement; the top six finishers were in the top six nearly all 90 laps. The final road course race of the season gets a 2 Star Rating.

On a positive note, Juan Pablo Montoya’s victory was huge for himself and the entire #42 team, including his crew chief, Brian Pattie. The season has been a struggle for this team, and lately it seemed every call Pattie made turned out in a negative fashion. Sometimes the world seems lined up against someone, and Pattie has been fighting it for the past month or so.

However, this week everything came out perfectly for Pattie and the #42 team. Plus, Chip Ganassi’s magical year continues as he adds not only another win in 2010, but he also became the first car owner in NASCAR to have each of his teams win a race this season. This marks the first time an owner has accomplished such a feat since Roger Penske, of all people, did it with Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch in 2008. No matter where the #42 and #1 end up in the final standings, this has been a special season for the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing organization.

As for the race itself, the battle between Montoya and Marcos Ambrose early in the race was as good as it gets on a road course. Two of the best road course drivers in NASCAR were going at it as hard as possible. For Ambrose, although he didn’t win, this was still a very successful weekend. A win in the Nationwide race and third in the Cup race is something many drivers would consider a dream weekend. And, if Ambrose does stay in NASCAR and makes a move to the #9 car, he is still going to have an excellent chance to win races in his career.

The theme of the 2010 season has been drivers’ battles on the track that lead to heated moments off of it. This week Boris Said and Tony Stewart, along with Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch, came home with different views of how the race went Sunday. Said and Stewart locked horns coming out of Turn 1, and Stewart spun Said into the fence. Later in the race, Busch and Burton, now in their third spat this season, collided as Busch tried to push the issue out of Turn 6, nudged Burton into Jimmie Johnson and spun the #48 out.

Overall, the racing for much of this season has been better than in past years, and now we have a battle for the final spot in the Chase on our hands. Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer are now separated by only 10 points with four races until the cutoff. It never fails. If NASCAR set the limit at 25 drivers in the Chase, the battle for that 25th spot would be as tight as any throughout the standings.

Next week things straighten out as the series moves to Michigan. Expect plenty of green-flag racing with a possibility of a fuel-mileage finish. There haven’t been many fuel-mileage races this season with all of the late cautions. That just means we’re due for one right about now, and Michigan seems to be the last realistic chance of such a finish before the Chase begins.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rating the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500: 3 Stars ***

A long day in the occasionally damp Pocono Mountains turned out to be bliss for the Biff, as a Ford finally drove into victory lane in 2010. The second race at the triangle was similar to the first with a variety of storylines, some good and some bad. Overall, it adds up to a 3 Star Rating.

It was a rather busy week for NASCAR coming into the race. Jack Roush crashed his plane once again, Marcos Ambrose came out of nowhere and announced a move to leave the #47 team, and per usual, rain delayed the start of the race before cars finally set off on a 500-mile odyssey in Long Pond, Penn., that ended with Greg Biffle scoring an emotional win as he scored his 15th career Cup victory.

In what has almost become a requirement for the first half of a race, Jimmie Johnson dominated the field and jumped out to a commanding lead before Jeff Gordon caught him on lap 120, just before the first of two debris cautions flew.

After the field reset for the final stretches of the race, rain clouds started to build over Turn 3’s shoulder and the drivers cranked the intensity level up. As the field came off of Turn 1 and down the Long Pond Straightaway on lap 165, Jimmie Johnson bump drafted Kurt Busch, who then clipped the nose of Clint Bowyer’s #33 and pounded the outside wall before coming back across the track and sliding through the grass. That hit was hard, but nothing compared to the one Elliot Sadler took in the same incident.

Several cars behind the original incident, Sadler checked up when he saw smoke but was hit from behind by his teammate A.J. Allmendinger and slid through the wet grass before he slammed the inside barrier, which juts out for no particular reason, head-on and completely ripped off almost the entire front of the race car, including the entire engine. Remarkably, Sadler was OK, as safety workers came to his aid with the engine still smoking on the apron of the track. The safety measures in the car kept him from being seriously hurt or killed. That hit was so vicious I’m not sure he would have survived if he had been driving a Nationwide car.

Now, much has already been said and written about the poor safety conditions at Pocono. This was nothing new, people were aware of these issues before the race began. What is unfortunate, however, is that nothing was done to fix these issues in the past five years or so. I’m always amazed that NASCAR doesn’t mandate every safety feature at a track. There are just certain things a sporting arena must have before a professional sport goes there. Every hockey rink needs glass a certain height off of the ice, just as every baseball field needs a screen behind home plate. If NASCAR was going to have tracks install SAFER barriers, it should have gone all the way and mandated SAFER barriers be put wherever possible. Race cars can smell an unsafe part of a track, and they will find it.

This race was actually similar to a restrictor-plate event at Daytona or Talladega. Speeds were near 200 mph, cars were bump-drafting all day, and there was a major wreck that will have people talking until the green flag drops at Watkins Glen.

People will continue to say Pocono needs to be taken off the schedule because of safety concerns, but many of them were also the ones that said the corners at Talladega needed to be flattened. The fact is Pocono Raceway has provided as much intrigue this year as any track on the schedule, both good and bad, just as Talladega has done in the past.

The series now moves from a tricky racetrack to a twisted one in Watkins Glen. Will Marcos Ambrose grab some redemption after the heartbreaking loss in Sonoma? It would be a heck of a way to say goodbye to his #47 at the end of the year. Likely, the big guns will be out in force again this coming weekend. Late in the season, the best teams tend to rise toward the top of the scoring pylon with more regularity week in and week out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rating the Brickyard 400: 3 Stars ***

With the mid-summer break behind it, the Sprint Cup Series got back on track at the most famous and historic track in the world. As with any special track, she giveth and she taketh away, and Juan Pablo Montoya has been well-versed in that lesson. The Brickyard 400 gets a 3 Star Rating.

Things got wild early as seven cars couldn’t make it through the first two corners without sustaining damage. Kyle Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. got together and clogged the entire track for everyone behind them. Then, on the next run it seemed like nearly half the field had to come down pit road under green to wipe grass off the grill because Busch and a few other cars slid through the grass during the wreck and cars were clipping the loose, wet grass.

After the big lap 1 wreck, things settled down and Montoya took his rightful place at the front of the field at Indy. But, his day was not an easy one. He needed a debris caution early in the race to remain up front because he had a tire start to come apart. Then, once he was back in pit sequence with the leaders, he and Greg Biffle drove away from the field. Had the race stayed green, Montoya or Biffle probably would have kissed the bricks Sunday.

The worst was still to come for Montoya, however. Surprisingly, on the final debris caution of the day, six drivers took only two tires on what would be the final pit stop. Montoya was not one of them. With 22 laps to go, Montoya restarted seventh and four laps after the restart, he was in the fence. He finished 32nd.

Sometimes a track is just mean to a particular driver, and the Brickyard is certainly been that way to Montoya, which is ironic given the previous success he has at the track. His crew chief, Brian Pattie, felt like he had made the wrong call to take four tires on the final stop. But, he would not have had much to gain if he’d taken two tires. The way the tires were falling off this weekend, 22 laps was going to be a long time to try and hold off anyone who took four tires. I still think Pattie made the smart call with so many laps left and his driver in the lead. Unfortunately, things beyond his control ruined the team’s day.

For the other half of the Chip Ganassi team, Jamie McMurray had his second-greatest day of 2010. He sure has come up big in the big races this year. He won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, and he came in a close second in the Coca-Cola 600. For the first time in his career, McMurray is truly a factor this season. Yes, he nearly made the Chase in 2004 and 2005, but he didn’t win races those years. Whether he makes the Chase or not, McMurray has had a very good season. Plus, the fact that he changed teams in the offseason makes it all the more remarkable, considering how dismal he performed at Roush-Fenway Racing.

Finally, congratulations to Ganassi. To win Daytona and both races at the Brickyard is pretty amazing. And, he didn’t back into any of them. He actually had a better chance of winning with Montoya this week, but when he crashed there was another driver ready to take the point. That is a unique feat that has made Ganassi’s year a big success no matter what happens the rest of the way.

So, the final race of July is in the books and now it’s time to visit tracks for a second time. The series will head back to Pocono and Michigan with Watkins Glen in the middle. This usually isn’t a great stretch of races, and Denny Hamlin will probably win again next week at Pocono, but at least its Cup racing. That off week seemed to take forever. Glad there is only one more of those left this season. Have a great week everybody.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rating the LifeLock.com 400: 3 Stars ***

After a wreckfest at Daytona, the drivers settled down at Chicagoland with only four cautions and a very clean race. Also, the final 79 laps were run uninterrupted with a surprise winner at the finish. The first race of the second half of the season gets a 3 Star Rating.

David Reutimann kind of came out of nowhere for this victory. Yes, he had qualified in the top 10 and had run well the past several weeks, but guys like him usually have something go wrong during the race before they can close the deal. The way races tend to go, the likely scenario would have been a caution with 20 or so laps left and either Carl Edwards or Jeff Gordon would have won the race. However, Reutimann’s car was so strong late in the race he may have still been able to hold on for the win.

Overall, the racing at Chicagoland wasn’t too bad. There were several stretches of green-flag racing, which is always better than the alternative. But, things may have been better if NASCAR had allowed a practice session after qualifying. It wouldn’t have made sense to have a practice the day of the race, but maybe the schedule could have been adjusted for the weekend to give the teams a chance to dial in a race setup. Both practices were run during the heat of the day and it showed early in the race Jimmie Johnson and a few drivers at the front dominated the first half of the race.

However, as day turned to night a few different cars came to the front of the field. Johnson spun out and then had several different issues that took him out of the picture for this race. As the race came to a close, including Reutimann, eight of the top-10 finishers have not won a race in 2010. It was kind of ironic that there was a top 10 with such diversity after a few big names dominated early.

While there were certainly big-name teams up front early, there was also several Chase contenders way back in the pack. Kevin Harvick and both Buschs never did find what they were looking for. The #2 team even changed both front shocks at one point. That looked like something Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team tried a few times last year when he was running so terrible.

Well, the Summer Series has come to a close, and with a week off the series gets set for the final run to the Chase. There are still several drivers on the outside of the cutoff at this point that still have a very real chance of being in the Chase once the checkered flag falls at Richmond in September. The last few years have had one or two drivers with a realistic shot of racing their way into the Chase on that final night of the regular season, but this year the point standings have been so fluid I would expect several drivers to have a chance to race into the Chase in that final race.

It's now time to step back and take a week off here in the middle of the summer. With another month before the final week off, everyone can get set for the Brickyard. The Ganassi cars of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya will probably be strong, as will the Hendrick cars. It was great to see Reutimann win at Chicagoland, but the big boys will likely be back in full force at Indy. Have a great break everybody.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rating the Coke Zero 400: 5 Stars *****

The final ride on Daytona International Speedway’s pavement proved to be a wild one. After a race that involved a 19-car “Big One,” only 17 cars on the lead lap at the finish and 47 lead changes, the Fourth of July celebration at Daytona gets a 5 Star Rating.

Congratulations to Kevin Harvick and the #29 team. Harvick made a wise decision to stay with Richard Childress Racing after this season. Last year was one of the worst the team has ever had, but lessons were learned and many of the negatives from a year ago have turned into positives this season.

For the third time this season, a race ended with at least 45 lead changes. Each restrictor-plate race this year has been fantastic in its own way. NASCAR certainly made the correct changes when they opened things back up before the season started. There are those that say plate racing is not “real” racing. To them, I say show me a track other than Daytona or Talladega that consistently provides as much action year in and year out. Something interesting almost always happens at those tracks each time the series visits, and people talk about what happened for a couple weeks following the race. This time the talk revolves around the huge wreck.

Many things factored into why this race was such a wreckfest. First, the track needs to be repaved. There is no question about it. I know a track like that is fun for the drivers, but it was only going to get worse and something had to be done sooner or later. Second, the spoiler was back on the cars at Daytona. This may have had more of an effect at this race than at Talladega because the car needs to handle well to be successful at Daytona, especially at the July race. An unstable track with a spoiler that makes the cars looser is a tough combination to control, but the drivers did a great job until it came time to get in position to have a chance to win the race.

This race was a satisfying way to say goodbye to the old pavement. Daytona will produce great racing no matter what type of pavement it has. It is just a special place. However, Speedweeks next February could be amazing. The rule package this year at Talladega made for one of the best races ever, and Daytona is much narrower than the track in Alabama. There will not only be tons of passing, but there will be a lot of pushing and shoving because there is not much space to work with. This season has been very good, and the future seems just as bright, if not brighter.

Next week is on to Chicagoland Speedway; a track that has a race because of its location. Several tracks have lost a race, or lost everything, to Chicago, Kansas and California. That doesn’t make much sense. I’m sure next week’s race will be fine, but it would be surprising to see a memorable race at that track. Jeff Gordon taking out Matt Kenseth in 2006 is the only moment that stands out in the nine years it has been on the schedule.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a terrific holiday weekend. If the second half of the season comes anywhere close to the interest level of the first half, 2010 will go down as a pivotal year in NASCAR history.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Earnhardt Jr. wins in 'Daddy's' car

Sometimes purely good things do happen. That was certainly on display Friday night at Daytona when Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought back the #3 for the final time and put it in Victory Lane.

The Earnhardt story in racing is one of the most compelling in any sport. The pioneer father Ralph Earnhardt battled on dirt tracks for much of his career before passing away at the age of 45 from a heart attack.

His son, the Intimidator, moved the story forward with a will to win that has gone unmatched. He too started out on the small dirt tracks in North Carolina before making himself one of the most revered people to ever be in the sport. With seven championships and 76 career Cup victories, he is one of only five men to have a pillar in their honor in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Then, along came the brash, blond-headed son. Dale Earnhardt was always a nose-to-the-grindstone type that had one mission: to win. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was the one that was never quite sure of his direction in life and often did things to bring out the rough side of his father. Dale Earnhardt was one of the greatest racecar drivers to have ever lived, and Dale Jr. always wanted to live up to what his dad expected of him, but at least in his mind, he was not sure he had.

As an example of those standards, during Dale Jr.’s high school years his dad sent him to Oak Ridge Military Academy for two years to teach him discipline.

Eventually, Dale Jr. decided to follow in his father’s giant footsteps and become a professional racecar driver himself. Once he made that decision and committed himself, Dale Sr. supported him 100 percent. Dale Jr. had a bunch of success in what is now the Nationwide Series and won the series championship twice. A feat only accomplished by six other drivers.

In 2000, Dale Jr. splashed onto the Cup scene with two point-paying victories and a win in the All-Star Race. After each of those victories Dale Sr. was one of the first to come over and celebrate with his son.

However, in the first race of the 2001 season, Dale Jr. lost his dad in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The entire NASCAR world was struck to the core by the tragedy, but Dale Jr., only 26 at the time, and the rest of the Earnhardt family felt it the hardest.

Since that time it has seemed as though Dale Jr. has been trying to live up to what he thinks his father would have expected of him. Not necessarily the expectations set forth by the fans or the media. With his father’s passing, Dale Jr. lost that validation of whether or not he was doing well enough.

Fast forward to July 2, 2010. Dale Jr. got everybody back together and brought out the yellow-and-blue #3 Chevrolet that his father drove to two championships from 1983-1988. It was the first time Dale Jr. had driven the #3 car since he did it twice in the Nationwide Series in 2002, and it was also the final time. In a race that felt like a movie, Dale Jr. drove the #3 car to Victory Lane at Daytona.

There was simply no other possible ending for that race Friday night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to win. No matter what runner-up Joey Logano tried to do from the second-place position, he was not going to get around the #3 into the lead. The story wouldn’t allow for it.

Emotions had not been this high after a race since Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta in 2001, just a month after Dale Earnhardt’s death. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was reduced to tears, but Dale Jr.’s emotions after the race told what so many others were thinking.

"I worked hard to try to win it, not only for Daddy, I am proud of him going into the Hall of Fame, and he would be proud of this, I'm sure," Earnhardt Jr. said. “Just all his fans. He had so many great fans. Not just mine. This is for his fans. Hopefully, they enjoyed this."

Whether or not this win allows him to settle in and propel his Sprint Cup career forward is yet to be seen, but at least for this one special night, Dale Jr. was able to be sure he had met his father’s expectations.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rating the Lenox Industrial Tools 301: 3 Stars ***

The Sprint Cup Series got back to normal Sunday on the oval in New Hampshire. For the most part, the rivalries among drives simmered under the surface for the time being. So, with a few touches of action late in the day, the June race at the Magic Mile squeaks out a 3 Star Rating.

One of the bright spots of Sunday’s race was the record-setting time between cautions. Without the water-bottle caution on lap 34, the race would have gone green up until lap 235, more than two-thirds of the way through the race. The 201 laps in between the first two cautions was a record for most consecutive green-flag laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Unfortunately, at that track, sometimes green-flag racing is as exciting as caution laps some other places. I’ve said for a long time, the best thing about New Hampshire is that Daytona is next.

As for the paybacks that many expected, nothing really materialized. Reed Sorenson made sure he got mentioned during the race, as he took out Juan Pablo Montoya and pretty much put the nail in the coffin of Montoya’s Chase hopes.

As far as rough racing goes in general, Mark Martin said before the race to expect more and more rough driving as the season progresses. There have been rough races every few weeks, but these cars are tough and the pressure to perform will only get greater as the season progresses. Plus, drivers such as Montoya will be plenty frustrated that their season is basically over. So far this has been a good season, and things are shaping up for the second half to continue that trend.

Before the second half of the season begins, NASCAR will take one final spin around the Daytona International Speedway before it is repaved. For those who like a strung-out restrictor plate race, this may be the final chance to enjoy that excitement for a while. When the series returns for Speedweeks next year the surface will be pristine and I expect packs at Daytona the size the sport has never seen outside of Talladega.

First, however, the best race of the summer part of the schedule will take place Saturday, and Friday will feature Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #3. Also, the Nationwide Series unveils its new car platform. These cars are sweet, and their influence on the Cup cars should make those much better. At this point next year the COT car that began this season will look like an antique, thankfully.

O yeah, Jimmie Johnson won the race Sunday. Congratulations. He used the bump-and-run, which was nice, but it was hard to envision him not getting back around Kurt Busch to win that race.

Seriously, though, Johnson is putting together a remarkable career. In 10 years the NASCAR population will think of him along with the absolute best in the sport, and he will be treated as such. Jeff Gordon, except for Sonoma, has started to be recognized and those heated boos 10 years ago have turned into respectful applause. The same will happen with Johnson.

So, don’t hate the #48 too much, because eventually many fans will be telling their kids and grandkids that they saw the great Jimmie Johnson race. But, the fact that they didn’t appreciate him when he was winning will be pushed under the rug.

Anyway, next week is always one of the best weeks of the year. Daytona has a mystique unlike any other race track, and it feels like the sport is home whenever the race weekend comes along. Hopefully, the racing will be fantastic. The large restrictor plates could really make things interesting under the lights the night before our country’s birthday. Happy July 4th weekend everybody. Have a great week.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Parrott out before season hits halfway

Don’t set that pen and paper down just yet. More changes are on the way as NASCAR heads into New Hampshire this weekend. This time Matt Kenseth got his fifth crew chief in less than three years.

In a fairly surprising move, Jack Roush pulled Todd Parrott off of the #17 pit box just 15 races after he was sent in to replace Drew Blickensderfer. Parrott came from the research and development program at Roush-Fenway Racing, and to the R & D program he shall return.

What makes this move surprising is that Kenseth is sitting seventh in the points standings, well positioned to make the Chase after missing out the year before. The pair had pretty good runs together, including four top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

Parrott has always taken an aggressive approach to calling a race, and teaming him up with the #17 pit crew looked like a great combination, but there is a zero in the win column. The man replacing Parrott, Jimmy Fennig, is a championship crew chief in his own right. But still, why didn’t this work?

For that matter, why hasn’t Parrott been able to keep a job as a crew chief for one driver for an entire season? He won the 1999 championship with Dale Jarrett and had a fantastic run at Robert Yates Racing with 29 career victories.

Also, Parrott has always been fantastic at restrictor plate tracks, and Daytona is just two weeks away. The pair of Parrott and Yates was Dale Earnhardt Inc.-like in its restrictor plate dominance during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

However, since those glory days at Yates, Parrott has moved around as much as any driver during the last decade. In 2006, he moved to Petty Enterprises to work with Bobby Labonte and try to bring that organization back from the irrelevance. That didn’t work, as he left the organization in the middle of the season and returned to Yates.

He stayed at Yates from the end of the 2006 season until the organization merged with Hall of Fame Racing in 2009. Once again, Parrott was paired up with Labonte as they tried to make things work a second time. But, as in 2006, Parrott was replaced before the season was over, and he went to work in Roush’s R & D program.

Now, in 2010, he came in after Daytona to call the shots for Kenseth. Several races this year he has made a call on pit road that has directly led to a good finish for the #17. So why did this come to an end so quickly?

If Parrott would ever stay on one team for an entire season, or maybe even two for that matter, he could lead a team to contend for the championship. Instead, he either moves on or is replaced before the team can really come together as one.

This has been like the Baltimore Orioles replacing their manager every single season. Give the guy time, or for Parrott, give yourself time to get things turned in the right direction. Results don’t happen instantly. It takes time to build something, and Parrott hasn’t been with one team long enough to get any results.

When Jarrett won the championship in 1999, Parrott had been with that team for three full years. A championship isn’t won in one season. It takes time to build up to that level. Even the #48 team had to wait four years before winning its first championship in 2006.

So now Roush will continue to try and find lightning in a bottle with Fennig on the box. Maybe this will work out, but the #17 team probably is looking at a couple of years before it has a legitimate shot at the championship. All the pieces are there, but they have been for some time. They just haven’t stayed together long enough to produce anything.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rating the Toyota/Save Mart 350: 4 Stars ****

A rough and tumble weekend on the first road course of the season brought out the best in some, but also the worst in several others. The race in the valley gets a 4 Star Rating.

What a heartbreaker of a race for Marcos Ambrose, and all of the fans who were rooting for him to beat Jimmie Johnson. He has a way of losing races in dramatic fashion. Last year in Montreal he had the lead into the final corner before he got in too hard and Carl Edwards was able to sneak by for the win. This time he cut off his engine going up the hill and the car came to a stop. NASCAR then placed him seventh in the running order instead of first, where he had been.

Aside from the fact that it would have been really cool to see Ambrose win a race, the battle shaping up between him and Johnson would have been fun to watch. They were clearly the two best cars all day.

But, Johnson wins again, this time on a road course. I hope people realize and at least appreciate what they are watching. Johnson is going to be a first-ballot hall of famer one day and his stats will compare with the all-time greats. They already do in many ways, but when his career is finished everyone will love him the way they are starting to love Jeff Gordon. It is amazing how fan’s attitudes toward a driver turn around after a guy quits winning all the time. Johnson’s time will come. He may not be loved at the moment, but there will be a day when he will be looked at as nothing short of one of the best to ever be in the sport.

Speaking of Jeff Gordon, he had a rough day and caused several other people to have a rough day as well. While Gordon came home fifth, Clint Bowyer finished 31st after Gordon took out both he and Elliot Sadler, who finished 17th. Also, and most notably, Martin Truex Jr. finished 42nd after Gordon spun him out in turn 11 and then Truex got caught up in a big wreck on the next restart.

However, Gordon took full responsibility for all of the mistakes. Truex was pretty upset after the wreck and basically said he was going to pay Gordon back. But, the way Gordon reacted after the race may diminish the likelihood of a payback.

“There are some things that I'm not proud of that I did today; certainly with Martin (Truex, Jr.). I mean, I completely messed that up and I will try to patch that up,” Gordon said. “I feel terrible because Martin races a lot of guys clean out there. He had a good run going and I ruined that for him."

It will be interesting, though, to see if Truex holds a grudge and spins Gordon out at New Hampshire.

Gordon certainly wasn’t the only driver to make a few errors throughout the day. Juan Pablo Montoya intentionally wrecked Joey Logano coming down the back side of the course. Once again, Logano just got shoved out of the way. My question is, does Montoya’s wife where the firesuit in that family now too?

Now the series moves on to New Hampshire, another place where tempers tend to get a tad out of hand at times. The layout of the track makes for tough, close racing, and it is hard to pass. Plus, when Robby Gordon is coming off a second-place run, there might be flashbacks to the 2005 fall race at the track. Enjoy and have a great week.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rating the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400: 2 Stars **

Another week, another win for Joe Gibbs Racing and another set of teammates battle it out on the track. All in all, it was not a spectacular weekend. The first 2010 race at Michigan gets a 2 Star Rating.

Denny Hamlin continues to dominate after the return of the spoiler. So much for all those who said it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The power shift we have seen with the spoiler change is more than we saw with the initial change to the COT. Yes, Hendrick Motorsports dominated 2007, but that group was already on top before the change, and managed to stay there afterward.

Overall, the change to the spoiler has been a good one. After a while the leader would gain a sizeable advantage on the second-place car on a long run, but cars were able to hang with the leader for a longer period of time than what we saw with the wing.

Other good news that came from this weekend was talk that more changes will likely be made to the COT in coming years. After the COT came on board in 2007, many people complained of the generic nature of the cars. Well, now NASCAR says it is working on restoring some brand identity to the cars. Imagine that subject coming up at Michigan. Anyway, NASCAR took the first step back to better racing earlier this season with the spoiler change. Now the next step is to give each manufacturer a unique nose. That was mainly the only difference on the old-style cars anyhow.

Once again, teammates got together on the track and were unhappy with each other afterward. Casey Mears got into Scott Speed this time, which is unfortunate because Brian Vickers had a good thing going with that #83 team and now they kind of have to take a few steps back for the rest of the season.

OK, on to Sunday’s race. All week everyone was preparing for a fuel-mileage race. Well, it didn’t happen. The way the cautions flew ended up leaving only half a fuel run at the end. But hey, some races just end normally, and that is totally fine. They aren’t all going to be like Daytona and Talladega. That’s what makes those races special. Every race is not like that, and every track is not designed to always provide close finishes. Live with it.

I really don’t want to get into the whole debris caution issue again. That horse has been beaten plenty on this blog. However, allow me one quick thought. Some say the phantom debris caution has been around forever. Well, I haven’t been around forever so I can’t say one way or the other. But, many people seem to be content with NASCAR continuing to cheat the race, the drivers, the crews and the fans. Are fans really that fickle?

I also don’t like comparing NASCAR to other sports because in most cases auto racing is just different. But, do fans go to baseball games expecting a no-hitter and then get fed up with the sport when it doesn’t happen? Hardly. The fact that an exciting game only happens once in a while makes those moments special. Same is true for NASCAR. Please, once and for all, let the races happen naturally. If a race ends in a photo finish, great. If not, well maybe next time, but a normal race is still better than pretty much anything else that happens during a given weekend.

So, next up is Sonoma. The technical zig-zag track in California is a nice break in the middle of the season, please just leave it there. Hopefully one of the road-course ringers has a good run, but lately that has not been an exception to the rule, as Cup drivers get better and better on these types of tracks. In any case, a different face up front will be a nice change from the latest stretch of races to feature only four different winners in the last eight races. Take a nice sip of wine and enjoy the weekend everybody.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Rating the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500: 3 Stars ***

It took until lap 199, but the boys finally had at it in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. The race was so-so, but the aftermath was quite interesting. Pocono gets a 3 Star Rating.

Logano vs. Harvick, Kahne vs. Allmendinger, Stewart vs. the field. Anyone who had a chance to voice an opinion after the race did so, except Jeff Gordon, he let Kasey Kahne handle the questions after walking out of the camera shot. What fired everyone up this particular weekend? This was set to be a nice lazy afternoon at Pocono with everyone just putting in laps to get to the finish. However, once they got close everything went crazy.

Let’s start with Joey and the Harvicks. The second-year driver who has been trying to mind his p’s and q’s ever since he debuted in the Cup series last year has developed a reputation as a smooth, consistent driver. But, that may have led to the thought that he can be pushed around. Every driver goes through this at some point in his career; this was just the first time we had seen Logano take the bait afterward. While the comment about DeLana Harvick’s firesuit was quick-witted, it sounded a little funny coming from a 20-year-old guy whose father was out on pit road chasing him around after the race. I don’t expect this to carry on much further on the track, but it would be intriguing to see Logano get up on the wheel and use the chrome horn a time or two. We shall see.

Next up is Kahne vs. Allmendinger. That Richard Petty Motorsports group is quite the dysfunctional organization. For years now the management has been unstable at best, last year drivers were not getting paid, getting sponsorship has been a chore for several years now and the drivers hardly speak to one another. If that’s the case, I can’t see why Kahne expected Allmendinger to cut him a break on the final lap. Yes, the dinger drove Kahne straight into the grass, but it would seem that the teammate deal is kind of hollow words when the “teammates” hardly even speak to each other. Kahne is fed up and done with this group. Might as well stamp that Hendrick Motorsports patch on his uniform now because he is likely going to race those guys cleaner than he will his own teammate.

Finally, Tony Stewart said everyone was driving like idiots throughout most of the race. Considering the entire field was strung out for most of the first 97 laps I’m not sure they were driving like idiots the most of the race. They may have on restarts because once things got strung out nobody had much of a chance to pass anyone.

In any case, it was surprising to see such aggression at the end of the race. This week I watched the race at Pocono from last fall and everyone was more than content to let the final laps wind down and finish quietly. Not so this year.

The incidents we have seen between drivers this year makes me wish the “Have at it, boys” slogan had been applied last year when Kyle Busch spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond. I don’t know if Jr. would have engaged in a shouting match, but the possibility of seeing Jr. pull a Jeff Burton on Busch makes my mouth water.

So, next week the series continues the northern swing with a trip to Michigan, the place where car manufactures will be talked about way too much in one weekend. Late cautions ended a chance at a fuel-mileage race this weekend, but Michigan may have the greatest rate of fuel-mileage races of any oval track. It will be interesting to see if the Hendrick Motorsports group can get back on track. Yes, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth, but not one Hendrick car was up front much during the race. Roush has always been good at Michigan and the new Ford engine will be used by every Ford in the field. See? We’re already talking car manufactures. Have a great week everybody.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rating the Coca-Cola 600: 3 Stars ***

A day of domination continued into the evening as Kurt Busch was to the Coca-Cola 600 what Dario Franchitti was to the Indianapolis 500. Kurt Busch took the lead on lap 12 and led 252 of the next 388 laps to win NASCAR’s longest race. With pretty good racing, domination by the #2 car and a really bad caution, the 600 gets a 3 Star Rating.

Kurt Busch had the field covered like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon has done in the past. Actually, it felt like he led more than 252 laps. However, several green flag stops throughout the night shuffled things around at times. Also, who would have guessed Jamie McMurray would have been the challenger to Busch late in the race. Many other likely candidates were set back early in the race for one reason or another. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch all had issues during the middle part of the race that pretty well ended their chances of winning.

Those three drivers also were a part of the one black eye of the race. No, not what Jeff Burton tried to do to Kyle Busch after the race. This one occurred on lap 213. With Kurt Busch still comfortably in the lead, the race had gone 41 laps without a caution, and teams were within another 10-15 laps of making a green flag pit stop. Instead, the caution came out because of debris in Turn 2, yet it was never shown. To make things worse, Denny Hamlin had just gone a lap down and Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were the last three cars on the lead lap with Kurt Busch coming quickly to put them a lap down.

Overall, NASCAR has done a good job of keeping the debris caution in its pocket this year. Not this time, however. Four of the biggest names in the sport were guaranteed a chance to get back in the race. The three on the tail end of the lead lap came around and Denny Hamlin got the lucky dog. Come on now, this race didn’t need that. So what if some different people are up at the front?

Once again, the wave around rule helped many drivers remain on the lead lap and was directly responsible for Kevin Harvick’s 11th place finish. That is the one rule change over the past year or so that I wish would not have changed. Actually, I still wish they were able to race back to the line for the caution. Although it was kind of unsafe, the drivers were able to police themselves. If a driver wanted his lap back he had to beat the leader back to the line. There weren’t the free passes that are handed out today. If only six drivers are left on the lead lap, does that mean it’s going to be a bad race? Not necessarily. If those six drivers are competitive with one another, the race will still be exciting to the end. More cars on the lead lap does not equal more excitement.

Finally, the 600 miles did play a part in the outcome of the race. People continue to talk about shortening races, and I know this one will remain 600 miles, but at every race the length of the event helps determine the outcome. Mechanical failures and driver errors happen throughout a 500-mile race. If people like short races, go watch the Nationwide and Truck races. The big stage means big, long races. That is part of what sets the Sprint Cup Series apart from the two support series.

Next up is one of the most important months of the season. Yes, May is a great racing month, but June will help determine who is a contender for the championship. And, it’s about time for the fuel-mileage races to begin. Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma all are known for producing fuel-mileage races. Hopefully TNT carries on the excitement of a very good start to the 2010 season. Adam Alexander should be a nice addition to the booth and should work well with Wally Dallenbach and the tell-it-like-it-is Kyle Petty.