Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rating the Auto Club 500: 3 Stars ***

An odd day in Southern California for the second race of the season included lots of green flag racing, a touch of rain, and the default winner. Add it up and this race gets a 3 Star Rating.

He just keeps on keeping on. Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team put a scare into the rest of the field and the entire NASCAR fan base as he came back strong in California after having mechanical issues in Daytona. The fantasies of Speedweeks are gone. Jimmie Johnson is still good and Dale Earnhardt Jr. still has a lot of work ahead of him.

Besides Johnson, there was actually a decent mix of cars up front throughout the race. The Richard Childress Racing cars picked up where they left off at Daytona and had the best overall day of any organization. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer look to have things turned around after last year’s debacle. I don’t like to make rushed statements after only two races, but something out of their control is going to have to happen to keep any of the RCR cars out of the Chase.

Also, the battles between Johnson and Harvick throughout the race were fun to watch. Had Harvick not pushed the envelope too far there at the end, he may have been celebrating in Victory Lane. I don’t understand why he felt that move had to be made coming out of Turn 4. Johnson was intentionally running the high line because he saw Harvick coming up there, yet instead of cooling his jets and waiting another lap or two, Harvick decided the move had to be made right there. Yes, he had an awesome run there, but he had gained on Johnson so much in the last few laps, he probably was going to be able to make the pass anyway if he had just been a bit more patient. Instead, Johnson goes on to easily capture win #48.

As for the crazy weather, could it be that the target on NASCAR’s back has moved? After dealing with major rain issues the past two seasons, a potential race-ending storm moved just north of the speedway, with only a momentary pause for a brief shower. Darrell Waltrip summed up NASCAR fans’ frustrations with rain as he saw the storm barely miss the racetrack and Mike Joy said someone’s garden was getting soaked.

“I don’t care about the man’s garden,” he said. "I just don’t want my racetrack wet.”

This marked the third year in a row that one of the first two races of the season has been affected by rain, but it also caused the least amount of delays out of the three years. There was also only one debris caution. While there should not be any debris cautions in racing, this is still better than the last few years. At one point NASCAR was looking for debris but actually kept their finger off the button and allowed the race to continue. Remember, 55 mph is not what fans come to watch. The 190-200 mph speeds are what get them excited.

Next week the series rolls into Las Vegas, always one of the more interesting races of the year. Bruton Smith has put loads of money into the facility and it has paid off. The cars are always on edge at this track, especially coming out of Turn 4, similar to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Have a good week everybody. Just remember, a NASCAR race awaits when it is over.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rating the Daytona 500: 4 Stars ****

An interesting day in Daytona kicked off the 2010 season. While the racing was very good, the unfortunate breaks during the day to fix holes in the track kept this from being an epic 500. Therefore, the Great American Race gets a 4 Star Rating.

A huge congratulations should go out to Jamie McMurray. What an emotional victory for him. Coming off a sub-par run in the Roush #26, he went back to what is now Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and won the biggest race of them all. It’s easy to forget that McMurray was a regular Chase contender during his days in the #42 in his first run with Chip Ganassi because the drought at Roush from 2006 to last year’s Talladega fall race was so bad. Now, McMurray is on top of the sport and it is great to see a driver so thrilled to win the Daytona 500. I said earlier this week that it was great to see the emotion from the drivers during the Duel races, and McMurray’s excitement after winning the race was priceless. It is fun to see someone accomplish something so great and be so excited about it afterward.

As for the rest of the race, there was pretty good racing throughout, and not one debris caution. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for California next week, but no debris cautions during Speedweeks for the Sprint Cup Series. It was certainly nice to have the race start earlier, and what a beautiful day it was. They could not have asked for anything more. A perfect blue sky with no clouds made this feel like a classic race. And it would have been had the pothole not developed in turn two.

Just once can we have a Daytona 500 without any interruptions? Last year it was rain, this year it was track damage caused by too much rain. I’m not going to blame the track, NASCAR or anybody for that matter; it is just unfortunate that the hole developed during the big race. Why couldn’t this have happened the day before? It still would have screwed up the Nationwide or truck race, but unless Danica’s car was hurt by it, not nearly as many people would have been so upset.

Before we go, a few other drivers should be congratulated on good runs.

With Richard Petty Motorsports merging with Yates and moving to Ford, it looked like the organization was headed down a path of inconsistency and constant turnover. However, on Sunday A.J. Allmendinger was leading the Daytona 500. Yes, it was early and yes, he wrecked later in the race, but he had a good car and his charge to the front was as strong as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s run on the final lap, plus it was cool to see the #43 out front at Daytona.

Next, Earnhardt Jr. gave McMurray a run for his money on the last lap of the race. Whether you are a fan or a hater, your heart had to be in your throat as you saw Jr. pull down from the top line and slice his way up to second on the backstretch. I disagree with those who say he may have won if there was one more lap, but it was reminiscent of his father’s final win at Talladega in 2000 when he came from 18th to the lead in the final five laps.

So, the big letdown begins. California is next week. Man, Rockingham was (and is) such a good track, even if it did rain every other year. Anyway, it will be interesting to see who unloads well out west because we will really find out who has the power under the hood without the restrictor plates. Have a great week!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dueling in Daytona = Great Racing

Saturday was a great day of racing, but it is hard to compete with the two greatest Duel races of all time.

It had been a while since we had seen a true photo finish in a NASCAR race, and then all of a sudden we got two of them in one day. Unbelievable. The rule changes combined with competitive racing and a little bit of luck made Thursday truly a great day for NASCAR.

Every year in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500, the television crews tell us the Duel races are going to be some of the most intense racing of the season. While often that is true, those races seem to be forgotten quickly as everyone moves onto the 500 and the races that follow. These past two races should not have that same fate. If someone comes up and asks why so many people get a kick out of watching cars drive around in circles for hours on end each weekend, just show them Thursday’s two races.

It was almost surreal to watch that second race come down to the final lap and look exactly like the first race. During race one I did a double take to make sure the race was really as exciting as I thought it was, and then to have the next one finish the same way was almost over the top.

Plus, there was as much emotion in those two races as I have seen in NASCAR in a long time. Both drivers who made the race and those who just missed were both in tears at the end of the day. Max Papis’ interview after racing his way in through the first race summed up what Speedweeks is all about.

"I'm so happy right now for this GEICO Team and I'm so proud of what we've accomplished," he said with tears flowing down his cheeks. "This is special and it's huge for our sponsor GEICO and for this Germain Racing team. We've all worked so hard and it paid off today. It's really great and I feel speechless. I don't even know what to say. I just know that my father is looking down right now and he's proud of what we've done here today. We're going to be racing in the Daytona 500!"

And how about Michael Waltrip, sitting there in the Hollywood Hotel watching the second race after he had crashed in the first Duel with his Daytona 500 hopes riding on every move made in those final laps.

"I know I had an interest in what was happening for myself ... but I've never seen anything more exciting in my whole life than that (race)," he said. "The race for the win, those guys mixing it up, that's hard. If you don't like that, then you need to become a fan of a different sport because that right there is as good as it gets."

Overall, Thursday provided some fantastic entertainment. There is nothing else on television that can compare to the drama that is seen in all sports, and NASCAR is no exception. Casey Mears was one of the drivers who lived that drama and came oh so close to making the big race.

"I thought we had a pretty good car but we just couldn't get any help out there to draft up in the field," he said with moist eyes. "It's disheartening but this team will keep working hard and I'm confident we can get things on the right track. But it would certainly have been nice to be in the Daytona 500."

If there were questions about the excitement level in NASCAR, the Duel races – at least for one day – showed why fans all over the country get fired up when the gentlemen start their engines on Sunday afternoons. Enjoy the Great American Race everybody!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rating the Budweiser Shootout: 5 Stars *****

Speedweeks got off to a smashing start Thursday during Budweiser Shootout practice as six teams had to go back to the hauler and bring out the backup car for Saturday night’s Shootout. Yes, it is not much of a surprise that there was a wreck during a practice at Speedweeks, but this time the eventual winner of the race had his primary car torn to pieces and he wasn’t even in the state. All of this was just part of a great weekend for stock car racing in Daytona and earns a 5 Star Rating right out of the gate.

Congratulations to Kevin Harvick, the #29 team and the entire Richard Childress Racing organization. After a tough 2009, RCR needed to have a strong start to their 2010 campaign. While this does not guarantee success throughout the rest of the season, winning the first race of the year is better than the alternative. If Harvick continues to have a good season, it will make things very interesting come July when teams that are obviously out of the Chase hunt start getting their stuff organized for a run at the Chase next year. Already there has been more than enough discussion about Harvick and Kasey Kahne’s potential free agency at the end of the year. Isn’t it ironic that they finished first and second in the Shootout Saturday night? Maybe, just maybe, a big-time driver will resign with the team for which they are currently driving. But that is a topic for another day.

NASCAR’s decision to move qualifying to Saturday instead of Sunday was a great move regardless if the Super Bowl was on Sunday. This made Saturday one of the best racing days of the year, that is, if you didn’t have prior commitments to attend to, in which case Saturday was heartbreaking because you missed nearly 12 hours of racing coverage. First, we were introduced to every driver that will be attempting to race in the Daytona 500 this year. Qualifying is a great time to set the scene for any race weekend because there is time to discuss each driver and what is currently going on with that team. Heading into Thursday’s Duel races, we already know what each driver has to do and what their agenda will be, whether they need to squeak in through the backdoor on Thursday, or if they are set to go and only have to worry about where they will line up on the grid Sunday.

Next, and this really couldn’t be considered a racing blog if her name wasn’t mentioned at least once this week, Danica Patrick made her big debut in the ARCA series. Overall she was rather impressive. The beginning of the race started off very slow as there were numerous wrecks and two cars flipped over. Then, on lap 56 the moment everyone had been waiting for finally happened as Patrick spun through the grass but was able to keep the car from hitting anything and was able to continue, albeit in 24th. However, from that point on she steadily moved up through the field and was right there with the leaders and crossed the line sixth, prompting the decision to go ahead and run the Nationwide race this coming Saturday – as the folks at ESPN party like the Saints just won the Super Bowl.

Finally, the Bud Shootout produced some very good racing throughout the night. Things started off pretty calmly as Carl Edwards led the entire first segment and had a surprisingly dominant car early. There were a few tremors during the first part of the event with Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton and Michael Waltrip (twice) spinning to bring out a caution. Then, with only two laps to go, the inevitable big one happened as Greg Biffle spun at the front of the pack and collected seven other drivers, including his two teammates. But, the driver who had probably the most consistent race ended up winning the race. Harvick was never very far back in the field and gave himself an opportunity to be there at the end. He is starting to put together a pretty good record at Daytona.

So next week is The Great American Race. It doesn’t get any better than this. Generally I like Talladega’s smooth surface because it seems to create larger packs of racing, but on nearly every lap of the Shootout there was somebody who was incredibly loose and had to make a heck of a save. If there is racing like that for 200 laps Sunday, we will be in for a treat. Have a great week!