Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rating the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500: 5 Stars *****

Waiting until Monday did nothing to hurt the racing at Martinsville. Plenty of side-by-side racing, a duel between two Virginia natives, three-wide racing at times and a fantastic finish give the Martinsville spring race the first 5 Star Rating of the season.

What a finish. After a unique call by Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, to come in and pit with only four laps left in the race put Hamlin in ninth place for the final restart in regulation, it looked like the #11 team had given the race away. However, from that point forward, Hamlin put the pedal to the metal and stormed back to the front. It takes an awfully good handling car to make those kinds of moves late in a race.

Ford’s call had a lot of things go perfectly because Hamlin could have just as easily suffered the same fate as his teammate Kyle Busch and have gotten kicked in the rear by Paul Menard. Everyone would be singing a much different tune had that happened to the #11.

Anyway, Hamlin’s charge was similar to what Jimmie Johnson does on a consistent basis. It always seems like Johnson has four tires for the last restart and often he comes away with the trophy. This time, Hamlin took that strategy to the extreme and circumstances combined with a great car helped him claw his way back to where he should have been at the end of the race: Victory Lane.

The good racing at Martinsville turned great during the green-white-checkered. Hamlin’s moves at the end of regulation were impressive, but they pale in comparison to what took place in the final two laps. Three lead changes in one lap at Martinsville? Three wide in the turns with no wrecks? All that and more took place on the penultimate lap Monday. With Hamlin sitting on the outside of row two for the restart, things looked bleak for the #11 car. But, on the restart, Hamlin bumped Ryan Newman going into Turn 1; Matt Kenseth bumped the leader, Jeff Gordon, at the same time; and Gordon came back to bump Kenseth out of the way going into Turn 3, giving Hamlin the opening he needed to complete his incredible comeback. That was a finish that could bring people to their feet.

This felt like a classic race in many respects. Monday races are always a bit more laid back than the big shows on Sundays, the weather turned out to be perfect and there were only a handful of cars left at the end of the race without any significant damage. The only thing missing was a bungee cord strapped across the hood of Hamlin’s car as he raced back to the lead. Otherwise we may have had to double check the calendar and make sure it wasn’t 1991 and Harry Gant was taking back the lead.

Jeff Burton should also get an honorable mention in all of this. He and Hamlin dominated most of the day and would have been the two fighting for the win had Burton not cut down a tire after bumping Hamlin too much. Even with a 20th-place finish, Burton still gained two spots in the points, moving up to fifth.

Monday’s race also had the second-most lead changes of any race at Martinsville, just one shy of the record of 25 set back in the fall of 1980. That is saying something, because they have been racing at Martinsville longer than any track on the circuit.

There will be no racing next week as the series takes a break for Easter, so the next time we will see the new spoilered car will be in two weeks at Phoenix International Raceway. That is another flat track that generally produces some pretty good racing. With the Hendrick cars not dominating Martinsville, there may be reason to hope for more of the same at another track where they usually have the field covered.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rating the Food City 500: 4 Stars ****

After the first off-week of the season, the big boys got back in the saddle again at NASCAR’s coliseum: Bristol Motor Speedway. While the stands were not jam-packed for the first time in 55 races, there was still some pretty good racing on the track itself. The first short track event of the season gets a 4 Star Rating.

Once again, Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team brought home the trophy Sunday afternoon. That lucky horseshoe helped out again as Johnson was able to move past the cars in front of him on the final restart with 10 laps to go. It always seems like the #48 has four tires at the end of the race when many other teams only take two, and Sunday was no exception. Had the final caution not come out, Kurt Busch would likely have been standing in Victory Lane throwing groceries.

Right now every team that challenges the #48 team comes up short. Johnson has already has the best car on the track the majority of the time, and then always has the correct strategy at the end. Rarely does the #48 fall victim to somebody else having a better strategy at the end of the race, as they did when Johnson came up short on fuel at Michigan a year ago.

What’s scary is Johnson and Chad Knaus just seem to keep getting better and better as they go along. With Johnson’s win at Bristol, there are very few, if any, tracks where Johnson is not one of the favorites coming into a race. It is going to take one heck of an effort for a different team to when the championship this season.

People may not like it, but we are watching possibly the greatest run of success any team in the history of NASCAR has had, with the exception of Richard Petty and his 10 race win streak in 1967. If Johnson continues to add to his early season success this season, he will add that dominant year to his resume that Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon have. If Johnson is going to win like this, it would be cool to see him make a run at Gordon and Petty’s modern era record of 13 wins in one season.

Other positives from Bristol include it being the last race of the wing. There was only one champion in the wing era: Jimmie Johnson. Glad that’s over. Also, for once the leader of the race didn’t jump out to a huge lead after each restart. Yes it’s a small track at Bristol, but the second-place car was able to hang with the leader side-by-side on several restarts. In the past few races at Bristol, the leader would jump out to a big lead and the field would have to wait until he caught lapped traffic before reeling him back in. That was not the case so much Sunday, The leader only jumped out to a sizeable lead a few times, with most of those being Kurt Busch as, like Gordon at Las Vegas, he had the dominant car throughout the day, only to be nipped by Johnson at the end. If the spoiler fixes that issue, look out folks. This is going to be a fun ride.

Next week the series moves to the grand old track in Martinsville, Va. This track had some of the best racing of the season last year, and with plenty of drivers upset at this point in the season, this race could be a lot of fun. However, don’t bet against Johnson and the #48 team again this week. If he won at Bristol, one of his worst tracks, just think what he will do at Martinsville, one of his best tracks. In any case, it will be great to see the rear spoiler back on the car. Hopefully each team is able to pick up where they have left off and one team doesn’t figure it out long before everyone else, because that would almost certainly be the #48.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday Night Showdown Shows Dark Side of Racing

In less than two weeks, the racing world found out just how lucky it is to still have Brad Keselowski at the track, and how NASCAR’s punishment of Carl Edwards may not have fit the crime.

Saturday night Bristol Motor Speedway put on what was supposed to be a terrific event in the “Scotts EZ Seed Showdown” where 12 NASCAR legends competed in a 35-lap event for charity.

Unfortunately, with five laps left in the race, Larry Pearson, two-time Nationwide champion and son of David Pearson, blew a left-rear tire and spun up into the wall in Turn 2. He then slid back down across the track and the #3 car of Charlie Glotzbach, a 12-time Sprint Cup Series winner, slammed hard into his driver-side door. Both drivers were knocked unconscious.

Things were obviously very serious as crew members jumped out from pit road immediately to attend to the crash, and some were jumping in the air for safety workers to come assist. Also, Marty Reid imploring viewers to “think good thoughts” each time ESPN2 went to a commercial break brought back haunting memories of Darrell Waltrip looking on from the booth in tears after his brother won the 2001 Daytona 500 saying repeatedly, “I hope Dale’s OK.”

Glotzbach was able to walk from his car with assistance, but was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons. Pearson had to be cut out of his car and was taken to a local hospital with injuries not considered to be life-threatening. David Pearson then retired from the event to go to the hospital and be with his son.

This was a throwback event in more ways than one. Not only were some of NASCAR’s past generation on display, but so was the frightening reality of what drivers are actually doing on the track. 120 mph is 120 mph no matter where you are and what car you are driving, and it’s incredible Pearson was awake and alert as he was lifted out of the car. Also, this makes the events of two weeks ago at Atlanta look incredibly stupid. Edwards intentionally took Keselowski’s life into his hands by turning him and sending him into the fence.

I said all along that whatever punishment NASCAR decided on, they better hand out that same punishment had Keselowski’s car not gone airborne and simply spun out into the infield, because we saw today that bad and potentially tragic things can happen anytime a car spins out at any track in the country.

After Saturday’s event, NASCAR looks bad because they only put Edwards on probation for three races. I think people have gotten comfortable with the incredible amounts of damage the new Cup car can handle without the driver being hurt. Right now Michael McDowell could be dead, Jeff Gordon could be dead, Brad Keselowski could be dead and several others. No matter what people may complain about with the new car, it was a needed change. Period.

Maybe we thought we had moved past the point where drivers could be seriously injured or killed in a race car. Sorry folks, that is not the case. Watching that white #3 car barrel into Pearson’s #21 car was sickening, as was Keselowski’s wreck two weeks ago at Atlanta. Remember, Edwards intentionally caused that wreck, and could have very easily destroyed the young man in the red #12 car that he sent spinning. I don’t even want to hear the argument that he should have waited until Bristol to wreck him; we saw today that Bristol is no safer than any other track on the circuit.

Maybe Kyle Petty was right in his comments following the wreck at Atlanta.

“If this is our sport and we depend on NASCAR and we want to put on the best show for the fans, we’re in this together," he said. "This is a black eye on the media. This is a black eye on NASCAR. This is a black eye on the competitors. This is a black eye on everybody. I don’t care. This is wrong. This was a blatant, flagrant foul and he ought to be parked. He shouldn’t show up at Bristol and that’s just my opinion. Brad Keselowski said the ball’s in NASCAR’s court. We’re going to see if they’ve got a pair now. I’m just throwing that out there. They need to park him and send him home."

Now Petty also admitted that he had intentionally wrecked someone before, and it has been said that even his dad, the great Richard Petty, intentionally wrecked people at times. However, it is still not right. We are no longer in the Wild West with guns a blazing. Hopefully Edwards learned a lesson by watching what happened at the track Saturday, as well as every other driver in the garage. NASCAR shouldn’t have to be the only group to control safety; they did put things back in the drivers’ hands. The drivers’ hands just need to have a brain attached to them at all times.

Now before you finish reading this article and switch to some other Web site and move on with your day, say a prayer for both the Pearson and Glotzbach families: one of thanks that Larry Pearson and Charlie Glotzbach are still alive, and one of hope that they are able to recover and continue living their lives without any lingering problems from this accident. And remember the next time a driver spins out seemingly harmlessly, that this is one of the most dangerous sports that we play in America.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rating the Kobalt Tools 500: 3 Stars ***

The Sprint Cup Series returned to the Southeast Sunday for what was set up to be a great weekend of racing, and for the most part, it was pretty good. However, things could have turned out better than they did. The Atlanta spring race gets a 3 Star Rating.

Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch, the past two winners at Atlanta coming into Sunday’s race, once again had the best two cars throughout the day. But, the #2 machine was better on short runs and was able to hold off a late scare from Juan Pablo Montoya. This race proved the #2 team is once again going to be a championship contender. Overall, all three of the Penske cars had very strong runs Sunday. Unfortunately, only one came home with a good finish.

That leads us into the overriding topic of the day: Carl Edwards’ payback to Brad Keselowski with two laps to go. Early in the race Edwards moved low in Turn 1 but Keselowski was there and tapped Edwards, sending him up the track and into Joey Logano. Edwards’ car was severely damaged and had to go to the garage for extensive repairs. Once he did come back out, he was focused solely on the red #12 car of Keselowski. While the television cameras showed two attempts at a wipeout, Keselowski said there were three. Anyway, Edwards ran up under Keselowski and sent him flying into the wall. Had this been five years ago, the last time Edwards had that paint scheme on his car, Keselowski would have been killed. It is unbelievable he came out of that crash unhurt. Thankfully, the new car has a larger cockpit and the roof and window area didn’t crush him.

Also, if there was any doubt whether or not the wing should come off the car, Sunday’s wreck answered those questions. In every other bad wreck with the COT, there has been some other factor that could take the blame. Not this time. First, this was not a restrictor plate race, so the cars were not running too close together in large packs. Second, the roof flaps deployed perfectly, yet the car took off. With the old car, the flaps would have kept the car on the ground, and a spoiler would deflect air down instead of having a space for it to get under the wing and lift the back of the car off the ground.

Now NASCAR has the biggest decision of the season in its hands. Suspend Edwards? Let’s look back at a similar situation. In 2008 at Richmond, Casey Mears ran Michael Waltrip into the wall in Turn 4. Waltrip then slammed into the back of Mears and pushed him all the way down the front stretch into the Turn 1 wall. In that situation NASCAR parked Waltrip for the rest of the race and that was the extent of the penalty. Also, that night Waltrip was several laps down to the leaders. If NASCAR does suspend Edwards, of the severity of the crash should not be a factor. His intent, while out of line, was to spin Keselowski out, not send him flying upside down into the wall.

This was a flagrant foul by Edwards and he was kicked out of the race. If NASCAR does decide to suspend him, will this curb the “Have at it boys” racing that NASCAR has been banking on to breathe life back into the sport? This is certainly not what NASCAR had in mind and Edwards did not do this because the rules were relaxed, but the fear of suspension could make someone think twice when deciding whether or not to bump a car out of the way. Also, if NASCAR does suspend Edwards, it will ruin his season and he can kiss his Chase hopes goodbye. In other sports a suspension does not ruin a player’s season, it is just a bump in the road.

At this point Edwards understands the severity of his actions, as that was likely not a pleasant meeting he had with the NASCAR officials inside the big yellow truck. The picture in my mind is Edwards walking into a room with one dim light hanging behind Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton and John Darby as they sat in three chairs glaring at Edwards as he walked in. Edwards looked like a kid who had just punched his brother right in front of his parents and knew a big punishment was coming and had no valid excuse.

While all of the crash aftermath will be interesting to follow over the next two weeks, it did ruin what was possibly going to be another fantastic Atlanta finish. Montoya was gaining on Busch and I believe he would have at least caught him before the checkered. Montoya may not have made the pass, but it would have been exciting.

Anyway, after a week off the series heads to Bristol of all places. There is no reason not to be excited about that race. There hasn’t been this much bad blood flowing through the sport in years, especially heading to a short track. Enjoy the week off everybody and get ready for three weeks of side-by-side beating and banging.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rating the Shelby American: 2 Stars **

Plenty of energy surrounded the Las Vegas Motor Speedway throughout the weekend and the weather Sunday was perfect. However, the race was a bit of a letdown as Jeff Gordon dominated and should have won the event going away, but instead the default winner rolled into Victory Lane. While there were good parts to the weekend, the race gets a 2 Star Rating.

So much for Jimmie Johnson waiting until the Chase to get things fired up. He is now on pace to win 24 races this season. The COT was supposed to create parity? Wait, a COT with a spoiler was supposed to create parity, or maybe Johnson is just really good. Anyway, Johnson and the #48 team continue to prove it is the Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, etc. of this generation. As much as everyone hates it, Johnson’s dominance is remarkable. Maybe for once the Chase will actually hurt Johnson because at this rate he could have a hefty points lead come September.

As this is the Monday Morning Crew Chief post of the week, it would be fitting to second guess a decision made Sunday, and this one is pretty obvious. Steve Letarte’s decision to go with two tires on the final pit stop cost Jeff Gordon the win. When both Gordon and Johnson were on the same set of tires, they ran similar lap times and the #48 was doing its best just to keep within striking distance. When Gordon took two tires, the race was over. Gordon probably had the stronger car, and did hold onto the lead for several laps before Johnson could make the pass (during a commercial). It’s hard to find possible reasons for taking only two tires in that situation. Had the #24 gone with four tires, there is a very good chance it would have beat Johnson out of the pits anyway. Looks like Gordon passed on the lucky horseshoe to Johnson around 2002 or so.

However, Gordon’s domination of the event did serve notice that he will once again be in the running for the championship as the season winds down toward Homestead. He hasn’t dominated an event like that since the early part of last decade in a few races at Dover. But, back in those days he finished off the deal and won the race. That is where things have changed.

OK, enough of Hendrick Motorsports talk. There were other things that made this a less-than-stellar event. Friday, the entire TV compound went down so viewers missed the last half of qualifying, one that included Kurt Busch setting a new track record. Then Sunday, the caution lights malfunctioned twice, bringing out two unnecessary cautions. However, I suppose this is better than debris cautions. So far, only one debris caution on the year in the Sprint Cup Series. Thank you NASCAR.

Next week the series comes back to the Southeast to run at Atlanta Motor Speedway. This is always one of the better tracks on the circuit and, with the progress Goodyear has made in the tires, this could be the best spring race at Atlanta since the COT was introduced.

Although Johnson is winning everything right now, Kevin Harvick has been right behind him in the past two races. He could well be a factor again this week as he had a car capable of winning the Labor Day race at Atlanta in 2009. Have a fantastic week everybody.