Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rating the Aaron's 499: 5 Stars *****

The spring race at Talladega certainly lived up to, and possibly surpassed the hype coming into the weekend. This was the most anticipated event since the Daytona 500 and everybody involved got their money’s worth. In the biggest understatement of the year, this race gets a 5 Star Rating.

What a Sunday afternoon. With a perfect sunny day, the drivers got up on the wheel and put on one heck of a show, a historic one at that. Twenty-nine different leaders? Eighty-eight lead changes?! Both are records I thought would not be broken in my lifetime, if ever, and the lead change record wasn’t just broken, it was shattered. Nearly three-quarters of the field led a lap Sunday. Simply unbelievable.

Last year, many people were looking forward to the fall Talladega race because the series was stuck in a rut of Jimmie Johnson dominance. Then, on race day, NASCAR pulled the rug out from everyone and applied stricter rules on bump drafting. While the race had an exciting finish, most people had expected more from that event.

Well, over the winter NASCAR got their butt in gear and loosened things up and finally made several positive changes, most of which were just changes back to a prior way of doing things. What a novel idea. Anyway, after an exciting Daytona 500, many people couldn’t wait to see what kind of race would take place at Talladega, which is even bigger, wider and smoother than Daytona. What they got was a race for the ages. Not only were there a ton of lead changes and close racing at the front, but when it came down to it, the race produced one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history.

Maybe this is the culmination of five years or so of changes to the Sprint Cup car. There were certainly some rather large bumps along the way, but Denny Hamlin’s car stayed on the ground during his spin, the racing was incredibly exciting and the drivers policed themselves.

Also, how about that move by Kevin Harvick at the end? Each restrictor-plate race, the announcers talk about how a driver needs to make the right move at the right time to win the race. Well, Harvick made the perfect move Sunday. If there was a tutorial on how to pass the leader of a restrictor-plate event on the final lap, the video of Harvick’s pass should be the first one shown.

After the race it felt like I had just eaten a wonderful meal and was completely full and satisfied. This race had everything a race fan could want, supposedly, I know three are still those out there who have problems with the green-white-checkered finishes and what not, but there is no denying the extra 12 laps added to the race were exciting.

Each time they lined up for what could have been the final restart, I sat up a little straighter and moved to the edge of my seat. The anticipation was incredible, and the race delivered throughout the day.

Sorry Richmond, I know that track has racing perfection, but what we saw Sunday at Talladega was nearly as perfect as it gets. Don’t even bring out the argument that restrictor-plate racing isn’t real racing. There is a reason we watch NASCAR, and it is because every once in a while an event transcends a weekend and fuels our excitement for many weeks to come. Congratulations fans. Congratulations NASCAR. That was an amazing race.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rating the Samsung Mobile 500: 4 Stars ****

After way too much rain over the weekend, stock cars were finally able to return to the track Monday for a long, but good, day of racing. The wait was worth it, however, and the Sprint Cup race gets a 4 Star Rating.

What Denny Hamlin did Monday afternoon was simply remarkable. Less than three weeks after having knee surgery he was not only able to run the entire race, but he beat 42 other drivers with two good legs.

Before the season started, Hamlin was the popular pick to challenge Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team for the championship. Shortly thereafter reports surfaced that Hamlin had torn the ACL in his left knee while playing basketball. So, many thought, the 2010 challenger to Johnson went down even before the season even started. After seeing Carl Edwards deal with his broken foot a year ago, expecting Hamlin to run up front consistently was nearly a pipe dream.

Then comes Martinsville, one of the most physically demanding tracks on the circuit, and Hamlin wins the race after announcing the surgery. Fine, he won before the surgery, which was amazing, but now it will be a few months before we see him near the front again. Not so. Hamlin overcame a bad qualifying run and made his way up to the front of the field in the final half of the race. Then, with several really strong contenders in the top five with Johnson, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle, Hamlin was still able to come out on top. That, folks, is simply remarkable.

Along with Hamlin’s win, the other storyline Monday was how the spoiler would handle on a fast, 1.5-mile track, and the results were very encouraging. The racing at Texas looked a little more like the racing we all used to know and love. It looks like drivers will be able to, once again, nudge the car in front of them up the track without even touching them. Jeff Gordon did it to Johnson and Tony Stewart before they eventually collided and triggered a massive wreck.

Gordon had a very interesting day overall. He has Texas Motor Speedway figured out, with winning last year and leading a ton of laps in this race, but contact with other cars eventually ended his day. I will say, it is nice to see Gordon and Johnson go at it for once and not come out talking about how much respect they have for each other. Gordon went so far to say after making contact with the #48 that Johnson gets “treated different than everybody else.” Should make for an interesting week at Hendrick Motorsports.

After a nine-car pileup in Texas, things only get bigger and better as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this coming weekend. This is one of those races where it is generally a good idea to strap down your TV set because this race usually has people talking for at least two weeks after the checkered flag falls. Will there be a yellow line controversy? Seems like that happens every couple races there. Now, the addition of the spoiler looks as though it may make the restrictor-plate racing even better. I can’t wait.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Kasey Kahne Makes his Move

With a surprising, and early, move to begin the 2010 Silly Season, Kasey Kahne has signed with Hendrick Motorsports to drive the #5 car in 2012. That’s right, 2012. Two years away.

That leaves Kahne, and Budweiser, without a ride for 2011 at the moment, not that Kahne should have a tough time finding a ride for next season. A few different scenarios could play out here.

Kahne could move to Stewart-Haas Racing for next season since that is a satellite program of Hendrick Motorsports anyway. Or, the ever-possible move of JR Motorsports to the Cup level could happen next year.

Think about this, Danica Patrick signed a two-year deal to drive the #7 car in the Nationwide series, leaving her with the option to move up to the Cup series in 2012. One of the questions that has cropped up with Kahne making this move is what Budweiser will do. In all likelihood, it will not stay at Richard Petty Motorsports. This is just another blow to an organization that has, for the most part, struggled since Kahne won six races for what was then Evernham Motorsports in 2006.

The way thing are shaping up, no matter what Kahne does next season, JR Motorsports would become a Sprint Cup team with Patrick in 2012, taking the GoDaddy.com sponsorship from Hendrick’s #5 car. That would leave Budweiser with the opportunity to hop on the #5 car with Kahne in 2012.

So, if Kahne goes to Stewart-Haas in 2011, Budweiser would likely follow and then move to Hendrick in 2012. If JR Motorsports becomes a Cup team in 2011, Kahne could go there and essentially trade sponsorships with the #5 car when Patrick moves up the following season.

All of this is speculation at this point, but Kahne will be fine. He just signed a contract with the best team in NASCAR. Maybe this shows just how much better Hendrick Motorsports is than everybody else in the garage if a driver is willing to wait basically two years before having the chance to actually drive one of its cars.

As for Kahne moving, the surprise isn’t that he will be leaving RPM at the end of the season. That was expected, especially with the terrible start to the season that has him sitting 26th in the points standings. The surprise is the fact that he signed with the best team in racing, even when they didn’t have a spot open for him. Kahne is a top-tier driver and, although through very long-range planning, has cemented himself as a title contender for the next decade.

However, not that he was on the path to a title this season anyway, this does kind of put the nail in the coffin for his 2010 title hopes, and probably 2011 as well. But, once he gets in the #5 car, Kahne could be a real title threat for many years.

So, welcome to Silly Season. Remember when driver movement wasn’t discussed until, at the earliest, August or September? It’s April, and we just had a deal go down for something that can’t even happen for two years.

Many people expected this to be a big free agent offseason with two big names in Kahne and Kevin Harvick in the final year of their respective contracts, but a move this early is a shock to the system.

Strap down your driver/team charts, folks, because this Silly Season could, and already has been, huge and could play a big part in aligning the power structure in NASCAR for the next several years.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rating the Subway Fresh Fit 600: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series played out in the desert Saturday night for the first scheduled night race of the season, even though Daytona turned into a night race. As has been the trend this season, everything came down to what decision was made on pit road with less than five laps to go. The entire race, however, was rather ordinary, but an exciting finish and more three-wide battles on a short track in the closing laps helped the Phoenix spring race move up to a 4 Star Rating.

As the night wore on, it was obvious how much the track conditions affected the handling of the cars. To begin the race, Juan Pablo Montoya established himself as the dominant car on the track. Through dusk, Jimmie Johnson took control of the race. And at night, Kyle Busch certainly had the car to beat. But, none of those drivers brought home the trophy Saturday night as Ryan Newman found himself on the front row for the final restart.

Congratulations must go out to the entire #39 team. Newman did not necessarily come out of nowhere, as he ran in the top 10 much of the evening, but to jump out to the lead from the bottom lane was surprising. The high lane had been by far the dominant line on restarts all night.

However, it is surprising somebody didn’t stay out with such few laps to go. Somebody like Scott Speed, Greg Biffle or Tony Stewart could have stayed out since they were running near the tail end of the lead lap anyway. Even if they didn’t win the race, they likely would have ended up with a better finish with such few laps left in the race.

Every season there is an odd trend that shows up during the first part of the season, and this year it is the extremely late cautions in each race. What’s even more remarkable is these cautions have, for the most part, been legit. Yes, there was the brake duct caution at Bristol, but that was a rather large piece laying on the track. Overall, NASCAR has done a much better job this year when it comes to debris cautions.

Finally, the extension of the race from 312 laps to 375 laps was a nice addition. Everyone always complains that the races are too long. I ask, what is wrong with a long race? These things only happen once a week.

Part of what makes NASCAR better than other racing series is the fact that nearly half of the races are 500 miles. Watching Mark Martin consistently pick his way up to the top 5 was a thing of beauty. Longer races allow for more variables to come into play, as they did Saturday night. If short races are what you want, there are plenty of small dirt tracks around the country. Sundays are reserved for the big time.

So, next week things get fired up in Texas where the speeds will be awesome and the new spoiler will have its first true test. Don’t expect much difference though. Maybe the leader won’t jump out to a huge lead each restart, but the setups look to be adjusted to compensate for the spoiler and now mandatory shark fin. Also, after Texas, things only get better as the race at that rather large track in the middle of Alabama looms on the calendar. Have a great week.