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.