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.