Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rating the Irwin Tools Night Race: 3 Stars ***

The annual night race at the bullring that is Bristol Motor Speedway returned Saturday night with a stadium that was ready to rock. Big time drivers fell out of the race like flies, and Shrub finally got his broom. This one gets swept into the history books with a 3 Star Rating.

Well, it finally happened. Kyle Busch had tried many times to win all three races in a NASCAR weekend. He even won the truck and Nationwide races in the same weekend twice but was unable to close the deal in the Cup race. This time, however, Busch dominated all three races, including going Dale Earnhardt on Brad Keselowski near the end of the Nationwide event.

That little situation set the stage for what many, definitely ESPN, thought would be a knock down, drag out type of race. Instead, it was rather mild. Jimmie Johnson jumped out to his seemingly mandatory lead at the start of the race and led for 171 of the first 172 laps before Busch completed his march to the front.

Johnson and Busch combined to lead 458 of the 500 laps in the race. However, the top five behind those two leaders continued to change throughout the night, with a few unexpected names showing up near the front, including David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray.

McMurray continues to shine in the big time races this season. Four of his seven top fives have come in what could be considered NASCAR’s crown jewel events. He won both Daytona and the Brickyard, while finishing second and third in the Coca-Cola 600 and Saturday’s Bristol night race.

He isn’t yet in the Chase, but McMurray is putting together by far the best year of his career. To top things off, he now sits 13th in the points standings and 100 points behind Bowyer for the final spot.

Some people think the field is already set for the Chase, and realistically there is only one spot left in doubt. But, a 100-point difference is certainly not insurmountable. Each year at the end of the season, whoever’s turn it is to run second to Johnson for the championship runs well in the final few races and makes up ground to make it within reaching distance once Homestead rolls around.

This wasn’t one of the greatest races at Bristol, but people need to remember that not every race at Bristol is going to be terrific. The atmosphere at the track was amazing, but sometimes a race doesn’t come right down to the wire with cars crashing into one another. The Nationwide race took care of that this weekend. Saturday night’s race will be remembered for the historical achievement and that’s fine. Busch put together a weekend full of races that looked like old Jeff Gordon tapes.

Now we move on to the final off week of the season. Doesn’t it feel like we just took a week off? In any case, the next two races are usually two of the better races each season, and there is little reason to expect anything different this year.

Atlanta could really put on a show, as the cars will hit the track for the first time with spoilers under the lights on Labor Day weekend. Maybe we will get one of those fantastic Atlanta finishes, as well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rating the Carfax 400: 3 Stars ***

The stars, and even the regular field fillers, of the Sprint Cup Series rolled into the Irish Hills (Was that referenced enough throughout the weekend?) of Michigan for the final northern race of the summer. The track was big, wide, and fast and made for a race worthy of a 3 Star Rating.

Kevin Harvick put to rest any talk that the #29 team was merely consistent during the regular season. This team is very strong and will likely be a top contender for the championship. The Richard Childress Racing organization struggled mightily last year, and maybe some still believe that such a remarkable turnaround is not possible at this level. Sorry folks, RCR is as good as they come this year.

The transition actually began late last year, as Jeff Burton in particular came on strong at the end. After going 18 races without a top-10 finish, Burton finished in the top 10 in each of the final four races, with two second-place finishes to complete the season.

Unfortunately, money got in the way of Childress’ latest personnel decision. The entire organization seemed to suffer when RCR added a fourth car in 2009. So, this year it contracted back to three cars and has been arguably the top organization in the sport. Then, last week Childress announced that he signed Paul Menard to come drive a fourth car in 2011. Not only does this not make sense given the history of the organization, but Paul Menard? That sponsorship money has gotten Menard a career-best finish of 26th in the final points standings for 2008. He is currently 23rd in the points this year.

Go ahead and say he hasn’t been in great equipment up to this point in his career. That’s not quite fair, though. He hasn’t been in a Hendrick car, but up until this year an RCR car wouldn’t have looked much better than where he has been the past few years. Anyway, good luck to RCR in 2011. However, it just signed a driver who will finish fourth out of the teams four cars almost every week next year. Good thing he brings in a bunch of money.

Another week, another heated battle between two drivers. The previous race at Michigan this season saw Casey Mears take out his then-teammate Scott Speed. This time, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman got into it coming through turn 4. Newman pinched Logano tight to the bottom of the track, Logano’s car got loose and he had to chase it up the track, where it caught the rear corner of Newman’s car.

After the race the two drivers had a discussion about what happened. This situation actually looked fairly similar to the incident between Logano and Harvick at Pocono several races ago. It’s understandable that Logano got loose and couldn’t hang on, but his comments make one think he made sure he caught the back end of the #39 in the process.

"I'm down there just hanging on and hanging on," Logano said. "I saved it three times before I'm like, 'I can't save this one; he should have given me room by now.’”

After a little dust-up, there is no better place to go than Bristol Motor Speedway. Although drivers can run side-by-side without wrecking each other at Bristol these days, it won’t take much for someone to jump out of their car upset after the race, or wreck, is over.

Anyway, the long, strung-out races are over, and this next stretch of races is one of my favorites. Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond are three of the best tracks on the schedule and should make for some great racing leading up to the start of the Chase.

Get settled in quickly this week, the truck race is tomorrow night already and will lead into what should be a fantastic weekend of racing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rating the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen: 2 Stars **

After the long trek that was the race at Pocono a week ago, the race at the Glen Sunday finished in nearly half the time. But, half the time did not mean twice the excitement; the top six finishers were in the top six nearly all 90 laps. The final road course race of the season gets a 2 Star Rating.

On a positive note, Juan Pablo Montoya’s victory was huge for himself and the entire #42 team, including his crew chief, Brian Pattie. The season has been a struggle for this team, and lately it seemed every call Pattie made turned out in a negative fashion. Sometimes the world seems lined up against someone, and Pattie has been fighting it for the past month or so.

However, this week everything came out perfectly for Pattie and the #42 team. Plus, Chip Ganassi’s magical year continues as he adds not only another win in 2010, but he also became the first car owner in NASCAR to have each of his teams win a race this season. This marks the first time an owner has accomplished such a feat since Roger Penske, of all people, did it with Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch in 2008. No matter where the #42 and #1 end up in the final standings, this has been a special season for the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing organization.

As for the race itself, the battle between Montoya and Marcos Ambrose early in the race was as good as it gets on a road course. Two of the best road course drivers in NASCAR were going at it as hard as possible. For Ambrose, although he didn’t win, this was still a very successful weekend. A win in the Nationwide race and third in the Cup race is something many drivers would consider a dream weekend. And, if Ambrose does stay in NASCAR and makes a move to the #9 car, he is still going to have an excellent chance to win races in his career.

The theme of the 2010 season has been drivers’ battles on the track that lead to heated moments off of it. This week Boris Said and Tony Stewart, along with Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch, came home with different views of how the race went Sunday. Said and Stewart locked horns coming out of Turn 1, and Stewart spun Said into the fence. Later in the race, Busch and Burton, now in their third spat this season, collided as Busch tried to push the issue out of Turn 6, nudged Burton into Jimmie Johnson and spun the #48 out.

Overall, the racing for much of this season has been better than in past years, and now we have a battle for the final spot in the Chase on our hands. Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer are now separated by only 10 points with four races until the cutoff. It never fails. If NASCAR set the limit at 25 drivers in the Chase, the battle for that 25th spot would be as tight as any throughout the standings.

Next week things straighten out as the series moves to Michigan. Expect plenty of green-flag racing with a possibility of a fuel-mileage finish. There haven’t been many fuel-mileage races this season with all of the late cautions. That just means we’re due for one right about now, and Michigan seems to be the last realistic chance of such a finish before the Chase begins.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rating the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500: 3 Stars ***

A long day in the occasionally damp Pocono Mountains turned out to be bliss for the Biff, as a Ford finally drove into victory lane in 2010. The second race at the triangle was similar to the first with a variety of storylines, some good and some bad. Overall, it adds up to a 3 Star Rating.

It was a rather busy week for NASCAR coming into the race. Jack Roush crashed his plane once again, Marcos Ambrose came out of nowhere and announced a move to leave the #47 team, and per usual, rain delayed the start of the race before cars finally set off on a 500-mile odyssey in Long Pond, Penn., that ended with Greg Biffle scoring an emotional win as he scored his 15th career Cup victory.

In what has almost become a requirement for the first half of a race, Jimmie Johnson dominated the field and jumped out to a commanding lead before Jeff Gordon caught him on lap 120, just before the first of two debris cautions flew.

After the field reset for the final stretches of the race, rain clouds started to build over Turn 3’s shoulder and the drivers cranked the intensity level up. As the field came off of Turn 1 and down the Long Pond Straightaway on lap 165, Jimmie Johnson bump drafted Kurt Busch, who then clipped the nose of Clint Bowyer’s #33 and pounded the outside wall before coming back across the track and sliding through the grass. That hit was hard, but nothing compared to the one Elliot Sadler took in the same incident.

Several cars behind the original incident, Sadler checked up when he saw smoke but was hit from behind by his teammate A.J. Allmendinger and slid through the wet grass before he slammed the inside barrier, which juts out for no particular reason, head-on and completely ripped off almost the entire front of the race car, including the entire engine. Remarkably, Sadler was OK, as safety workers came to his aid with the engine still smoking on the apron of the track. The safety measures in the car kept him from being seriously hurt or killed. That hit was so vicious I’m not sure he would have survived if he had been driving a Nationwide car.

Now, much has already been said and written about the poor safety conditions at Pocono. This was nothing new, people were aware of these issues before the race began. What is unfortunate, however, is that nothing was done to fix these issues in the past five years or so. I’m always amazed that NASCAR doesn’t mandate every safety feature at a track. There are just certain things a sporting arena must have before a professional sport goes there. Every hockey rink needs glass a certain height off of the ice, just as every baseball field needs a screen behind home plate. If NASCAR was going to have tracks install SAFER barriers, it should have gone all the way and mandated SAFER barriers be put wherever possible. Race cars can smell an unsafe part of a track, and they will find it.

This race was actually similar to a restrictor-plate event at Daytona or Talladega. Speeds were near 200 mph, cars were bump-drafting all day, and there was a major wreck that will have people talking until the green flag drops at Watkins Glen.

People will continue to say Pocono needs to be taken off the schedule because of safety concerns, but many of them were also the ones that said the corners at Talladega needed to be flattened. The fact is Pocono Raceway has provided as much intrigue this year as any track on the schedule, both good and bad, just as Talladega has done in the past.

The series now moves from a tricky racetrack to a twisted one in Watkins Glen. Will Marcos Ambrose grab some redemption after the heartbreaking loss in Sonoma? It would be a heck of a way to say goodbye to his #47 at the end of the year. Likely, the big guns will be out in force again this coming weekend. Late in the season, the best teams tend to rise toward the top of the scoring pylon with more regularity week in and week out.