Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rating the AAA 400: 3 Stars ***

All of the off-the-track drama to center stage early this weekend in Dover, but everybody settled down for what was another in a growing string of clean races. Overall, the race with a three-letter name gets a 3 Star Rating.

Once again, Jimmie Johnson dominated Dover. Sunday’s race was his sixth win at the track and Hendrick Motorsports’ seventh win at the Monster Mile in the last 10 years. But, this race kind of went backwards compared to most Johnson-dominated races, and that was because of A.J. Allmendinger.

The driver of the #43 has had several good runs lately, but Sunday he took it to another level. After starting second, I think most people expected him to steadily fall through the field and become a non-factor. Instead he passed the eventual winner, Johnson, on lap 14 and flat out drove away from the field for the first half of the race.

Unfortunately, he ran over a washer that got stuck in a tire and created a slow leak that eventually forced him to pit road and off pit sequence, something that really set him back when Matt Kenseth brought out a caution with his blown tire. He was able to make his way back to 10th by the end of the race, but this is just another case of something unusual happening to keep someone other that the usual suspects out of contention for a victory.

A similar situation happened at Homestead last year when Marcos Ambrose led early but had tire issues and spun out, turning a potential winning day into a very frustrating day. Why does this sort of thing happen to these guys? One could say they lack experience at the front of the field and don’t have cars that can maintain a winning pace for 400 miles, but these are freak problems that theoretically could happen to anyone.

There have been a few times this year where the surprise guy did hold on and finish off a great day with a win. David Reutimann did it at Chicagoland, but that is certainly the exception rather than the norm. Of the 28 races this season, Reutimann and Jamie McMurray could be considered the only surprise winners all season. Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer, maybe, but both have been in the Chase before.

Speaking of Bowyer, his crazy week culminated with a frustrating 25th-place finish. My, how a season can change in one week. At this point last week people were debating whether or not Clint Bowyer could hang around and have a shot at winning the title. Now he will be an afterthought for the rest of the season other than news about his penalty. That whole situation certainly set off some interesting events this weekend.

Denny Hamlin stepped up to the microphone Friday and told the world his view on the situation.

“You can talk about how small the thing was off and you can really try to say that 60-thousandths didn't help him perform any better," Hamlin said. "That is a crock. (It wasn't like) he wasn't speeding on pit road by a half-a-mile per hour. He was speeding by 5.5 mph.”

Obviously, the Richard Childress Racing bunch wasn’t too happy, and Kevin Harvick took matters into his own hands when he bumped the #11 a few times at the start of practice Saturday. Then, the two teams push and yell at each other when the cars come back to their garage stalls, which were conveniently located right next to each other.

The whole thing stopped there, for now. The ruling on Childress’ appeal will happen Wednesday and that will probably be the end of it, but it was fun while it lasted.

Next week the series moves on to Kansas Speedway, the first of three consecutive tri-ovals. Don’t expect any surprise winners here. Six of the nine winners in the track’s history are in the Chase this season and, as expected, Johnson comes in on a roll.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rating the Sylvania 300: You Rate the Race!!

In another relatively clean race, the Chase started with none other than a classic fuel-mileage finish. Some Chasers soared while others faltered. The big question is, was it a great race, terrible race or somewhere in between? This week it’s your turn to put a rating on the race, so take a look at the Rating System and voice your opinion.

Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart both took the big gamble on the final run. Bowyer had enough fuel to make the finish while Stewart came up two laps short; so much for these guys playing it safe in the Chase. However, NASCAR should also be commended for putting the yellow flag in its pocket the last couple of weeks.

So, is this the start of something big for Clint Bowyer or will he begin to struggle as the turns become more and more banked in the coming weeks? The stat about the championship winner not finishing worse than sixth in all but one year at New Hampshire has been thrown out there plenty this weekend, but does it really matter? In some cases it has, but Johnson still won the championship in 2006 when he finished 39th in this race.

The long final run Sunday was kind of surprising, as New Hampshire certainly isn’t known for that type of a finish. In general, fuel-mileage races don’t happen in the Chase for one reason or another. The only other one that comes to mind was Greg Biffle’s victory at Kansas in 2007.

Along with the Chase picture, several non-Chasers had good runs this week, which doesn’t always happen at this point in the season. Had Jamie McMurray been more consistent during the regular season, he would be in a similar position to Bowyer right now.

And how could we forget Dale Earnhardt Jr.? His fourth-place finish was his best outing since he finished fourth at Daytona in July, and his only top five-finish at a track other than Daytona this season. Plus, this run kind of came out of nowhere. The Hendrick Motorsports cars ran better overall this weekend, and New Hampshire has been a pretty good track for Earnhardt Jr. throughout the years. In any case, his run Sunday surely has Jr. Nation excited that brighter days lay ahead.

Next week is on to the other one-mile oval in the Chase: Dover. The Monster Mile will be tough as always, but I expect the Fords to have a better showing this week. Other than Carl Edwards lately, the Fords have struggled for a while now on flat racetracks. The larger tracks should help, and Miles the Monster might just hold a Roush-Fenway Racing car in Victory Lane at the end of the day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rating the Air Guard 400: 4 Stars ****

The regular season came to a close Saturday night at Richmond with one of the cleanest short-track races ever. A race with few interruptions comes out with a 4 Star Rating.

Similar to the thought that every race won’t end in a photo finish, not every Race to the Chase will come down to a close battle between several drivers. Actually, it’s been remarkable so many of them have throughout the years. Two crashes and some rain were the only things that could slow the guys down this week.

However, this was not a 400-mile parade. The guys did race hard throughout the field, it just turned out they did a good job of keeping their cars under them. Kyle Busch said he could have dumped Denny Hamlin late in the race but chose to race him clean. Maybe Busch learned a thing or to from what happened at the All-Star Race. Overall, green-flag racing is better than watching cars ride under yellow anytime.

On to some specifics, even after qualifying 14th, Hamlin said he had a good car in race trim, and he was right. Usually the cars that start up front at Richmond stay there because passing on a short track is far from easy. That was not the case Saturday night, though. Joey Logano was the only driver to finish in the top five that started in the top 10.

Clint Bowyer put together a very solid weekend and kept the questions about the pressure of sitting 12th in the points standings to a minimum. Unfortunately, the Race to the Chase turned out to be a dud this year, but I’d rather the regular season finish quietly than the actual end of the Chase.

People continue to say this may be one of the closest Chases ever. I don’t want to be an excitement killer, but many of those same people said the same thing last year, and then Jimmie Johnson nearly wrapped everything up before the final race of the season.

It’s highly unlikely the championship will come down to just a few points as it did when Kurt Busch won in 2004, but there are reasons to believe this year’s Chase will be a bit more exciting than the past several years.

First, both the Gibbs and Roush cars are running better at this point in the season than either group has in a while, and both organizations traditionally run well at several of the upcoming tracks. Drivers from both camps no longer seem to be intimidated by the fact that the #48 could go out and post top fives in most of the next 10 races.

Second, this year’s regular season was better than years past. In nearly every race, there has at least been a contender that has a good chance to take over the lead late in the race. There haven’t been many Johnson shows at places such as Phoenix and California this year, but we’re saying this now before the Chase begins. It could well be a completely different story in two months.

So now it begins, the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup will commence Sunday at New Hampshire, a track with some similar characteristics to Richmond. We’ve gone a few weeks now without a major blow up between two drivers. Maybe everyone just settled into their Chase spots and waited to get things going this weekend. Every year one or two Chasers has a bad New Hampshire race, and except for the invincible Johnson, nobody has been able to come back and win it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rating the Emory Healthcare 500: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series dropped in to the heart of Dixieland for one of the better race weekends of the season. It’s not Darlington, but Atlanta is the next best thing. The 2010 Labor Day race gets a 4 Star Rating.

Something about Atlanta always produces great racing, and it’s a shame the series will only visit once a year from now on. After watching this race, it’s laughable to have two races at tracks such as New Hampshire or Kansas. But, it is what it is. Atlanta put on a great show to finish up its season.

At many tracks, even with the spoiler, the leader jumps out to a several-second lead and can’t be caught without the aid of a caution. Sunday night, however, drivers traded the top spot 12 times during the first 132 laps of the race.

When the track was reconfigured and repaved in 1997, the track was the fastest on the circuit and the racing was fantastic. Now, the surface has weathered a great deal and has become Darlington slick, but the racing remains terrific. Drivers were able to run both the low and high lines with equal success and stay side-by-side for several laps.

The battle between Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson with about 40 laps to go was as good as any this season, it’s just too bad the caution came out and disrupted it. Johnson gained considerable ground on Kahne each lap by running the high groove while Kahne ran the low line. Then, when Johnson got within striking distance, Kahne moved up high to take away his line. That set off a side-by-side battle that would have made for a fantastic finish, but the night wasn’t finished and Kahne ended up in the garage nose-to-nose with Ryan Newman.

After a caution, Newman got into Kahne as he fell through the field. To gain control, Kahne slammed into the side of Kurt Busch and the two were set to barrel into the Turn 3 wall. However, Busch and Kahne both did a terrific job to keep their cars straight, but their chances of victory were gone. Then, after the race, Kahne discussed things with Newman in a professional manner. No pushing, no pointing. Maybe now we know who went too far after the race at Michigan; it wasn’t Newman.

Instead, Tony Stewart took the win and picked up some bonus points to strengthen his chances for the Chase. The Race to the Chase may be the most boring ever, but the actual Chase could be quite exciting. Johnson has at least given the rest of the field hope with his run of bad luck. But, he could very well dominate at Richmond and, just like that, we will be back to that old familiar season-ending chorus of a 10-race stretch dominated by the #48.

So, after the longest break of the season, the shortest break follows with consistently one of the best races each year. There won’t be the usual points drama, but Richmond has good enough racing that it doesn’t matter. With the way the drivers took to Atlanta, there’s little reason to think there won’t be more of the same, with increased contact, at the final regular season race of the year.