Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rating the Tums Fast Relief 500: 4 Stars ****

The final short-track race of the season brought plenty of tight racing that led to a tight championship battle. Martinsville gets a 4 Star Rating.

Throughout the race, cars bounced off of each other left and right. Jimmie Johnson sent Marcos Ambrose’s day down the tubes when they collided early in the race, and once again, teammates got frustrated with each other. This time Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton traded bumps a few times throughout the race. Burton drove his car incredibly hard all day, but it may have cost him in the end, as he faded to ninth after leading the most laps.

However, it was nice to see the beating and banging at Martinsville. The first half of the Chase was incredibly clean, but the cautions started to fly last week at Charlotte and the flag man carried that momentum into Martinsville, throwing the yellow 15 times for 90 laps, or 18 percent of the race. Up to this race, only about 11 percent of the laps had been run under caution.

While the race was good, it also continued the championship intrigue. After Charlotte, the standings showed only three drivers to have a realistic shot at the title, and only two with a chance to beat Johnson. So what do Denny Hamlin and Harvick do? They come out with a win and a third-place finish, respectively.

So, maybe wins actually do matter enough in the current points system. Had Hamlin finished second, he would have been 21 points behind Johnson instead of six. That’s quite a difference for just one position and is equivalent to five positions back in the field. I think most people would agree there is a fairly large difference between finishing 15th and 20th. Well, in terms of points, that’s the same difference between first and second.

The six-point margin that separates Johnson and Hamlin is the smallest lead a driver has had at this point in the season in Chase history. The thing is, Johnson still had a top-five finish. Since his 25th-place finish at New Hampshire to start the Chase, Johnson has finished first, second, third, third and fifth in the following five races. Yet, he only has a six-point advantage. The competition this year may well be the toughest Johnson has faced in the past five seasons.

Now the intensity ratchets up even another notch as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway, the largest track on the schedule. Everything in the Chase up to this point has been qualified with the “wait until after Talladega” disclaimer. Well, that time has come.

After a race in the spring that had a record 88 lead changes and the driver who now sits third in the standings as the winner, the excitement/intensity level for this race may be unmatched except for the Daytona 500. This race could decide the championship. NASCAR said they wanted “Game Seven” moments, and here it is. The championship trophy won’t be handed out Sunday, but the engraver will likely be able to start buying templates.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rating the Bank of America 500: 3 Stars ***

More drivers fell out of championship contention Saturday night in Charlotte while a non-Chaser broke through for the first time in this year’s Chase. The final race before the megascreen at Charlotte gets a 3 Star Rating.

Jamie McMurray did it again, and the best season of his career continues. Thankfully, there are things outside of the Chase that still matter at this point in the season, and his win is one of them. He had a good car all evening and couldn’t even be slowed down by a late debris caution. It looked like his car was set up for the long run, but nobody at the front took tires and McMurray was able to hold on.

A line of Chasers followed McMurray to the checkered flag, and Jimmie Johnson extended his lead in the points standings. It’s often said a team shows they have championship potential when they make a good day out of a bad start, but they usually don’t come back from spinning out to finish third. Only the #48 can pull that off.

As I said last week, Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are the only drivers left who have a real chance of winning the title. However, Hamlin and Harvick look to be the strongest competition Johnson has had in several years. Usually he has one main challenger and someone else who hangs on for a while, but this time Hamlin and Harvick both look like they have staying power. Plus, good tracks lay ahead for both drivers.

Overall, Saturday’s race was OK. McMurray’s win will likely go down similar to David Reutimann’s victory at Chicago earlier this year. People were happy he won, but the race itself wasn’t terribly exciting. However, the second-place driver caught the leader several times throughout the night. They rarely made the pass, but back in the days of the wing nobody caught up to the leader.

With the Chase halfway complete, things move north to southern Virginia at Martinsville Speedway, the final short track race of the season. After a stretch of intermediate tracks, the two unknowns are next. The shortest track at Martinsville will give way to the longest one at Talladega. Both should be fun and have the potential for great races.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rating the Pepsi Max 400: 2 Stars **

After the race at Kansas it looked like as many as 10 drivers had a chance to make a run at the championship. Just one week later, that number has been cut in half. The final fall race at California gets a 2 Star Rating.

I said last week it would be important for every Chaser not named Jimmie Johnson to have a good week so they didn’t fall too far behind. Well, many of them are now too far behind. While Jimmie Johnson posted a third-place finish Sunday, every Chaser except Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin had significant issues throughout the day. Who said Johnson wouldn’t recover after New Hampshire? He has a win and an average finish of second in the three races since.

As for the race itself, it was typical NASCAR at California. The racing was pretty good for the first third of the race, but then drivers started to stretch out long leads and the cautions kept falling like leaves off of trees.

The three debris cautions are what they are. This race wasn’t good enough to have a lot of integrity to protect, and NASCAR had been doing a better job in the several races leading up to this point. Also, the debris-caution issue has come up in three of the last five races at California. Does NASCAR just come into these races knowing the race will have to be manipulated because the track is so darn boring? In any case, this one did not provide much drama. The ARCA race Saturday at Rockingham showed where the race should have been this weekend.

Once again, Stewart became the beneficiary of the debris caution pit stop, as he has been for his last three wins. Had he not run out of gas at New Hampshire, Stewart would be a major player in the Chase. He lost 94 points when he crawled across the finish line in 24th in that race. Had there been another half gallon or so in that tank, Stewart would be right on Johnson’s tail, just 12 points behind. But, such is the case in many aspects of racing. The gamble he took in the first Chase race was the correct call, even though things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped.

Finally, the three Roush-Fenway Racing Chasers all had issues Sunday and will need to be perfect the rest of the way just to get back into contention. Plus, Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the three drivers who are most likely to go into Homestead with a chance to win the title, will all have to get caught up in the Big One at Talladega.

Next week the series moves to the only night race of the Chase, and one of the best. Charlotte usually puts on a good show, and Johnson has had some issues at the track recently, which just means he will go out and dominate this week. But hey, there’s hope somewhere. Anyway, Chase or no Chase, the race at Charlotte should be a bit more fun than the last couple races have been. Have a great week.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rating the Price Chopper 400: 2 Stars **

After a couple of weeks on traditional one-mile ovals, NASCAR moved out to Kansas and added an additional half-mile. However, the added distance did not mean added excitement. Kansas gets a 2 Star Rating.

Congratulations to Greg Biffle, the #16 team and the entire Ford stable. The Roush-Fenway Racing cars have finally come to life, with three cars in the top 10, and the Richard Petty Motorsports cars swept the front row in qualifying.

Coming into the season, one of the most often asked questions were about whether or not the Roush and Richard Childress Racing organizations would improve on sub-par 2009 season. The Childress group jumped out front early and has debatably been the best overall organization this season. Roush, on the other hand, continued to struggle through much of the regular season. Several Roush drivers would put down consistent finishes, but they were never really a threat to win.

Then came Sunday. At one point Ford held the top four positions on the track. What is the difference? One obvious answer is the new engine program finally has the kinks worked out and is running full speed ahead. However, the cars are handling much better.

On a track that caused drivers such as Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson to spin out in practice, Biffle’s car was on a rail for much of the day. Lots of cars can make horsepower, but the ones that carry speed through the corners will be at the front in the end.

The only real drama Sunday dealt with the points standings. While Johnson once again has the lead in the Chase, the overall standings are as close as ever. Eight drivers are still within 100 points of the leader, the most ever in the Chase era.

So far all of the folks hoping for a close Chase battle have been treated to exactly what they were looking for. Now, the possibility of having an elimination format has been thrown around so much it might as well already be in place. But why would NASCAR want to eliminate drivers early in the Chase? Right now 11 of the 12 drivers could mathematically leave California next week in the lead. Wasn’t one of the main reasons for the Chase to have more drivers compete for the title? Well, they’re competing — but Johnson is once again in the strongest position.

A positive from Sunday’s race was the lack of cautions. As I said earlier in the year, this group of drivers has, for the most part, been on the track together for a while now. The lack of developing Nationwide drivers has helped, but right now each and every week there are surprisingly, and refreshingly, long stretches of green-flag racing. NASCAR helped hand last year’s race at Kansas to Tony Stewart when it threw a debris caution late in the race and everyone came in to pit.

This time, however, Biffle had a Denny-Hamlin-at-Michigan-type lead and NASCAR allowed it to finish under green. Kudos, NASCAR. The integrity of the race is has remained intact of late. Now that Clint Bowyer penalty situation, that’s a story for another day.

Next week the series moves out to the final fall race at California with Johnson in the lead. The racing may not be the greatest, but the race will be important in terms of the championship situation. Hamlin and the rest of the Chase field have to put up a good finish to keep Johnson from running away for championship number five.

Even if Johnson wins, the championship isn’t over. The #48 team has struggled at more tracks than normal this season and the competition has remained in stride for much of the season. Be ready, Homestead might actually mean something this year.