Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rating the Subway Fresh Fit 500: 4 Stars ****

The second week of the season got off to a rough-and-tumble start as the drivers got after it early before settling in for a two-driver duel in the desert. The first edition of the new date in Phoenix gets a 4 Star Rating.

Jeff Gordon finally broke his 66-race winless streak with a bump-and-run as he shoved Kyle Busch out of the way as they barreled down into Turn 1 after the final restart with nine to go. Gordon restarted in third, but he had been gaining on Busch during the previous run and likely would’ve caught him had the race stayed green.

Either way, Gordon and Busch were the stars of this show. After Carl Edwards was involved in one of the many early dust-ups, Gordon, Busch, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson were left to battle for the cactus trophy. Stewart and Johnson both hung around the top five throughout much of the race, but Gordon and Busch were able to distance the field on each run.
So far the 2011 season has been the season of the big wreck early in the race. After a 17-car pileup on lap 29 of the Daytona 500, Phoenix followed with a double-digit wreck of its own. On lap 67, 13 cars plowed into each other on the backstretch as if they were caught in a bad ice storm on the highway.

Everybody seemed to be excited to get the season started because the start of the races have been a hornet’s nest early at both Daytona and Phoenix, which is surprising because there are only a few new drivers in the series this season. Trevor Bayne had a rough weekend, but he hasn’t been the cause of any of the major wrecks so far, and, even after this week, he is already better than at least a third of the competition.

Finally, NASCAR has a winner that actually received the winner's share of points. All five winners in the first five races of NASCAR's top three series had winners that received a big, fat zero in the points column until Gordon broke through Sunday. The win also pushed him up 21 spots in the standings to fifth and puts him in his normal position where he will contend for the rest of the season.

This was also the final race on the current pavement at Phoenix International Raceway, as it will be repaved and banking will be added in the turns by the time the series returns in November. While many don't want to see the old pavement torn apart, track workers said the repave is a need, not a want.

Next week is Vegas, baby, which happens to be another track that tends to produce a few pretty hard wrecks, especially as cars come off of Turn 4. Gordon and Busch also excel at that track so we could be in for a quick rematch early in the season. It’s extremely early, but Gordon and Busch could be the two who will battle it out for the championship come Homestead. That would be exciting, but there is plenty of racing to enjoy before then.

Have a great week, everybody. More photos and video will be posted throughout the week as they come in both here and on the Monday Morning Crew Chief Facebook page.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Phoenix a good track to follow Daytona

As Trevor Bayne continues to travel around the country to celebrate his win in the Daytona 500, everybody back at the shop and every other team is getting set to head to Phoenix, which will be a whole different type of race than what we saw during Speedweeks.

Daytona is so big and Speedweeks last so long it seems like restrictor-plate racing and the drama of the races at Daytona will be around at every other race, and that’s simply not the case. However, the second race of the season has a chance now since it’s been moved out of Southern California and into Phoenix.

The cool thing about Phoenix International Raceway is it is basically a big short track, where handling and driver skill are very important, as opposed to the aerodynamics that often come into play at California and Las Vegas.

I think this track works well as the second race of the season because it is completely different from Daytona, whereas California is so big there were rumors flying around that NASCAR might mandate restrictor plates at that track.

Plus, up until the last six years, the second race of the season was always at a shorter track, such as Richmond, or later, Rockingham. Both are great tracks and I think Phoenix will hold a nice place between Daytona and Las Vegas.

It will be interesting to see which teams are fast the moment they hit the race track Friday, because unlike in past years, this race still might not give us much better of an idea of who will be good in the long run than Daytona did. Sure, Hamlin and Johnson traditionally run well at Phoenix, but both usually struggle early in the season and don’t start coming to life until the weather warms up.

One thing should be certain, however, NASCAR shouldn’t have to deal with the perennial rains it faced at Rockingham or the weeping race track in California because it took the show to the desert. If it rains Sunday, and there is a 40 percent chance, I don’t know where NASCAR can run and hide to avoid the rain.

In any case, this should be a fun weekend that could spark some early rivalries, which are always fun. Check out Monday Morning Crew Chief on Facebook and look for updates during and after the race live from the race track as the crew has this one covered.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rating the Daytona 500: 5 Stars *****

An action-packed Daytona 500 shook off any remaining offseason dust as the large pack returned to Daytona for a great show that brought a rookie and legends together in Victory Lane at the greatest race track on Earth. This year's race earns a rock-solid 5 Star Rating.

This race had just about everything a NASCAR fan could ever hope for in a race, provided that fan’s driver didn’t get caught up in the Big One on lap 29. In that case, it may have been a rather long race, but the action that followed should have made up for it.

Could this race have been any more perfect? The weather was absolutely perfect, the racing was close throughout and the final laps had several players new to the front of the field. Robby Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Regan Smith, David Gilliland and winner Trevor Bayne are generally never at the front of a race, but there they were ready to fight for the right to be called the victor of the sport’s greatest race.

A huge congratulations should go out the Bayne. What a great guy; hopefully this is the start of something great for him. Fans need a guy like this to root for.

Some things are just thought to be unattainable, and at several points in the past decade it looked like a #21 Wood Brothers car going to Victory Lane would be one of them. This team was basically left for dead along with Petty Enterprises as NASCAR rushed into the 21st century.

The original Petty shop closed and the Wood Brothers had to cut back to a limited schedule with semi-retired driver Bill Elliot.

The #21 has been fast in qualifying for the Daytona 500 several times in the recent past, but it never ran particularly well in the race. Personally, I thought this year would be no different. While it looked like it was possible for many different cars to get to the lead, some cars, such as those with Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines, would be able to rush to the front when it counted.

However, it turned out those ECR engines, although they may have produced the most power, couldn’t hold up for an entire race. That, combined with the wrecks set up a finish for several surprises, similar to the 2002 race when Ward Burton beat Elliot Sadler, who drove the #21 that day, after Sterling Marlin was penalized for tugging on his fender under the red flag and Jeff Gordon crashed late in the race.

As expected, a track-record 22 drivers swapped the lead a record 74 times in the 208 laps it took to finish the race. People kept saying this was going to be one of the best ever, and they were right. The Daytona 500 is always special, but the events that unfolded were incredible from morning through the afternoon and into the evening.

The prerace ceremonies were spectacular, as always, with a very nice video piece on Dale Earnhardt. Then, Lap 3 raised goosebumps as the entire crowd raised three fingers during the lap that was partly led by the #29 car, which replaced the #3 on the track the week after the 2001 Daytona 500.

After the two-car drafts dominated Speedweeks, everybody was back in a big pack early in the race, which was nice to see. Maybe everything people said was true, the warmer temperatures kept the two-car draft from working really well and the presence of more cars on the track kept two cars from pulling away.

It’s going to be tough to follow this race, but Phoenix International Raceway will give it a shot. This will be the final Sprint Cup race on the track with the current pavement and configuration, so teams might as well go for broke because notes from this upcoming weekend won’t be much good in November.

In addition, Monday Morning Crew Chief will be live at the race Sunday, so check out the new Facebook page for updates and plenty of content will follow the race and the experience of race day.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Duel races show all that's great about NASCAR

The Duel races are always two of the most interesting and fun races of the year because they include drivers who have to make the race to keep their team intact and others who want a good starting spot for the biggest race of the year.

From the joy of Brian Keselowski to the despair of Casey Mears, the Duel races cover the full range of emotions.

The two qualifying races took on added significance this time because they would be the experiment to show everybody what the big race would be like, and the first race had the pole position on the line.

The races did prove NASCAR made the correct changes throughout the week since the Budweiser Shootout when it put restrictions on the radiators and made the restrictor plate smaller.

The cars got right up against the 200 mph mark, but didn’t cross that line and the new package actually kept the cars together more than they were Saturday night in the Shootout. Mark Martin and Tony Stewart jumped out to a huge lead early in the first race, but then fell back to the pack and no other pair was able to really jump out to a lead and hang on to it for more than a few laps.

So far every Sprint Cup race of Speedweeks has set a new record for lead changes, and I don’t see why that won’t continue in the Daytona 500, especially with the new rules.

While this style of racing may be different, it isn’t bad. Every finish this week has come down to less than a car-length, and the Shootout and second Duel race were legitimate photo finishes, even though Denny Hamlin was disqualified in the Shootout.

The Duel races always include the possibility of a great underdog story, and sometimes it actually happens. Kevin Lepage made the race in an unsponsored car in 2006, and this year Brian Keselowski raced his way into the big show with help from his younger brother, Brad.

What a great scene. NASCAR has run a little thin on heart-warming stories on the track of late, but this was certainly one. Brian Keselowski and his crew didn’t even have hotel rooms for Thursday night because they figured they wouldn’t make the race.

In several aspects, the 2011 edition of Speedweeks has been a bit of a throwback. The slingshot move is now in force more than ever, the pack doesn’t stay together for long after each restart and the speeds are as high as they’ve been since the 1980s. Some of the mystique returned to Daytona this year.

So now the only thing left on the Sprint Cup side is practice and the race.

In just a few days the drivers will start to get those soft but powerful nervous and excited feelings that something special is going to happen. And with the way this week is going, I think it’s pretty safe to say something special probably will take place come Sunday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Duel races have everything this year

By the time the Thursday of Speedweeks rolls around, there is usual at least one, often several, burning issues that have everybody talking.

But this year might have the most issues circling the garage area as teams and NASCAR get set for the Duel races.

In the past, the week leading up to the Daytona 500 has been filled with talk of restrictor-plate sizes, teams getting busted for cheating, or back in the days when which manufacturer a team used mattered more than the motor, one car make complaining its cars were at a disadvantage aerodynamically.

This year the talk has been about a myriad of issues, including the size of the restrictor plate, the technical ins and outs of the cars’ radiators and how they work in the two-car draft, which has been the major issue of the week.

Once Daytona International Speedway repaved the track to make it as smooth as could be, the drivers were able to push each other all of the way around the track without having to lift, and they could do it for many laps at a time.

While NASCAR has made restrictions to the cars’ cooling units and shrunk the restrictor plate, the two-car draft races will likely continue even if not to the extent that we saw in the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday.

All of the technical stuff led into Wednesday’s first practice session where Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashed his pole-winning car and will now have to start both the Duel race and the Daytona 500 from the back of the field.

This may be a big-time bummer for Dale Jr. fans, but it will make for an even more dramatic first Duel race because the winner will lead the field to the green flag Sunday.

The Duel races are always exciting, but this year even more is at stake than usual. The pole position is up for grabs, the race will show everyone how the new rules changes have affected the style of racing from Saturday to now and two go-or-go-homers will make the field while a host of others will have their dream crushed.

So get ready. This is going to be one heck of a show.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rating the Budweiser Shootout: 5 Stars *****

There’s nothing like a photo finish to start Speedweeks. Even though Denny Hamlin was disqualified because he went below the yellow line as he came to the checkered flag, that finish was certainly worthy of a Monday Morning Crew Chief 5 Star Rating.

With cars reaching 206 mph, everyone seemed in awe of what was taking place. Daytona International Speedway is once again a place to see incredible speed.

Is this the type of racing fans have wanted for years? Has that complaint finally been satisfied? It seems this is probably as close as the racing can get to resemble the old days without taking the restrictor plates off of the cars.

Many probably thought they would never see those types of speeds in their lifetime, not because the cars couldn’t run that fast, but because NASCAR would shrink the restrictor plate to keep it from happening. Well, not this year – yet. We’ll see what happens in that regard as the week progresses. NASCAR has made changes to the front gille and pressure relief valve in the radiator to shorten the distance cars can bump draft before the pushing car overheats, but still no changes to the restrictor plate.

Also, the two-car draft is simply phenomenal, and I think everyone in NASCAR is a little stumped at why the technique is so effective all of a sudden. A couple of common-sense factors would be the fact that the front and back bumpers line up, which allows cars to bump draft all of the way around the track, and the new pavement. Drivers no longer have to worry about handling. Instead, they have to solely focus on making the two-car draft work, which may be even more of a challenge.

While the Chevrolets and Toyotas looked strong at testing and in practice, the lone Dodge car in the shootout came away with the victory. Kurt Busch finally broke through on a restrictor-plate track, and although he didn’t actually cross the finish line first, he has the trophy and the cool leather jacket. This just proves truly anyone has a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500. Yes, even Kevin Conway. Maybe.

Ryan Newman also added another chapter to his exciting restrictor-plate career. Newman is usually either up near the front of the field at Daytona or Talladega, or he’s in the middle of the biggest wreck of the day, if not the season. He won the 2008 Daytona 500, but has flipped at each plate track and has been involved in several other memorable moments, including the 2009 spring race at Talladega when Carl Edwards’ car bounced off of Newman’s hood and went flying into the fence.

So, although it was delivered in a different way this year, the Budweiser Shootout came through with lots of intrigue and excitement. I can’t wait to see what unfolds the rest of this week. Have a great one.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Welcome to Speedweeks 2011

Now that the Super Bowl and all that goes with it is finished, it’s time to quickly turn the page and get ready for the most wonderful time of the year — Speedweeks.

After enduring the 11 longest weeks of the year, its time for the world to start moving again. The cars will be all gussied up for the first time with glistening new paint schemes, the drivers will be ready to get after it and the racing surface will be as new and shiny as everything else this year.

These two weeks almost feel like a vacation. Beginning Thursday, almost all NASCAR television coverage will originate from beautiful Daytona Beach, Fla., where the sun will shine and the high temperatures aren’t expected to drop out of the 60s.

Also, the rest of the season doesn’t matter during Speedweeks, which is nice. There is plenty of time for people to complain about the points, the quality of the racing and which driver might switch teams.

For now, its just time to let the drivers take to the best racetrack in the world and put on a show that is unrivaled in motorsports.

Twenty-four of the eventual 43 starters for the Daytona 500 will get an extra 75 laps Saturday night in the Budweiser Shootout. Unfortunately, this even has been watered down in recent years after Budweiser quit sponsoring the Pole Award.

However, a 30-car field for a 75-lap shootout on new pavement at Daytona International Speedway could be a lot of fun, especially since qualifying is done by random draw. Shoot, Matt Kenseth could start from the pole position, which would be just the fifth time that has happened in his 400 career starts.

In any case, we are about to embark on a journey that will once again fill fans’ eyes with stars and end with a new Daytona 500 champion, something that will make that driver’s season a success no matter what happens.

So get ready. Practice begins Friday, the shootout is Saturday, qualifying is Sunday, the Duel is next Thursday and the following Sunday is the big one, the 53rd Daytona 500.