Wednesday, March 30, 2011

About time to heat up ‘Have at it’

As Kevin Harvick bumped five-time champion Jimmie Johnson down the backstretch on the final lap of Sunday’s race, many people expected some sort of reaction from Johnson because even though he is mellow, he doesn’t get beat that way very often.

“I hate losing to (Harvick) coming off of (Turn) 4 like that, but we did everything we could today,” Johnson said after the race. “We had a great race, made our car a lot better all day long so I’m really proud about that.”

Oh boy. How about that fire? Now, I’m not here to rag on Johnson for not going all Kyle Busch on Harvick after the race, but it speaks to the fact that while the racing has been intense, the drivers have stepped out of their cars and played nice off the racetrack thus far.

I’m not saying this a good thing or a bad thing. The focus should be on the on-track action and not whatever is said during the week or after the race, but after last season, many people expected the drivers to come out of the gate swinging.

At this point last season, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski had just finished making up after Edwards flipped Keselowski at Atlanta.

It’s not as though there haven’t been opportunities for confrontations after a race. After the Phoenix race where Gordon used the slam-and-run, Busch could’ve reacted the way Gordon did at Martinsville one year ago when he made sure Matt Kenseth wouldn’t win the race after Kenseth had slipped by him on the final restart.

Instead, Busch was very contrite and apologized for putting Edwards in the wall early in the race, which brings up the other possible feud. Edwards said he would return the favor to Busch in the future, and while he has not backed down from that statement, the two have since played nice, both in the Cup and Nationwide series.

Now, for those who live for postrace soundbites, shouting matches and the occasional fight, that could very well happen as the season progresses. Several drivers have announced they have some payback after Phoenix and Bristol.

It would be unfair to say the racing has been tame this season, because there has been hard, close racing in several of the races, even some late in the race at California.

However, as the weather heats up, so may the tempers, and we’re headed to the perfect place for that — Martinsville.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rating the Auto Club 400: 4 Stars ****

Kevin Harvick came up and crashed Kyle Busch’s and Jimmie Johnson’s party in the closing laps in California in what turned out to be the most-exciting finish in the history of the track. The one and only race this season at Auto Club Speedway gets a 4 Star Rating.

It took 195 laps, but when the drivers decided to turn on the afterburners, they certainly did. Johnson laid back for most of the race, and Harvick pulled his typical restrictor-plate move and burst to the front in the final five laps.

The end of the race was shaping up to be incredibly similar to last year’s event. No, Johnson didn’t dominate the afternoon, but he was still up front at the end with Harvick closing fast. Last year Harvick pushed the envelope too far and got up against the wall on the final run, but this time he kept himself under control and executed his moves perfectly.

On the third side of the battle, Busch finished third in what turned out to be quite and up-and-down weekend. Well, not too much down, but Busch sometimes treats third place the way other drivers treat 30th place.

Busch had the third-best car in the Nationwide race Sunday, and was going to finish behind Harvick and Carl Edwards, but he took two tires on the final stop and held on for the win. Then Sunday he ran in first all day but couldn’t hold on and was overtaken by both Johnson and Harvick. While Johnson led three laps and Harvick led one lap and the race, Busch led 151 of the 200 laps and lost the race.

As for the other 95 percent of the race, it was typical of California. Lots and lots of green-flag racing, which is good, but there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of action.

Still, it was nice to see the leader not be able to automatically check out from the field. Busch led 75 percent of the race, but he usually didn’t have a huge lead on the second-place car, which for most of the race was Tony Stewart.

This weekend we saw several important trends develop, including the fact that right now there are four organizations that are extremely competitive with Hendrick, Childress, Gibbs and Roush. Those organizations have each had their own struggles at different points early on, but they seem to be rounding into form and will fill this season with some pretty intense battles.

Also, we saw the new nose configuration in action on an aero-sensitive track. Combined with the spoiler, this setup looks like it will provide better racing where the leader doesn’t always drive away from the field, and while it’s not easy to pass somebody, it can certainly be done. As far as competitive racing is concerned, the aerodynamics of the cars are as good as they’ve been in quite some time.

Next week its back to short-track racing as the series heads to Martinsville. This track has produced some pretty exciting battles of late, and there’s little reason to think that will change. If anything, it might be amplified on NASCAR’s shortest track.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Exciting or not, Fontana is a good measuring stick

After a fast, exciting start to the 2011, NASCAR is all of a sudden in a tough position this weekend as the sport heads to the much-maligned Auto Club Speedway in Southern California.

The season started surprisingly well. With a still-stagnant economy, attendance and TV ratings were both up in the first three races. Then, after an off week, the bottom dropped out at Bristol when, optimistically, 120,000 filled a track that can fit 160,000.

Reality quickly jumped back up and slapped everybody in the face. Sparse crowds such as the one at Bristol are supposed to happen this week at California, not at what many consider a marquee track on the NASCAR schedule.

So, what does this week mean in terms of the business side of the sport? Well, two weeks of bad attendance aren’t much in the long run, and it was quite optimistic to think every race this season would see improvement in those areas from last year, and there is reason to believe the stands will be a bit more full this weekend.

However, unless the race is sold out (and it won’t be), people are going to spend all of next week talking about how bad the attendance numbers were, which is unfortunate and at this point would just beat a dead horse.

Is Fontana the best place for racing? No, but get over it. It’s now just one week, and the race always provides a pretty good indication of which teams have their act in gear as far as engines and chassis are concerned.

Speaking of the racing, that will actually happen this week, as well, and this race is one where the big teams generally strut their stuff. It will be interesting, however, to see how many blown engines happen since the race is now fifth on the schedule as opposed to second.

There likely won’t be as many since the race is now just 400 miles, but in the past teams haven’t had all of the bugs worked out of the engines by the time they come to one of the most demanding tracks on the schedule.

Anyway, there will still probably be a surprise or two in the front half of the field, and those teams will show the NASCAR world they came to play this season. The Earnhardt-Ganassi cars did it last year as Jamie McMurray won the pole for both races at the track, and maybe this year a team such as Richard Childress Racing will get all of its cars up toward the front and show it isn’t just a Paul Menard powerhouse.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rating the Jeff Byrd 500: 3 Stars ***

The Sprint Cup Series dropped into Thunder Valley this weekend for the first short-track race of the season. The race had moments of good, hard racing, but nothing that will make anybody remember this one. The first Bristol race gets a 3 Star Rating.

Sunday’s race almost fit the 3 Star description perfectly: OK race, last 30-40 laps drag out and a late caution, or in this case many late cautions, causes all strategy to disappear.

Unfortunately, this race felt rather similar to the one in Las Vegas two weeks ago. Had Kyle Busch not blown an engine in the race at Vegas, the same two drivers may have fought for the win in that one, as well.

Yes, the race had 17 lead changes and 10 cautions, which included two seven-car pileups, but Bristol is turning into more and more of a shorter version of Dover than the Bristol everyone remembers. The three-car battle at the end among Busch, Edwards and Jimmie Johnson was almost intense, but Edwards and Johnson just couldn’t keep up as Busch won his second race of the weekend to take home both the Nationwide and Cup trophies.

I’m not saying the race should have come down to the final lap with cars side-by-side, but there have been countless races similar to this one.

Also, where was everybody? The stands were nowhere close to full. It will be interesting to see what the TV ratings say, and while there were still reportedly about 120,000 people at the track, this race had the most open seats of any Cup race this season and that number is down from the 138,000 who attended last year’s race. Did the economy suddenly get worse again?

Anyway, back to what actually happened on the track.

The three drivers who separated from the pack on the final run certainly deserved to be there. Right now, they are the best three drivers in the sport, and it was fun to see them go head-to-head. If this continues, we could be in for a repeat of 2008 where Busch, Edwards and Johnson won a combined 24 of the 36 races.

However, each race this season has come down to a duel between a few drivers that leaves everyone thinking this will be the group that battles for the championship. First it was Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch at Phoenix, and then it was Edwards and Tony Stewart at Vegas. Now, Edwards, Busch and Johnson will be the favorites until somebody new, or Johnson, dominates at California.

Speaking of California, that’s where the race will be next Sunday. Get ready for some five-wide racing – for the lap or two after a restart, and then enjoy the long green-flag runs that follow. Hey, at least that’s better than if they ran most of the race under caution.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sights and Sounds of Raceday - Prerace

Here's just a little something to help start off what should be a great day of racing!

For more photos, check out the Monday Morning Crew Chief Facebook page.

Friday, March 18, 2011

NASCAR and Goodyear try to avoid major tire trouble at Bristol

Tire problems have cropped up on NASCAR and Goodyear again this weekend as the dreaded tire dust showed up around the top of Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday during the opening practice sessions for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series.

Instead of the rubber sticking to the racetrack, it was shaved off the tires as the cars drove through the corners and caused excessive tire wear. This year, NASCAR and Goodyear decided to bring a new right-side tire compound, and they quickly found out it was not going to work.

Since the Car of Tomorrow debuted in the Cup series in 2007, Goodyear has struggled to develop a tire that works well with the new car. It has gotten better, however, as Goodyear has had more time to work with the car and tires have become a non-topic most weeks.

The problem came to a head during a debacle at the Brickyard in 2008 where tires came apart after just 10 laps of racing, but there were plenty of other struggles that season, notably the spring race at Atlanta where Tony Stewart smashed Goodyear for a right-side tire that made the cars extremely difficult to drive and a less-than-spectacular race.

“There isn't anybody, I don't think, who is happy with the tires we've got,” Stewart said after that race. “After 10 years in the Cup Series, you learn to be highly disappointed with everything that Goodyear does.”

Thankfully, this time NASCAR and Goodyear were proactive and ordered in 1,300 new right-side tires to use Saturday and Sunday, which were the compound that was used in last year's races at Bristol.

However, this doesn’t excuse how the tire situation for this week got to this point. One would hope Goodyear did proper testing and simulations before bringing a new tire to the racetrack, but that hasn’t been confirmed and there wasn’t a tire test at the racetrack itself leading up to this weekend.

Here’s an idea: Before Goodyear brings a new tire combination to a racetrack, it must have conducted a tire test at that track beforehand. I don’t think this situation would have come up if a tire test had been held at Bristol sometime between the August race and now.

Goodyear typically holds tire tests at tracks that have recently been repaved, such as Daytona this year and Darlington two years ago, but maybe the same needs to be done when a new tire is going to be brought to the track, as well.

NASCAR and Goodyear hopefully avoided another major disaster this weekend. After the exciting start to the season, NASCAR can’t afford a terrible race, especially at Bristol.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Could Bruton bring Bristol back?

For the eighth time since the track was repaved in 2007, the Sprint Cup Series will head to Bristol Motor Speedway for another go-around on the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.

While the half-mile track may still be fast, it isn’t nearly as rough and tough as it was before the repave -- an issue that has caused much discussion among fans and people who work in the sport. Drivers sit on both sides of the fence. Some say they like the new progressive banking that has allowed drivers to run side-by-side through the corners, and others say they like it better the old way when the bottom lane was the only racing groove.

As for fans, they have spoken with both their mouths and their wallets. Yes, the bad economy has played a major part in the lack of recent sellouts, but some of that problem might be because the racing simply isn’t the same. It is now rare to see a driver punt the car in front of him out of the way to make a pass, because he doesn’t have to; he can simply try his luck on the outside.

Although people within the sport are split on the issue, it’s still the elephant in the room. Fans miss the old Bristol, and the intensity hasn’t been around the recent races as it was in the past. Sure, the buildup to last year’s fall race was fun, but who wouldn’t have wanted to see Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch beat and bang their way to the front instead of run side-by-side? Bristol is unique in the fact that many fans actually prefer to see single-file racing rather than side-by-side, which is what most tracks strive for.

But Bristol has never been similar to most tracks.

Other than the dustup between Busch and Carl Edwards at the fall race in 2008, there hasn’t been another “Bristol moment” since. Throughout the ‘90s and early part of the past decade, nearly every race had a defining moment that lives on in the highlights even today. Dale Earnhardt spun out Terry Labonte multiple times, Rusty Wallace put the fender to Ricky Rudd and Jeff Gordon did the same to Wallace, not to mention the day Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer got into it in the spring race in 2002.

Plus, after the race it was nearly guaranteed a driver would be upset enough with another driver that he would go and have a “discussion” on pit road or in the garage area.

Want to return to those days? There could be some hope. Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith owns Bristol Motor Speedway, and he has shown in the past he’s willing to fork out the money to fix a mistake. He repaved Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2006 after the diamond-grinding disaster that caused a record number of cautions. He also redesigned Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 2007 season to add more banking and tighten up the racing. Why not do the same for Bristol?

A move to once again repave Bristol and take out the progressive banking would be welcomed by many fans, and if anybody has the money and power to do it, Smith does.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New schedule playing out well

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series took a collective breather this weekend as everybody came down from the high that has been the past month or so in NASCAR.

Every year people say this is the most exciting start to a season they can remember, but maybe they just have terrible memories. Can anyone honestly say any of the five years the series went to California for the second race of the season was anywhere close to exciting? No. Daytona may have been exciting, but that’s where it ended.

Truthfully, the Speedweeks for the past several years have been amazing and have ended with great finishes in the 500. But, the letdown fans may have felt this weekend used to happen in the second week of the season, and often those races at California were followed by an off week. Talk about a perfect setup to kill any early season excitement.

However, NASCAR drastically improved the beginning of the season’s schedule this year. Another great Daytona 500 was followed by an intense race at Phoenix that included a duel between Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch that ended with Gordon punting Busch out of the way for the win. Sure, Vegas may have been a bit of a letdown as far as the racing was concerned, but more often than not Vegas produces some very good racing. Plus, things will get even better next year if fans can wait an extra week for the season to start, because moving the Daytona 500 a week later will eliminate this off week.

NASCAR also couldn’t have asked for any better storylines in the first three weeks of the season. Rookie Trevor Bayne won the first and biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500, and was followed the next week by a win from Jeff Gordon, the longtime star of the sport who has fought whispers he might be coming into the latter stages of his career. With the two polar opposites of the sport covered age-wise, the championship contender in the prime of his career, Carl Edwards, won the race at Las Vegas.

In past years, the major players were usually defined at this point in the season. This is the first season since 2007 that has had three different winners in the first three races, and in prior years when there were three different winners, somebody jumped up and won another couple of races right away. Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have all stunk up the show early on in a season before.

It will be interesting to see what happens this time around. Kyle Busch has been a factor in every race so far, but he has had the kind of luck that usually finds him once the Chase rolls around. He’s good at Bristol, though, so maybe he will pick up an early victory right away, but that would still give us another different winner this season.

In any case, it is difficult to find reasons why NASCAR isn’t finally on an upswing, and unless somebody finds a way to dominate several of the upcoming tracks, which could prove difficult because they include every different type of track the series visits, from half-miles to two-and-a-half-miles and everything in between.

With the way the schedule is set up this season, it’s possible we won’t know the favorites for the championship until the All-Star Race in May. If we do know by then, those contending teams will have definitely earned their spot in the standings.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rating the Kobalt Tools 400: 3 Stars ***

The wild and crazy start to the season finally settled down in the unlikeliest of places: Las Vegas. But, that was the case as Tony Stewart dominated the day but couldn’t close the deal. The first race of the season without a big wreck gets a 3 Star Rating.

After two weeks of beating and banging and pedal-to-the-floor action, Vegas came across as tame. Even though it’s a mile-and-a-half racetrack, Vegas usually still has pretty good, tight racing, but everyone spread out for the most part in a race that had several long green flag runs.

This isn’t to say it was a terrible race. There will be worse this season, but this was the first one that looked like aerodynamics came into play. Some teams really hit the setup on the nose, and others struggled to move through the field.

Hopefully, the new nose won’t make it difficult to pass on these types of racetracks, and overall, I think the change in the nose will have less of an effect than the change to the spoiler last year.

Congratulations this week go to Carl Edwards, the #99 team and the entire Ford organization. Ford dominated the weekend, but small mistakes plagued its teams during the race as both Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle had issues that put them deep in the field.

Kenseth had a tire go down early in the race that put him a lap down, and he never fully recovered and came in 11th although he had arguably the fastest car in the field.

Biffle’s team had issues getting fuel in the car throughout the day, and he ended up three laps down in 28th.

However, Stewart had the car to beat as he led 163 laps and dominated the race like Jeff Gordon in the ‘90s. But, a pit road penalty where he pulled the air gun out of the pit box put him at the back of the field.

To recover, his crew chief, Darian Grubb, made the decision to take two tires on the second-to-last pit stop. This put Stewart out front, and he was able to pull away from the field with just two fresh tires, but then he had to take four tires on the final stop while everyone else took just two. His car was good enough to climb back to second, but time ran out and Mr. Backflip cruised into Victory Lane.

Pit road penalties affected several drivers Sunday, including Trevor Bayne, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. It has always been tough to get slowed down coming on to pit road at Vegas, so these miscues should have been expected, but they were no less devastating.

Finally, a few drivers who should be recognized for strong efforts include Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman. This was the first time Ambrose has had a chance to shine in his new ride and Newman has quietly snuck into fifth in the points standings with back-to-back fifth place finishes after he led the most laps at Daytona. Newman could be a legit contender come Chase time.

Next up is Bristol in a couple of weeks. That darn early season off week interrupts these two races, but at least that will change next season when Daytona is a week later and this off week is eliminated. So, hopefully this week’s momentary lull translates into some great action at the bullring in Tennessee. Have a great week.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Vegas will show who major players will be this season

In past years, by the time the Sprint Cup Series stopped by Las Vegas, everyone had a pretty good idea of which teams would be serious contenders for the rest of the season, but that has changed this year.

With the move to Phoenix as the second race of the season instead of California, the first three weeks of the season each test a different skill set for the drivers and teams.

Daytona is the monstrous restrictor-plate track that is all about speed and how a driver can work the draft, Phoenix drives like a short track because it is flat and the drivers have a lot of control over their outcome, as compared to Las Vegas where aerodynamics are more of a factor in how well the car performs.

When the second race was at California, a track with similarities to Las Vegas in that aerodynamics are important, the cars that did well in the first race would do well in the second, as well, and from then on everyone knew drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards would be the ones to beat for the championship.

This year has been different, however. As is often the case, the Daytona 500 winner came out of nowhere, and that race can’t be used as a barometer for the rest of the season. But, just because Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Johnson were good at Phoenix doesn’t mean they will be as strong at tracks such as Las Vegas.

We already saw in qualifying Friday the Fords showed up to Sin City ready to roll, as four of the top five qualifiers drove a Ford Fusion, yet last week only two Fords qualified in the top 10.

Also, last season Johnson won both California and Las Vegas, while Carl Edwards did the same thing in 2008. Now, Jeff Gordon could certainly win the race this weekend, but he will have to do it with a much different setup in the car than he did last week.

So while the points and contenders will all likely even out as the season moves on and the series visits places such as California and Kansas, it is still a more intriguing start to the season to have three different types of race tracks in the first three weeks. Plus, we know Phoenix will be the wrench in things at the end of the season, as well, unless the repave makes it more of a generic track.

Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Subway Fresh Fit 500 — also known as 'How I met Leonard Wood'

All right, to get the ball rolling, you need to know two things about me:

  1. I am a total girl.
  2. As you may have guessed when reading #1, I knew absolutely nothing about NASCAR -- until ... last Sunday (the Subway Fresh Fit 500).

OK, I take it back — I DID know Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 and Bobby Labonte drove the #47. Besides that, all I knew was the cars go fast. Really fast.

Despite being so uninformed, I jumped in headfirst and went to the race, not only as a spectator, but as a reporter. I received a little education on the road trip up to Phoenix, but by the time we got there, I knew I was severely ignorant.

We obtained our press credentials and parked, then walked through a tunnel (appropriately, up and into the sunlight) to get to the track. Our creds got us into the garage area, which, to be honest, I would have been completely content to stay in the entire day.

While I may not know much about NASCAR or racing, I am in passionate love with cars and listening to the engines being tuned that morning made my heart melt down to my toes. I would have taken the pit crews home and fed them for a chance to rev one of those engines!

To satisfy my lust for these magnificent machines, we walked around the garage twice. The second time round, when we were almost halfway through, I stopped to admire #21, which I knew by now was driven by Trevor Bayne. I spied a competent-looking, white-haired man fiddling with some tools and asked, “Is that Bayne’s crew chief?” “THAT'S EDDIE WOOD!” was the response I got, to which I replied, “Oh, that’s his name?”

Well, little did I know, Eddie Wood is one of the most famous names in NASCAR! After being informed of this, I stood and contemplated that for a moment, before Jacob tugged my sleeve and said, “And that’s his brother, Leonard! He’s half owner!”

Oh, OK. Brothers. I supposed meeting the brother of fame was better than nothing, so since this Leonard Wood was strolling somewhat in the vicinity of our direction, I waltzed up to him, held out my hand and brilliantly spoke ... “Mr. Wood.”

He shook my hand, and I impulsively kissed him on the cheek, then he gave me a huge grin and said, “Would you like a picture?” “I just wanted to shake your hand...” I quickly realized that if he was offering pictures he must be used to this sort of thing and maybe HE was famous, too! So I immediately said yes PLEASE! And a photo was snapped:

So, after all this, I stood there staring at him for a second, and he stood there staring at me, obviously expecting me to say something intelligent, when (thankfully!) Jacob jumped in. This is approximately how the rest of the conversation went:

Jacob: Hey, that was a good race last week! Congratulations!

Me: ...he RACES?! Oh, right, he owns that car... Oh yeah, congratulations!!

LW: Yeah, thanks. It was quite a surprise but we’re very happy about it.

(He may or may not have said anything like this, I was still berating myself for being such a dummy)


Jacob: So how are you feeling about the race today?

Me: Oh yeah, the race today! ...?

LW: Well, I don't usually predict a rookie to have that much success, but —


LW: — We know that anything’s possible so I guess we’ll see!

Jacob: Absolutely! Hey, good luck! We can’t wait to see how it plays out!

Me: Right! Good luck! (grinning like an idiot because I’m so nervous to be in the presence of FAME!)

Jacob: (Dragging me away; trying to make a graceful exit.) Well sir, thanks, and good luck!

Me: ... Right! Good luck!

LW: Thanks guys! Have fun today!

And he walks away. (probably wondering how such a dunce got into the garage area, much less managed to find her way to the track ...)

AFTERWARDS, of course, I got an explanation of who this Leonard Wood character is ... Only like basically one of the FOUNDERS of NASCAR! What!? And I KISSED him!? Yep.

After recovering from the awesomeness of the moment, we kept on strolling around the garage when we came across, who else, but Trevor Bayne! Being slightly more educated in this instance, I was starstruck and just stood there drooling while he signed autographs and received congratulations.

Then — he turned in our direction. I almost tripped myself moving the entire one step forward to grab his hand and say, even more brilliantly than I performed before, “Congratulations! You were amazing last week!” Like I actually knew what I was talking about, because I’m sure he hadn’t been hearing that for a week.

After Bayne disappeared and the cloud of Sharpie fumes had dissipated and my eyes could once more see past the gleam of his huge ring, Jacob must have been tired of standing in the same spot for, oh, EVER so he led me on to our next adventure.

They were letting people on the track, so we watched them write their favorites’ names on the finish line and kiss the pavement that was soon to be destroyed before we moseyed on to see what was happening in the media center.

When we got there, they were just interviewing Apolo Anton Ohno, Jared the Subway Guy and Carl Edwards. We were in the same room with celebrities and celebrity writers!

After the media center, we moseyed around the garage a little more and watched the crews take the cars for inspection and start setting up for the race. Then, from behind the Sprint stage, we watched the driver introductions and the national anthem.

After watching the drivers get chauffeured to their respective cars by the honorary pace cars, we settled down, or rather up, on the balcony of the media center in the infield to watch the race play out. When the gentlemen started their engines, my heart stood still, waiting for the flag.

When the flag dropped and the cars took off, my pulse went with them at 150 miles an hour. It was breathtaking. Thinking about it now gives me shivers. We turned ourselves around and around to watch the cars fly around the track, holding our breath every time they passed in front of us again. The sounds and the sights were amazing ... I could probably watch it every day and still be astounded.

We watched probably the first 90 laps from the balcony, keeping tabs on everything that was happening (or rather, Jacob keeping tabs and explaining it to me) before we went back inside the media center, then we milled around outside a little more and moved to the press box outside the track, which was much higher and afforded a great view of the track.

We watched the final 100 laps or so from this vantage point, which was quite a good one. Toward the end, when we knew it would be either Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon who won, we stood up from our seats and waited for the bump-and-run with our noses practically pressed to the glass.

We watched Jeff Gordon cross the finish line first, we watched him celebrate and we listened to the interviews at the end. Then, we watched the huge Caterpillar drive up to the finish line and park on the now-nonexistent pavement it was to tear up.

As we walked away from the racetrack that afternoon, enlightenment had come upon me--NASCAR is a thrilling sport.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Foray to Phoenix

Editor's Note: The staff of Monday Morning Crew Chief attended the Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix on Sunday, and the newest member of the crew, Jayne Spearing, takes us through raceday from the early morning infield to the late afternoon press box.

Now, a possibly somewhat-dramatic retelling of the doings Sunday of your beloved Monday Morning Crew Chief staff:

On one cup of coffee and five hours’ sleep, our intrepid adventurers, the staff of Monday Morning Crew Chief, set off for a wildly exciting day in the unknown territory of Phoenix — Phoenix International Raceway to be exact.

They piled into the car at 5:30 a.m. with sacks full of snacks amidst snowflakes swirling down on a 42-degree Tucson, Ariz., which is about two and a half hours south of the racetrack. The crew headed up to the slightly warmer and much less snowy city of Phoenix, battling wind, rain, traffic and the occasional construction zone in their courageous adventure to the north.

Our heroes arrived at the racetrack Sunday at 8:30 a.m. with no wrong turns but, curiously, many left ones. After obtaining their credentials, they parked and waltzed on into the garage area.

During their one day at the racetrack, the MMCC staff schmoozed with personages including Leonard Wood, Trevor Bayne, various reporters and a lovely birthday girl. They watched the race commence from the ground behind pit road, and hungrily waited for the cars to scream around Turn 4 and roar past them again.

After about 50 laps, the crew realized they were getting a little dizzy from spinning in circles watching the cars revolve around them. They decided to mosey on to a different vantage point, one above and outside the racetrack.

The press box was a veritable tower in the clouds, rising from behind the grandstand and looming over the track as though it were reaching for the sun. Needless to say, this provided an excellent view.

This sky-scraping edifice was a perfect vantage point for the gaggle of race-monitoring writers who clacked away at their keyboards and hurriedly muttered secretive phrases into their phones and recorders. The tower occasionally swayed in the powerful wind, but our heroes, courageous to the core, took no notice and stoically watched the race play out beneath them.

This car crashed, that car lost control and before they knew it, the race turned into a face-off between two of the top drivers on the track, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Their minds still reeling from the number of cautions, and their hearts and ears pounding with the sultry whine of racing engines, the crew watched the race come to a somewhat satisfactory, if unsurprising, end.

Their thirst for the ethanol-fueled, gloriously speedy sport satiated for the time being, our heros melted away through the fumes and returned to their haven in the land of the south, to labor over their analysis of the race and prepare it for the world to gaze upon.