Thursday, April 28, 2011

First part of 2011 season has been as good as any

All of a sudden it seems like years ago Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line by .002 seconds at Talladega as the Easter break allowed everyone to take a deep breath before they get after it again Saturday night in Richmond.

Having the holiday fall between the Talladega and Richmond races isn’t all bad. It gave everybody a chance to thoroughly dissect the style of racing at Talladega and bring up all of the issues about restrictor-plate racing anybody could ever want to talk about.

Overall, the finish at Talladega continued what has been a pretty good first quarter of the season. If people had been told there would be seven different winners in the first eight races, they would have said this is going to be the best season in a very long time. It’s pretty difficult to have any wider variety of winners, from rookie Trevor Bayne to five-time champion Johnson.

While nobody has stepped forward and really dominated any part of the season thus far, I think that still may happen as the weather warms up. The current configuration of the car seems to make it difficult to stay up front consistently, which leads to a lot of lead changes and many different winners. The first eight races this season have averaged the most lead changes at the quarter point of the season with 38.5, the most ever. Also, this is the most different winners the series has seen to this point in the season since 2003.

Another positive so far this year is the lack of delays because of weather. Yes, there were major storms that rolled through Talladega two weeks ago and they canceled the ARCA race and shortened Cup practice, but neither a Sprint Cup qualifying session or race has been affected by rain.

To get through Speedweeks at Daytona and races at places such as Bristol, Martinsville and Fontana without rain canceling any part of the weekend activities is rather amazing. After what seems like years and years of rain following NASCAR wherever it went, the jet dryers have finally gotten a break. This streak of good weather, and good fortune, actually extends back 18 races to when qualifying was rained out at Daytona in July.

If NASCAR can continue to dodge the raindrops this weekend at Richmond, we should be in for another great show. Everybody had a week off and the teams will have their best short-track equipment ready for this one. This season has been relatively quiet in the “have at it” department, but it only takes one driver to get under another’s skin to start a whole chain of interesting events at a track the size of Richmond.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From eternal hope to pure joy: Die-hard NASCAR fans have it

For 38 weeks of the year, many NASCAR fans wake up with the possibility that this might be the week their driver will return to Victory Lane.

If their driver is a perennial winner, it might seem more like just another week of success, but for others, that wait can last a long time.

Take Jeff Gordon fans, for example. Gordon is a driver who dominated the Cup series for more than a decade and amassed 81 wins from 1994 to 2007, by far the most by any driver in that time span. But since his win in the fall race at Martinsville in 2007, he has won just two races. What seemed like a given nearly every week has turned into a moment that happens only every once in a while.

For all fans, this is a difficult phenomenon to understand. How can their driver, who has been on top of the NASCAR world so many times, go so many races without winning? The same will happen to Jimmie Johnson fans at some point. His reign will end and the weekends he wins will be special, not routine.

So how do fans deal will long losing streaks? Some might become numb to the losing and continue to watch the race without much hope their driver will win or much of a rooting interest, some might give up and quit following the races altogether, and still others will hope and pray every weekend that this will finally be the race where it happens — a time where their drivers, and themselves, can experience the pure joy of being on top, knowing they are the best, even if just for one week.

Gordon fans and Matt Kenseth fans have had the chance this season to experience the high that comes from a win after a long losing streak, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans have been close several times to be able to finally celebrate a win.

Also, fans of Dave Blaney, who has raced in 370 Cup races without a victory, almost had the chance to experience the feeling of having their favorite driver win. Then, with three laps left in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega, Blaney was spun out while running inside the top 10, and his chances of victory were smashed.

Blaney’s race was also an example of what fans of the 42 drivers who didn’t win experience each week. I’m not talking about those on the fringe who say, “Oh well, my guy didn’t win. I’ll just be pay attention when he does.” No, I’m talking about fans who feel that burning rage in their gut every time their driver wrecks, is wrecked or has some other problem during a race that kills his chances of winning.

These are cases where it takes most of the following week to get over the disappointment before they get excited for the next race and look for all the reasons to hope, no matter how small or trivial, that this will be the week their driver wins.

By the next weekend they’re saying, “So what my driver hasn’t won in more than a year. This is the week that streak will end and here’s why.” Maybe it’s because his teammates did well in practice, maybe it’s because he had a good qualifying run or maybe it’s because he has run well at that track in the past, but there is usually something that continues to bring these fans back to the race week after week, even if they always have their hopes dashed by Sunday evening.

There’s something about these fans that makes them special. They are the ones who provide the passion and adrenaline for the sport. Sure, the race is the main attraction and it is a fun way to spend a few hours of the weekend, but deep down these fans are hoping so hard their driver will win that if they could pour that hope into the gas tank it would ignite like rocket fuel.

Everything settles down this weekend for Easter and no race, but once next Saturday night arrives it will be go time once again.

NASCAR fans throughout the country will be tuned in to watch what they hope will be an exciting race, but for many of them, they will be hoping that this is finally the race where they can finally let out all of the held-in emotions that come from week after week of losing and finally explode into pure jubilation.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rating the Aaron's 499: 5 Stars *****

As the drivers get more comfortable with the two-car draft at restrictor-plate tracks, the finishes keep getting closer and closer, and Sunday’s was as close as they have ever been. A race that ties the closest finish ever with the most lead changes ever certainly deserves a 5 Star Rating.

Was this the best race ever? People will have differing opinions on which style of racing they prefer, rather its restrictor-plate racing vs. unrestricted racing or pack racing vs. two-car bump drafting racing. However, people would have to be nearly unconscious to think that finish wasn’t exciting. Heck, it might seem exciting even if they are unconscious.

The numbers say there was as much action as any race ever run, but it was really a clean race. After the Nationwide race had a record-setting 11 cautions in 312 miles, many people expected a bunch of cautions in the 499-mile Cup race. Instead, there were only six cautions and two were for debris.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t wrecks, however. Sure, there wasn’t the typical huge wreck, but there were plenty of times throughout the race that had all of the ingredients for a major wreck, but the drivers instead made incredible saves, namely Ryan Newman.

The man who has the worst restrictor-plate racing luck of any driver in the field was once again in the top 10 late in the race when he was turned sideways by Denny Hamlin in turns 3 and 4. Had he not hit Juan Pablo Montoya, the #39 car probably would have caused a big mess, but Newman did a great job of holding the car down and not even bringing out the caution. He did bring out the yellow flag a few laps later but still made a great save to keep the car off the wall. He got a 25th-place finish for his efforts.

Races at Daytona and Talladega usually bring out a range of emotions, and Sunday was no different. The incredible joy and adrenaline rush felt by those who were part of the eight-car pack at the finish was countered by the disappointment of Dave Blaney.

Blaney hooked up with Kevin Harvick early on and ran a fantastic race, leading 21 laps, the second-most of anybody in the field. Unfortunately, the surprise run of the race came to an end just three laps from the finish. Instead of being the Trevor Bayne of Talladega, Blaney finished 27th, the last car on the lead lap.

Overall, the race at Talladega delivered as promised and even exceeded expectations, if that was possible. The finish to this race was like watching a Hail Mary be completed to win a football game. It happens so fast and is so unexpected that it’s hard to believe you actually saw it happen. It’s easy to say this is a once-in-a-decade type finish, but the way the finishes have been at Daytona and Talladega lately, we could see something like this happen all over again in July at Daytona. Is it too early to get excited for that race?

Anyway, the second off-week of the season comes up next before the series moves on to Richmond, which is a great racetrack for totally different reasons than Talladega. For those who don’t like restrictor-plate racing, this will be 400 miles of “real racing.”

Overall, this has been a great start to the season. It reminds me a bit of the early 2000s. The big-time drivers have shown their strength, but the wealth has been shared between seven drivers in eight races. We had a wonderful surprise winner at Daytona and different unexpected drivers have had good runs in almost every race.

Surprisingly, Talladega probably had the most regular suspects at the front of any race this season, as the top eight finishers were from power teams before David Gilliland came across in ninth.

Have a blessed Easter everybody.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Restrictor-plate races bring out the excitement and adrenaline of NASCAR

All of a sudden NASCAR is nearly a quarter of the way through the season. Unofficially, it already is.

Sure, there are 36 races in a season and there are still two weeks until the ninth race, but we are at the second restrictor-plate race of the year, which means it is time to take a break from the normal grind and get ready for the spectacle that is racing at Talladega.

Speedweeks at Daytona are always a great way to start the season and everybody is excited to see the close racing on such a big track, but after the Daytona 500, the talk about how great the race was and all of the media attention the winner receives dies down and restrictor-plate racing is forgotten. Until now.

Now it is time to jump into that world again where nearly the entire field has a legitimate shot to win and a huge wreck is almost guaranteed to happen, as well as a very close finish.

The start of a race at Talladega and Daytona is always filled with pent-up excitement and plenty of nerves because these are the tracks where NASCAR still seems dangerous. Either good or bad, fans know they will see something memorable happen at one of the four restrictor-plate races.

While all of the focus is on the pre-race ceremonies and all of the build up to the race, once the green flag drops, everyone’s attention goes strait to the cars on the track and it seems as though the rest of the world fades into the background.

The only time for a break in these races is after a big wreck that requires a lot of cleanup, and often a red flag. Other than that, there is hardly time to blink without fear something special will happen.

The talk about a race usually lasts for a few days into the following week, and then everybody gets geared up for the upcoming weekend, but that is not the case after races at Daytona or Talladega. No matter what happens, these races get played on all of the news shows the next few days and people debate on the aftermath for weeks, not days.

However, even the excitement from these races dies down in time, and that’s why the schedule works perfectly in this case. At each quarter pole in the season, there is a restrictor-plate race, granted the fall race at Talladega has been moved back in recent years to the halfway point of the Chase, but that one feels like the final big show of the season that is different from the general theme of that part of the year where the title contenders receive most of the attention.

Every NASCAR race is special, but the four restrictor-plate races are at another level. With the aerodynamic packages on the cars and the two-car draft, many people have said we might surpass the all-time record for lead changes in one race, which was set in this race one year ago.

Whoever misses this race is going to have to here about it for weeks to come and have to be satisfied with the highlights. But, everybody else will see the most exciting four hours of the month, if not the season.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Rating the Samsung Mobile 500: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series battened down the hatches for a windy one in Texas on Saturday night where a long winless streak was broken. No, not THE winless streak, but Matt Kenseth visited Victory Lane for the first time in 76 races. The first Texas race gets a 4 Star Rating.

Kenseth simply dominated the night. Many questioned if somebody would find the magic setup after all the practices took place during the daytime, and the #17 team certainly found it. The best car definitely won this race.

Kenseth’s journey to take the checkered flag first wasn’t without drama, however. Fuel strategy almost negated his team’s strong effort as both Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart tried to stretch the fuel mileage but both came up empty, in the literal sense for Stewart, who limped across the line in 12th after running in the top-five on the final lap.

This was a thinking-man’s race, and the one with the most strategy of the season so far, which is good. Strategy creates suspense, and makes every move that much more crucial.

The race, with exception of the debris caution on lap 208 that directly led to the Mark-Martin-Martin Truex Jr. wreck, was pretty clean, overall. And while the field did get spread out in the second half of the race, several drivers were able to stay close to Kenseth and keep him from running away. I don’t think that would’ve been possible in the days of the rear wing. Kenseth wouldn’t have been touched all night.

So now we’ve got three intermediate-track races under our collective belt, and it looks as though everyone but the Fords have some catching up to do. It took a long time for the new Roush-Yates engine to be developed, but it is sure paying off now. Fans of Roush-Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports should be ecstatic after Saturday because every single Ford in both of those camps spent time in the top 10.

Aside from the Roush gang, the folks at Richard Childress Racing also still have their program running close to full speed. Clint Bowyer was about the only other driver to even catch a whiff of Kenseth all night, and once again, Paul Menard came on strong late for yet another top-five finish.

Interestingly, Jimmie Johnson had a rough night. The #48 team missed the setup for the start of the race and never could quite get the car dialed in. No worries, though, Johnson will be right there at the end of the Coca Cola 600 next month in Charlotte, the next night race at a 1.5-mile track.

Now its time to strap in and go on the ride that is racing at Talladega Superspeedway. Doesn’t just thinking about it make your heart beat a little faster?

After the racing we saw at Talladega last year and at the Daytona 500 this year, it would take something really stupid to happen for this not to be an absolutely amazing race. Get fired up, it’s Talladega week!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

500 miles at night usually brings good, solid racing

A 500-mile race like the one coming up at Texas on Saturday night is an endurance test, even today with all of the fancy engine and cooling technology on the cars, and this type of race is also nice because people don’t have to panic and be up on the chip at the very beginning of the race.

So to begin the first of the season that hasn't been run on Sunday afternoon, it’s time to shine the cars up and go racing under the lights.

The daylight portion of the first half of the season is over, and NASCAR will turn on the lights Saturday night to begin a stretch of the schedule where six of the next eight races are at night.

For the first time in several years, every race up to April has been at the 1 p.m. local time start since Phoenix moved into the second spot on the schedule and Fontana took the final March weekend.

As come the night races, so does the second stretch of the season. Yes, we had an off week in the second weekend of March, but that was still in the middle of the early season.

We are now getting close to the point where the season is no longer considered new and it is time to hit the long grind that is the summer stretch. If the All-Star Race is included, there isn’t another weekend after Easter without Cup racing until the weekend of July 24.

This weekend is also the second 1.5-mile speedway of the season. The Fords were incredibly strong at the other mile-and-a-half track of the season, Las Vegas, and Carl Edwards won the race, and Greg Biffle certainly could have if he hadn’t had problems in the pits.

If the Ford power shows itself again this weekend, and it looks like it will, as David Ragan was fastest in practice Thursday, this could really be a dogfight into the summer among the Chevrolets of Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports and the Fords of Roush Fenway Racing.

The Joe Gibbs Racing camp has struggled with engine issues early this season, but once those get worked out the Gibbs cars will be fighting for wins, as well, and they have in several races already.

So sit back and enjoy the first Saturday night race of the season. It should be a show. These 500-mile races at tracks such as Texas, Atlanta and Charlotte always seem to bring out some of the best racing, a large part of which is because of the length of the race.

People love to say they want the drivers to drive like crazy from the start of the race, but a large part of a race is also about the flow that develops in green-flag runs, similar to the pace of a baseball game.

Don’t worry, there will be plenty of cautions throughout the night and at night’s end everyone will be on their feet cheering or yelling at the TV, but the journey there is important and it’s part of the fun.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Rating the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500: 4 Stars ****

After a long day filled with some hard hits and another late pass for the win, Kevin Harvick ended up in Victory Lane for the second time in as many weeks. This year’s edition of the spring race at Martinsville gets a 4 Star Rating.

If people thought Harvick had a fluke 2010 season when he contended for the title along with Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, he is quickly proving that he is a serious threat to be a consistent title threat to the #48 team.

Also, Harvick has now proven he can win on any type of track on the circuit. He won two of the restrictor-plate races a year ago, he won at Michigan last August and California last week, and now he mastered a short track with his win at Martinsville.

Plus, the #29 team has had just three DNFs in the past three seasons combined. Consistency mixed with a few victories is a quick way to the top.

But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Other drivers have won multiple races early in a season and gone on to have sub-par seasons from that point on.

As for Sunday, this was a pretty typical Martinsville race. It was a barnburner like the past few have been, but the racing was close at the end and nobody completely dominated the event.

With two green-flag pit stops, the record for lead changes at Martinsville, which was 25, was smashed as the lead was swapped 31 times. That makes the third race of the season that has set a track record for lead changes, not a bad start to the season.

OK, so now on to the elephant in the room — Dale Earnhardt Jr. almost won the race. A win from Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville would have been a total shock, but it also would have started a ton of talk about how Earnhardt Jr. is all of a sudden a title contender, which he very well could be. There just seems to be a pretty thick line between coming close to winning, and actually winning. However, Earnhardt Jr. has had good cars pretty much every week, and Steve Letarte has done a fantastic job as crew chief so far.

While one popular driver surprised in a positive way, another continued to disappoint. Denny Hamlin fell all the way to 12th after running a strong race but getting held up with pit issues.

The Joe Gibbs Racing engine shop got the engines to last the entire weekend this time, but the must have also sacrificed fuel mileage to do it. It stands to reason that the engineers would not run the engines so lean this weekend, which would use more fuel, but it definitely played a part in Hamlin’s race because he always had to pit before the rest of the field and it cost him when he got caught a lap down on the final caution and had to take the wave around.

So, next week it’s on to Texas for one of the fastest tracks on the schedule. Last year’s races at Texas Motor Speedway had their fair share of pushing, shoving and hand gestures, so it should be interesting to see if the drivers and teams play nice this time around.