Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ford engines are new leaders in NASCAR

After years of domination by Chevrolet teams, the Ford group has come back with the best start to its season since all five Roush cars made the Chase in 2005.

The Ford camp made this abundantly clear during the past two weeks at Charlotte Motor Speedway where Fords led a combined 319 of the 502 laps run in the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.

Plus, the teams that have dominated the past five years or so had troubles of their own Sunday night. Two favorites to win the Coca-Cola 600, Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson, blew engines.

While they were both driving Chevrolets, they aren’t on the same team and have different engines. McMurray had an Earnhardt-Childress engine under the hood while Jimmie Johnson had a Hendrick engine.

It might not be terribly surprising the Fords have finally come back to the front of the field on tracks where horsepower and aerodynamics are important, but it is surprising to see the failures from the Chevrolets.

The Earnhardt-Childress engines won nine races last season, including all four of the restrictor-plate races, and all of those wins came on tracks that were at least one mile in length.

Hendrick engines also won nine races last season, with Johnson bringing home six of those wins.

The #48 car has been the gold standard in the Sprint Cup Series nearly since it was formed in 2002. The Lowe’s Chevrolet simply never breaks down, but it did Sunday night.

Are we seeing a changing of the guard? Possibly. The #48 team doesn’t always have a great first half of the season, and it likely will be in contention for the championship late into the Chase, if not all the way to Homestead again, but an engine problem combined with the resurgence of Roush-Fenway Racing has the path to a sixth championship a bit more cluttered.

The other aspect to this issue is the Ford engines. The FR9 engine has been in development for several years, and it just started running full time last season. However, the teams running the new engine are reaping the benefits in 2011.

NASCAR recently took an engine from each manufacturer and found they all make similar power. So, where does the Fords’ advantage come from? Maybe it has to do with more than raw horsepower. One feature of the new Ford engine was that it had a lower center of gravity and ran cooler than the old engine.

These factors help with the overall setup of the car just as much as the power to move the car forward. It’s great to have a fast car down the straightaways, but it doesn’t do much good if the car won’t turn in the corners.

So, the teams can use a lower center of gravity to help the car turn in the corners and a lower water temperature allows the team to run more tape on the grill, which gives the car more downforce.

Maybe it’s not so much the Fords all of a sudden have more power than everybody else; maybe they just have the ability to use that power more effectively.

In any case, the Fords are as strong right now as they have been in a long time, and they could hold this advantage for a while as other teams adjust to try and keep up.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rating the Coca-Cola 600: 3 Stars ***

Memorial Day weekend is arguably the best racing weekend of the year, and it certainly has been this year with nail-biting finishes that literally came down to the final turn. The first three-quarters or so of the Coca-Cola 600 was worthy of 2 Stars and the finish was worthy of 4 Stars, so the entire race gets a 3 Star Rating.

Kevin Harvick usually comes out of nowhere to win his races, but this was the most unlikely win of them all. He sat between 20th and 25th for the first part of the race and was yelling at his team about how terrible the car was.

The next time we heard about him he was fifth in line for the final restart. Even at that point he wasn’t looked at as much of a threat because of all the cars and issues in the first two rows.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove one of those cars and took off on the final restart and drove away from the field. As he came through the frontstretch to take the white flag it looked like this was finally going to be that magical race Earnhardt Jr. fans have been waiting for so long. Some fans may have even done a double take.

Is that really the #88 car out in front on the final lap? After the years of disappointment, it looked like this win was finally possible. There was no lapped traffic, and the caution laps had to preserve some fuel, right?


The #88 machine simply ran out of gas coming into Turn 3 and the guy who seems to always be in the right spot at the right time, Harvick, drove by to take a very unexpected victory.

Although there is heartbreak and frustration for Earnhardt Jr. fans to have their driver come so close to winning, it is a positive he drove a very good race and this team is starting to perform at a winner’s level week in and week out. That first win is always the hardest.

Harvick went through a similar stretch after his 2007 Daytona 500 win. It took until the spring race at Talladega last year to finally crack the code to Victory Lane again in a points event. Once that first win happened, several more followed, and now he is even running into a few just for having four wheels and an engine that runs.

Sure, Harvick drove a hard race to get into position to have a chance, but he said in Victory Lane this win was a gift. But, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good because any win, no matter the path, is very difficult to achieve.

As for the overall quality of the race, the majority of the 600 miles were similar to both the Dover race and the All-Star race the past two weeks. Maybe it’s because summer-type weather has finally arrived, but all of a sudden teams are having a difficult time keeping up with the racetrack and it is hurting the quality of racing.

Unfortunately, there’s little reason to think any of that will change next week in Kansas, and several of the same drivers should be a factor there. Kansas Speedway is the same length and a fairly similar configuration to Charlotte. Plus, Ford drivers have run well at Kansas in the past and right now they have the best cars in the field on intermediate tracks.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mark Martin found unusual path to friendship with Bobby Allison

Mark Martin says Bobby Allison shouldn’t have liked him.

Martin had excelled on short tracks and won championships in the American Speed Association series in the late '70s and early '80s, and early in his career he raced late models against the Allisons.

However, the first time he met Bobby he sent Allison flying out of the racetrack in Pensacola, Fla.

“I was a young kid, and I guess the caution came out, and I was one of those young kids that ain’t seen a caution yet,” Martin said. “It was a good thing they didn’t have walls. He went over the bank and out, but it didn’t tear him up.”

Allison said he was leading the race and Martin was a lap or two behind when he wrecked Allison so he could get his name in the newspaper the next day.

Although he may not have made the world’s greatest first impression, Martin thinks his prowess as a short-track racer impressed Allison and he became a mentor for Martin in the early 1980s, even to the point of flying Martin to Hueytown, Ala., and letting Martin sleep in his basement between the Martinsville and Talladega race weekends.

“He fired me in there in the pitch, black dark,” Martin said. “I think there was a number of Allison kids down there, but I never saw them because it was dark when I got to bed.”

As he established his career and became one of the top drivers in NASCAR, Martin put the lessons he learned from Allison, both about racing and life, into practice and has helped many drivers in the beginning stages of their career, including his endorsement that put Joey Logano on the map as an up-and-coming star.

Being such a humble person, Martin doesn’t like to take credit for what he has done for the sport, especially compared to Allison.

“I don’t hold a candle to him,” Martin said. “I’m ashamed of myself when I compare myself to the kind of person Bobby really was to racing.”

Allison said he is proud of the way Martin’s career has turned out and is happy he was able to help Martin when he was still getting his feet under him in NASCAR.

“Look how he turned out,” Allison said. “Really, really good.”

The help and guidance Allison gave Martin may have helped him take his career to the point where he will someday join Allison as a Hall of Famer.

Most of all it gave him a lifelong friendship, even if it took a little nudge to break the ice.

Monday, May 23, 2011

NASCAR inducts its second Hall of Fame class

A comprehensive history of the sport came together Monday night at the NASCAR Hall of Fame for the annual induction ceremony.

This time Bud Moore, Lee Petty, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison and David Pearson shared the sport’s ultimate honor. Although there was a big stage and lots of fancy lights, this night felt more like we were in the backyard of each individual as he was introduced.

While the honorees included the Oscar-like thank you’s, each honoree told the story of his career and shared stories: some funny, some inspiring and some of the saddest that can be told.

The night was a nice break from the weekly concerns about which drivers are running well or which drivers are angry at each other. This night was all about the history of the sport, and boy is that sport amazing. Some stories make good movies, but the history of NASCAR might be the greatest thrill ride of any sport in the world, and this class certainly encompassed that ride.

We had Bud Moore, a pioneer owner in the sport who stormed Normandy, France on D-Day and went on to build cars for 43 different drivers, including three Hall of Famers in Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison and David Pearson, and many more future Hall of Famers. Moore could be viewed as a stubborn man, but his first priority was to win and in the moment nothing was going to stand in the way of that goal. He was part of the Greatest Generation and continues to represent that group with class.

Next was Lee Petty, the founder of the great Petty family dynasty. Petty also wouldn’t take no for an answer and although others drivers have more of a reputation for being rough-and-tough drivers, Lee Petty would certainly do whatever it took to win and bring home the money he needed to feed his family, including protesting what would have been his son Richard’s first win. Still, he did it because that was what would bring the family the most money that week. He was represented at the ceremony by his two sons, Richard and Maurice.

Then came Ned Jarrett, one of the most well-spoken men in the sport. Broadcasting was the perfect second career for him. Also, Jarrett is one of the most gracious people in the sport. He is not afraid to say thank you to those he feels it is necessary. It is hard to imagine he has ever left a debt unpaid. While NASCAR grew up as a tough man’s sport, Jarrett portrayed a gentler personality off the track, but still kicked everybody’s butt on the track. Jarrett’s values are inspiring.

Bobby Allison talked about several moments in his great career, but he also spoke about his life, which has included as many ups and downs as any life a person could live. He did speak about his children, two of which were killed in 1992. Clifford was killed in a racing crash at Michigan and Davey was killed later in a freak helicopter crash. The thought of losing two children is unimaginably horrible, and Allison understands that as well as anyone.

“You know, the world I hope never is that cruel to any other family again,” he said.

Finally, the class clown David Pearson stepped up to the stage and told his stories in a way only he can. He won a bunch of races, and often did it with style. Future Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, the chief mechanic for the Wood Brothers, introduced Pearson and his story about Pearson passing Buddy Baker and lighting a cigarette as he completed the pass and cruised down the frontstretch is the perfect picture for the sly “Silver Fox.”

Although the Hall of Fame has taken some criticism on the business side, the induction ceremony is one of the most special events of the season and probably the most meaningful. The Hall of Fame shouldn’t be about making money. That building is similar to the country’s national parks and landmarks. They are there because they are important, not because somebody needs to make money.

For one night, time stood still and the NASCAR of years gone by came back to life. It gives me goosebumps.

Look for more Monday Morning Crew Chief coverage of Hall of Fame week, including a story about Mark Martin sleeping in Bobby Allison’s basement. More photos from the night will be up in the coming days, but also check out the Monday Morning Crew Chief Facebook page for a full gallery of photos from the Hall of Fame and the induction ceremony.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rating the All-Star Race: 1 Star *

The stars were supposed to come out and the gloves were supposed to come off, but neither happened Saturday night at the All-Star Race. The race reserved for the biggest winners in the sport came up well short of expectations and gets a 1 Star Rating.

While this was one of the most boring All-Star races in the 27-year history of the event, there isn’t really one reason that sticks out as to why the intense battles and crazy moves never materialized.

Maybe it was the tires, but they were the same combination as what the teams ran at Darlington and that was an incredibly exciting race. Or, maybe it was simply the fact that Carl Edwards had a great car and stunk up the show. That’s been known to happen. Both Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon come to mind as drivers who have been given a special car for this race, and they went out and dominated with it.

Edwards currently leads the points standings, and is starting to put together the type of season that could lead to winning the championship. Even though this race didn’t pay any points, drivers who are on top of the sport often shine in the All-Star Race, as they should; this is a race that tests the best against the best.

Another factor on Edwards’ side is how the Roush-Fenway Racing cars have run on the intermediate tracks this year. The Ford cars have struggled the past few years in general as a new engine was in development. However, that engine has been fully implemented this season and is starting to show the power the Ford camp was hoping for. Next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the ultimate test in this engine’s durability, but so far there hasn’t been any cause for concern.

Had the All-Star Race been a regular event, the race would have probably been more interesting. A few races this season have been saved because strategy came into play in an otherwise bland race, but the setup for the All-Star Race takes that aspect out. At first it looked like the teams that pitted on lap 61 had made a great call because they got off sequence with the leaders and had enough fuel to the finish, but the mandatory four-tire pit stop before the final 10-lap shootout made any pit strategy irrelevant.

Often, the All-Star Race doesn’t need strategy to be interesting and that lack of strategy usually makes for a wild final segment, but that simply didn’t happen. After the cars got through the final restart, the field strung out and raced pretty much single-file to the end of the race.

So, next week strategy will almost certainly be a factor in the longest race of the season and one of the best days of the year for a motorsports fan. Memorial Day weekend is always a great racing weekend and it’s pretty difficult to dominate the 600 because of the length of the race and the changing track conditions as the race goes from late afternoon into the night.

Plus, we’ve got the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Monday night and make sure to check in here for coverage of the event as Monday Morning Crew Chief will be on the scene.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More NASCAR Sprint Cup teams need to gamble to win

For the past two weeks, staying out on old tires or just taking two tires have been winning moves for both Regan Smith and Matt Kenseth. The calls came out golden for those two, but maybe more teams need to take late-race gambles even if it doesn’t end up in a victory.

Races can be won several different ways. Having a fast car is a good start, but a fair amount of luck is needed throughout the course of the event, whether it comes down to fuel mileage, tires, or just keeping the car off the wall and out of trouble.

Smith took an opportunity to jump to the front when everybody else hit the pits at Darlington. The same sort of thing worked out Sunday at Dover for Kenseth, although he took two tires and had a lot more distance between him and the four-tire crowd.

This type of strategy won’t turn into a win, or even a top-five finish, every time, but that doesn’t mean teams having a mediocre race should always follow the leader and accept their fate.

I’m always shocked more drivers who are on the back half of the lead-lap cars don’t stay out. Yes, Smith and Brad Keselowski stayed out at Darlington when they were sitting between 10th and 20th, but that means eight other drivers came in for four tires when the only thing they really had to lose was just a couple of spots. Especially with less than 10 laps to go, as was the case in the Southern 500, most of those drivers would’ve finished well ahead of where they did even if they lost several positions on the restart.

Darlington is often considered the track that is the toughest on tires, but it has to be awful inviting to see all of the leaders come in for a stop and have nothing but the pace car ahead. One of the few benefits of being so far behind is the team gets to see what all of the teams ahead of them will do. If all of the leaders are coming in, why not take a shot at winning the race. Even if every single car on the lead lap passed them back, they still would end up close to where they were before the caution.

Sunday’s race was a little different, however, and it was surprising to see Kenseth and Mark Martin, who stayed out and didn’t take any tires, maintain their positions and drive away from the field. But, both had pretty good cars throughout the race, as Smith did at Darlington.

Let's face it, only a handful of teams show up to a race track with a legitimate chance to out-run the field and win a given race. Sure, there are exceptions based on the type of track, but there's usually a lot more teams that could benefit from making a risky call from pit road than could benefit from playing it safe and banking points.

Maybe in future races more teams will be willing to take a gamble on tires late in a race. It would sure keep the season interesting, especially with the new wild-card Chase implications. It could not only get a driver a rare win, but it might just put them in contention for the championship. That would have fans howling, but that’s a topic for another day.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rating the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks: 2 Stars **

For the second straight week, a gamble on a late-race caution brought an unexpected winner to Victory Lane. This week’s winner, Matt Kenseth, wasn’t as unexpected as Darlington-winner Regan Smith, but similar strategy won him the race. Unfortunately, that was the most interesting part of a race that gets a 2 Star Rating.

Kenseth made a bold call on the final caution and it looked like there would be a heck of a battle to the finish, but the race’s three dominators, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, couldn’t come back through the field and Kenseth quickly got around Mark Martin and drove off into the sunset for a relatively uncontested victory.

Sunday’s race was actually pretty typical of Dover. The few cars that really hit the setup were able to jump to the lead and stay there as the three dominators led a combined 353 of the 400 laps. Johnson, Edwards, Jeff Gordon and others have done the same thing in the past. Sometimes that’s just the way it is at Dover for whatever reason.

Not every race is going to be thrilling the way several have been already this season, and the long green-flag runs and the opportunity for different strategies to come into play late in the race made things interesting, but I think the fans would’ve gotten more of a kick out of a three-way battle among Johnson, Edwards and Bowyer for the win rather than Kenseth driving away from everybody.

The unexpected weather also affected the racing. When a cloudy day was forecast, and much worse weather actually was called for, many cars likely had a setup under the car that did not anticipate sunshine and warm weather. With that type of weather, the track was much more slick than expected and many drivers really had to fight their cars throughout the day, and that often limits the amount of hard racing that can be done.

In the big picture, Kenseth and the #17 team are all of a sudden basically locked into the Chase, barring a major meltdown, and that certainly seems unlikely with the way the Fords have been running this season. The win bumped Kenseth up four spots in the standings and gave him two wins on the year, so even if he falls out of the top 10 in points, he still has a very good shot at getting one of the two wild card spots.

For the first time in several weeks, everybody remained relatively calm and a pair of drivers didn’t have to meet with NASCAR after the race. That’s good, because the chances of that happening next weekend are as high as there will be for a race this season.

The All-Star race is next up on the schedule and a bunch of things will be on the line in a race that doesn’t even count in the season standings. The drivers will be battling for a big check in Victory Lane, and some might end up battling each other to either attempt to settle an old score, or settle a new one.

Either way, the All-Star race is shaping up to potentially be one of the best ever. That’s saying something with the way some of those races go. Enjoy a week where points don’t matter. It’s the last time that will happen this season.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

NASCAR keeps door open for future dustups with Harvick, Busch penalties

Boys can have at it, but keep it on the race track.

That’s what NASCAR implied when it penalized Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch $25,000 and placed each on probation for the next four Sprint Cup Series points-paying events Tuesday following their altercation on pit road after Saturday’s race at Darlington.

NASCAR said the penalties were for what took place on pit road, and not the bumping and wrecking on the race track near the end of the race.

Overall, NASCAR handled this situation appropriately and stayed consistent with how it has dealt with similar situations this season. Even the alleged Juan Pablo Montoya-Ryan Newman incident that occurred inside the NASCAR hauler Friday didn’t receive any penalties.

This situation did a lot to clarify where NASCAR truly stands in the boys, have at it era this season, even if it is still inconsistent with the way it handled similar situations a year ago.

Carl Edwards was placed on probation for the rest of the season after he intentionally wrecked and flipped Brad Keselowski in the spring race at Atlanta. But, both drivers who have intentionally wrecked somebody this season have not been penalized at all.

Does this mean NASCAR has different rules each year, or was the sanctioning body still trying to figure out where it stood on driver altercations early last season? Unfortunately, the only driver to be penalized for wrecking somebody in the past two years was Edwards. Even Harvick was let off the hook at Homestead in the final race of last season when he put Busch into the fence.

In any case, the drivers should feel as though they have more of a precedent on which to go by when a situation comes up in the future. Apparently they can do whatever they want on the track and even fights in the pits might go unpunished, but creating a situation where cars are moving down pit road without a driver is not OK.

Still, fans who enjoy the extra-curricular action that sometimes develops between drivers and teams should be excited about this ruling because it hardly put any restrictions on future incidents.

Another thing to keep in mind is the probations only apply to points races, and the All-Star Race is not a points event. That means anything still goes for that night. After the past two weekends, it will likely end up being one of the most-anticipated events of the season. And who knows, another feud could develop in that race as it did last season when Denny Hamlin blocked Busch coming out of Turn 2 and as Darrell Waltrip said, “He put him in the wall!”

Anyway, there is still a race at Dover before All-Star weekend, and the sport carries as much intrigue with it week-to-week as it has all season. The exciting part is it could continue to just get better.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rating the Southern 500: 5 Stars *****

After a start to the season where the Sprint Cup Series drivers and teams minded their manners and forgave any mistakes on the track, Juan Pablo Montoya lit the fuse and the sport has gone wild once again. The 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was one of the best races the sport has seen and gets an obvious 5 Star Rating.

The first two Saturday night races following the off weekend for Easter were the first two night races of the season, and everybody’s emotions have come alive as the lights came on. They say Saturday night’s alright for fighting, and that has been the motto for several drivers the last two weeks.

Montoya and Ryan Newman had their very public battle at Richmond and in the meeting that followed with NASCAR on Friday, drivers such as Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch lost control of their emotions and snapped with profanity laced rants on their radios at Richmond, and now Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch then met fender-to-fender and face-to-face Saturday for a classic NASCAR showdown.

Harvick had given Busch a few nudges in the waning laps of the race, but then Busch pulled a Montoya move a lap later and intentionally turned Harvick up into the fence. Now, as far as penalties go, I can’t see how NASCAR would justify penalizing Busch, even with probation, after it gave Montoya a free pass after Richmond. These were nearly the exact same incidents. We could argue Montoya should have been penalized in some manner, but NASCAR shouldn’t create a double standard with these two incidents.

In other and much more positive news, Regan Smith and the #78 team finally got a much-deserved victory, and it came in one of the greatest of all NASCAR races. This win ranks right up with Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory to start the season, maybe even more amazing because the draft doesn’t work at Darlington.

Smith’s crew chief, Pete Rondeau, made one of the best strategy calls of the season when he told Smith to stay out on a caution with just six laps to go while nearly the rest of the lead-lap cars came in for tires. Smith leads the series with an 8.7 average starting position, and the one race he qualifies outside the top 20 is the race he comes back to win.

The race at Darlington kind of summed up what NASCAR is all about. Virtually everybody who runs full-time in the sport has a chance to win. Of all races to predict a surprise winner, the Southern 500 certainly wouldn’t have been even near the top of anybody’s list. Sure, strategy got Smith to the front, but he had made steady progress from his 23rd starting spot to get near the top 10 by the time he stayed out under caution, but he drove the wheels off of his car to hold off Carl Edwards on the final two restarts and definitely deserves to hold that trophy.

Also, it showed that the people in the sport are passionate about what they do and they will battle hard to get to the top each week. There are no longer any restrictions about how the drivers can and can’t act, and it has brought the personality of the sport back.

The races don’t get any easier as the sport heads north to battle the Monster Mile at Dover. This is another demanding race track, and I don’t see any reason why all of this drama won’t continue, unless everybody plays nice on Sundays and only light it up on Saturday nights. Plus, the All-Star race is in two weeks and there will be as much intrigue heading into that race as there has been in a long time, maybe ever. Have a great week everybody, this is good stuff.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson continue to climb all-time wins list

As Kyle Busch crossed the finish line Saturday night at Richmond he notched his 21st career Cup victory to move into a tie for 22nd on the all-time wins list with drivers such as Benny Parsons, Jack Smith, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte. Not bad for a 26-year-old driver.

Similarly, Jimmie Johnson won the 54th race of his career at Talladega two races ago to tie three-time NASCAR champion Lee Petty, which is also not bad for a 35-year-old.

Both feats are very impressive and we are privileged to have the chance to watch them on a week-to-week basis, just as St. Louis Cardinals fans have been able to watch Albert Pujols become one of the greatest baseball players of all-time.

Let’s see if we can offer some perspective on these two drivers, arguably the two best in the sport right now. It’s natural to think of Busch as the guy who wins races and Johnson as the guy who wins championships. While that is true, it would be unwise to think Busch won’t contend for championships for many years to come and Johnson is starting to move into the realm of the all-time greats in the sport with his win total.

Now, Busch is easily on pace to eventually eclipse Johnson in terms of wins simply because he started younger than Johnson.

Johnson started his Sprint Cup Series career full time in 2002 at the age of 26 and Busch already has 21 wins at that same age.

Setting aside the factor of his championships, Johnson still should be considered one of the greatest winners in NASCAR history. He has won 16 percent of the races he’s competed in, while Busch has won just 9 percent.

Yet, many expect Busch to end up in at least the top 10 all-time as far as Cup victories are concerned. As is the case with Johnson, Busch has a 21-win head start. If Busch were to win at the same rate as Johnson for the next nine years, he will have 75 wins and be right there with Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

Johnson, meanwhile, is the same age Gordon was four years ago when he won six races to bring his career total to 81. This isn’t to say Johnson is about ready to fall back and become a guy who’s win rate will dramatically fall off, but he is at the age where other talented drivers saw the Victory Lane gates shut.

Gordon has won just twice since 2007, and Burton won 17 races up until he turned 34 in 2001, winning four races since.

How far will Johnson get? He hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down and currently sits second in the points standings with a victory under his belt.

So, maybe 10 years from now Busch might be making his way up the all-time wins list and surpassing whatever number Johnson has, but it is possible Johnson could've had those numbers himself if he had the chance to start his career a few years earlier, as Busch did.

Sometimes it’s not the case of one driver being better than another, just the case of when they were able to find the opportunity to break into the sport.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rating the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400: 3 Stars ***

The Sprint Cup Series rolled into Richmond Saturday night for the final short-track race of the first half of the season. A quiet first half of the race and a loud second half that included six of the eight cautions adds up to a 3 Star Rating.

Maybe the drivers and teams were just dipping their collective toes into the water during the first half of the event. As is typical in a race where a bunch of big-name drivers qualify in the back, most of the drivers who started at the front fell back while others came forward, including the two leading Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Both made steady progress toward the front and by the time the racing began to heat up, they were in front of the craziness.

Staying on the lead lap throughout the long green-flag stretches was crucial because more than half of the was already a lap down by the time Ryan Newman got into the back of Juan Pablo Montoya coming out of Turn 2 on lap 103, and teams had to work some creative strategies to try and get back in contention.

The Richmond races are generally some of the more confusing races during the season because of the size of the track and how the pit strategy usually works out, but that has been enhanced recently because of new rules, including the lucky dog and wave-around rules. With the pit window around 90-105 laps, teams can short pit or stay out when a rash of cautions breaks out as it did between laps 238-314 when Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and even Newman made appearances at or near the front of the field.

Eventually the strongest cars made their way back to the front, however, and it was another Gibbs show for the final quarter of the race as Busch and Hamlin checked out and stretched their fuel mileage to the end.

As for Newman, the battles between him and Montoya were the most heated of any we’ve seen this season. It would have been remarkable to get through Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond without a little bad blood developing, and there certainly is now between these two teams.

Both drivers handled the situation fairly well after the race though as they avoided fisticuffs or a shouting match in the garage area. Immediately after the race, Newman went to NASCAR to discuss the situation while Montoya pulled a bit of a Kyle Busch move as he blew off reporters and took a quick golf cart ride out of the track.

It will be interesting to see how this situation is handled. Montoya made a move very similar to the one Carl Edwards made on Brad Keselowski last year at Atlanta and sent Keselowski flying into the fence. NASCAR put Edwards on probation for the rest of the year and should do the same here. The penalty should not be based solely on the result of the driver’s actions. Yes, Keselowski’s wreck was much more spectacular and dangerous looking, but Edwards didn’t expect to send Keselowski flying when he wrecked him just as Montoya didn’t expect to flip Newman.

The severity of the wreck shouldn’t be a factor because each wreck has the potential to be dangerous. Had Montoya gotten to Newman going into Turn 3 rather than coming out of Turn 4, Newman could have easily ended up in the same position as Jeff Gordon, who slammed driver-side first into the inside wall, which did not have a SAFER barrier.

That brings up another point. Why do we have to wait for somebody to wreck in an unsafe part of the track before improvements are made? Gordon found an unprotected wall at Las Vegas a few years back, and he and a few other drivers found another one at Watkins Glen. Even Pocono waited too late to improve the safety of its track after Kasey Kahne went over the wall on the backstretch last spring. Had the track been more proactive, it may have been able to avoid the Kahne incident, as well as Elliot Sadler’s wreck last fall when he hit the inside barrier nose-first and knocked the engine out of the car.

Anyway, next week it’s on to the racetrack with the best nicknames in the sport. The Lady in Black will be Too Tough to Tame during the Southern 500 the evening before Mother’s Day. Any race at Darlington is a fun one, and there’s no reason to think this one will be any different.