Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June races showcased potential Sprint Cup championship contenders

June is often considered one of the most important months of the NASCAR schedule. It is a month that includes several different types of tracks that force teams to have a good, solid program overall.

From horsepower to fuel mileage, the races in June tend to expose which teams have their act together and which teams are good, but maybe not good enough to make a run at the championship.

So, what insights might we have gained this June? For one, Carl Edwards and the #99 team is for real. It would be shocking if Edwards isn’t a factor in the late stages of the Chase.

He may not have won a race, but aside from an engine problem that relegated him to a 37th place finish at Pocono, a race where he started sixth, Edwards racked up three top fives while maintained the top spot in the points ahead of second-place Kevin Harvick.

Speaking of Harvick, the #29 team doesn’t have a commanding lead in the points standings as it did last year at this time, but Harvick has closed Edwards’ points lead to 26 after starting the month 35 points behind coming off of his win in the Coca-Cola 600.

Harvick finished in the top 15 in every race during June. Plus, he persevered to a ninth-place finish Sunday at Sonoma after he got caught up in an early wreck that left his car with substantial damage.

That consistency, combined with his three wins, will keep Harvick in contention throughout the Chase.

The other obvious team that awakened during June is last week’s winning #22 team and its driver, Kurt Busch. The team’s struggles earlier in the season have been well-documented, but Busch’s rebound actually started a week before June began.

Busch has flown from ninth to fourth in the points since Dover and has reeled off a win and four top 10s, including three straight poles.

This team likely won’t stay as hot as its been lately, but Busch is not far behind Edwards and Harvick at this point. And, while assuming Jimmie Johnson will be in the championship mix, Busch is next in line as a dark-horse contender for the title. The key for this team will be finding the consistency the other three contenders have.

While June is a month to separate the contenders from the pretenders, July begins with a shootout at Daytona to start the unofficial second half of the season. The Fourth of July race at Daytona is another one of the special events where points don’t matter so much.

But, with the chance of a surprise winner relatively high, this race could have a big say in who gets into the Chase because of the wild-spots this season. In that case, there might be one way to satisfy the “Winning doesn’t count enough” crowd.

While it still won’t directly help him win a championship, the winner of Saturday night’s race, or any of the upcoming 10 races, could at least have a chance to win the championship. In that way, winning could have a huge say in the championship, especially if a wild-card driver ends up winning the Sprint Cup.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rating the Toyota/Save Mart 350: 3 Stars ***

After three straight poles, Kurt Busch finished first on the other side of the race Sunday as he dominated another rough race at Sonoma. The first road course race of the season gets a 3 Star Rating.

Teams complained throughout the weekend about a softer tire compound that would make it more difficult to get around the winding racetrack. With that being the case, some teams were bound to hit the setup right while others would struggle throughout the day, and for the most part that is what happened.

However, the #22 team not only hit the setup correctly, but it also kept Busch out of harm’s way by staying out on the first caution after he charged from his 11th place starting spot. After the first caution, Busch was hardly ever outside the top five and led 76 of the 110 laps on his way to victory.

All of a sudden Busch is once again a legitimate contender for the championship. He started out the season well, finishing in the top 10 in the first four races of the season while leading the points, but then the wheels fell off and he had just one top-10 finish in the next seven races.

Now he’s finished in the top 10 in four of the last five races and it looks like the entire Penske organization might have finally found its groove to be competitive week in and week out. The other Penske car, Brad Keselowski’s #2, finished 10th.

After several weeks of ho-hum racing at tracks such as Kansas, Pocono and Michigan, we are back to the part of the season with more different types of tracks.

Sonoma and Daytona are two of the most unusual tracks coming up on the schedule, and while they might look completely different, the racing at the two tracks is relatively similar. Sure, Sonoma is a technical, road-course track where speeds get all the way down to about 30 mph and Daytona is a wide-open superspeedway where drivers hardly touch the brakes, but sometimes the way the races play out is similar.

Road courses often offer several different names in the top 10, cars can get torn up easily and several drivers walk away from the track upset. Well, next week at Daytona might not be too different.

Three of the first five finishers in the Daytona 500 haven’t been back in the top five since February, and David Gilliland is the only one of those who has recorded another top 10 since Daytona. Thirteen drivers officially did not finish the Daytona while only four recorded DNF’s this week, although plenty more had substantial damage.

Overall, the racing at Sonoma wasn’t any more intense this year than it was in 2010. Actually, it was probably a bit less because the tires made driving the car more difficult. Here was another instance where it would really behoove Goodyear to have a tire test before races like this one so we don’t continually have teams surprised by how the tire reacts once they show up to the track.

Anyway, what happened at Sonoma will likely stay at Sonoma. Yes, Kasey Kahne took a shot at Juan Pablo Montoya in his post-race interview, but certainly none of the pushing and shoving will carry over to the high banks next, and it’s unlikely Kahne would intentionally finish off Montoya at a later point. Right now Kahne wouldn’t have much to gain by wrecking Montoya. It would just extend a situation created by, as Kyle Petty put it, a “bonehead move” farther than it ever should.

Enjoy the holiday weekend with racing back at the greatest speedway in the world.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rating the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400: 3 Stars ***

Matt Kenseth gave it everything he had in the final laps Sunday at Michigan, but he couldn’t quite catch Denny Hamlin, who finally won his first race of the season. Overall, the first race of the year at Michigan gets a 3 Star Rating.

Except for a rare spin by Jimmie Johnson early in the race, everything went as planned throughout the first half of the race. Several Roush-Fenway Racing drivers traded the lead, Robby Gordon hit the wall and the race stretched out to make for a couple of green-flag pit stops.

By the halfway point Kyle Busch appeared at the front, and as is typical on days when he has a good car, Busch jumped out to a comfortable lead. Had the race stayed green, Busch and Kenseth would have battled for the win, barring their respective fuel-mileage situations.

However, Juan Pablo Montoya’s spin on lap 158 came right at the beginning of a green-flag pit stop sequence, and Kenseth again became the big winner as he came out of the pits with the lead. Busch dropped several spots and never could make his way all the way back and finished third.

Finally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit the wall with eight laps to go and eliminated the fuel-mileage game because everybody hit the pits and Hamlin came out with a lead he would never relinquish, even though it got close at the end.

This race was nothing out of the ordinary for Michigan International Speedway. These races usually go one of three ways: The race comes down to fuel mileage, a late caution makes for a decent battle to the end or neither happens and the margin of victory is more than a few seconds.

Sunday had the second option, as well as the closest finish since Regan Smith edged out Carl Edwards to win the Southern 500.

Also, after four debris cautions last week at Pocono, there were no such cautions this week on a track that generally has a few. The number of debris cautions at Pocono was awful, but it looks like that may be the exception this season rather than the rule, as it has been in past seasons.

As for Hamlin, this win should quiet the critics who say his team is off its game and he barely has a chance at the Chase. The win puts Hamlin up to ninth in the points standings with 11 races left in until the Chase begins. Don’t worry, the #11 team is fine, and it will be a factor come Chase time.

On the other side of the results, several big-name drivers struggled throughout the race, including Jeff Burton, who started outside the top 30 and never could make his way to the front.

Burton currently sits 25th in the points standings and has not proved yet this season the #31 team can consistently contend in a race, much less contend for a Chase spot. Burton could make a comeback late this season like he did two years ago, but this time the Childress organization is succeeding while Burton lags behind, whereas both the #31 team and Richard Childress Racing struggled for most of the 2009 season.

So, next week the Sprint Cup Series takes a break from the ovals and heads out west to Sonoma for the first of two road-course events.

Prepare for the annual “Should NASCAR have more road-course races?” and “Should a road-course race be in the Chase?” debates in the coming week. The two issues will likely never change, but people will still talk about them each time the sport visits a road course.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rating the 5-Hour Energy 500: 1 Star *

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series began the second half of the regular season in the damp and cloudy Pocono Mountains with a tough day on the cars and a boring day for the fans. The first race at Pocono Raceway gets a 1 Star Rating.

Pocono is an interesting track and probably takes more criticism than it deserves, but Sunday’s race, no matter the track, had everything NASCAR haters or bandwagon fans love to complain about the sport.

This race had nothing but single-file racing and debris cautions. Plus, most of the races Jeff Gordon wins seem to be similar to Sunday's performance. When that #24 car is right and gets in clean air, he can still drive away from the field.

However, true diehard race fans may have found the tidbits of strategy and all of the mechanical issues interesting. While there wasn’t much strategy to be found, especially compared to the past couple of weeks, there were plenty of mechanical problems that aren’t seen that often in today’s NASCAR.

NASCAR instituted a gear-rule change for the weekend that made it possible for the drivers to shift between third and fourth gear at certain parts of the racetrack.

This was a nice gesture to bring back some of the aspects that made Pocono interesting and unique in the past, but it didn’t do much to help the racing and certainly took its toll on the engines and transmissions Sunday as no less than seven drivers who were in the top half of the points standings had some type of problem during the race.

It will be interesting to see what kind of improvements the teams will make on their transmissions before the Cup series returns in August. Pocono is always one of the toughest tracks on equipment, but this race had as many failures as any race in several years. Teams might prepare for the next Pocono race the way they would for a restrictor-plate race with some of the focus teams will put on the transmission if NASCAR leaves the gear rule the same.

The first race at Pocono last year had the best post-race show of the season as several drivers spoke their mind and Joey Logano dropped the “his wife wears the firesuit in the family” line on Kevin Harvick.

This time around, the only pushing and shoving came early in the race after the first caution when Harvick drove Kyle Busch all the way down the frontstretch to the point where they were driving through water and not too far away from the end of pit road.

They didn’t touch each other and NASCAR told both drivers and teams to take it easy, but Busch’s and Harvick’s probation ends next week, so maybe the emotions will start flowing more freely once again, even though Harvick’s car owner, Richard Childress, didn’t need any help last week at Kansas when he went after Busch himself and got slapped with a $150,000 fine and probation for the rest of the year.

From this point on, it looks like Childress will have to let his driver fight his own battles. For Harvick, those battles usually come around fairly regularly.

So, after one of the most uneventful races of the season the series heads to Michigan for another long fuel-mileage race.

Fuel mileage was a concern for teams at Pocono, but it is an extreme concern at Michigan. Some drivers will be told to try and save gas from the drop of the green flag, and the same will likely happen the following week at the road course in Sonoma. It’s that time of the year.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Keselowski's win could change NASCAR fuel-mileage strategy

Brad Keselowski came in along with Tony Stewart to pit on lap 210 of the 267-lap STP 400 Sunday at Kansas Speedway. That would be the last time Keselowski visited pit road, but that wasn’t the case for Stewart or anybody else in the field.

To make it the final 57 laps when the best mileage by anyone else was 52 laps, Keselowski pulled out a trick. For much of the final run, he pressed the clutch pedal at the end of the straightaways and coasted into the corner before releasing the pedal when he wanted to pick up the throttle.

Drivers have forever looked for ways to save fuel and stretch the mileage as far as possible.

Often, they will cut off the engine while running under caution, as several did at Charlotte the previous week, and even times where they’ve shut off the engine under green at places such as Infineon Raceway where they can coast down the hill on the second half of the track, but Keselowski’s move isn’t a typical strategy.

It worked, though. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin pitted on lap 215 and still had to soft pedal their way to the finish line. Had they been comfortable enough with their mileage, both drivers could’ve caught Keselowski because they would have been able to run without having to worry about saving fuel.

Instead, Keselowski’s method allowed him to keep a pretty close pace to the other two, who had pitted five laps later.

The other factor in Keselowski’s favor was what happened at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 where several cars ran out of fuel in the closing laps. Maybe Earnhardt Jr., Hamlin and even Stewart could have been more aggressive with their fuel strategy but were cautious because of what happened the week before.

In any case, Keselowski’s method of using the clutch to stall the motor as the car drifted into the turns could become the new preferred way to for drivers to save fuel in the future. Keselowski not only made it to the finish line, but he also had plenty of fuel for a victory salute to the fans and a burnout. That car may have been able to go more than 60 laps before it ran out.

Teams might have to reconfigure their fuel windows in the future if this method catches on and drivers are able to take the next step in saving fuel.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rating the STP 400: 2 Stars **

The Sprint Cup Series drivers endured another extremely hot day of racing Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Although the drivers were hot, the racing wasn’t. The first-ever spring race at Kansas gets a 2 Star Rating.

For the second straight week, everything came down to fuel mileage. Unfortunately, this week’s strategy did not carry as much drama.

Brad Keselowski definitely used some fancy tricks to save fuel, including pressing the clutch at the end of the straightaways and letting the car coast into the corner, and it looked like Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have the magic strategy to win the race, but the intrigue couldn’t match what happened the previous week in the Coca-Cola 600 where drivers were falling victim to fuel mileage left and right.

Maybe most of the crew chiefs learned their lesson at Charlotte and simply didn’t want to run out of gas for a second week in a row, but with 10 laps to go Keselowski was the only driver among the leaders who legitimately was running well beyond his fuel window.

It looked like Earnhardt Jr. was set up to make a run on Keselowski for the win because Keselowski was in major fuel-conservation mode, but after coming up empty at Charlotte the #88 team played it safe this week and had Earnhardt Jr. slow down to make it to the end as well.

Although it cost him a shot at finally winning a race, this was still a smart call by his crew chief, Steve Letarte. Earnhardt Jr. sits third in the points standings and is in a very good position to make the Chase heading into the summer months. At this point, it wasn’t worth the risk to try and win the race if it meant Earnhardt Jr. might fall back out of the top 10. It’s points racing, but this team has to take that into account considering where it has been in the standings in recent years.

A Chase berth will be worth much more than winning this race, there will be many more opportunities to win a race and it wouldn’t have been smart to put the Chase berth in any risk by trying to go for one win. Shoot, Earnhardt Jr. could just win a race or two in the Chase. That would be the best situation for him and his team because they would likely contend for the championship.

Other than the fuel-mileage finish, Sunday’s race had several of the same issues many bad races dealt with in the past few years. There were three debris cautions and basically three leaders for the majority of the race. Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart were the class of the field and without fuel mileage one of those three, likely Busch, would have easily won the race.

In fact, other than Landon Cassill hitting the wall and Earnhardt Jr. spinning, there wasn’t a heck of a lot of action on the track. Plus, Cassill’s wreck was caused because the field was bunched up again after one of the debris cautions.

Without that, there was one legitimate caution the entire race, and even with that one Earnhardt Jr. didn’t totally spin out, although it would’ve been difficult to go all the way around the track if he missed the entrance to pit road.

So, get ready for more spread out racing this week as the series heads to Pocono Raceway. The triangle track is tough on the cars, but the teams that bring the best equipment usually come out on top. This could be another race where the top teams dominate the top 10 the entire day. Have a great week!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

NASCAR heads to Kansas to begin important stretch of Cup season

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Kansas this week for another weekend that is different from where the series usually races at this point in the season.

In the past several years, the first weekend in June meant a trip to Pocono Raceway and the start of the TNT Summer Series. However, among the several changes made to the Cup schedule this season is this weekend in Kansas. The series has traditionally run at Kansas on the first weekend in October, but this year the race in June was added.

Kansas does fit at this point in the season, though. While June isn’t always the most exciting month of racing, with tracks including Pocono, Michigan and up until this year, New Hampshire, it is one of the most important as far as the championship battle is concerned.

In the years before the Chase, June was the month when the championship contenders began to separate themselves from the rest of the field. The tracks during this month were big, so they required strong cars and the variety among those tracks required teams to be consistent across several types of setups, from big flat tracks to big sweeping tracks with a road course thrown in for good measure.

With the Chase, June is the time for drivers to either get themselves in a comfortable position to make the Chase, or for drivers outside the cutoff to start putting together a charge to get back in contention. It’s tough to make up a bunch of ground in June, but a bad month makes it very difficult to be in a good position come Chase time in September.

The weather during the race weekend at Kansas in October has usually been on the cooler side, or at least it hasn't had the blistering heat that will be at the track this weekend. The forecast calls for temperatures in the low to mid 90s while the cars are on the track.

Hopefully the teams are prepared for the heat and have the cars setup for a long, hot day so the race doesn’t turn out like the one a few weeks ago at Dover where everybody seemed to be chasing their car around an unexpectedly hot and slick racetrack.

This will likely be another good track for the Ford cars. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle have been good at this track in the past, and although it has much less banking than Charlotte and Dover, the track in Kansas is still 1.5 miles long and Fords have won two of the first three races on tracks of that length.

If somebody is going to jump up and contend with the #99 team in the points standings, they better start getting after it now because Edwards’ lead is up to 36 points. In the past that would’ve barely been any lead at all, but now it is almost a full race’s worth of points.

Now is the time for someone to work on breaking down that lead, or Edwards could end up being this year’s Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart as he goes on to dominate the regular season. But, it takes more than consistency these days to win the championship.

Wins might not be as important toward the points standings as some people would like, but they are as important now as they have been at any other time in the sport’s history.