Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rating the Brickyard 400: 3 Stars ***

A year of spectacular surprises continued Sunday at the Brickyard when Paul Menard … Yes, Paul Menard … kissed the bricks after winning the Brickyard 400. Overall, Indy had a race with a 3 Star Rating, but a 5 Star storyline.

Wow. Was that race even real? Is this season even real? The variety of drivers visiting Victory Lane is reaching epic proportions. Menard became the 14th different winner in just 20 races this season.

We’ve had several of the regulars make their visit and others snap long losing streaks, but we’ve also seen new drivers.

Regan Smith, David Ragan and Menard have shown steady progress of late and the win culminated a long stretch of improvement, but for years it felt like these guys were never going to win. Their job was to challenge the winners but never really factor into the win. All of a sudden they are all factors and could bring new faces to the Chase.

Regardless, Menard’s win at the Brickyard is a stunner. This was the low-performing, family funded, way too long sideburned driver of the brightest car in the field. Menard has always been the butt of jokes, but Sunday his butt was in the air as he made NASCAR’s most famous kiss at the finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What an incredible season this is becoming. The action on the track has been curiously tame the past several months, but at the end somebody new comes to the front and is able to hold onto the lead, or at least hang in the top 10 for a good finish.

Interestingly, several teams have made crew chief changes in a year where a crew chief has to make a strategy call almost every race that either puts his driver at the front or relegates him to the back of the field.

There’s also no reason to think this type of racing will change any time soon. The series hasn’t been to a track outside of Daytona in months where it hasn’t been incredibly difficult to pass, the tires continue to show little drop-off in speeds week after week and there have been very few late-race cautions.

These ingredients continue to produce a race where strategy determines where a driver finishes nearly as much as the quality of his car. It will be interesting to see if some of the regular suspects start to rack up wins as the series returns to tracks for a second time.

Overall, Indy was typical Indy until the crazy circumstances that developed at the end. It’s amazing that one of the longest tracks on the schedule can also be one of the most difficult to pass. The speeds are so high entering a corner with only one groove that drivers rarely even attempt to race side-by-side. If they do, it usually results in a big wreck. That was the case Sunday when four drivers thought they could make it through Turn 3 four-wide.

Anyway, next week it’s back to the ever-exciting Pocono Raceway. Now that Menard has a win, the Race to the Chase is on as three drivers are now eligible for the two wild-card spots. The next month or so will be fun to watch that battle continue to develop. Have a good week, everybody.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Earnhardt Jr.’s margin for error is gone

That all-too-familiar feeling is coming back. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is struggling as the series heads to Indianapolis to begin the final stretch toward the Chase.

Just weeks ago it looked like Earnhardt Jr. was a lock to make the Chase, and could be a legitimate contender for the championship.

Then came Michigan, the track where he won 111 races ago.

Late in the race his teammate, Mark Martin, pulled up in front of him and cut down his tire to relegate the #88 car to a 21st-place finish.

In the last five races, Earnhardt Jr. has an average finish of 25.2 and has fallen from third to ninth. He went from just 10 points out of leading the standings to just seven points from being outside the Chase.

Is it time to panic? Yes. The tracks coming up on the schedule aren’t some of his best, and all of a sudden it looks like the team’s mojo is gone. Maybe the off-week allowed the team to get some things straightened out at the shop, but Earnhardt Jr. is out of mulligans at this point.

Earnhardt Jr. cannot have anymore bad luck for the next seven weeks. Bad luck has been part of the problem during the last month as he got taken out by Martin at Michigan and was involved in an early wreck at Sonoma, where he finished 41st.

While the past four-and-a-half years have been difficult, (Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t finished in the top 10 in points since 2006) this year could be the most painful for his fans.

Finally, it seemed, Earnhardt Jr. was back up at the front. No, he hadn’t yet won a race, but that was right around the corner. Even if he didn’t win a race, he would at least comfortably make the Chase and have a shot at the championship.

It would be back like the good ‘ol days. That nagging pain his fans felt every time he spent most of a race out of contention would finally go away. It would be OK to be excited about his chances before a race.

Well, that is gone. Now Earnhardt Jr. fans will likely have more anxiety before a race than excitement. With Earnhardt Jr. barely hanging on to a Chase spot, it is now more important that he have good, consistent finishes than take chances for a win.

The margin of error for Earnhardt Jr. is gone. For the next seven races, Junior Nation will have its collective stomach in knots.

If Earnhardt Jr. comes through and makes the Chase, there will be an incredible feeling of relief and joy, but if he misses the Chase again, it might sting this year more than ever.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Edwards and Beltran hold keys to moves in NASCAR and MLB

The Major League Baseball trading deadline is less than a week away, and there is plenty of speculation about who will be moved, and similar statements could be said about NASCAR.

NASCAR doesn’t have a deadline and drivers aren't traded, but speculation about who they will drive for next year is just as rampant.

Carl Edwards is the NASCAR version of Carlos Beltran this year. Everybody wants to know where he will drive in 2012, just as they want to know which team Beltran will try and help make a push for the playoffs.

Both men came to this point in a similar fashion. During the mid-2000s, Beltran was the best postseason hitter in baseball bar none. That postseason with the Houston Astros in 2004 was simply incredible. However, after he tied the big league record of eight homeruns in the playoffs that year, Beltran has seen his production decline.

Beltran hit just 17 homers combined in the past two seasons with a career-worst .255 batting average last year. But, this season his average is back up to .291, he has 15 homeruns and several teams want him to join them for the stretch run.

Edwards has had a similar career path. At times he has looked like the best driver on the track every week, and other times he has fallen back into mediocrity will long winless stretches.

He had 12 wins combined in 2007 and 2008 while finishing in the top 10 in points both years. Then he hit rock bottom during a 70-race winless streak before winning last fall at Phoenix.

Now Edwards is back on top of the standings and is the most sought-after driver available for teams to lure for 2012.

Joe Gibbs Racing has made quite an effort to bring Edwards aboard, and it might work. Edwards has kept his mouth shut so far, but it might not be too long before the actual race during a weekend becomes a secondary story if Edwards does choose to move from his current #99 ride with Roush-Fenway Racing.

In both cases, the rest of the puzzle pieces will fall into place once these two athletes make a decision to either stay with their current team (Beltran has a no-trade clause) or take their talents somewhere else.

Particularly for the NASCAR world, Edwards’ decision will have far-reaching consequences. Joe Gibbs Racing could suddenly have maybe the best team in the sport, and Roush-Fenway Racing will have to shuffle people around to make things fit for 2012, not to mention try and find sponsors to fill the hoods of both Matt Kenseth’s #17 car and the #99 car, perhaps driven by Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Until Edwards and Beltran make their decisions, tension will continue to build throughout both sports.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ESPN finally restores Bestwick to play-by-play role

ESPN made its best decision since returning to NASCAR in 2007 when it announced Wednesday that Allen Bestwick will replace Marty Reid as the play-by-play announcer for the network’s 17 Sprint Cup Series races.

Bestwick finally returns to the booth full-time since NBC made an ill-advised decision to send Bestwick to cover the pits and bring Bill Weber up to the booth.

Well, that didn’t work out too well as Weber is off somewhere trying to be a magician (seriously) after being fired from TNT in the middle of the network’s six-race summer series in 2009.

Now Bestwick is back where he should be. He will be the man to call home the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

ESPN has struggled to find the right combination in the booth ever since it got back into NASCAR. The network’s first play-by-play man in the new era was Dr. Jerry Punch, who is a great NASCAR mind and one of the best pit reporters ever, but he fit in much better down with the people in the pits than upstairs with two other analysts. Punch is great at explaining a situation, but not being the main soundtrack throughout a race.

Next, ESPN tried Marty Reid. While Reid was decent, he never reached that point where he really connected with fans. They knew the others in the booth, but not Reid, other than from his IndyCar and NHRA work.

All this time, ESPN had the right guy on payroll, but he wasn’t in the right position. Sure, Bestwick did a fine job as the pre-race host, but he needs to be the main guy, somebody fans respect and trust to guide them through the race.

Bestwick now steps into a situation that could fit perfectly. Along with Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree, this group could finally be a NASCAR TV team that doesn’t have fan complaints trailing them from the start. Each of the three men are not over-the-top in their calls and analysis, and they each bring a knowledge to the broadcast that fans can respect.

So, enjoy the final stretch of the season. It will be a pleasure to have Bestwick back on board to guide the television viewers from the Brickyard on through to the championship at Homestead.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rating the Lenox Industrial Tools 301: 2 Stars **

One of the shortest races of the year kicked off the second half of the 2011 season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but it took plenty of time to get through those 301 laps. The first New Hampshire race of the year gets a 2 Star Rating.

This race continued many of the themes of the season, and one annoying difference. Throughout the afternoon, there were several lead changes, although only a few were actual passes for position on the track. The race also came down to fuel mileage, and it was incredibly difficult to pass.

Maybe that old, ugly nose of the COT cars wasn’t that bad. As the season drags on, it has become incredibly difficult to pass, and the only major change to the cars this year is the new nose. Sure, the numbers say there have been more passes and lead changes as ever, but that certainly hasn’t been the case lately. Aerodynamics look to be as big a problem now as they have been since NASCAR introduced the new car style.

Granted, it’s always tough to pass at New Hampshire, but this was nearly a restrictor-plate type race because if a driver had track position and a decent car, he could hold on to his spot.

Also, once the field sorted out after a restart, the racing was pretty much single file. In the past, drivers have been able to have really good, clean battles with each other and race side-by-side at New Hampshire, but that wasn’t the case Sunday. Only five or six drivers had cars that were capable of winning, and they were the only ones to pass anybody all day. The Stewart-Haas cars, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch could run up front, but everybody else was pretty much stuck.

Ryan Newman also became the 13th different winner In 2011. Of all years to implement a wild-card system, this was a good one to do it. It’s possible that every driver in this year’s Chase could have a win. That is remarkable. But, aside from coincidence, the reason for so many different winners could be because it is so difficult to pass. Once a team plays its cards right to be in position on the final restart, it becomes pretty hard for somebody to make a late pass for the lead.

Finally, those ugly debris cautions became an issue again Sunday. Overall, this season has been better in the debris caution department. However, three of the 10 cautions at New Hampshire were for debris, and they chopped up the race. In general, the cautions were a large contributor to the pace of the race, and how the teams’ strategies played out. Every time there was a caution, a different group of cars came to the front. Thankfully, the best cars in the field ended up at the front anyway.

This current run of races with pit strategy that doesn’t rely on tires hurts the quality of the race. In New Hampshire’s case, it didn’t matter too much how good of a car somebody had, but rather what pit strategy they used.

In any case, now it’s time for that horrible week in the middle of the summer without a race. The drivers and teams surely need a break, but this week always becomes the bleak mid-summer. Thankfully, it’s the last off week of the season. Have a good one, everybody.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NASCAR still has no clear championship favorite as second half begins

Now that everybody is finally finished sitting in traffic after the Cup race at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night (although they aren’t finished talking about it) it’s time to head back to a flat track to start the second half of the season.

The second half begins with a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway before NASCAR slams on the brakes with an off week to prepare for the home stretch of the season.

Even though everybody has speculated about what will happen as the Race to the Chase wraps up and the Chase begins, we still don’t have any idea who will be left standing. The points standings right now are as convoluted as they have been in several years.

Normally at this point in the season, somebody has established themselves as the regular-season leader. Although that counts for absolutely nothing in this sport, they still led the standings and would’ve gone on to win the championship under the traditional format. Not this year, however.

The past three races have ended with a different driver at the top of the standings, and there is little reason to think there might not be another change this week because Kyle Busch isn’t exactly the king of New Hampshire, although he certainly was the king of Kentucky last week.

Six drivers currently sit within 22 points of the top spot. While it will be nearly impossible to jump five spots in the standings, there is almost a guarantee that the standings will be close heading to the Brickyard in two weeks. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t matter.

Since the beginning of the Chase era, sitting atop the points standings at the end of the regular season meant little, but it has continued to mean less and less with every change to the system. In the first concoction of the Chase, the leader after 26 races was at least guaranteed to start the Chase on top. Next, the number of wins a driver had decided where they would start the Chase, and now it will determine the last two Chase participants.

Some people hate the new system, and others think the wild-card setup is the greatest thing ever. One thing’s for sure: It’s different. Consistency no longer is the king of strategies, but come Chase time, the driver with the most points, not the most wins, will still lift the trophy.

Perhaps, NASCAR has a system that finally combines everyone’s complaints.

Consistency still matters, but not much. Winning finally matters, until the Chase starts.

The system will never be perfect, and it is bound to change again a few years down the road, but this year it appears there might be more than just a few drivers in play for the championship come Homestead in November.

That is, of course, unless the #48 team pushes the perfection button again once the green flag drops at Chicagoland to start the Chase.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rating the Quaker State 400: 2 Stars **

Kyle Busch stunk up the show in the Sprint Cup Series debut at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night to add his name to the list of active driver who have won a track’s inaugural race. Unfortunately, the first-ever Kentucky race barely scratched out a 2 Star Rating.

Lots of hype preceded Saturday night’s race. This track is old and bumpy, with lots of “character,” something a lot of tracks lack these days. However, instead of making for a close, exciting race, there was hardly a green-flag pass for the lead after the Busch brothers settled their early race battle.

NASCAR has raced at Chicagoland Speedway on this weekend for the past 10 years, but this race could have easily been run at Chicago. Shoot, David Reutimann nearly won again. Maybe he thought they were still at Chicago.

This race also played out similar to a bad race at Richmond. Sometimes a driver, and Busch has done this in the past, will dominate the majority of a race at that track amid several different pit strategies that shake up the entire field. That situation is even worse now with the wave-around rules.

It’s not terribly surprising one team absolutely dominated this race because nobody had any notes on the track coming into the weekend. Any time there is a big change in the sport, a few teams tend to jump out from the pack for a while before everyone else catches up. That’s part of what happened at Kentucky, and future races will likely be better than what we saw Saturday.

It’s also not surprising that Busch won this race. Jeff Gordon has won three inaugural races, including Indianapolis, California and Kansas. At the time of those races, from 1994 to 2001, he was the best driver in the sport. He was the guy who chased all-time records.

Well, 10 years later Kyle Busch is the new Jeff Gordon. Busch is a brash, hard-charging young driver with loads of talent. He wins regularly and is starting to climb up the all-time ranks where talk about the big records starts to become relevant.

When Busch is nearing age 40, we will likely look back on all of his special achievements in racing. The great ones just seem to capitalize on big moments, and winning the first Cup race at Kentucky is one of them. Busch is still becoming a great driver. He has already accomplished a lot, but the next step will be winning the big races and being a consistent contender for the championship.

He has already won at Darlington, but don’t be surprised if he starts winning races such as the Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600 and contend for the Daytona 500 in coming years. The great drivers win these races, and Busch is a part of that class.

Now it’s time to head up north to New Hampshire to put in 301 grueling laps. It will be a while before the series returns to a track with significant banking. The next four races are all flat tracks, so a team could start to make a charge toward the Chase if they hit on a good, consistent flat-track setup. Have a good week everybody.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sprint Cup Series continues unpredictable races at Kentucky

After one of the most unpredictable races ever at Daytona, the Sprint Cup Series heads into another unpredictable race Saturday night at Kentucky.

Kentucky Speedway has been around for more than a decade, but it has taken almost that long for the track to finally get the biggest NASCAR series to come to town.

The Nationwide Series will run its 11th race at the track Friday night, and five drivers in the Cup field have already won at that track. So, why is this race unpredictable?

Well, two of the winners, David Gilliland and Joey Logano, who has won the last three Nationwide races at Kentucky, haven’t won at the Cup level since Logano won the rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in 2009.

The other three winners who are in the Cup race, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, all won at the track in the old-style car. The current Cup cars will not drive very similar to the cars each of those drivers took to Victory Lane.

Usually when something new comes into the sport, one team tends to dominate for a little while. Hendrick Motorsports dominated when the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007, and Joe Gibbs Racing dominated last year when NASCAR brought back the rear spoiler and did away with the wing.

To add a little more concern that Saturday’s race might not be the most exciting race ever, the winner in nine of the 10 Nationwide races has started inside the top 10. Only Harvick came from outside the top 10 in the first-ever Nationwide race at the track. He started 11th. Plus, Logano has started from the pole in each of his three wins.

With all that said, it is still very possible Saturday night’s race will be fun for both the drivers and fans. Although the track is 1.5 miles long, it is different from several of the other intermediate tracks.

Kentucky Speedway doesn’t have long, sweeping corners. The straightaways are long and the drivers really have to bury the car down into the corner, but they can still race two and three wide through those corners. This track races more like Rockingham than it does Chicagoland or Kansas.

The bigger teams might have a bit more of an advantage than usual this weekend because although the race has many unknowns, the big-time teams are able to limit them through simulation work before the cars ever leave the shop to pull ahead of the competition. Enjoy the race, everybody.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nationwide Series move to Brickyard a bad deal

Another short track bites the dust as the Nationwide Series will move its race to the Brickyard in 2012.

The Nationwide Series had run at the short track, originally known as Indianapolis Raceway Park, across town in Indianapolis since the series was created in 1982. Now, it might not return.

The Nationwide Series will run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 28, 2012, the day before the Brickyard 400.

What were NASCAR and everybody else involved thinking? Surely this deal was driven by the prospects of making more money. The purse will likely be larger for a race at the big track and the seating capacity is substantially larger, but this is a bad deal in every way other than money.

Since the Sprint Cup Series first came to Indianapolis in 1994, the Brickyard 400 has been one of those special races on the motorsports schedule. Any race at Indy is a big deal, but that’s also because only the best get to race there.

Having only the Sprint Cup cars compete once a year on the 2.5-mile speedway kept the Brickyard 400 as an exclusive event. Sure, it will be a special moment for whoever wins in the Nationwide Series at the track, but it waters down the weekend, especially since most of the regular contenders in the Nationwide Series are Cup drivers anyway.

Another negative is the fact that the Nationwide Series is kicking a great short track to the curb. That move will only perpetuate the bland reputation the series has as a knock-off version of the Sprint Cup Series. Many of the drivers are the same in both series, the cars look very similar and most of the tracks are the same.

The Nationwide Series had a cool deal at the short track. Indianapolis Raceway Park was one of the only remaining short tracks that still had a bit of the country fair feel to it. Plus, the racing was usually close and exciting. It was a unique place. The Nationwide race at the Brickyard will be little more than just another tandem race weekend, especially when the novelty wears off.

In some ways, this is just another case of NASCAR’s eternal longing to reach big markets. NASCAR got tracks in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Kansas City, and for years it wanted to put tracks up by Seattle and New York.

Thankfully we didn’t get another bland 1.5-mile track from those deals. At least this week’s race in Kentucky is a little closer to traditional NASCAR markets, even if they might not be as big. Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Motor Speedway is already sold out.

Now that the decision has been made to move the Nationwide race, it will be tough to bring the series back to the short track. No matter how boring the race is on the big track, there will always be a Nationwide race the day before the Sprint Cup race from here on out.

Even if the Nationwide Series would return, it would be on a different weekend and would lose the excitement of having racing throughout the weekend in the same city, but at completely different racetracks. That’s also part of what made the Indianapolis weekend special. Only a big-time racing city would have two races on the same weekend at different tracks.

So, savor the upcoming Indianapolis race weekend July 30-31, because it will likely be the last time it stands out as a weekend that is different than any other weekend.

The Indy race weekend will still important simply because it’s Indy, but it won’t be the same.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rating the Coke Zero 400: 5 Stars *****

The third restrictor-plate race of the season served up another wild night at Daytona as NASCAR celebrated the Fourth of July with a race that deserves a 5 Star Rating.

David Ragan drove another very good race at Daytona and this time he finally closed the deal. Ragan has always been a good restrictor-plate driver, but something has always kept him from winning. Saturday night, however, he and Matt Kenseth were set up perfectly to drive off to the win on the final restart.

After a green-flag run of 105 laps that included two green-flag pit stops, everybody went back to their Sonoma ways with a take-no-prisoners style of racing. First, Jeff Gordon made an incredible save after getting turned sideways in Turn 3. In a rebound that can only happen at a plate track, he came back in just two green-flag laps to finish sixth.

The debate about the two-car draft style of racing will be debated as much as whether or not there should be more road courses on the schedule, but this style continues to evolve. Each time the Sprint Cup Series visits either Talladega or Daytona, the racing changes. It might not be much, but the little difference the drivers learn each race will take restrictor-plate racing into an unknown future.

Yes, there was still a bunch of two-car drafting Saturday night, but there were glimpses of the old style of drafting, as well. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were able to keep up with the lead pack all night, but they were never constantly pushing each other. Drivers still have to be pushing each other if they want to make passes, but it looks like drivers won’t lose the draft if they don’t have somebody constantly on their rear bumper.

That doesn’t mean a driver without a partner can contend. He will still drop like a rock to the back of the field and eventually get lapped, but there might be some room for the more traditional drafting than everybody first thought, and that will only become more pronounced as both surfaces at Talladega and Daytona start to age.

So, after a wonderful holiday weekend, next week the series makes its first-ever stop at Kentucky Motor Speedway. This track is 1.5 miles long, but don’t expect the same, relatively boring racing some other 1.5-mile tracks often produce. Something about this track usually produces pretty good racing, as well as surprise winners. That would certainly fit the 2011 season. Happy Fourth of July, everybody!