Wednesday, August 31, 2011

For his sake, Clint Bowyer needs to stay at RCR

Carl Edwards announced he will return to Roush-Fenway Racing in 2012, Danica Patrick announced she will go to NASCAR full-time next season and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has all but announced he will stay at Hendrick Motorsports long term.

But, the Silly Season isn't quite finished.

While it seems most of the NASCAR rides are accounted for in 2012, there is still one nagging situation that won’t wrap up. Clint Bowyer still needs a contract for next season.

When Edwards announced he would stay in a Ford next season, the talk was that everybody else would stay in their current ride, including Bowyer. Reports said Bowyer and Richard Childress were close to a deal and just hammering out sponsorship for the full season.

Now, less than a month later, it sounds more and more like Bowyer might not return to the #33 car. Reports are that the organization is still having trouble securing sponsorship, and Bowyer doesn’t want to take a pay cut.

Both of these problems are understandable. The sponsorship issue has been a problem throughout the sport for several years, and it’s tough for a driver who has been in the Chase three of the past four years to accept a pay cut after Edwards just signed one of the largest contracts in the history of the sport.

With all that said, Bowyer still needs to come to an agreement with Richard Childress Racing, even if it means a pay cut. Sure, he might get more money if he jumps ship and finds a ride at Richard Petty Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing, but the #33 car will be better in 2012 than any of his other options.

Bowyer started in the #07 at Richard Childress Racing in 2006 as a rookie, but then moved to the brand-new #33 team in 2009 after Casey Mears came in to drive the #07.

The 2009 season was a bad one for the entire RCR organization as none of its four teams made the Chase. However, it downsized to three teams in 2010 and every car made the Chase.

By leaving RCR, even though it is struggling mightily at the moment, Bowyer would put himself back in a similar position to his 2009 season. He would most likely drive for a start-up team as the third or fourth car at whatever organization he chose. Those teams don’t typically challenge for a Chase spot, much less contend for a championship.

It would feel like he’s starting over, and he would likely have to spend a few seasons waiting for the team to develop into a contender.

Richard Childress Racing might have stretches where the entire organization struggles, but as Kevin Harvick found out when he re-signed with RCR following the 2009 season, it comes back with a vengeance. Harvick nearly won the 2010 championship.

Right now RCR might look like it’s in trouble and can’t keep up with the other big teams, but when this organization figures out what is wrong, it generally rises to the top of the sport.

Even if Bowyer misses the Chase this season, the #33 team could easily be in the Chase and battle for a championship next season. That might not be possible at any of Bowyer’s other options.

With Austin Dillon contending for a championship in the truck series, RCR has options if Bowyer bolts. Right now Bowyer needs Childress more than Childress needs Bowyer.

Even if it means a lower salary, Bowyer needs to stay at RCR if he wants to be a contender in 2012.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rating the Irwin Tools Night Race: 2 Stars **

The action at the Bristol night race wasn’t all that exciting, but the guy who won the race continues to shock the world as the #2 car got win #3 on the season. The story is incredible, but the race gets a 2 Star Rating.

Brad Keselowski’s win at Bristol was another I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this moment, and the #2 team is in the midst of one of the most remarkable mid-season turnarounds in NASCAR history. Plus, Keselowski broke his ankle to get it all started.

Keselowski sat 23rd in the points standings just six races ago at New Hampshire, where he finished 35th. Since then he has ripped off a jaw-dropping five straight top 10s, four top fives and two wins with a worst finish of ninth at Indianapolis.

We’ve seen drivers get on this type of hot streak before, and there is usually at least one each season. Last year all Denny Hamlin did was win during the first half of the 2010 season as he visited Victory Lane five times, and Jimmie Johnson has gone through stretches a few times in his five-year championship run where he is literally unbeatable.

But, most of the time these drivers and teams are already Chase contenders and have shown strength either early in the season or previously in their career to indicate a run like that is possible, but Keselowski had just two top fives and a fuel mileage win before he caught fire.

Now he has people talking that he might be a championship threat, rather than just a Chase threat.

Before this recent run of success, Keselowski spent much of the year between 22nd and 28th in the standings. That means he was consistently running races comparable to Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex Jr. Now he is running with, and beating, drivers such as Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.

No matter what happens from here on out, Keselowski’s 2011 season will go down as one of the most shocking seasons ever.

As for Saturday night’s race, there were only six cautions, with three of those for debris. The cars of David Reutimann and Mark Martin are the only cars that had to go to the garage for damage. All of the other contenders had very clean races.

While this discussion could quickly turn into the new Bristol vs. old Bristol debate, the Nationwide race had nine cautions and many cars were torn up in wrecks.

Yes, the style of racing is drastically different at Bristol since the repave, but the best of the best race at the Sprint Cup level. Plus, with only a couple of Rookie of the Year candidates each year, the same basic group of drivers has been on the track together for the past four years or so. Keselowski and Joey Logano are the only two newcomers of consequence since the end of the ill-advised open-wheel invasion of 2008.

The current Nationwide group has a lot of drivers without much experience and they tore cars up like they were still racing on the old surface.

While the Cup drivers had to work hard in the car to pass each other because it was next to impossible to pass on the low side of the track, those battles only happen at a few spots throughout the field while everybody else settles into single file.

Anyway, next week the series heads to another fun night race; this time at Atlanta for Labor Day weekend. This race is even more special now that it’s the only time NASCAR visits during the season and there will be a lot going on with the points situation, the extra money on the line for certain drivers, and the fact that it’s the Labor Day weekend race. Have a good week, everybody.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Busch and Sadler truck battle might set up wild Cup race

The NASCAR fall weekend at Bristol got off to an early and rough start Wednesday night with the Camping World Truck Series race.

Kevin Harvick won the race, but that felt a little bit secondary to the action behind him throughout the night.

The race had nine cautions, but the big one -- and the one people will talk about for the rest of the weekend -- happened on lap 101 when Kyle Busch clipped the front end of Elliott Sadler’s truck, causing Busch to slam his right-front into the backstretch wall.

The race stayed green, and Busch limped around the track until Sadler came back around and he spun Sadler around to finally bring out the caution.

OK, so the two drivers had a dust-up at Bristol and Busch retaliated. That’s not terribly uncommon at Bristol, but Busch stoked the fire for the rest of the weekend by saying that Sadler wrecked him because he drives for Kevin Harvick Inc.

Unfortunately, Sadler actually drove the #24 truck owned by Joe Denette in this race.

Still, Sadler and Busch will both be in the Nationwide race Friday, and Busch and Harvick will be in the Cup race Saturday.

It’s unlikely Sadler and Busch would go after each other much more because Sadler is involved in the championship hunt in the Nationwide Series, but the Cup race could be another story.

Busch and Harvick have both been off of probation for a while now. And even though Harvick has said NASCAR told him to stay away from Busch on the track, talk is cheap.
If Busch starts to rough Harvick up, Harvick is almost certain to respond.

This could make for one of the best Bristol weekends in a long time. There have been a few moments this season where drivers really got upset with one another. Harvick and Busch at Darlington come to mind, and more recently the Greg Biffle and Boris Said incident at Watkins Glen. However, the biggest fireworks of the season could come Saturday night.

Harvick currently sits third in the points standings and Busch is already locked into the Chase. That means both drivers have very little to lose in the next three races, and they really have the least amount of pressure on them that they will for the rest of the season.

If both drivers are near the front toward the end of the race, we could certainly have a classic Bristol moment.

Bristol has been much tamer in recent years after the track was reconfigured, but Wednesday’s truck race may have brought back the edge to the World’s Fastest Half-Mile and could spice up the rest of the season.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rating the Pure Michigan 400: 3 Stars ***

In a season full of different winners, the final trip of the season around Michigan International Speedway had the most common winner out front. The race itself was also common for Michigan, minus the fuel mileage, and gets a 3 Star Rating.

Kyle Busch became the first driver to lock himself into the Chase with his fourth win of the season Sunday. This race was a little bit back to normal after a stretch of surprising contenders and unusual finishes.

The big-name drivers came to the front and the different lanes in the corners at Michigan actually gave drivers a chance to pass each other. Some of what has caused all of the different winners of late is that it’s just so darn hard to pass.

That finally wasn’t the case Sunday. Busch won from the 17th starting position and Jimmie Johnson finished second after starting 19th, even though he caught a break with a caution coming out while he was in the pits.

So what happens after a race where drivers can find ways to improve their position without having to use strategy? They repave the track that gave them that ability. Who knows what the track will be like next year. There will be slight progressive banking, but new pavement doesn’t often make for really good races. Sunday’s race was classic Michigan, and it’s a shame that type of race is in jeopardy.

In the big picture, Brad Keselowski continued an amazing stretch with a third-place finish at Michigan and moved up to 12th in the points. He has now moved up 11 positions in the points standings in the past four races. That is incredible. He’s gone from an also-ran that lucked into a win early in the year to a driver that will likely make the Chase. He could have one of the biggest in-season turnarounds in the history of the sport.

People talked a lot about how much more a bad finish would hurt a driver in the standings when the new system was announced before the start of the season. While that has been true to an extent, the real difference is how much ground a driver can gain with a good run.

What may have taken two months to achieve in making big gains in the standings now takes about one month, as Keselowski has proved. Maybe it is easier to make up ground under this format even though many thought it would be harder.

All of that means a lot could still change in the final three races before the Chase is set. Denny Hamlin’s 35th-place finish really opens the door for about eight drivers who either have to get a win to have a shot at the Chase or already have a win and need to pass Hamlin in the standings to grab that second wild-card spot.

Now the Sprint Cup Series heads to one of the best stretches of the season. Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond are all fun tracks and the uncertainty in the points standings will make those races all the better. This is going to be a great final push to the Chase.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rating the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen: You Rate the Race!!

Light rain and fog covered Watkins Glen on Monday morning, but the Sprint Cup Series cars provided the lightning and thunder in a hard-hitting race that brought yet another first–time winner.

This week Monday Morning Crew Chief lets you decide the Rating of the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. Check out the Rating System page and put your rating on this one.

Marcos Ambrose deserves a huge congratulations for winning this race. He has been close in almost every road-course race since he entered the sport in 2008. He has scored a top-five finish in every road course race of his career, except 2010 at Sonoma when he infamously shut off the engine going up a hill. However, he still finished sixth that race. That is simply an incredible record he has put together.

While Ambrose broke through and finally got to Victory Lane, a good chunk of the rest of the field ended up back in the garage area with cars that were absolutely destroyed.

Those cars are more torn up than any car from the rest of the season combined, unless you include the car Brad Keselowski wrecked in a test two weeks ago at Road Atlanta, which is also a road course.

The drivers always talk about Watkins Glen being the superspeedway of road courses, and that certainly held true Monday. Ten or 15 years ago, Denny Hamlin, David Ragan and David Reutimann might have been seriously injured or worse from those hits, and it’s unbelievable they all happened in the same race.

Watkins Glen is likely going to receive plenty of criticism for not having safer walls, and the track deserves it. But, this is a problem across the sport. Pocono finally put up a fence and SAFER barriers down the Long Pond straightaway for this season, and Richmond has work to do to cover the inside wall on the backstretch where Jeff Gordon found exposed concrete in the spring race.

Why is it so tough to get these tracks to cover everything with a SAFER barrier? No matter how unlikely it looks that a car could hit a certain part of the wall, it will at some point. In Monday’s case, however, it’s easy to picture a car crashing where Ragan did.

It would be nice if tracks were actually proactive for once. Dale Earnhardt died before real safety improvements were made, Kasey Kahne nearly flipped out of Pocono before they put the fence up. Auto racing is simply too dangerous to take chances.

Finally, we can’t leave out the Boris Said-Greg Biffle scuffle after the race. A fight nearly broke out between the two, and Said certainly made his interview count afterward, calling Biffle an “unprofessional little scaredy-cat” and “a chump.”

Only Said would come up with gems like those. Just imagine Kyle Busch calling Kevin Harvick a chump.

Too bad Said won’t be around for the rest of the year, but he certainly made his final appearance.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pocono decides people can’t handle its 500-mile races

Sprint Cup Series drivers will likely catch a break and race about 200 miles less in 2012 than they have in past years.

Pocono Raceway announced Wednesday that both races in 2012 will be just 400 miles long instead of the traditional 500-mile races.

There will surely be people throughout NASCAR land that think this is the greatest decision Pocono has ever made.

I’m not one of them.

Shortening a race to 400 miles is like adding double-file restarts, a wave-around rule for cars a lap down or even implementing a playoff format. They are all gimmicks intended to make the sport more “exciting.”

Sorry folks, people loved the sport long before all of these new rules were dreamed up. Why did they like it? Probably because they thought it was exciting to watch cars race as fast as they can all afternoon.

The reason people show up to a race isn’t to see how the points standings will look at the end of the day or whether the race finished in a certain amount of time. They go to see racing. All of the other sideshows are cute, but they are called race fans for a reason. They enjoy watching racing.

So, now they will race 400 miles twice a year at Pocono. Now the track is even more meaningless than it was before. Part of what makes Pocono special is that it tests the drivers, teams and cars like no other track on the schedule. Sure, road courses and short tracks are tough, but those races are at most 300 miles.

It doesn’t make sense for fans of any sport to want their events to be shorter. We hear the same complaints about baseball. “It takes too long.” Well, what do you want? Do fans not go to a game to enjoy an afternoon or evening at the event? What else do they possibly have planned that day that makes them want the event to finish 30 minutes sooner?

Attending these events is something special. One would think a fan would want their event to last as long as possible, even though it seems some people show up just to see how soon they can leave to "beat the traffic." What’s wrong with spending more time watching what you came to see?

Ok, enough with the rhetorical questions. Having a 400-mile race at Pocono is not a good idea. Ed Randall, the former governor of the Pennsylvania, which ironically is where Pocono Raceway is located, might say this is just another example of the “wussification of America.”

People will say they think it makes the drivers race harder throughout the race. Honestly, they race pretty darn hard most of the time. Sunday’s race wouldn’t have been any more exciting if it had finished on lap 160. If anything, it would’ve been less exciting. Kurt Busch would’ve won by a larger margin than Brad Keselowski beat Kyle Busch.

People will still complain the racing is boring at Pocono whether the race is 400 or 500 miles long.

Unfortunately, this is part of our culture. Now there will be just 10 races that are 500 miles long next year, including a stretch of 12 races during the summer without a 500-mile race.

Sorry folks, 400 miles at Pocono won’t be any more exciting than the 500-mile races at that track. The only thing that changes is a shorter time to enjoy races that happen just one day out of a week.

NASCAR racing isn’t like sitting in church listening to a pastor preach a sermon that lasts three times longer than necessary. We aren’t forced to watch NASCAR races, but we choose to because we like it. If somebody likes something, they generally want more of it, not less.

In this case, we got less.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Rating the Good Sam RV Insurance 500: 2 Stars **

The incredible storylines just keep coming this season as Brad Keselowski wins just days after a horrific crash at a test earlier in the week that broke his left ankle. However, the race took forever and the real battles didn’t happen until the very end. Race #2 at Pocono gets a 2 Star Rating.

Good strategy put Keselowski up front after a rain delay of nearly two hours, but after the rain Keselowski ran a perfect race to bring home his second win of the year after holding off a hard-charging Kyle Busch.

NASCAR couldn’t have asked for a better scenario to play out as the season heads toward the Chase. All of a sudden there are guys like Keselowski, Paul Menard and David Ragan in serious contention for a Chase spot.

That would have been unthinkable in past years. Guys like Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer are supposed to fill out the Chase field, not newcomers and guys that have been second-tier drivers for several years.

Also, who would’ve guessed Keselowski and Menard would be two of the contenders for the Sprint Summer Showdown? All of a sudden they, a charity and a fan could each have an extra $1 million if they win Labor Day weekend at Atlanta. Maybe a regular suspect will once again grab a win and make the world feel normal again.

There is just something different about this season. In a normal year, Kyle Busch would have jumped out on the final restart and driven away, or he would have at least run Keselowski down, passed him and driven on to a relatively uneventful victory.

Not this year. This year anybody can win. Keselowski’s win Sunday is the sixth “surprise” win of the season, a win by somebody that doesn’t typically fill up the prerace shows or receive attention once the Chase starts to take shape.

Last year there were only five surprise wins, and that’s if you include Jamie McMurray’s three wins and Juan Pablo Montoya’s win at Watkins Glen.

One would think this crazy stretch of different winners will come to an end soon, but Watkins Glen is often a crap shoot. People may have thought a Penske Racing car might win at Pocono, but that would almost certainly have been Kurt Busch’s #22 car, especially with Keselowski trying to drive with a broken ankle.

Shoot, most people wouldn’t drive their passenger car with a broken ankle, much less spend what turned out to be five-and-a-half hours slogging through 500 miles while driving as fast as possible around one of the most difficult tracks in the country.

The other interesting deal in Sunday’s race was the final laps battle between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch. They had a great battle, but started beating on each other between turns 1 and 2. That led to a discussion on pit road and a possible feud that could really spice up the rest of the season.

The five-time champion wouldn’t step into a feud late in the year, would he? Well, he’s certainly picked a battle with somebody who doesn’t worry about showing people he’s upset with them. Just think, Johnson and Busch in a tight battle during the Chase. Oh, that would be fun.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Edwards stays put, leaves possible seat open at Gibbs

Finally, the first move of the 2011 NASCAR Silly Season happened Thursday, although it turned out not to be a move at all.

After weeks and weeks of speculation, Carl Edwards signed a multiyear deal to remain the driver of the #99 Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing.

However, his decision to stay with his current team might be more surprising than if he left. People knew Edwards’ contract was up at the end of this season, and even as far back as last year the speculation was that Edwards would remain with Roush.

Then Joe Gibbs Racing came into play.

All of a sudden reports started to surface that Edwards was going to sign with Gibbs and possibly take over Joey Logano’s current ride, with Logano moving to a fourth car in the organization.

This would have made for a powerhouse team at Gibbs. The team currently has three of the young guns in the sport with the brightest futures, and Edwards would have immediately shot to the top of that group.

But, Edwards decided to stay with the organization that brought him into NASCAR and might carry him to a championship as early as this November.

Now that Edwards has signed, the rest of the moves can follow. Every year there is one big-time driver everyone waits for to make a move before the rest of the puzzle pieces fit into place. A few years ago it was Tony Stewart starting his own team, then it was Martin Truex Jr. moving to the #56 car and last year it was Kasey Kahne leaving the #9 car.

Since Edwards stayed put, that might open the door for somebody else to hop on as the fourth driver at Gibbs, but it looks like many of the other big-name free agents will follow Edwards’ lead and stay with their current team.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer are said to be close to finalizing their deals to remain at Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing next year. Juan Pablo Montoya will also likely re-sign with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.

Still, however unlikely, the option of a fourth car at Gibbs is a possibility, and it would be a steal for a second-tier driver to get in that ride next year.

Right now it looks like all of the main championship contenders will remain in their same colors and with their same teams next year, but the extra car at Gibbs could keep the Silly Season at least a little bit silly.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Amid 14 different winners, Stewart, Biffle and Bowyer still looking for Victory Lane

The next three races might not be the three an average NASCAR fan would pick to attend if he or she didn’t live nearby Pocono, Watkins Glen or Michigan, but they are important weeks on the NASCAR schedule.

With the exception of Daytona, Pocono Raceway is the first track the Sprint Cup Series visits for a second time in the season. It always feels like the haulers just pulled out of the infield before they come rolling back in today.

Since Jeff Gordon won the first race at Pocono in June, five of the six races have been won by a driver who was winless on the season going into that race. Kyle Busch’s dominating performance at Kentucky was the only race where a driver picked up his second win of the season. Overall, there have been 14 different winners so far this season.

Will this trend of a different face in Victory Lane nearly every week continue? Probably not, but there are still several drivers who usually have wins at this point in the season yet are still winless in 2011.

Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle all have cars capable of running up front more weeks than not, but so far the perfect scenario it takes to win a race has not come together for these drivers.

That’s not to say they are in dire trouble yet this season. Stewart has several tracks coming up where he has had success in the past, and his cars have been better lately as he’s made his way inside the top 10 in the points standings to head to Pocono in ninth.

Biffle also has reasons to be optimistic as the midway point of the Race to the Chase approaches. He won the second Pocono race a year ago, and the Ford cars continue to be strong at the larger tracks on the schedule. It’s just a matter of time before the end of a race plays out in Biffle’s favor.

That leaves Bowyer. He might be in the most trouble of these three drivers. The #33 car consistently comes to the front of the field at short tracks and flat tracks.

Unfortunately, Bristol is the only short track until the cutoff race at Richmond, and Pocono is also as flat as the tracks get until Richmond. Like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer will need good, consistent finishes the rest of the way if he wants to be a factor for the Chase come Richmond.

If these three drivers do win, that will push the total number of different winners to 17 before the Chase starts. That is remarkable, and it could go beyond that since the series will visit Chicagoland for the first and only time this year to start the Chase, and then Talladega looms later in the Chase. Anybody could win that one, and the way things have been going this year, somebody different likely will.