Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rating the Sylvania 300: 2 Stars **

Another Chase race, and another fuel-mileage win for Tony Stewart. The first two Chase tracks might look different, but their races were nearly the same. New Hampshire draws the second consecutive 2 Star Rating to start the Chase.

Stewart and the #14 sure have the fuel-mileage game figured out right now. Both at Chicago and New Hampshire he had not only a good car, but he and his team put themselves in position to take advantage of the situation. Last week he had to hold off the field, this week he had to wait for Clint Bowyer to run out of gas to take the lead.

This race was nearly a mirror image of last week’s race at Chicago, except the sky was finally blue with hardly any clouds.

As for the action on the track, both races were extremely clean. Chicago had twice as many as New Hampshire’s three cautions, but only one actually came from a wreck. Everything else was a myriad of reasons that didn’t involve cars being damaged.

Also, nobody made a pass Sunday. We saw this in the July race at New Hampshire, as well. Once the field settled down after a restart, everybody pretty much remained in their same spot.

That’s not to say the drivers simply took it easy all day. Sure, that may be part of the problem the past two weeks, but right now the setup of the cars does not make for good racing at New Hampshire.

Even last year, the drivers beat and banged their way through the race, and that has been fairly common in the past several years. That’s not the case this year. The New Hampshire races this year weren’t far from the restrictor-plate race at the track in 2000 when Jeff Burton led the entire race.

Along with the cars not matching up with the track very well, the fact that the Chase has started also plays a part in why these races have been so tame.

It’s not that this group of drivers can’t mix it up. They could barely get through 30 laps at Richmond without taking each other out. The Chase drivers have to play it safe right now, especially with the new points system. Denny Hamlin is 66 points out, and out of the championship picture.

Jimmie Johnson finished 18th Sunday and is 29 points out of the lead in 10th. That margin, however, is not insurmountable. Johnson has climbed out of similar holes to go on and win the championship, and he isn’t a full race out of the lead yet. That’s when things start to get scary, and Hamlin is already a race and a half behind points leader Stewart.

Still, these two races cannot be used to truly measure the Chase drivers’ success and predict how the rest of the Chase will play out. Although right now it seems possible, not every race is going to come down to fuel mileage. It would be shocking if it came into play next week at Dover. It could well be the fifth race at Charlotte Motor Speedway before we start to see who is going to be a factor for the championship at Homestead.

So far this year’s Chase has only taught us one thing: Save fuel; it’s a killer to run out.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stewart's championship chances still small

Tony Stewart made a statement in a lot of minds Monday that he is not only a championship contender, but could be a favorite to win the championship this season.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Stewart looked strong at Chicago and would’ve had a good finish even if the race hadn’t come down to fuel mileage, and the future looks promising as the Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where teammate Ryan Newman won and Stewart finished second.

Those are all positives for Stewart’s championship hopes, but there’s still that lingering factor: The Chase has eight more races after New Hampshire.

Stewart has won at every track in the Chase at some point in his career and 17 of his 40 career wins have come at current Chase tracks.

However, the measure of a driver’s performance is usually more accurate based on how they have performed throughout the season more than throughout their career. Shoot, Jeff Burton has won at New Hampshire four times, but he finished 16th in the July race and has just one top 10 all season.

Just three weeks ago, Stewart was having trouble hanging onto the final spot in the Chase and had just come off of a stretch where he finished outside the top 10 in three of four races, including a dreadful 28th-place performance at Bristol.

We’ve seen other drivers, particularly Clint Bowyer, barely squeak into the Chase and then reel off a win or two at the start that throws them up into the top five in the points standings. But, those teams typically don’t sustain their success enough to truly contend for the championship.

Even 2007, the first year Bowyer made the Chase, he won the first race at New Hampshire and finished second twice more in the first five races of the Chase, but he still finished third, 346 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart could very well have turned a corner Monday and will contend for the championship all the way to Homestead, but 10th-place teams don’t usually turn into championship teams in 10 races.

The first 26 races of the season are typically a good barometer for how strong a team is in a given year. Plus, it’s much easier to drop from first to 10th, as Kyle Busch did in 2008, than it is to climb from 10th to first.

With its win at Chicago, the #14 team might have hit on a setup that will keep them near the top of the standings for the remainder of the Chase, but a fuel-mileage win in the first-place shouldn’t make that team the favorite to win it all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rating the GEICO 400: 2 Stars **

Tony Stewart won his first race of the season at Chicago for the third time in his career Monday, but this time it started a possible championship run in the Chase. The first race at Chicago to start the Chase gets a 2 Star Rating.

This race was a combination of the entire season wrapped up in one race. There was another different winner, the 16th different winner of the season, it was a fuel-mileage race, it was run at least a day later than scheduled and Kevin Harvick nearly came out of nowhere for the win.

While nobody dominated the race, it still didn’t feel like a lot of drivers had a chance to win the race. Even when fuel mileage could have caused a surprise winner to roll into Victory Lane, it still felt like only a few drivers had a chance to win.

Maybe that was because nearly the entire top 10 was filled with Chase drivers for much of the race. Eight Chase drivers finished in the top 10, and that was with several drivers coasting to the finish line with empty gas tanks.

That, of course, is why those drivers and teams are in the Chase. They are the best in the sport, and they showed up ready to race at Chicago.

These teams weren’t huge factors in the races leading up to the Chase, particularly teams that had already clinched a Chase berth. But, they waited until the Chase started and put together strong, consistent races where they could challenge for the win.

Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin all finished outside of the top 20, but the only team that should be really concerned after Monday’s race is the #11 team of Hamlin.

The other three drivers fell victim to fuel mileage, and while those lost points might hurt them later in the Chase, the overall performance of the #11 team was troubling.

Hamlin got into trouble early in the race with a vibration and then hit the wall late in the race to finish off his day. The #11 team simply is not competing at the same level it did not only a year ago, but for the past few years.

Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in points the past three years, and would’ve won the championship last year if he would’ve run a clean final race at Homestead.

Instead, he spun out early in that race and hasn’t recovered since. One would think this team would be capable of turning the switch once the Chase started, but this team has sputtered all season. It has a few good races but then comes back with two terrible races.

Hamlin has some major work to do if he is going to be relevant in this Chase. His chance to contend for the championship could already be over.

So, next week it’s on to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Hopefully the weather returns to the beautiful racedays we had in the first half of the season.

With as competitive as the Chase teams were Monday in Chicago, racing luck could be what separates the field this year even before Talladega comes along to stir the pot one final time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rating the Wonderful Pistachios 400: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series drivers battled through a wild night at Richmond International Raceway to set the field for the 2011 Chase. The action track certainly lived up to its name, and the final race of the regular season gets a 5 Star Rating.

This type of race came out of nowhere. Sure, there have been some exciting races lately and a few with several hard wrecks, but cars wrecked nearly from the drop of the green flag Saturday night and drivers stood in the gas all night long, causing 15 cautions, the second-most this season and most since the Daytona 500.

Maybe the new Chase format spiced things up for this race. Last year’s race was very clean with only three cautions. Also, most of Saturday night’s wrecks were because drivers tried to force their way into a hole, especially early in a race, and we haven’t seen that in quite a while.

NASCAR may have finally settled on a system that will produce the excitement it has been trying to manufacture for years.

The entire race felt like it was the final 10 laps at Talladega where all heck breaks loose.

The craziness started early and involved several of the main Chase contenders. Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all sustained damage in the second wreck of the evening.

As it turns out, the points standings didn’t change at all and everybody who was in the Chase coming into the race left Richmond with a Chase spot. But the #88 hung on a small limb off the edge of a cliff for most of the night.

At times, Dale Jr. was only four points from falling out of the top 10 in the standings after he got caught up in the early wreck and then traded blows with Travis Kvapil of all people, and spun Kvapil out on lap 154.

However, Dale Jr. and Kvapil weren’t the only two drivers to engage in short track vengeance. Marcos Ambrose and Brian Vickers ran into each other, and Vickers got parked by NASCAR for blocking Ambrose under the caution. Also, possibly the most interesting battle of the night, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson took turns spinning each other out.

The Busch-Johnson battle has simmered for years now and could really blow up if they meet during the Chase. Thankfully, both were already locked into the Chase and didn’t have anything to lose by trying to ruin each other’s night. That situation could be a lot different if it happens again sometime in the next 10 weeks.

Along with the carnage, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards had a good race to the finish as Harvick crossed the line with Edwards inches from his rear bumper.

Harvick deserved to win the race. He had the best car for most of the night even though the running order kept getting shuffled because of all the wrecks.

The win gives Harvick four on the season and he will start the Chase on top with Kyle Busch.

Overall, the changes to the points system and Chase format this year worked well during the regular season. It will be interesting to see how the Chase plays out, but it’s unlikely one driver will run away with the championship since several contenders have been on top of their game in recent weeks.

Have a good week everybody and enjoy this year’s Chase.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Rock finally back on a NASCAR schedule

There have been several high-profile schedule-related announcements in recent years, but none nearly as sweet as this one.

Rockingham Speedway is back on a NASCAR schedule and will host a Camping World Truck Series race April 15, 2012.

After Jeff Gordon won his 85th career race Tuesday in Atlanta to put him third on the all-time wins list, a week of history and nostalgia continued Wednesday when North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue announced that a NASCAR race will be run at Rockingham Speedway for the first time in eight years.

Wow. Has it really been that long since Matt Kenseth nosed out Kasey Kahne in a photo finish in 2004?

This is one of the more remarkable racetrack stories in history. This sort of thing simply doesn’t happen. When NASCAR leaves a track for bigger markets, it doesn’t return. Period.

This is like the Wood Brothers winning the 2012 Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne. People may have hoped the Wood Brothers would win another race or that NASCAR racing would someday return to Rockingham, but they would’ve been living in a dream world if they really expected it to happen.

Former NASCAR tracks litter the Southeast as the sport has grown and moved into bigger markets. North Wilkesboro Speedway, for example, is the next most recent track to be abandoned by NASCAR. After a brief re-opening in 2010 for the first time since NASCAR left in 1994, it closed once again in May.

Rockingham Speedway closed in 2004 as NASCAR continued to drive away from its Winston Cup days and into the Chase era.

But, former driver Andy Hillenburg bought the track in 2007 from Speedway Motorsports Inc, which bought the track in 2004 so it could end racing at The Rock and add another race at Texas Motor Speedway.

In the next four years Hillenburg put The Rock on his back and carried it out of the grave that awaits most tracks that NASCAR leaves behind.

Now it is back.

What makes this move even more remarkable is NASCAR pulled the plug on another old-time short track just two months ago when it announced the truck and Nationwide series would not return to Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in 2012 and the Nationwide race would move to the bit Indianapolis Motor Speedway to run on Brickyard 400 weekend.

At the time it looked like another move in the long stretch of NASCAR running from old short tracks, but this time NASCAR took a step back toward where it belongs.

It is still be wildly optimistic to think Rockingham would ever hold another Cup race, but at least there will be a NASCAR race on the speedway in southern North Carolina. The smiles on fans’ faces might be just a little bit bigger that day.

After a decade where NASCAR made many decisions that abandoned long-time fans, the sanctioning-body finally threw them a bone by putting Rockingham back on the schedule.

What Hillenburg and the people at Rockingham Speedway have done is incredible, and hopefully it is the start of a long, new life for The Rock.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rating the AdvoCare 500: 4 Stars ****

It took a long time for the Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway to finally go green, but once it did the drivers put on a show. The belated Labor Day weekend race gets a 4 Star Rating.

For five days, weather was one of the main topics of discussion. Thankfully, the driver who finally won the race was able to push the weather to the back burner as the main topic of interest became Jeff Gordon’s 85th career victory to put him alone in third place on one of the most important lists in the sport.

The all-time wins list in NASCAR is similar to the all-time home runs list in baseball. It is one of the largest measuring sticks of greatness in the sport.

Congratulations are certainly in order for the greatest driver of this generation. Plus, Tuesday’s race came down to him and the next best driver of this generation: Jimmie Johnson.

Atlanta is a tough track. It’s fast, rough and the asphalt is worn out, but it usually makes for a great race. Once Goodyear found a tire that would work at Atlanta with the Car of Tomorrow, the racing in Dixie has been some of the best each season. Too bad they only race there once a season. But, that’s a topic for another day.

The battle between Gordon and Johnson was terrific. It looked for a while like we would have one of those classic side-by-side Atlanta finishes, but Johnson’s car got too loose in the final couple of laps. Still, Johnson is one of just a few drivers that would’ve been able to keep that car under him. He basically drove the final three laps sideways.

For fans who have complained all season that there have been too many fuel-mileage races and surprise winners, this was a flat-out battle to the end with the sport’s two best drivers. What a way for Gordon to get such a historic win.

When people look back on the past 15 years of NASCAR, Gordon and Johnson dominate the landscape, and it was fitting for those two to battle it out in a race that now means something in the record books.

However, the best of the sport didn’t just finish in the top two positions. Arguably the next best active driver, Tony Stewart, finished third and former champion Kurt Busch finished fourth.

This race was the perfect balance (No, not of flavor and refreshment. That would fit last week when Brad Keselowski’s win) to the new and different winners this season. It showed the best drivers will still rise to the top when it counts. Plus, having future Hall of Famers fight for the win is pretty incredible. That’s like watching Peyton Manning and Tom Brady battle in a classic game.

So, although we had to wait days upon days for the race to start, it paid off with a satisfying race and now there is only a few days until the next race at Richmond.

Enjoy the shortest week between races ever.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day letdown at Atlanta

The 2011 NASCAR season started splendidly with six months of near-perfect weather every week, but that came crashing to an end in the second half of the season.

Hardly a practice session was disrupted by rain in what was one of the longest stretches of good weather in recent NASCAR history, but qualifying was washed out in Kentucky in July and the rain began to infest race weekends on a more regular basis.

Rain interrupted the August race at Pocono for nearly two hours before it caused the entire race to be postponed the following week at Watkins Glen until Monday.

Cancelling qualifying is a bummer, and rain delays during a race make for a long day, but both are better than what Tropical Storm Lee dumped on the holiday weekend race at Atlanta.

Intense rain storms made for a surreal evening and crushed sporting events throughout the country. Lightning even struck the football stadium at West Virginia University during a game against Marshall.

Unfortunately, the rain this weekend couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

Atlanta Motor Speedway now has only one race a year, and the Labor Day race has always been one of NASCAR’s premier events.

Every thing was set for a nice evening of racing to be followed by a holiday, where many people don’t have to get up for work the next day. Then the rain came down in buckets.

The worst part is the race has been postponed for two days because more and more rain is expected Monday. The race has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Tuesday.

Many people might be upset the race has been pushed back all the way to a work day even though there was a buffer day with the holiday on Monday, but NASCAR didn't have much of a choice.

The fun choice may have been to wait the rain out Sunday night and have an overnight race if there was ever a long enough break in the rain to run some laps.

NASCAR certainly didn’t want the circumstances to come together. The television ratings are going to be terrible as most people are back at work, and who knows what the attendance numbers will look like. They likely will be way down because many fans came to the track as part of the extended weekend and won’t be able to add an extra day to their vacation.

So, what should have been one of the better weekends on the NASCAR schedule turned into one of the most frustrating as the rain has once again caught up with the sport.

Thankfully, the weather has been better at tracks throughout the schedule for much of the year. Hopefully that pattern returns for the final stretch of the season so we don't have to sit through more nights like Sunday.