Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rating the TUMS Fast Relief 500: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series visited the shortest track on the schedule at Martinsville Speedway, but it had just as much action as the previous week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, the longest in NASCAR. The race at Martinsville continued to jumble the Chase standings and receives a 5 Star Rating.

This race took components from several of the other 5 Star races this season. It began with hard driving from the drop of the green flag that resulted in several early wrecks, similar to the September race at Richmond, and around lap 100 the top five included drivers such as A.J. Allmendinger and Casey Mears. Those type of names don’t usually show up that high on the scoring pylon unless it’s at Talladega or Daytona.

And Brian Vickers wrecked.

After the initial scramble, the race settled down and big-name drivers such as Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin led for long stretches.

Until Brian Vickers wrecked.

Finally, after a day that included a season-high 18 cautions, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart found themselves at the front of the field and had a good battle to the finish line where Stewart notched his third win of the Chase.

After Brian Vickers wrecked.

Overall, Sunday’s race at Martinsville had more of the type of racing the sport had lacked through much of the Chase. Early on non-Chasers were in the mix and nobody held back and rode around. Nearly every car in the field had fairly significant damage not only at the end of the race, but most of them had torn up cars before the halfway mark.

Especially Brian Vickers, who barely had a car left after he was involved in five of the 18 cautions.

The points standings also took another crazy turn after the messes at Martinsville grabbed many of the title contenders. Matt Kenseth looked to be in great position to take over the points lead and Brad Keselowski would be within 10 points of the leader. But, both wrecked late in the race and now find themselves fifth and fourth, respectively.

Instead, Carl Edwards slipped out of Martinsville with a ninth-place finish and his points lead still intact despite running in mid-pack for much of the race and falling a lap down a couple of times.

Next up is Texas. Last year’s race at Texas was one of the most memorable of the season as Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon fought on the backstretch, Kyle Busch flipped off an official and a myriad of other weird, but entertaining events throughout the race.

Plus, the Chase is as wide open at this point in the season as it has been in many years. By the way, Johnson is now back to within one race’s worth of points out of the lead. Right now it looks impossible, but so did a World Series title for the St. Louis Cardinals when they were 10-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 25.

Might this be the year of incredible comebacks?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rating the Good Sam Club 500: 5 Stars *****

After five relatively boring races to start the Chase, the excitement level jumped up a notch at Talladega. The final restrictor-plate race of the season gets the first 5 Star Rating of the Chase.

Clint Bowyer won yet another photo finish Sunday at Talladega, edging out his teammate Jeff Burton at the line. Bowyer made a great move coming into the tri-oval and just barely kept Burton from coming back to beat him.

This race was one of the best restrictor-plate races since the two-car bump draft has been used in full force. While NASCAR didn’t end the two-car draft with its rule changes heading into the race, it did keep the pack a little closer.

Sunday’s race kind of combined the two styles of drafting. Cars had to be touching to make any speed, but other than Bowyer and Burton at the end, nobody really jumped out from the pack.

Plus, the emotional ride of a restrictor-plate race is unlike any other.

Before the gentlemen start their engines, there is a nervous tension that surrounds the racetrack. Talladega one of the two most exciting tracks on the schedule, but that also means it is one of the two most dangerous, as well, along with Daytona.

The drivers’ eyes tell the story on a Sunday morning at Talladega. There is a little more trepidation than normal, and Dan Wheldon’s wreck last week only made that feeling worse.

Then the race starts and all of the focus turns to the track. The first several laps are usually pretty intense as the field sorts itself out, but then the race settles into a rhythm. That rhythm remains until the laps wind down. Then the tension really starts to pick up.

The little bit larger packs Sunday brought back a few larger wrecks. A.J. Allmendinger and Mark Martin both got turned into the middle of the racetrack. Those spins would’ve taken out 20 cars a couple of years ago, but they also would’ve taken out maybe just a car or two in recent restrictor-plate races.

However, these wrecks are extremely dangerous. The hit Regan Smith took in Turn 4 was unbelievably hard.

After the big wreck, it’s time to settle the race among the cars that are left, and then things get wild as drivers such as Jeff Gordon manage to find their way through a hole that hadn’t even developed yet.

Finally, the final laps turn into a final lunge toward the finish line. This time Burton and Bowyer jumped out after the late restart and were able to settle things before the four-wide pack barreled across the finish line.

There is no other type of race with an intensity level as high for nearly as long. Once a restrictor-plate race is finished, fans often feel more exhausted emotionally than their favorite driver looks after he climbs out of his car.

Overall, this Talladega race was another wild ride. Many people might not like the two-car drafts, but this was the best version of that style of racing so far.

Now it’s time to finish the run to the championship. Carl Edwards extended his lead, Kevin Harvick took a big hit in the points standings, and Jimmie Johnson is 50 points out of the lead. That’s more than a full race, and doubts that he can come back get larger with every passing week.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The pain of death

Auto racing is a dangerous sport. We all get that. However, that doesn’t change the extreme grief and pain that comes along with death.

Former IndyCar Series champion and defending Indianapolis 500 Champion Dan Wheldon died Sunday after an incredibly bad wreck 11 laps into the final race of the IndyCar season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It has been a while since motorsports lost a driver because of injuries sustained in a racing crash in America. The last IndyCar driver to die because of a crash was Paul Dana in 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Dale Earnhardt was the last NASCAR fatality after his wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

That, however, doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult to deal with the death of a racecar driver. One death is by far one too many, and each time a series director has to make that awful announcement, it is the absolutely worst words that have to be said. Unfortunately, we live in a sinful world where things don’t always turn out on the good side.

It is horrible to say, but deaths in auto racing have been fairly common throughout
the years. However, now every national race is on television and racing safety has improved to the point where we all want to hope that the latest death is always the final one.

To say the least, those three hours of ABC’s coverage Sunday were difficult to watch. I’m sure many fans felt those terrible emotions that bubble up during a horrific wreck.

First there’s the shock of what happened. No racing accident is expected, especially one with the severity of Sunday’s wreck.

Then there are the hold-your-breath moments directly after the wreck where you make sure everybody is able to either drive away, as Jimmie Johnson did in the NASCAR race Saturday night at Charlotte, or at least walk away.

In the last decade, that has almost always been the case. No matter how bad the wreck looks, the driver is able to get out of the car. We’ve seen it in both NASCAR and Indycar. Elliot Sadler got out of his car after hitting the inside wall at Pocono head-on, and while Mike Conway didn’t walk away from a wreck at the end of the 2010 Indy 500 when he flipped up into the fence, he still came away with injuries no worse than what would put a football player on injured reserve.

But, when that doesn’t happen, then we are left with that empty feeling of not knowing what is going on and what condition the driver is in. At that point a mix hope and fear starts to set in.

In Earnhardt’s case, everybody saw the ambulance rushing out of Daytona International Speedway. On Sunday, everybody saw the medical helicopter take off. At that point best-case scenarios start to run through people’s mind, such as, “Well, he’s hurt, but it probably isn’t too serious and he will be fine.”

Then we wait.

And then we hear the news.

That’s when the bottom falls out of your heart. The series representative makes the announcement, there is again initial shock and then people start to comprehend what that statement really means. Dan Wheldon will not be coming back.

That feeling is the lowest of lows. Yes, there is nothing worse in racing, but there is also nothing worse in life.

Death is bad. It hurts everybody. People lost not simply a racecar driver Sunday; they lost a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a friend.

Emotions in the wake of Sunday’s accident will surely cover the spectrum. Some will be sad, some will say, “Hey, it’s a dangerous sport,” and some will be angry at the series or the race track or the entire situation.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The hurt of losing someone you personally knew, or knew vicariously through the television, is the worst kind of hurt. Maybe the sport will continue to become safer in the wake of Wheldon’s death, he was the main driver testing a new, safer car model for 2012, but ultimately Sunday was a dark day.

Dan Wheldon will be missed.

Rating the Bank of America 500: 3 Stars ***

The first half of the race was more of the same boring follow-the-leader racing of the first four weeks of the Chase, but then Jimmie Johnson wrecked and guys started to fight for positions. While it still wasn’t a good race, Charlotte does barely jump up to grab a 3 Star Rating.

Without everything that happened at the end of the race, Kyle Busch would have easily put this one to bed. After Greg Biffle had a pit-road miscue to remove him from contention, Busch stomped the field similar to how he won the race in July at Kentucky Speedway.

The first three-quarters of Saturday night’s race was awful. It felt like an extended version of the first three segments of the All-Star race where nobody challenges for a position.

But then the biggest moment of the night happened.

Jimmie Johnson was battling underneath Ryan Newman through turns 1 and 2 when he got loose, tried to save the car and turned up nearly straight into the wall.

The wreck obviously did some major damage to the #48 car and Johnson’s championship run as he is now eighth in the standings and 35 points out of the lead, but it could’ve done some serious damage to Johnson himself.

I think it’s safe to say that anybody who has been a NASCAR fan for at least 10 years held their breath when they saw the #48 car head toward the wall at that angle. On the surface, that wreck looked eerily similar to the one that killed Dale Earnhardt in 2001 at Daytona. The front end of the car caught the apron, pointed the car toward the wall and the driver was along for the ride.

Thankfully, and I know we say this every time there is a hard wreck, both the cars and the walls are incredibly safe.

Just when the quality of racing, or lack of it, starts to gnaw at a race fan’s mind, something like Johnson’s wreck happens and reminds us all that right now the cars have to be built this way. Johnson can now add his list to the half-dozen or so drivers who have had the cars and SAFER barriers save their life, or at least save them from serious injury. But, with Dan Wheldon’s fatal wreck Sunday, the work to improve safety will never end.

Now, the other factor of Johnson’s wreck is that it will take a wild charge from the #48 team to come back and win championship #6. Even with his average runs in the first two races of the Chase, Johnson still was well within striking distance to take the lead. That is now gone. Johnson is going to have to be nearly perfect even to be in the championship conversation come Homestead.

On a lighter note, Matt Kenseth won the race and made a great move to get around Busch after the final restart. He may have won the race by nearly one second, but he had to make the move early in the run or Busch might have been able to hold him off.

Hopefully the finish at Charlotte will spark a wild race at Talladega. The first half of the Chase has been tepid, at best. The rule changes to the cars at Talladega might change the style of racing a bit, but the sport needs a race that has people talking nonstop about the actual race for the following week instead of the championship situation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Will Bowyer be better at Michael Waltrip Racing?

One of the final major pieces of the 2011 Silly Season fell in place last week when Clint Bowyer finally announced he will be moving to the #15 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012.

But, is this a good move for Bowyer?

Ever since Bowyer broke into the Sprint Cup Series with Richard Childress Racing in 2006, he has been a fringe contender for the Chase. Some years he squeaks in and makes it, other years he misses by just a few points.

This year he missed by just a few points, but Childress couldn’t put together a sponsorship deal to keep Bowyer in the #33 so Bowyer will try his hand as the third car at Michael Waltrip Racing.

On the surface this looks like a win-win situation for everybody. Waltrip gets a high-profile driver that has consistently finished better than his current two drivers, David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr, and Bowyer gets a fresh start after several up-and-down years for Richard Childress Racing.

However, people who think Bowyer is instantly going to be as much of a Chase contender next year as he has been in the past need to temper their enthusiasm. Just because he’s helping an organization expand and has full sponsorship doesn’t mean he’s going to succeed. Just ask Truex Jr.

The driver of the #56 car hasn’t won a race since joining MWR in 2010 and finished 22nd in the points standings.

Michael Waltrip Racing is still a young organization and growing each year, but this isn’t a group that has consistently won. In fact, it has hardly won at all.

Reutimann won at Chicago in 2010, but his best points finish was 16th in 2009. He and Truex Jr. are currently 28th and 22nd in the standings, respectively.

So, Bowyer is leaving an organization that has won 10 times in the past two years and had drivers contend for the championship to a team that has won one race in the past two years and has yet to put a team in the Chase.

Sure, it’s nice to think Bowyer will help raise the performance level at MWR, but many people hailed Truex Jr.’s move to the #56 in the same way. Granted, Bowyer has had more success in his career than Truex Jr., but it is going to be an uphill climb for the new #15 team.

Bowyer may have had to move because Childress couldn’t field a car for him next year, but he and the #15 have a lot of work to do just to maintain the performance Bowyer had at RCR.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Rating the Hollywood Casino 400: 2 Stars **

Sunday’s race at Kansas certainly looked like a lot of Chase races in the past five years as Jimmie Johnson ran his trademark Chase-dominating race and scored his second win of the season. However, he stunk up the show, which turns in the fourth 2 Star Rating in the four Chase races.

Wow, has Kansas become the new California? In past years, the Chase race at California was the most predictable race of the season. Johnson would dominate. Period. Move on to the next race.

Well, he did the same thing Sunday.

While NASCAR may be pleased that the points standings are remaining close, this certainly looks very similar to the last five years. That #48 car was on a rail nearly the entire race Sunday. When that team hits the setup right, nobody can catch it.

Overall, the race at Kansas emphasized the issues many NASCAR fans love to complain about. Johnson kicked the field’s butt, there were debris cautions and much of the race was devoid of any action. It’s wonderful that the middle of the field looks like a swarm of bees after restarts, but some of that action has to continue after the first few laps.

After the field settled down after the restarts, that was it. Everybody rode around until the next pit stops.

It’s not the drivers’ faults, necessarily. The racing, or lack thereof, we have seen in the first four Chase races isn’t terribly different than several of the races during the middle of the regular season.

Unfortunately, the current configuration of the cars makes it incredibly difficult to pass. Nobody made a pass at New Hampshire, the only lead changes at Dover came after a restart and Kansas looked similar to those past two races. The only difference was this track was a bit longer and had a tri-oval.

However, all is not lost. The lack of action in the first part of the Chase has kept the points standings bunched together. Right now eight drivers are still within 20 points of the lead, and the front three are separated by just four points. That could set up a wild run to the championship.

Also, the racing should get better in the coming weeks. Races at Charlotte are usually interesting and exciting more often than not. Talladega is a wild ride no matter the rules or style of racing and Martinsville has been the most exciting short track on the schedule the past few years.

So, shake off the early Chase cobwebs and get set for a stretch of races that hopefully turns up the excitement factor. Maybe excitement is too strong of a word at this point. A race that is a little more watchable would be a good start.

Thank goodness most of the Chase has yet to be run. Although the standings are tight, the races have had very little tension.

The next few races have to be better. But hey, they can’t be much worse.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sorry folks, Jimmie Johnson will be a factor in this year's Chase

After two weeks of people thinking, hoping and even begging themselves to believe that Jimmie Johnson might be too far out of the points lead to come back and win yet another championship, he dashed all of those dreams in one week.

Johnson finished second last week at Dover and now sits fifth in the points standings just 13 points behind co-leaders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.

Of course all of the talk about the #48 team’s demise was incredibly premature. That would be like saying the New England Patriots won’t be a factor in the NFL playoffs. These teams are too good to suddenly fall apart.

However, I don’t think anybody expected Johnson to be so close after just one good run, and it is a little scary to think what he could do to the Chase standings if he puts together a string of top-five finishes.

When Johnson started the Chase with a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire in 2006, it took him until the eighth race of the Chase to make it back to the top.

This year Johnson cut his point deficit from 29 to 13 after finishing well outside the top 10 in the first two races and if everything fall right he could be back on top by Sunday at Kansas, but more likely it could be the sixth race of the Chase at Talladega or the following week at Martinsville.

While people may have thought, or at least wanted to believe, the new points system would make it more difficult for Johnson to dominate the Chase, it might actually make it easier for Johnson to run away with the trophy.

We saw earlier this season how much easier it is to gain ground in the points standings under this new system when Brad Keselowski jumped from 23rd to 12th in just six races.

That’s not to say that all 12 drivers, or even half of the Chase field will have a realistic chance at the championship as the season comes to a close, but the new system has made the standings more fluid.

When the new points system was announced before the season, a lot was made about how a bad finish hurt a driver more than in the past. But, the flip side of that argument is that a good finish helps in the standings more than ever.

It was never likely that the #48 to be out of the championship picture as the series heads to Homestead for the final race of the year, but the new points system may have made that even more of a pipe dream.

Yet, while the points system might make it easier for a driver to recover in the standings, it also makes it harder to keep the lead. No driver has dominated the standings during the regular season this year the way Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick did the past two years.

Right now the standings are tied, and the way the season has gone so far it would be shocking if the leader had more than a 10-point lead heading into the final race at Homestead.

Many fans will hope that leader is not Johnson, but last week at Dover showed it is going to take a substantial amount of bad luck to keep him from being a factor for the championship.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rating the AAA 400: 2 Stars **

Somebody other than Tony Stewart finally won a race that didn’t come down to fuel mileage, but that doesn’t mean the race at Dover was any more exciting. The third race in the Chase gets the third straight 2 Star Rating to start the playoffs.

Kurt Busch put his name in the ring as a possible championship contender as he held off Jimmie Johnson to score his second win of the season. He had a surprisingly consistent car most of the day and didn’t have to lose his mind in anger over the radio during the second half of the race.

Overall, this was typical of a relatively poor Dover race. The car that jumped out front on the restart simply could not be caught. There may have been 24 lead changes, but many of them came during green-flag pit stops. Otherwise, Carl Edwards, Johnson and Busch dominated their three chunks of the race.

Right now Dover might be a track that Goodyear needs to continue to test and tweak the tire compound. The style of racing Sunday was basically a mirror image of the race at New Hampshire. Nobody could run side-by-side even when the race came down to the finish.

There have been races at both New Hampshire and Dover that have been exciting throughout the years. At Dover, the three-way battle between the Roush-Fenway drivers in 2008 that Greg Biffle won and the race that following spring where Johnson beat Tony Stewart after a spirited battle.

That type of race has disappeared for the time being at Dover. For whatever reason, the tires are laying down an incredible amount of rubber in the turns and it has made for follow-the-leader racing.

Right now the racing styles at Dover and Bristol are flipped. The drivers can race all day long at Bristol side-by-side but they can’t run more than a lap or two that way at Dover.

Fans want to see the single-file racing at the half-mile Bristol track because that track is short enough that drivers can move each other out of the way to gain a spot. At the mile-long Dover track, side-by-side battles are far more exciting.

Anyway, the other part to Sunday’s race involved the championship standings. Right now we’ve got a tie between Kevin Harvick and Edwards, but the intrigue begins with Busch and Johnson in fifth and sixth.

Both drivers moved up five spots and have shut down the talks that both of them are already out of the championship battle. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin might be out of the championship picture, but not these two past champions.

Next week the series will head to Kansas for another go around on the ever-exciting Kansas Speedway. Don’t worry folks, only one more week before the Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville stretch.

The championship might be decided in those three races. The next race at Kansas will just be another week teams have to be careful not to cause a problem that will put them behind when the interesting part of the Chase begins at Charlotte.