Friday, December 23, 2011

Kurt Busch finds a ride, but Silly Season still isn’t settled

Even though the biggest name of the NASCAR offseason found a ride, the Silly Season surprisingly still contains several unknowns.

Kurt Busch found a landing spot in the #51 Phoenix Racing car after he mutually separated with Roger Penske and left the #22 car Dec. 5 following his tirade in the final race of the season Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

However, that move does little to clear up the jumbled mess his leaving Penske Racing created.

After Busch left the #22 car it looked like he had very few options for a new ride, and that was true. The #51 car is certainly not a sought-after ride by championship-winning drivers. That car is usually battling for a spot in the top 35 in the points standings rather than battling for championship.

Still, most people thought A.J. Allmendinger was going to stay in the #43 car and the seat in the #22 car would be left up for grabs to unemployed drivers such as David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers.

Instead, Best Buy left the #43 car, Penske chose Allmendinger,to drive the #22 car and the three previously mentioned unemployed drivers are still without a ride.

Busch had reportedly talked to Richard Petty Motorsports about driving the #43 car, and that would have cleared up a lot of speculation. Busch would go to the #43, Landon Cassill would stay in the #51 and everybody else would be out of luck.

But that’s not how it works this offseason. Busch ended up at the #51 car so speculation can run wild about who will drive the #43 car and how that team will piece together enough sponsorship to run full-time next season.

Ragan has been a contender for nearly every open ride since the season ended, but he has so far failed to get the job. He has been mentioned as an option for the #43 car, but more recent reports say Nationwide Series driver Aric Almirola might be the guy to get a shot in the #43 Ford.

If that happens, Ragan, Reutimann, Vickers and now Cassill will be in an even more dire position as we head into 2012. After an offseason where unexpected openings popped nearly every week, those three former Sprint Cup Series winners might be relagated to a Nationwide Series ride, at best.

Those scenarios will likely play out after the holidays, but the Busch situation is also still a bit up in the air.

Busch will drive the #51 car in the Cup series, but he also might run in the Nationwide Series for his brother’s team, Kyle Busch Motorsports. If he wanted to add another wild twist to this already crazy offseason, Kurt Busch could decide he doesn’t have a shot at the Chase in the #51 car and instead run for the championship in the Nationwide Series.

Since drivers can now only run for the championship in one series, he would effectively throw away the 2012 Cup season.

That would be a bold move considering there is no guarantee a big-time ride will become available after next season, and he might just have to make the best of his situation at the #51 car.

In any case, the 2012 starting grid is far from set, and Busch’s announcement that he found a job didn’t do much to straighten out where everyone will be by the time Speedweeks roll around at Daytona in February.

Busch’s move certainly filled in a puzzle piece, but it isn’t the final one we may have thought it would be when he left the #22 car a month ago.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Allmendinger's move creates even more questions in wild NASCAR offseason

The twists and turns of a crazy NASCAR offseason continue as a driver who already had a ride for 2012 landed in the #22 Dodge formerly driven by Kurt Busch.

A.J. Allmendinger gets the upgrade and will drive the yellow Shell/Pennzoil car for Roger Penske.

After Penske and Busch parted ways, much of the speculation for who would replace Busch logically steered toward drivers currently without a ride such as David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers.

But this year has left no room for logic. Once Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 we should’ve known something in the universe must be a bit sideways.

This offseason continued the wild ride and has been full of shocking announcements. From Busch leaving the #22 to Allmendinger taking that ride, this year’s offseason has been similar to a restrictor-plate race. After a few laps someone new and totally unexpected comes to the front.

Ragan reportedly had discussions with Penske Racing to drive the #22 car, but Allmendinger joined the party after his sponsor for the #43 car, Best Buy, left to be a part-time sponsor for other Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.

Allmendinger should do well in the #22 car and a Penske team of Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski should be exciting to watch.

However, this move is really just the first in what will be a fairly long line of driver moves. The three previously mentioned unemployed drivers don’t yet have a ride, and Busch is still trying to find a place to settle.

More logic reasoning would point toward Ragan taking over the #43 car since it is a Ford and he has driven a Ford his entire career, but once again, nothing should be taken for granted this offseason.

Reports last week said Busch might go to Richard Petty Motorsports, and now they suddenly have a spot open.

But, the problem in all of these ideas is the #43 car doesn’t currently have a sponsor. It was amazing Kenseth never attracted a sponsor until Best Buy jumped from one Ford to another, and now the job of finding a full-time sponsor with Daytona testing just three weeks away is going to be quite the project for the people at Richard Petty Motorsports.

The loser in all of this for the moment is Richard Petty Motorsports. One of its main sponsors left early in the week to go to other affiliated teams, and later in the week one of its drivers left.

After coming back a year ago from near bankruptcy to win a race and place both cars in the top 20 in points, the organization is suddenly right back in a very unstable situation.

In any case, the next couple of weeks are going to be interesting. Two teams, the #43 and #51 still need to announce their driver, but several drivers are still going to be without a ride.

Many people went into the offseason with the view that there weren’t many opportunities for drivers looking for a ride. That will still be true as the 2012 season starts, but there will several more drivers in a different uniform than we expected.

Hang on tight, folks. This offseason rollercoaster still has a lot of twists and turns left.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Joey Logano the big winner in latest crew chief shuffle

The crew chief dominoes continue to fall this offseason as Tony Stewart got his right-hand man back on his team and Joey Logano might have found his winning partner.

Longtime crew chief of the #20 car Greg Zipadelli announced his move Friday to Stewart-Haas Racing where he will serve as competition director and interim crew chief for Danica Patrick.

To fill Zipadelli’s old spot atop the #20 pit box, Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Jason Ratcliff to be the crew chief for Joey Logano in 2012.

Ratcliff moves up after seven years as crew chief for the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide Series team.

Two major names in NASCAR, Stewart and Patrick, may have gotten the man they wanted for their team, but Logano might be the driver who benefits the most from this switch.

Don’t get me wrong, Zipadelli will likely be excellent in his job as competition director and crew chief for Patrick. Zipadelli has been one of the best crew chiefs in the sport for more than a decade, and he will surely mesh well with Stewart and his organization.

Believe it or not, the Zipadelli-Stewart duo was not far behind the Gordon-Evernham and Johnson-Knaus pairings.

Stewart won 33 races and two championships with Zipadelli as his crew chief, the most success any driver not named Jimmie Johnson has had since Stewart entered the sport in 1999.

However, life has not been so wonderful for Zipadelli since Stewart left to form his own team in 2008. A young Logano jumped into the #20 Home Depot Toyota full time in 2009 and went on to win one fuel-mileage race that year. He hasn’t won since and has not finished higher than 16th in the points standings.

The adjustment had to be difficult for Zipadelli. He went from calling the shots for one of the greatest drivers of his generation to trying to develop the best thing since sliced bread. The problem was that normal sliced bread isn’t that amazing.

Logano has talent, no doubt, and he has won nine races in his four seasons in the Nationwide Series. But he came into the Sprint Cup Series as an 18-year-old who had not even competed in a full Nationwide Series season, and at times he has looked overwhelmed on the Cup side.

NASCAR drivers, like any other professional athlete, need time to develop. That’s a large part of why the truck and Nationwide series exist. Sure, Stewart achieved success in NASCAR pretty quickly, but he a substantial background in other forms of racing and was 28 years old by the time he was a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series.

Logano won't reach that age until 2018, and he still has a very bright future ahead of him.

That’s why it is important for Gibbs to bring in a guy such as Ratcliff now to work with Logano. Ratcliff has worked with plenty of young drivers, including Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, during his time in the Nationwide Series and would figure to be a much better fit than Zipadelli for a driver such as Logano.

This is the type of change Logano needed. He obviously wasn’t getting anywhere fast in his current situation, and now he might have the chance to settle in and steadily develop as the top-tier driver everyone thought they would see when he first entered the Cup series.

The #20 might not compete for a championship in 2012, but it should be toward the front of the field a lot more often.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

NASCAR starting grid will look much different in 2012

After a year where hardly any sponsors stepped up to fund big-time rides for new drivers, there will still be a bunch of people on new teams come Speedweeks in February at Daytona.

Sure, there may be one decent ride available at this point after Kurt Busch left the #22 Dodge vacant, but whoever fills that spot will be the seventh driver among those who finished in the top 30 in points last season to either strap into a car for a different Sprint Cup Series team in 2012 or still be without a ride for next season.

In addition to the driver changes, at least 12 crew chiefs who worked for teams that finished in the top 30 in points last year will sit atop a different pit box during the Daytona 500 than the one they sat on at the beginning of the 2011 season.

That means nearly one-third of the teams in the field for the Daytona 500 will look different than they did at that race a year ago. That is amazing considering all of the talk of there being no opportunities to move in the sport and everybody better stick at their current job because there likely won’t be another option.

Of course, many of these moves weren’t made by the choice of the driver or the crew chief. The crew chiefs for drivers such as Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya were replaced mid-season and crew chiefs for Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin were let go from their respective teams once the season ended.

Team lineups have been relatively stable during the past several years, but 2011 will go down as the year where a bunch of crew chiefs lost their job, or at least changed teams. This sort of shuffle happens every few years, and the stability during Jimmie Johnson’s run of five championships is remarkable considering every other team lost for five years in a row.

Overall, the group of Sprint Cup Series drivers has also remained pretty stable in the last five or six years. Early in the last decade, NASCAR had a large influx of young drivers enter the sport, but once the group of drivers such as Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray reached the Cup level, the pipeline of young drivers quickly shut off.

Just look at the rookies of the year for the past five seasons. Montoya and Joey Logano both finished 20th in the points in their rookie seasons, but the other three have failed to crack the top 30.

This current group of drivers might not have changed much in the past several years, but this year an entire new group of crew chiefs will take their spots atop the pit box for new teams.

One might think all of the crew chief changes could shuffle the running order at many of the races next season. However, just two of those changes happened to teams that finished in the top 10 in points, and one of them just won the championship. The teams that finished outside the top 10 needed to make changes because the current setup obviously wasn’t working too well.

All of the personnel changes could make for a season similar to 2011 where multiple drivers won their first race and no team really pulled away from the pack. Or, it could make for a season where the same top 10 teams dominate as the other teams work to build their chemistry and performance on the track.

For the sake of many race fans, here’s hoping we get another season where different teams show up at the front of the field each race.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Darian Grubb exactly what Joe Gibbs Racing needed

After winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and losing his job in the same week, Darian Grubb has found a new pit box for 2012.

Grubb will be the crew chief for Denny Hamlin’s #11 team after Stewart-Haas Racing released him following his championship run with Tony Stewart. Joe Gibbs Racing released Hamlin's former crew chief, Mike Ford, on Tuesday.

Grubb's presence could make a huge difference in the performance of not only the #11 team, but also the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization.

This wasn’t a stellar season for Gibbs by any means. Sure, two of his three cars made the Chase, but neither Hamlin nor Kyle Busch ever posed much of a threat to the final championship contenders.

Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the big-time organizations. There are haves and have-nots in the sport, and Gibbs is certainly one of the haves. But, this year it was on the lower end of the haves, especially after Hamlin narrowly missed winning the championship and beating Jimmie Johnson just one year ago.

Many people in the sport had high expectations coming into the season for Hamlin, as well as the #18 and #20 Gibbs cars driven by Busch and Joey Logano, respectively.

Hamlin was supposed to strongly contend for the title this season after finishing second and having eight wins in 2010.

This was supposed to be the year of the new Kyle Busch, and this was supposed to be the year Logano became a star in the Cup series and contend for a Chase spot after he posted five top-10s in the final six races to close out 2010.

Instead, Hamlin finished ninth in the points standings with only one win. Busch finished 12th, or last in the Chase, and got himself in enough trouble for NASCAR to park him for the Chase race at Texas and his sponsor to pull its logos off the car for the final two weeks of the season.

Logano never even contended. He finished 24th in the points, nearly lost his job to Carl Edwards and his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, might be looking to leave the #20 team.

So here comes Darian Grubb, the defending championship crew chief who spent several years working on the #48 team and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Johnson while regular crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended.

Grubb won’t bring the Hendrick Motorspots books with him to Gibbs, but he will bring in some outside knowledge that is bound to help an organization that struggled with bad-handling cars and engine issues for much of the season.

While Grubb is surely relieved to have found a crew chief job with a high-caliber race team, Gibbs should be more relieved to have found a person with Grubb’s knowledge and experience to help right the ship at JGR.

One person doesn’t usually come in a change an entire organization, but Grubb could be a huge step toward getting JGR back to where it was just a year ago. His hire could also be a big help to Toyota teams, in general, and they need help.

Toyota, which fielded nine full-time cars this season, finished third in the manufacturer’s standings and had just one more win than the five victories scored by the three full-time Dodge teams.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota had a lot of work to do this offseason to become competitive again on a regular basis, but signing Grubb will go a long way toward getting Toyota back to the front.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Kurt Busch done at Penske, might be done as a regular contender

While one Busch brother narrowly avoided losing his job late in the season, the other did lose his job after the season.

Kurt Busch won’t be back in the #22 car in 2012. He and Penske Racing said they agreed it would be best for somebody else to represent the Shell/Pennzoil brand in NASCAR.

Who that somebody else is remains to be seen, but the ramifications of this decision will likely be much worse for Busch than it will be for his former-owner Roger Penske.

Penske has an up-and-coming star in Brad Keselowski, who came out of nowhere to finish fifth in the points standings and threatened to become the face of Penske Racing in just his second year with the team. Plus, the #22 car will be a sought-after ride for many drivers.

Busch, on the other hand, might say he has several options for what to do next season, but there doesn’t appear to be many good options, at least in NASCAR’s top series.

Busch said in one of his many interviews to try and save face that NHRA might be an option. He did compete in the Gatornationals in March, but this is a former NASCAR champion we are talking about. Might he have burned so many bridges that he has to essentially switch sports?

This type of situation is nearly unfathomable. Sure, there have been plenty of prima-donnas in other professional sports such as baseball, basketball and football, but guys with talent usually stick around until they get old enough that they aren’t productive anymore. Examples: Rickey Henderson, Shaquille O’Neal and Terrell Owens.

Busch is still a productive driver. He has been in the Chase four of the last five years and won nine races during that span. If things fell his way, he could be a regular championship contender at Homestead. However, things haven’t fallen his way, but it isn’t because of luck. Busch has cost himself chances to contend for the championship.

No driver gets a perfect car every week, but most drivers are patient, take care of their equipment and try to make the most out of what they have during a given race. Take Carl Edwards, for example. Edwards had a chance to win this year’s championship because he didn’t get down on his team and drove through the rough patches during a race to come up with a good finish by the end.

Busch could be the same way. That #22 team had enough talent throughout the team, good enough equipment and enough funding to finish at or near the top of the standings. But, that didn’t happen because Busch chopped at his own success every time he exploded on the radio, participated in feuds with other drivers and popped off repeatedly to media members.

In the June race at Kansas, Busch told his team within the first 10 laps of the race the car was so loose he would drop all the way to the back of the pack. It turned out the car wasn’t as bad as he first thought, and he ended up with a ninth-place finish and led 152 laps. Part of that is because the crew worked on the car during the race, but Busch never fell farther back than 11th in the entire race.

The NASCAR pickings are pretty slim for Busch at this point. There really isn’t a fully sponsored ride available. Plus, drivers such as David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers are also looking for Cup rides, and each of them haven’t burned bridges with teams and sponsors, although it’s unlikely Vickers will be in a Ford anytime soon.

The sad part of this entire situation is how much talent is being wasted. Busch could’ve still competed to win not only races, but championships in the #22 car.

Those types of rides are precious, as Busch will quickly find out while he wallows with a second-tier team in 2012.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rating the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: 3.3 Stars

NASCAR journeys into the offseason this year with tons of momentum following one of the best championship runs in the history of the sport. The storylines from this season were as good as any, as were several of the races were. The 2011 Sprint Cup Series season gets a 3.3 Star Rating.

That rating is an average of the ratings from each race this season, excluding the two non-points events and the reader’s choice edition for the Watkins Glen race.

Here is the breakdown of ratings throughout the season:

5 Stars: 8 races

4 Stars: 5 races

3 Stars: 11 races

2 Stars: 10 races

1 Star: 1 race

The 2011 season had more 5 Star races than the past two year’s Monday Morning Crew Chief has rated races, but there were also many more 2 Star races. The good races were really good, while the not-so-great races were worse than normal.

Let’s take a look back at some of the memorable races from this season.

For the first time, the season opened as closed with the best rating possible: 5 Stars. The Daytona 500 started the year off with one of the most incredible races in the history of the sport. Just 20 years old, Trevor Bayne won the race in the Wood Brothers #21 Ford; the first time that organization had been to Victory Lane since 2001. This is a team that no longer shows up to every race, and often it looked like the sport had blown by the Wood Brothers as they struggled to simply remain in the sport. But then, a driver making just the second Cup start of his career, went out and won the first race of his NASCAR career. That wasn’t just his first Cup win; it was his first win in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

It’s hard to top one of the greatest Daytona 500 stories ever, but Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards did their best as they fought to the very end of the Ford 400 in the closest championship battle in NASCAR’s 63-year history. There will never be a closer points battle than this year. Stewart and Edwards tied, but Stewart won the title because he won the race, his fifth in the Chase, topping Edwards’ one win early in the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Stewart not only won the race and the championship, but he had to come back through the entire field twice and then held off his championship competitor at the end as the top-two drivers in the series this year finished first and second.

Other 5 Star races included Regan Smith’s win in the Southern 500, the Aaron's 499 at Talladega that tied for the closest finish in NASCAR history, as well as a pair of races at NASCAR’s biggest track, Talladega, and its smallest, Martinsville, to finish out October and set the stage for the championship fight.

While there were plenty of terrific races, the season average isn’t all that high because there were more sub-par races than normal. The high number of fuel-mileage races is partially to blame. Those races are often tense as drivers work to conserve fuel, but they usually don’t make for very close finishes and sometimes the winner didn’t have a challenger at the end of the race.

The 2 Star races included the first two Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire where Stewart won both on fuel-mileage. However, other below-average races came at places such as Dover, Kentucky and Pocono where fuel mileage didn’t come into play.

Those were races, including the two at New Hampshire, where drivers simply couldn’t make much headway on the track. The late summer stretch this year was particularly brutal in some follow-the-leader races. The car designs might be better than when the Car of Tomorrow came out in 2007, but it still needs work. The 2013 car models might help fix some of that, but NASCAR shouldn’t sit back and wait until that change, or next year will again be filled with many 2 Star races.

The lone 1 Star race of the season came in June with the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Speedway. A morning of rain, and a race filled with debris cautions, mechanical failures and a dominant performance by Jeff Gordon made for one of the longest racedays of the season. The races at Pocono might be only 400 miles next year, but that still wouldn’t have helped this race. It also began a nine-week stretch where only one race received a rating higher than 3 Stars, and that was the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

The 2011 season will be remembered as one of the best in many years. All in all, the last two years have been much better than the NEXTEL Cup era and the transition to the new car. This year’s championship run was amazing, but the 2010 battle among Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick was pretty exciting, as well.

Maybe 2012 will be even better. Now that Johnson doesn’t win everything all the time, we could be headed into a stretch where many drivers are regularly in contention for race wins.

Hopefully you enjoyed the ratings throughout the season. Monday Morning Crew Chief will stay active with offseason news and opinion pieces as NASCAR fans struggle through those long three months that make up an offseason that is shorter than other sports, but always feels longer.

Have a wonderful holiday season, everybody.