Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rating the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season: 2 Stars **

The 2012 Sprint Cup Series struggled to keep the momentum created by the closest championship battle in series history in 2011 when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards by a tiebreaker. The 2012 version was defined by lots of green-flag racing, which isn’t a bad thing, but the excitement level was noticeably down this year. The 2012 season gets a 2 Star Rating.
Brad Keselowski helped add some spark (and suds) to the finish of the season as he beat five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to win the title. However, the number of memorable races can probably be counted on one hand.
Here’s the breakdown of this year’s ratings, which includes the Budweiser Shootout and Sprint All-Star Race. It does not include the annual “You Rate the Race” event, which this season was at Kentucky Speedway.
5 Stars: 5 races
4 Stars: 10 races
3 Stars: 8 races
2 Stars: 10 races
1 Star: 4 races
This year had the most 1 Star races in the history of Monday Morning Crew Chief, and the number of 5 Star races dropped from eight to five.
Let’s revisit some of the most memorable races of the season. Click on the links to see the rating for each race mentioned.
We’ll start with Daytona Speedweeks, which included a very exciting Budweiser Shootout and bizarre Daytona 500. Kyle Busch drove through turns 3 and 4 sideways early in the shootout, sending sparks flying from his car. The damage wasn’t enough to slow him down, though, and he came back to win the race by a few feet ahead of Tony Stewart at the finish line in a race that started the season with a 5 Star Rating.
The Daytona 500 was definitely the strangest of the season, and perhaps one of the strangest in the history of the sport. Rain postponed the race until not only Monday, but Monday night in primetime. Busch sent sparks flying in the shootout, but Juan Pablo Montoya did him one better by crashing into a jet dryer under caution. The impact created an explosion and fire in Turn 3 that put the race under a red flag. Matt Kenseth ended up winning the race that got a 3 Star Rating because of the day-and-a-half rain delay.
Once the series left Daytona, the long green-flag runs set in. The racing was remarkably clean, which is good, but the drivers stayed spread out enough on tracks such as Phoenix, Fontana, Texas and even Richmond that any excitement from Speedweeks or the previous season had disappeared. Just six races following Speedweeks received a rating higher than 3 Stars until the series went back to Daytona in July for a 5 Star race.
The second half of the season started to gain momentum as drivers such as Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon battled back from early season troubles to make the race. Kahne grabbed a wild-card spot, and Gordon snuck by Busch by one point to claim the 10th and final Chase spot based on points. That final regular-season race at Richmond received a 4 Star Rating, and Clint Bowyer took home the trophy.
Johnson won another Brickyard 400 this year, his fourth, but the race was less than thrilling in part because of his dominance. It received a 2 Star Rating.
However, things got interesting two weeks later at Watkins Glen as Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose slide through oil as Busch wrecked on the final lap. Keselowski and Ambrose had the best final-lap battle of the season, and Ambrose came out on top to win for the second year in a row on the road course. That final lap bumped the race to a 4 Star Rating.
The late-season fireworks first showed up at the, once again, newly reconfigured Bristol Motor Speedway during the August night race. The shaved top groove brought back the old-style beating and banging, although this time at the top of the racetrack. Stewart and Kenseth crashed while battling for the lead, and Stewart threw his helmet at Kenseth’s car, bouncing it off the hood of Kenseth’s #17. Danica Patrick also wrecked and angrily shook her finger at Regan Smith. Denny Hamlin ended up winning the 5 Star Race. He won again the next week at Atlanta and a month later at New Hampshire, but too many mechanical problems ended his championship run.
Once the Chase began, Keselowski took charge by winning at Chicago and Dover, neither of which were particularly action-packed races. They both got 2 Star Ratings.
The action-packed Chase race this season was at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick rose from the desert dust to win his first race of the season, but he was a mere footnote to the craziness of that 5 Star afternoon. Gordon and Clint Bowyer battled late in the race, and Gordon cut a tire from the battle and crashed. He then waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and intentionally wrecked him. Bowyer’s pit crew was waiting for Gordon when he drove back to the garage, and they immediately jumped him, inciting one of the largest brawls the sport had seen in years. Patrick also played a hand in this crazy race. She wrecked as the field came to the white flag, put down oil in Turn 4 coming to the finish line, and a half-dozen cars piled up as they crossed the line.
That all set the stage for the championship race at Homestead. Keselowski came into the race with a 20-point lead of Johnson and qualified third to Johnson’s 10th. Johnson made a run to the front that night and might have won the title until a loose lug nut penalty cost him time on the track and a problem in the drivetrain sent him to the garage early, effectively handing Keselowski the championship.
This year marked the end of the Car of Tomorrow body style NASCAR introduced in 2007. A new model will be used next year. As is the case with every new model, NASCAR officials say it will race better than the previous version. That wasn’t the case the last time around, but at least the new cars look better.
Next year will also have its fair share of new drivers with new teams. Most notably, Kenseth will move to the #20 car, while Joey Logano takes over the #22 ride. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will fill the #17 car, and Kurt Busch will continue to try and revive his career in the #78 car, formerly driven by Smith.
The 2012 season had its exciting and interesting moments. Let’s just hope there are more in 2013.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rating the Ford EcoBoost 400: 3 Stars ***

For the first time in eight years, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has a first-time champion. Brad Keselowski won the championship, and Jeff Gordon won a race that had a lot of storylines, although few that made for a really exciting race. The final race of the 2012 season gets a 3 Star Rating.
Gordon won the race after Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had to pit for fuel late in the race, and he beat his nemesis from Phoenix, Clint Bowyer. My how a week changes things. Last week those two were involved in garage fights and had torn up race cars; this week they had the two top finishes.
The best racing of the day came from Busch and Truex Jr. As he did in both the truck and Nationwide races this weekend, Busch led nearly all of the first 100 laps, but then a debris caution came out and bunched up the field.
At that point, Truex Jr. challenged for the lead and the two drivers ran next to each other the remainder of the race. They traded the lead a few times, and Truex Jr. hounded Busch’s bumper for much of the night.
It’s too bad the race couldn’t have come down to a battle between those two drivers. The finish likely wouldn’t have ended as close as Friday’s truck race between Busch and Cale Gale, but it would’ve been better than Gordon beating Bowyer by more than one second.
But the championship was the focus of the day anyway. Johnson put up a good fight throughout much of the race and had a shot to win the championship after pit strategies worked in his favor with a little more than 50 laps remaining.
Then his night quickly took a turn for the worse. His pit crew missed a lugnut on the left-rear tire on lap 213 and by lap 227 he was in the pits with a blown drivetrain that would end his night and hopes of a championship.
Johnson did make the title fight dramatic for a bit, though. After Keselowski chose to stay on track under caution after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecked on lap 154, Johnson took the opportunity to get tires and set up his fuel strategy for the rest of the race.
Had Johnson been able to avoid his late-race problems, he just might have squeaked out his sixth championship.
It wasn’t meant to be, however, and Keselowski is the Sprint Cup Series champion in just his third full season in the series. And what a ride he has had to the top.
Keselowski won his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in April 2009 in the famous finish that sent Carl Edwards flying into the fence. That race he drove the James Finch-owned #09 car to its first victory.
Since then he’s won eight more races, made the Chase in two of his three years with Penske Racing and now has the championship. Oh yeah, he also won the Nationwide Series championship for owner Roger Penske in 2010. Both of his championships are Penske’s first championships in each series.
That is a remarkable run of success, and he has earned it. It has been fun to watch Keselowski enter the sport and go from a part-timer looking for a full ride to a brash kid who upset veteran drivers to a champion.
Whether or not he wins more championships in the future, Keselowski's career will be a success. Congratulations to him and the entire #2 team on winning the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship.
Unfortunately, the end of the championship race also means the end of the season and no more Sunday afternoons filled by a NASCAR race. That is always a sad time and takes somewhat of an adjustment for many fans after they’ve had the same routine for eight months.
But as always, Daytona Speedweeks will open a new season in mid-February and NASCAR life will begin anew. Hopefully the days between now and then are filled with happiness and holiday celebrations with friends and family.
Thank you for following the Monday Morning Crew Chief ratings again this season. It’s been a fun year and expect more in 2013. Also, look for the rating of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season, which will be posted following the champion’s celebration Nov. 30 in Las Vegas.
Have a great offseason, everybody.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

If NASCAR doesn’t suspend Jeff Gordon, it should have only one explanation

NASCAR officials had a difficult decision on their hands as they went to bed Sunday night following a wild race at Phoenix International Raceway.
Jeff Gordon incited a massive brawl that involved him, his #24 team and several members of Clint Bowyer’s #15 team Sunday after he intentionally turned Bowyer into the wall Sunday as the field came to the white flag.
While the fight was the most eye-catching part of the incident, the part of the situation that will likely receive the most scrutiny is Gordon’s punting of Bowyer into the wall on purpose, even though Bowyer still had a mathematical chance to win the Sprint Cup Series championship.
Bowyer had gotten underneath Gordon and made contact a few laps before the wreck that started the fight. The fender rub caused Gordon’s tire to blow and he crashed in Turn 4. The part of the wreck that should be the focus of NASCAR’s decision is what happened next.
Gordon waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and then turned him straight into the wall while also wrecking Joey Logano and Aric Almirola. He also nearly ruined another championship contender’s day because Brad Keselowski was right behind Logano when the wreck happened.
Anyway, Gordon’s actions looked a lot like what Kyle Busch did to Ron Hornaday Jr. last year at Texas Motor Speedway in a Camping World Truck Series race.
Hornaday Jr. was in championship contention heading into the race, but he and Busch traded paint early in the event. The caution came out shortly thereafter, and Busch drove Hornaday Jr. up into the Turn 2 wall, effectively ending Hornaday Jr.’s shot at winning the title.
The only difference between Busch’s actions and Gordon’s actions was the presence of the yellow flag. Busch wrecked Hornaday Jr. under caution while Gordon wrecked Bowyer under green-flag conditions.
That should also be the only reason NASCAR doesn’t suspend Gordon for next week’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Everything else about the wrecks is essentially the same.
If NASCAR doesn’t suspend Gordon and says they made the decision based on something other than whether the wreck happened under caution, the sport will be thrown into a mess that would once again tarnish the integrity of the sport.
NASCAR dropped a major punishment on Busch last year by parking him for both the Nationwide and Cup races at Texas following his intentional wreck. Sure, Busch is considered a brash, pain-in-the-butt by many in the sport and Gordon has the reputation of a four-time champion that time has helped mold. But none of that should factor into whether NASCAR allows Gordon to race next Sunday.
Some people might say a punishment by NASCAR would prevent rough racing in the future and continue to make a sport that has dwindling excitement even more mellow. I doubt it. NASCAR has delivered punishments for all kinds of actions on the track and in the garage area through the years, and we still end up with arguments and even fights from time to time.
It would be better for the integrity of the sport to suspend Gordon, if for nothing else than to establish a little bit of consistency in the sport’s rulings.
Others might say the Busch incident was different because he wasn't a full-time competitor in the truck series, but that shouldn't make a difference. He was on the track that night trying to win the race just as much as the other 35 drivers in that truck race, just as Gordon did Sunday against a full Cup series field.
Whether Gordon’s actions Sunday deserve a suspension will be debated for a long time, but NASCAR set a precedent last year by suspending Busch for his wreck at Texas.
That is, unless officials say they won’t suspend Gordon because he intentionally wrecked a championship contender under green-flag conditions.
Anything else would further diminish the integrity of a sport that already has enough of those problems.

Rating the AdvoCare 500: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series’ final trip out West turned into an old-fashioned bar fight, a down-and-out team won for the first time in more than a year situation the championship situation changed dramatically amid all the noise. The wild day at Phoenix International Raceway gets a 5 Star Rating.
Like it or not, Sunday’s race had everything, and all of it was unexpected.
First, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson hit the wall coming out of Turn 4 on lap 235 after his right-front tire went flat. That incident relegated him to a 32-place finish and put him 20 points behind Brad Keselowski, who finished sixth.
But that was only the beginning of the mayhem that took place Sunday in the desert.
Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish Jr. had their weekly spat as Hornish Jr. tapped the side of Danica’s car on lap 299 coming out of Turn 4. The contact cut down Hornish Jr.’s left-front tire and eventually sent him into the wall.
Then the big one happened. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon made contact in turns 3 and 4 on the restart, and Gordon ended up slapping the wall. He then waited for Bowyer to come back around the track and turned him sideways, wrecking Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the process.
Once Gordon got to the garage area, Bowyer’s team was waiting and ready to pounce. They did, and a huge brawl broke out behind the #24 team’s hauler as members of both teams started throwing punches. Bowyer sprinted to the garage area to get in on the action, but he and Gordon never met until after the race inside the NASCAR hauler with officials.
After that excitement settles down, NASCAR restarts the race with a green-white-checkered finish. Patrick wrecks in Turn 4 as the field comes to the white flag, but NASCAR doesn’t throw a caution. The entire field then slides through the oil from Patrick’s car as they come to the finish line and a major wreck ensues.
Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard all sustain major hits as they plowed through the oil and into Patrick’s car. Keselowski got hit coming to the line, but he didn’t get turned.
To put the finishing touches on a crazy day, Kevin Harvick won the race. It was the first time he and the #29 team had gone to Victory Lane since September of last year at Richmond.
The win was surprising because Harvick and the entire Richard Childress Racing organization had shown no signs of contending for a win for nearly the entire season. Harvick finished second at Phoenix in the spring race, but he hadn’t even had a top-10 finish in the Chase up until Sunday.
Maybe the win will boost the Childress teams, but they still have a lot of work to do to be competitive on a weekly basis, especially at larger tracks.
People will likely debate for days about what NASCAR should do about the Gordon-Bowyer incident and what penalties it should or should not hand out. The one issue from Sunday’s race that shouldn’t be disputed is NASCAR’s incorrect call to throw the caution flag for Patrick’s wreck.
Week after week NASCAR officials call for a caution flag for water bottles and sandwiches or whatever incidental piece of debris is on the race track, yet they didn’t call a caution when Patrick’s #10 car slid sideways through Turn 4 after hitting the wall.
That’s what caused the big wreck on the final lap. Officials always talk about the importance of safety in the sport, but they put drivers in harm’s way on the final lap when they allowed the race to finish under green.
Robin Pemberton’s excuse that officials couldn’t see fluid on the track shouldn’t justify NASCAR’s actions, or lack of action. The caution comes out for small incidents all the time when the leader has put together a big enough lead to keep the race from being exciting.
NASCAR should’ve thrown the caution flag for Patrick’s wreck. Period.
Anyway, Johnson will take a 20-point lead into Homestead to try to win … Wait, not Johnson. Keselowski will take that lead to Homestead to try to win his first championship. He needs to finish 15th or better to win the trophy. If he does, he will become the first driver to go head-to-head with Johnson in the Chase and beat him since Tony Stewart did it in 2005. That’s a pretty impressive feat, and Keselowski and the #2 team have had a very impressive season.
Have a great final week of the 2012 season, everybody.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Rating the AAA Texas 500: 3 Stars ***

Sprint Cup Series championship contenders Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski spiced up the end of an otherwise stale race Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Thankfully, the championship was in play or Sunday’s race might have received worse than its 3 Star Rating.
Johnson and the #48 team trotted out their dominating ways quickly last weekend. Johnson smoked the field in qualifying, beating second-place Greg Biffle by more than 0.10 of a second. That doesn’t sound like much, but it was the largest difference between any two top-40 qualifiers.
Johnson then went on to lead the first 100 laps, and he did so with more than a four-second advantage over second place. Then NASCAR had to throw a debris caution to give the field a chance to keep Johnson from stinking up the entire show.
Overall, Johnson got the necessary results by leading 168 laps and winning the race. But his challenger, Keselowski, put up another strong fight at a track he previously hadn’t finished higher than 14th.
Keselowski finished second Sunday and nearly stole the win. He took two tires twice while the rest of the field took four tires, and he even roughed up the #48 car a little by bumping him on the frontstretch to take the lead on the penultimate restart.
That last section of the race is what saved the AAA Texas 500 from a lower rating. The first 275 or so laps were very boring. For whatever reason, the intensity level jumped dramatically after the final debris caution of the day on lap 275 and continued to the checkered flag.
Alas, Johnson still ended up in Victory Lane and extended his lead in the championship standings to seven points. The lead would’ve been just two points if Keselowski had won and Johnson finished second.
That means Johnson will head to Phoenix, the second-to-last race of the season with a lead that is longer than an eyelash. If Johnson beats Keselowski again next week, the #48 team will strut into the final race at Homestead with another sizeable lead that would require Johnson to finish well outside the top 10 to even have a chance to lose the championship.
Still, Keselowski has put up an admirable fight throughout the Chase, and the entire season for that matter. Whether or not Keselowski wins the championship, this season could be a sign of things to come in the future for him and the # 2 team, provided their switch to Ford next year goes smoothly.
In any case, the series will head to Phoenix next week for what could easily be another Johnson-Keselowski show. There might be a non-Chaser jump in the top five or pull off Kasey Kahne’s feat from last year when he won a race that was dominated by the 2011 championship contenders, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
Kyle Busch could pull that off this year. Remember last year at this time he didn’t even have a ride after NASCAR suspended him following a truck series wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas.
Busch finished third at Texas this year and could pull off an upset win next week, but otherwise the championship race will likely be the sole focus of the weekend.
Have a great week, everybody.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rating the TUMS Fast Relief 500: 3 Stars ***

A week after his team pulled off a fairly big miracle to stay in championship contention, Jimmie Johnson put together a vintage performance Sunday at Martinsville Speedway to put him back in that all-too-familiar position atop the points standings. The final short track race of the season gets a 3 StarRating.
Johnson now leads Brad Keselowski by two points after Keselowski finished in sixth, which was actually a terrific finish considering he started 32nd and never had a car capable of contending for the lead. However, the overwhelming sense around the sport is that another championship for Johnson is just a formality.
For the sake of the sport, hopefully Keselowski keeps the top of the standings tight going into Homestead so there would be a real chance he could rise up and beat the five-time champion. If not, 2012 could go down as one of the more boring seasons in recent memory.
Anyway, Sunday’s race was about as typical of a Martinsville race as possible. Cautions fell fairly regularly throughout the race while allowing for some long green-flag runs, the end of the race got shuffled up by a late-race wreck and the #48 car ended up in Victory Lane.
Martinsville is one of the few tracks in NASCAR where the final caution creates an agonizing decision for crew chiefs in terms of whether or not to pit. Maybe it’s because Martinsville is one a half-mile track, but the tire wear is ideal. The lap times do fall off during a run, but they don’t drop so much that taking four tires every stop is a given.
Keselowski stayed out on the final stop to try and steal a win, but he faded to sixth. But that’s also part of what makes Martinsville a great track. The tires wear enough that it is difficult to stay ahead of cars with four fresh tires, yet not enough to have everyone follow the leader into the pits.
Martinsville is also a place that allows for some new faces in the top 10. Aric Almirola put together his second straight fantastic race. He led much of the early part of the race at Kansas before tire issues derailed his day. He then backed up that performance Sunday with a fourth-place finish.
The top 10 actually contained four non-Chasers, by far the most in any Chase race this season. Kyle Busch finished second, Almirola fourth, Brian Vickers eighth and Bobby Labonte ninth. But don’t expect that to continue next week at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
The season is down to the point where just a few drivers still have a chance to win the championship, and they will most likely perform as though they are the best in the sport.
Johnson and Keselowski will likely run well inside the top 10 and even the top five most of the night. Other contenders such as Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne will absolutely have to be at the front of the field throughout the race, finish in the top three and have some help in the form of less-than-stellar races from the top two drivers.
In any case, it is no longer premature to talk about who the real contenders are going to be for the championship. Johnson and Keselowski look to be the two drivers who will face off at Homestead, while Bowyer and Kahne will be close enough to catch a bit of a draft from the front two, but they needed more outstanding races earlier in the Chase.
Either way, this is one of the most intense times of the year.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rating the Hollywood Casino 400: 3 Stars ***

In perhaps the craziest race of the 2012 Chase, Matt Kenseth came out on top while nearly half the field did not finish the race, and that’s at a 1.5-mile track that typically produces fairly pedestrian racing. But all of that still wasn’t enough to get the final race of the season in the North anything above a 3 StarRating.
The wrecks began early and often Sunday at Kansas Speedway, and they affected nearly everyone regardless of running order or position in the points standings. Chasers Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart all spun. Aric Almirola even wrecked while leading the race.
All of the carnage had a chance to really shake up the points standings, but it turned out the Brad Keselowski maintained his seven-point lead on Johnson while narrowly missing several of the wrecks that led to a track-record 14 cautions.
However, the fact that Johnson stayed just seven points out of the lead is truly remarkable. Johnson spun in Turn 4 and smashed up the rear end of his car. The damage looked extensive enough to send the car to the garage for repairs, but the #48 pit crew went to work and fixed the back of the car to the point where it could not only maintain minimum speed, but to the point where Johnson could drive back through the field to finish ninth.
Races like that are why the #48 team has won five championships and competed for a championship nearly all of the 10 years it has existed. There might not be another team in the sport right now that could have fixed a car with that much damage without losing a lap and have a driver who could drive it back into the top 10.
As for Keselowski, he also salvaged a day when the #2 car was not good enough to compete for the win. He started in 25th and hung near the top 10 most of the day, finishing eighth.
That’s not a bad day for Keselowski and the #2 team, but they are going to have to produce a couple of top-fives soon or Johnson will make his move and take the lead.
Other contenders Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne finished inside the top 10, and Denny Hamlin finished in 13th. All three of those drivers will likely need top-five finishes the rest of the way to win the championship, and possibly just to stay in contention by the time the series reaches Homestead for the final race.
Hamlin’s big chance could be next week at Martinsville, where he has won four times. Unfortunately for Hamlin, who sits 20 points out of the Chase lead, Johnson has won there six times. Next week will still be one of the better chances for either Hamlin or Johnson to make up ground on Keselowski, who doesn’t have a win at Martinsville.
The funny part is there will likely be fewer cautions at Martinsville than there were this week at Kansas, although the number of cautions at Kansas was in large part because the track was repaved over the summer and speeds were up dramatically from past races.
But before we head off to the next race, Kenseth and the #17 team should be commended for their win at Kansas and second in the Chase. Kenseth sits 11th in the points standings, is headed to the #20 car at the end of the season and does not have a realistic shot at winning this year’s championship. However, Kenseth and his team have continued to put together races consistent with his performance throughout his entire career.
Both the driver and team are very professional. It will be a shame to see that partnership broken up when the season comes to a close.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rating the Bank of America 500: 4 Stars ****

The top three Sprint Cup Series championship contenders dominated Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the driver now fourth in the Chase, Clint Bowyer, outlasted everyone to grab his third win of the season. The final race of the season at Charlotte gets a 4 Star Rating.
Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were the class of the field all night. Keselowski used pit strategy to move up from his 20th-place starting spot after the third caution in 36 laps. The race went incident free the rest of the way with only a couple of debris cautions for NASCAR to make sure it stayed entertaining.
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin combined to lead 228 of the 334 laps, but fueld mileage came into play after the final debris caution on lap 223. Johnson and Hamlin both couldn’t make it to the finish when they pitted with about 55 laps to go. Surprisingly, neither could Keselowski, who usually has good fuel mileage.
Keselowski’s chance at winning the race ended anyway on that next-to-last pit stop because he ran out of gas going down the backstretch and had a 22-second stop once he got there. That put him outside the top 10, and he would never recover, finishing 11th.
Johnson and Hamlin also had to come back to pit road for a splash-and-go stop late in the race, but they managed to finish second and third, respectively.
While all that was going on, Bowyer had enough fuel to make the finish, although not complete a celebration burnout, and give Michael Waltrip Racing its first Chase win. The victory also moved Bowyer up to fourth in the points standings, 28 points out of the lead.
Bowyer is still a bit of a long shot to be a factor by the time the series reaches the final race at Homestead, but he has shown once again that he is on the cusp of being a championship contender.
Bowyer has made noise in just about every Chase in which he’s competed. He finished third in 2007 and fifth in 2008. He also made the Chase in 2010 and won the first race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but his car didn’t pass postrace inspection and NASCAR docked him 150 points. That took him out of the picture, and he finished the season in 10th place.
This year Bowyer could be in a similar position. He still doesn’t have the consistency to match Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin, but he is the best of the rest.
He is also headed to his hometown track, Kansas Speedway, next week and could have another good finish there, but it would still take a flawless run through the rest of the Chase to have a legitimate shot to win the title.
The track in Kansas now has a brand-new surface and progressive banking in the corners. Does that mean it will be a more exciting race to watch? Probably not. The progressive banking has worked at Homestead but hasn’t made much difference at other tracks once the idea became popular.
In any case, expect the Chase frontrunners to lead the field as they did at Charlotte. It might stink to have the same guys up front each week right now, but their battle to win the championship will be a good one if they can all stay in contention throughout the next month.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rating the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500: 5 Stars *****

The annual crazy race of the Chase lived up to the hype this time with the most lead changes of the season, large pack racing and a massive crash on the final lap. The final restrictor-plate race of the season gets a 5 Star Rating.
The majority of the race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway was actually extremely clean. Carl Edwards, Cole Whitt and Joey Logano got in an early wreck and Jamie McMurray spun out to cause the green-white-checkered finish, but that was the extent of the damage.
Until the final turn of the final lap.
Casey Mears, who had a strong car all day, gave Michael Waltrip, who was irrelevant until the final lap, the mother of all pushes through Turn 3 and the pair was headed to the lead. But then Tony Stewart saw them coming, tried to block and ended up setting off a 25-car wreck.
Needless to say, the race ended there. Matt Kenseth was ahead of the wreck and drove off for the win. Jeff Gordon finished second, but he was 15th or worse when the wreck began. For once he was on the receiving end of some good luck, and it kept him on the edge of championship contention.
Like it or not, that’s what happens at restrictor-plate tracks. The field was four-wide at least six rows deep nearly the entire two laps of the final restart. That is incredibly exciting to watch, but it would be a miracle for the field to make it back around without some sort of incident. It’s already amazing they made it to the final lap without a wreck.
Since the Sprint Cup Series was at a restrictor-plate track, let’s go ahead and discuss the style of racing. The cool temperatures should’ve helped the cooling issues the cars tend to experience after the offseason rule changes to restrict air flow to the engine, but nobody was able to push for more than a lap, if even that far.
The race actually felt more like the old style of restrictor-plate pack racing than any race since the drivers discovered the two-car draft in 2008 and 2009. Drivers were able to pass for the lead (there were 54 lead changes), and the field never got strung out despite a couple of green-flag pit stops.
This was the last race of the current car model, but early indications are the new model in 2013 will produce similar, if not better, racing. But we’ll find out about that in February at Daytona. For now, the Chase drivers will focus on the final six races of the Chase and how to catch Brad Keselowski, who extended his lead to 14 points over Jimmie Johnson.
Next up is Charlotte Motor Speedway for a Saturday night race. It’s the fifth race in the Chase, and this is the point where drivers start to get eliminated from championship contention either mathematically or practically. Johnson wrecked in this race last year to end his hopes of a sixth-straight title.
Either way, the racing at Charlotte is usually pretty entertaining. It might be some of the best intermediate track racing we see the rest of the season.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rating the AAA 400: 2 Stars **

Brad Keselowski and the #2 team outsmarted the Sprint Cup Series field again Sunday at Dover International Speedway to win their second Chase race of the season, with seven more to go. Late strategy drama saved what was left of an otherwise boring race that deserves a 2 Star Rating.
Keselowski now leads the points standings and stands five points in front of second-place Jimmie Johnson. This has all the makings of a three-man championship battle among Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who sits 16 points behind in third, and Keselowski is leading the charge.
Those who thought Keselowski would be a factor once the Chase started might have thought he would play the role of Clint Bowyer in past years. Bowyer often had a great start to the Chase and would hang around through most of October before falling behind the real championship contenders.
Keselowski is better than that. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe can pull out top-five finishes on days they have a mediocre car that qualified in the mid-20s because they play the strategy game better than anyone in the sport.
That team looks at every part of the race as an opportunity to gain an advantage while most people focus on the final two runs. Keselowski is on top of the sport because he and his team have made calls early in races while other teams follow the leader and make the same call as everyone else. Granted, they have to have good cars to be able to pull off those moves, but good cars and good strategy are key ingredients in a championship run.
On the other side of the battle, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin walked out of the Monster Mile disappointed even though they had top-10 runs. Busch dominated Sunday the way Hamlin had the week prior at New Hampshire, but fuel strategy got in the way and both drivers had to pit late in the race.
The loss means nothing but frustration for Busch because he isn’t in the Chase this year, but Hamlin gave up six points that could prove extremely costly late in the season. Johnson also had to back down on the final run to make sure he had enough gas to the finish.
While other drivers are leaking points, Keselowski is capitalizing. The rest of the Chase field better take the #2 team seriously or they will be saluting the team with a championship toast at the end of the year.
Overall, there wasn’t much on-track action. J.J. Yeley blew a tire during green-flag pit stops on lap 69 that knocked all but six drivers off the lead lap, but the race wouldn’t have been any more exciting if everyone was on the lead lap.
At this point in the season, the good cars are head and shoulders above the rest of the field so a race among the top six at tracks such as New Hampshire and Dover is about as exciting as it would be if 30 cars were on the lead lap.
That will all change next week, though, as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the final restrictor-plate race of the season.
Those races are nearly impossible to predict, which is part of their intrigue. However, if Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin finish in the top 10, the window of opportunity for the rest of the Chase drivers will virtually shut.
But for one week at least, the Chase will take a back seat to 500 miles of intense 200 mph drama at the biggest track of them all.
Have a great week, everybody.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rating the Sylvania 300: 1 Star *

Denny Hamlin won the Sylvania 300 Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Nothing else happened, so this race gets a 1 Star Rating.
Hamlin dominated the race by leading 193 laps, all of them after lap 93, but he started in 28th position. He had what might have been the most dominating car of the season, if not several seasons. Jimmie Johnson has won some races when he could race for three days and no one would pass him, but that hasn’t really been the case this year.
The win also gives Hamlin his fifth of the season and vaults him back to third in the points standings, just seven behind perennial leader Johnson.
So far two of the three championship contenders have proven they belong in the title hunt with victories, and Johnson has back-to-back second-place finishes to lead the points standings. Brad Keselowski won at Chicago. He, Hamlin and Johnson could easily be the three drivers fighting for the championship at Homestead.
All of the Chase drivers finished inside the top 20 at New Hampshire, but that did nothing to spice up an afternoon of lackluster racing. NASCAR threw a competition caution at lap 40 and then threw three more throughout the rest of the race, including a late-race caution for “debris” in a vain attempt to keep Hamlin from pulling into Victory Lane before anyone else even crossed the finish line.
Thankfully, Hamlin still won the race so we don’t have to worry about NASCAR officials destroying the presumed integrity of the sport this week. Had Hamlin lost the race and gone on to lose the championship by a few points, he would have a good argument that NASCAR’s quest for exciting racing kept him from winning the championship.
There wasn’t a real caution all day. Every car that didn’t start and park finished the race with nothing more than a dent in a fender.
So, after a week that did nothing to change the outlook of the Chase, next week the Sprint Cup Series heads to another one-mile oval to race at Dover International Speedway.
Dover is another track where a driver, most likely Johnson, can dominate an entire day. However, there should be a little more close racing this week because of Dover’s high-banked corners that allow drivers to race instead of scoot around trying to roll the middle of the turn.
It’s also a track that has bitten Chase drivers in the past, and it would be surprising if all 12 Chase drivers finished in the top 20 again. Either way, Talladega will eliminate any boring racing the following week.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rating the GEICO 400: 2 Stars **

Brad Keselowski stole the Jimmie Johnson show Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway to win the first race in the 2012 Chase and take the lead in the points standings. Keselowski and Johnson both had impressive performances, but the race still gets a 2 Star Rating.
Johnson made Chicagoland Speedway his playground for the first half of the race and left the entire rest of the field in his dust. If races didn’t have cautions or pit stops, Johnson would’ve lapped the field. Unfortunately for him, races do require pits stops, and that’s when Keselowski and the #2 team pounced.
Johnson made his final pit stop on lap 229, and Keselowski, who was more than one second behind, followed a lap later. Incredibly, the #2 team pulled off a feat similar to the June race at Michigan and Keselowski passed Johnson for the lead after the round of stops.
Johnson could never catch Keselowski, and the Blue Deuce sailed to victory in the Windy City.
This win will instantly make people talk about him being a favorite to win the championship even though he was considered a darkhorse pick at best up until Sunday afternoon.
Either way, it’s too early to know with any certainty what’s going to happen in the next nine races. Clint Bowyer has performed well at the beginning of the Chase in past years but never made it to Homestead with a real chance at the trophy, and Johnson has finished as bad as 39th in the first race and still come back to win.
That’s the route Jeff Gordon will have to take to win this year’s championship. Just a week after he shockingly snuck his way into the Chase through the second wild-card spot, his throttle stuck going into Turn 1 on lap 188 and destroyed his car. He got back out to make laps but finished 35th and is already 47 points, basically a full race, out of the lead.
The non-Johnson favorite heading into Sunday was Denny Hamlin. He was running inside the top 10 but ran out of fuel on the final lap and finished 16th. That drops him to fourth in the points standings, but he is only 15 points out of the lead. He just can’t have another similar mistake. Chicago turned into his mulligan race.
Other than Chase implications, Sunday’s race didn’t offer much. We had a couple of always-dramatic debris cautions and Casey Mears blew a tire. Otherwise, Keselowski and Johnson dominated the day, combining to lead 248 of the 267 laps.
So, next week the Sprint Cup Series takes the Chase to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for 300 miles of “rolling the center.” This race, and Dover and Talladega to follow, will be a chance for the drivers who don’t dominate on 1.5-mile tracks to try and stash enough points to remain in the hunt down the stretch.
Tony Stewart ran well at Chicago, and he has been really good of late at New Hampshire, with three top-fives in his last five races at the track.
New Hampshire is also provides a chance for closer racing than we saw at Chicago. It is incredibly difficult to pass, which opens the opportunity for good battles for position.
In any case, have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rating the Federated Auto Parts 400: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series regular season came to a close in dramatic fashion Saturday night and early Sunday morning at Richmond International Raceway. Jeff Gordon snuck through the raindrops to grab the final spot in the Chase in a race that constantly changed complexion. Overall, this race gets a 4 Star Rating.
To accentuate the changing nature of the race, Clint Bowyer won his second race of the season even though he spun down the frontstretch in the second half of the event. He and Juan Pablo Montoya made contact on lap 235. That cut down Bowyer’s left-rear tire and caused his spin.
But that turned out to be a big-time blessing in disguise. The resulting pit stop strategies put Bowyer back near the front of the field for the final 117 laps and he passed Ryan Newman for the lead with 88 laps to go. He didn’t look back, although he did have to manage his fuel mileage to reach the finish line.
While Bowyer led the final run, Gordon made a comeback that deserved to be rewarded with a Chase spot. Gordon’s #24 car was junk in the first half of the race even though he started in second. By the time the red flag came out for rain on lap 152, Gordon was a lap down to then-leader Denny Hamlin and looked to be out of contention for anything. It turns out he was in contention for both a Chase spot and the race win.
Gordon charged through the field in the second half of the race and reached second when the checkered flag flew. Kyle Busch faded to 16th, which meant Gordon had snagged the second wild-card spot by a mere three points.
No matter what type of points system NASCAR uses, the fall race at Richmond almost always produces a wild night of racing both on the track and in the points standings. Those type of races don’t come around very often, but they are sure fun when they do.
Also, pretty much any important race in the last year has had to deal with rain delays. Both Homestead last year and this season’s Daytona 500 were affected by rain, but the racing was great when the weather let them get out on the track. Hopefully that’s just a coincidence and this year’s Homestead race will be fun but without rain.
But before the series gets to Homestead, the 12 Chase drivers will start their battle next week at Chicagoland Speedway. Expectations for a fun and exciting Chase are always extremely high the week leading up to the first race, but this year there are a myriad of contenders.
All of the top drivers have won multiple races. Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart are going to be primed for a good next 10 races. Even drivers such as Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, who are winless this season, are running well right now and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them bust through with victories in the Chase.
In any case, this should be the best part of what has been a mediocre season in terms of action. There won’t be time for Chase drivers to ride around because they could quickly lose touch with the leaders in the points standings. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the memorable part of the 2012 season.
Have a great week, everybody.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rating the AdvoCare 500: 2 Stars **

After a rough-and-tumble night at Bristol Motor Speedway a week ago, the Sprint Cup Series brought back the long green-flag runs more typical of 2012 on Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The relative lack of action earns this race a 2 Star Rating.
Denny Hamlin won the race to put him in prime contention for the championship once the Chase begins in two weeks at Chicagoland Speedway, but Martin Truex Jr. should have won the race. Shockingly, it wasn’t NASCAR’s fault he didn’t win.
Truex Jr. led 40 laps Sunday night and had a substantial lead with five laps to go when Jamie McMurray blew a tire and pounded the frontstretch wall. That sent the leaders to pit road to get four tires because the surface at Atlanta is so rough. Denny Hamlin came from fourth to first on the exchange of pit stops and lined up alongside Truex Jr. to settle the race.
Truex Jr. had trouble getting through the gears so Hamlin and Jeff Gordon checked out in front. Gordon almost had a shot at Hamlin on the final lap, but he got loose, Hamlin won and Truex Jr. finished a disheartening fourth place.
Truex Jr. still clinched a spot in the Chase, but instead of the papers being full of stories that say Truex Jr. is a serious contender for the championship, he is left as an afterthought that happens to be in the Chase but probably won’t be much of a championship threat.
This loss is a tough won for Truex Jr. and the #56 team because they have come extremely close to several wins this year and have come up empty every time. Truex Jr. has six top-fives, 14 top-10s and should’ve won the spring Kansas race if not for a late caution.
A win might have been even more beneficial than the three bonus points he would’ve received once the Chase standings are set. Sometimes a breakthrough win can open the floodgates for several more wins in the near future. It’s amazing sometimes how difficult it is to break into Victory Lane but then seems relatively easy to return after that first win.
For example, Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports had gone 16 races without a win before Johnson won the Southern 500 in May at Darlington Raceway. Since then, Johnson has won three more races (including the All-Star Race) and Hendrick Motorsports has won seven races.
Truex Jr. hasn’t won since Dover in June 2007, a span of 192 races. That streak certainly weighs on him, and Sunday night’s fourth-place finish was devastating. However, if he can get that win during the Chase, he could go on a roll and really be a factor in the championship at the end of the season.
Sunday’s race might not have been the most exciting race in the world, but next week’s race at Richmond International Raceway could be thrilling. Seven drivers are in wild card contention, but the only way most of them can make the Chase is to win the race. That could make for a memorable short track race.
The final regular-season week of the season is always a fun one, and all the ingredients are in place for another wild race to send us to the Chase. We’ve been waiting for this race seemingly the entire season, and hopefully it satisfies our hopes.
In any case, have a wonderful week, everybody.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Rating the Irwin Tools Night Race: 5 Stars *****

Now that’s some good old-fashioned Bristol racing. The annual night race at The World’s Fastest Half-Mile was a slugfest that brought out the beating and banging that made Bristol Motor Speedway famous. The track changes worked. The Bristol night race gets a 5 Star Rating.
Denny Hamlin got the win in rather mundane fashion, but everything that happen up to the final run was stuff we hadn’t seen in the Sprint Cup Series in quite some time.
Sure, the finish at Watkins Glen was exciting, and Jimmie Johnson’s blown motor with five laps to go at Michigan prevented a matter-of-fact finish, but everyone got up on the wheel from the drop of the green flag Saturday in Bristol.
The bump-and-run returned to Bristol after track owner Bruton Smith decided to shave off the top groove of the track to create less racing space. His hope was to bring back a narrow groove that forced drivers to bump each other for position. Smith got what he asked for, although perhaps not in the way he envisioned.
Instead of the reconfiguration sending everyone hunting for the bottom of the track, the drivers spent all night fighting for the very top of the track, right where Smith took away the banking. But the passing dynamics that existed at Bristol before Smith installed progressive banking in 2007 still came back with a force.
It became impossible to pass on the low side throughout the night, so drivers had to nudge (or forcefully push) each other out of the way to gain a spot. That’s what gave us the most memorable part of the night.
Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart battled for the lead on lap 332. Stewart got a run on the high side, but Kenseth didn’t leave him much room. They started trading paint and eventually slid across the frontstretch and crashed into the inside wall.
Stewart jumped out of his car and waited for Kenseth to come around pit lane. As Kenseth came around, Stewart threw his helmet off the front of Kenseth’s hood and then turned around to salute the fans.
That’s the kind of stuff that has been missing from the sport of late. Notice that Stewart was not called to the NASCAR hauler after the race and won’t receive any penalties for his actions.
Some people will moan and groan that Saturday night’s race wasn’t “real racing” because there were 13 cautions and wrecks all over the place. That’s fine. Those folks can watch “real racing” at tracks such as Chicagoland, Kansas and Fontana. Saturday night’s race was fun, intense and has fans a lot more pumped up about NASCAR than any race this season outside of the Watkin’s Glen finish.
Hopefully the momentum from Bristol will carry on to Atlanta and Richmond to finish the regular season. All of a sudden the monotonous races from the first half of the season seem like they are far in the past.
That’s a good thing as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for its Labor Day weekend race. The points standings heading into the final two races before the Chase are as tight as ever, and that should make for exciting finish to the season.
Have a great week and blessed holiday weekend, everybody.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rating the Pure Michigan 400: 4 Stars ****

For the second week in a row, the dominant Sprint Cup Series car at the end of the race had a problem that prevented it from driving into Victory Lane. But bad luck for one driver usually means a more exciting finish. The final race of the season at Michigan International Speedway gets a 4 Star Rating.
This week Kyle Busch gave Jimmie Johnson his bad luck as Johnson's engine blew up while leading with only five laps from the checkered flag. That left Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski to battle for the win. Keselowski made the final couple of laps interesting, but he couldn’t catch Biffle, who got his second win of the season.
That finish comes after Keselowski spun Busch on the final lap last week at Watkins Glen.
Biffle is now back on top of the points standings and could be much more of a factor in the Chase than many people think. Unfortunately for him, Roush-Fenway Racing cars still haven’t shown enough consistency to challenge for a title.
Regardless, Biffle threw down a challenge in his Victory Lane interview.
“We’re going to make a run at the title,” he said. “I know they don’t talk about us a lot, but they will when we get to (Las) Vegas.”
Of course, the championship celebration is held in Las Vegas at the end of the season.
Along from Johnson’s problem, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon also had engine problems. All three of those teams run Hendrick Motorsports engines.  
But besides those issues and Biffle’s win, the race had a lot of action on the track compared to a lot of Michigan races and a lot of races in 2012.
Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Regan Smith and Joey Logano all spent time up against the wall. The pit road wall speared Martin’s car as he slid down pit road following a spin caused by Bobby Labonte and Juan Pablo Montoya in Turn 4. It was an ugly looking wreck, but Martin and everyone on pit road was OK.
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon also had engine problems that ended their day early.
Sunday’s race also had a lot of good racing that didn’t involve wrecks or mechanical problems. The cars can’t yet go four- and five-wide throughout the race the way they did before the track was repaved for this season, but the tighter groove made for tighter racing.
The middle of the field went three-wide on almost every single restart and barely made it through turns 1 and 2.
The cars looked like they were almost on railroad tracks during the first race in June at Michigan, but that was much less of the case this time around. The cars were more unstable and drivers could race much closer to each other than in June.
Hopefully that continues in future years and Michigan could crank out more entertaining races than boring races. At this point it has potential, and that’s more than could be said for several big, wide tracks with relatively new pavement.
Next week the Sprint Cup Series visits the revamped Bristol Motor Speedway for what could be a return of the bullring that made the track so popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Track owner Bruton Smith ordered the top groove of the track to be shaved down after the spring race to create a tighter racing groove. Either way, it is going to be an intriguing weekend.
The potential for explosive tempers at short tracks usually receives a lot of hype that rarely plays out, but this could be a weekend where the postrace show is nearly as interesting as the race.
We’ll see. Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rating the Finger Lakes 355: 4 Stars ****

It took a race track covered in motor oil to produce an exciting finish, but the Sprint Cup Series drivers sure went nuts as they slid through the final two laps Sunday at Watkins Glen. The first 88 laps weren’t much different than the rest of the relatively boring season, but the wild and crazy finish gives this race a 4 Star Rating.
Kyle Busch had the race won until he ran up on oil laid down by Bobby Labonte’s #47 car and had to slow his pace to stay on the race track. Brad Keselowski caught him in Turn 1 on the final lap and promptly spun him out. Then the battle was on between Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose.
The remainder of the final lap looked like the track’s surface was dirt rather than asphalt. Keselowski and Ambrose swapped the lead several times as they both tried thrashed to get to the finish line first. Ambrose eventually won the battle and took the checkered flag for his second consecutive win at Watkins Glen.
Now, many folks will say an exciting final few laps does not make a good race. There is certainly truth in that statement, but it’s also true that races aren’t designed to be exciting the entire time. Some of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history have come at the end of an otherwise forgettable race. This week’s race gets 4 stars because it had the best finish of the season. Period.
The first 95 percent of the race was about as typical of a Watkins Glen race as possible. Several drivers fell out of the race early because of mechanical problems and teams made varying strategy calls throughout the race. Otherwise, not much happened.
Busch, Keselowski and Ambrose had the three best cars all day, so it was fitting they were the three to battle for the win. And boy, they battled.
Busch should’ve won the race. He beat Keselowski and Ambrose on the final restart and would not have been caught if the track had been dry. His spin on the final lap relegated him to seventh on the scoreboard and moved him to 14th in the points standings, six points away from the second wild-card spot, which is currently held by Ryan Newman.
Maybe the biggest lesson from Sunday’s race is how the slick conditions made for such exciting racing, and how much the drivers enjoyed the battle.
Certainly Busch and Jeff Gordon, who also spun out on the final lap, would disagree, but Keselowski and Ambrose had a ton of fun sliding around for the win.
That type of racing has disappeared in NASCAR in the last five years or so. In the greatest finish of all time, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch slid around Darlington Raceway in 2003 for the final 15 laps banging into each other and having a great time. Craven won the race by .002 seconds.
Unfortunately, that type of racing isn’t possible any more, even at tracks such as Darlington. Nearly every track on the NASCAR schedule has been repaved since Craven’s win in 2003. Atlanta Motor Speedway is just about the only track left that hasn’t been recently repaved and has an abrasive surface that is difficult to drive.
The fresh asphalt gives cars better grip and allows the cars to go faster, but it doesn’t make for better racing. Hopefully, the track surfaces start to give up grip in the near future and become more difficult to drive. That will make for better racing.
Next week the Sprint Cup Series heads to one of the tracks with the newest pavement: Michigan International Speedway. Speeds surpassed 200 mph in June, but that likely won’t happen this weekend with hotter temperatures.
Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win again. We’ll likely hear plenty about his win in June next week. Regardless, expect the big teams to dominate the front of the field. The quality of the car matters a lot at Michigan.
Have a great week, everybody

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rating the Pennsylvania 400: 1 Stars *

A Sunday afternoon destined to be cut short by rain ended in tragedy with a big thunderstorm at Pocono Raceway. Jeff Gordon happened to sit in first place as the rains came, but the final race of the year at Pocono gets a 1 Star Rating.
The race really doesn’t matter following the death of a fan and injuries to nine others who were struck by lightning at the racetrack after officials ended the race on lap 98, and there is no way it could get a higher rating amid such a devastating event.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what happened before the storm Sunday at Pocono.
After a season filled with about every different type of disappointment imaginable, Gordon made a withdrawal from the luck bank when Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and the rest of the frontrunners tried to make it through Turn 1 sideways on the final restart.
Sure, Gordon and his team worked hard to get him in position to sneak through for a win, but he still caught one heck of a lucky break.
The same thing happened for Ryan Newman at Martinsville when Clint Bowyer took out Johnson and Gordon in Turn 1 on the final restart. Now Newman and Gordon are tied for the final wild-card spot, with Gordon winning the tiebreaker because he has more top-five finishes.
Maybe the final wild-card spot should be renamed the lucky card if one of those two drivers makes the Chase based on their lone win.
Sunday’s race actually had a fair amount of action for a rain-shortened event at Pocono. Yes, Johnson jumped out and paced the field by four seconds or so for a while, but the leaders stayed close during several runs, especially compared to most races at Pocono or most of the races this season.
Perhaps it’s fitting a Hendrick Motorsports car won the race because that organization again dominated the day. Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged to the front early in the race and would’ve been in strong contention for the win if his transmission hadn’t broke. Kasey Kahne had the second-best car at the start of the race and then Johnson made his usual run to the front.
Hendrick Motorsports could have placed four cars in the top five if not for bad Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.’s problems.
With all of the crazy issues throughout the day, Kyle Busch came out as the biggest loser. A problem with the back of his car sent him into the Turn 1 wall on lap 19 and he finished 33rd. More importantly, he scored just 11 points and now sits 15th in the points standings with one win. He came into the race 11th in the points and in position for the second wild card. He is now 12 points behind Gordan and Newman for that spot.
Either way, a big-name driver is going to miss the Chase this year.
Next up for the Sprint Cup Series is the road course of Watkins Glen. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya will likely receive all sorts of attention and people will say they have a chance to make the Chase if they can win that race.
Well, technically they would have a chance, but neither car is running well enough these days to pose a real threat to the drivers currently in the wild-card positions. It would be great for Ambrose or Montoya to get a win, but let’s not push the issue too far.
Kahne, Gordon, Newman or Busch will be the wild-card drivers this year. Even Carl Edwards would have to mount a charge in an incredibly short amount of time to make the Chase.
He likely won’t win next week at Watkins Glen, so that means he has just Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond to make the Chase. He could catch fire and win two of those three races, but there is little reason to think that will happen based on his performance so far this season.
Anyway, have a great week and pray for those who were affected by the lightning strike at Pocono.