Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NASCAR buries crew chief Chad Knaus and #48 team with major penalties

Jimmie Johnson, his crew chief Chad Knaus and the #48 team could not have started off the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season much worse.

Johnson wrecked in the Budweiser Shootout, wrecked on lap 2 of the Daytona 500 and now Knaus is staring down the barrel of a six-race suspension.

NASCAR announced penalties Wednesday for the #48 team that stemmed from a technical violation on the first day of Speedweeks Feb. 17 with the “C-posts” that run down the sides of the rear window. NASCAR officials determined the sheetmetal on those posts to be too rounded and had the team replace them, with the threat of additional penalties once Speedweeks finished.

NASCAR lived up to that threat and delivered penalties that include a six-race suspension for Knaus and the #48 team car chief Ron Malec, as well as probation until the May 9. The sanctioning body also fined Knaus $100,000 and docked the team 25 owner and driver points.

That means Johnson will head to the race at Phoenix International Raceway with -23 points after he finished 42nd in the Daytona 500, a full 70 points behind points leader Matt Kenseth. That’s no small hill to climb, even for the #48 team.

Johnson is now nearly two full races out of the points lead and he has only run two laps in the entire season. The #48 team is going to have to be patient and methodically work its way back to the front. This is not the type of hole a team can dig out of quickly.

However, Knaus and Malec will likely still be with the team this week in Phoenix. Hendrick Motorsports is going to appeal the ruling, and it could take weeks before their appeal is heard. In the meantime, Knaus and Malec will continue to lead the #48 team at the racetrack.

Don’t overlook the penalties to Malec. He is a very intelligent crew member and an integral part of that team. That penalty might be where NASCAR really stuck it to the #48 team.

Overall, the severity of these penalties were suprising. NASCAR found the violation before the cars ever hit the racetrack, so Johnson never had an unfair advantage in racing conditions. Still, NASCAR has precedent for this type of reaction.

Officials found problems with the front bumpers of Johnson’s and teammate Jeff Gordon’s cars during initial inspection for the 2007 race at the road course in Sonoma. Both Knaus and Gordon’s crew chief at the time, Steve Letarte, were suspended for the next six races, fined $100,000 and the teams were docked 100 points, although the points system was different in 2007 than it is now.

People will debate long and hard about whether the penalties for the #48 team were too harsh, too lenient or just right, and often that simply depends on how much people root for a particular driver.

It will be interesting to see the decision on the appeal. Knaus did win an appeal in 2005 to dodge a two-race suspension for the roof being too low on the #48 car. That said, appeals are rarely overturned and Hendrick Motorsports will likely have to dig deeper in its drawer of talented crew members to fill the void.

Although this is a horrible start to the season, do not dismiss Johnson from the championship picture. He has come back from some major points deficits before to win the championship, and sometimes setbacks push a great team to perform even better.

For example, Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 after Knaus was kicked out of Speedweeks and won the championship after overcoming a 165-point deficit with just seven races remaining.

These penalties won’t destroy the #48 team, but it does need something positive to happen this week at Phoenix. At this point keeping the car in one piece might be good enough.

Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus penalized after Daytona 500

NASCAR announced Wednesday that five-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus have been penalized as a result of rules infractions found on Feb. 17 during opening day inspection for the Daytona 500.
Knaus and car chief Ron Malec have been suspended for the next six NASCAR Sprint Cup races and placed on NASCAR probation until May 9th. Knaus has also been fined $100,000.
Johnson and car owner Jeff Gordon have been penalized with the loss of 25 driver and 25 owner points, respectively.

Wow. What a blow to the No. 48 team. Nobody was sure how bad the penalties would be, or even if they would come. But boy did they.
If five-time is going to become six-time he's going to be in a deep hole. With the 25-point penalty and his 42nd place finish in the Daytona 500, Johnson sits at -23 points, or 70 points behind points-leader Matt Kenseth.

On a more immediate note, Johnson and company sit 32 points behind the Wood Brothers No. 21 car in owner points. That's a 12 place finish if the Wood Brothers don't enter the No. 21 at Phoenix.

This is Johnson we're talking about though. If anyone can make up such a big deficit by the fifth week of the season it's him. Not like it would matter if he couldn't though, he'd make the races based on speed and even if that failed, he's got a past champions provisional to fall back on.

As far as Knaus goes, his prior infractions obviously led to the six-race suspension and long probation. Rick Hendrick and company are appealing the penalties so Knaus will be at Phoenix.

This should be fun to watch. Remember, the last time Knaus and crew were suspended, Johnson went on to win the Daytona 500 and later, the Sprint Cup Championship.

I think the penalties are fair, if you agree that the No. 48 crew needed to be penalized. But I'm not 100 percent sure I agree they should have. Hendrick claims the car that got penalized was the same one Johnson drove at all four restrictor plate races last season.

What do you guys think? Was the penalty too big, too small or just right?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MMCC Power Rankings: Week 1

Well wasn't that an interesting race. Some people were worried it would be delayed before it ever started. Well it got delayed all right, but not by what everyone expected it to be.

FOX could have done a much better job this week. Way too many commercials during race-time, especially considering they went side-by-side during track repair. With as many cameras that are at a NASCAR race every week, it's also a shame no-one caught Juan Pablo Montoya's accident at a decent angle.

1. Matt Kenseth (Last Week 2) – Kenseth was in the top 5 for the final 62 laps of the race, including first for the final 35.

2. Greg Biffle (6) – Good Guy Greg: Has a shot to win the Daytona 500, makes sure teammate does instead.

3. Carl Edwards (3) – Edward's is a sponsor's dream. Red Flag: Order from Subway even though they don't deliver.

4. Denny Hamlin (9) – NASCAR must have used Denny's connections with FedEx to get that many boxes of Tide to the track so quick. Tide: The official laundry detergent of the Daytona 500.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10) – He may have been pleased with a second-place finish, but his fans sure weren't. The only way to please Junior Nation is to win, or to have a foot-race to the bathroom.

6. Jeff Burton (NR) – The best part of Jeff Burton leading the race was when Mike Joy mentioned Ward Burton. The Burton brothers are the best brother duo to drive for Catapiller ... Wait, I think they're the only brother duo to drive for CAT. Oh well.

7. Kevin Harvick (12) – The "closer" didn't do as much closing as I figured he would late in the race. I figured the three Richard Childress Racing cars would make a push to the front.

8. Tony Stewart (1) – Every Stewart-Haas Racing car spun around at least once, putting those championship winnings to good use already.

9. Mark Martin (NR) – Is Martin driving the #55 for Aaron's, or because that's his age?

10. Martin Truex Jr. (NR) – When asked what he was going to do with his extra money, Truex responded "New NAPA oil filters for the whole infield!"

11. Paul Menard (NR) – I'll start giving Menard more credit when Menard's stops sponsoring his vehicle.

12. Kyle Busch (4) – Wild Thing never got a real chance to strut his stuff, though he did stay patient and brought it home in one piece. That's more than his brother can say.

13. Dave Blaney (NR) – Who couldn't help but root for the track to be unfixable if only to give Mr. World of Outlaws a win in his 398th try? Welp, maybe start #432 will be the charm.

14.Clint Bowyer (NR) – Was anybody else as annoyed as I was by the shear number of commercials Clint Bowyer was in during the 500?

15. Brad Keselowski (13) – "I followed Brad Keselowski on Twitter before it was cool," said hipster NASCAR fans everywhere.

16. Kasey Kahne (5) – The highest ranking of the remaining Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Why? Because he finished the most laps.

17. Jeff Gordon (8) – One of the strongest cars all day, just a victim of a bad break.

18. Jimmie Johnson (7) – On the plus side, Jimmie got to watch the final laps of the Daytona 500 from the comfort of his own home.

19. Joey Logano (NR) – Finished where he ran for most of the day, at the tail end of the top 10. He will need a few more runs like that to keep the firing rumors on hold for a while.

20. Bobby Labonte (NR) – You know you're not in too bad of company when you are ahead of guys like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the standings.

DNF: Juan Pablo Montoya – Considering JPM had wrecked just about every other driver in NASCAR, he wanted to make sure he was "perfect." He put a whole new meaning to the phrase "setting the track on fire."

Rating the Daytona 500: 3 Stars ***

It’s finally over. The Daytona 500 that would never start turned into the Daytona 500 that refused to end. There was rain, there was fire and there was racing, but the whole extravaganza only gets a 3 Star Rating.

Nearly 36 hours after it was scheduled to begin, the Great American Race ended with Matt Kenseth celebrating in Victory Lane. Too bad it took so long to get there, but my oh my there was some crazy action in between.

The race was good, but the circumstances that surrounded the race also made it an endurance test for not only the drivers, but also the fans.

This was Kenseth’s second Daytona 500 win, but that was about the only part of the race that was not a historical first. Basically everything else associated with the race was something nobody had ever seen before.

First, rain forced NASCAR officials to push the race back to Monday. That had never happened in the 54-year history of the race. That turned this year’s 500 into Monday Night NASCAR after rain continued throughout the morning and afternoon Monday.

Second, Juan Pablo Montoya had one of the wildest freak accidents in the history of the sport. As he drove down the backstretch under caution to catch back up with the field, something in the back of the car broke and he slid up into a safety truck with a jet dryer full of 200 gallons of fuel. That spells disaster.

Thankfully, and miraculously, nobody was hurt in the accident, but both Montoya’s car and the safety truck burst into a fire ball upon impact. The fuel then spilled out of the jet engine and a raging fire ensued.

Also miraculously, safety workers were able to get the fire under control and had the whole mess cleaned up in slightly more than two hours.

After all of that, there was still some racing left, and for the most part it was good racing.

The pack racing returned this year and made for a great Speedweeks. Even if all of the other crazy stuff had not have happened, this would have been an exciting race. The drivers drove in a tight pack all night, there were the typical big restrictor-plate wrecks and another close finish.

Overall, the Daytona 500 was a success, which is amazing. Any lesser event would’ve disintegrated into a never-ending marathon that people wished was already over.

Don’t get me wrong, this was certainly a marathon. But, the action was great on the track and most of the seats at the track were full. The number of fans who stuck around to watch the race, even as it moved into the early hours of Monday morning, was amazing. Most tracks can barely fill half of its seats for a postponed race, but the Daytona International Speedway still had the electricity that can only be found at the Daytona 500.

Also, congratulations to Kenseth. This win puts him on an exclusive list with only eight other drivers who won multiple Daytona 500’s. He had one of the strongest cars all week and certainly deserved the win.

Now the Sprint Cup Series can finally pack up and head out to a place where it likely won’t have to worry about rain. The tough part will be getting the logistics worked out to get all of the equipment out to Phoenix International Raceway. Everybody will be at Phoenix on Friday; it will just be more stressful than normal to get there.

Another benefit to the delayed Daytona 500 is now only three days stand between now and the next time Cup cars are on the racetrack.

Hopefully fans got as much out of Speedweeks as they wanted. Whether or not they liked the race, they will at least have great stories to tell about this year’s wild Daytona 500 experience.

Have a great week, everybody.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hauler drivers face concerns after Daytona 500 delay

The unsung heroes of NASCAR teams each and every week, are about to have a very tough week ahead of them.

Every NASCAR fan care about the driver and a crew chief. It takes a special fan to pay attention to the pit crew. It takes a die-hard to care about the member in the worst shape after the Daytona 500 is finally in the books -- the hauler driver.

Depending the week and the tracks in question, a hauler driver could drive thousands of miles transporting cars to and from the track and the team facility.

This week, it's going to be even worse. After the Daytona 500 is complete, whether it's Monday night or Tuesday morning, it's going to be a long week for all of the hauler drivers.

When the race is over, the crew must pack up the car and take it back to the home-base in Mooresville, N. C., or about 504 miles away according to Google Maps. That's about an eight and a half hour drive.

After unloading all the Daytona equipment, teams must load equipment and cars for the race at Phoenix the following weekend. That can't be a quick process, I'll guess it would be about a three-hour event. So far, we are at a minimum 11 and a half hours from Daytona to ready to leave for Phoenix.

The drive from Moorseville to Phoenix International Raceway is a long one, 2,110 miles. Google Maps says it would take one day and nine hours, or 33 hours one way. That's puts us at a total of 44 and a half hours from Daytona to Phoenix not including sleep and rest stops. That's not going to be an easy trip for anybody.

"I just was looking at the schedule earlier today," Carl Edwards said. "We're not on the track till midday Friday or something.  Yeah, if we were to put this out until Tuesday, I think that would be real tough.

"But I'm sure it will be fine.  I mean, we've got guys, they can do it.  I know our Phoenix stuff is ready to go.  I think there might be an issue with some of the engines, especially with our FR-9s.  Have to ask Jack.  Doug Yates, the quantity, the amount of engines we had to have ready for these races, I'm sure they'll be running back and forth and turning things over."

That may be a simple transfer for teams as big as Roush, but the smaller teams may have issues.

Bobby Labonte of JTG Dougherty Racing is concerned for the hauler driver's safety.
"It's going to make a tough trip for the truck drivers more than anything else, leaving here, when we do leave here, to go home and make a swap," Labonte said. "How many hours will that take?  You have to make sure that you're planned well enough that your truck drivers can get there in the amount of time that's out there.  It's a long ways.  So we'll see."
The drivers have to be parked in the Phoenix infield by 5 a.m. Friday, moved from 5 p.m. Thursday, to get prepared for the weekend festivities. So if you see a NASCAR Hauler behind you this week, be sure to get out of the way and let them go. They are going to be in as much of a hurry as the NASCAR drivers will be at Daytona.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The calm before the Daytona storm

NASCAR fans waited all year for Speedweeks to begin in mid-February, and all of a sudden the final hours are counting down before the culmination of the greatest racing week of the year.

All of the preliminary events are over. The Budweiser Shootout, duel races, truck race, Nationwide race and multitude of practice sessions were often wild. But, now the massive Daytona International Speedway will go dark to prepare for its greatest day yet.

The drivers and teams have nothing left to do. They have prepared at the track for eight days, and several months at the shop before that. Now it is time to try and keep the anticipation of the biggest race of the year at bay as much as possible.

Even drivers who have participated in nearly every event throughout Speedweeks will take precautions to stay as calm as possible on this night. From defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart to Daytona 500 rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the drivers know this race means much more than everything else they have done so far during Speedweeks.

The 24 hours before the Daytona 500 are similar to both Christmas Eve and the night before the Super Bowl. There is electricity in the air that can only be felt in the final day before a big event.

Fans’ hearts have been turning more than 9,000 rpm’s for much of the last week. Now it is time to take a breath and gear up for the final big event of Speedweeks.

Overall, Speedweeks is one of the greatest times of the year in NASCAR. Sure, the final stretches of a close championship battle such as last year’s race between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are exciting, but there is still the lingering feeling that everything will shut down once the race ends at Homestead.

Things are still fresh during Speedweeks. Fans have gotten a good look at all of the new teams and colors for the upcoming season, and they will finally be able to see those teams in a regular-season race.

There is still a bit of a letdown once the race and post-race festivities end because the nearly two-week long party is over, but the rest of the season still stretches out to provide a reason to look forward. That week between Daytona and Phoenix is a heck of a lot shorter than the time between Homestead and Daytona.

As the gates close and the lights go off at the track Saturday evening, there will be an aura that surrounds the speedway. The next time the sun comes up, one of the greatest days of the year will be upon us.

By Sunday morning folks will wake up knowing that a great gift sits beneath the figurative Christmas tree in the form of a 500-mile race that is like no other.

They will put on their favorite driver’s gear and head to the track or turn on the television to be taken on a ride they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Get ready; it’s almost time for The Great American Race.

Friday, February 24, 2012

MMCC Power Rankings: Preseason edition

Editor's note: Monday Morning Crew Chief would like to welcome a new member to the staff. Terrence Hunley will produce Power Rankings following every race this season. Each week he will rank drivers from first to 20th, along with a did-not-finish category. Once the season starts, the rankings will appear the Tuesday following a race.

Welcome the first Power Rankings in MMCC history. Comments and suggestions are always appreciated. Now, without further ado ... the 2012 Preseason Power Rankings.

1. Tony Stewart – The defending champ couldn’t have started off his season any better, unless he decided to fire Danica Patrick.

2. Matt Kenseth – The “other” duel winner, if you even want to call that snore-fest a race worth winning.

3. Carl Edwards – He got the pole and the early lead. But Tony Stewart got the win, what else is new.

4. Kyle Busch – Kyle Busch had perhaps the “best restrictor-plate performance ever” in the Bud Shootout. If he shows that kind of discipline, skill and drive all season, look out.

5. Kasey Kahne – Only Stewart and Edwards had a better Chase, and neither of them improved the quality of their ride like Kahne did. Beware 2012 is the Year of Kahne.

6. Greg Biffle – The Biff starts on the outside of the front row for the big race Sunday, the question is, can he finish it up front.

7. Jimmie Johnson – Heeeee’s baaaaack. Chad Knaus that is. Already on the wrong side of the NASCAR hauler this season, though … the last time the #48 team was caught cheating during Speedweeks, Johnson won the Daytona 500.

8. Jeff Gordon – Had one of the best cars in the shootout until Hendrick announced a change in sponsor: Fly to End Hunger.

9. Denny Hamlin – The new pairing of Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb will be one of the best new pairings in the sport.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – It’s Daytona, it’s Junior … nuff said.

11. Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose's #9 car has looked pretty stout so far through Speedweeks, don’t be surprised if the Tasmanian Devil gets it done at Daytona.

12. Kevin Harvick – Happy has a Daytona 500 win to his credit, much to the chagrin of one Mark Martin, adding another is another story.

13. Brad Keselowski – The new face of Penske Racing is looking to prove last season wasn’t a fluke. I believe it wasn’t, and a win at Daytona will help Keselowski become an early Chase favorite.

14. Kurt Busch – If there is a shot for the #51 to win a race, it’s at Daytona, where Busch has been really good before, though not a win.

15. Michael McDowell – Congrats on making the Daytona 500, now there will be that token restrictor-plate backstretch flip usually reserved for Elliott Sadler

16. Ryan Newman – Hard to believe that Ryan Newman is the only driver at Stewart-Haas Racing with a Daytona 500 win, and is getting the least amount of publicity heading into this year's race.

17. A.J. Allmendinger – The Dinger made the best move upward in rides this side of Kasey Kahne. Can he break into the first-time winners club? He has to, I mean … even this next guy has a win.

18. Regan Smith – I give Regan credit, if there is one track he is good at, it’s Daytona. Too bad it’s only on the schedule twice.

19. Elliott Sadler – Welcome back to racing with the big boys Elliott, though the fact that you ran a full Nationwide season and only finished second isn’t too encouraging.

20. Danica Patrick – What was Danica doing? My vote is for playing peek-a-boo with the wall. The wall won.

DNF: Michael Waltrip – Really? You end perhaps your final Daytona 500 qualifying effort like that? Ouch. Even worse than the wreck was DW trying to make it sound like it could happen to anybody.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Duel race #2 shockingly goes caution-free

The second duel race Thursday may have been the tamer of the two qualifying races for the Daytona 500, but it also included something not seen in NASCAR in seven years.

It had a flagman who didn't wave the yellow flag once during the race's entire 60 laps.

Before Thursday, NASCAR hadn’t had a caution-free race of any kind since the second duel race in 2004, which was only 125 miles compared to the current 150-mile length.

After Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, many people said the Sprint Cup Series cars are too unstable to run competitively without wrecking, but of course that was after just one race and a few practice sessions.

However, the drivers apparently can race under the current restrictor-plate rules package without wrecking. They proved it in the second duel race Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.

The shootout had four wrecks and the first duel race had two more hard wrecks, but nobody dropped out of the second duel race because of a wreck.

In fact, winner Matt Kenseth set a record for the fastest duel race in history at 194.175 mph.

Caution-free races are always going to be an extremely rare breed because so many things can happen during a race, but I had begun to think they were extinct.

Instead, the second duel race proved that at least a qualifying race, which is supposed to be one of the wildest races of the season, can go green from start to finish.

The last points-paying race to never see a yellow flag was the October 2002 race at Talladega won by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Several factors go into having a complete race uninterrupted by a yellow flag. First and most obviously, the drivers need to run a clean race and not cause any wrecks.

Second, the cars must avoid mechanical or tire problems that could put fluid on the track or put a car in the wall.

Third, NASCAR officials must not throw the caution flag for debris on the racetrack.

Unfortunately, many of the long green-flag runs are cut short because of debris cautions.

The longest stretch between cautions in recent years was the 201 consecutive green-flag laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in June 2010. The longest green-flag stretch to start a race was at Auto Club Speedway last year when the first caution didn’t come out until lap 75.

However, both of those green-flag runs ended because of debris on the track.

NASCAR did a better job last year in terms of throwing fewer debris cautions, especially cautions for debris that television cameras can’t find on the track. Officials even held a meeting with reporters before Speedweeks where they addressed the issue of debris cautions.

"First off, if you're going to have a debris caution, you'd better have debris, right?" said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "That's starters. I mean, we don't randomly call something."

Speedweeks 2012 have started well without a single debris caution. Hopefully that continues for the rest of the weekend.

Granted, Thursday’s caution-free duel race was only 60 laps and had only a 24-car field, but maybe, just maybe, a full points-paying race without a caution is still possible in NASCAR.

Monday, February 20, 2012

NASCAR need not change current restrictor-plate rules package

Once Talladega Superspeedway received new asphalt in 2006 and Daytona International Speedway got a fresh surface for 2011, the style of racing at the two tracks changed dramatically, and not necissarily for the better.

Gone were the 30-car packs that had drivers lined up three-wide six or more rows deep. Instead, drivers learned they could push the car in front of them and gain as much as 10 mph.

That lesson quickly did away with the packs and created restrictor-plate races that were at times downright tame until the end of the race. Nearly every two-car draft race ended in a photo finish, but that was about the only thrilling part of the race.

NASCAR fans quickly expressed their displeasure with the new style of restrictor-plate racing, and NASCAR officials went to work to phase out the two-car draft and bring back the large packs.

Well, they certainly accomplished that.

Through a myriad of changes to the cars, NASCAR teams came to Daytona for Speedweeks this year with a rules package that nearly eliminated the two-car draft. The large pack was back on display Saturday night, and my of my it was intense.

The only potential problem with the current restrictor-plate racing package is the vulnerability to large wrecks. The Budweiser Shootout had three crashes that involved six or more cars, two cars caught fire and Jeff Gordon flipped up onto his roof.

Those incidents started grumblings throughout the sport that maybe the new pack style of racing is no good either. Those grumblings, however, should be discarded.

I understand the safety issues. NASCAR doesn’t want to have huge wrecks that could potentially hurt drivers. Any reasonable fan should feel the same way. However, the Budweiser Shootout won by Kyle Busch on Saturday night was the most exciting restrictor-plate race start-to-finish since the 2007 Daytona 500 when Kevin Harvick edged out Mark Martin for the win.

There is simply nothing as intense as a three-wide pack of racecars filling up the track at speeds near or above 200 mph.

Nearly every wreck in the shootout was caused by a driver pushing another car on the left side of the bumper. That caused the front car to spin out.

We don’t need rule changes to fix that. The drivers simply don’t need to push the car in front of them.

People screamed for years and years before NASCAR used the Car of Tomorrow at Daytona in 2008 that drivers shouldn’t bump draft because it could spin out the car in front. The bumpers on the cars didn’t line up on the old car models, and drivers used the bump draft sparingly. Now they just need to go back to that approach.

If they want to push, great, they just have to be very careful with it and choose their opportunities wisely.

NASCAR did a great job with the current rules package for Speedweeks. This is as close to the old style of restrictor-plate racing the sport has seen in years, and the racing in the shootout was even more exciting than the old days.

In the days of the old pack racing, the front 10 to 15 drivers would eventually get lined up on the bottom and run single-file for a portion of the race. A pass for the lead was an incredibly difficult proposition.

Nobody got lined up single-file for more than two or three consecutive laps in the shootout and drivers were able to make passes all around the racetrack.

Although this might be heresy to some people, the current restrictor-plate rules package might produce the most exciting plate racing ever.

NASCAR officials worked hard to create the perfect mix of rules to create exciting racing. Here’s hoping they don’t succumb to pressure to try and fix a problem that no longer exists.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Kyle Busch’s shootout win may have been greatest restrictor-plate race performance ever

Forty-eight laps through Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway, Kyle Busch sat in Turn 2 facing the infield grass.

For most drivers, that view means they have wrecked, or are well on their way to wrecking. At a restrictor-plate track such as Daytona that usually means their race is over and they will get a free trip to the infield care center.

But Kyle Busch isn’t like most drivers.

While sparks flew from the back of his #18 car as if he had dropped a full bag of M&M’s, Busch manhandled his car through the turn, back up onto the track and back in contention.

Then he did it again in Turn 4 on lap 74, although all of the other nearby drivers wrecked to bring out a caution.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series didn’t even have a full race in the books, and Busch already locked up the title for the two best saves of the 2012 season.

However, Busch didn’t stop there.

Despite damage on the front of the car as a result of the wrecks, Busch hooked up with Tony Stewart on the final lap to push to the front. He then pulled out to the high side coming out of Turn 4 and passed Stewart to win the race by the closest margin in Budweiser Shootout history.

NASCAR has raced with restrictor plates for nearly 25 years, and we have seen other incredible performances from legends in the sport. But, Busch’s effort at Daytona on Saturday night might have been the greatest ever.

Sure, drivers such as David Pearson, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and even Tony Stewart have won their fair share of incredible races at Daytona and Talladega.

Pearson won the 1976 Daytona 500 by crossing the finish line with a torn up car after he and Richard Petty crashed coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap of the race.

Elliott came back from two laps down to win the 1985 spring race at Talladega Superspeedway without the aid of a caution flag.

However, both of those were before NASCAR began using restrictor plates in 1888.

Earnhardt’s finest come-from-behind moment happened at Talladega in the fall of 2000 when he came from 18th place in the final four laps to win his final race.

Stewart drove through the grass through Turn 1, jumped back up on the track and went on to win the 2005 Nationwide race at Daytona. But, he only had one wild ride that day. Busch had two Saturday night.

There have surely been other great performances at restrictor-plate throughout the years. But none of them had to overcome as many setbacks, and none of them won by such a close margin.

Busch should have wrecked twice, but he held onto the car both times, had damage to the front of his car because of his two incredible saves and then won the race by the closest of margins.

Even Busch’s competitors recognized the talent he displayed in the shootout.

“There's a lot of guys that wouldn't have caught that,” second-place finisher Tony Stewart said. “I'm sitting there and the green is still out. I'm going, 'Man, that's the coolest save I've seen in a long time.'"

"That was awesome!" Jimmie Johnson said over the radio after Busch's first save.

Many people love to hate Busch for one reason or another. Some of that hatred is justified by his actions such as the incident at Texas Motor Speedway in November when Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr., who was in contention for the truck series championship.

Even with all of that baggage, Busch’s performance Saturday night has to stand out as one of the greatest performances the sport has seen.

Granted, it was an exhibition race, but Busch went through more in the 75 laps that make up the shootout than most drivers endure in a full 500-mile race.

Rather Busch’s win goes down as the most impressive restrictor-plate victory or not, the 2012 Budweiser Shootout should be remembered as one of Busch’s best performances ever.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Rating the Budweiser Shootout: 5 Stars *****

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opened in grand fashion with a 200 mph high-flying act that included bumps, flips and a photo finish. The 2012 Budweiser Shootout gets a no-brainer of a 5 Star Rating.

What a race, folks. NASCAR officials, drivers and fans have been wringing their hands all offseason about what type of racing would be on display once Speedweeks began at Daytona International Speedway.

Well, I think all of that worry can now be channeled into great excitement and anticipation of what lies ahead for the rest of the week.

This race had just about everything that makes race fans sit on the edge of their seat for an entire race. It even had a pretty exciting photo finish to cap off the night.

Race fans wanted the large restrictor-plate racing packs to return to Daytona and Talladega superspeedway racing. The Bud Shootout sure provided that. Nobody could hook up in a two-car draft and pull away from the crowd. The three-wide swarm of cars that is one of the most adrenaline-spiking sights in all of sports was back.

When drivers put on a show like they did Saturday night, the number of laps remaining hardly seems to matter. There’s almost no time to look to the top of the television screen to see how much of the race is left because the action is so intense on the track.

For those who like big wrecks, those are back too. Some people will say all wrecks are a bad thing. That’s fair. No reasonable person wants to see even their most hated driver get hurt. But, those wrecks make highlight shows for a reason, and boy did we have some big ones Saturday night.

Jeff Gordon had the most spectacular crash of the evening as his car slid out of Turn 4 on on the driver’s side window and then flipped three times before settling completely upside down.

Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip also had scary adventures when their cars caught on fire during one of the big wrecks. Thankfully, everybody came out of the race unhurt.

Even with all that went on in those wild 82 laps, Kyle Busch stole the show.

Busch’s #18 car was completely sideways on two separate occasions and yet he never spun out. Both times he made ridiculous saves to keep from crashing. Sparks showered the track and the front of the car crinkled, but Busch miraculously held on to the car to stay in contention.

Not only did he stay in contention, but he went on to win the race.

Not only did he win the race, but he did so in spectacular fashion by inching out Tony Stewart at the finish line by .013 seconds, the closest finish in Budweiser Shootout history.

A photo finish is like a walk-off homerun in baseball. It is simply the most exciting thing that can happen at the end of an event.

The best part of all of this is that the shootout is only the first Cup race of Speedweeks. There are still three other Cup races, a Nationwide race and a truck race that could very well be just as exciting.

Oh boy, strap in for one heck of a week. The Budweiser Shootout was great, and if NASCAR doesn’t change any rules the rest of Speedweeks is shaping up to be just as good.

#48 team’s rule infraction par for the course at Speedweeks

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was less than 24 hours old and NASCAR officials already had a controversy on their hands.

Jimmie Johnson and his #48 Hendrick Motorsports team showed up at Daytona International Speedway with pieces of the car that didn’t quite fit with NASCAR regulations.

The Lowe’s Chevrolet had a “C post” on the car that NASCAR deemed to be outside of the rules, and it would’ve given the car an aerodynamic advantage.

The C post is the piece of metal that runs across the top of the passenger window down to the trunk lid. NASCAR said the C post on Johnson’s car was rounded too much.

The team had to change the C posts on the car and NASCAR will likely announce any penalties in the days following the Daytona 500.

However, this type of issue should not be a shocking development during Speedweeks.

Sure, this gives fans who don’t like Johnson, Knaus or the entire #48 team another chance to shout from the mountaintops that the team is full of cheaters. However, plenty of seasons start with some sort of controversy.

The #48 team had a similar situation happen in 2006, and NASCAR sent crew chief Chad Knaus home for the rest of Speedweeks. It didn't matter, though. Johnson still went on to win the Daytona 500.

Michael Waltrip Racing also got busted for having rocket fuel in its cars during the team’s first Speedweeks in 2007.

More often than not, one story quickly dominates headlines during Speedweeks, and Johnson’s issue is just this year’s version.

While it’s nice to say anyone who works on the edges of the rule book should have it thrown at them when they go too far, but pushing the envelope is a crew chief’s job.

Some of the best crew chiefs in the history in the sport occasionally go too far in their innovations.

For example, Ray Evernham built a car for Jeff Gordon in the 1997 Winston all-star race that absolutely dominated the event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The car didn’t officially break any rules, but NASCAR told Evernham he couldn’t run that car again.

Does that mean Evernham cheated for that race? No, he was just the most innovative, and best, crew chief of his time.

Chad Knaus is the same way. NASCAR and team officials said the #48 car likely would’ve passed inspection and fit the templates. The problem was the areas between the template points that NASCAR said was the problem.

Generally, these types of issues happen during Speedweeks because teams have an entire offseason to optimize their Daytona 500 car.

A new season is also the first time teams work with the current year’s rules and car models. Even though NASCAR mandates nearly every part of a car these days, there is always going to be a breaking in period at the beginning of the season.

If something like the #48 team’s issue comes up in a few weeks there might be a more severe reaction, but Speedweeks is similar to the first round of golf for a year. The teams have to work out some the kinks.

However, these issues give people plenty to talk about during Speedweeks, and they usually set the stage for quite an interesting year.

If the first day was any indication, there will be plenty of topics to debate throughout this season.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ironically, knee surgery should make Kasey Kahne a favorite to win Daytona

Kasey Kahne was set to have one of the best years of his career in 2012 as he moved to Hendrick Motorsports to drive the #5 car, but then he underwent outpatient knee surgery last week to repair a torn meniscus.

Now he is almost certain to have the best season ever. He will probably contend for the championship and his odds of winning the Daytona 500 dramatically improved.

Most people might consider it a problem to have knee surgery (no matter how “minor”) just one week before the season starts. But, this is NASCAR we’re talking about.

For whatever reason, NASCAR drivers tend to turn into superstars when they have injuries to their legs.

Denny Hamlin underwent surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee in March 2010. He won at Martinsville with the injury just two days before the surgery and then went on to win seven more races and nearly win the championship.

Brad Keselowski became superhuman in 2011 after he broke his ankle in a testing accident in August. He won the next week at Pocono Raceway and finished the season fifth in the points standings with three wins.

Following those examples, Kahne has to be the favorite to win Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout or the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.

To fuel the fire even more, this isn’t the first time Kahne has had to race after a knee surgery. Kahne has had four knee surgeries in the last 15 months, including last April before the spring race at Richmond.

He finished third in that race.

Maybe a leg injury for a NASCAR driver is similar to Tommy John surgery for a baseball pitcher. When a pitcher gets his elbow fixed he usually comes back throwing harder than he did before the surgery. It looks like NASCAR drivers drive faster than before their injury.

Obviously, it is likely just coincidence that all of these drivers have great races following leg injuries, or maybe an extra bit of competitive drive comes out in a driver when he is hobbled by a medical problem.

Granted, drivers don’t run up and down a field or court all day, but navigating a race track at 180-plus mph for 500 miles is no picnic.

Combine Kahne’s knee operation with the facts that Hendrick Motorsports is the dominant team in NASCAR and has won 10 Sprint Cup Series championships, and Daytona International Speedway might as well engrave Kahne’s name in the Harley J. Earl Trophy and put it in Victory Lane.

Even if there is some crazy reason NASCAR drivers run well (pardon the pun) after leg injuries, it would be even more remarkable if Kahne won at Daytona because circumstances determine a finishing position at restrictor-plate tracks as much or more so than the quality of car.

Also, regardless of the knee situation Kahne should have a very good season. He is in the prime of his career and in the best equipment he’s ever driven.

But, if Kahne wins during Speedweeks maybe some young drivers will want to spring for a knee surgery to help them race better.

Nah, we kid because we care.

Friday, February 10, 2012

NASCAR New Year’s Day approaches

The calendar might already say 2012, but for NASCAR fans the year might as well not start until the third week of February.

That’s when the eyes of the NASCAR world turn to Daytona Beach, Fla., to celebrate the coming of a new racing season.

There will be parties, concerts and television specials, but most importantly there will be race cars circling the greatest speedway ever built at 200 mph.

Oh, I get chills just thinking about it.

Practice for the Budweiser Shootout will begin Friday to kick off Speedweeks, followed by the 75-lap race Saturday night and qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Sometimes when we anticipate something so much it feels kind of weird when it actually happens. That’s often how the beginning of Speedweeks feels.

NASCAR has one of the shortest offseasons of any sport, but those 97 days between Homestead and Daytona are always feel like the longest days of the year.

Now, less than a week from now we will no longer have to dream about what Kasey Kahne will look like in his brand new #5 Farmer’s Insurance Chevy or what style of racing drivers will use at Daytona this year. The lights will be on and the cars will shine as they flash by the start/finish line to kick off a satisfyingly full 2012 racing season.

This weekend also marks the last weekend without a Sprint Cup Series race until April. NASCAR pushed the start of the season back one week this year to eliminate the early off week at the beginning of the season.

That should make the start of the season even better because there won’t be an interruption until Easter. In past years it was frustrating to wait all offseason for racing and then have an off week after only three races.

Even if it was a dreary winter without much joy, at least there will be a race for the next six weeks in a row.

By that time leaves will be on the trees throughout the country and many neighborhoods will be filled with the sound of lawnmowers on Saturday morning.

Until then, let the wonderfully green grass of the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval and the palm trees in the background fill your television set for the next two weeks.

Speedweeks at Daytona always feels like the first step in the push toward spring, and there is going to be nothing better to start that push than having a full field of drivers start their engines next Saturday night.

Regardless of what the weather says, get ready to say goodbye to winter and hello to the beginning of a long stretch of exciting Sunday afternoons.

Welcome to the real beginning of 2012.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not surprisingly, Brian Vickers still without a ride

Nearly every 2011 Spring Cup Series driver has a ride for Speedweeks as the NASCAR offseason comes off of Turn 4, but there is still one notable exception.

Brian Vickers, a two-time Sprint Cup Series winner and formerly of the #83 Red Bull Racing Toyota, is still sitting on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity to present itself.

Time is getting extremely short, however, and any Cup ride he finds will have finished lower than 30th in the 2011 points standings.

Several former Cup winners were out of a job when the 2011 season finished. Teams found sponsorship difficult to come by, and several teams had to shut their doors.

Vickers’ Red Bull team is one of those that shut down after the final race in November at Homestead. But, his wasn’t the only one.

For example, David Ragan’s #6 car didn’t have enough sponsorship to continue as a full-time team and Michael Waltrip Racing kicked David Reutimann to the curb as the season came to a close.

Ragan and Reutimann, along with drivers such as A.J. Allmendinger and Kurt Busch all found rides for 2012, but Vickers has come up empty.

Maybe that’s because his reputation has caught up with him.

Ragan, Reutimann and Allmendinger have kept their noses clean throughout their careers for the most part and haven’t created many enemies in the sport.

Vickers, on the other hand, has ruffled feathers throughout his career, and he really turned up the aggressive meter in 2011.

First, he put Tony Stewart up into the tire barriers in June at Sonoma after Stewart had punted him early in the race. Next, he went nuts in October at Martinsville and effectively ended Matt Kenseth’s championship run. Then, a few weeks later he again got into the back of Kenseth and pushed him all the way into the Turn 3 wall at Phoenix.

His explanation of the Phoenix incident also didn’t help his case.

“He wrecked me at Martinsville, he got wrecked here, but it actually wasn't (payback),” Vickers said after the Phoenix race. “I'm not saying I wasn't going to pay him back, but I'm just saying that wasn't it.”

That may not have been the best time to get into a feud with a championship contender, especially when Vickers’ team was shutting down and he needed to find a different ride for 2012.

The same thing happened to Kurt Busch on a slightly different level. Busch spent most of the year screaming at his team over the in-car radio and pushed things over the limit when he cussed out Dr. Jerry Punch while waiting for an interview at Homestead.

Busch does have a ride for the upcoming season, but his new job as the driver of the #51 car for Phoenix Racing is a large step down from the #22 Penske Racing car he previously drove.

Busch’s temper cost him his job. Luckily for him, he is a former champion and has 24 career Cup victories.

Vickers, on the other hand, has two wins and he wrecked Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson at Talladega in 2006 to get one of them.

Drivers with clean driving reputations or impressive career numbers were able to find a new job this offseason, even if it is in lesser equipment than their previous ride.

Vickers has neither, and now he might be the one 2011 full-time driver who won’t return to the Cup series in 2012.