Sunday, May 27, 2012

Rating the Coca-Cola 600: 1 Star *

A long race that finished a long day of racing Sunday ended with Kasey Kahne in Victory Lane for the first time as a Hendrick Motorsports driver. Unfortunately, the longest race of the day was also the most boring, and the Coke 600 gets a 1Star Rating.
Besides a freak problem like the tire situation at the Brickyard a few years ago, Sunday night’s race had all of the elements of a snoozer. It was a long race dominated by just a few drivers, there wasn’t much side-by-side racing and debris cautions plagued the race throughout the night.
The Coca-Cola 600 is billed as an endurance event, and that is certainly how this year’s edition played out. The drivers struggled to merely get to the end of the race and didn’t have much time to wage a real battle near the front of the field.
Plus, one of the few intriguing battles of the night was cut short by a debris caution on lap 318 as Kahne, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin raced hard for the lead among lapped cars.
After that, Kahne dominated the remainder of a race that had no drama.
Now, before we overreact and say NASCAR is horrible, the cars are horrible, the drivers are horrible and everybody should be fired because it wasn’t an exciting race, we still need to realize that not every race is going to be exciting.
Sure, it would have been a real shot in the arm to have a tense, exciting race for the Memorial day weekend special in Charlotte, which is one of the most prestigious races on the schedule. But that wasn’t the case. Fans will get over it and more on. At some point this season there will be a thrilling 5 Star race and everyone will say NASCAR is the best thing going.
For the first time in a long, long time, the Indianapolis 500 was the better race Sunday. IndyCar had a record number of lead changes in a race that was as close as open-wheel racing gets to NASCAR’s restrictor-plate style racing.
Anyway, congratulations to Kahne and the #5 team. Kahne has run well all season, but he is finally starting to register the finishes to match the way he’s run during the race. Don’t look now, but he’s 15th in the points standings with one win. That puts him just seven points behind Ryan Newman for the final wild-card spot in the Chase.
Speaking of overreactions, many people crossed Kahne of the list of Chase candidates early in the season when he was just a few spot away from falling out of the top 35 in points. My what a difference two months make.
We probably should have seen this coming. Brad Keselowski taught everyone last year that drivers can make comebacks with the new points system. Shoot, Keselowski was 24th in the points standings at this time last year.
With that backdrop, Jeff Gordon still has a real chance to make the Chase. With a good couple of months, Gordon could be at least fighting for one of the wild-card spots by the time NASCAR visits the Brickyard in August.
Now it’s time for the first northern swing of the season. It’s starting to get hot across the country, so the sport will leave the South for the next month until it comes back to Kentucky Speedway for the last weekend in June.
The Monster Mile at Dover is next week. Although that track can tear up racecars as much as any on the circuit, the way this season has gone we could be in for another mundane race, especially if one team hits the setup perfectly and runs away from the field. They might not be caught until Pocono the following week.
For now, have a great Memorial Day and honor those who have served and are currently serving our country.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Monday Morning Crew Chief Picks:  Charlotte

Jacob: The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will get its first first-time winner this weekend in the sport's longest race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Penske Racing has some serious speed in the yellow No. 22 Dodge Charger, and A.J. Allmendinger will finally break into Victory Lane to help me continue my domination of the MMCC picks this season.

Patricia (Monday Morning Driver): Mr. Consistency, Matt Kenseth is my pick to win the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend. Matt is the best driver at these long races. He has patience and he knows how to save his equipment so he'll be in position to fight for the win at the end. Kenseth looked fast at the All Star Race. Let's just hope Roush fixed those exploding engines.

Terrence: This may be the most obvious choice, but Jimmie Johnson is on a roll, and it is Charlotte. The No. 48 will continue to prove they are the team to beat and will nab another top five finish at Charlotte.

1. Jacob, 59
2. Patricia, 114
3. Terrence, 132

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why Rick Hendrick’s ride on the #48 after the All-Star Race was so special

After Jimmie Johnson completed some impressive burnouts following his win in the All-Star Race Saturday night, he had team owner Rick Hendrick hop up on the door and ride along for a victory lap on the frontstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway to let fans solute possibly the greatest car owner in the history of NASCAR.
The move harkened back to days long gone by when pit crews would ride on top of a winning car as it drove to Victory Lane, and it was an awesome solute to arguably the best team owner in the history of the sport.
Yes, Hendrick Motorsports still has 68 wins to go before it catches Petty Enterprises for the most wins all time, but that number could be in reach in the next five to seven years.
In any case, Hendrick’s victory ride on the frontstretch after Saturday night’s race was a fitting tribute to a great man and a team that just won its 200th race the week before in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
All of the leaders involved in both the Southern 500 win and the All-Star Race win are going to go down in history as legends of the sport.
Hendrick will be compared to the Petty and Wood Brothers Racing organizations, crew chief Chad Knaus will be compared to Petty’s crew chief Dale Inman and Johnson will be considered at least one of the 10 best drivers in the history of the sport.
Although it is easy to hate the #48 team and Hendrick Motorsports for all of their success, please still appreciate it. They have put together arguably the best run any team has ever had in NASCAR history.
Everybody loves to think about how great the Pettys were, how great Earnhardt was and how much success Jeff Gordon had in the first half of his career. But, people also tend to forget how much they hated those drivers and teams for their success when it was happening.
Instead of waiting until the success is over, why don’t we properly appreciate the success while it happens.
It might seem impossible right now, but there will be a time when Johnson no longer consistently wins race. There also might be a time when Hendrick Motorsports no longer competes for wins week in and week out. Ask somebody in the 60’s and 70’s if Petty and the Wood Brothers would be struggling just to remain in the sport, and they likely would’ve have said you are absolutely crazy.
Sports have a way of evening out successes and failures. A great team doesn’t stay great forever. Some teams have longer runs on top than others, but success is certainly not eternal, especially in NASCAR.
Go ahead and wish for some other team to rise up and challenge for race wins and championships. But the eventually everybody will get tired of that team too and start to wish for the next team to arrive on the scene.
That is fine, but fans might be left always hoping for the next big thing and never enjoy what they see on the track in the present.
The Hall of Fame is great, but make sure to recognize Hall of Fame achievements when they happen. Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team are in the midst of Hall of Fame achievements. It would be a shame to miss them.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rating the All-Star Race: 4 Stars ****

NASCAR’s all-star’s fired up for an intense 90 laps Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in what might have been the best race of the season. That said, Jimmie Johnson once again to the drama out of the end and ran away to grab his third all-star win. Still, the All-Star Race gets a 4 Star Rating.
Fans have waited pretty much all season for a race where the drivers really got after it and raced hard for every spot. Boy, we certainly had that Saturday night. This race had by far more three-wide racing and hold-your-breath moments than there has been in any race this season outside Daytona and Talladega.
This race might have been considered for a five-star rating, but Johnson took any drama out of the finish.
Plus, the All-Star Race also showed that NASCAR can have a good race without wrecks. All of the complaints about the lack of wrecks had begun to get a little ridiculous. Hopefully people understand after watching this race that we don’t have to have cautions for a good race.
Sure, the segments meant the drivers had to race hard only 20 laps at a time, but they also weren’t content to ride around all night. The drivers certainly were up on the chip a little more Saturday night than for a normal race, but there can be full 500-mile races that have more green-flag action than what we’ve seen lately.
A couple of additional factors may have played into why this was such a good race.
First, the race was at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is an excellent track for NASCAR racing. Drivers can race side by side, but the track is also narrow enough that it creates very tight situations. The high side in Turns 1 and 2 creates a great run down the backstretch, but a car on the low side in Turns 3 and 4 can hang on and actually come out of the turn with the lead. Having those options is critical to a good race.
Second, NASCAR shortened the side skirts on the sides of the cars to take away some downforce. That is a factor that will take a few more races to determine how much it affects the cars, but early indications are it helped take some of the stability out of the cars to allow for more movement throughout the field.
The format changes by adding a segment also worked out very well. Even though the winners of each segment dropped to the back until the end, the other 17 or 18 cars raced plenty hard to fill the action. Plus, Johnson might have very well kicked butt all night if he had stayed up front.
Anyway, congratulations to Johnson and the #48 team. Although many people can’t stand their success, Johnson is the Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon of this era. He and Hendrick Motorsports are putting up historic numbers that will become the standard for future generations.
Hopefully the All-Star Race is a sign of things to come. It has been a quiet start to the season, but the last couple of weeks have been better.
Now once we get through this week, one of the best racing weekends of the entire year is upon us. Almost every big-time racing series has a great race on Memorial Day weekend.
So stock up on some good food and have a great week, everybody.

Monday Morning Crew Chief Picks: All-Star Weekend

Monday Morning Crew Chief Picks:  All-Star Weekend

Jacob: Showdown - Martin Truex Jr. will finally win something, even if it is just a heat race.
Fan Pick - Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't good enough to race his way in, but the fans will vote him in anyway. The biggest upset of the year would be if someone else wins the fan vote.
All-Star - Although Kasey Kahne got off to a horrible start this season and wrecked his car in qualifying, he will come from the back to win his second career All-Star Race and bring that team much-needed confidence to begin their march back to being a Chase contender.

Patricia (Monday Morning Driver): Showdown - I pick Martin Truex Jr. to win the Sprint Showdown race. His cars have been fast and he will be driving the wheels off the NAPA Toyota to get a chance to be in the All-Star race.
Fan Pick - The fan favorite will be who else, Dale Earnhardt. Jr. He wins every fan vote.
All-Star - My pick to win the All-Star race is Kevin Harvick. This is the kind of race that plays in to Harvick's style of driving. No points racing, just drive straight to the front any way you can get there.

Terrence: Showdown - How about AJ Allmendinger for the win? The Dinger has looked solid at Charlotte in the past and tonight will be no different.
Fan Pick - I'm going with the Mayor, Jeff Burton, to win the fan vote. Junior may have the outright vote, but he will be in one of the two transfer spots, letting Burton get in on the fan vote.
All-Star - I think Kyle Busch will run away with the win tonight. He's been solid so far and no reason to believe he won't put it all on the line for the win tonight.

Note: A correct fan pick is worth -3 points on the season.

1. Jacob, 46
2. Patricia, 102
3. Terrence, 126

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rating the Southern 500: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series visited one of the sport’s most historic tracks Saturday night for a long, tough race that had a historic win and the first postrace scuffle of the season. A Southern 500 that had a touch of everything gets a 4 Star Rating.
First, massive congratulations are due for Jimmie Johnson, the #48 team and team owner Rick Hendrick for getting Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th victory at one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.
Although many people love to hate Hendrick teams because they win all the time, they should at least greatly respect this accomplishment. The 200-win number is similar to the all-time homerun record in baseball. It is a milestone that is reached less than once a generation.
Petty Enterprises is the only other organization to reach 200 wins. It has 268, which Hendrick could possibly reach in the next five or six years.
Johnson also moved past Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time driver wins list. Again, like him or not, Johnson is right at the top of any list about greatest NASCAR drivers, and he showed why again Saturday at Darlington.
Lately, a late caution has caused several lead changes and somebody different to show up at the front late in the race. Tony Stewart certainly tried to make a run at Johnson during the final two runs, but Johnson drove flawlessly the last half of the race to maintain his lead and take the win.
This was a vintage Johnson performance. There is little reason to think he won’t continue to have strong runs and once again be a popular pick to win the championship come Chase time.
The Southern 500 is always one of the longest races of the year, but once again the field put together long green-flag runs. The first caution for non-existent debris didn’t come until lap 172 after Johnson had started to stretch his lead.
After the initial caution, the yellow flag became popular in the second half of the race and we got our second consecutive green-white-checkered finish.
However, the most interesting incident of the evening happened after the checkered flag. Kurt Busch supposedly nearly hit some of Ryan Newman’s pit crew members, and after the race Newman’s gas man headed over to Busch’s #51 car to take care of business.
The big guy never quite made it to Busch, but both sides exchanged shoves and heated comments. Whether or not the incident results in penalties for anybody, this is a situation Busch couldn’t afford.
After losing his ride in the #22 car after a profanity-laced tirade against ESPN reporter Jerry Punch, Busch had to be on his best behavior this season to help him score another top-notch ride and save his career.
He drove the wheels off of the #51 car (literally, unfortunately) and had the car inside the top 10 late in the race. That proves the guy has talent. Several drivers have driven what is now the #51 car in recent years, including rising star Brad Keseloski, and none of them consistently had that car in the top half of the field.
Busch could’ve used those types of performances to prove that he deserves another fully funded car to compete for a championship. But his temper will make that extremely difficult. With drivers such as Trevor Bayne who have squeaky-clean reputations sitting on the sidelines, it is tough to imagine a company wanting Busch to represent them ahead of a driver such as Bayne.
In any case, the Cup teams get to head home for the next two weeks and enjoy the rest of the month racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The All-Star race comes up next and then it’s on to the longest race of the year with the Coca-Cola 600. May is a great month of racing, and there is plenty left to enjoy.
Have a great All-Star week, everybody.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Monday Morning Crew Chief Picks: Darlington

Last week was completely my fault. I went out of town to celebrate my birthday and completely forgot about posting up the picks. I guess that's a bye week for us all?

Monday Morning Crew Chief Picks:  Darlington

Jacob: This week brings us to another tough track on the schedule, The Lady in Black in Darlington, S.C. Who does well on difficult tracks? Denny Hamlin. This is where Hamlin coined the term "All we do is win" after he won the 2010 Southern 500. Hamlin will do nothing but win again Saturday night and once again get people talking about him and crew chief Darian Grubb as favorites to win the Sprint Cup Series championship this year.

Patricia (Monday Morning Driver): Jeff Gordon is my pick to win the Southern 500. He has the best stats in the last 5 races in Darlington with an average finish of 5th.  We all know Gordon's season is not going very well but this track could be the one that gets the #24 team back in the game..

Terrence: There is one guy who is riding a string of momentum nobody is talking about. Two drivers have top tens in the last four races, one of which is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The other, Kasey Kahne. They will both do well at Darlington but I'm taking Kasey Kahne to avoid the Darlington stripe this time and take home the victory.

1. Jacob, 44
2. Patricia, 67
3. Terrence, 119

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Rating the Aaron's 499: 4 Stars ****

After weeks of so much green-flag racing that people got nervous when they saw water bottles on the track, the Sprint Cup Series stormed through Talladega Superspeedway and came out with just 24 cars running at the end. Although it was a good race, there have been better races at Talladega. Sunday’s race gets a 4 Star Rating.
Brad Keselowski showed once again that he is perhaps the young NASCAR driver with the most potential to be a Cup champion. The guy is a master at saving fuel, he doesn’t back down when the race is on the line and he simply outfoxed Kyle Busch to win Sunday’s race.
Ever since Keselowski sent Carl Edwards flying into the fence to end the 2009 spring race at Talladega, the finishes at that track have had a predictable, albeit very exciting, ending. Two cars break away from the pack, the lead driver then tries to block but the second-place driver makes a move and passes the leader for the win.
All of the ingredients were in place for a similar finish Sunday. Keselowski and Busch burst from the pack on the final green-white-checkered restart and they were the only two with a realistic chance of winning.
However, once they got to Turn 3 on the final lap Keselowski pre-empted Busch’s move by moving to the bottom lane and breaking their two-car push. Busch then didn’t have a partner to help him make a move, and Keselowski cruised to the win.
Keselowski now has two wins on the season and sits 12th in the points. His two wins nearly guarantee he will make the Chase for the second year in a row, but his ability to run well on several different types of tracks – he also won at Bristol in March – makes him a likely candidate to be in the top 10 in points by the time the Chase starts.
Plus, he runs well enough at the current Chase tracks to legitimately contend for the title.
The rest of the race was rather clean for a Talladega event, especially compared to the mayhem of the ARCA and Nationwide races earlier in the weekend.
Many of the drivers grew frustrated about having to monitor their water temperatures throughout the race, but NASCAR jumped in with both feet when it made changes to break up the two-car drafts. It won’t back down from that very easily, but officials might have to consider opening the cooling system restrictions for the July race at Daytona when it will likely be hotter than Sunday.
People will forever debate the merits of restrictor-plate racing, whether it is proper racing or what style of racing they prefer. But, Sunday’s race had a more similar feel to restrictor-plate races during the Dale Earnhardt era. He didn’t have to contend with the cooling system restrictions, but the ability to pass in the pack Sunday was better than the old pack style of racing.
Remember, back in the day fans and drivers alike complained after every race about some aspect of the racing. Sometimes it was too hard to pass, other times it was that the rules allowed teams with junk cars to race along with the traditional front-runners.
Whatever the case, that is just part of restrictor-plate racing and it will likely forever be that way. Like it or not, that’s part of its charm. People talk about restrictor-plate races for weeks after they are over. That doesn’t happen for races at places such as Fontana or Kansas. Overall, restrictor-plate races are some of the most exciting on the schedule. Period.
With all of that said, the next race track is pretty darn good. A 500-mile race at Darlington Raceway is one of the ever more precious major tests for drivers. The Lady in Black will beat the tar out of a driver who isn’t up to the challenge.
With Darlington and Charlotte on the schedule for the rest of the month, May should have some of the best racing of the season to date.
Have a great week, everybody.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

NASCAR, Talladega skirt major disaster with Eric McClure wreck

NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure pounded an inside wall equipped with a SAFER barrier on the backstretch of Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday in a vicious crash. Although the crash sent him to the hospital, he was only a few hundred feet away from crashing into a wall that could've done much more serious damage.

The SAFER barrier is a combination of steel and foam that absorbs energy during a hard crash. However, Talladega does not have SAFER barriers on all of its walls. In fact, an exposed concrete wall sits along the backstretch towards Turn 3 not far from where McClure hit.
McClure had to be airlifted out of the track and taken to the hospital for further evaluation after his #14 car collided with the SAFER barrier. Had he hit the nearby concrete wall, well, Talladega Superspeedway might have had a much worse situation on its hands.
That is why it is mind-boggling that race tracks still don’t cover every wall with a SAFER barrier. One of the common phrases about wrecks in auto racing is that if there is an unsafe spot at a race track, a car is sure to eventually find it.
Jeff Gordon found exposed concrete walls at both Las Vegas and Richmond in recent years, Elliott Sadler found an unsafe wall at Pocono two years ago, and several drivers found the walls surrounding the final turn at Watkins Glen to be very dangerous in the past few years.
Each of those tracks have since fixed its problems and retroactively installed SAFER barriers to cover the previously exposed walls, but why does it take a hard wreck to identify problem spots at a track?
Sure, SAFER barriers are expensive to install, but if tracks are going to fork out the money to install the barriers on some parts of their walls, why not cover every wall? Driver safety has to be a higher priority than money.
It is extremely unfortunate, and considering the technology NASCAR and its tracks have in 2012, slightly barbaric to not have SAFER barriers on any wall both on the outside and inside parts of the track, excluding pit wall because that would be a safety hazard for crew members going over the wall on a pit stop.
Most tracks, including Talladega, still don’t have SAFER barriers on their straightaways. Yes, a crash is more likely to occur in a corner, but a car running 200 mph on the bottom lane is going to hit the outside wall with quite an impact if it gets turned sideways.
McClure’s wreck showed that drivers can still be injured even with a SAFER barrier, but the severity of his injuries might have been much worse had he hit an unprotected wall.
Somebody is going to take a hard lick in Sunday’s race, but hopefully nobody finds a wall that doesn’t have a SAFER barrier.
Sadly, NASCAR officials, drivers, teams and fans still have to hold their breath and hope that doesn’t happen because hitting an unprotected wall is still a possibility.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

NASCAR adds fuel to fire of debris caution debate

After a month of less-than-thrilling races that ended with a questionable call to throw a caution for debris Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton made matters worse when he antagonized fans who wanted proof that there was debris on the track.
"Sometimes, some people are a little more needy than others and they want to see that for whatever reason," Pemberton said Tuesday. "And whatever their thought process and beliefs with the governing body (are), they think they need proof.”
You’re darn right they need proof, and Tony Stewart would probably like some as well. He was cruising to victory Saturday at Richmond but NASCAR threw a debris caution with 12 laps remaining. Kyle Busch beat Stewart out of the pits and went on to get the win.
The debris, however, was never shown on television and even people at the track that night debated what caused the caution. Some said it was a water bottle in Turn 2, some said it was a beer can and still others said it was a piece of metal lying in the groove on the backstretch.
In any case, NASCAR once again had to deal with the inevitable integrity questions that follow a questionable debris caution that decides a race. Unfortunately, Pemberton came off as a high-brow official of a corporation that could care less what people think.
Yet, NASCAR always touts how it is such an open sport and provides incredible access to fans at the races.
Lately, NASCAR has not been the hospitable host. It has instead looked like a rich jerk that can and will do whatever it wants.
Although those who love the sport try to avoid these uncomfortable topics, NASCAR is permeated with that type of thinking even by those not directly employed by NASCAR.
The TV coverage runs commercials through so much of the race that sometimes it is difficult for fans to maintain interest when the action is interrupted so often. And when they aren’t running commercials, the TV crews run promotional segments or other commentary that totally overrides the action on the track.
Another example is when Bruton Smith, although not employed by NASCAR, chose to change the turns at Bristol Motor Speedway based on a vocal 40 percent who voted in his survey to change the track.
I understand that money is king and the sport has to do whatever it can to stay financially sound, but it is doing it at the expense of its fans. In fact, it has been doing so for years.
The Chase, the demise of traditional race dates at Southeastern tracks to capture larger markets and the seemingly perennial changes to the points system has driven many fans away from the sport, whether NASCAR acknowledges it or not.
If this is how NASCAR officials want to run the sport, fine. It’s their show, and they can do as they see fit. But please don’t pretend like every decision is made to benefit the fans.
In reality, many decisions are made in spite of the fans, and Pemberton may have inadvertently exposed that truth by calling those same fans “needy” because they want to watch legitimate competition.