Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rating the Brickyard 400: 2 Stars **

The Jimmie Johnson domination tour stopped in one of his favorite field-stomping grounds Sunday as he drove away from everybody to win his fourth Brickyard 400. Unfortunately, dominating performances rarely make for an exciting race, and that was the case again this week. This year’s Brickyard 400 gets a 2 Star Rating.
Look out, folks. Johnson and the #48 team are back on top of the NASCAR world. The numbers about Brickyard winners becoming Sprint Cup Series champions have been well-documented. The Brickyard winner has gone on to win the championship eight times in the first 18 years of the race. Johnson went on to win the championship each of his previous three victories at Indy.
Johnson will surely face strong competition from a number of drivers, but all of the signs are there for the #48 team to make another successful championship run this year.
Aside from marveling at Johnson’s greatness, there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to get excited about Sunday afternoon. The only stretch of the race that had tense racing quickly ended once Joey Logano spun out and hit Matt Kenseth, causing the #17 car to burst into flames.
More than anything, the race at Indy looked like an extended, faster version of the race at New Hampshire. If there wasn’t any interesting strategy developing in the pits, there just wasn’t much to talk about.
This shouldn’t be surprising, however. The Brickyard is typically a race of prestige more than a race of excitement. That’s what makes Daytona so great. It hosts the most important race of the year and often the most exciting.
In any case, big congratulations are in order for Johnson. He is reaching the point in his career where he is approaching, or in this case reaching important milestones.
His four Brickyard wins tie him with Jeff Gordon for the most by a NASCAR driver at that track. This was also win #58 of his career, his third of the season and he is charging toward his sixth Cup championship.
It stinks for many fans of other drivers to see Johnson win seemingly every week and win the championship every season, but trust me, what Johnson is doing is special. Today’s fans will tell their children about Johnson’s accomplishments, even if it’s by saying, “I hated his guts because he won every week for almost an entire decade.”
The one other note that we can’t forget is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. took over the lead in the points standings. Kenseth finished 35th after his wreck, and Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth to take a 14-point lead over Kenseth.
While it’s nice for Junior Nation to see their driver on top of the standings, the Chase has made this point somewhat meaningless. When Kenseth was told he lost the points lead, he just shrugged because he knows the Chase is the only time it matters where a driver sits in the standings. As long as a driver is currently in the top 10 in points, he doesn’t have to worry about whether he is first or 10th because they get reshuffled for the Chase anyway.
Just imagine what today would’ve been like if the Chase didn’t exist. People would be falling over themselves with excitement that Earnhardt Jr. leads the points. At this time in the season, Earnhardt Jr. would be considered the championship favorite under the old format. Now he is still considered a darkhorse because he has just one win while Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski each have three wins.
Oh well. The Chase has its good points and bad points, and both have been discussed more than enough in the last seven years. But wait and listen to the reaction if it turns out Earnhardt Jr. would’ve won the championship under the old points system this year but loses the Chase.
Next up is Pocono Raceway, another 2.5-mile track that generally lacks exciting racing. Maybe we’ll be surprised and something interesting happens, but we probably shouldn’t cross our fingers.
Have a great week, everybody.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Although 10th in points, Brad Keselowski might be favorite for 2012 championship

The Sprint Cup Series drivers took to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday to battle a track that makes it extremely difficult to pass. So hard, in fact, that only one driver who started outside the top 12 finished in the top dozen.
That driver was Brad Keselowski, who finished fifth and just might be the championship favorite come Chase time this fall.
Keselowski started 22nd Sunday, but by the time the first caution waved on lap 90 he sat inside the top 10.
OK, that’s wonderful. Several regular front-runners start in the back and make their way through the field each week, right? Yes, that’s true, but none of them did Sunday. New Hampshire races are sometimes like watching slot-car racing when all of the cars are in the same slot. They just ride around one behind another all day.
That was the case Sunday for most everybody except the driver of the #2 Penske Racing Dodge Charger.
It would be easy to say Keselowski had so much success simply because he had a good race car, but sometimes the strength of a car can be muted at tracks such as New Hampshire.
Denny Hamlin came from 14th to second in the final 62 laps, but he also had four fresh tires while the rest of the field had only two. Keselowski did his damage at the start of the race when everybody was on a level playing field.
Part of Keselowski’s success comes from his determination and a mindset that he is going to man up and drive the car as hard as he can for those three or four hours each Sunday. He said as much after his win Saturday in the Nationwide race at New Hampshire.
“It was hot, but that’s racing,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be easy.”
He had similar feelings when he spoke about supplements that NASCAR does or does not ban.
My personal belief that nothing should be allowed. Nothing,” Keselowski said Friday. “I don't feel like you should be able to take Flintstones pills. It's my personal belief. You're race car drivers, you should have to overcome it.”
Keselowski spectacularly overcame a situation that could have easily derailed his 2011 season. He broke his foot in a test the week before the July race at Pocono, and then he went out and won the race despite an ankle that had swelled to the size of a softball.
Whether or not people agree with Keselowski’s opinions, he is a hard-nosed driver with the confidence required to contend for a championship.
He may sit just one spot from falling out of the top 10 in the points standings, but come Chase time he is going to be a major factor.
His three wins will give him bonus points that will propel him to the top of the Chase standings when the order is reset after the Sept. 8 race at Richmond International Raceway. Plus, he has experience in the Chase from 2011 when he made a dramatic run to snag a wild-card spot. He went on to finish fifth in the final Chase standings.
That experience, combined with his ability to knock down wins at several different types of racetracks, makes him one of a small group of drivers that should be considered legitimate championship contenders this year.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Rating the Lenox Industrial Tools 301: 2 Stars **

A dreary afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway set the stage for a dreary race where the second-best car in the field won because of a terrible pit call by his opponent. But, it didn’t rain, so the Sunday afternoon drive in Loudon gets a 2 Star Rating.
Kasey Kahne had a good car, but Denny Hamlin had a better one. Hamlin dominated the entire weekend. He qualified third, had the fastest lap in each of Saturday’s practice sessions and led 150 of the 301 laps on Sunday.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, he and crew chief Darian Grubb weren’t on the same page on their last pit stop and took four tires while the rest of the field took only two. That sent Hamlin from the lead to 14th with 62 laps to go. Hamlin made a great charge at the end but still came home second.
Although Kahne received some good fortune with Hamlin’s pit call, he had a strong car all weekend, and this win is not a fluke. He now has two wins on the season and sits 12th in the points standings, leading the pack of wild card contenders.
My, what a difference three months make. After a 38th finish at Martinsville in April, Kahne sat 31st in the points. At that point he had to pay more attention about not falling out of the top 35 in points than making the Chase.
People started to write him off and wait for the #5 team to try again next year. That might have been an accurate assessment back in the Winston Cup Series days when there was no Chase and the driver with the most points at the end of the season won the championship.
These days a driver has many more opportunities to contend for a championship. A driver can have a bad start to the season and still win the championship. Brad Keselowski was 23rd in the points standings at this point in the season last year, and he ended up 11th by the time the Chase started.
Kahne is still 66 points behind Keselowski for 10th place, but he has two wild-card spots available. That option keeps all of the top 20 drivers in the points standings in contention to make the Chase up until only a few races remain before the cutoff at Richmond in September.
Overall, this was not a high-quality race in terms of action on the track. Kyle Busch led the first 66 laps and never drove away from Kahne and Hamlin, but Busch had major pit problems and a speeding penalty on his first stop that was the beginning of a tough day for the #18 team.
From that point on Hamlin checked out and did his best Jimmie-Johnson-at-Auto-Club-Speedway impression. Hamlin had more than half of the field a lap down until that fateful pit stop that forced him to race his heart out for second.
And as has been the case most of the season, the first caution didn’t fly until lap 90 when NASCAR threw one for debris. Race officials did the same 101 laps later, and then David Reutimann’s engine blew up on lap 235. Other than that, nothing happened, and it was extremely difficult to pass.
Unfortunately, we might be stuck with this type of racing the rest of the season. NASCAR has made a few modifications to the cars lately, but it hasn’t had any effect. The Race to the Chase will be fun with several drivers in contention for the wild-card spots, but the actual racing during that stretch could easily be less than thrilling.
In any case, next week is the final off-weekend of the season for the Sprint Cup Series. The teams will head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks to begin the final stretch of the regular season.
Have as great week everybody, even though it won't be followed by a Cup race next weekend.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rating the Coke Zero 400: 5 Stars *****

The Sprint Cup Series roared back into a drier and less flammable Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night and put on perhaps the best race of the season. The Fourth of July celebration in Daytona gets a 5 Star Rating.
Tony Stewart ran a clean race that was otherwise filled with drivers making those breathtaking moves that fans love when they race inches apart at 200 mph for hours on end. Sometimes those moves create big wrecks that stir the pot and get people talking about what should or should not have happened. Either way, it was exciting.
The first half of the race flew by with no cautions until lap 81 when Sam Hornish Jr., fresh off of an emergency trip to Daytona Beach to replace suspended A.J. Allmendinger in the #22 car, spun after a tire went down.
Yes, the first half of the race was as incident-free as many of the other races this season, but the two-wide, 200-mph pack is exciting regardless of the circumstances.
There weren’t many passes for the lead, but the race certainly had a tension level higher than most every other race this year outside of the Daytona 500, but it also created a don’t-move-from-your-seat-because-anything-could-happen feel that the tandem restrictor-plate races of the past couple of years simply didn’t produce until the end of the race.
The second half of the race, as is the case with many restrictor-plate races, is when the field went mad. Kurt Busch tried to force his way through a hold the size of a beach ball on lap 91 and created the first big wreck of the evening. That was followed by the traditional big wrecks as the laps wind down, including the insanity that gets unleashed when the flagman reaches for the checkered flag.
Stewart, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth crossed the line in front of a massive wreck that collected most of the front half of the field, creating an interesting finishing order that included Michael Waltrip in ninth and Bobby Labonte in 10th.
Although Stewart won the race, Kenseth had the best car of the night. He and Greg Biffle have dominated the restrictor-plate races this year the way Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. used to during their days at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Kenseth could have won all three of the restrictor-plate races this season, but the crazy circumstances that surround those races don’t often reward the driver with the best car. In any case, Kenseth again extended his points lead to 25 over Earnhardt Jr. and is on his way to cruising to the Chase with the points lead.
It’s too bad Kenseth will leave at the end of the year because that group is clicking as well as it has since Robbie Reiser was atop the pit box for the “Killer Bees” in the first half of the 2000s.
As for Stewart, the Daytona win gives him three victories on the season and moves him up to fifth in the points standings. That #14 team might not be the most consistent team in the field, but it certainly has the power to be as good as anyone in the sport every given week. That will make Stewart a strong contender for the championship again this season.
Next up is New Hampshire, where Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman dominated a year ago. Newman won the pole and the race, and Stewart finished second. Lookout folks, those Stewart-Haas Racing cars have Hendrick Motorsports power, and those engines have won five of the last eight races, including the All-Star Race.
This could be a fun rest of the season between Hendrick power and Roush-Fenway Racing power if the Fords can keep up on the intermediate tracks.
Have a great week, everybody.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rating the Quaker State 400: You Rate the Race!!

Brad Keselowski picked up his third win of the season as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads for the traditional midseason spectacular at Daytona International Speedway. But, before we head to Florida, let’s hear what you thought of the Quaker State 400. This week it's your turn to Rate the Race.
Keselowksi has been steadily charging his way to the top of the sport for some time now, and Saturday night’s win confirmed that he is a strong contender for the championship. He now has the most wins of anyone in the sport and can get up on the wheel as much as any of the other Chase contenders.
As for the rest of the race, there was about as much action as we’ve seen on all of the intermediate tracks this season. The restarts produced close racing for a few laps and then everyone settled down. Ryan Newman’s engine blew up late in the race and sent him into the wall, but otherwise fuel mileage discussion dominated most of the night.
This was also a race that really favored the big teams. Each of the top 12 finishers drives for the six biggest teams in the sport. And even though a Hendrick Motorsports car didn’t win the race, that organization still had quite a night as all four of its teams finished in the top six in the points.
Although many of the races this season have lacked much excitement, business should pick up in the second half of the season. The good teams are really good and could put together quite a battle for the championship. Keselowski will be in the mix to represent Penske Racing, and both Roush-Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports should have multiple cars with a shot at the title. That’s not to mention Joe Gibbs Racing, which could have any of its drivers catch fire for several races late in the season.
We are also at a point in the season where we will likely see more and more repeat winners. The season has had 12 different winners to this point, but those 12 represent 12 of the 15 best drivers in the sport. Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick might win a race sometime soon, but it would be a surprise if somebody outside of that 15-driver group won a race this season.
So, the statement that there are 25 to 30 different drivers who could win a race on any given weekend might not be so true. Anybody truly could win next week at Daytona, but beyond that there really are just about 15 drivers who have a legitimate shot at the win.
Anyway, let Monday Morning Crew Chief know what you thought of the Kentucky race on a one- through five-star scale. Treat it as a restaurant or hotel review. Would you recommend this race to somebody else?
Regardless of how terrific or horrible the race at Kentucky went, NASCAR returns to the greatest speedway in the world next week to celebrate one of America’s best holidays: the 4th of July.
Have a great week and enjoy the holiday, everybody.