Monday, August 27, 2012

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

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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

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

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

Sunday, August 12, 2012

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

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

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rating the Pennsylvania 400: 1 Stars *

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