Sunday, September 30, 2012

Rating the AAA 400: 2 Stars **

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Rating the Sylvania 300: 1 Star *

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

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rating the GEICO 400: 2 Stars **

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

Sunday, September 9, 2012

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

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rating the AdvoCare 500: 2 Stars **

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