Monday, October 29, 2012

Rating the TUMS Fast Relief 500: 3 Stars ***

A week after his team pulled off a fairly big miracle to stay in championship contention, Jimmie Johnson put together a vintage performance Sunday at Martinsville Speedway to put him back in that all-too-familiar position atop the points standings. The final short track race of the season gets a 3 StarRating.
Johnson now leads Brad Keselowski by two points after Keselowski finished in sixth, which was actually a terrific finish considering he started 32nd and never had a car capable of contending for the lead. However, the overwhelming sense around the sport is that another championship for Johnson is just a formality.
For the sake of the sport, hopefully Keselowski keeps the top of the standings tight going into Homestead so there would be a real chance he could rise up and beat the five-time champion. If not, 2012 could go down as one of the more boring seasons in recent memory.
Anyway, Sunday’s race was about as typical of a Martinsville race as possible. Cautions fell fairly regularly throughout the race while allowing for some long green-flag runs, the end of the race got shuffled up by a late-race wreck and the #48 car ended up in Victory Lane.
Martinsville is one of the few tracks in NASCAR where the final caution creates an agonizing decision for crew chiefs in terms of whether or not to pit. Maybe it’s because Martinsville is one a half-mile track, but the tire wear is ideal. The lap times do fall off during a run, but they don’t drop so much that taking four tires every stop is a given.
Keselowski stayed out on the final stop to try and steal a win, but he faded to sixth. But that’s also part of what makes Martinsville a great track. The tires wear enough that it is difficult to stay ahead of cars with four fresh tires, yet not enough to have everyone follow the leader into the pits.
Martinsville is also a place that allows for some new faces in the top 10. Aric Almirola put together his second straight fantastic race. He led much of the early part of the race at Kansas before tire issues derailed his day. He then backed up that performance Sunday with a fourth-place finish.
The top 10 actually contained four non-Chasers, by far the most in any Chase race this season. Kyle Busch finished second, Almirola fourth, Brian Vickers eighth and Bobby Labonte ninth. But don’t expect that to continue next week at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
The season is down to the point where just a few drivers still have a chance to win the championship, and they will most likely perform as though they are the best in the sport.
Johnson and Keselowski will likely run well inside the top 10 and even the top five most of the night. Other contenders such as Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne will absolutely have to be at the front of the field throughout the race, finish in the top three and have some help in the form of less-than-stellar races from the top two drivers.
In any case, it is no longer premature to talk about who the real contenders are going to be for the championship. Johnson and Keselowski look to be the two drivers who will face off at Homestead, while Bowyer and Kahne will be close enough to catch a bit of a draft from the front two, but they needed more outstanding races earlier in the Chase.
Either way, this is one of the most intense times of the year.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rating the Hollywood Casino 400: 3 Stars ***

In perhaps the craziest race of the 2012 Chase, Matt Kenseth came out on top while nearly half the field did not finish the race, and that’s at a 1.5-mile track that typically produces fairly pedestrian racing. But all of that still wasn’t enough to get the final race of the season in the North anything above a 3 StarRating.
The wrecks began early and often Sunday at Kansas Speedway, and they affected nearly everyone regardless of running order or position in the points standings. Chasers Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart all spun. Aric Almirola even wrecked while leading the race.
All of the carnage had a chance to really shake up the points standings, but it turned out the Brad Keselowski maintained his seven-point lead on Johnson while narrowly missing several of the wrecks that led to a track-record 14 cautions.
However, the fact that Johnson stayed just seven points out of the lead is truly remarkable. Johnson spun in Turn 4 and smashed up the rear end of his car. The damage looked extensive enough to send the car to the garage for repairs, but the #48 pit crew went to work and fixed the back of the car to the point where it could not only maintain minimum speed, but to the point where Johnson could drive back through the field to finish ninth.
Races like that are why the #48 team has won five championships and competed for a championship nearly all of the 10 years it has existed. There might not be another team in the sport right now that could have fixed a car with that much damage without losing a lap and have a driver who could drive it back into the top 10.
As for Keselowski, he also salvaged a day when the #2 car was not good enough to compete for the win. He started in 25th and hung near the top 10 most of the day, finishing eighth.
That’s not a bad day for Keselowski and the #2 team, but they are going to have to produce a couple of top-fives soon or Johnson will make his move and take the lead.
Other contenders Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne finished inside the top 10, and Denny Hamlin finished in 13th. All three of those drivers will likely need top-five finishes the rest of the way to win the championship, and possibly just to stay in contention by the time the series reaches Homestead for the final race.
Hamlin’s big chance could be next week at Martinsville, where he has won four times. Unfortunately for Hamlin, who sits 20 points out of the Chase lead, Johnson has won there six times. Next week will still be one of the better chances for either Hamlin or Johnson to make up ground on Keselowski, who doesn’t have a win at Martinsville.
The funny part is there will likely be fewer cautions at Martinsville than there were this week at Kansas, although the number of cautions at Kansas was in large part because the track was repaved over the summer and speeds were up dramatically from past races.
But before we head off to the next race, Kenseth and the #17 team should be commended for their win at Kansas and second in the Chase. Kenseth sits 11th in the points standings, is headed to the #20 car at the end of the season and does not have a realistic shot at winning this year’s championship. However, Kenseth and his team have continued to put together races consistent with his performance throughout his entire career.
Both the driver and team are very professional. It will be a shame to see that partnership broken up when the season comes to a close.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rating the Bank of America 500: 4 Stars ****

The top three Sprint Cup Series championship contenders dominated Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the driver now fourth in the Chase, Clint Bowyer, outlasted everyone to grab his third win of the season. The final race of the season at Charlotte gets a 4 Star Rating.
Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were the class of the field all night. Keselowski used pit strategy to move up from his 20th-place starting spot after the third caution in 36 laps. The race went incident free the rest of the way with only a couple of debris cautions for NASCAR to make sure it stayed entertaining.
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin combined to lead 228 of the 334 laps, but fueld mileage came into play after the final debris caution on lap 223. Johnson and Hamlin both couldn’t make it to the finish when they pitted with about 55 laps to go. Surprisingly, neither could Keselowski, who usually has good fuel mileage.
Keselowski’s chance at winning the race ended anyway on that next-to-last pit stop because he ran out of gas going down the backstretch and had a 22-second stop once he got there. That put him outside the top 10, and he would never recover, finishing 11th.
Johnson and Hamlin also had to come back to pit road for a splash-and-go stop late in the race, but they managed to finish second and third, respectively.
While all that was going on, Bowyer had enough fuel to make the finish, although not complete a celebration burnout, and give Michael Waltrip Racing its first Chase win. The victory also moved Bowyer up to fourth in the points standings, 28 points out of the lead.
Bowyer is still a bit of a long shot to be a factor by the time the series reaches the final race at Homestead, but he has shown once again that he is on the cusp of being a championship contender.
Bowyer has made noise in just about every Chase in which he’s competed. He finished third in 2007 and fifth in 2008. He also made the Chase in 2010 and won the first race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but his car didn’t pass postrace inspection and NASCAR docked him 150 points. That took him out of the picture, and he finished the season in 10th place.
This year Bowyer could be in a similar position. He still doesn’t have the consistency to match Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin, but he is the best of the rest.
He is also headed to his hometown track, Kansas Speedway, next week and could have another good finish there, but it would still take a flawless run through the rest of the Chase to have a legitimate shot to win the title.
The track in Kansas now has a brand-new surface and progressive banking in the corners. Does that mean it will be a more exciting race to watch? Probably not. The progressive banking has worked at Homestead but hasn’t made much difference at other tracks once the idea became popular.
In any case, expect the Chase frontrunners to lead the field as they did at Charlotte. It might stink to have the same guys up front each week right now, but their battle to win the championship will be a good one if they can all stay in contention throughout the next month.
Have a great week, everybody.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rating the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500: 5 Stars *****

The annual crazy race of the Chase lived up to the hype this time with the most lead changes of the season, large pack racing and a massive crash on the final lap. The final restrictor-plate race of the season gets a 5 Star Rating.
The majority of the race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway was actually extremely clean. Carl Edwards, Cole Whitt and Joey Logano got in an early wreck and Jamie McMurray spun out to cause the green-white-checkered finish, but that was the extent of the damage.
Until the final turn of the final lap.
Casey Mears, who had a strong car all day, gave Michael Waltrip, who was irrelevant until the final lap, the mother of all pushes through Turn 3 and the pair was headed to the lead. But then Tony Stewart saw them coming, tried to block and ended up setting off a 25-car wreck.
Needless to say, the race ended there. Matt Kenseth was ahead of the wreck and drove off for the win. Jeff Gordon finished second, but he was 15th or worse when the wreck began. For once he was on the receiving end of some good luck, and it kept him on the edge of championship contention.
Like it or not, that’s what happens at restrictor-plate tracks. The field was four-wide at least six rows deep nearly the entire two laps of the final restart. That is incredibly exciting to watch, but it would be a miracle for the field to make it back around without some sort of incident. It’s already amazing they made it to the final lap without a wreck.
Since the Sprint Cup Series was at a restrictor-plate track, let’s go ahead and discuss the style of racing. The cool temperatures should’ve helped the cooling issues the cars tend to experience after the offseason rule changes to restrict air flow to the engine, but nobody was able to push for more than a lap, if even that far.
The race actually felt more like the old style of restrictor-plate pack racing than any race since the drivers discovered the two-car draft in 2008 and 2009. Drivers were able to pass for the lead (there were 54 lead changes), and the field never got strung out despite a couple of green-flag pit stops.
This was the last race of the current car model, but early indications are the new model in 2013 will produce similar, if not better, racing. But we’ll find out about that in February at Daytona. For now, the Chase drivers will focus on the final six races of the Chase and how to catch Brad Keselowski, who extended his lead to 14 points over Jimmie Johnson.
Next up is Charlotte Motor Speedway for a Saturday night race. It’s the fifth race in the Chase, and this is the point where drivers start to get eliminated from championship contention either mathematically or practically. Johnson wrecked in this race last year to end his hopes of a sixth-straight title.
Either way, the racing at Charlotte is usually pretty entertaining. It might be some of the best intermediate track racing we see the rest of the season.
Have a great week, everybody.