Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Report Returns? Where We Are Going From Here ...

More than a month has passed since I last wrote to the Rentz Racing Report, and, admittedly, life has been happening while I have been making other plans. Marriage is first and foremost my concern, considering I wasn't married when the R-cubed began, but now I am a married man with a wife at home and a full-time job requiring greater responsibilities of me now than two months ago.

I could continue giving reasons (or excuses) why the Report isn't current or updated; however, I really don't see the point in giving the multitude of explanations. Plain and simple, weekly updates of this journal are not unrealistic, and I have been lax about keeping my information current. With additional summer "vacations" planned over the upcoming weeks, I owe my readers some firsthand information I can provide from my race track trips.

Some "past" and "upcoming" information that could have been posted already includes:
- Kasey Kahne's rise to the top of the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit
- Tony Stewart's injury(ies) sustained at Charlotte during the Busch and Cup races on Memorial Day Weekend
- The fall of Jeff Gordon as a dominant NASCAR Cup driver
- The reemergence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a Chase-contending driver
- Matt Kenseth / Roush Racing consistency
- Jimmie Johnson - King of NASCAR?!?
- The Coca-Cola 600 race (at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, which I attended with my wife and my parents)
- The upcoming Daytona race (Pepsi 400, fka the Firecracker 400) over Independence Day weekend (July 2nd)
- The Race to the Chase: Contenders and Pretenders
- And much, much more ...

I am also proud to (re-)announce that I am the Cincinnati, OH, Local Chapter President for the Official NASCAR Members Club (LC 452381), which began in mid-to-late April. The chapter website is located at:

Separately, I run my general sports website at:
This site houses a variety of content, most exclusively the sole provider for the "Soul Patrol" CD (downloadable mp3 files by purchase) published by baseball rock artists Clubhouse for our website of Clubhouse Connection. The NASCAR special section co-links the ONMC Chapter site noted above with the NASCAR.com sign-up page that includes my special ID # for referral purposes and to be included as a potential member of my chapter (regardless if you live near Cincinnati, OH, or not).

This is a quick "hello again" and an equally quick "I must be off / goodbye" since time is of the essence. Please know that I haven't forgotten about my writing journals, and I hope to be back to twice-weekly publishing again very soon.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Racing Report is On Hiatus ... [until weekend of May 14th]

I will make this post short and direct. I have a personal vacation planned between today (which is now Saturday, May 6th) until a week from today (Saturday, May 13th), when I will be returning home. I probably will not write anything new about the Richmond race on Saturday night or even the upcoming Darlington race, which will be happening the night I will be flying home with my new bride.

In any case, I hope you enjoy reading my previous entries, and I look forward to continuing to serve my readers with fresh content when I get back from this break.


JD Rentz

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Talladega Shake-up: Updated NASCAR Points Standings (through 5/1)

Talladega did what Talladega usually does: shake things up.

The updated standings, reflecting yesterday's Aaron's 499 results, are below:
Rank (+/-) Name / Pts / Bhnd / Strt / Pole / W's / T5's / T10's / DNF / $
1 +1 Jimmie Johnson 1394 Leader 9 1 3 5 7 0 $3,233,114
2 -1 Matt Kenseth 1373 21 9 0 1 5 6 1 $2,088,154
3 +2 Tony Stewart 1316 78 9 1 1 6 6 1 $2,189,001
4 -1 Kasey Kahne 1213 181 9 2 2 4 6 2 $1,884,936
5 -1 Mark Martin 1210 184 9 0 0 1 5 0 $1,255,635
6 +1 Jeff Gordon 1173 221 9 0 0 3 4 0 $1,528,269
7 +1 Kevin Harvick 1138 256 9 0 1 3 4 0 $1,521,949
8 -2 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 1120 274 9 0 0 2 3 1 $1,509,299
9 - Kyle Busch 1077 317 9 1 0 2 4 0 $1,257,260
10 +1 Dale Jarrett 1066 328 9 0 0 0 2 0 $1,322,535
11 -1 Casey Mears 1056 338 9 0 0 1 3 0 $2,089,315
12 +1 Jeff Burton 1039 355 9 1 0 2 5 0 $1,347,338
(Current cut line for the CHASE ... within 400 points)
13 +1 Elliott Sadler 981 413 9 1 0 1 2 1 $1,639,917
14 +5 Brian Vickers 978 416 9 0 0 1 3 1 $1,163,957
15 +1 Carl Edwards 969 425 9 0 0 3 4 2 $1,241,644
16 +1 Kurt Busch 964 430 9 1 1 1 2 1 $1,297,500
17 +3 Jamie McMurray 956 438 9 0 0 1 3 1 $1,408,310
18 -6 Clint Bowyer 953 441 9 0 0 1 2 1 $1,183,043
19 -1 Denny Hamlin 910 484 9 0 0 1 2 1 $1,250,338
20 -5 Martin Truex Jr. 896 498 9 0 0 0 1 2 $1,129,014
21 +2 Jeff Green 877 517 9 0 0 0 0 0 $1,119,842
22 +4 J.J. Yeley 871 523 9 0 0 0 1 0 $1,230,608
23 -2 Greg Biffle 834 560 9 1 0 0 2 3 $1,119,198

The race from Monday was as notable for who faltered as who moved up. Jimmie Johnson did yet again was JJ seems to do regularly -- contend and win. If this team doesn't win a championship soon, they never will. The only "real" challengers at this point are Matt Kenseth (showing his 2003 winning style) and Tony Stewart (continuing his 2005 consistency). Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin both had awful days at the track, losing only a spot each but lots of points in the standings. Jeff Gordon has to be kicking himself for nearly having the day that "could have been" in running ahead of the field for the most laps led but only a 15th-place finish to show for it and only a small gain (one spot) in the standings. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was certainly the fan favorite (and sentimental choice for his "legacy" paint scheme to salute his late father), but a failed engine spelled the end of his day.

I hate to have to make this prediction, but, unless things change drastically, you can stick a fork in Greg Biffle (23rd) because he is done. The same goes for those below him in the standings (the likes of Ryan Newman (26th), Bobby Labonte (27th), Jeremy Mayfield (31st)). I am a big fan of Biffle, but this is just not his year. If things could go wrong, they have ... Murphy's Law is seeking revenge on him for his upsetting the balance of power in 2005, I suppose. Newman's struggles are a bit baffling, especially as Kurt Busch is inching his way back towards the Chase contention list. Labonte is doing the best he can, but the Petty equipment has been failing him (disappointingly).

Those who improved their chances on Monday include NASCAR's "darling" Carl Edwards, who looked to be on the brink of elimination only a few weeks ago. Edwards notched his second straight top-10 finish and is now in 15th place, only 425 behind. Two guys who had great days were Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray, both with high expectations and inconsistent delivery. Vickers looked to be in position to win (yet again) but finished a strong third, gaining five spots in the standings into 14th position. McMurray led the race for multiple laps as well in finishing fifth, a season-best result, and looked like he had a race-winning car along with Jeff Gordon and Elliot Sadler.

The schedule now does a reversal to the short track with perennial favorite Richmond on the center stage next weekend. Richmond's unique 3/4-mile oval is among the most exciting a fan can find anywhere. I actually wish that the new venues that are built (Washington state, New York metro) model the Richmond facility versus the "cookie-cutter" tracks of Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, et.al. because the circuit needs another transitional track like Richmond and Dover (between the shortest 1/2-milers and the intermediate 1 1/2-milers).

Monday, May 01, 2006

Breaking News: Johnson Wins at Talladega, Stewart Second

I will do something in this entry that I don't often do ... provide a breaking news update.

In the closing moments of today's rescheduled running of the Aaron's 499 from Talladega Superspeedway, Jimmie Johnson came from behind to clinch victory away from multiple contending drivers. Tony Stewart was the hard-luck runner-up, finishing in second place yet again (second time this season and sixth time at Talladega). Jeff Gordon, despite leading the most laps in the race, finished a disappointing 15th place after being shuffled to the back at the finish.

Courtesy of NASCAR.com, here are the unofficial race results by position (lead lap cars only):
St Fin # Name Make Sponsor Points
1 16 #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet Lowe's 185/5
2 2 #20 Tony Stewart Chevrolet The Home Depot 175/5
3 33 #25 Brian Vickers Chevrolet GMAC 170/5
4 40 #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet Cingular Wireless 160/0
5 8 #26 Jamie McMurray Ford IRWIN Industrial Tools 160/5
6 12 #17 Matt Kenseth Ford DEWALT 155/5
7 5 #2 Kurt Busch Dodge Miller Lite 151/5
8 3 #99 Carl Edwards Ford Office Depot 147/5
9 32 #10 Scott Riggs Dodge Stanley FatMax/Valvoline 138/0
10 19 #7 Robby Gordon Chevrolet Menards/Turtle Wax Ice 139/5
11 11 #18 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet GSK AsthmaControl.com 135/5
12 4 #88 Dale Jarrett Ford UPS 132/5
13 36 #19 Jeremy Mayfield Dodge Dodge Dealers/UAW 129/5
14 39 #66 Jeff Green Chevrolet Best Buy 126/5
15 14 #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet DuPont/Pepsi 128/10
16 1 #38 Elliott Sadler Ford M&M's 120/5
17 29 #96 Tony Raines Chevrolet DLP HDTV 112/0
18 28 #45 Kyle Petty Dodge Schwan's Home Service 109/0
19 26 #32 Travis Kvapil Chevrolet Tide-Downy 106/0
20 25 #42 Casey Mears Dodge Texaco/Havoline 108/5
21 43 #4 Scott Wimmer Chevrolet AERO Exhaust 105/5

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Cup Series Goes to "OT" with Sunday's Rainout; Talladega Race (Aaron's 499) Rescheduled for Noon Monday (5/1)

Mother Nature was the only winner on the Nextel Cup series on Sunday as the race that almost started (the warmup laps were happening) never happened at all. Not a single lap was run because the rain started coming down while the cars had just made their first full pace lap before the green flag would have fallen only one lap later. The green flag never came.

So, what should have been a report about a Cup race on Sunday will be delayed another day to become the story of a *Monday* race. I doubt that I will be able to see any of this race live (actually, given that I have work scheduled on Monday, that is quite certain), but I might get to see the re-airing later in the week (on Speed Channel). Hopefully, I will be able to catch some of the race during it's actual time on Monday afternoon via the live updates from a site like Yahoo! Sports or NASCAR.com (with the RaceDay Scanner that was going to be free on Sunday).

In any case, Sunday at Talladega became much ado about nothing. There was a national anthem (by Edwin McCain) and a starting of engines (Will Farrell, promoting the upcoming flick "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby") but, really, nothing else happened.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Talladega Daze: The Story of a NASCAR Season (An Intro for Aaron's 499 Weekend)

Talladega can be a defining track in the course of a NASCAR season. It has seen more than it's share of catastrophic accidents over the years in what has come to be the definition of "the big one" in each race that takes place there. The fact that more drivers haven't been seriously injured at this venue over the years is a testament to the safety innovations within motorsports as well as driver ability to limit the damage to his car (and himself).

Some of the ugliest accidents at Talladega have involved some big names. The late Dale Earnhardt is Talladega's most celebrated winner with 10 Cup victories (not to mention the success his namesake, Dale Jr., has had there as well with five wins to his credit), but he was also involved in some horrific crashes at the track that looked like they could have ended his career. Drivers either thrive on the close bumper-to-bumper, high-speed action that Talladega provides or they fail miserably.

I was a first-hand witness in my only Talladega experience to this "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" in what may have been the most interesting tale of "two different races within a single race" experiences. The event was the 2003 Aaron's 499, held three years ago this month. The schedule was a bit different back then than it is now (Talladega was the first weekend in April, following the Texas race and preceding Martinsville on the Winston Cup schedule). As the eighth race on the calendar after venues like Daytona, Rockingham, Darlington, and Bristol (as well as the intermediates of Las Vegas, Atlanta, and the aforementioned Texas), some of the shakeup in points had happened by this point already. Matt Kenseth, the eventual 2003 Champion, was leading coming into the race and was leading after the race as well.

Here were the Top 20 in the standings before:
1 Matt Kenseth 1090
2 Kurt Busch 935 -155
3 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 924 -166
4 Michael Waltrip 898 -192
5 Jimmie Johnson 885 -205
6 Jeff Gordon 864 -226
7 Tony Stewart 849 -241
8 Ryan Newman 848 -242
9 Ricky Craven 840 -250
10 Kevin Harvick 802 -288
11 Bobby Labonte 784 -306
12 Ricky Rudd 780 -310
13 Mark Martin 773 -317
14 Rusty Wallace 771 -319
15 Dale Jarrett 752 -338
16 Johnny Benson, Jr. 748 -342
17 Joe Nemechek 741 -349
18 Jeff Burton 740 -350
19 Robby Gordon 737 -353
20 Elliott Sadler 725 -365

Here were the Top 20 in the standings after:
1 Matt Kenseth 1233
2 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 1104 -129
3 Kurt Busch 1046 -187
4 Jimmie Johnson 1013 -220
5 Jeff Gordon 1011 -222
6 Ricky Craven 1000 -233
7 Michael Waltrip 994 -239
8 Kevin Harvick 977 -256
9 Tony Stewart 937 -296
10 Elliott Sadler 895 -338
11 Ryan Newman 894 -339
12 Dale Jarrett 884 -349
13 Robby Gordon 871 -362
14 Mark Martin 858 -375
15 Bobby Labonte 851 -382
16 Sterling Marlin 850 -383
17 Joe Nemechek 841 -392
18 Rusty Wallace 823 -410
19 Ricky Rudd 817 -416
20 Dave Blaney 801 -432

This 2003 Talladega race was a defining moment for one driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior was chasing history that day, looking to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive races at the superspeedway. His father never accomplished that feat, despite having won a record 10 races at the Cup level. Junior was tied with Buddy Baker, a racing legend, after winning the 2002 fall race and capturing his third straight victory on the 2.66-mile tri-oval.

On a day that saw Jeremy Mayfield lead the field to the green from the pole position, things began innocently enough. By the time the cars reached full speed after one time by, the pack was still tightly bunched from nose to tail. As the field passed the line heading into the fourth lap and out of turn 1, chaos erupted.

Ryan Newman's #12 car veered upwards on the track towards the outside wall and into fellow driver Mark Martin, starting a massive multi-car pileup. Newman's tire, which had been cut and was going flat, flew off the car and outside of the track (smashing into a police car's windshield as we came to learn later). The carnage on the track was nothing short of catastrophic -- 27 cars in total sustained some form of damage (a NASCAR record) and five cars sustained inoperable damage (Newman, Casey Mears, Johnny Benson, Ricky Rudd, and Hermie Sadler). Other cars were significantly damaged as well, like Jimmy Spencer and Rusty Wallace among others. Mark Martin, who was directly involved in the incident, as well as fellow competitors Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Bobby Labonte, et.al. were able to do enough repairs to get back out on the track for running laps, but all finished well back in the pack (greater than the 25th position).

With the field decimated by attrition (cars that just couldn't run up to speed to stay in contention), a new (yet old) story unfolded. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fortunate to have been far enough back of the mess (the rear of the field, after a pre-race engine change) and avoided any major damage to his own potentially-contending vehicle.

The field had effectively been pared from 43 cars only a few laps earlier to only around 20 cars with a legitimate chance to still win. Among the names remaining were the top seven (Mayfield, Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Robby Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson, respectively) who were all ahead of the Newman crash (as Newman was in 8th place at the time). Junior (42) was one of the "trailing" cars (starting spots noted) fortunate to survive along with Sterlin Marlin (11), Steve Park (12), Ricky Craven (15), Michael Waltrip (16), Dale Jarrett (18 ), Tony Stewart (19), Kyle Petty (21), Kenny Wallace (25), Kurt Busch (26) and Terry Labonte (28 ), among others. It probably didn't hurt that the surviving crop in total had a decent amount of driving experience under their collective belts as the race would again commence.

As the race remained on a running caution from laps four through 12, nothing changed in the running order. The racing would be caution-free for a large portion of the remainder of the race with the exception of "debris" cautions on laps 37, 64, and 133 (somewhat expected with banged-up cars leaving parts behind). Two contact collisions shook up what was left of the field around mid-race. Michael Waltrip got loose on lap 84, making contact with Mike Wallace, and spinning out into the wall. Sadler and Mayfield were also caught up slightly in this accident but managed to stay running. On lap 91, teammates Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle bumped each other (a potential sign of things to come?), and Busch hit Stewart, pushing his #20 car into the wall, effectively ending his day.

The long stretches of green-flag racing, which were very exciting, took place between that caution on Lap 91 (with the green flag waving on Lap 95) and the debris caution on Lap 133 followed by the restart on Lap 137 until the finish (Lap 188 ). Only 32 of the 188 laps were lost to cautions, with the biggest chunk of laps coming from the Lap 4 "big one". Those final 50+ laps were certainly some of the most exciting I have ever witnessed at any race I have attended to date.

The final pass of the race, a controversial one at that, occurred with only four laps to go. Dale Jr. was charging towards the lead, as race leader Matt Kenseth had taken command over the previous handful of laps. Junior dove to the inside, with his left-side tires below the yellow line as the pass took place in Turn 3. Arguably, this could have resulted in a penalty, which would have sent Earnhardt back to the end of the lead-lap cars (many (16) places back). Instead, NASCAR's officials ruled things were legal, and Junior cruised on from that point to victory, a record-setting fourth straight Talladega win.

With the win, Dale Earnhardt Jr was the eighth different race winner is as many races in the 2003 season. Sixteen (16) different drivers led at least one lap in this wild ride, and there were 48 lead changes in total.
The Final Results (finishing order) were:
Fin / St / Car# / Name / Make / Sponsor / Laps Run / Laps Led
1 (13) #8 Dale Earnhardt Jr. / Chevrolet / Budweiser / 188 / 34
2 (2 ) #29 Kevin Harvick / Chevrolet / GM Goodwrench Service / 188 / 12
3 (3 ) #38 Elliott Sadler / Ford / M&M's / 188 / 1
4 (15) #32 Ricky Craven / Pontiac / Tide / 188 / 0
5 (28 ) #5 Terry Labonte / Chevrolet / Kellogg's (got milk?) / 188 / 1
6 (11) #40 Sterling Marlin / Dodge / Coors Light / 188 / 2
7 (24) #22 Ward Burton / Dodge / Caterpillar / 188 / 5
8 (4 ) #24 Jeff Gordon / Chevrolet / DuPont / 188 / 24
9 (27) #17 Matt Kenseth / Ford / DeWalt Power Tools / 188 / 9
10 (6 ) #31 Robby Gordon / Chevrolet / Cingular Wireless / 188 / 0
11 (21) #45 Kyle Petty / Dodge / Georgia Pacific / 188 / 0
12 (18 )#88 Dale Jarrett / Ford / UPS / 188 / 2
13 (5 ) #9 Bill Elliott / Dodge / Dodge Dealers / 188 / 1
14 (40) #43 John Andretti / Dodge / Cheerios / 188 / 1
15 (7 ) #48 Jimmie Johnson / Chevrolet / Lowe's / 188 / 65 (MOST)
16 (43) #74 Tony Raines* / Chevrolet / Staff America / 188 / 0
17 (25) #23 Kenny Wallace / Dodge / Stacker 2 / 188 / 0
18 (1 ) #19 Jeremy Mayfield / Dodge / Dodge Dealers / 187 / 19
19 (26) #97 Kurt Busch / Ford / Rubbermaid / 186 / 1
20 (12) #1 Steve Park / Chevrolet / Pennzoil / 184 / 1

Other notables: #15 - Michael Waltrip - 24th, 10 laps led, 11 laps down; #20 - Tony Stewart (2002 Champ) - 25th, 32 laps down; #12 - Ryan Newman - 39th, 3 laps completed, DNF [Ditto for Ricky Rudd, in 42nd]

The point standings saw Junior vault into the second position, after being third one week earlier and 38th place after the first two races at Daytona and Rockingham. Matt Kenseth maintained the lead, extending it over nearly everyone in the field, except for Junior, while some individuals [like Ryan Newman (97 points further back, three positions), Bobby Labonte (76 points, four spots), and Ricky Rudd (106 points, six spots)] took bigger tumbles than others. Elliot Sadler was the biggest gainer in the field, jumping 10 spots from 20th to 10th and trimming his deficit to 338 points from 365 earlier in the day.

Side notes from this event: While the racing was a clear winner at this event, I had additional "excitement" at Talladega from a personal standpoint. This was the first race I attended where I got multiple autographs (and nice close-up photos) from select drivers before the race had even begun. On that beautiful Sunday morning, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for Matt Kenseth's line at the DeWalt display while (unfortunately) missing simultaneous ticket giveaways at the trailers for Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle, who were also signing. Separately, I noted that other drivers had boards posted for autographs, but I was more concerned (at that moment) with those three.

After negotiating a deal with a fellow fan (who had a Biffle ticket), I had my newly-purchased Roush Racing jacket signed by Biffle while I was having my NASCAR Media Guide / Stats Book (2003 Edition, Tony Stewart on the cover) signed by Kenseth. As luck would have it, I went back over to the Biffle trailer to discover another fan who was willing to have my book signed by Biffle so that I would have two signatures from him in the same day. I tried (in vain) to capture a spot in Busch's line at his trailer, but it was to no avail. However, fate apparently had something bigger for me that day, as the NASCAR Images folks were filming scenes for the NASCAR IMAX Movie that same day.

I was oblivious to the fact that a huge camera (which sat to my immediate left, near Busch's trailer) was recording all of us fans at that autograph session to be included in the movie. When the movie was released over a year later, I was shocked to see myself on the huge IMAX (Omnimax, in my case here in Cincinnati) screen front and center of that transition into the "fan interaction" segment of the film. Little did I know I will forever be a part of a "historical" reference documentary that NASCAR itself created.

To close out this saga, I also got one more autograph -- Robby Gordon, that day's 10th place finisher -- along with the Kenseth signature (which was sweet to have the eventual 2003 champion in the 2003 book) and the two Biffle signatures (in the book in which Biffle is the reigning Busch Series champion as well). I would eventually collect more signatures in this same book, including Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace (both after their Speed Channel show last year), while building up my NASCAR signature collection that "officially" began that day at that race.

Talladega is a track among tracks, where men will be men and boys will be boys. I am proud to have seen a race at this Alabama legend and would go back to a future race there in a heartbeat.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Harvick Breaks Through at Phoenix, Sweeps Both Weekend Races

Kevin Harvick is making the most of his last contractual season with Richard Childress Racing, made most successful by his predecessor, the late Dale Earnhardt. Harvick is accomplishing something this season which we haven't seen from him much over the past two years: consistency.

Although he started off the season somewhat slowly (with a best finish of 11th at Las Vegas), the race at Bristol in late March has seen Harvick cruising along ever since. Starting with a 2nd at BMS, he has reeled off four consecutive top-10 finishes, capped by Saturday night's Cup win at Phoenix. His standings rise in the points is equally impressive, now in a very solid eighth place only one point behind both Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon, who together have been quietly having "comeback" seasons themselves. Harvick is having a banner year in general, though, considering he is also first place in the Busch Series with back-to-back wins at Nashville and Phoenix the past two weeks.

While there is no doubt that the "haves" versus the "have nots" in Cup series racing start to separate themselves by this point in the season, Harvick has been an "outsider" in the past two seasons, failing to make the Chase both times. Of course, he is not alone as a talented driver not making the Championship contending cut, but this year just might be different.

The top five drivers in points are pretty safe bets to make the Chase cut in September. Matt Kenseth continued this season where he was the second half of 2005 by running well and leading the points. Jimmie Johnson, in second place, is a perpetual top 5 list driver who just seems to be a champion in waiting (hopefully not fated to be the Mark Martin of his generation). Speaking of Mark Martin, he slipped a spot thanks to poor pit strategy / gas management at Phoenix to lose a potential win and/or top 5 finish but sits quite solidly in fourth place in points. The other two top 5 drivers -- Kasey Kahne (third) and Tony Stewart (fifth) -- are proving this season to be consistency stalwarts as well. Stewart, as the defending series champion, is hardly a surprise to be where he is, but Kahne is having a "coming of age" season that may be a sign that his career is just getting started.

The drivers in the spots immediately after the top five are worth mentioning further. Junior, Gordon, and Harvick, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth spots, respectively, are exceeding expectations, even if the wins (for Earnhardt or Gordon) haven't come yet. Harvick is proof that good driving eventually yields the win, even when your car may not be the most dominant one in the race. Kyle Busch is sliding a bit, especially after failing to control his car (and his temper) in crashing at Phoenix. Kyle is at least faring better than older brother Kurt, who continues to sit on the outside looking in back in the 17th position and 405 points behind first place after Phoenix. Casey Mears looks like he is one race away from sliding right out of the top 10, after failing to crack the top 10 in any of the past five races, and his second place at Daytona remains his lone top 5 finish.

The list is plenty long with "contenders" who are not in the current top 10 and/or not within 400 points of first place. Most notably, Greg Biffle is going to earn the "Joe Nemechek Award" in 2006 if his bad luck continues. Biffle cannot buy a break despite running great races for 90% of the race until failure comes near the end. Carl Edwards has been in the same boat as Biffle, but a strong fourth place at Phoenix, following a crew chief shakeup between Jamie McMurray's team and his own, didn't seem to hurt him much this week. Edwards is moving upward, now in 16th spot, up six positions, and 396 points out of first. Ryan Newman is falling like a rock in the standings, now down to 22nd, after another awful finish (40th and 39th at Texas and Phoenix, respectively). His best finish, much like Casey Mears, was a third at Daytona, and he has only one top 10 (Bristol) since then.

Even though some guys continue to "underachieve" (like Biffle, Newman, et.al.), Bobby Labonte may continue to be the 2006 "feel good story" in Cup racing. After breaking through for a fifth place finish at Bristol, Labonte has cracked the top 10 in the last two races as well (10th at Texas and 8th at Phoenix). Petty Enterprises needed this kind of turnaround from a past champion like Labonte to know that the off-season shuffling was well worth the investment, and, no doubt, Kyle Petty (and father Richard) is a very happy man. Petty himself could benefit a bit from Labonte's performances, but he has had but one top 10 (an 8th at Atlanta) and only one other finish better than 20th (and 18th at Bristol the week after Atlanta). The last three weeks have seen Kyle slide back a bit, with 30th, 39th, and 31st place finishes across those races.

I need not close this writing with a truly negative thought, but I think the best years of Sterling Marlin and Michael Waltrip may officially be behind them. Both drivers left (or were let go) from their previous commitments in Ganassi Racing and DEI, respectively. Neither has seen success in 2006, with Marlin in 30th place and Waltrip in 35th. These were two "contending" drivers in the not so distant past, so to see slides like these is truly disheartening. Granted, both drivers probably don't have the equipment under them that they had before, but the movement out of the sport is probably inevitable at this pace. To give Marlin a bit more credit than Waltrip, he has notched some quite respectable finishes since a 17th at Bristol with a 14th at Texas and his season-best 12th at Phoenix.

Here are the top 10 standings through the Phoenix race:
Place Driver Pts Behind St/Poles/Wins/T5/T10/Earnings
1 +1 Matt Kenseth 1218 Leader 8 0 1 5 5 1 $1,928,313
2 -1 Jimmie Johnson 1209 9 8 1 2 4 6 0 $2,907,053
3 +1 Kasey Kahne 1167 51 8 2 2 4 6 1 $1,771,947
4 -1 Mark Martin 1152 66 8 0 0 1 5 0 $1,160,985
5 - Tony Stewart 1141 77 8 1 1 5 5 1 $1,928,865
6 -1 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 1045 173 8 0 0 2 3 0 $1,397,133
7 +2 Jeff Gordon 1045 173 8 0 0 3 4 0 $1,376,958
8 +1 Kevin Harvick 1044 174 8 0 1 3 4 0 $1,400,138
9 -2 Kyle Busch 1010 208 8 1 0 2 4 0 $1,162,235
10 - Casey Mears 948 270 8 0 0 1 3 0 $1,966,232

Thursday, April 20, 2006

ONMC (Official NASCAR Members Club) -- Learn More Here!

I posted about the ONMC in my last post to the journal, but I would be remiss as an LCP (Local Chapter President) of a Chapter here in Cincinnati if I didn't direct you to how to join the club. You, too, as a NASCAR fan can get INSIDER access to things that most fans could only dream of doing or seeing.

Start your journey here:


[This is the 452381 Chapter website of the ONMC (my personal chapter, which is certainly looking to add members if not boost membership in general). ]

Additionally, check out my other NASCAR efforts at:


[The ONMC tab has a sign-up sheet linked directly to NASCAR.com with my own ID number in the referral box.]

Sorry for the brevity of this posting, but a preview for this weekend's action in Phoenix should be forthcoming. I've been writing more about my surprising Cincinnati Reds in that blog.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Official NASCAR Members Club (ONMC) -- A Perspective

[The following is a repost of a message I sent to the ONMC forum on NASCAR.com ... if you are interested to know more about the Club, please reference my ID number as I get credit for referrals!]

As a (fellow) Charter Member who signed up as early as I knew this Club existed (which was February 2005, prior to Daytona), I can relate to the comments you have made.

The Official NASCAR Members Club is not the everything-to-everybody club because, financially, such a club cannot and will not ever exist. With an annual membership of $40 from the time I signed on and now having renewed for the first time in March, I am very pleased with what my money got me in my first year in the ONMC.

While I certainly had no guarantees of any of the "special" VIP-only experiences, I did hit the jackpot by responding to an e-mail for last year's Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's. As one of the selectees, I had no idea exactly what the reward was going to be. All I knew was that I needed to get race tickets (which I did not have at that point) and to plan a drive down to Charlotte from Ohio. Needless to say, the experience itself was nothing short of incredible.

There was no way possible to do that All-Star night what I did without an ONMC in existence. I got to walk across the LMS track, stand on the infield to watch the race qualifier (which Brian Vickers won), and then walk on the track itself all the way down to the start-finish line. The moment itself is emblazoned in my mind as I stood right in front of the Driver Introductions three-part stage (I was at the right-hand stage) where all of the pit crews and drivers would be introduced. Not only did I get first-hand contact (literally) with the crews as they came by for high-fives but also got some amazing photos of most of the drivers being introduced that night (with detailed close-ups I could never have gotten from the stands). Equally cool was giving a high-five to Ryan Newman, the only driver to go from one end of the stage to the other giving high-fives along most of the way. A nice perk: having all of the action saved from the live telecast on Speed Channel (where I can see myself prominently on camera) -- priceless!

I honestly thought I could die and go to heaven at that point because the club had already exceeded my expectations for the year. When I realized I had more races to attend (previously planned) where I knew ONMC would be, I didn't want to miss the possible opportunities there as well. All of those events were still first-come, first-serve (which changed by the end of last year with all of that bickering as well), so I knew I had to be early (i.e. on the ball) to be one of the chosen few.

At Chicagoland, I got in line bright and early on Saturday morning to sign up for another Driver Introduction experience. Although this was for the Busch race, it was no less exciting being able to see so many Cup regulars (i.e. the Buschwhackers) as well as the up-and-coming stars of the Busch series. I have to say that the entrance into this event was even cooler (if that was possible) as we were scurried along via golf carts from near the Nextel Experience pavilion through the auto tunnel into the back gate of the Busch trailers and garage area. Nothing like walking through some of the most exclusive area of the whole track en route to the stage itself at the start/finish line. We walked as a group across pit road, through the infield grass, and stopped at stage right (the exit side) of the intros stage. My photos from that event were once again incredible, with even better shots in the daytime sun than I got at night in Charlotte. I was even lucky enough at that same experience to meet one of the new National Advisors (Steve Benoit) from California, who had already had some previous great experiences.

I hopefully haven't bored all of you who read this with my lengthy stories, but my experiences with the Club have been absolutely wonderful. At the point at which I realized more people needed to experience how great the ONMC could be, I signed up to be an LCP for my area. Granted, I can only stretch myself so thin in a given year (with work and family commitments), but I believed that being an LCP and forming a local chapter was the right way to make the overall club that much more effective. Other posts in this chain and in other chains make the point well: for as many members and chapters as this club has already, the opportunity for growth is that much greater than already achieved.

For all of those who believe the Club has failed them (possibly because you haven't been able to experience one of the unique opportunities I noted), I am sorry you have been "hurt" by something that monetarily has impacted you very little in the grand scheme of things. Expectations are truly a personal thing when it comes to what you wanted this club to be when you made your payment to become a member.

If you signed up expecting the first year of this club to be perfect from day one, then you have unrealistic expectations of a "start-up" organization. One thing that continues to frustrate me personally is how *personal* everyone seems to respond either pro or con to the ONMC and what it has or has not done for them. While I and others may consider the club to be great, others have expressed dissatisfaction. Difference of opinion should be admired, but the reality is that we are early in year two of what hopes to be a long journey. If the ONMC ended tomorrow or after this season, would the majority be satisfied with what the club brought to them that they didn't know, see, do, or have before?

Inevitably, people have to make choices. Am I in the club for the long-haul, or am I out? Patience is an important thing, and take to heart the adage that if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. It is easier to complain where others are failing but not to offer your talents for fixing the issues. In some cases with this club, complaining to the right people is just as important as complaining in general. Just complaining for complaining sake does nobody on either side of the pro/con fence any good in making the club better in the future.

My opinion is my opinion, and your opinion is your opinion. If our two opinions do not agree, it does not make one of us right and the other one wrong. Remember to exercise respect in all criticisms that are made, whether they are constructive or destructive, by thinking first from the other person's perspective and then from your own. Your response may be different than you had planned.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Quiet Weekend on the NASCAR Calendar (Easter)

In a week that sees the Nextel Cup series on hiatus, the only significant race heading into Easter weekend is in the Busch series. The Busch cars will be running in Nashville on Saturday to stay off Easter on the calendar.

Nashville Superspeedway is one of those interesting tracks that is not owned by either of the powerhouses of ISC or SMI. Nasvhille is owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., which is not surprisingly the owner of Dover International Speedway in Delaware as well. Clearly, the track ownership would love to see a Cup race come to their unique venue, a 1.33 mile oval in Nashville, TN, but not for the sake of one of their Cup dates in Dover. I would compare the situation of Nashville's track to Kentucky Speedway in Sparta -- location, location, location.

As the NASCAR powers that be continue to look for schedule expansion, a track like Nashville is not on the radar despite being a high-quality venue covering a good-sized fan base. Why ignore Nashville as a potential Cup venue? Well, it doesn't help that Bristol is the eastern corner of the state and that Talladega is nearly due south. Kentucky, likewise, is in the same "vicinity" as Nashville and has Indianapolis nearly due north. I think that tracks like Nashville and Kentucky, not to mention Gateway (St. Louis) or the Milwaukee Mile, would simply add some variety to the already crowded NASCAR Cup schedule.

Consider that the Busch series runs a fairly diverse schedule by comparison to the Cup guys. In a 35-race schedule (only one fewer than the Cup schedule), the Busch races repeat venues nine times (Daytona, California, Bristol, Texas, Phoenix, Lowe's, Dover, and Nashville). Where the Busch schedule is more interesting, in my eyes, is the inclusion of these tracks: Nashville (twice), Kentucky, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Indy Raceway Park, and Memphis. Notice that each of these locations is in the midsection of the country, maybe not by coincidence. The Cup series could just as easily run at some of these same venues, not to mention venues it abandoned in the past (like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, among others). Isn't diversity a good thing?

Yes, having more venues open and successful is more difficult, but doesn't an expansion of the sport's fan base across the country translate to more success in the long run? I think that it does. The "sacrifice" in the Busch schedule is not running some of the Cup tracks more than once or at all. Pocono (two races in Cup) and Infineon don't make the cut in Busch racing. Talladega, New Hampshire, Martinsville (new in 2006), and Michigan only appear once in Busch versus twice in Cup. Is the racing any less significant as a result?

A Cup schedule without two races at Pocono, New Hampshire, Martinsville, Dover (maybe), Michigan (though not likely), and (God forbid) Lowe's wouldn't be the end of the world. If the effort is made to still hit these locations at least once a year with a Cup race, the venues would still be inclined to make their venues worthy of attendance. Yes, revenue would suffer with one race versus two, but the difference can be made up with seating (expansions in time) and higher demand with less chance to get a ticket. It can work ... as interest in singular races would build with the schedule more spread across the U.S.

I didn't intend another discourse on why the Cup schedule isn't what it should be, but I hope that diversity in Cup continues to be a consideration.

Happy Easter everyone!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Who Can Topple Texas? Kahne Can [NASACAR Notes for 4/10/06]

Texas Motor Speedway wins again. For consistently producing quality races in it's short existence as a NASCAR Cup track, TMS is proving itself a worthy two-race track and beginning to look like an Atlanta or Charlotte (Lowe's) on the schedule. I don't think it is the least bit surprising that all of those tracks (AMS, LMS, and TMS) are owned by SMI (Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, the company run by Bruton Smith). When I think of my personal track experiences and races I have watched, the SMI tracks (like Bristol or Lowe's) stand out as exceptional experiences. I am certainly not downplaying the main "competition" (and NASCAR's relative, International Speedway Corporation (ISC)), but SMI has it's act together with the aforementioned tracks (including Las Vegas, not mentioned).

This posting on TMS is certainly intended to be more focused on the weekend's action in the Cup and Busch series races than my lead-in discussion of the SMI-ISC track comparison, but I do think the changes in tracks and scheduling over time make for an interesting topic in and of itself. Some time ago, I wrote in the ONMC (Official NASCAR Members Club) Forum regarding the lawsuit filed last summer by independent track Kentucky Speedway, just down the road from here (Cincinnati) in Sparta, KY. The location of the track does make a lot of sense, in that it covers the Cincinnati, Louisville, and even Indianapolis metro areas. The fact that it overlaps Indianapolis (and Indianapolis Motor Speedway) is a blessing and a curse, especially given that NASCAR (and former CEO Bill France, now ISC's head) hasn't given KS any consideration as a Cup venue. The Busch and Truck series races there have been highly successful, and, in my opinion, are very reminscent of the kind of action you see at Texas, Lowe's, Las Vegas, etc. (the intermediate tracks). While the track seating is not exceptionally large (yet), the venue in Sparta could certainly be expanded to well over 100,000 seats (from the current capacity near 70,000). The Waltrips (Darrell, in particular) have been big supporters of Kentucky Speedway, including Darrell acting as a design consultant in making the infield area (garages, pits, etc.) and the track itself top-notch. If you're not convinced of KS a driver-friendly venue, where do most of the teams do their Cup testing for the intermediates? Here, of course, because it has the same characteristics of the other 1.5-milers. I almost certainly will post more about Kentucky Speedway and the ongoing legal battle with NASCAR / ISC (as it is on the radar but out of the spotlight right now); however, it's time to talk about Texas.

Kasey Kahne was the deserving winner of Sunday's Nextel Cup race, but I really wish that two of the stronger cars in this one (Greg Biffle early and Carl Edwards in the middle) were still in it at the end. No doubt, Kahne had one of the strongest cars in the field, as he led laps including the most important last one. The most impressive part about Kahne was how he stretched out the lead on the last restart to not even be challenged by either Matt Kenseth (second) or Tony Stewart, who once again led the most laps but finished third.

The biggest controversy in this race happened early with Kurt Busch's "helpful" push of Biffle into the wall, ending his day and dropping him further in the standings (now all the way back in 23rd and 406 points out of first). Biffle had every reason to be mad with Busch's blatant reckless driving, but he also now has concern to be on the outside looking in at the Chase come September.

Roush teammate Carl Edwards looked strong as well, but somehow his car got loose down the backstretch, and he wrecked by himself into the inside wall. The Edwards' crash could have been much worse, considering other contenders (like Stewart) were around him at the time and narrowly avoided crashing with him. Edwards, like Biffle, looks to be a non-factor for this year's Chase as well unless things start to come together soon (now in 22nd, 401 points behind first).

While this was a bad day for some, it clearly was a good day for the rookies. Denny Hamlin ran strong (leading laps) in finishing fourth. Fellow rookies Martin Truex Jr, Reed Sorenson, and Clint Bowyer ran respectably as well, finishing in 8th, 13th, and 19th, respectively. All four of these drivers moved up at least three places in the standings, with Hamlin moving up most (nine places) from 23rd to 14th with his top 5 finish. Score one for the veterans in this one as well, as Bobby Labonte cracked the top 10 for the second time this season (in 10th) and Mark Martin notched another top 10 finish (ninth).

All in all, Texas scored another nice race, and the action was up to the standard we have expected in Cup racing on the intermediate tracks of NASCAR. With Kahne's win, 11 races and 11 different winners -- the no-repeat streak stays alive.

The Busch series race on Saturday was a bit of a contrast to Sunday's Cup race, but the outcome was exactly as the all races have come to be scripted this year to date. In seven Busch races, there have been seven different winners, and, of particular note (and growing distaste of many), all of the winners are Cup regulars. The roll call of winners is a "who's who" of the Nextel Cup ranks: Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, and (this week's winner) Kurt Busch. Of these drivers, Biffle, Hamlin, and Kyle Busch are the only regulars on the Busch series schedule, but, as evidenced by their success in the Cup series, they really don't have that much to prove at this level. Hamlin probably is most benefiting from the extra seat time, but do Biffle, Busch, et.al. really need it? Excluding the winners noted already, Cup regulars running full-time Busch schedules include Kevin Harvick (the points leader), Hamlin (2nd), Clint Bowyer (3rd), J.J. Yeley (4th), Biffle (5th), Ky. Busch (6th), Carl Edwards (11th), and Michael Waltrip (23rd).

"Buschwhacking" is becoming an undeniable reality that fans, fellow drivers / teams, and team owners either love or hate. I'm not sure what the fans' consensus is, but I would guess that interest in Busch racing is higher when Cup drivers they like are involved. Most "purists" (if they exist in NASCAR) probably frown on what is happening, but, at the same time, there are no rules to prevent it. I personally understand completely why Cup regulars want the extra practice time at tracks where they are also racing their Cup cars, and, given the further curtailing of practice sessions as governed by NASCAR officials, they have little alternative to gain a competitive advantage if they don't do it.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Chase is Taking Shape (with a Few "Shuffles") -- Any Surprises?

The last time I posted on the subject of the Chase was after the Atlanta race, before the short-track effect could occur (back-to-back Bristol and Martinsville weekends). Here was the top 10 list after Atlanta (first 4 races):

Pos. / Driver / Points / Pts. Behind [after first 4 races]
1 Jimmie Johnson 690 Leader
2 Kasey Kahne 640 -50
3 Matt Kenseth 612 -78
4 Mark Martin 600 -90
5 Casey Mears 554 -136
6 Jeff Gordon 539 -151
7 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 534 -156
8 Kyle Busch 530 -160
9 Dale Jarrett 490 -200
10 Clint Bowyer 471 -219

I mentioned then as I will mention now that the top 4 spots looked like they were in pretty good shape given the past two years of Chase history on their side (only Kasey Kahne, as a rookie in 2004, failed to make the Chase from a position that high). The 5th through 8th spots looked pretty good, too, although Casey Mears was clearly the biggest surprise in that range. Again, historically, those positions have made the Chase (with only two years of data as a basis).

Through 6 races (after Martinsville), the top 4 drivers remain the same, but their order is a little different (Martin up to 2nd and Kahne down to 4th). Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have solidified their spots, moving up closer to the top and running stronger. Tony Stewart jumped back onto this list after sitting in 12th only a few races earlier (California and Las Vegas problems created a hole to climb out but not unusual for early season in Stewart's career). Elliott Sadler has been quietly running better as well, including a top 10 at Martinsville. Casey Mears is now the biggest question mark; after notching top 10's in each of his first three races, he has failed to run better than 20th since. More analysis follows the list below...

Pos Driver Points Bhnd/Wins/Top5/Top10
1 Jimmie Johnson 933 Ldr 2 4 5
2 Mark Martin 874 -59 0 1 4
3 Matt Kenseth 873 -60 1 3 3
4 Kasey Kahne 832 -101 1 3 4
5 Kyle Busch 832 -101 0 2 4
6 D Earnhardt Jr 824 -109 0 2 3
7 Jeff Gordon 814 -119 0 3 3
8 Tony Stewart 791 -142 1 3 3
9 Elliott Sadler 735 -198 0 1 2
10 Casey Mears 724 -209 0 1 3
--- (Top 10) ---
11 Dale Jarrett 716 -217 0 0 2
12 Kevin Harvick 699 -234 0 1 2
13 Ryan Newman 668 -265 0 1 2
14 Kurt Busch 661 -272 1 1 1
15 Brian Vickers 650 -283 0 0 2
16 Clint Bowyer* 644 -289 0 0 1
17 Jamie McMurray 623 -310 0 0 2
18 Greg Biffle 615 -318 0 0 2
19 Carl Edwards 602 -331 0 2 2
20 M. Truex Jr.* 597 -336 0 0 0
21 Jeff Burton 591 -342 0 1 2
22 J.J. Yeley* 589 -344 0 0 1
23 Denny Hamlin* 582 -351 0 0 1
24 Reed Sorenson* 577 -356 0 0 1
25 Joe Nemechek 555 -378 0 0 0
26 Kyle Petty 539 -394 0 0 1
27 Robby Gordon 534 -399 0 0 0
---(within 400 points)---

Mathematically, 27 drivers are still Chase eligible right now, with Robby Gordon on the lowest edge at 399 points behind. The "hope" has to remain for these guys (at least for a few more races) as Matt Kenseth was in 21st place, 383 points behind at this point last season. Kenseth had to run a great stretch until the last race before the Chase (Richmond) to make up that sizeable deficit ... a hard task for the guys noted above. Realistically, he never did make up the entire gap, as he fell further behind the leader(s) but got closer to the final 10th place spot (over 650 points back, in 9th). Two years ago, Mark Martin was the lowest ranked outside the top 10 who ultimately made it (in 14th, 221 points back).

The real question then becomes how far ahead will the leader(s) be from the rest of the pack and will the 400-pt rule matter versus the top 10? In 2004, only seven (7) drivers were less than 400 points behind leader Jeff Gordon after the 26th race. In 2005, the spread was even worse with only three (3) drivers less than 400 points behind Tony Stewart, as he was lapping the field at 180 points ahead of Greg Biffle in second place. In 2006, Jimmie Johnson is starting the season off looking like the dominant player once again (much like he looked in the early going last year) in racking up top 5 finishes (4 through 6 this year and last year). The only difference between Johnson in 2006 and at the same point in 2005? He didn't miss a top 10 finish in 2005
until the 8th race (at Phoenix). Johnson finally began "cooling off" some into the summer months as Biffle was winning (starting at Texas, winning 4 of the next 9 races through Michigan) and then Stewart picked up where Biffle left off (winning at Infineon, with 5 of 7 races as wins through Watkins Glen).

The remainder of the "Race to the Chase" is clearly still up in the air, but we do have 6 of the 26 (almost one-quarter of the schedule) done until the "playoff" begins. Someone could go on a Stewart-like run this summer to turn the Chase standings on it's ear, but the wins have been reasonably distributed among a handful of drivers so far (Johnson twice; Kenseth, Kahne, Ku.Busch, and Stewart all once). Johnson has been a contender in all of those races except for Bristol. Greg Biffle has been a contender in every race (leading laps) until he came to Martinsville (no laps led and a 31st place finish).

Arguably, Biffle is the biggest "surprise" of this season, after being the second place finisher last year and having the most wins (6). Will Biffle find the consistency he has been lacking (with only two top 10's at Las Vegas and Bristol but three finishes worse than 30th (Daytona, California, and Martinsville) as well)? Despite leading the second-most laps (355) on the season (only Tony Stewart has more with a dominating 685), Biffle doesn't have much to show for his efforts. The bonus points (5 for a led lap and 5 more for most laps led, which he has earned twice) are helping keep Biffle in contention (in the 18th position), but finishes near the end of the field (in the 30th+ place) will not get him into the Chase unless he offsets them with wins. His breakthroughs might be coming with Texas (once pre-Chase) and Michigan (twice this summer) not to mention that he also won at Darlington and Dover between those two events.

Carl Edwards may be even more disappointed with his current standing in 19th in the points given that he has two top 5's but also two 40th+ finishes to go with them. He started the season from the ultimate hole (last at Daytona) but has worked his way up since then. A third place finish at California was a huge boost, but consecutive poor finishes of 26th and 40th at Las Vegas and Atlanta (where he swept last year) had to be big letdowns. Fortunately, Edwards seems to keep his optimism and rebounded with a career-best fourth at Bristol and then a respectable 16th at Martinsville. The biggest challenge that both Edwards and Biffle now face is how to work their way back into the top 10 or to stay within 400 points of the lead. Both drivers know that these alternating good and bad finishes will not get the job done.

I am holding out hope that greater than 10 drivers can make the Chase this year, if nothing more than keep the excitement level higher. Besides that fact, there seem to be Chase-worthy drivers who failed last year (like Gordon and Earnhardt Jr) but are heading the right way
again. One driver who appears highly unlikely to repeat as a Chase contender: Jeremy Mayfield. Despite "backing" his way in each of the last two seasons (though not to discount his achievement), Mayfield has been a non-competitive threat once the real Chase happened both times. His standing in the 30's (33rd) and now 453 points back paints a pretty gloomy picture.

My hopeful for comeback driver this year was Bobby Labonte, but the Petty Enterprises crew hasn't turned the corner yet. Labonte has contended and even netted a top 5 at Bristol, yet his mechanical failures (like teammate Kyle Petty) are plaguing good runs otherwise. I think he can still manage his first win in some time with the new crew, but the points standing won't be there this season.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Stewart Stomps Field to Martinsville Win; Johnson Regains Points Lead

Sunday's race was indicative of the adage that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Previous winners were the frontrunners for much of race, while a former winner (Tony Stewart) captured another Martinsville grandfather clock trophy. The top three finishers (Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson) were all former victors at the half-mile paper clip track. A few newer names made their mark in the Nextel Cup race today as well, most notably the fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch (his first top 5 at Martinsville) and Brian Vickers (in eighth place, who notched his second top 10 of the season and best career finish at the track). Martinsville was clearly a Hendrick-dominated track, with all four team drivers finishing inside the top 10 (Gordon, Johnson, Busch, and Vickers in second, third, fifth, and eighth, respectively).

There were three distinct parts to the story at Martinsville: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The beginning was marked with a number of drivers getting into traffic and doing some damage. The first accident involved high-ranking rookie Clint Bowyer getting tangled in a logjam on the race’s second lap that also caused significant damage to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Robby Gordon. Gordon's car would be the first to retire from the race only a handful of laps later, yet another disappointing finish for him. While Jimmie Johnson led from the opening (and was the race’s polesitter), Jamie McMurray took over the lead on the 28th lap. Shortly thereafter, Tony Stewart took over the lead from McMurray on lap 34 and stayed there for a long time (nearly 200 laps). One of the race favorites – Jeff Gordon – looked to have his race hopes hurt after blowing a tire on lap 89, but, thankfully for him, he was able to avoid hitting the wall and made it to his pit without losing a lap (thanks to pitting while the pits were closed and taking the end-of-lead lap penalty).

The middle of the race was defined by Stewart, who led the most laps in the race (288 laps in total). During this racing mid-section, the cautions were fewer between, although a few notables (such as Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte, and Kyle Petty, among others) experienced a combination of problems to hurt their finishes for the day. Despite gains from last week in Bristol, the Petty drivers (Labonte and Petty) were hurt by mechanical failures to have disappointing results once again. Today was also a markedly bad day for Roush Racing, with the only Top 10 finish by Jamie McMurray (9th). Both Biffle and Matt Kenseth were banged up in crashes to finish with poor 31st and 24th place finishes, respectively. Mark Martin and Carl Edwards overcame some racing problems to crack the top 20 but not the top 10 (13th for Martin, to move into second place in the points standings beyond Johnson, and 16th for Edwards, who moved back into the top 20 in the points after the race).

From the mid-point of the race until near the finish, it appeared that Jimmie Johnson was in control of his destiny. He led an impressive 195 laps in total but relinquished the lead for good on lap 475 to Stewart. Jeff Gordon was able to get past his teammate into second place only 10 laps later and appeared to be in position to challenge Stewart for his eighth career win at Martinsville. However, two late cautions -- one for Joe Nemechek on lap 486 and the second for Matt Kenseth on lap 493 (and the red flag to hold the field until three laps were left on the restart) -- seemed to seal the fate of Gordon. On the final restart, the top 5 was holding closely together until Gordon wiggled a bit out of Turn 4 heading towards the white flag. It was Stewart's race to lose at that point, which did not happen for the strong closer.

Tony Stewart collected career win number 25, fourth among active drivers (behind only Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Dale Jarrett) and into a tie for 22nd on the all-time wins list (tied with legends Joe Weatherly and Jim Paschal). This is Stewart's second career Martinsville win, with his previous victory in the fall 2000 race.

The points battle had a few shake-ups around the top, with Matt Kenseth slipping out of the top spot (after his late race crash) into third and Jimmie Johnson recapturing the points lead. Kasey Kahne lost two spots as well with his mechanical failure late in the Martinsville race as well. The fifth through seventh spots remained the same (Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jeff Gordon) while Tony Stewart jumped up one spot into eighth. Elliott Sadler found himself back in the top 10 with a top 10 Martinsville finish, while Casey Mears may soon find himself out of the top 10, now in the 10th spot but sliding back five spots over the past few weeks.

Jamie McMurray was the day's biggest points standings gainer, moving seven place higher into 17th ahead of teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards (in 18th and 19th, respectively). Kurt Busch, who found himself much further down in the standings only three races ago, is now in the 14th spot and climbing. Robby Gordon, with his last place finish, was the day's biggest loser, now in 27th place after dropping seven spots. The Petty team suffered casualties on the track and in the standings, with Kyle now in the 26th spot (one spot lower) and Bobby Labonte three spots lower into the dangerous 35th spot (the last guaranteed qualifier into upcoming races). David Stremme, who is having a difficult rookie season, will probably not like the fact that he remains outside the top 35, despite moving up one spot on the day into 37th.

All in all, Martinsville probably lived up to it's typical short-track expectation, although the middle of the race wasn't nearly as enjoyable as the rough-and-tumble beginning and the bumping-and-banging finish. Generally, the driving was much cleaner than at Bristol from last week, while the circuit moves to one of the intermediates (Texas Motor Speedway) next week. Look for the Roush camp to rebound at TMS based on their historical success at the mile and half tracks (including Greg Biffle's win there last year in the spring and Carl Edwards finding victory lane in the fall).

The pieces for the Chase are starting to fall into place, but this race is far from over. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Short-Track Mayhem Continues in Martinsville, as Calendar Springs into April

Don't look now, but this is the second-straight weekend of action on the short tracks of NASCAR. After starting off the season with the traditional superspeedway of Daytona, the next few races (California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta) were nearly mirror images of each other in the intermediate speedway category (although California, at the two-mile distance, is nearly a superspeedway track as well). While the one and a half milers (like Las Vegas, Atlanta, and the ones to come) offer predictably consistent racing, the teams and the drivers are tested at the "unconventional" venues like Bristol (last week) and Martinsville (this week).

What should race fans be looking for at this week's venue? Martinsville (Virginia) is home to the oldest track still actively used on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit. Although it's future was put into doubt as tracks like North Wilkesboro (N.C.), Rockingham (N.C.), and Darlington (S.C.) lost race dates in recent years, Martinsville has remained thriving despite turbulent times. It probably doesn't hurt that the track ownership was smart enough to make ties with ISC (International Speedway Corporation), the group run by the France family (Bill France Jr., former head of NASCAR), when track dates could have been threatened. Additionally, the track acted in "Bristol-like" fashion by capitalizing on it's unique track design, doubling it's capacity (91,000 seats currently) over the past 15 years. Of course, that is nowhere near Bristol (160,000, with demand that exceeds it) but is closer (but a little short) of intrastate short-track rival Richmond (107,097).

The fans and critics of short-track racing are probably divided. There is no doubt that the fans love these tracks, as bumping, banging, and "trading paint" are the rules of the road. The expression that "rubbin' is racin'" has much greater meaning at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond because there is no other way to be successful at these venues year in and year out. The critics may say that this constant banging of cars is glorified demolition derby, but fans demand tickets for these events more than most of the others.

The favorite for the upcoming race is clearly Jeff Gordon, four-time Cup champion and seven-time winner at Martinsville. He leads active drivers in wins at the half-mile paper clip oval. Active drivers with wins at the track also include: Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin. Chalk these names up as potential favorites as well, since this track favors the experienced driver over the newbies. However, nobody has had close to the success of Gordon in recent years.

In a year marked with disappointment (despite four wins), Martinsville was Gordon's bright spot on the schedule. Two of those four wins in 2005 were at this track, where Gordon clearly feels comfortable competing. With an average career finish of 7.8, 14 top 5's and 20 top 10's, don't be surprised to see another strong finish by Jeff Gordon in Sunday's race.

Qualifying for the race is later today (Friday) barring any delays due to weather (which hopefully will not be a factor in this weekend's events like it has in the previous two weeks). Although the Busch series has the week off, the Truck Series return with a Saturday afternoon showcase at Martinsville. Mark Martin, who originally wasn't scheduled to run this weekend, is probably the favorite, after two unexpected wins in the first two races of the season and a runner-up finish at Atlanta.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Nextel Cup Standings (Through Bristol) - The Chase is taking shape ...

The standings look a bit different than they did before Sunday's race, particularly in the closeness in points with Johnson's struggles in the race. Here is the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points after five races:

1 Matt Kenseth 782 Leader
2 Kasey Kahne 774 -8
3 Jimmie Johnson 763 -19
4 Mark Martin 750 -32
5 Kyle Busch 677 -105
6 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 664 -118
7 Jeff Gordon 644 -138
8 Casey Mears 642 -140
9 Tony Stewart 601 -181
10 Dale Jarrett 593 -189

The margin between first and tenth spots narrowed from 219 before the race to the margin shown above (189) after it. Only one name dropped out off the list -- Clint Bowyer -- while Tony Stewart makes his first reappearance since Daytona. The list of "lurkers" on the outside looking in got closer as well.
Before the race:
17 Ryan Newman 421 -269
21 Greg Biffle 394 -296
23 Kevin Harvick 378 -312
27 Kurt Busch 346 -344
30 Carl Edwards 327 -363
After the race:
12 Ryan Newman 559 -223
13 Kevin Harvick 553 -229
15 Greg Biffle 545 –237
16 Kurt Busch 531 -251
22 Carl Edwards 487 -295

I think these five drivers, all (except Harvick) representative of last year's Chase contenders, are moving in the right direction. I think it is even more interesting to note that the more things change, with this year's influx of rookies, the more they stay the same. Chase drivers from 2004 and 2005 are the majority of the top 15 right now. Check out this list

Current Top 15 and status in previous two Chases (04 and 05)
1 Matt Kenseth 04 & 05
2 Kasey Kahne N/A
3 Jimmie Johnson 04 & 05
4 Mark Martin 04 & 05
5 Kyle Busch N/A
6 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 04
7 Jeff Gordon 04
8 Casey Mears N/A
9 Tony Stewart 04 & 05
10 Dale Jarrett N/A

11 Elliott Sadler 04
12 Ryan Newman 04 & 05
13 Kevin Harvick N/A
14 Clint Bowyer N/A (Rookie)

15 Greg Biffle 05
(16 Kurt Busch 04 & 05)

There are only a few notable names who were in the Chase over the past two seasons not on the list above: Rusty Wallace (05, retired), Carl Edwards (05, not far behind, now in 22nd), and Jeremy Mayfield (04 & 05 - way back in 34th and not looking promising to be one of the handful to make it three straight years).

As the expression goes, the cream rises to the top, and these drivers are proving it once again. The challenge is now becoming more good drivers trying to get into the Chase. I think that this season has the distinct possibility of being the FIRST to have more than 10 drivers make it into the Championship race. All 16 drivers listed above truly have a chance to be there after Richmond in September. Casey Mears and Clint Bowyer may be shaky, as they have been slipping over the past couple of weeks, but there is plenty of time for the standings to shake themselves.

Just when you think a guy like Jimmie Johnson might start to spread the points again, a race like Bristol reminds us that the contenders are still around and anything can still happen.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Bristol Delivers Another Wild One; Busch Captures Fifth Title at Track

The Food City 500 on this fine Sunday afternoon was yet another classic example of Bristol Motor Speedway being Bristol. The cars at the end of the day were a lot more banged, battered, and broken than when the day began. Emotions and egos may have been more bruised and damaged than the cars in the grand scheme of the action -- again, typical for short-track racing at a track like Bristol. Although the final outcome was not what the consensus of fans at the track may have wanted, the race winner, Kurt Busch, was not a stranger to victory lane at the World's Fastest Half Mile.

This may not have been a "typical" Kurt Busch victory at Bristol, but the outcome was very much the same. In his past nine trips to Thunder Valley, Busch has claimed five wins, accounting for one-third of his career victories to date. Busch's first win in the Cup series was the 2002 Food City 500, the spring "day" race at Bristol he has now won four of the last five times (Kevin Harvick last year being the only exception). While he has been a prolific winner at the spring race, he hasn't been quite as succesful at the late summer night race, where his only win came when he swept the track's Cup events in 2003.

The difference in Busch this time around versus past seasons clearly was in the car he was driving - the blue #2, made famous by it's previous occupant, Rusty Wallace. Wallace was a multi-time winner of Bristol races, nine times in all in his impressive career. With Busch's previous success in the Roush #97 car combined with the car history of his new Penske #2 ride, Busch had to feel pretty good about his chances at the half-mile bullring.

Although the day's biggest winner was Busch, who won his first race of the season and gained 11 positions up to 16th in the standings, others turned a tough day at the track for most into a gain in the standings for themselves. Kevin Harvick notched his first top 5 of the year, finishing in the runner-up spot, and gained 10 spots in the standings, up to 13th. The third-place finisher, Matt Kenseth, got his third top 5 and fourth top 10 of the season while leading the second-most laps (124) and taking over the series' points lead after the first five races. Rounding out the top 5 were Carl Edwards, who claimed his personal best Bristol finish to date and moved up eight notches into the 22nd spot in points, and Bobby Labonte, who finally had something to show for his efforts at the end of the day in his new Petty #43 and moved up to 32nd in points after previous struggles.

Others, namely much of the rest of the field, were not as fortunate. Tony Stewart was the race's most dominant driver, leading almost half of the laps (245), but failed to crack the top 10 as his car faded slightly to the 12th spot. Stewart had to be happy with his movement up in the standings, though, as he gained a few spots to crack the top 10 in ninth. Jimmie Johnson was the biggest sufferer of the day, but his failure was to the benefit of just about everyone else. Thanks to a first-lap flat tire on Johnson' #48, he fell behind early and never really caught up. His green-flag pit stop after only a few laps put him multiple laps down to the field, spoiling his crew chief's (Chad Knaus) return after a four-race suspension. Johnson ultimately finished in the 30th spot, better than some but low enough to lose the points lead and slip to third. The biggest losers in the standings today were Jamie McMurray (35th - down eight spots to 24th), Jeff Burton (34th - down seven spots to 18th), and Martin Truex, Jr. (38th - down six spots to 21st).

Both Busch and Kenseth made gains in the points but didn't really make friends on their way to the finish. Kenseth was angered by Busch, his former teammate, for getting him sideways near the end and taking over the lead. Jeff Gordon, who ran strong much of the day, was irate with Kenseth, after getting bumped into a spin-out on the final lap to finish poorly in 21st. Gordon was the third-place car at the time of the contact between the two cars, and he showed his displeasure with an uncharacteristic post-race shove of Kenseth as Kenseth approached Gordon to reconcile after the race. There may be some lingering bad blood between the two as they head to Martinsville next week, but they may have been just the most visible of multiple instances where tempers flared during another caution-filled event.

A summary of this race can be made in a only a few words: Busch, bumps, and Bristol. Those same words described four of the previous eight races there as well. Need you say much more than that?

Let It Snow?!? Busch (the younger) Claims Weather-Interrupted Busch Race

The calendar says it should be spring, but the weather says it still is winter. Bristol, Tennessee, certainly experiences weather variation throughout the year, although the hope is that late March is a warmer time of year than the dead of winter. This year, we've seen colder track temperatures when we wouldn't normally expect them, including the Las Vegas weekend a couple of weeks ago. Bristol marks the first time we have actually seen snow during a race event this year (and possibly for memorable history in past seasons) causing a delay in the action.

The Sharpie Mini 300 Busch race was a little unique from the weather aspect as well as being the first race in the series to be run for 300 laps versus previous races at 250 laps. The longer length would probably have been welcomed in past years for those wanting to get more racing action; this year, it was more time in the cold. According to temperature readings during the race, the air temperature did not even get past the 40 degree Fahrenheit mark and track temperatures stayed below 50 degrees. This may have been the first time where the outside temperature was almost the same as the banking (36 degrees) of the track in the corners.

As for the race itself, strong runs were turned in by a handful of drivers, most notably the "Buschwhacker" bunch of Cup drivers. The leader of the most laps (120) was Kevin Harvick, who ultimately finished in the second place spot. He lost out to Kyle Busch, who took the lead from Greg Biffle with only 12 laps remaining and then led the way to the finish line. Speaking of Biffle, he led 48 of the 300 laps but suffered a loose tire late to require a green-flag pit stop and fell back to finish only in 28th. Matt Kenseth, his Roush teammate, ran strong to finish in third place but did not lead any laps in the event. The second-most laps were led by Carl Edwards (65), who ran strong in the middle of the race and ended up in the fifth position. Only two other drivers, Denny Hamlin (fourth) and Michael Waltrip (26th), led laps in the race.

Through six races on the season, there have been six different winners. ALL of them have been Cup regulars. The Cup drivers are also dominating the points standings, where Kevin Harvick stands alone at the top, 121 points clear of second place JJ Yeley. Johnny Sauter is the highest standing non-Cup, full-time Busch driver in the sixth position. Right behind Sauter is Busch rookie Burney Lamar, who continues to run well and sits in the seventh spot. Kyle Busch improved his standing to 14th with today's win and is now 280 points behind Harvick.

The strong performers in Saturday's Busch race should also be expected to do well in Sunday's Food City 500. Historically strong active drivers at Bristol have included past winners Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Terry Labonte, among others. Busch success does not always equal Cup success, but in recent history, the Busch winner has also won the Cup race. Kevin Harvick claimed victory in both spring races in 2005 while Dale Earnhardt Jr did the same in the fall race in 2004. Last year, Ryan Newman claimed the August Busch race, but Matt Kenseth won the Cup race.

Some drivers, particularly those newer to Bristol racing, will be looking to survive the event without significant damage, either to their cars or their standings in the points. Notable drivers, like Kurt Busch or Carl Edwards, will be looking at the Cup race on Sunday as a chance to move up in the standings after disappointing opening race finishes to date. Edwards certainly should have gained some confidence with Saturday's race, leading laps and getting a top 5 finish. Busch, the older, probably watched younger brother Kyle's victory with interest as he looks to reinvigorate his season and reconnect with his winning ways at the World's Fastest Half Mile.

No matter the victor, the Bristol Motor Speedway will once again provide great drama, and racing fans everywhere should be delighted by it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

It's Bristol Weekend, Baby! ... What's Your Favorite Track?

It is hard for me to believe, but here we are again at the end of March. Spring is in the air (other than the reality of winter and snow sneaking around us Northerners), and the sports calendar is shifting. For a general sports fan like myself, this is March Madness, and the NCAA basketball tournament is in full swing. The Major League Baseball season is not far away either (within 2 weeks). For a RACING fan, this is also the return of short-track racing. There is no better short track to go to than Bristol Motor Speedway.

Thinking of Bristol got me thinking of favorite tracks. Based on ticket sales / availability, Bristol is a perennial favorite for many people. It is arguably the toughest ticket in NASCAR to get, and people without tickets will pay high amounts to get them, especially for the August night race. Bristol was the second track I ever attended in person, and it quickly became my favorite. It probably didn't hurt that I saw one of the "classic" races there: the 2002 Sharpie 500, when Jeff Gordon bumped Rusty Wallace in the final laps to claim victory. Gordon hasn't been to victory lane in Thunder Valley since ... but the action has remained intense there.

Although Bristol is probably my #1 favorite, picking against some other venues is difficult as well. Tracks at which I have seen races have included: Charlotte (great place), Talladega (great racing), Michigan (my experience wasn't great, but the facility is first-class), Darlington (amenities may be lacking but the racing is fantastic), Richmond (reminds me of Bristol - great racing action and nice facilities), Dover (the mile-sized version of Bristol -- I love the place), and Chicagoland (typical 1.5 mile setup -- great facility, pretty good racing). As you can see, I have generally good things to say about each ... although I have some "less than desirable" things to say about each as well. Traffic to and from each of the venues is very different, although usually difficult in general.

What makes a track a favorite? For those who haven't attended in person, it cannot be the roar of the engines, the closeness to the action, the "smells" and the "sounds" in the air ... but the common denominator is the racing itself. Television does not do a lot of the tracks justice ... although the better ones shine through. Although I have never been to a race at Atlanta, the racing there looks phenomenal and produces strong finishes. I know I would like Daytona because I know what Talladega was like. In the same vein, Kansas or Las Vegas would probably look a lot like Chicagoland or Charlotte ... not to say that they would be bad, but I probably wouldn't find them necessarily unique. No track I have seen compares to Bristol, even though Martinsville would be interesting as well but lacks the banking I like. Dover, with the comparable banking and concrete surface, has the racing characteristics I like as well.

Enough about what I like, though; to each his own. What makes a track your favorite? Do you have multiple favorites (for similar or for different reasons)? I personally have a thing for the short tracks, but I must admit the superspeedways are exciting, too (and the speed cannot be appreciated without being in person).

So, what's your favorite?

Bristol Cup Qualifying Rained Out -- Busch Slated for Saturday Afternoon

I couldn't help but note that for the third successive week that weather has become a factor at the track. Las Vegas had unexpectedly cold weather that may have impacted the performance of the cars to an extent, especially since previous testing was done in much warmer weather. The Atlanta race last weekend was rained out on Sunday and then run on Monday, on a track with different characteristics as the rain washed away the rubber laid on the track. Granted, both of these races did not experience what Bristol experienced today -- the first race of the 2006 season where qualifying was cancelled.

The weekend at Bristol may be a crapshoot. I actually had tickets for this race weekend (which I sold), but, given the weather I have seen so far, I may not be regretting that I am not there. I have been to races where the weather has been questionable in the past (the 2004 Darlington fall race was downright frigid, not getting out of the 40's even with the sunshine), and this is the stage in the season where the weather can be most volatile. I only attended one previous race in the spring at Bristol (2003), but the weather was okay that day. The volatility happened to miss because it then snowed at the track within the week after and was coincidence to miss the race weekend.

Tracks that have spring dates that aren't in the deeper south, such as Bristol or Martinsville (next week) or even Atlanta (last week), can suffer through questionable weather for racing. The very reason why baseball has spring training in Florida and Arizona in February and March is that the weather doesn't tend to stabilize up north until April. NASCAR would probably shuffle the dates on the schedule if there was ability to do so. Realistically, only Daytona, Talladega, Miami, Phoenix, Las Vegas, California, and Texas offer year-round reasonable weather. Races around Atlanta or further north are just asking for trouble in March or at the end of the season in October or November. I think it is pretty safe to say that Rockingham, which had the second race of the season only two years ago, had to suffer with bad weather and weakened attendance as well being in southern North Carolina.

Consider that Charlotte, the hub for most race teams, doesn't race it's first race of the season until May ... Charlotte is further south than Bristol or Martinsville. It even comes on the schedule after Richmond, which usually is safe enough in early to mid-May.

The thoughts of expanding the schedule into further north locations like the New York city metro or Washington state can only mean that race dates in the summer months are a necessity, not a choice. The Talladega race probably ought to be a little earlier in the schedule than it is, but given the racing similarities to Daytona, it doesn't get too close to it's sister track on the calendar. Likewise, California Speedway doesn't need the Labor Day race in September ... a track further north would benefit from that date for weather.

Since I didn't intend to get too lengthy in this post, I will cut short my thoughts on the oddity of a schedule that criss-crosses the country twice in a two-month period. The racing teams all have to transport from Daytona to California, then likely back to Charlotte in the off-week. They then travel to Las Vegas before journeying back to Atlanta the following week. Then, only a few weeks later, they travel to Texas from Martinsville, then further west to Phoenix the next week, before looping back for the race in Talladega at the end of April. Wouldn't it seem more rational to travel out to California with a progressive path back to the east from there to Las Vegas, then Phoenix, then Texas, and so on? I guess the race teams could potentially still go back to Charlotte in between (logging thousands of miles), but the cars they use between the aforementioned tracks may not be significantly different from each other.

In any case, I digressed from the topic of this post quite a bit, so I will close it now before things get out of hand.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Review of the Nextel Cup Standings (Through Four Races)

We have seen an interesting start to the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup season so far. Most notably, the top 10 list in points is a little bit of "old" mixed with an interesting bit of "new" to provide a collective new look running the show. So, who makes up the top 10 right now?

Pos. / Driver / Points / Pts. Behind [after first 4 races]
1 Jimmie Johnson 690 Leader
2 Kasey Kahne 640 -50
3 Matt Kenseth 612 -78
4 Mark Martin 600 -90
5 Casey Mears 554 -136
6 Jeff Gordon 539 -151
7 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 534 -156
8 Kyle Busch 530 -160
9 Dale Jarrett 490 -200
10 Clint Bowyer 471 -219

The "old" includes top 10 stalwart Jimmie Johnson, doing what he seems to do with ease, as well as the return of past resident Jeff Gordon, who used to make the top 10 his own pretty much year in and year out until last season. The other "perennials" include Matt Kenseth (minus early last season), Mark Martin (one can see why he has a hard time retiring), and probably Dale Earnhardt Jr (who appears to be regaining the "consistency" he had before last season). Dale Jarrett makes a welcome return to the elite, but he was there at times last season as well and is a past champion. The "new" is obviously the rest of the list. Kasey Kahne already had high expectations following his ROY performance in 2004, but, as bad as 2005 seemed to be, most wouldn't have expected a 2nd place performance with a win so far. Casey Mears may finally be coming into his own in NASCAR after previous experience in open-wheel racing -- maybe McMurray's old #42 ride is better than his previous #41 as well. Kyle Busch is clearly finding his comfort zone, following 2 wins in the 2nd half of last season doesn't make his position all that surprising. Clint Bowyer may be the most surprising to be in the top 10 this early, given that he is ahead of his fellow rookies as well as ahead of his teammates (Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick).

Speaking of Jeff Burton, 2006 may be his "renaissance" year, running in a strong 11th place. I like his chances of getting back into the top 10 after slipping out after the Atlanta race. The list after Burton reads like the "who's who" of those we are accustomed of seeing in the top 10 -- reigning champion Tony Stewart (12th), Elliott Sadler (13th), Ryan Newman (17th), and last year's runner-up Greg Biffle (21st). There are only four drivers I haven't named so far who were in the Chase last year but are not better than the 21st position this year. One of those drivers (Rusty Wallace) is retired, so he really doesn't count. The other three -- Kurt Busch (27th, driving Rusty's car), Car Edwards (30th), and Jeremy Mayfield (34th, maybe driving Kahne's old car) -- are off the radar at the moment. Busch is not looking strong in his new ride while the car he left (now with Jamie McMurray, in the 16th spot) is doing better. Edwards has had nothing but bad luck strike him so far, including a last place DNF at Daytona and a near-last 40th at Atlanta (which he swept last year) after a pit road altercation with Dave Blaney. Mayfield truthfully doesn't seem like he belonged in the top 10 either of the last two seasons, but he also is a better driver than the 34th spot in which he resides.

Do I think the current crop in the top 10 will make the Chase? Only time will tell, but for perspective, here were the standings after 4 races in 2005:

1 Jimmie Johnson 680 Leader
2 Greg Biffle 598 -82
3 Carl Edwards 593 -87
4 Kurt Busch 577 -103
5 Mark Martin 539 -141
6 Ryan Newman 515 -165
7 Tony Stewart 514 -166
8 Elliott Sadler 482 -198
9 Rusty Wallace 477 -203
10 Jamie McMurray 475 -205
11 Kevin Harvick 469 -211
12 Jeff Gordon 464 -216

Interesting ... every name in that list nade the Chase except for the #10 spot (Matt Kenseth replaced McMurray). Where was Kenseth at that point in the standings? 31st (there is still hope for those guys we mentioned earlier).

OK, that was 2005, but what about 2004?

1 Matt Kenseth 673 Leader
2 Tony Stewart 591 -82
3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 583 -90
4 Kasey Kahne 550 -123
5 Jeff Gordon 543 -130
6 Kurt Busch 527 -146
7 Jeremy Mayfield 514 -159
8 Elliott Sadler 481 -192
9 Jimmie Johnson 480 -193
10 Bobby Labonte 469 -204

Once again, interesting ... every name here made the list except for 2: Kahne and Labonte (remember those days for him). Who replaced them? Ryan Newman (in 11th) and Mark Martin (in 16th).

We have limited history (only two seasons) of Chase qualification, but we might be able to determine something from this limited data – most of the guys in the current top 10 will probably be there in September (when the Chase begins). Matt Kenseth had to overcome a lot to crack the top 10 last season, and he was 136 points behind 10th spot at this stage last year. While I have a hard time seeing Clint Bowyer making the Chase and possibly Dale Jarrett as well, the remaining 8 look pretty strong at this point. For Kahne, Mears, and the younger Busch, they at least have some history on their side saying they should make it, but, in Kahne's case, he can use history to also say nothing is certain (i.e. 2004).

Only time, and the remaining 22 races before the Chase, will tell.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What Makes a NASCAR Champion: Wins or Consistency?

The ultimate argument remains whether the Chase is good or bad for NASCAR. Consensus is probably that the Chase has been great for ratings and fan interest through the finish of the season. The minority will probably point out that the season prior to the Chase is pretty much meaningless as long as you're in the top 10, but the reality is that drivers outside of the top 5 really haven't contended historically anyway. The Chase rules state the top 10 drivers and/or any drivers within 400 points make the Chase. In two seasons, nobody outside of the top 10 has been better than 400 points out and the Chase has not been bigger than 10.

Should Kurt Busch have won in 2004? Realistically, no, he should not have won, but he did win within the rules given to him. Busch was not the "best" driver of the season, but since when is the "best" driver always the champion in NASCAR? We wouldn't have had a Chase if Matt Kenseth hadn't proven one season earlier that a one-win season is worthy of a Championship. Benny Parsons happened to prove the same thing with the points system in 1973 and then it was changed a year later (yielding repeat champion Richard Petty, who happened to win ten races that season).

People have always contended that wins should drive the Championship (a worthwhile argument), but NASCAR has historically given credit to consistency over wins. Rusty Wallace, for example, had no wins in 2005 but made the Chase as a top 5 driver. A driver can win a championship, even today, without any wins in a season. Is it right? Maybe ... or maybe not. Wins matter, no doubt, but let's look at the historical matchup (1975 to present, as provided by Nascar.com) of the champion and the winningest driver.

YEAR / CHAMPION / MOST WINS (if different than Champion)
1975 Richard Petty (13)
1976 Cale Yarborough (9) / David Pearson (10) (22/30 starts)
1977 Yarborough (9)
1978 Yarborough (10)
1979 Petty (5) / Darrell Waltrip (7)
1980 Dale Earnhardt (5) / Yarborough (6)
1981 Waltrip (12)
1982 Waltrip (12)
1983 Bobby Allison (6) / Tie with Waltrip (6) (+4 top 5's)
1984 Terry Labonte (2) / Waltrip (7)
1985 Waltrip (3) / Bill Elliott (11)
1986 Earnhardt (5) / Tim Richmond (7)
1987 Earnhardt (11)
1988 Elliott (6) / Tie with Rusty Wallace (6) (+4 Top 5's)
1989 Wallace (6) / Tie with Darrell Waltrip (6) (4th place!)
1990 Earnhardt / Earnhardt (9)
1991 Earnhardt (4) / Davey Allison and Harry Gant (5 each)
1992 Alan Kulwicki (2) / Elliott and Allison (5 each)
1993 Earnhardt (6) / Wallace (10)
1994 Earnhardt (4) / Wallace (8)
1995 Jeff Gordon (7)
1996 T. Labonte (2) / Gordon (10)
1997 Gordon (10)
1998 Gordon (13)
1999 Dale Jarrett (4) / Gordon (7)
2000 Bobby Labonte (4) / Tony Stewart (6)
2001 Gordon (6)
2002 Stewart (3) / Matt Kenseth (5)
2003 Kenseth (1) / Ryan Newman (8)
2004 Kurt Busch (3) / Jimmie Johnson (8)
2005 Stewart (5) / Greg Biffle (6)

I highlighted where the results would have been different if the winningest driver was the champion instead of the most consistent one. Something might be said to how history would have been rewritten (significantly, I might add) in that circumstance. Dale Earnhardt would not be tied for most championships in NASCAR history in the wins-based book. In fact, Earnhardt would not even be #2 any longer (losing five (5) of his championships in this scenario - he would have won only two championships by virtue of most wins). I didn't go back before 1975, but you can be assured that Richard Petty would not have lost any championships on a wins basis (200 wins in a career equals lots of championships anyway).

In the net gains and losses for championships, check out these stats (for the table above):
Richard Petty - 7 (shows net -1, but earlier net +1)
Cale Yarborough - 3 - no change
Darrell Waltrip - 3 +1 (possibly +2) to 4 Cups! (even greater status)
Dale Earnhardt - 7 -5 to only 2 Cups! (much less impact in history?!?)
Terry Labonte - 2 -2 to 0 (zero) Cups!
Rusty Wallace - 1 +2 to 3 Cups! (from star to superstar status)
-->The biggest winner, Jeff Gordon - 4 +2 to 6 Cups! (would be #2 all-time)

Be careful what you ask for in a most-wins scenario. Great drivers are still great regardless if they have the most wins in a respective season versus their peers, but Dale Earnhardt would be only a 2-time champ instead of a 7-time champ in a winner-takes-all system. It doesn't diminish what Earnhardt did in his career - he DID have 76 wins in his career, after all.

Since Jeff Gordon is probably the most polarizing driver on the circuit today, giving him more championships than he has already would probably make a majority of fans pretty unhappy.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Kahne Controls the Atlanta Race; Hard Luck Besets Others

When the race was finally run on Monday after being postponed due to rain on Sunday, a new player emerged into the winner's circle. The driver was Kasey Kahne, who is having a great 2006 season so far. This win was only the second in Kahne's young career to date, following his first victory slightly less than one year ago in May 2005 at Richmond. Kahne has clearly shown much greater maturity as a driver and is developing the kind of consistency most expected him to have after his Rookie of the Year honors in 2004.

After not living up to higher expectations last season and failing to make the Chase, Kasey is now enjoying the second place spot in the Nextel Cup standings, behind only frontrunner Jimmie Johnson. Kahne was largely overshadowed last season by fellow "young gun" Carl Edwards, who came out of nowhere (relatively speaking) to win both Atlanta races (both Cup races and the spring Busch race) last season. Edwards would go on to win four races on the year and finish an impressive third place in the Championship race after most thought he wouldn't even make the Chase. Kahne is looking much more like the driver that Edwards was last year - notching high finishes and getting wins (Cup and Busch).

Speaking of Edwards, he is falling quickly in the standings after multiple instances of bad luck so far this season. Carl should have been a factor in both races he competed this weekend, but his finishes left a lot to be desired. After finishing a distant 24th in the race and dropping to seventh in the Busch standings, Edwards could only hope his Cup race would be better. Instead, he once again experienced bad luck with a pit road collision after only 44 laps with competitor Dave Blaney, sending Edwards' car behind the wall for repair. Edwards was a non-factor for the remainder of the race, finishing 12 laps down and in a disappointing 40th place. He now stands a distant 30th in the standings, losing seven spots after today's race.

Other drivers had more than their share of bad luck as well. Bobby Labonte, who lead some laps early in the race, had an engine failure after only 56 laps and finished in the last position, 43rd. He can only be shaking his head at his sequence of bad finishes so far this season while falling two more spots in the standings to a very low 38th spot. Kevin Harvick had a miserable day as well, losing laps to a blown tire and finishing like Edwards at 12 laps down to the leaders. Harvick suffered in the standings comparably to Edwards as well, losing six spots to now stand back in 23rd position.

It wasn't all bad news for every driver out there today. A few drivers were lucky enough to take advantage of the failures of others. Both Dales - Earnhardt Jr. and Jarrett - moved back into the Top 10 in points with top 10 finishes in the race, both moving four spots to 7th and 9th, respectively. The biggest gainer of the day, Kyle Petty, moved up nine spots into 24th after cracking the top 10 in a race for the first time this season. Tony Stewart was also a big gainer, moving up seven spots into 12th after a top 5 finish. Mark Martin had a strong car all day, notching the runner-up spot in the race and moving solidly into 4th in the points race.

All in all, Atlanta provided another quality race, although it was hard to rival last year's race for excitement. The race's dominant driver was Greg Biffle, who led the most laps but once again didn't have the car to finish the race. After running out of fuel on the final lap, Biffle had to coast across for a 16th place finish. Biffle has had dominating performances multiple times now (California, Las Vegas, and now Atlanta) with very little to show for it. He his experiencing what Tony Stewart did early in last season; maybe he can hope for the same result as well.

The day belonged to a deserving Kasey Kahne, who led the second-most laps in the race and showed that he is coming into his own this year. He is a bona fide contender for the Chase in an Evernham organization that is getting it's act together as well.

I can't wait for the deck to be shuffled again - Bristol is next weekend! A possible demolition derby awaits ... stay tuned.