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 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.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sunday's Race a Rainout; Another Attempt at Atlanta on Monday

Given the excitement generated by the previous two Atlanta races in the other two series leading up to the Nextel Cup culmination on Sunday, the weather proved to be the spoiler in allowing a large TV audience see what should be (or could have been) a fun race. The Atlanta Motor Speedway usually provides exciting racing action, particularly given that it is generally considered the fastest non-restrictor plate track on the circuit. Speeds at Atlanta are potentially faster than the cars can generate at tracks like Daytona and Talladega, where they are able to run faster but are speed-limited by air-limiting restrictor plates (reducing horsepower).

In any case, the Golden Corral 500 is now scheduled for late morning on Monday (11 AM EST) barring any additional weather delays. If the weather report is to be believed, another rainout is possible and could push the race into Tuesday. Thankfully, the next race is in Bristol, just a hop, skip, and jump up the road and conveniently located triangularly with home base in the Charlotte area from Atlanta. The trucks don't race at the spring event in Bristol, so there shouldn't be any interference from that aspect.

Given that I cannot comment on any action from the race that wasn't, I will have to save that commentary until the race is run (either Monday or after). I already commented on the state of the standings in my previous post, but the fourth race of the season is clearly not the "do or die" stage of the season. Realistically, we shouldn't even be discussing the "Chase for the Cup" considerations until we get at least to the halfway point of the "Race to the Chase" (don't you just love those slogans?). Given that we have a 36 race schedule and only the last 10 make up the exclusive Chase, 26 races make up the Chase Race. 13 races into the season would bring us to ... one moment while I consult my handy racing schedule ... the first Dover race at the beginning of June. As the ardent fans may recall, last year's champion (Tony Stewart) was in the top ten after that race last year (although he was in a precarious position, falling out a few weeks later but rebounding), and fellow Chase contender Matt Kenseth was off the radar completely after having a lackluster start out of the gates. The Dover race marks roughly 1/3 of the schedule down and 2/3 to go but, more importantly, only 1/2 the schedule left to make the Chase (and the big dollars and prestige). A driver like Elliott Sadler looked to be in prime position at this stage last year and then slowly faded out of contention.

I recall attending the Dover race in June 2005 and seeing Greg Biffle win his fourth race of the season. He clearly was the driver in the "driver's seat" taking over the points lead only a short time later in the season. An interesting note: 8 of the 10 drivers in the top 10 after the Dover race last season made the Chase. Another interesting note: 8 of the 10 drivers in the top 10 after Dover in 2004 also made the Chase. IF you are a driver in the position at that stage, you should feel confident but maybe not TOO confident. One common denominator in both notes: Kevin Harvick. Harvick was in the tenth spot last season and in the ninth spot one season earlier. In both cases Harvick would fade out of the top 10 by the time the Chase began. The other two drivers who failed to make the Chase after this point: the aforementioned Sadler (2005) and Bobby Labonte (2004). Do you all remember that Bobby Labonte, before his career with Joe Gibbs Racing disintegrated? For two drivers in each season to have failed to make it means two drivers succeeded simultaneously. Who were they? Matt Kenseth in 2005 and Mark Martin in 2004 both pulled off the comeback, in similar fashion. But, one driver, Jeremy Mayfield, did it in both seasons. The Mayfield approach is not recommended, given that he essentially backed his way in both times (with late victories preceding the Chase, at Richmond (the last chance) in 2004 and at Michigan (two races earlier) in 2005), but then Mayfield was a complete non-factor in both Chases to date. Momentum and consistency are important - the late addition driver (which happens to have been Mayfield both times) hasn't mattered for the Championship.

I think the position at the midway point of the Chase Race is also indicative of something else (although two data points is not much to draw on): the leader doesn't win the championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr was leading at that point in 2004, but Kurt Busch, the sixth place driver, won the Chase. Jimmie Johnson was the leader in 2005, but Tony Stewart, the fifth place driver, won the Chase. When the points get reset starting at New Hampshire in September, it truly becomes anyone's chance within those 10 drivers. Kurt Busch was in the seventh position at the start of the 2004 Chase but won anyway. Tony Stewart was ultimately in first place at the start of the 2005 Chase and went on to win convincingly. Both approaches resulted in Championships but couldn't have been more different otherwise. If the points had not been reset in 2004, Jeff Gordon wins his fifth championship (which would have been remarkable on his way to possibly equaling or passing the all-time mark). If the points had not been reset in 2005, the result doesn't change other than Tony Stewart wins by a much bigger margin (making the last few races less meaningful). Ultimately, the TV ratings make the difference in this scenario because the 2004 title chase would have been close (between teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) but was even closer with four drivers (Johnson, Gordon, Busch and Martin) in realistic contention that final day. Five drivers (with Earnhardt Jr) were in contention until the 2nd to last race that first year of the Chase. The 2005 title chase would not have been close if Stewart's points were not reset versus the field, while three drivers (Stewart, Biffle, and Edwards) were in contention up to the final race with the Chase.

I will look into the Chase format a bit further in an upcoming post. Time is too short for tonight, so I bid you good night.

Atlanta Weekend Update - Pre-Nextel Cup Race

Hello fellow NASCAR fans! I write this in the early morning hours of Sunday, the day of the race for the Golden Corral 500. Although the Nextel Cup contenders will be racing later today, it is worthwhile to recap the action which has happened already so far with the Busch and Truck races over the past two days.

On Friday night, the Craftsman Truck Series marked it's third race of the season. Notably, in the previous two races of the year, Mark Martin, the "newcomer" to the series, won both races (in Daytona and California) in convincing fashion. Obviously, the trucks are to Mr. Martin's liking, who is expected to be a force to reckoned with for the remainder of this season and into next season (and possibly beyond). Martin, who remains a Cup regular for the 2006 season (which is expected to be his last), was going to run only a limited schedule in trucks this year until his hot start probably is changing that perspective. Although Martin would be part of the story for the Atlanta race, he wasn't the headliner this time.

Todd Bodine, undoubtedly the hottest driver coming off NCTS action last season, was the first driver other than Mark Martin to win a race. It wasn't an "easy" victory for Bodine, though, as he had to pass Martin with only five laps remaining. So far this season, the points chase for the NCTS clearly belongs to these two drivers. Given that Martin has two wins and a now a 2nd place finish, he stands firmly at the top of the points. Bodine, with two 2nd place finishes and now his first win of the season, stands closely by in second place. The reigning series champion, Ted Musgrave, is within striking distance in third place, having three straight top-5 finishes to his credit as well. Beyond the top three, the points positions start to spread out, but many contenders are still around with 22 races remaining in the 25-race schedule.

As a separate but notable news bite from the NCTS, former champion Bobby Hamilton was diagnosed with cancer this past week and will be done with racing for the remainder of this season and for possibly the foreseeable future. Please consider your thoughts and prayers for the Hamilton family in their difficult time, as son Bobby Jr. continues to race the series for the remainder of the season.

On Saturday night, the Busch series took center stage. In what has become "Nextel Cup Lite" the Nextel Cup regulars, aka the "Buschwhackers," once again dominated the action at Atlanta. In five Busch races on the season, their have been five different winners - all are regulars in Nextel Cup rides this season. Starting with Tony Stewart's win at Daytona up to Kasey Kahne's win last week in Las Vegas, it hard to think that someone other than one the Cup guys is going to win this series this year. Can someone "new" step up to be to this series what Martin Truex, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, have been for the series in previous seasons? The highest ranking non-Cup regular is Burney Lamar, a Busch rookie currently sitting back in 8th place in the standings. Fellow Busch regular Jon Wood, the protege for the Wood Brothers Cup car next season, is one place behind in 9th. Thankfully, the next handful of spots are held by Busch regulars, but the Cup guys are dominating the top-10's in races so far. Lamar and Paul Menard (who is a semi-regular in Cup action) are the only others with more than one top-10. With names like Kevin Harvick in the top spot through Carl Edwards in the seven spot, the top-10's are clearly the expectation of these guys. Matt Kenseth has raced only three starts in the Busch series with two top-5's, all three top-10's, and stands 19th in points without really trying. Greg Biffle, comparably, has raced 4 of the 5 races, with 1 win, and three top-5's in standing in the 10th spot in points. In any case this digression into the effects of Nextel Cup drivers on the Busch series this year leads well into the winner of the Atlanta Busch race.

The Nicorette 300 (an ironic name, given the sport's history with Winston) was won by another Cup regular, Jeff Burton, on Saturday. Burton is a notable winner, however, since he has not won a race at any level since 2002, when he was still in the Roush Racing stable. Since moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2004, Burton has had minimal success, but his Cup consistency this season has been promising. This win is particularly encouraging in pointing towards a resurgent Jeff Burton for the remainder of the season. Burton led not only the last lap but also the most laps in the race, winning comfortably at the finish. There were multiple other leaders in the race, notably the aforementioned Biffle, Kenseth, and last year's winner Edwards. Edwards is of particular note since the 2005 race here was his first Busch win, followed the next day by his first Cup win. Will Burton follow suit with a long-anticipated Cup win on Sunday? Only time will tell, but I won't be rooting against him given his history and having been a consistent "good citizen" of NASCAR.

The other contenders in the Busch race were the "typical" names we have seen so far this season. Besides top-5 finishes for both Biffle and Kenseth, Kasey Kahne made another strong run to finish in the runner-up and JJ Yeley rounded out the top five. Burney Lamar was the top-finishing series regular in the 8th spot. Tire problems once again punctuated the action (yes, pun intended), with Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Ryan Newman having significant car damage due to blown tires in the race. Let us hope the tire problems do not carry over into the Cup race on Sunday, but do not surprised if we some of the same in the Golden Corral 500.

Here's to looking forward to what should be another exciting Cup race in Atlanta on Sunday. I'm not sure how much I will get to see live (due to another commitment that coincides with race time), but I certainly plan to see the replays and highlights if not the race finish when time allows.

Later y'all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Welcome to the Rentz Racing Report!

After initiating the "Ramblings of Rentz" blog on the Clubhouse Connection site (via, the next logical step for me personally was to make a journal exclusively for NASCAR. I have touched on NASCAR already in Ramblings, but I believe this blog is the more intensive location for my perspective on what is making news in the popular stock car racing series. I hope to make the Rentz Racing Report an equivalent of a newspaper / magazine column where you can read insights regarding the multitude of races, drivers, tracks, etc. throughout the current season and into future seasons. Since the 2006 season has begun already, I will be playing a little "catch-up" to highlight some of the happenings from the season-opening Daytona 500 (from mid-February) up to last week's race in Las Vegas. Before I get into too much detail, let's back up a step...

For those unitiated with NASCAR, a quick history lesson. NASCAR is the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, formed in 1948 in Daytona Beach, Florida. The racing on the beaches of Daytona turned into the pinnacle of the premier NASCAR series: the Daytona 500, which opens the top series' season. Speaking of the "top series," it is today known as the Nextel Cup series with Nextel as the obvious major sponsor. Whether the Nextel name stays for a while or not remains to be seen, but Sprint now owns Nextel and may or may not change the name in the future.

Regardless of the future, the Cup series was most recently named the Winston Cup series until 2003, when title sponsor Winston was forced to relinquish it's sponsorship due to cigarette advertising restrictions. Winston helped develop NASCAR into the sponsor-driven sport it is today. Before Winston Cup, the top circuit in NASCAR was known as the Grand National series. There was no Winston or other primary sponsor prior to 1972. Some of the biggest names in NASCAR established the roots of the sport between 1949 and 1972, but Winston coming onboard in 1972 established what NASCAR defines as the "modern era" as cars that were "strictly stock" evolved into the more standardized machines we see today.

Not that I want to turn this opening post into an encompassing history lesson, but it is notable to look at the "firsts" of the sport of prior to the Winston Cup era. Red Byron (a name likely not known by many current racing fans) won the inaugural Strictly Stock Series championship in 1949. The 1950 season crowned the youngest champion in Bill Rexford, who claimed the Grand National title at the age of 23 over greats Lee Petty and Fireball Roberts. Herb Thomas became the first repeat champion with titles in 1951 and then in 1953. Lee Petty, famous as the patriarch of the Petty family of race car drivers, won his first title in 1954 followed by back-to-back crowns in 1958 and 1959, making him the first 3-time champion. Other repeat winners came after Thomas in 1953 with Tim Flock (1952, 1955), Buck Baker (1956-57), Ned Jarrett (1961, 1965), and Joe Weatherly (1962-63) as well as Petty.

The 1964 season was a very difficult one for the sport, which witnessed the losses of champion Joe Weatherly and contenders Fireball Roberts and Jimmy Pardue in track incidents. This season would prove to be a "passing of the torch" to a new era began with the first of many championships for Richard Petty, Lee's son, that year. Richard would come to be known as NASCAR's "King" with championships into the Winston Cup era, including the first Winston Cup in 1972. Petty amassed an amazing seven (7) titles in 1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, and 1979. If not for the amazing run of an unprecedented three consecutive titles by Cale Yarborough in 1976-78, Petty may have had more titles to his credit.

While Petty won the 1979 crown, the seasons that followed showed that a new crop of talent would be rising to the top. 1979's Rookie of the Year was Dale Earnhardt, the soon-to-become legend in the making. Earnhardt would establish himself as a champion only one year later in 1980, clearly taking over the reigns from Petty. Not to be forgotten, Darrell Waltrip had already begun establishing his winning ways starting in the 1975 season but was clearly overshadowed by Petty and Yarborough in the late 1970's. Waltrip would win the 1981 title in dominating fashion with 12 wins followed by a repeat performance, 12 wins and a title, in 1982. The "bridesmaid" winner of 1983 was Bobby Allison, who had five (5) runner-up finishes before finally breaking through. He would be the last driver from the "old school" to get a title in the 80's. The newcomers to claim titles in the 1980's included Terry Labonte (1984), Waltrip (noted already, repeated in 1985), Earnhardt (noted already, repeated in 1986 and 1987), Bill Elliott (1988), and Rusty Wallace (1989). These names had clearly established themselves as the superstars of the sport for that decade as well as into the decade to come.

The 1990's clearly showed a transition from Dale Earnhardt to Jeff Gordon, much as the 1970's had transitioned from Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip in the 1980's. While Waltrip's career was on the decline as the 90's began, Earnhardt's was flourishing. As one of the sport's rarer 3-time champions, Earnhardt was pushing for more. He won the 1990 and 1991 titles followed by another pair of back-to-back titles in 1993 and 1994. This established Earnhardt into the rarified air of only the King himself, Richard Petty, as the sport's only 7-time champions. Nobody else was even in their respective class. Whether Earnhardt knew it or not, he was about to pass the torch to a new name, Jeff Gordon, who would take the sport to the next level. Coincidentally, Gordon's first Cup race was the last race of 1992, which also happened to be the last of Richard Petty's career. Gordon snatched the 1995 title as the youngest of the "modern era" to do so. He would then go on to do something that few had before him, becoming a 3-time champion after the 1998 season. Of course, Gordon was not finished with championships, claiming a fourth title in 2001 and becoming the third-winningest championship driver in the process. As an active driver in 2006, it is hard to say if he will claim more titles in the future and challenge the mark of Petty and Earnhardt, but the challenge is probably even harder now than it used to be.

Earnhardt and Gordon clearly dominated the decade of the 90's, winning seven of the possible ten. The only other drivers to get titles in that time were Alan Kulwicki (1992 - tragically losing his life the following season in an off-track helicopter crash), Terry Labonte (1996, his second crown), and Dale Jarrett (1999, following in his father Ned's footsteps as a NASCAR champion). What would follow in the current decade of the 2000's has shown no clear dominant driver but a pool of talented drivers.

Only one driver has repeated as champion in the past six seasons since 2000: Tony Stewart (2002 and 2005). The reigning champion is the first to have won a championship in open-wheel racing (the IRL) before becoming a NASCAR champion. The other four drivers who claimed titles this decade are notable. Bobby Labonte, brother of two-time champ Terry, won his first title in 2000. As mentioned earlier, Gordon won his fourth title in 2001. In 2003 and 2004, teammates won titles for car owner Jack Roush with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, respectively. What clearly has been established over the past six seasons is the car ownership connection to championships moreso than particular drivers. Not only did Jack Roush lay claim to the '03 and '04 titles, Joe Gibbs could take credit for three crowns, with Labonte's and Stewart's titles in '00, '02, and '05. Gordon's crown was the only non-Gibbs / non-Roush title of this decade for his team owner, Rick Hendrick.

All of that being said, the current crop of talent is deep, and the 2006 season could be ushering in a new era of championship-caliber drivers. While previous repeat champions (Gordon and Stewart) are among the contenders, non-championships winners could be clear favorites coming into the season. Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's teammate in the Hendrick organization, is the winningest driver in the sport since he started in 2002. Greg Biffle, the 2005 runner-up, is a talented Roush driver with previous championships to his credit in NASCAR's other two top-level series (Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series).

Will 2006 yield a repeat champion or (probably more likely) a new champion? Only time will tell as we follow the season's path. Enjoy the ride!