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 (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, 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,, 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 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 ... 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, 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.