NASCAR Fans: The Auto Club Race Was Great, Stop Whining

Busch wasn't happy with the final pit call, but has to meter himself.

Busch wasn’t happy with the final pit call, but has to meter himself.

I’ve heard all of the whining and complaining that the Auto Club Speedway race wasn’t exciting. Horsecrap. That race used to be the one thing besides two Quaaludes that were guaranteed to put you to sleep.

What I saw was the first time I have EVER been able to watch the California race from start to finish. The cars are harder to drive and the best drivers are doing just that: Driving them.

At Charlotte, there will be even less down-force, which should complete the changes for the season. But, the changes so far have made all of the non superspeedway races more exciting and, yes, the Auto Club race much more interesting.

To be fair they strung out, as you should expect at a minimally banked, non-plate, two mile track, but by nowhere near the margins from last year or the year before.

Complaining about Keselowski? He, or rather Paul Wolfe, out smarted everyone else and won, that’s all that counts. Just call Keselowski and Wolfe Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook.

It was the Busch and Harvick show all weekend and the two really, deep down, viscerally believed they would be their two car show at the end. They spent the entire race setting up for it. Keselowski’s chief knew it was their chance to go for it. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Harvick made a snap pit call and left his box with two tires.

Harvick made a snap pit call and left his box with two tires.

Everyone counted Keselowski out of it but that is where he shines, he comes from the back, his crew chief makes a brilliant four tire call and he has all the grip he needs to spank Harvick and Busch.

Busch was really the big loser as four tires would have delivered a win, no doubt in my mind. Harvick, on the other hand could afford to roll the dice and go for two tires, against his crew chiefs wishes. It was a fairly dangerous move to simply allow the front tire changer to clear his nose and floor it.

The jack man could have had the jack going under when he left his box which would have been a disaster, but give him credit for trying. Harvick is a fox who knows how to make calls on his own. He needs to be cautious that his prowess doesn’t run smack into Rodney Childers calls in the future, it could cost him a championship.

As for Busch, he drove one hell of a race. For a guy that seems to have the social skills of a Honey Badger, he drives like one as well. Totally focused and hell-bent on winning. He should have won, but he didn’t. His crew chief counted on it being he and Harvick dueling it out in the Octagon, but BK snuck up on them both.

The one takeaway from California is that these cars are moving in the right direction and the hard chargers are there at the end to go for the win. Isn’t that what all of you fans wanted? Let’s hold our deeply ingrained judgments about whether NASCAR did something right or wrong.

Well not really, they finally did something right and it’s hard for me to say but Brian France apologizing for the COT gave me some personal vindication after being eviscerated by others in the media for damning the car when it came out.

I’m looking forward to Charlotte and the remaining changes to see what we really have for the remainder of the season.

And bonus points for the first person who can tell me who Natty Bumppo is. You have ten seconds.

 

Unlike Last Year’s Start, The Numbers Improve For Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a lot of positive media attention prior to the Auto Club 400 and for a very good reason.
As the Sprint Cup season moved to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Earnhardt Jr. was ninth in points with finishes of 11th, eighth and 10th in three of four races.

It was abundantly clear that Earnhardt Jr. was off to a good start, although, to be frank, it wasn’t much better than in the one in 2010 – and more on that later.

However, whenever Earnhardt Jr. gives at least a hint of restoring his lost competitiveness, it’s always duly noticed.

And it’s understood why. His last victory came on June 15, 2008. He missed the Chase that year and again in 2009. The past two seasons have been the worst of his career.

This year Earnhardt Jr.’s start cooled a bit after he finished12th in the Auto Club 400 and fell to 12th in points. And he’s now gone 98 races without a victory.

However, before the green flag fell for the Auto Club 400 many speculated that Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence was on the upswing and that, perhaps, he might believe again that good things could happen at long last.

Asked if his Rick Hendrick-owned team was capable of top-10 finishes every week, Earnhardt answered in the affirmative.

“We’re capable of that,” he said. “We’re good enough for that. You should come to the race track and expect to run around the guys who are in that position.

“I feel like we’re legitimate, yes sir.”

What has been most often credited for Earnhardt’s competitive turnaround, this early in the season, is the team-wide personnel swap Hendrick made at the end of last season.

That brought Steve Letarte, formerly Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, to Earnhardt Jr.

It appears the chemistry between Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. is brewing nicely.

Hendrick noted that every driver feels a loss of confidence at some point, but, very often, it’s restored with the support of the crew chief.

Hendrick added he thought the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte combination was the best in the garage area.

That’s certainly up for debate. But Earnhardt Jr. apparently feels the arrangement is working.

“Steve and I have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it’s easy for us to have a conversation,” he said.

Earnhardt Jr. added he hangs around the hauler much more because he enjoys talking with Letarte.

“Just sitting around long enough, eventually something is going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation,” he said. “I don’t want him texting me on the phone while I’m on the bus going, ‘Hey, I think I know what we can do.’

“I want to be there so that I can understand it and talk about it.”

Now, I could be very wrong, but last year I don’t recall Earnhardt Jr. offering any quote that remotely suggested he wanted to hang around the hauler and talk to his crew chief.

While Earnhardt Jr. has had a good start, it must be said that it is much the same as it was in 2010.

After the first five races of that year Earnhardt Jr. also had two top-10 runs, including a second at Daytona, and was an even higher eighth in points.

He has two top-10s through five events this year – again – and is 12th in points, obviously lower than a season ago.

The numbers tell us that after five races, he’s worse off now than he was a year ago – really.

But there’s a very big difference. It’s one that should not be ignored.

Last season Earnhardt Jr., with his Daytona run, found himself second in points after one race. He steadily slipped from there and fell out of the top 10 after race No. 8. Thereafter, as a contender, he was merely an afterthought.

This year he was 24th in points after Daytona, where he was involved in an accident. But, unlike 2010, he has steadily risen in points from the first race of the season until the slip at Fontana.

In other words, Earnhardt Jr.’s season began to fade from the start in 2010. It has done quite the opposite, for the most part, in 2011. It’s a much different trend.

Credit Letarte, the resulting boost in Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence, or anything else you wish.

Earnhardt Jr.’s season, so far, is obviously headed in a different direction. It’s something with which he, and his Hendrick team, has been unaccustomed in past years.

We will see where it goes from here.

 

From Strokers To Start-And-Park, It’s Nothing New For NASCAR

I think it bears repeating, in the light of the highly-publicized refusal by Jennifer Jo Cobb to have herself labeled as a driver who starts and parks, what this all about and how it’s a part of NASCAR history.

The news she generated at Bristol Motor Speedway fueled a lot of attention, again, about the practice. It’s one in which drivers and teams qualify for a race and then run only a few laps before the car returns to the garage area and is listed as a DNF.

What this does is save money. The car doesn’t bear the strain of anything close to hard racing. The odds of it being involved in a wreck are reduced. It likely isn’t on the track long enough for that to happen.

There isn’t much spent for pre-race preparation. If the car survives the few laps intended, there won’t be much spent for the next race, either.

Many times a pit crew isn’t needed because it will all be over well before a stop is even necessary. You can just imagine how much money is saved.

The purchase of one set of tires, if that, is all that might be required. That, too, certainly helps the bottom line.
There’s more – but you get the idea. Hey, I surely haven’t told you anything new.
But the interesting thing about the start-and-park philosophy is that it can be very profitable.

I’m just one of several who have already figured out that if a team can qualify for most of the races and then call it quits after a few laps, it can make some good bucks.

I added up the least amount of money awarded in each of the 36 races in 2010 – and not all for last place, by the way – and if a start-and-park team was fortunate to qualify for all of them, it would earn nearly $3 million, or even more. Not bad at all.

Stack that against its significantly lower expenses and it’s obvious the result is a healthy profit.

I admit all of this seems simplistic. But it’s obvious there’s something to it, because the start-and-park practice continues, as it will this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Most teams adopt the strategy because it’s the only way they can survive.

They simply don’t have the finances required to be competitive, much less win. But at least they have the means to go to races. Their only goal is to qualify. That accomplished, well, it’s all about profit.

I recall that NASCAR told us it was going to take a hard look at the practice. I surmise it didn’t want it to cheapen the sport.

But really, what can it do about it? There’s not much it can. I’m not sure it cares to. Teams have even announced their intention to start and park and NASCAR hasn’t even attempted to “punish” them.

And, after all, does not the practice continue?

I suspect the sanctioning body doesn’t want to take actions that could, ultimately, put teams out of business. In these times it’s hard enough for it to attract enough of them to fill a field. That’s just one man’s opinion, of course.

NASCAR has dealt with similar situations before during its history.

For example there was an era in the 1970s when, during a race, some drivers simply drove around in hopes they could stay out of trouble and finish as high as possible. That way they made as much money as they could.

They had to do it this way. They couldn’t simply start and park because, unlike today, a last-place payout was usually a paltry four figures (or less if you can believe it), not five or certainly not six.

To start and park meant financial ruin.

These drivers were called “strokers.” They competed for years on comparatively miniscule budgets. Many of them made it work. Ask Richard Childress. He did.

In time, though, they rebelled. They demanded that NASCAR relieve them of their plight and make racing more financially worthwhile. Otherwise they would simply leave the sport.

NASCAR had a problem. The “strokers” made up the majority of every racing field. If they disappeared altogether, what fan would care to watch a race among, say, 10 or fewer cars?

It evolved that NASCAR created “plan money” for drivers who competed on the full schedule. Every time they showed up and qualified for a race, they got bonus bucks beyond what they won in the race.

It also realigned the rewards throughout the point fund. It made it worthwhile, financially, for all drivers to finish as high as possible in the final standings.

It did more but, in the end, NASCAR created a system that provided the “strokers” the means to make much more money.

They could do this only if they entered, and qualified, for every race to earn bonuses. Afterward, they needed to complete as many laps as possible to earn points – and thereby finish as high as they could in the final standings.

If all of this sounds familiar it should – because it remains in effect to this day.

Within such a system, you would think start and park wouldn’t cut it financially.

However, given the changes in circumstances, apparently it can.

Many believe the practice of start-and-park cuts against the grain of competition. It’s not what racing is supposed to be about. It’s hard to argue with that.

But, at least for now, it exists and there doesn’t seem much NASCAR can do about it.

 

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