David Ragan And David Gilliland Slay Goliaths At a Wild Talladega

David Ragan shocked everyone with his victory in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Ragan hooked up with teammate David Gilliland on the last lap and they swept the top two positions.

Talladega Superspeedway has long since achieved a reputation as a track where we can most often expect everything from the unusual to the unforeseen – and, in some cases, the bizarre.

The list of examples is far to long to record here. Let’s just say they range from a well-documented Indian curse upon the land on which the track was built to the sabotage of many cars in the garage area and even some nut trying to steal the pace car in pre-race ceremonies.

We can add the Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup race to the list.

It was not your usual NASCAR event, not by any means.

Because of rain that delayed competition for over three hours and 30 minutes, the race took about seven hours to complete.

There were two massive, multicar wrecks – a couple of the “Big Ones” for which Talladega has become well-known – not unexpected, to be honest.

But the finish is really what separates this Aaron’s 499 from its predecessors.

In a single green-white-checkered restart decreed by NASCAR as darkness enveloped the track, two teammates on the same “underdog” team that often is no match for the superpowers, shoved their way past their elite competition to sweep to a one-two finish.

David Ragan and David Gilliland, both of who drive for Bob Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports, finished first and second, respectively.

It was a most unexpected performance by two drivers overshadowed by more established, and publicized, talent.

No one, and I mean no one, could have predicted this outcome.

It might be more emphatic to say flat-out that no one did.

Briefly, the unusual happened thusly:

Following the fifth caution of the race – caused by a 13-car accident on the backstretch of the 2.66-mile track – it evolved that the event was going to a green-white-checkered restart, three laps beyond its 188-lap distance.

Matt Kenseth, the powerhouse of the day with 142 laps led, was in front, ahead of staunch rivals Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.

Edwards took the lead with one lap to go and then on the last lap, everyone watching the race was stunned as Ragan, pushed by Gilliland, powered into the lead and held it to the checkered flag.

The race’s second big, multicar crash occurred with just four laps to go and set up the dramatic green-white-checkered finish.

“If it wasn’t for that final push from David Gilliland, I don’t know what to say,” said Ragan. “This is a true David vs. Goliath moment here for Front Row Motorsports and Ford.

“Wins are not easy, but this is special. It feels like I’ve never been here before.”

Ah, but he has. When he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing in 2011, Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July.

Ragan joined Front Row Motorsports in 2012 and became a teammate to Gilliland, who came on board in 2010 and once raced for Robert Yates Racing.

Josh Wise became the team’s third driver last year. Over three seasons the trio managed just two top five finishes and four among the top 10.

So it’s obvious why they were regarded lightly and why the Ragan-Gilliland finish was so stunning.

Ragan admitted it was all unlikely but added that opportunity just opened up for him.

“I sure wouldn’t want to have to line up and have to do it again,” Ragan said. “When we took the green we were running 10th and the outside lane today had been a little bit better all day long, so I got a good restart.

“I don’t know what happened on that first lap, but coming around, when we took the white, I was pushing (Aric) Almirola.  He jumped to the outside of Kenseth getting into turn one and I didn’t want to be on the top lane going down the back straightaway.

“The top lane hadn’t surged well enough down the back straightaway today, so Kenseth been the class of the field all day long.

“I saw him right in front of me, so I decided to stick with him.”

At that time, Ragan picked up the push from Gilliland, who had tucked in behind him. Ragan had no idea how Gilliland got there.

“(Carl) Edwards was in the lead and I guess didn’t see me coming quick enough or we had such a fast run I was able to get position on him,” Ragan said. “And I don’t know still today how David had such a good run. He was just pushing me unbelievably through three and four.

“I knew once I came out of turn four we had enough steam that I could have made my car wide enough that we were gonna make it back around to the start-finish line.

“So it’s a huge, huge deal for us to be sitting here right now and it makes it even more special to get a 1-2 finish. Can you believe that? That was a great finish.”

Edwards, who finished third, could have easily been frustrated over the results but said he wasn’t.

“I was definitely not,” he said. “David just got us.  He just did it.  Of course he raced me clean.  It’s Talladega.  As long as I’m not upside-down in the fence I think it was pretty clean.

“I don’t know how you define clean here, but he did his job.  He raced me as hard as he could have raced me without wrecking me.

“I don’t think either one of us could have tried any harder without being wrecked and he got me, so he earned the win.”

Only 43 laps of the race were completed before the first multicar accident took place in the first turn.

Sixteen cars were involved and most were eliminated from the race – including those of Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers (in relief of Denny Hamlin), Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle.

At lap 124, rain began to pelt the speedway, which brought out the third caution period of the day and led to the lengthy red-flag period.

Later, when the field regrouped for a restart on lap 179 following the race’s fourth caution flag, just about everyone expected another “Big One.”

After all, it was a double-file restart with just nine laps remaining. Every driver would throw caution to the wind.

Sure enough on lap 184, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., on the outside, pressed into J.J. Yeley, which sent Yeley into Kurt Busch.

The melee was on. Busch got airborne and landed on the roof of Ryan Newman’s car as the field scattered along the backstretch.

“Typical Talladega,” said Newman. “Everyone’s got their head up their ass.”

The mishap set up the green-white-checkered and the dramatic, and most unexpected, finish.

“I tell you what makes it special is just the time and the effort that these guys put into these cars,” said Jenkins.  “There are a lot of owners out there that get the best available driver they can get and they’re like a hired gun.

“But the thing that I think makes our team different than some of the rest is that we’re so close.  More than anything we’re friends and I know I’ve got drivers that are capable of winning races.  I’ve got guys at the shop that have the heart to win races.

“We just haven’t always had the resources, so the challenge for me is as we build cars is to make them better.

“Most of all, it’s just so satisfying to see that over the last nine years every year we’ve gotten a little bit better.

I felt the progress and I knew it was just a matter of time before we’d win one of these things.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite Great Competition, NASCAR Must Still Deal With An Ongoing Problem

 Menard

Paul Menard's victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after which he and his team got to "kiss the bricks," was one of the unexpected moments of 2011 that led it to become one of the most competitive, and historical, seasons in NASCAR's history. Menard was one of five first-time winners in the past season.

The sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing faces a familiar problem in 2012, one that has bedeviled it for the last three years.

However, that problem is certainly not the quality of its competition. For once NASCAR didn’t have to come up with obscure facts and figures to tout itself as the most competitive form of motorsports in this country – which, incidentally, is a claim it has made repeatedly over the years.

In 2011, there can be little argument that it was, indeed. And no one has to search high and low for statistics to prove it.

Now, I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. Not only was the past season highly competitive, it was also, in many ways, historical.

All it takes to understand that is a quick look at what happened and who made it happen.

There were 18 different winners in Cup racing, which matched those in 2002 and fell just one short of the record of 19 set in 2001.

Five of those winners won for the first time in their careers, and, to make this unprecedented, four of those winners were victorious in four of the circuit’s most prestigious races at three of its most prominent speedways.

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400.

Not one of these drivers was considered a victory candidate in any of these races – if, indeed, in any other.

That these relatively unheralded drivers won as they did for the first time – and all in one season – has never been done before in NASCAR.

And Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner when he was victorious on the road course at Watkins Glen.

It was routinely believed that if Australian Ambrose won in NASCAR it would be on a road course. That he did so was no surprise.

That may be, but judging from response, his victory enhanced NASCAR’s international appeal – at least in one part of the world. Ambrose is a hero in his native country.

The battle for the championship was like no other in NASCAR’s history.

It came down to a two-man war between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that wasn’t settled until after the final race of the season at Homestead.

Stewart won that race while Edwards finished second, yet another in a series of Chase races in which the two finished within a single position of each other.

The result was the first tie in points ever in NASCAR. Each had 2,403 points.

Stewart won with the tiebreaker – the most wins in a season. He had five, Edwards one.

But the championship drama goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply because Stewart won it in historically close fashion, it was also how he did so.

He started the 10-race Chase ninth in points without a single victory to his credit.

But once the “playoff” began Stewart surged like a tsunami. He won five races, rose quickly to No. 1 in points and, with four wins under his belt, was second when Homestead began, just three points in arrears to a remarkably consistent Edwards.

That set up the dramatic finish.

Stewart has to receive credit for one of the most impressive, come-from-behind runs for a title in NASCAR’s history.

Any decent statistician could put up some other numbers that would support the excellent competitiveness of the 2011 season – laps lead, most lead changes, cars running at the finish and such.

But I don’t believe they are needed. What has been presented here – and, I admit, earlier – should offer solid proof that NASCAR is in no way suffering when it comes to the quality of its competition.

Fact is, it’s thriving.

But, when it comes to being a business and not a sport, NASCAR and its teams are not thriving.

In 2008 this country, and the world, plunged into an economic disaster.

Stocks plummeted, banks failed, businesses folded, homes went into foreclosure and jobs were lost a thousand fold.

Nothing escaped, not even NASCAR. At the end of the 2008 season team members were laid off in droves. Other organizations folded. Sponsors, who suffered a loss of profits, pulled the plug on their NASCAR participation.

Sponsorship suddenly became a gift, not a given. Teams used to single-entity deals that brought in $20 million or more began to beg for limited schedule deals at reduced prices.

For those teams fortunate enough to have it, financial backing was acquired through multiple companies providing full support for 10-12 races here, 4-6 there and maybe even one or two.

And I think it is obvious that speedways suffered as well. Where they once were able to sell tickets with little difficulty, they now had to use creative public relations and marketing strategies to lure cash-strapped fans to come to their races.

It wasn’t easy. Empty grandstand seats prevailed.

I was one of many who said then that the economy was NASCAR’s biggest challenge. It remains so.

The economic malaise has not gone away. It hasn’t for the country and it hasn’t for NASCAR.

We already know of two teams that have ceased operations, both of them part of high-profile operations. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing no longer have four teams, they have three. A lack of sponsorship has caused that.

And the Roush team that features past champion driver Matt Kenseth is still searching for financial backing – as are several other organizations at one level or another.

Red Bull Racing, and its two-car operation, folded. I’ll be honest. The economy might have had something to do with that but I suspect politics might have played a larger role.

Regardless, after 2011, think of the number of racing jobs that have been lost – again.

At present NASCAR does not have as many well-funded, full-time teams now as it did at the start of 2011.

Its speedways still have to find the means to get folks to part with their dollars. After all, the joblessness rate is still high, companies continue layoffs or job elimination (including among the motorsports media), real estate values remain low and gasoline prices are volatile, among many other things.

The problems NASCAR faced after 2008 are still its major concerns as 2012 approaches.

But it is clear that, at least for one season, competition is at an all-time high. That is something that can potentially lures fans, encourage needed media attention and honestly establish NASCAR as something it has always claimed to be – the best in this country.

If what we saw in 2011 is matched, or approached, by what happens in 2012, that can only be good for NASCAR and its continuing challenge to sell itself, and its teams, to the public and corporate America amid a still struggling economy.

If Evidence Is Anything, Edwards Earns Title Sooner Than Later

Edwards

Carl Edwards did all he could to win his first career Cup championship in 2011. He was the points leader for most of the Chase, but in the last race of the year he gave way to Tony Stewart, who won five times in the last 10 races. Edwards has learned from the experience and should again be a title contender.

If most of the media picked up on the vibes Carl Edwards emitted during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, which I think they did, they got the sense that the Roush Fenway Racing driver enjoyed himself.

But he also clearly felt the disappointment of losing the Sprint Cup championship by the closest margin in NASCAR history.

Shoot, do you really have to be told that? NASCAR drivers are intense competitors who love to win and hate to lose.

To have a championship within grasp only to see it snatched away at the last moment has to be agonizingly frustrating.

Throughout NASCAR’s history there have been many types of competitors, ranging from those who raced as an expensive hobby, to those who won multiple championships and became legends.

There have also been some who have come very close to winning a championship, but never did so throughout their careers.

I don’t think Edwards is going to be one of them.

First, if experience in championship tussles means anything, Edwards has lots of it. He finished third in 2005, second in 2008 and fourth in 2010.

Of course, there followed the 2011 season. Edwards was the point leader going into the final race at Homestead, where he finished second.

Unfortunately, rival Tony Stewart won the race to forced a tie in points with Edwards at 2,403.

Stewart became champ on the tiebreaker, which was the most seasonal wins. Stewart had five – all in the Chase – and Edwards had only one. That proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Second, Edwards has said that, rather than succumb to disappointment and continually bemoan his fate, he is going to learn from the experience and do just a bit better in 2012.

Edwards knows, and has told us more than once, that his team was clearly championship caliber in 2011. At no time during the Chase did he, or it, make a mistake too large to overcome.

Nor did either give in to Stewart and his Stewart-Haas team. As the season came to an end, Edwards and Stewart fought for every point they earned in the Chase. One never attained a significant gain over the other.

Edwards lost the title by, perhaps, the only way he could have: because of a scintillating, come-from-behind performance in the Chase by Stewart.

Edwards looks at racing as his career, during which he wants to get better with each passing season. Therefore, he looks at 2011 as a stepping stone, something from which he has learned valuable lessons.

He vows he will not let emotions rule performance. If he slips competitively in 2012 it won’t be because “We got messed up in the head over not winning the championship.”

Let’s add proper attitude to experience as another ingredient for a championship.

Edwards has both.

Which is why I think that sooner or later – most likely sooner – he’s going to earn one.

As an aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how hard Edwards presses for victories next year. Something else I suspect he learned in 2011 is that the more he wins, the better his chances will be to emerge a champion if it all goes down to the wire.

If the outcome was disappointing, nevertheless Edwards’ championship run was the high-water mark for the Roush organization in 2011.

Edwards and his team took the lead in the four-car organization. Those that followed had seasons rated very good to unexpectedly unproductive.

Matt Kenseth was the only other Roush driver to join Edwards in the Chase. After the reseeding, he was fourth in points with two wins, one position ahead of Edwards.

Kenseth had five top-five finishes in the Chase, including a victory at Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth (left) put up some good numbers for Roush Fenway Racing and joined Edwards as the only team drivers to make the Chase. Greg Biffle did not have the type of season expected of him and wasn't eligible for the Chase. He was 15th in points when the 10-race "playoff" began.

He rose as high as second in points following Talladega, the sixth race of the Chase, but finishes of 31st at Martinsville and 34th at Phoenix greased the path for his fourth-place standing at season’s end.

Kenseth, the 2004 champ, can certainly claim another title for Roush. His team can, and does, win races. However, perhaps a little more consistency would seal the deal.

Greg Biffle never figured in the Chase. With no wins, only one top-five finish and seven among the top 10, when the Chase began he was 15th in points and on the outside looking in.

I’m pretty sure Biffle – and Roush – are not pleased with all of that and I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that something needs to be done at Biffle’s team. I strongly suspect that is something the organization already knows.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, David Ragan won his first career a long way toward fulfilling the potential Jack Roush saw in him.

Ragan flirted with making the Chase, hoping that the victory would be enough to land him in one of the final two slots in the 12-car field.

It didn’t work out that way and Ragan finished 19th in points.

It seems all but certain he won’t be with Roush next year. The UPS sponsorship his team enjoyed has moved on and with no new financial backing on the horizon, Roush has released Ragan to search for work elsewhere (Penske?).

It appears Roush will be a three-car team next year – and it still needs to locate sponsorship for Kenseth’s team.

While Roush may be one of several organizations downsizing – or closing – because of the economic situation, I don’t think anyone should be surprised if it puts, at the very least, one car into the Chase in 2012.

Nor should we be surprised if that car is driven by Carl Edwards.

Bayne’s Situation Nothing New In Plate Racing And The Draft

 Bayne

Trevor Bayne was upset with the circumstances in which he was involved at the end of the race at Talladega. But he didn't do anything wrong. Rather, he was caught up in what NASCAR restrictor-plate racing is all about - which includes strategy and, yes, even politics.

It’s been suggested by many that Trevor Bayne ease up on himself following the circumstances in which he was involved at Talladega.

After all, he didn’t do anything wrong.

Bayne expressed abject dissatisfaction with himself, and others, when he abandoned Jeff Gordon in the Good Sam Club 500’s high-speed draft to assist fellow Ford driver and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

Bayne, who races part-time for the Wood Brothers but is under contract to Roush, was distressed that he could not keep an arrangement with Gordon that would allow the two drivers to remain hooked up in a two-car draft until the end of the race, only two laps away.

Instead, Bayne maintained he was “strong armed” to assist Kenseth and added that he would never be put in such a situation again.

Prior to the race, persistent rumors suggested that Ford officials had told their drivers that in the “dancing partner” draft, that is now prevalent at Talladega and Daytona, they should work with other Ford drivers only.

Do not assist any other driver with any other manufacturer.

Jamie Allison, director of Ford racing, has denied such orders were ever issued. He said the only time the matter of Ford drivers helping Ford drivers arose was in conversations before the race. If it could be done, it should in order to show appreciation for their relationships with Ford Motorsports.

Added Allison in a published report, “At the end of the day, when you look at it, it’s very cut and dry. Trevor did what he needed to help a teammate.”

Which is correct. When Kenseth lost drafting partner David Ragan, Bayne felt obligated. He had no choice. He had to abandon Gordon, even if the end results might have been better.

Kenseth came to Talladega as a strong challenger for the championship after his victory in Charlotte. He was in third place, two spots behind leader and Roush teammate Carl Edwards, in the standings.

With a good finish at Talladega Kenseth could have pressed the championship issue. But that would never happen without a drafting partner.

So Bayne was his man. And, as said, Bayne had no choice.

If he had stuck with Gordon while Kenseth lost position after position, what kind of post-race reception do you think Bayne would have received from team owner Jack Roush – not to mention from Kenseth and his No. 17 team?

As a young driver striving to solidify a career in Sprint Cup racing, Bayne wisely avoided any confrontation with the team that has, to date, offered him his best competitive opportunity.

To me, the entire issue is something of a tempest in a teapot. It’s certainly not unique. In fact, when it comes to restrictor-plate racing and the draft – no matter how many cars are involved – this sort of thing has been part of NASCAR for decades.

It’s all meshed into the strategy and, perhaps more so, the politics required in plate racing and the draft.

One of the vital keys to success at Daytona and Talladega is to find the right drafting partner. It’s always been that way.

Naturally, teammates want to help each other – and should. They work with each other many times over practice sessions to determine if they can find the combination that clicks. Sometimes they do. Many more times they don’t.

If things don’t work a team’s next task it to find another with which it can potentially win the race.

Little thought is given to what team that could be. More important, the model of car it uses doesn’t matter one bit.

If a team with a Chevrolet finds that in the draft its highest speeds are turned with another that fields a Ford – and the Ford team likes the results as well – then a deal is made. They will hook up in the draft for as long as possible.

Call it diplomacy or politics, that’s how it has always worked.

While I’m fully aware that manufacturers have issued edicts from time to time, I don’t think any one of them has been stupid enough to decree that teams with their models must help each other only in the draft.

That includes Ford, incidentally, and is why I believe Allison.

For a manufacturer to make such a mandate could potentially remove any chance at victory. You can bet a team that posted its fastest laps drafting with another with a different model is going to be highly irritated. So is the driver.

The goal is to win. It’s what racing is all about. It’s what the team owner wants, the driver wants, the team wants and, most important, what the sponsor wants.

Manufacturers know all this because victory is what they also crave. Wins can provide a heckuva lot of successful sales pitches at the dealerships.

So never expect a manufacturer to make a decree that could cramp any of its teams’ styles. It makes no sense.

Drafting is all about partnerships. And any two drivers can be partners for a single race. There have been some unlikely combinations in many past plate races but sometimes they worked to near perfection – as it was for Bayne and Gordon in this year’s Daytona 500, won by Bayne.

But at other times, for many reasons, as good as the combination might be circumstances force a change.

It might be due to what is unfolding on the track. Or, indeed, it might be due to politics.

But it has happened and will continue to happen. In the future there will be a driver who, at the end of a plate race, will feel every bit as frustrated as Bayne.

It’s plate racing. It’s the draft. It is what it has been, is now and will be.

Weather May Force A Date Change But Not Driver Challenges

When it comes to a race nobody likes a rainout – not NASCAR, not the competitors, not the media, not speedway officials and, especially, not the fans.

Everyone wants the event to run on schedule for a lot of different reasons. Promoters know a postponement is going to cost them money. Fans paid that money and there is no certainty many of them can return the next day.

The media doesn’t WANT to come back another day. They want to finish their work on schedule and get the hell out.

I’ve been there and done that and believe me, for the media, there is no bigger hassle than, given the location of the speedway, to have to hastily reschedule a flight and often increase the company expenses.

Admittedly, for me, that was a while back. Might be easier today. That doesn’t make it any less disliked.

But rainouts happen. It’s all simply a part of the way things are. When a sport is conducted outside – in Mother Nature’s realm – there are going to be times when the old lady just won’t cooperate.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday at Watkins Glen International, where the Heluva Good! 500 Sprint Cup race was supposed to be conducted on the 2.45-mile road course.

Steady rain began just when the race was supposed to start a 1p.m. and did not end in time for track crews to dry the racing surface – a task we were told would take at least two hours.

Jet driers did get on the track but a second front assured the postponement until 10 a.m. this morning.

A delay isn’t popular, but then, the fact that a race is rescheduled for the next day makes the whole thing more palatable than it used to be.

There was a time when a postponed race was re-scheduled for the next clear weekend – be it in seven days, 14 or longer. It was whatever open weekend the schedule would allow.

Cars were impounded in the garage and there they stayed, untouched, for at least a week. When the teams finally returned to the track they were allowed to make minor preparations for the race, but that was about it.

There were times when a practice session was scheduled but they were rare.

The reason for all of this was mostly to ease the promoters’ concerns. Many were adamantly against rescheduling a race for the next day.

They felt that since Monday was a workday most fans wouldn’t – or couldn’t – return to the speedway. After all, NASCAR was a blue-collar sport that was popular among blue-collar workers. And how many of them were able to fashion their own work hours?

But in time NASCAR realized that waiting a week, or longer, to run a postponed race was by far a more expensive proposition for all concerned.

For the teams and media, at the least it often meant rebooked motel rooms for all concerned (which were sometimes unavailable) and maybe another round of airline tickets.

It definitely meant the loss of an otherwise open weekend. That, believe me, was widely despised.

It was the same for the fans, many of whom had planned and saved for a particular race weekend and simply didn’t have the time or money to do it all over again.

So NASCAR came up with its “next clear day” rule, which, of course, decreed that postponed races would run on the very first day the weather cooperated.

It was less expensive and more convenient for all concerned, even the promoters, who discovered that while attendance did drop off on a Monday, it was often better than it was a week or longer after the postponement.

“The next clear day” doesn’t solely mean Monday. A delayed race may run on a Tuesday if need be, although it’s not likely to extend beyond that because of teams’ need to get back to the shops and prepare for the next event.

If the Heluva Good 500 doesn’t get the green flag today – and I suspect that, given its 10 a.m. start, most of us will soon know one way or the other – NASCAR officials have said it might indeed have a go on Tuesday.

OK, while a race’s date may change, its challenges to the drivers do not – nor does what is at stake for many of them.

Several drivers face the same issues they faced before Sunday. Only difference is now they have to deal with them on a Monday.

For example, among other things, the “wildcard” spots for the Chase are still up for grabs. Drivers with the most wins and who are among the top 20 in points when the Chase begins will join the “playoffs” with the top 10 in standings.

At the Glen, those two drivers are Denny Hamlin, 11th in points with one victory, and Brad Keselowski, who stands 18th with two wins.

When it comes to Chase uncertainty, they aren’t alone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs on to 10th in points but he has yet to win this year. Tony Stewart is ninth and is also winless.

David Ragan, once among the “wildcard” contenders after his victory in Daytona in July, is now 19th in points, one position and one victory behind Keselowski.

You can easily see what might happen among these drivers at the Glen, both good and bad. The race’s date has changed, but the circumstances? Not one bit.

That, of course, applies to every driver in the race. One of them is Australian Marcos Ambrose. He has yet to win a Sprint Cup race after 104 starts.

But observers, and his statistics, say that it’s the Glen where he’ll get his best shot at victory. He’s rated as one of NASCAR’s best road-course drivers, if not the best.

He’s won three Nationwide Series races at the Glen but couldn’t land a ride for this year’s event, which, I’m sure, didn’t sit well with him.

He’s never finished worse than third in three Cup starts. And in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, he held the provisional pole for the Heluva Good 500 until bested by Kyle Busch and A.J. Allmendinger. Ambrose starts third today.

Ambrose said the rain delay hasn’t made him more anxious. I suspect the same can be said for the drivers scrapping for a position in the Chase.

“You can’t fight the weather,” Ambrose said when the event was postponed. “I just worry about the things I can control.

“In our case, the cover is on the car and it’s ready to go. We’re a contender, that’s for sure. But there’s nothing you can do until the sun comes out.”

Which, hopefully and ideally, happened before 10 a.m. today.

Menard’s Indy Victory Adds To Season’s Competitiveness

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has established itself as one of the most unique in many years for a couple of reasons:

It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.

This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?

Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.

The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.

Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.

Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.

After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.

They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?

The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.

Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.

Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.

While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.

Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.

Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.

They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.

If a team can utilize creativity only to a certain point it often cannot gain a sizable advantage over another. That, many suggest, is what we have now.

Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.

There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.

But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.

Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.

Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.

Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.

It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.

Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.

In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.

This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.

Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.

That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.

That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.

Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.

 

** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.

His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.

It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.

These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.

Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.

If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.

 

** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.

The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.

Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.

Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.

With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

The Points System Has Provided Intrigue, With More To Come

Maybe I’m wrong and you may disagree, but if nothing else, NASCAR’S new points system has, to date, made the season intriguing.

As I understand it, the modified system awards a winner 43 points. He gets three more points for winning and another for leading a lap, which means a minimum of 47 laps.

If the winner leads the most laps that means another bonus point. The total is now 48, the most any driver can earn in a single race.

The most points the second-place finisher can get is 44 points, 42 for second, one for leading and one for leading the most laps.

Putting bonus points aside – NASCAR wanted to maintain the race winner reward – the system is pretty basic. There’s only a one-point difference between each position, from the base of 43 for first place to just one for last place.

The unique change NASCAR made for this season, in addition to rewarding consistency of performance, was to allow the top 10 after 26 races to qualify for the chase. Spots 11 and 12 would go to the drivers who have compiled the most victories and rank among the top 20.

OK, that’s enough. I’ve dwelled long enough on something you already know.

But what I find interesting about the new points system is that it has kept things fairly undecided as we enter the final six races before the Chase.

While there are a few drivers who seem safe when it comes to the Chase, there are others whose status is very much uncertain.

And Carl Edwards, the points leader, by no means has a lock on the top spot. He’s just seven points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Among the top 10 every driver except one has a victory. Kevin Harvick, fourth in points and eight behind Edwards, has three victories, as does Kyle Busch, who is fifth in points, 13 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have two wins each – and are ranked sixth and seventh in points, respectively.

I would think all four drivers are pretty much guaranteed spots in the Chase.

I’d say the same for Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch (third in points), Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who each have a victory and are among the top 10.

OK, here’s where the situation becomes a bit tense for some drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks ninth in points largely because he’s been in a competitive swoon. He was once as high as third in the standings.

But he does not have a victory. Which means two things if he wants to make the Chase: He has to hang on to the top 10 over the next six races, or, at the very least, earn a victory, something he hasn’t done since 2008.

Tony Stewart faces a similar situation. He’s tied with Hamlin for 10th in points, but unlike Hamlin, he doesn’t have a victory.

So if the Chase started immediately, Hamlin is in and Stewart is out.

But it doesn’t start immediately so Stewart has a chance to secure his place. Most likely he would prefer to do it with a victory. He hasn’t had a winless season in a career that dates back to 1999.

Other notables, such as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, pretty much have to rely on winning to make the Chase.

Bowyer is 12th in points, Kahne 14th and Biffle 15th. They are 110 points or more behind the leader. Bowyer is 28 points out of 10th place. He can certainly make up the difference but the odds are quickly stacking against him.

It’s the same for Kahne and Biffle, who are each 47 points out of the hunt.

For these three guys, a victory would be the tonic. The last time Bowyer went winless happened in 2009. He won two races last year.

Kahne has had two consecutive winless seasons. Between 2003-10, Biffle had only one year without a victory, 2009.

I don’t think there’s much doubt any of them can win this year. The question is can they do it in time to help them make the Chase?

They are not alone. It’s going to take a win for several others who rank 11-20th in points to make NASCAR’s “playoff.”

They include A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.

Fact is there’s only one driver out of the top 10 who is assured a position in the Chase – for the time being, anyway.

That’s David Ragan, who won at Daytona on July 2 to earn the first victory of his career. He’s presently 13th in points.

He’s 46 points out of 10th place. That’s not insurmountable, just as it is for Bowyer, Kahne and Biffle, and I’m sure that, like the others, gaining positions is what he’d like to do.

But he’s the only one with the luxury of a victory.

As it stands right now, the only other driver who has a shot at the Chase is Brad Keselowski. He has a victory but, in 23rd place, ranks out of the top 20.

He’s going to have to scrap his way in. He’s 25 points behind 20th-place Martin, again certainly not an insurmountable margin. He has six races to do it.

The next half-dozen races are worthy of our attention. For some drivers it’s obviously going to take victory to make all the difference.

Can they win? Certainly. The 2011 season has already produced 13 different winners, including three who won for the first time.

Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, the all-time record for most winners in a single season is 19 and the record for most first-time winners was five twice, in 2001 and 2002.

We’re on a pace to have 25 winners this year, including six who won for this first time in their careers.

I don’t know if that will happen, but the point is this season’s variety of winners would indicate that anything could happen over the next six events – and thus alter the starting field for the Chase.

In NASCAR Two Car Drafts Closing Up


The popular, or newly discovered type of tandem drafting that the Sprint Cup drivers use at plate races are tightening up. Now that the drivers have learned more, the two car drafts become packs. The downside is that the driver behind is letting the front car steer.
www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Near-Perfect Strategy Pays Off For Ragan, Roush

As best as I can figure, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth performed carburetor plate racing’s two-car tango to perfection in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

And that allowed Ragan to win the race and earn the first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory of his career.

No doubt you are well aware of the style of racing that has evolved at NASCAR’s plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega – especially at the recently repaved 2.5-mile DIS.

Two cars hook up in a draft, the front end of one glued to the rear end of the other. It’s the best possible configuration in which to produce top speeds.

Which is not saying it’s popular with competitors, however.

There’s a lot more to it than simply that, of course, but suffice it to say that drivers have learned that the only way they are going to have any chance at victory is to find someone with whom they can hook up and, even more important, cooperate.

While drivers have found drafting partners from various teams competing in various car models (you take the best help where you can get it), we’re told the ideal situation is for two teammates to hook up.

Certainly the teammates think so.

If that is the case, what we saw in the Coke Zero 400 was indeed, ideal.

Prior to the race, Ragan and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth agreed to work together the entire race.

It paid off big time as Roush Fenway scored a one-two finish and Ragan won for the first time in 163 Sprint Cup starts.

“We made a pact with Matt that we were going to work together through thick or thin,” Ragan said. “I was a little worried about that. Sometimes falling to the back, and working back to the front, you get jammed up throughout the race.

“So I didn’t know if that was the right decision or not, but bottom line, our car was fast. That’s what wins these races. You’ve got to have luck, you’ve got to have pit stops and all that stuff goes into effect.

“But you’ve got to have a fast car and our UPS Ford was fast. The engine ran flawless and that’s what won the race for us. I had Matt right behind us. I knew we had a good pusher. I knew we had the car to do it and not try to make any mistakes, and try to put ourselves in good position.”

A couple of established circumstances made the victory especially significant for Ragan. In the Daytona 500, he was in position to win the race when, on a late-race restart, he switched lanes prior to reaching the start-finish line – which is subject to a penalty.

Ragan fell out of contention.

“Well, we got one back at Daytona and it would have been tough to lose another one here,” said the 25-year-old Ragan, who has been driving full-time for Roush since 2007. “I thought about the last race here while we were under caution.

“I thought, ‘Man, if we don’t win this thing I’m not going to want to talk to anyone afterwards.’ But we were able to win and that does ease the pain from February.”

Additionally, Ragan’s sponsor, UPS, is not signed beyond this season and word is Ragan’s status with his team is shaky, depending upon the return of his sponsor, or the acquisition of a new one.

The victory at Daytona clearly did nothing to hurt Ragan’s cause.

“Certainly we’re hopeful that UPS will carry on in a meaningful regard with the sponsorship of David’s No. 6 car,” said Roush. “Now that we are in negotiations, we don’t have assurance that that’s going to be the case. But David has arrived at the upper echelon.

“David is a winner now. And he’s given a win to UPS, and hopefully they’ll consider that as they think about the value of the program and what it means to all their employees and what it means to their customers to have this association.”

To continue on the issue of sponsorships, it was recently announced that Kenseth’s sponsor, Crown Royal, would not return to Roush or NASCAR next year.

But it’s likely that was hardly on Kenseth’s mind at all as he and Ragan intensely followed their game plan to perfection.

While every driver wants to win, Kenseth made it clear he expected to finish second. As the two sped through the final turns of the race he made certain Ragan knew he wouldn’t make any attempt to pass.

“I told him, ‘I’m not gonna leave you and try to pass you,’ Kenseth said. “I knew one of us wasn’t going to win. But we had a plan.”

Kenseth was leading with three laps to go but when the caution came out with two laps remaining, he and Ragan were alongside each other. Ragan was out front when the green flag fell for the restart.

“The plan was to work as a team all night,” said Kenseth, who has won two races this year. “It just turned out that he was in front of me at the end. Both of us were unselfish all night and we worked together really well, I thought.

“We made a plan and we stuck to it. It worked well.”

At 17th, Ragan is firmly entrenched in the top 20 in points and the Daytona victory makes him eligible, presently, for this season’s Chase through one of two “wildcard” spots reserved for race winners who aren’t among the top 10 or beyond the top 20.

“It kinda disappoints us to be 17th in points,” Ragan said. “We should be about 13th in points so we feel we’ve got some work to do. I think we should have been a player in the Chase all year.”

Carl Edwards, another Roush driver who has certainly been a big player in the Chase all season, crashed early in the race and ultimately finished 37th.

He lost the points lead to Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who finished seventh and is now five points ahead of Edwards. Kyle Busch is third, five points down to Edwards.

Among the drivers ranked 11th-20th in points only Denny Hamlin, 11th, and now Ragan have “insurance policy” victories.

With only nine races remaining before the Chase begins, drivers outside the top 10 who have yet to win this year include Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne.

 

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