NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

Joey Logano Must Gamble for NASCAR Playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR's playoffs

Joey Logano is down to his final two races to make NASCAR’s playoffs

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Racing Ford, is down to his final two racetrack spins of the regular season.  And the odds may be more stacked against him making the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs than your winning the latest Powerball drawing.

Logano’s struggle to qualify for the playoffs is arguably the greatest shock of the NASCAR season, given that Logano made it all the way to the final round of Championship 4 drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2014 and 2016.

Even though Logano won at Richmond Raceway in April, that victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

Mathematically eliminated in terms of points, Logano is in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs with only a return to Richmond and Darlington Raceway left in the regular season.

Two weeks ago, Logano confessed at Michigan International Speedway to being desperate, but felt the final stretch of regular-season tracks was a good fit for his driving style.

Yet, at Bristol where he has won twice previously, Logano wrestled his way to a 13th place finish in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, lacking corner entry stability and having to rebound from being a lap-down by utilizing the free-pass.

Since the Richmond penalty was announced, which included a loss of team points and crew chief suspension for two races, the momentum has been sucked out of the #22 team.  In his last 14 NASCAR Cup races, Logano has led only 7 laps.

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Logano was all smiles after winning Richmond in April, but was later penalized for car template violations

Back in February, Logano was on top of the world, as he, crew chief Todd Gordon, and sponsor Shell signed contract extensions running through 2023, delivering the team stability that Roger Penske craves.

Logano, saying it was a day he would never forget, proclaimed, “When a seven-year deal is thrown in front of you, obviously you jump on that opportunity to go out there and win championships together.”

So, will Logano be able to cash in on victory lane in either of the two remaining regular season races?

Richmond is the better bet of the two tracks, given Logano has won there twice (including the “encumbered” April win).  His average finish of 8.9 over last 10 races is 2nd among active drivers.

Darlington, with its odd egg-shaped design and legend as the “track too tough to tame”, is a definite shortcoming in Logano’s repertoire.  His average finish of 18.4 is 17th best among active drivers, including just two top-5’s in eight starts.

Logano maintains optimism, asserting “Every moment becomes more and more important on the racetrack, and that’s ok.  That’s where you find out what you’re made of, so I’m all right with that.”

Logano is spot-on.  The #22 team has had its back against the wall before and Team JL has delivered.

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

Crew Chief Gordon will need to tap his playbook to make crafty pit calls

However, right now, the Penske Fords just haven’t been fast enough and appear off.

Penske’s two teams of Logano and Keselowski can crank a fast lap time in practice and qualifying, but they’re just not drivable in race conditions, either due to a shortfall of aero downforce or mechanical grip in race conditions.

Luck, of course, plays a big factor, and a shrewd pit call by master crew chief Todd Gordon could rescue the day at either track.  But, time is now the enemy, and this perplexing season may leave Team JL with mixed emotions given its early season success, followed by its recent struggles.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Logano make the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

 

The Target Is on the Back of Logano At Phoenix

Joey Logano has to win to make the Homestead show, but with no friends and multiple enemies, it looks unlikely.

Joey Logano has to win to make the Homestead show, but with no friends and multiple enemies, it looks unlikely.

Amaze your friends and build new bridges is an old adage used in commercials of yesterday, Charlton Heston comes to mind. This, however, does not apply to Joey Logano who will have his work cut out for him at Phoenix this weekend.

It won’t be because Logano isn’t fast, he is, but making too many enemies in a NASCAR Cup field can doom your chances at making a good impression or amazing anyone. There’ll be no magic act or dancing bears.

To make the final four he will have to win and to win at Phoenix you would have to have friends or more accuratley, ‘frienemies’, to do it. He has none, including his teammate, Brad Keselowski who is also going for a spot in the big show at Homestead.

Ford may very well rally the troops who aren’t eligible for the final three Homestead spots, which is everyone except the Penske squad, but their aren’t really any strong contenders for the Blue Oval in the actual race that might make a difference.

The main players here are the Hendrick crowd. They will block and make their cars as wide as possible in order to reduce the risk to Jeff Gordon when crunch time comes in Florida. It’s not a precedent, you saw it in action when Jimmie Johnson stalked down Brad Keselowski at Texas with surgical precision.

Keselowski, Logano's teammate, may fair better at Phoenix if he can stay clear of the field. Easier said than done.

Keselowski, Logano’s teammate, may fair better at Phoenix if he can stay clear of the field. Easier said than done.

There is a true strategy in play and NASCAR knows it. The only thing NASCAR doesn’t want to see is a repeat of the Kenseth hit on Logano, other than that, they want the dogfight we would expect from this caliber of drivers.

Make no mistake, Ford will have rallied it’s teams to do whatever they can to get Keselowski or Logano into the show, but both of these drivers have the GM faction gunning for them. But wait there’s more.

The intramural rivalry between the Hnedrick and Stewart–Haas camps will be in full song as well. The odds on favorite to win at Phoenix is Kevin Harvick and Harvick needs to win just to put the final nail in the box to make Homestead. But Hendrick wold love for him to somehow not make it to the Sunshine State, though that’s unlikely.

Crashes, pit road penalties, finishing orders…all will come into play, therefore the only insurance is to win and that is where Harvick has a statistical advantage, but anything can happen as we’ve seen so far.

For Joey Logano, however, the hoped coronation may have run him right over. No cigar, no champagne and no seat at the big table. He has made many enemies in the field from all sides, including his own Ford camp.

It seems to be more likely that Ford will concentrate on Keselowski, although Logano could run up front all day unmolested, in NASCAR you never know who, or when someone may want to extract revenge for some infraction from the past or leave you alone.

Right now, Logano is the prison concierge, the piñata of the year and each and every one of his competitors know it and are apparently ready to take a swing at him.

NASCAR: Joey Logano is Penske’s Title Contender

 “to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”

“to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”

“Yeah Baby! Bristol again! Get you some!!”

The yell over Joey Logano’s radio as he took the checkered flag at this week’s Bristol Motor Speedway IRWIN Tools Night Race for the second straight year and his festive celebration afterwards was not lost on me. Behind Logano’s affable boyish grin and charming outlook lurks a fierce competitor who is Team Penske’s prime threat to win the Sprint Cup title in 2015.

All of 25 years young but in his eighth season, Joey Logano has demonstrated that he is more than ready to win the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship when the series reaches its final playoff round at Homestead Miami Speedway later this year.

What is more significant is that Logano has found a home at Team Penske, and is arguably their best Championship contender as we approach the Darlington Southern 500, the penultimate race before the Chase begins. Back in 2012, Logano was cut loose from Joe Gibb Racing’s legendary Home Depot #20 Cup car, where he was arguably thrust into before his time at the adolescent age of 17.

Such an assertion that Logano is now Team Penske’s prime threat is perhaps brash, given that Brad Keselowski is the team’s senior driver in his sixth full season, and “Bad Brad” has already won one Sprint Cup Championship back in 2012. At that time, he beat Mr. “Six Pack” Jimmie Johnson, at his own game, and proclaimed that “to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”

Make no mistake, Roger Penske is agnostic as to who delivers a title, he just wants the title.

Make no mistake, Roger Penske is agnostic as to who delivers a title, he just wants the title.

Scrutinizing Logano’s performance, we see a consistent trend of advancement since joining Team Penske. In his first year with Team Penske in 2013, Logano’s average finish was 14.1, which was a dramatic improvement over his prior year performance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year, he improved his average finish to 11.3. Now Logano is delivering in the lofty single digit range, with an average finish of 9.0 in 2015, which is second only to Kevin Harvick’s amazing season average of 7.4, as Harvick continues to pick up where he left off last year.

In a head-to-head comparison with his Penske teammate this season, Logano has finished ahead of Keselowski in 15 of the 24 points paying races. Even more stellar, Logano has 14 top five finishes, almost triple the 5 finishes in the top five amassed by his teammate Keselowski. Logano also has led the second most laps this season at 808 (again second only to the Harvick), which is nearly twice the number of laps led by Keselowski.

Last year, Logano advanced to the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway. Multiple issues in the 2014 season finale proved to be the #22 team’s undoing, including Logano hitting the wall early on, as well as a late pit road miscue with 20 laps to go of dropping the jack early, leaving Logano incredibly frustrated and stranded outside the top 20 on the final restart.

None of that baggage from the 2014 season-ending breakdown was in evidence in Bristol on Saturday night as Logano drove a crafty race, hitting his marks with no slip-ups. Bristol can be a scalding cauldron, and even a slight driver error can result in catastrophe. With Harvick filling his mirrors, Logano artistically drove different lines to close the door when necessary, while seamlessly negotiating lapped traffic on the clustered half-mile circuit. Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, called out Logano’s execution as the key to the team’s victory at Bristol. “He performed flawlessly,” proclaimed Gordon after the race. “When it comes down to the time to make it happen, he elevates. Joey never folded and never made a mistake and did what he had to do and executed. It’s a Joey Logano performance.”

The Team Penske boys are hungry to bring Roger another title, no doubt. Still, I’m elevating Logano to the head of the class based on his consistent performance and the shared wisdom that “one must first lose a championship to learn how to win one.” Logano’s time has arrived, as he now exhibits the poise, confidence, and calm demeanor that are trademarks of the Captain’s organization. The current Chase playoff format is inherently chaotic, but I’m staking my claim that Joey Logano will be in the Championship hunt on the final lap of the Ford EcoBoost 400 come November 22nd.

Follow Ron Bottano on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR: Daytona 500 and Bandicoots On Acid

A jubilant Joey Logano celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

A jubilant Joey Logano celebrates his Daytona 500 win.

This past Sunday the 57th Daytona 500 was held and Joey Logano can finally be comfortable with the “Sliced Bread” moniker given him several years ago.

It was a strong indication that Penske Racing is going to be a factor in 2015 and is the default ‘Factory’ team for Ford.

The weeks leading up to the storied event, however, weren’t so kind to NASCAR.

A change in the qualifying was in order and NASCAR certainly changed it, to the chagrin and openly critical display of the drivers.

To NASCAR’s credit something had to be done. Three hours to qualify for a race is simply too long and takes up far too much valuable broadcast air time leaving a potentially new audience who might tune in to the marathon with a feeling of boredom.

“If qualifying is this boring how much more interesting could the race be” was the comment that I heard most. The problem was that NASCAR simply isn’t Formula One and can’t use a knockout style format with the same level of execution, there are simply too many cars and too many desperate drivers to not have carnage. Carnage they had.

Kyle Busch did not walk away from this crash.

Kyle Busch did not walk away from this crash.

As posted in a previous article our technical expert, Bill Marlowe, suggested the following format, which is worth repeating:

(1) Have all 48-50 cars line up diagonally on pit road.

(2) Each qualifying group would consist of no more than 8-10 cars

(3) In a blind draw, the first 10 cars are selected 5, maybe 8 minutes before they run. This ultimately gives a total of about 5-6 groups.

(4) In a second tandem blind draw, each car selected is given its starting position from pit road.

(5) The 1st ten cars have 5 minutes to line up on pit road.

(6) When the signal is given to go, group 1 has 5 minutes to accelerate, get up to speed and set a time.

(7) While the 1st group is out the blind draw process repeats itself.

(8) While the 1st group is on its cool down lap and coming to pit lane the 2nd group is already being released.

This format would take approximately one hour allowing for any engine failures, crashes or debris on track stoppages.

"The Lunatics Are in the Hall"- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

“The Lunatics Are in the Hall”- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

Let’s hope that something is changed for Talladega.

On Saturday Kyle Busch, during the Xfinity race, exited the racing surface and laterally contacted an inside retaining wall that did not have the advantage of a safer barrier. He broke his left leg and his ankle. He’s fortunate not to have lost his life.

You have to believe that the only reason there wasn’t a safer barrier in place is that NASCAR has become so large in its bureaucracy that by committee it couldn’t have foreseen such an accident. That’s what happens when delegating authority too quickly or by committee is employed. After all, the wall was certainly in place for the next day.

How hard was that? Not as hard as Busch’s crash.

Then comes the story that had everyone from TMZ to Al-Jazeera writing about it. Kurt Busch’s indefinite suspension from NASCAR due to a restraining order obtained from his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll.

It’s no secret that Kurt Busch has an anger problem. It’s no secret that NASCAR really has no warm and fuzzy feelings for the elder Busch. It’s no secret that by all outward appearances, both he and Driscoll are crazier than a pair of Bandicoot’s on acid.

However, it seems that NASCAR does, from time to time, exact revenge on it’s detractors or troublemakers. Travis Kvapil really screwed up. He plead guilty of domestic abuse and was given probation and no disciplinary punishment handed down by NASCAR.

Again, NASCAR may have had every reason, and they certainly have the right, to kick Busch to the curb.

It does seem, however, on the surface, to be a bit hypocritical. Maybe yes, maybe no. No one can argue that domestic abuse is both unacceptable and appalling, but how often is it used for revenge? Often enough.

How easy is it to manipulate the courts? Damned easy many times.

Having been a witness in a Florida Capital Case I can tell you that what you hear in a courtroom is not necessarily what happened. Truth becomes an abstract. I watched a very guilty person walk away.

But this is NASCAR and not a courtroom. They are a private, not a public company.

They have stabilized, to a large degree, their loss of viewership. Perhaps not the actual attendees to the race, they may never return, but NASCAR and it’s cadre’ of high paid lawyers weren’t going to take the chance that Kurt Busch could, and he certainly could have, won the Daytona 500 only to be charged with a crime later on.

Ms. Driscoll has exacted her pound of flesh, for now, NASCAR has saved face in the American public’s eyes and there is now a safer barrier where there should have been one all along.

The Daytona 500 went off without a hitch and perhaps NASCAR has listened to the suggestions of others erudite in technical matters regarding qualifying on large tracks such as Daytona and Talladega.

Oh, and Joy Logano won his first Daytona 500 with authority.

Team Penske: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Joey Logano says that Team Penske may be smaller than others, but its internal harmony has helped bring success. Logano finished fourth in points last year.

Joey Logano says that Team Penske may be smaller than others, but its internal harmony has helped bring success. Logano finished fourth in points last year.

Given the way Team Penske performed last year, you really shouldn’t expect major changes for 2015. In fact, you should not expect any changes at all.

The team’s drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, performed admirably. Both made the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. Logano was one of four drivers in the running for the championship at Homestead.

Logano completed the year fourth in points with five victories.

Keselowski fell short of the final four. But he did finish fifth with six wins. Combined, the Penske drivers won 11 Sprint Cup races in 2014.

That was just two victories short of the total compiled by Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers, none of whom made it to the championship round at Homestead, by the way.

Penske scored more wins than Joe Gibbs Racing (eight) and Roush Fenway Racing (none).

Hendrick, a strong, winning organization for years, has been the team by which all others are measured.

And in 2014, Penske measured up pretty darn good.

Team owner Roger Penske said that last season was his team’s best ever. And he intends for things to get better.

“Teamwork paid off,” he said. “To me it’s going to be our foundation in 2015. Something that isn’t broken, let’s not fix it.”

Brad Keselowski admits that he drives extra hard at times, but if it means a victory, then he's going to keep on doing it.

Brad Keselowski admits that he drives extra hard at times, but if it means a victory, then he’s going to keep on doing it.

After his tenure at Gibbs, Logano hit his stride at Penske. Yes, he won three times in four years with Gibbs, but he has six wins in two years with Penske – not to mention a shot at the title.

Logano believes that his accomplishments may not have been reached without the rapport he has at Penske. That won’t be forgotten. Nor will some of his past on-track escapades.

“There’s no such thing as bygones being bygones in this sport,” Logano said. “Everyone seems to remember. Stuff carries over for a long time.

“There was a lot of drama last year but I don’t think it will affect 2015. Hopefully none of us are involved in it this year and we will just get to race.”

It’s fair to say most of the drama in 2014 centered on Keselowski, an outspoken competitor who isn’t afraid to take chances – particularly if they end up in victory.

“I made guys mad racing for the win,” Keselowski said. “It wasn’t racing for 20th. You get into a wreck racing for 20th, heck, that doesn’t make Sports Center.

“If you do it racing for the win or a championship then you are probably doing the right thing.

“When I get called for it, I see it as a compliment. That may not be the way others see it, but I do.”

Keselowski has seen first hand the changes at Penske. When he arrived six years ago, he said he saw three different teams operating under the same banner but sharing very little.

So it’s not difficult to understand why results varied. In 2010, Keselowski and teammate Sam Hornish Jr. did not win and ranked 25th or worse in points. Kurt Busch, with two wins, made the Chase.

“Now, the difference is we have all our teams working together closely,” Keselowski said. “We’ve earned more wins than we’ve had as a team in a long time.

“And we probably have the best relationships inside the company and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.”

This year, Ryan Blaney joins Penske as its principal XFINITY Series driver. He will compete in selected Sprint Cup events and race a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers, which has a technical alliance with Penske.

Although smaller than Hendrick, Gibbs or Roush Fenway, Penske has thrived. There’s a reason for that, according to Logano.

“We’re all on the same level,” he said. “You hear all the time how important it is to work really well together and for us, that is what is happening.

“And, yes, that is very important.”

If you say Keselowski and Logano will enter 2015 as title contenders, well, they won’t argue with you – nor will anyone else.

They have already proven their mettle.

“We have two or three of the best cars,” said Keselowski, an expectant father. “No, we aren’t the largest. But I think that is to our advantage.

“It was part of our success last year and it will be this year.”

 

Time To Let Nationwide Series Shine On Its Own

The postponed DuPont Pioneer 250 Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway may have started late, but it had plenty of action. Trevor Boys emerged as the winner in an exciting finish.

On a day in which Jimmie Johnson started on pole and dominated at Pocono, it was the young guns of the NASCAR Nationwide Series that stole the show in Iowa on a rare Sunday morning race.

After weather postponed the Nationwide event at Iowa Speedway, NASCAR made the call to run the race at 11 ET on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, rain fell again, delaying the race once more and pushing the conclusion well into the Sprint Cup Series’ time slot. The 250-lap event saw hard short-track racing with an old-fashioned side-by-side battle for the win in the closing laps. Two of the sport’s future stars – Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon – raced hard, bent sheet metal, and put on quite the show in pursuit of the checkered flag.

However, with so many eyes glued to the Sprint Cup Series broadcast, one has to wonder just how many fans saw what ended up being the best NASCAR race of the day.

While the Nationwide race may have had the better action of the weekend, it is important to take a look at the reason behind the success.

With the series performing as a stand-alone event, only one Sprint Cup Series driver – Joey Logano – was slated to run the race. When weather forced the Penske Racing driver back to Pocono, the field was set with only Nationwide Series drivers for the first time all season.

Austin Dillon leads the field to the green flag at the start of the Nationwide Series race in Iowa. Dillon was a victory contender and raced hard against Boys for the win.

Knowing it was their time to shine, they took to the short track in Iowa for their chance to finally reach victory lane – something that has rarely happened in 2013.

Since the season-opening race at Daytona, Sprint Cup Series regulars have won nine of the first 12 events – Kyle Busch leads the series with six victories. In fact, each of the 12 races this season has been won by a driver with some Sprint Cup experience.

A double dipping driver is certainly not a recent trend in NASCAR. Drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Harry Gant often pulled double-duty with great success in the Nationwide Series.

In recent years, NASCAR eliminated the opportunity for Sprint Cup Series drivers to win the Nationwide Series championship by making them ineligible for points, but the time has come to do more.

Sunday’s Nationwide-only field put on one of the best races of the season, as well as up-staged the Sprint Cup event nearly 1,000 miles away.

While racing against the likes of Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and others may help younger drivers learn from the best, allowing them to race on their own and contend for wins will further develop their fan base and experience within NASCAR – as well as rejuvenate a series in dire need of a boost.

 

 

 

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.

Richmond: Thoughts On Busch, Montoya, Newman And A Bit More

A few random thoughts after the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond International Raceway:

** The 2011 Sprint Cup season is one-quarter over and, while it’s still too early to draw any real conclusions, some drivers whom we thought would be in the championship hunt, and aren’t, now have more pressure on them.

Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are some of the drivers who figured to rank among the top 10 by now, and thus Chase eligible, in many pre-season reports.

However, at present, Biffle ranks 14th in points and the others are 17th and beyond. It’s especially surprising to see Hamlin at 17th, given that he was considered the man who could potentially bring Jimmie Johnson’s string of five consecutive championships to an end.

A couple of tasks face these drivers. First, they have to start piling up decent finishes, and somewhat quickly. That, obviously, could lead to a rise in the point standings.

It can be done. Clint Bowyer provides ample proof of that. At Richmond, where he finished sixth, the Richard Childress Racing driver posted his fifth consecutive top-10 of the season. He has gained 17 positions in points in the last five races. He’s presently seventh in the standings.

But, while it can be done, what Bowyer has achieved isn’t routine in NASCAR. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Consequently, the aforementioned drivers, who will certainly do their utmost to match or better what Bowyer has done, can’t rely it alone.

That brings up an alternate strategy – which is to win.

With its revamped requirements for the Chase this year, the top 10 in points are eligible after 26 races. Also in the field are “wildcard” entries consisting of the two drivers ranked among the top 20 who have won the most races.

So if the mentioned drivers, not all of whom currently rank in the top 20, by the way, and several others not in the top 10 can win a race, that adds a measure of insurance.

Jeff Gordon, who is 16th in points, is the only driver outside the top 10 in points who has a victory (yes, Trevor Bayne is another but he is not eligible for the Cup championship). So at the moment, Gordon has an advantage.

Several others would, at the least, like to match it.

But if putting together a series of high finishes is an exception and not the norm in NASCAR, what do you think winning is?

As said, it’s early in the year and there’s time for any number of scenarios to play out.

What could prove to be a very exciting one for fans is for a few drivers, desperate to make the Chase as its start looms, throw strategy and caution to the wind and make an all-out lunge for victory.

It could happen. No, make that it will happen.

 

** Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch demands respect as a race driver.

His Richmond victory was the 21st of his young Cup career. He ranks third in NASCAR to achieve that many wins by the age of 26, behind Jeff Gordon (26) and Richard Petty (22).

That Busch won should not have been all that surprising. He now has won Richmond’s spring race three consecutive times, which ties him with Petty. Hamlin has won the other two races at RIR in the last three years, which gives Joe Gibbs Racing five straight victories at the 0.75-mile track – and eight overall.

Hamlin, incidentally, was the runnerup in the Crown Royal 400 and he dominated the Nationwide Series race on the previous night.

It’s not likely that Busch will ever be NASCAR’s most popular driver – but you never know. Wiseguy Darrell Waltrip was once, like Busch, called a jerk. But he was the fans’ choice twice in his career.

You don’t have to like Busch. But I think his talent should always be recognized, even if grudgingly.

** The incidents between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman were not atypical of short-track racing.

First, Newman rubbed Montoya and sent him into the wall. Then, later in the race, Montoya did the same thing. Happens all the time.

The only difference was that while few chose to call Newman’s actions deliberate, there was little doubt about Montoya’s.

NASCAR warned both drivers about bad behavior and even told Montoya that if he got near Newman, his car would be ordered to its hauler.

Many media members felt the issue would spill over into the garage area, especially since the haulers of Montoya and Newman were parked almost alongside each other.

After the race there could be some good chin-to-chin action – or more. Hey, it’s happened.

Instead Montoya left the track without comment – a good move on his part. Newman went to the NASCAR hauler. He told the media he was going to ask the sanctioning body what it was going to do about all that happened.

In my opinion, that was another good move. If he did what he said he was going to do, Newman effectively put the ball into NASCAR’s court; for it to tell him, and all of us, how it is going to rule on the issue.

Had Newman and Montoya gotten into a scrap in the garage, NASCAR would have come down hard on both of them.

Had their entanglements on the track involved other cars, believe me, NASCAR would have acted swiftly.

As it is, it appears Newman stated his case to NASCAR and asked for a ruling. Smart move.

What will NASCAR do? If it hands out any punishment beyond probation I’d be surprised.

But NASCAR has surprised me many times.

 

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