Phoenix: Finally NASCAR is Worth Watching Again

Harvick celebrates his 8th Phoenix win. There's a reason they call him "The Closer".

Harvick celebrates his 8th Phoenix win. There’s a reason they call him “The Closer”.

I know, villagers, pitchforks and all that. However the truth is, at least for me, is that NASCAR over the past decade has been a once popular child that had lost it’s way. A victim of group-think.

It never seems to amaze me just how hard it is for large corporations to change their processes, marketing or product to suit what the consumer want’s and needs.

For me, I just sat in amazement years ago, or rather disbelief, as they rolled out the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ and steadily tried to make an Edsel into a Ferrari. All those wasted years. No matter, they seem to have turned the corner, at least so far in the 2016 season.

The lower down-force cars have certainly been a step in the right direction if Phoenix is to be used as the barometer de jour for a functioning formula.

I watched the Phoenix race yesterday and sat back in amazement at how long it took NASCAR to get to this point. Over a decade to recover the hard on-track battles that had been the norm pre COT. Incredible.

However, the past is the past and looking too far back on it does no one any favors. Lets just hope NASCAR will build on the platform it has. Translation: Don’t be afraid to take more down-force off of these cars.

Phoenix was the one race I had looked forward to seeing simply because it’s a flatter and more challenging track in many ways than the 1.5 milers. To me that was to be the first of several tests that would reflect the success or failure of the new aero platform. Fontana is the next.

I don’t think anyone could argue that to date Phoenix was the best race for both the fans in the seats and the television viewers. Multiple passes, Kyle Busch’s early dominance not withstanding, were the norm throughout the race.

Edwards did everything he could to beat Harvick. Just .01 seconds made the difference.

Edwards did everything he could to beat Harvick. Just .01 seconds made the difference.

A few bugs here and there were the tires that left Newman, Menard, Stenhouse and Keselowski in the outhouse, but not something that Goodyear can’t work with for the upcoming one milers and shorter.

No one should be surprised that even though the drivers wanted less down-force, the teams will and should try to add back as much of the invisible grip as they can. The only cure for it is to mandate, albeit slowly, less down-force.

There is a point where removing down-force will end and we’ll be looking at a locked in spec series. One could argue that it is now, but in this case what we’ve had in the past will make the newest platforms brilliant by comparison.

Some detractors might say that it’s the same old group of teams and drivers up at the front so it’s business as usual. To that mindset I have to say: What do you expect? It wouldn’t matter what rules you handed Hendrick or Penske, they are going to be at the front along with the hand picked drivers they employ. That’s why they are who they are.

We may be looking at a point in NASCAR where growth could come back to the sport, although that is going to take more time than folks might imagine. It’s always difficult to cultivate new fans all the while trying to keep the ones you have. Remediating lost fans is almost impossible.

However from what I’ve seen so far this season, they have my attention and I’m looking forward to the Auto Club race. High speed, flat track and low down-force. I’m sure that the fans who make the trek to Fontana will get their money’s worth.


Harvick Will Be The Dominant Driver At Phoenix

Gordon's teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

Gordon’s teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

With this weekend’s NASCAR race at Phoenix looming four drivers will be out of the game and four will be in, Count on Kevin Harvick to be one of the drivers who advance to Homestead for the finale’.

Harvick has had one of those seasons that had the usual ebb and flow we’ve come to expect from top drivers and teams. Periods of excellence that move to mediocre results and then come back with a vengeance aren’t uncommon for those who are in the elite club. The trick is when to peak.

Kevin Harvick seems to be more than at home in Phoenix having won 5 consecutive races at the desert track as well as 8 wins overall. He’s the favorite to win again ensuring his Homestead spot for the chance at his second Cup championship.

There are no more chances, this race is it. Jeff Gordon is ready to go, having won Darlington. The top four drivers in points are: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr, who seems to many to be an outlier.

One thing is certain the games will be in play at Phoenix with virtually all 7eligible drivers getting no help from their teammates and Hendrick rallying it’s team to block as many strong contenders as it can from being a threat to Jeff Gordon’s chances at Homestead.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

We were witness to that type of chess play when Jimmie Johnson so skillfully and stealthily ran down a dominant Brad Keselowski to take away a guaranteed spot for the Penske driver as well as further keep Joey Logano at bay.

That could actually play into Martin Truex, Jr’s hands, though the cards aren’t in his favor as his record at Phoenix are far from stellar and Furniture Row is a one car team.

When it’s all said and done, the money seems to point to Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards making the big show in South Florida.

Edwards has two wins at Phoenix and they are within the last few years rather than a decade old, so count him as a real threat to knock Truex out of the picture.

My picks going into Homestead: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards. Not a stretch, right?

My real hope is that Gordon goes out as a Champion and we can close the books on these cars with too much down force.

2016 is pivotal point for not only NASCAR but IndyCar and Formula One as well. It can’t come too soon for me.

NASCAR Atlanta: The Phoenix Finally Rises From The Ashes

Retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney and young Jacob Green

Retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney and young Jacob Green

Atlanta is one of those tracks that if I never have to see the inside of the facility again as long as I live, I’ll die a happy man. It never sold out, even in the halcyon days of NASCAR and the weather was always unpredictable. It was fast, but not particularly engaging racing. This weekend was different.

This year, the weather was unpredictable and so was the racing. The Folds of Honor/Quik Trip 500 turned out to be quite the follow up to the race in Daytona. It had the distinction of having a fantastic sponsor/co-sponsor arrangement and one hell of a great spokesman in retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney. One of the best ‘Start Your Engine’ commands yet.

It’s a shame that in a country as great as America that it takes the efforts of charity to support those families who were killed in action. Frankly it’s inexcusable, but for the honor and sense of duty by warriors such as Major Rooney.

What made this Atlanta race so unusual is that it wasn’t a complete snoozer.

NASCAR seems to have moved into that realm of getting it mostly right, mostly right being the race itself. Some of the controversy’s occurred prior to the race with many cars not making it through qualifying inspection. That is not all to be laid at NASCAR’s feet despite the howling by many of the top teams who didn’t make the qualifying round.

The chain reaction crashes were more reminiscent of restrictor palate races than 1.5 mile tracks.

The chain reaction crashes were more reminiscent of restrictor palate races than 1.5 mile tracks.

The teams know what the rules are and if they can’t build the cars to make it through inspection, then the bitching should be checked at the door.

The news rules took effect at Atlanta and the played right into the hands of the usual suspects. Jimmy Johnson looks to have found the perfect combination of a loose car and the appropriate horsepower to make it interesting.

He didn’t, however, run away with the race but rather showed his actual driving prowess as did Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt was a threat all day and should quiet down some of the double wide, white lacquer furniture crowd that seems so intent on destroying all things Junior.

It was evident at the start of the race that the cars were harder to handle, particularly after the tires had a few laps on them. No one looked comfortable as the cars moved around more than Asian massage parlors in Kansas City. It was a pleasure to finally see the ability of the drivers on display.

It was an impressive run by the young driver, Brett Moffitt, subbing for Brian Vickers. The kid finished 8th at Atlanta with wicked handling Sprint Cup cars. Very impressive.

It could very well be that Atlanta Motor Speedways surface itself caused the phenomenon of having to pit for tires before fuel, as the track hasn’t been surfaced in years, but it added to the evolving dynamics of the race and the ever changing strategies that had to be employed.

It was no surprise that the last half of the race showed the most caution periods, that is, after all, the nature of Sprint Cup. What was unusual was the way those cautions came about. It was more about the cars and the drivers learning the new formula rather than the divers egregious errors. It was obvious that certain moves took air off of these cars in ways that simply sent them spinning.

It won’t take these drivers long to figure out how to use this to their advantage, another arrow in their dirty little bag of tricks quiver. From this race forward, It will all depend on the track, temperature and tire compounds.

One thing things for sure, they will have to drive these cars, no cruising.

Several of the accidents were reminiscent of plate track racing collecting cars like a Godzilla film. It was slick, hard to predict when a car was going to lose grip and took all the skills that Jimmie Johnson had to hold off Harvick and Earnhardt.

Perhaps Johnson and Knaus have figured it out and are “Back” and perhaps not. One thing is for certain, it was a better show than Atlanta’s seen since Carl Edwards took his first Cup series win in 2005.


Harvick Shines With SHR, The Others Not So Much

Kevin Harvick dominated the race at Phoenix to win his first race of the season and his first with Stewart Haas Racing.

Well, one thing we can say about the Phoenix NASCAR Sprint Cup race with that infernal long name was that it wasn’t Daytona, was it?

Whereas Daytona was a very exciting event with several laps of riveting racing and a marvelous performance by winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Phoenix turned out to be a good ol’ fashion country butt kicking. Hey, it happens.

It was Kevin Harvick who did the kicking. That he did so shouldn’t be a surprise. He has now won five Phoenix races, more than any other driver.

He’ll tell you that Phoenix just suits him. During his earlier years of competition he raced on tracks that were very similar to the flat, one-mile layout in the desert.

Harvick led 224 of 312 laps, a performance that can be labeled dominating at the least.

Here’s the kicker:

Harvick was in new equipment. After 13 years with Richard Childress Racing – with which Harvick won 23 races, including four at Phoenix – the driver from Bakersfield, Calif., moved to Stewart Haas Racing for the start of the 2014 season.

Which begged the question: Could Harvick be his usual strong self at Phoenix with a new team?

We now know the answer.

Harvick admits that he has gotten comfortable quickly in his new situation and that, in turn, has contributed to early success.

“We do this to win.” Harvick said. “You want to win races. We’ve been fortunate to do that in the past. But in this arena it’s about winning championships and trying to be competitive on a weekly basis.

“I felt like I needed that enthusiasm to show up to work. I feel like as we go through situations, I’ve learned that Tony (Stewart) is one of the smartest people that I know.

SHR’s Danica Patrick has suffered several misfortunes this year in the form of accidents and this blown engine she experienced during practice for the Daytona 500.

“He sits there and listens to everything you say, takes all these things in. I know I’m going to say something and he’s going to remember it four, five, six weeks down the road.

“I’ve sat there and talked with Tony about what’s expected. He expects Rodney (Childers, crew chief) and I to lead the charge on the competition side.

“When he basically said that, right off the bat I felt comfortable speaking my mind. I think it gives these guys a lot of leeway to do the same thing.”

Harvick’s achievement smacks of what Matt Kenseth did in 2013. Kenseth raced for Roush Fenway for years and then departed for Joe Gibbs Racing.

It turned out to be a most fortuitous decision. Kenseth won seven races last season – more than any other driver – and finished second in the final point standings, 19 behind champion Jimmie Johnson.

Of course, it is way too early to declare that Harvick will do something similar. But it’s obvious the potential is there.

As it stands now Harvick is, without question, the main man at SHR. He’s got his victory, a potential spot in the Chase and is currently fourth in points.

The other three drivers have not fared as well.

Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick have yet to crack the top 15 in two races. At Phoenix, Stewart was 16th, Busch 39th after engine failure and Patrick 36th after a couple of incidents.

Stewart ranks 20th in points, Busch 30th and Patrick 39th.

Maybe the fuel cell problem Stewart experienced in Daytona, where he finished 35th, and Busch’s engine problems at Phoenix could be traced to difficulties at SHR.

However, Patrick, in a year where she must show competitive improvement, has been wiped out due to accidents not necessarily of her making.

“It’s tough,” she said. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve had good cars and nothing to show for it.

“The car was good all day, we just needed track position. I’m starting to think if we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all.”

Harvick is not concerned about luck, at least not now. He is propelled by his victory and what it says about his team.

“I just enjoy racing the cars and being around the people and seeing the enthusiasm that comes with everything,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like a job to everybody. It seems like everybody wants to be here and is having fun doing it.

“It’s just a different atmosphere for me. The enthusiasm is just through the roof.”

NASCAR’s Week Off: Everybody Lighten Up

Just because NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series took a week off doesn’t mean they’ll lose momentum. Better to be headed to Bristol than Fontana. The sport can stand a week break….it’s been on one for four years and survived.

NASCAR’s Bristol Race: More Upward Trending?

Will the NASCAR Sprint Cup day race at Bristol keep the ratings moving in an upward trend? Did the off weekend hurt the momentum? Motorsports Unplugged makes a few observations.

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