Monday, August 21, 2006

Another Reason To Love NASCAR Racing

Is it just me, or is the racing this year frakking excellent? The GFS 400 at Michigan started off with a bang. At the start, many of the race drivers drove as if they were in the final lap. It seems as if each week, the competition is even more intense than it was the week before. This is understandable, partly because the cutoff for the championship chase is only four races away, and there are still a few drivers who can make it into the top ten. Only two drivers, Sunday's race winner, Matt Kenseth, and points championship leader, Jimmie "Lucky" Johnson, are mathematically locked into the top ten. Positions three through ten are still up for grabs, and five through ten could all change in the course of one race. So the points race is tight, and that makes the racing exciting.
Another reason is that, with the veterans finally getting a handle on the new aero package--and I'm including the #8 team as one of the veterans--and the rookies and younger racers gaining experience, the competition level is high. Kasey Kahne, for example, has finally gotten a taste of what it is like to be a winner this year. If he could hold the edge he has at the beginning of a race throughout the entire event, he could be unbeatable. Drivers who have recently made changes--or, more accurately, teams that have changed drivers--seem to be justifying the changes. For instance, Elliott Sadler, having switched from the Yates Racing #38 to the Everham Racing #19 team, finished in the top ten in his first race with his new team. Consider this: Sadler has never driven a Dodge in a NASCAR race. The aerodynamics and handling characteristics are different from the Fords he has been in his entire career. You wouldn't have been able to tell that from his performance Sunday.
Jeff Burton's switch from Roush Racing to Childress Racing has also been very lucrative. Childress didn't even have a team that could make the top ten for the championship chase last year or the year before, but just the presence of Burton on the team not only improved the performance of the driver and the #31 team, but Kevin Harvick in the #29 has been inspired and is also pretty much in the top ten. Coattails can be long in NASCAR--by that I mean that, though Harvick doesn't lack talent, he needed inspiration, and Burton's inspiration definitely took hold. Credit should also be given to team owner Richard Childress, who made the decision to step up his program and become more competitive.
Other owners have stepped up their programs successfully. Team Ganassi, the partnership which once featured Sterling Marlin as the lead driver, has long had a policy of blaming the driver, not the equipment. Felix Sebates, the original owner of the team, and still the car owner, held the range until just over a month ago, when Chip Ganassi announced the signing of Formula One driver and living legend Juan Puablo Montoya. As Ganassi stepped in, an immediate improvement in the team could be seen. The highly talented Reid Sorenson has suddenly become a strong contender in several races this year. Though we won't see real results until next season, the level of competition in the Ganassi drivers has increased noticeably.
Michigan International Speedway is one of the great fan-friendly venues on the Cup Series circuit. Three and four-wide racing is enabled all around the track, even in the turns. Side by side, wheel-to-wheel racing always makes the race more exciting, and nobody I know was disappointed by the constant racing action that took place in Sunday's race. We all got what we wanted--Earnhardt, Jr racing Jeff Gordon, who raced Jimmie Johnson, among others. We got to see the #48 team do what they do--that is, overcome an early race set back to finish in the top ten. Tony Stewart and the #20 team also reminded us that what they do is come from a start deep in the field and finish in the top five. We witnessed the genius of Mark Martin, and Matt Kenseth as they did what they do best.
Even though there was attrition early in the race, due to mechanical problems and tire issues, it was entirely a clean race. Threatened retribution did not materialize. The tire issue spoiled any plans to make it a fuel mileage race. Spontaneous changes in pit strategy are another element of racing that makes it exciting. This is the "chess match" element of NASCAR racing, where the crew chief has to outthink the other crew chiefs, while the driver is trying to out-drive the other drivers. Yes, racing is exciting in every aspect.
Even though, on television, we saw more commercials than racing, I have to congratulate the TNT/NBC crew on their excellent camera coverage. For once, we can tell the race we are watching on TV is the same race to which we are listening on the radio. The camera coverage is showing racing everywhere on the track, and a serious attempt is being made to deliver the feeling of the speeds at which the cars are racing.
Racing is good.

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