Saturday, February 24, 2007

Gentlemen, Start Your Season


No restrictor plates this week, just good, old fashioned racing. This is where we see what everybody has for the intermediate tracks, which make up the majority of the venues for the NASCAR Cup season. It is where the drivers find out what kind of equipment their teams have for them. This is why many drivers say the season starts with the 500 mile race at California Speedway..
It certainly starts for Brian Vickers, who missed qualifying for the Daytona 500, qualifying the Red Bull Racing #83 ( Toyota in the top twenty, a good position from which to start at California Speedway. I know Vickers isn't very popular, after the way he got his first career Cup win at Talladega last year, but we maintain that that incident was more the result of restrictor plate racing than it was recklessness on the part of the driver. It took me a while, after several incidents in Vickers' first two years where he looked like a lost cause, being the instigator of several crashes which were the result of his carelessness, but as Vickers learned and matured, I learned to like him. He still has to prove himself to a majority of red clothed NASCAR fans, but I think he can. He has the great Doug Richert as his crew chief. Richert is the master of "coil binding," the tricky and legal technique of running the front suspension mostly on the shocks. This allows the front of the car to "suck down" when accelerating and lift when decelerating, very good characteristics for a car at CS, which has flat turns and long, fast straight-aways. So with Vickers in the race, we will get some idea of what the Toyotas can do. But will Vickers win, Sunday? Probably not. He may not even finish in the top ten, but he can begin his mission to get his car into the top thirty five in owners' points. He should be able to qualify for every race here on out.
The reason that we are not picking Vickers to finish in the top ten can be summed up in three words--Richard Childress Racing. All three of the RCR drivers, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, and Kevin Harvick are going into the Auto Zone 500 with the spirits of your high school football team that kicked everybody's butt. They are all good drivers, and they all have the equipment to back them up. We will see all three of them finish in the top ten, Sunday.
A short aside and a shout out here. I make it a point to make my picks here before checking with The Church of the Great Oval, because I don't like to influence my gut feelings. But Clance makes thorough astrological projections before each race on several of the more popular drivers, and is usually pretty accurate. I'm pretty sure that if I check her site, I will find that the charts for these three drivers are very positive.
So, there are still seven positions in the top ten in which we could fit Mr. Vickers. And there are two more words--"Busch Brothers." There is no doubt that Kyle Busch has what it takes to win at California. This is a guy who is driven to excellence, no matter what it takes. He can be a wild man behind the wheel, but, if he can stay out of trouble, he can be awesome. Brother Kurt Busch has always been strong at California, and should also get a top ten finish. Kurt has become determined to prove his value as driver of the legendary #2 Miller Lite car. He has a lot of work to be seen on the same level as Rusty Wallace, who made that car legendary, but, in light of his talent, it could be easy work for him. He has been strong in every race at California Speedway.
Now there are five spots left in which we could fit Flyin' Brian. Well, minus another two words, "Matt Kenseth." Matt has the handicap of not having his life long crew chief Robby Reiser with him this race, but he is a good enough driver--and Roush-Fenway is a good enough organization--that he can still do well without him. Kenseth, the reigning race champion of the Auto Club 500, also has the handicap of the fifty point penalty from last week, one which he wants to make up as quickly as possible. We--"we" meaning "I"--consider Kenseth to be one of the greatest of the currently active drivers, right up there with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. We think his chances of repeating last year's victory are good to excellent.
So, with four spots left in my top ten predictions, wouldn't there still be room for the Talledega Terror. Not if we have to include some of the Everham drivers. Scott Riggs has taken his time getting to the top, but he will get there, slowly and surely. He will win at least one Cup race this year, but his team seems to be the one that is hurting the most from the suspension of the crew chiefs last week. His practice times and his qualifying times really aren't that good, so far. There are still two practice sessions left, and his team has plenty of time to find the right setup for him, so he could make it into the top ten at the finish. The other two Everham drivers are the ones we may feel more confident about. Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler are proven racers, and California is a real racers' track, so we can fit them into the top ten predictions for Sunday.
Notice we haven't picked any underdogs or dark horses into our predictions. I really have to go by records in making my guesses, in the case of this particular track, and in light of the fact that it is still early in the season, and we really haven't seen anything yet. Personally, I would like to see Mark Martin in the top ten, but I don't want to jinx him. He is loving it this season, and we--"we" meaning race fans in general--know that he can win. He has come so close twice this season--at the Daytona 500 and at last night's Craftsman Truck Series Race--he sincerely wants to win. We will see him lead some laps, and this is good, because it is so much fun to watch "The Kid"--that was the late Benny Parson's nickname for him--race against challengers when he is in the lead, and that is probably his downfall, because, as great as he is, he is not as good at protecting the lead as he is at getting to the front. That is the only reason I am not picking him to win.
The last spot in our top ten predictions goes to Tony Stewart. Yes, he is my favorite driver, but I have tried to stay objective in my picks. Stewart went into the race in California after finishing 43rd in the Daytona 500 in 2002, and went on to win the championship. Can you say deja-vu? In 2002, he felt a lot of pressure, and he seems to do better when he isn't under pressure. California is one of only four tracks at which he hasn't seen victory lane, and we are sure he wants to cut that number down to three. We know that if Smoke wants it, he will get it. Well, at least he will get close to it. He has been close to it so many times before.
Why am I leaving Jeff Gordon out of my top ten picks? To date, nobody has won from the pole position at California, and, though Gordon is very capable of changing that record, I don't think this will be his day. Whoever has the Jeff Gordon Voodoo doll seems to be still sticking pins in it, because his luck has been sour so far this year. A good car in practice and in qualifying often becomes a dog in the last fifty miles of a 500 mile race, and Gordon will struggle if he drops too far back from the lead. On the other hand, he could lead all 250 laps, which would be boring, so, though it is for no good reason to not pick him, I am just not feeling it for him.
Bottom line is this--Brian Vickers will get a top fifteen finish, and will be, along with Dave Blaney, the co-torch bearer for Toyota in its inaugural NASCAR Cup season.
Now for a few other notes:
I am truley upset with NASCAR for how they prevented some teams from getting more than a few laps practice in the first session. Tony Stewart's comments last week about NASCAR having enough money to hire more people to do the job stopped being a joke, as tech inspections ran well into the practice times. Jeremy Mayfield, and several other drivers got screwed, and this likely made a difference in whether they qualified or not. With so many teams trying to make the race, this season, NASCAR needs to figure out a way to finish all tech inspections before the practice session begins. I think that the teams that didn't qualify due to not having enough practice time to get a qualifying set up should be monetarily compensated by NASCAR. In fact, it is time to for NASCAR to levy a fine against itself, to pay these other teams. Thank you.
The incident which took Mark Martin out of the truck race wasn't all Ron Hornaday's fault. Hornaday is a clean driver who is good at restarts, and really didn't have many choices when Martin checked up on the restart. Those of us who pay attention know that it is a standard tactic of Roush drivers, past and present, to brake check when leading on a restart to stack the competition up behind them. Martin even admitted that he was trying to slow Hornaday down. The only Roush driver I haven't seen do this is Matt Kenseth. But it takes two to cause a wreck, so I'm saying "that's racing," and it's too bad that Mark Martin once again came close to winning a race only to see victory go down the drain. All we can say is better luck next time, because we really do like to see Mark Martin win.
One more note on the rookies. I left David Ragan out of my predictions for Rookie of the Year on the basis that I felt he was still on the rough side. But he showed much maturity and skill in making through the smoke and wreckage at the end of the Daytona 500 and getting a fifth place finish, which is quite an accomplishment, especially for a rookie. And, he probably would have finished in the top ten even if the big one hadn't happened at the end of the race, as that's where he was running coming out of the last turn. Jack Roush has a good eye for talent, and I should have recognized that. Roush has a good reason for putting Ragan in the #6, and I can see that now. David Reutimann, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, and David Ragan are the only rookies who have made both races, and are the only ones in contention for ROTY.

1 comment:

racefan57 said...

it turned out to be a not so boring race...as Cali usually is... and Vickers did end up with a nice finish and I'm pleased to see Mark on top...for a minute anyways!!!

nice blog