Friday, April 27, 2007

The 'Dega Factor

This photo is from Ballparks and is for sale in full poster size through that website.

Talladega Superspeedway is the biggest and fastest venue on the NASCAR racing circuit. After it was built in 1969, many drivers in what was then the NASCAR Grand National Series (now the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series) deemed it too fast for safety's sake. Most of the NGNS drivers, led by Richard Petty boycotted the inaugaral race in the fall of 1969, in spite of assurances by NASCAR presedent "Big" Bill France--who actually got in a racecar and drove laps there--that the track was safe. The field was filled by drivers from the NASCAR Sportsman Series (now the NASCAR Busch Series) and the race went on, being won by Richard Brickhouse.
Since 1970, the race still goes on, twice a year, at Talladega, where the infield parties rival those of the Daytona Speed Weeks. The winners' list reads like a roster of the racing Hall of Fame.
Since 1988 (?) the addition of the restrictor plate, which limits the air intake to the engine, and thus the horsepower, has prevented the cars from reaching speeds too deadly for racing in the large, heavy cars. It also forces the cars to stay close together, and they travel around the track as one large group. This can also be very dangerous--restrictor plates or not, the cars still reach speeds of over 200mph while mere inches apart, creating the potential for huge multiple car accidents. We have often referred to the races at Talladega as a "200mph parking lot."
The racing at Talladega is not so much dependent on the driver as it is to the entire team. Races are won on pit road, and a missed set-up is always fatal to the chances of winning. Luck, also, has very much to do with the outcome of the race.
Still, a driver's skill is much needed in the mix. Talladega takes a steady hand on the wheel, and extreme patience on the part of the driver. This is why we can expect the best finishes to be placed by the most experienced teams and drivers.
Teamwork between drivers, even those who do not drive for the same owner, is often seen at Talladega, the most notable in recent years being that of Dale Earnhardt, Jr and Tony Stewart. These two can almost always be expected to hook up during restrictor plate races, and have had great success together. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers, especially The (Jeff) Gordon and reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, can be expected to work together most effectively, and HMS whiz-kid Kyle "Schrub" Busch can also be added to that mix. Kevin Harvick, winner of the Daytona 500, also likes to run with Stewart and Junior, plus he has very capable teammates from RCR in Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.
I write this often: never underestimate Denny Hamlin, or, in the case of restrictor place racing, his "other" teammate JJ Yeley. Yeley has been showing much maturity this season, which was missing last year, and if Hamlin and Yeley hook up, that may be a difficult combination to beat.
The surprise of the race could be the Robert Yates team of David "Gilligan" Gilliland and Ricky "Rooster" Rudd. Gilligan is one of those natural talents who can often surprise, and the Rooster has one of the best all-time career records at 'Dega, not having won a race there, yet, but almost consistantly finishing in the top ten. We may also see an unprecedented hook up between a Ford and a Chevy, with Matt Kenseth in the Ford, and Mark Martin in the Chevy cooperating to run much of the race up front. Their driving style is so similar, it would be disappointing not to see them run together.
There is no sure thing in racing, and this is often most noticeable at Talladega. Drivers may get angry at each other for a variety of reasons, including excessive or unnecessary and untimely bump drafting and aggressive blocking, and the alliances quickly deteriorate. And we can also expect the aforementioned "Big One"--the accident that could potentially take out many of the favorites--to occur.
Even with my personal misgivings about restrictor plate racing, Talladega is a very exciting venue, and the one thing we can expect Sunday is a strategy contest that rises above all other sports. No matter who the winner is, the adrenaline rush for the fan will be extreme. Let's go racing!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Phoenix was the first "real" test for the CoT

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE Copyright © 2007 Mark J. Rebilas

I call it the "retrocar," because the boxier shape reminds me of the cars NASCAR ran prior to the late nineties, and because it features the flying wing--dissimilar to the one's we saw on the Plymouth Superbird and Dodge Daytona in the late 1960's and early '70's, but a flying wing, nonetheless. Phoenix International Raceway proved to be the first real test of the CoT, as we got to see the new design raced for the first time in a venue where aerodynamics are important.
What we saw was consistent, for the most part, with what we expected. The drivers who can adapt quickly adapted. According to the drivers and commentators, the new design "takes finesse" to race successfully, therefore, the drivers who are known for car control--Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and (I hate to say it) Jimmie Johnson--performed well, while drivers who just floor it and hope they miss everything in their way, like Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle, did not perform so well.
Something else that we noticed about the retrocar is that the bump and run technique is not all that effective in the retrocar. When a car approaches the rear of another car, the rear end does not lift as easily as it does in the conventional cars. Depending on what kind of racing you like to see, this could be good or bad. It seems that "clean" racing is forced with the retrocar, but that doesn't seem to affect the performance of the top drivers. The bump and run has been a trademark of The (Jeff) Gordon, for instance, but not being able to use that technique did not keep him from winning.
I didn't want to see Scott Riggs' bad luck continue. He was taken out early in the race in an accident not of his own making. I have a lot of confidence in Riggs, who has yet to win a Cup level race, and he has shown it while on the track. But he has had some bad luck this season that rivals the well known bad luck of drivers such as Greg Biffle and even Jeff Gordon. Whoever has the Scott Riggs Voodoo Doll, please put it away. Riggs has done nothing to deserve it.
Photo Credit: Copyright © 2007 Gary A. Vasquez

I really didn't want to see The Gordon win, and, for a little while, Smoke was giving him a good run for the win. But, when it came down to it, it was a good race, Gordon had a great car, we got to see two of the greatest race each other, and we were all touched by Gordon's tribute to Dale Earnhardt.
For a while, when the CoT is raced, there will be only six or seven drivers who will be in contention for the win, which isn't all that different from what we have seen so far this season in all the races. The other drivers will eventually learn to finesse the car through the turns, and the field will gradually become more even. Unless I'm mistaken, which admittedly I often am, the next CoT race is at Richmond, but I'm looking forward to the road course race at Watkins Glenn. That should be the next real test of what the retrocar can, or cannot do.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


I could write about the excellent racing in last night's NASCAR Busch Series Race--not only that of Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer at the finish, but also that of Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, and Carl Edwards for the top five places. It would be very appropriate to note the very touching and emotional display of rememberance for the victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy, not only by the drivers and crew members from Virginia, but by the entire organization and the ESPN broadcasting staff.
Dale Jarrett's excellent comments on Juan Pablo (Johnny Paul) Montoya's aggressive style of driving.
"In Formula One," Jarrett explained, "the race is won on the first lap, so he (Montoya) is used to going for all at the beginning of the race...Either the other drivers will learn to race his way or he will learn to race the way the drivers here do. I think he will learn to race the way the NASCAR drivers race." (That's not an exact quote, I can't remember what he said word-for-word, but that describes the point he was making.)
(AP Photo/Ken Sklute)

I would like to describe the flashback I had regarding Matt's chartruesse colored paint scheme. I thought it was 1999 at PPIR. Man, I hate that color, but I like the driver.
I would like to write about how the NBS race at Phoenix was the best we have seen in any series so far this season, but, really, one word suffices--

Friday, April 20, 2007

Saturday, Saturday, Saturday!!!

Of all the tracks on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit, my favorite tends to be the one on which they are racing. But, I must admit, I really like the one mile tracks. Every one of them is unique in obvious ways.
Take, for instance, Phoenix International Raceway, which is shaped like Lowe's Motor Speedway, but is one-half mile shorter. half mile makes a big difference in the type of racing we see, as the turns are tighter and the straightaways are shorter. Phoenix is big enough to accommodate forty-three cars, yet small enough to keep the fastest cars from getting strung out.
What really gets me excited about the Phoenix race is that it is Saturday Night Racing! Those of us who grew up watching stock car races, Saturday night is the proper time to race stock cars.
The Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans have plenty to be excited about Saturday's race--it is one of his favorite tracks, and his record there proves it, with two wins to his credit.
No doubt that Mark Martin will, in his first COT (retrocar) race, get a top ten. The way things are going for him--especially his driving while just having some fun--it is unimaginable that Phoenix will stop his streak of top five finishes.
One of the drivers who is claimed to be an Alien by The Church of the Great Oval, Kurt Busch, not only seems to be assimilating into Earthling society, but he also looks good for Phoenix, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known to be tough on Aliens has made him an honorary Deputy Sheriff.
This race could be a turn around for Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne, a breakthrough for Scott Riggs, and a continuation of the potentially exciting Johnny Paul/Smoke Stewart feud. It should noted that another driver likely to enter that fray, The “Jeff” Gordon, holds the pole, and though that starting position has yet to win a race at Phoenix, The Gordon has the best finishing average of all active drivers at Phoenix.
No matter who wins, Saturday night's race will be a good one, as will be tonight's NASCAR Busch Series race. That race, as are all Busch Series races, will be run in what is still the standard NASCAR machine. Carl Edwards is already in the process of running away with the NBS championship, and there is no doubt that the race is on at Phoenix to beat him.
I should note here that One Bad Wheel has an excellent site for stats, drivers, teams, tracks, and races, and is very easy to navigate and read to find the information you may want to find. Still, it hasn’t improved my accuracy, since I still tend to write off the top of my head no matter what stats I see. But, for those who do appreciate states, One Bad Wheel is highly recommended.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Titans Clash In Texas

Photo Credit: (Jason D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE) Copyright © 2007 Jason D. Smith
It was bound to happen--two drivers with similar personalities, with an extreme passion for racing, and equally infamous for their temper were going to clash. What a better place for it to happen than Texas, where the victory celebration includes symbols of the Wild West. Juan Pablo "Johnny Paul" Montoya and Tony "Smoke" Stewart thrilled us as they beat and banged for several laps, showing us what happens when the Titans clash. Smoke lost the battle, but those of us who know him know that he will get over it. We were happy to hear, during the post race interviews, that the "Old" Smoke, with the fire, is still there within the "new" Smoke.
"I can't blame him (Montoya), because he's only had five or six weeks to try to learn everything," said Smoke, "...Maybe he should stay near the back while he learns how we do things over here.
"He is the best driver that team (Ganassi) has, besides David Stremme. (But) he didn't make friends with me today."
(AP Photo/Larry Papke)
We now have the scenario set for what promises to be one of the greatest rivalries in racing, one that actually has its roots in the 1997 Indianapolis 500, which Montoya won while Stewart ran out of fuel while leading on the last lap. This promises some great racing moments, which we may look forward to seeing as soon as next Saturday night at Phoenix.
Even without Smoke in the race, we saw some great racing in Texas. Attrition took out some of the best cars, but we were treated to yet another excellent and exciting finish, as Jeff Burton raced hard for a win over Matt Kenseth on the very last lap, in a race that wasn't decided until they crossed the finish line. Jeff Burton, who was the first Cup driver to win at TMS (it was his first career Cup win) was also the first repeat winner at the track.
Meanwhile, after Kyle Busch had run into the back of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who had slowed down to miss a spinning Tony Stewart--Stewart was trying to make a poor handling car work for him--he left the track, thinking that the day was done for the #5 car. The crew did, however, repair the car well enough to get it back on the track, and it was driven to the finish by none other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. How's that for irony?
All in all, the race was the most eventful yet of the season, and, since events lead to events, we should be able to expect more of this in a highly competitive racing season.

In other racing news, Formula 1 super-rookie Lewis Hamilton finished second in the Bahrain Gran Prix, his third podium finish in his third career F1 race. This is the first time in the history of the world's premier racing series that a rookie has led the championship points standings--Hamilton is in a three-way tie for first at twenty two-points, with Bahrain winner Filipe Massa and Australian Gran Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen. Malalysian Gran Prix winner and current champion Fernando Alonso is a mere five points behind them, and, if you have never followed Formula 1 racing before, the tight points race is good reason to make this the season to start watching. The competition is hotter than it has been for a long time.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Rootin' and Tootin' Time in Texas

Photo Credit: The Dallas
Grab your hats, belts, and boots, pard'ners, it's Teyxas time agin'! The ultra-fast, medium sized (1.5 mile) Texas Motor Speedway promises the same kind of excitement we've seen at Atlanta and Las Vegas.
With twelve different winners in twelve different races, there isn't a single driver who has been consistently dominant at TMS. As we have seen in the past, anything can happen. Though it is always fun to predict a winner, this is one of the more difficult tracks for which to do so.
The odds that there won't be a repeat winner at TMS get smaller with every first-time winner there, but with twelve different winners, we can still safely assume that Sunday's winner could be someone who hasn't yet seen Victory Lane in Texas. Since Jeff Gordon has a mental block against TMS,. we can safely assume that he won't be the one we are looking for to take the checkers, Sunday. He absolutely hates the track, which features abrupt transitions between the 24 degree banked turns, and the five degree banked straightaways, definitely a challenge to even the most experienced drivers. Jimmie Johnson has a slightly better chance, as he is on a hot streak, and has come close to winning there before. Of the Rick Hendrick drivers, Kyle Busch is the best prospect to pick as winner, for he doesn't seem to care what the track conditions are. He will drive his usual style--wide open throttle, dodge the traffic, and hope those in front get out of the way--and, for him, his usual style could be the formula for victory.
Bobby Labonte could surprise us all and score a victory for Petty Enterprises. Drivers seem to perform better at their home tracks, but the very talented driver from Texas has yet to score a victory there. He is determined to win in his home state, and determination in the psyche of a competent driver can overcome the odds against him. Our hearts are saying “Go, Bobby, Go!” for he has gone way too long without a Cup level victory, but our minds are saying "What!?!"
Personally, I think the winner will come from the Childress stable, particularly Jeff Burton or Clint Bowyer. Burton is at the top of his game, and getting better, while Bowyer has climbed to the top of the list of Drivers Most Likely to Get Their First Career Cup Victory This Year, seventh in championship points after six races.
We should never underestimate Denny Hamlin, however. Whatever keeps that guy from winning doesn’t seem to be that big of a problem. Hamlin is sure to be one of the top all time NASCAR drivers not too far in the future.
Of course, there is always the increasing chance that somebody will be the first repeat winner in Texas. Based on performance, so far this year, the drivers most likely to get a second win at TMS would be Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, or Matt Kenseth. Smoke has overcome an early season setback at Daytona to climb to eight in points, while Matt The Brat has been a regular among the top ten finishers. The Acrobat, Carl Edwards is working his way to a Cup win, and he seems to be overcoming the setbacks he has had since last season.
Tell yew what, it's going to be a good and exciting race, Sunday, and we will, yet again, be satisfied that our favorite sport is the best when it comes to thrills and drama.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How 'Bout That Schrub?

Most race fans have a favorite driver to root for in their sport. It is like having a favorite team in the stick and ball sports--unless you have a favorite, you are just watching the players go through the motions.
The beauty of racing is that if our favorite doesn't win, there is always a chance that someone else we like will. We all have our favorites in NASCAR, but that doesn't always mean that we don't have a list of other drivers we like to see win, or, at least, get a top five finish. I have such a list that is relatively long.
But, though we may respect fifty drivers for their skills and abilities, we have to have someone we want to see lose. We want that driver to lose by less than a car length, hopefully being beaten by a driver we like, or to see him spin out on the last turn of the last lap. That always makes racing exciting. The driver we want to see lose has to be one of extraordinary talent--it's no fun watching a driver who is often a back marker lose.
Jeff "The Gordon" Gordon is on the top of my personal list of Drivers Whom I Like To See Get Beat, and he has been for a long time. When he is at the top of his game, he is the one driver, most of all, that somebody has to beat. The reasons are pretty obvious--he is arguably one of the best drivers ever, and he isn't Tony Stewart (my favorite driver, for those who don't know or haven't figured it out). Gordon made that list when he was racing the late Dale Earnhardt, who was my favorite up to the time of his death in 2001. The two always competed hard against each other, and one often wrecked the other to get a win in a close race. Since The Intimidator was my favorite, The Gordon became my "bad guy."
But Kyle "Schrub" Busch is about to take away The Gordon's spot on my list. The kid is absolutely amazing. While complaining that he couldn't get the new NASCAR Retrocar to turn for him, he raced his way to victory in the first race that was run in the new design cars, at Bristol, and got a top ten in the next Retrocar race at Martinsville. The way he drives is reckless by any standard, but, somehow he has learned to drive recklessly and avoid wrecks, in a way that is almost mystical. This not only takes talent, but extremely fast reflexes. He is like an unguided missile going around the track, that somehow misses all the obstacles and defenses that are put up to prevent him from reaching his goal. Few are as determined to win a race, especially in a car that isn't handling well. Unlike his teammate Jimmie "Lucky (D)uck" Johnson, who though highly skilled probably wouldn't see much success with a crew chief other than Chad Knaus, Schrub seems to have the skill to drive himself to success no matter who his crew chief is. He just powers the car through any circumstance, and somehow manages to come out ahead. And, he is always learning--the more he wins, the better he gets. Though I have nothing against him--in fact, I admire the sportsmanship he showed at Atlanta, as well as his driving skill--he is rapidly rising to the top of the Drivers Whom I Like To See Get Beat list. In fact, if The Gordon doesn't race him hard and gives him a win like he did Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, he will be replaced.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Happy Easter...

From the Easter Cat. I don't have a bunny, but I do have a hare-lipped cat who could substitute if I altered the picture a little...

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Battle of the Clones

It was bound to happen--the original versus his creation. In the closing laps of Sunday's NASCAR Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, it as a sure bet that The (Jeff) Gordon would win the race. After all, he had been running very well, staying toward the front of the pack throughout much of the race, falling back due to a serious mishandling incident, and working his way up through the treacherous traffic of Martinsville to once again challenge for the lead. With both the car and the driver in top form, victory was within his grasp. But as he returned to the front, he literally ran into his biggest obstacle to winning the race--his clone was also at the front.
Jimmie Johnson owes much of his racing career to The Gordon--who coached his protoge through his early days in NASCAR and is part owner of the car Johnson races--but he owes much more to his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Not to belittle the talent of Jimmie Johnson, but one must wonder if he wasn't driving on that particular team, would he be holding a .500 win average for the first six races, or would he even be the defending champion?
All through practice and qualifying, Jimmie had been complaining about the handling of his car, and his practice times were unusually slow for him. Somehow, Knaus and the #48 team worked on the car during the race, and made a very good car out of a back marker.
So came the Final Confrontation. The Gordon and his clone ran a very interesting and exciting race during the final three laps. All Jeffy had to do was get Johnson loose and pass him, because he clearly had the better car. He even looked as though he was going to make the bump and run and spin Johnson if he had to.
Other teams, such as Yates and Roush-Fenway, want to see hard competition between their drivers. But not Hendrick Motorsports, whose motto is "We Are Family." Frustrated as he was with Johnson's excessive and aggressive blocking, The Gordon just couldn't bring himself to take out his clone. After all, he did teach him how to avoid being taken out from behind by drivers like himself.