AP Photo/Matt Sayles
First of all, a conciliatory note to the Mark Martin fans. Mark is not in any points race in Cup or Craftsman Truck Series. He is racing for fun this season, and he will win races. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine.
The big letdown is that we have to wait two weeks until the next Cup race. It happens every season. We get fired up after the first two races, then have to wait two weeks before we can get back into it.
The Auto Club 500 started out with a bang, literally, but then fizzled for a long time. There was plenty of good racing going on, though, even if it wasn’t shown on the television broadcast. There is a good reason for AM radio. Again I am grateful for Motorsports Racing Network for doing a great play by play broadcast, while Fox was taking care of its financial obligations.
Matt Kenseth proved, once again that he is worth his salt. This was his first Cup win in a car that was not painted yellow and black, but was his second consecutive Auto Club 500 win, after winning the Busch race Saturday. He won as a true champion--the all-important Crew Chief, Robby Reiser, was absent due to sanctions placed upon the team due to rules infractions during Daytona Speedweeks, but this proved to be no handicap for the #17 team. I am not surprised that he won, and I like the paint job.
I barely got the taste of crow out of my mouth, concerning rookie David Ragan, before I realized that I had underestimated Brian Vickers. Not that I lack confidence in Vickers as a driver, I believe that he is very talented and capable, but I didn’t think, or know that Toyota had an engine package capable of a top ten finish at a wide open 500 mile race on a two mile track. California is tough on engines, as several drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dave Blaney saw. But I did predict that Vickers would do well once he qualified, and he should be able to perform well the rest of the season.
Neither the Craftsman Truck race, nor the Busch Series race ran with a full field. If the much hated Buschwhackers had not been in the race, Saturday, there would have barely been a race. In preparing to become the premier racing series featuring what we think of as “stock cars” in racing, beginning in 2008, the costs of fielding a team in every race have become prohibitive. Sponsors are difficult to find for the full season, and teams are strapped for cash. It is a matter of marketing, and it is time that NASCAR begin marketing the Busch Series the same way it does the Cup series. ESPN is helping, but NASCAR gets the money, not the teams. Something needs to be done soon to make sure that there is a sponsor for the series, as this is the last year Busch will be involved in the series. We know that NASCAR can do it, because they have done it before. Unfortunately for us race fans, who would rather see racing as a true sport than as entertainment a la WWE, it is all about the money.
There are also those who feel that Ron Hornaday robbed Mark Martin out of another win when he got into the back of the Sentimental Favorite’s truck near the end of Friday night’s CTS race. I’m no different from many other fans--I like Mark Martin and I really want to see him win, but he did brake check the restart, and Hornaday had the choice of running into the back of Martin, or braking hard and letting the rest of the field run into the back of him, causing a much bigger wreck. It was a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and he chose the lesser of two evils, as unpopular as it was.
Now, there is a two-week lull in the Cup action, but, for those fortunate to have cable or satellite service, the road race in Mexico City is on for next Saturday. This has proven to be a very interesting and exciting race in its first two years of existence. If you can watch the race, watch it, if you don’t get ESPN2, find a local radio station that carries MRN and listen to it. It will help curb the withdrawal symptoms from Cup racing for a week.
Monday, February 26, 2007
AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Saturday, February 24, 2007
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.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Ups and downs are what it's all about. All the different emotions we went through so quickly during the Daytona 500 produced the kind of rush we hungered for during the short but oh-so-long NASCAR off season. When you're full of elation because your favorite driver is leading the race with fifty laps to go and sure to win, you feel like you are on top of the world, only to have that bubble burst when your driver has to let up on the throttle because his car slides, and gets run into from behind and wrecks. Wow!
Tony Stewart was definitely the driver to beat, with the best car in the field, having proven it by moving from the tail end of the field after problems in the pit, back to the front. It took him sixty one laps, or roughly one hundred fifty one miles to get there, because the traffic was bad, but he did it. It was almost certain that he would win his first Daytona 500.
But it's racing, and anything could happen, and it did. Kurt Busch was following close behind, in Stewart's draft, and when Smoke's #20 car slid, Busch couldn't react quickly enough to avoid the wreck. Both cars were out of the race, and there really wasn't anybody we could blame for it.
Now, one could think that the race was over for Tony Stewart or Kurt Busch fans as well, but that's not the case for this race fan nor for any other fan I know. We might be disappointed, angry, frustrated, and even saddened to the point of tears, no, actually cryijng, but such is the nature of the diehard race fan that we just have to stick around to see what happens next. And we were treated to one heck of a race.
For the most part, the Daytona 500 was a clean race, and even when there were mishaps, responsibility was admitted to, and the victim of such mishaps walked away with the sportsmanlike attitude of "well, that's racin'."
When it got down to the end, with a restart and just three laps to go, we were on our feet, cheering and yelling for Mark "The Kid" Martin, who had taken the lead and seemed about to win his first Daytona 500 in his twenty-five year NASCAR Cup Career. Martin "retired" two seasons ago, but he just couldn't quit. When his choices for 2007 amounted to either a full time Cup Ride with Roush Racing (now Roush-Fenway Racing), or a full time Truck Series ride, with very limited Cup racing, he made a third choice--to quit the team with which he had spent his entire career and take a 22 race contract with Bobby Ginn Racing (formerly MB2, which will confuse me for the rest of the season). Now he was driving a Chevy, not the Ford he had driven his entire time in Cup racing, to victory.
Several things happened next, as happens in racing in such a very short time. Behind the leaders, coming out of the last turn of the final lap, one or more cars got sideways in their drivers' attempts to improver their position at the last second, and cars were spinning, flying, and spinning everywhere. Horrible thoughts of that tragic day in 2001, when the Daytona 500 ended with the loss of one of NASCAR's greatest drivers, briefly crossed our minds, and we were relieved to see all of the drivers involved walk away without injury. While all that was happening, the race was won by a mere .02 second, by a first time Daytona 500 winner, not Mark Martin, but Kevin Harvick. We were disappointed that Martin didn't win, but, knowing how much this one race means to the drivers and the fans, we were happy for "Happy" Harvick. We were happy for Mark Martin for being able to give it such a great try. We were happy for Richard Childress, the owner of the car Kevin Harvick won in, which is figuratively the same car that the late Dale Earnhardt, Childress' best friend, drove to so many victories. Mostly, we were happy that racing was back for another season, and that the season opener had been a doozey.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
You hear it over and over again pertaining to NASCAR racing--"anything can happen." Anyone who doesn't believe this hasn't watched enough NASCAR, or much of any kind of racing for that matter.
The truth is not only anything, but everything can happen, especially at Daytona.
Part of everything is the weather. It has been colder than normal in Florida, and the hard tire compound used at Daytona will make a difference as to how the cars handle in relation to how they handled Thursday, when the weather was normal. There will be good effects, such as less tire wear and more grip, and bad effects, as in the car being harder to turn due to "push," or cornering and maneuvering problems just because the cars will be faster than usual. "Fast" doesn't always mean "good." With the cars moving close to 200 mph and inches apart, as they do at Daytona, this could cause problems. This is why it is so hard to be sure about anything when it comes to picking winners.
Still, the experienced drivers like racing in cold weather. That is, if they are running up front, away from the heavy traffic though the field. The best thing a team can do is avoid any situation that would make them have to deal with the middle of the pack.
With the hard tires and the cold weather, pit strategy will be important. It is difficult to pit out of sequence at restrictor plate races, because to be left out of the draft of other cars means being left behind, so nobody will pit by themself, there will always be drafting partners pitting together. The ultimate dirty trick, aside from purposefully wrecking somebody in retaliation, would be to tell a drafting partner you are going to pit, and then keep going while they are left alone in the pits and consequently left high and dry.
Hopefully, good sportsmanship will prevail and we won't be seeing any of that.
My predictions outcome of the Daytona 500 were already made in my "Season Preview" posts, but since those were quite lengthy, here it is in a nutshell. The drivers who start out front will stay out front, unless something goes seriously wrong with their car. The drivers who start in the back will have to be very alert and careful moving toward the front. Jeff Gordon, due to a rules infraction during Thursday's dual 150 qualifying races, will start in the back, but he is a driver who likes cold weather conditions, and master racer that he is, should be able to move up through the field while avoiding trouble. My pick is for The Gordon to finish in the top ten, if only because he has used up all of his bad luck for the season. Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, Kenin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, and Michael Waltrip are also very capable of moving up when they need to.
The Yates cars are fast, and are starting on the front row. David Gilliland proved himself in plate racing last Saturday, when he finished a close second behind Tony Stewart. If Ricky Rudd and Gilliland can stay together, if they fall back, they should not run into too much trouble, and could both finish in the top ten. If they separate and fall back, however, they may have trouble finding drafting partners.
Tony Stewart, on the other hand is one of the most popular drafting partner among the other drivers. If he falls back, he can find Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, or even Jeff Gordon, all who can draft well with him. I think, after last Saturday, he should probably avoid Kyle Busch.
It doesn't matter, Stewart has everything going for him going into this race. He will more than likely take the lead early, or failing that, he will bide his time near the back of the lead pack and make his move when he needs to. He will win the race, barring mechanical misfortune or driver anger.
The rest of the top ten finishers should be, not necessarily in this order:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr
Correction: I mentioned Aric Almirola--though I misspelled his name--as a Cup rookie. I'm pushing his career further along than for which he is ready. 2007 is his full time rookie year in the Busch series. Starting on the pole and finishing in the top twenty, for his first restrictor plate race at Daytona--the trucks don't use restrictor plates--was not a bad start.
ESPN'S role as full time broadcaster of the Busch Series is taken very seriously. The prerace and postrace shows were better produced than the Cup coverage on the other networks.
Congratulations to Jack Sprague and Kevin Harvick. Sprague celebrated his first Daytona win after a very exciting and close finish in the Craftsman Truck Series race, and Harvick had his first Daytona win in a very good Busch Series race.
CTS image photo credit: AP Photo
Friday, February 16, 2007
The points penalties delivered to Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Scott Riggs, and Matt Kenseth are not a serious enough setback to keep them out of the Chase for the Championship. It is almost certain that they will stay in the top thirty-five in owner's points, and just as certain that each of them will win races this season. In fact, though the Yates cars look good for Daytona, the Everham and Roush cars are better at racing at the different kinds of tracks on the schedule. This could very well be Everham's year to have all three cars in the Chase. Certainly, the level of competition may be enough to keep them out of the coveted top twelve, but all three of the Everham drivers are extremely talented, and with the new aero package for Dodge, they could very well dominate the season between them.
I don't worry about Matt Kenseth. Even starting the season with a fifty point deficit, that won't matter after the first two races. Kenseth can "get er done" when he needs to, and will be a serious contender all season long.
Jeff Gordon is getting over all his bad luck early this year. He had to drop out of the Bud Shootout last weekend due to bad electrical problems which caused his engine to fail, went to qualifying and practice with a poorly handling car, and, after winning the second heat of the Duels at Daytona, has to start at the rear of the field Sunday due to a faulty shock absorber installation in the left rear of the car. Still, he can be positive about the rest of the season, because he is one of the best. Starting in the rear of the field for the Daytona 500 should be no handicap for him, as long as his car handles well enough and he doesn't get caught up in somebody else's mistake on his way to the front. Gordon is the driver I love to hate, but I can only love to hate him if he is having a good season.
If the championship took turns, we could say that it is Kevin Harvick's turn. We have seen the 2001 ROTY mature from a wreckless, over the edge racer to a smart and talented veteran racer. RCR is on a positive trend right now, and we will see good things from all three Richard Childress Racing drivers. But Harvick, after a record breaking Busch Series Championship, is on a roll and focused. The Childress cars are strong, and Kevin Harvick will be the standard bearer for that team this year. Not to say that Jeff Burton will be a slouch. He is once again a rising star, and he will continue to improve even over last year's performance. I would put Jeff Burton at the top of the "Comeback Kids" category, except that he has made his comeback and will be a very serious contender for the championship this year.
We could just as well say it is Dale Earnhardt, Jr's turn to win the championship. It has been considered to be only a matter of time before he takes the Cup since his rookie year in 2000. He has been showing more confidence in himself and his team than ever, and confidence is what he needs. He will not let the administrative and contractual problems at DEI bother him while he is on the track. He knows that he will have to be more aggressive to take the championship--it is the nature of the competition. It will disappoint some Junior fans, and put many others in a state of denial, but he knows that if he is to win the championship this year, he will have to put moves on other drivers that he is not generally known to make.
There is no reason to believe that the reigning Nextel Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson, will suffer a post championship slump. He has been in the top ten at the end of every season since his rookie year. But not everybody who deserves to be in the Chase for the Championship will make it, and, even though he has tons of talent, his team may not have the stamina to stand up to the tough competition for the twelve Chase cars. Just a gut feeling.
Denny Hamlin knows how it feels to win, and he has the talent to continue winning. We have every reason to believe he will improve on his record from last year, which should put him in the top twelve for the last ten races of the season.
All this is moot. Love him or hate him, Tony Stewart, aka "Smoke," is an awesome driver. He has already won four of the five racing events in which he has been entered this year, and if a positive attitude is what it takes to win races and championships, Smoke's attitude is over the top at the beginning of the season. Combine that with his talent, and there is no doubt that he is implacably on the road to a third championship. If nothing goes seriously wrong with his car, he will win the Daytona 500. This will put him in control of the rest of the season, since he is good at every track on the schedule. Even with the tough competition from Kahne, Sadler, Riggs, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Junior, Harvick, Hamlin, and, yes, Ricky Rudd, there is no reason to not believe that Smoke will come out on top at the end of the season. I would say the same thing even if I weren't a Tony Stewart fan--Stewart is the man to beat this season.
Breakthroughs:Casey Mears is now driving a Chevy for Hendrick Motor Sports, with the very capable Darian Grubb as crew chief for the number 25 team. Grubb, you'll remember, helped the number 48 team of Jimmy Johnson get through the four race suspension of Chad Knaus at the beginning of the 2006 season without missing a beat. Mears is a proven driver, though he has yet to win a Nextel Cup race, and Hendrick may have the package he needs to get that win. This should be a breakthrough season for Mears. He is certainly due one.
David Stremme is another driver from whom we will see a breakthrough season. Still a little rough in his driving style, Stemme is learning quickly. He showed marked improvement in the last half of the 2006 season, and should continue to improve. The entire Ganassi team is on the rise, with the already proven Reid Sorenson, and veteran world class racer Juan Pablo Montoya on their payroll, along with the new attitude that maybe it was the car and not the driver that was the problem, Team Ganassi should make a very good showing this year.
Jamie McMurray certainly needs a breakthrough season. Personally, I think he has a lot of talent, but just hasn't come up with the correct mixture of luck and purpose. He needs to find the purpose, and the luck will follow. Roush Racing, now in partnership with the Boston Red Sox, has nearly unlimited resources, and if McMurray is going to show what he is capable of, this will be the season to do so. I hope Jamie does well this season, but we will have to see how things go for him in the early part of the season. It would be wrong to give up on him, yet.
The breakthrough to watch will be that of Clint Bowyer. Neither he nor Denny Hamlin will suffer the sophomore curse that has plagued many a rising star. Bowyer finished the 2006 season with a strong showing, and the optimism and teammanship of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton will help him have a very successful season.
The Comeback Kids Ricky Rudd, Ward Burton, Greg Biffle, and Ryan Newman are all looking for a comeback season this year. Of these, I would put "The Rooster," Ricky Rudd on top of the list. The Robert Yates Racing team, which I mentioned in Part 1, worked hard over the off season to come up with some good engineering. This, after Robert Yates nearly walked out of the sport and seriously considered selling all or part of his operation. Rudd will have a good car this season, and he is a good all-around driver. His lust for racing and competition will give him what he needs to make the Championship Chase. Yes, I know that there is a contradiction over what was written in Part 1 of my season preview, but changing my mind after a little thought isn't anything new.
As much as we would love to see Ward Burton make a stellar comeback, it just ain't going to happen. Although his team, Morgan-McClure has a rich history in racing, they still have some building to do . Ward won't be racing full time, sharing the #4 ride with Eric McClure, which doesn't mean Ward won't win some races. A wreck in the Duel race destroyed his chances for the Daytona 500, of which he is a past champion, and he has a struggle this season. I am predicting that he will get a win at Darlington, and that he will look good in the Car of Tomorrow (COT) races.
Greg Biffle has a new crew chief, and a fresh start. As is the case with Jamie McMurray, Roush Racing has the resources to make sure the Biff has a good car. The man does have talent, and it was mostly bad luck that plagued him last year. He is another driver whom I would love to hate, if he has a good season.
Ryan "The Rocket" Newman and Kurt Busch are by no means team players, a trait which won't work for them as well as it will for the Yates drivers. Kurt Busch started his comeback in the last quarter of the 2006 season, and things should be looking up for Newman. The Rocket has a crew cheif he can relate to, an engineer with a Masters Degree. This may work out for him, but the competition is tough, and a comeback will be an uphill battle for the Penske team.
The Rookies: I forgot to mention Paul Menard and Aric Amerida in the list of rookies in part 1 of the season preview. This is not to belittle their talent, it is merely a brain fart on my part. Still, these are two of the drivers who did not make the cut for the Daytona 500, so they already have an uphill battle for the first half of the season. Menard, racing for DEI has the best chance of these two to acheive stardom this season, just on the merit of having better equipment.
As a Formula 1 fan, I am familiar with Juan Pablo and have come to like the guy. He is a world class driver of high esteem, and seems a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. But, he will have to work for it. He still has a lot to learn about closed car racing. He has never experienced bump drafting, though he did a good job of working with it in his Duel race--before his wheel hub broke he led eighteen laps. Still, there is a lot of racing on a lot of different tracks this season, and drivers such as Reutiman, Allmendinger, and Menard have just as much a chance for ROTY as does Montoya.
David Reutiman's qualifying time last Sunday was good enough to put him in the field for the Daytona 500, after Boris Said raced his way into the transfer spot. He, David Regan and Juan Pablo Montoya were the only official rookies to make the race. None of them finished their Dual race--Reutiman and Montoya having serious mechanical difficulties, and Regan crashing. Regan and Montoya are in the 500 because of owners points, though I believe that if Montoya hadn't had his wheel bearings burn out, he would have gotten in on talent.
Even so, if David Gilliland wasn't exempt from ROTY competition, he would be my choice for that title.
Backtrack Disappointment prevails as neither driver for Red Bull Racing made the cut for the race. AJ Allmendinger was running very well in the first Duel race when he had the misfortune of being in the same place at the same time as Robby Gordon. Much to Gordon's credit, he took the blame for the crash, but it was a serious setback to the start of Allmendinger's rookie season. Brian Vickers cut a tire in the second Duel, and hit the wall. He was also running well at the time, so we can still hold high hopes for an interesting season for Red Bull Racing.
Once again I underestimated Michael Waltrip. Sometimes one can just never learn the obvious. Waltrip is a master at plate races, being a two-time winner of the Daytona 500. After his woes in post-qualifying inspection, Mikey was considering withdrawing from the race. With support from friends and associates, he decided to go for it. And go for it he did, racing his way into the field by taking the top transfer position in the first Duel race. He did this in a car in which he had no practice, David Reutiman's back up car. In fact, all three of the drivers for Michael Waltrip Racing will be in the Race Sunday. Lake Speed, Todd Bodine, and Robby Gordon have all paid for underestimating Michael Waltrip. Please don't hit me, Mikey. I love you, man.
This is a long and wordy post, so for those of you who have stuck with me this long, here is my pre-season prediction for the twelve drivers who will be in the top twelve for the final ten races of the season:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
This is tough, to pick only twelve. Any driver on this list will be interchangeable with Dale Jarrett and Dave Blaney, if Toyota is to step up this year.
Photo Credits: David Gilliland AP, JP Montoya NASCAR Photo, Tony Stewart Home Depot Racing News.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
What can we look forward to this season? An even more competitive season than last, for one thing. The usual suspects are ready to fight for the championship, and on the way, to win races. Add to the mix some very capable rookies--David "Gilligan" Gilliland (who is not officially a rookie, as he ran more than seven Cup races last year), AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutiman--and a loose cannon rookie David Regan. Throw in the new points system, the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, and the number of teams that will be trying to qualify for each race, and we're ready to r-r-r-r-rumble.
The Yates team may be back. After last weekend's practice sessions, both cars were expected to take the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500, which they did. With Ricky Rudd back from a one year break, and back with Yates, the team could turn last year's disaster into this year's success. There are many contingencies in effect here, however, such as having the right equipment for the different tracks, chemistry between the drivers and their crews, and consistant performance.
When Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett were teammates for Robert Yates Racing, they provided quite a spectacle for the fans. They each had the attitude that the best way to help a teammate was to compete with him, often racing each other wheel to wheel. This illustrates the love for racing these guys have. What better way is there to show your racing prowess than to race and beat a nearly identically set up car? Between 2000 and 2003 both Rudd and Jarrett finished in the top ten all three years, and had eleven wins between them. If Rudd and David Gilliland can make a similar partnership work, we could see one or both of the Yates cars in the Chase for the Championship at the end of the season.
The best hopes for Toyota, the newcomer in the Nextel Cup field, would be from Michael Waltrip Racing's Dale Jarrett, the Red Bull Racing teams, and Bill Davis Racing. BDR's #22 Caterpiller car is starting the season in the top thirty-five in owners' points, and is guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races. Given good equipment, driver Dave Blaney is very capable of keeping the Toyota in the top thirty-five. Toyota is involved in nearly every racing series in the world, and though they may have a little work to do to get the right set ups for NASCAR Cup level racing--they probably won't make the Chase this year--Dave Blaney should have a season good enough to keep the optimism flowing.
I am excited about Red Bull Racing's entry into NASCAR. Like Toyota, the Austrian sponser is involved in every major racing series in the world, including a serious developmental program for open wheel drivers. Formula One driver Scott Speed, the only American in that series, came up through that developmental program. So did AJ Allmendinger, who will be attempting to make Rookie of the Year in NASCAR. Both Red Bull and Toyota have expressed confidence in their driver, but Allmendinger needs more confidence in himself, after a miserable time at the pre-season testing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He will get used to the car, but he has to qualify for the first five races. His car was in the top ten in practice speeds, but lack of experience in the car and at Daytona will prevent him from making the Daytona 500.
His teammate, Brian Vickers, is the kind of driver who can win his heat in the Duel today and make the 500. He has an excellent crew chief in Doug Richert, and where he can qualify expect him to do well. Red Bull will struggle this year, and will have a tough time getting into the top thirty-five early in the season, but may have the talent to make that important cut off by the end of the season.
Dale Jarrett is locked into the Daytona 500 by virtue of the Champion's provisional, and he can be expected to be able to qualify his car for the next four races, which will give the MWR #44 car a good chance to be in the top thirty-five by the sixth race.
The Daytona 500, being a restrictor plate race, is not a good indicator of how the rest of the season will go, except if you are not in the 500, you don't get any points. I really like Michael Waltrip--he is very race savvy. Just watch and listen to him on his Speed TV program Tradin' Paint, which is perhaps the most informative show featuring opinion makers on television. However, he is at a serious disadvantage, starting the season with a 100 point deficit due to fuel tampering, and will have to qualify on time for every race this season, and most likely the first five races next season. I don't see him finishing today's Duel race high enough to make the 500.
The four other drivers who were penalized for qualifying day infractions, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, and Scott Riggs are locked into the Daytona 500 by virtue of owner's points. Thus, it is incomprehensible to me as to why their teams would push the envelope in the "grey area" of the rules, especially since starting position doesn't matter in the restrictor plate races. These are all excellent drivers, and cheating really shouldn't have been necessary. Hopefully they will be able to overcome starting the season at a points deficit, and put the whole mess behind them. I will write more of these drivers in part two of my season preview, which I hope to get posted by Saturday.
Today is all about the dual 150 mile qualifying races, which NASCAR has officially punned "The Duel 150's." It will be some of the most exciting and dangerous racing we will see all season, as sixty one drivers try to race for four spots in the Daytona 500. It will be wild.
Dale Jarrett Photo from Dale Jarrett.com
Monday, February 12, 2007
First things first--we must celebrate the Bud Shootout victory of Tony "Smoke" Stewart, my favorite driver. Saturday was his third victory in the event, and, counting his victories at Ft Lewis and the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals gives him a pre-season record of 3-1--his loss at the Rolex 24 hours was due to electrical problems which forced the car to not finish. Smoke, now a lean, mean racing machine is entering the 2007 season on a very positive note, which is a good thing for the #20 Home Depot team.
click here if the Youtube fireworks video does not appear.
It was a fun race, and it would have been exciting and enjoyable no matter who won. There were handling problems, blamed universally on the harder tire compound Goodyear is using this year for Daytona. This meant that we saw some excellent and valiant saves throughout the race, on the part of Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, and several other drivers, who went sideways and still avoided wrecks. This is the kind of racing we like--and by "we," we mean "I"--to see the expertise and talent of the drivers avoid what looks like an inevitable wreck. It says a lot about the level and intensity of racing in NASCAR.
Kyle Busch also avoided spinning out when Smoke made a move on him to take the lead in the final laps of the race. There will be fans complaining that Stewart shouldn't have used the bump when he did to pass the Schrub, and Kyle himself did complain, but there are some indisputable facts about racing.
First, when a driver is in the lead, he will do what he must to keep the lead, which usually means he will try to block faster cars behind him by moving to cut off any route around him. The driver behind the leading driver is not in the race to lose. If there is a way in which he can gain the lead he will. If it takes getting the leading car loose, so it has to slow down and let the trailing driver pass, that will be the way the pass is made, it doesn't matter who the driver is.
This is part of what makes NASCAR racing exciting for us. There is no other form of racing that allows these kind of moves, for other types of racing machines can not take it like the stock cars can.
Kyle Busch cannot be blamed for being angry at the move, he lost the race, after all, but he should be lauded for maintaining enough control over the car to prevent a wreck. Tony Stewart complimented him on the save. Busch should also be commended for controlling his temper as well as he did his car, for it is almost a rule that a driver who feels robbed of victory, as he surely felt he was, exact revenge as quickly as possible. Kyle Busch exhibited maturity that many drivers don't, and took the loss as graciously as possible.
If the Bud Shootout was an indication of what is to come in 2007, we NASCAR fans are in for another great season.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
I feel very excited, and am now officially fired up for the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season. I have already watched hours of practice on Speed TV, and am now ready to watch the ARCA race, which, by the way starts with Erin Crocker on the pole. She could be the first woman to actually win an ARCA race. I'm not an Erin Crocker fan just because she is cute, which she is, but because I liked her "I blaze my own trails." comment to Darrell Waltrip in 2005. She shut him up, which, as we know, is very hard to do. I want to see her live up to her attitude, and I believe she can do it, if given enough time.
Other than that, Racing is on, and I will be busy following it this weekend. See you Monday...
Friday, February 09, 2007
I have to apologize for a statement I made in an earlier post. I referred to Tony Stewart as being "articulate." Clearly, I wasn't thinking, because by calling Stewart "articulate," I was implying that all of the other NASCAR drivers are inarticulate. That is far from what I meant, because I listen to a lot of race car drivers, and most of them do express themselves very well. Many of them are much better at speaking than I am. They talk gooder English than me. Before I dig myself in any deeper, I'll just have to say I've learned my lesson, and I'll never again make the mistake of calling a race car driver articulate.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
The Church of the Great Oval: Celebrate NASCAR's Return!! Win a Dale JR. BACK IN THE DAY - 1st Season DVD Set!!
I missed this, somehow, and didn't even see it, even though I went to the Church of the Great Oval yesterday. As of this notice, there are only thirty six hours left to enter and win. Be sure to check out
The Church of the Great Oval: Celebrate NASCAR's Return!! Win a Dale JR. BACK IN THE DAY - 1st Season DVD Set!! and enter. Good luck.
The game that has become known as "The Daytona 500 of Professional Football," the NFL Championship game, is over. That means the football season is officially over, and the official start of the NASCAR racing season begins in less than two weeks.
There really is more contrast than comparison between the NFL Championship game and the Daytona 500. The football game is at the end of the season, and crowns a champion, while the 500 begins the season, and gives a peek at things to come.
But the prestige of both events is real. A true football fan can tell you every Super Bowl winner since it began in 1964, and a true race fan can tell you the winner of every Daytona 500 race since 1959. The thing is that while the NFL Championship game is between two of the best teams in the NFL, the 500 crowns a race champion out of forty-three of the best race drivers in the world, and all forty-three are in the same field of battle at the same time. The prestige of being a Daytona 500 winner is every bit as great as the prestige of being the season champion, either in football or racing.
Blame it on tradition.
Still, we have to give football a pat on the back for a few things about the Super Bowl. Prince's half-time show broke a long hiatus for public performance by the musician/singer, and it was truly an awesome show. Prince seemed to be able to fit more music into eight minutes than any Super Bowl half-time performer I remember. And the Bud Light commercials were as good as always, including one featuring politically incorrect comedian Carlos Mencia teaching illegal immigrants just enough English to ask for a Bud Light in a manner stereotypical to their race. Hilarious. Blockbuster took favorite commercial honors this year with an advertisement for Blockbuster on-line which featured an unclickable, and unfortunate, mouse.
So, in tribute to The Daytona 500 of Professional Football, I present this picture of the closest I will ever get to the Super Bowl.
Saturday, February 03, 2007
NASCAR has now limited the number of champion's provisionals a driver can use in a season to six, according to this article in USA Today on-line.
This is a much needed step, in my opinion, and, to paraphrase Michael Waltrip, if you can't get in on qualifying time after six races, you are not having a good year and you need to do something about your program.
With all the teams that will be trying to qualify in every race this year, the championship provisional is just an added problem. NASCAR has been getting increasingly competitive over the past few years, and no driver really wants to be there as a "place marker." Six is a reasonable number at which to cap the provisionals.
Those of us who want to see Dale Jarrett do well with MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) and Toyota need to have faith that the equipment is good enough for Dale to make it work. This just adds more excitement to the sport, which is a good thing.