Sunday, March 30, 2008

Martinsville: Blogging "live on type delay"

By the time the Goody's 500 has reached the one-quarter point, I have already rediscovered how much fun watching a short track race can be, even on television. The position changes happen just as often and drastically as they do in restricter-plate races, but even better, since a mishap doesn't necessarily knock a car out of the race.
For example, early in the race the Busch brothers already had a run-in (love it!) involving direct contact and spinouts, but many of the cars caught up in that altercation--including Jeff Gordon--are making their way up to the front.
We also have already been able to see an excellent display of car control, on the part of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as he passed Jimmie Johnson in traffic. This brings three things to mind; anti-Jr fans will always fail to realize what a great car control driver he is; lapped traffic is part of the excitement of Martinsville; and, I have somehow become an anti-Johnson fan, even though the driver never fails to impress me. I cheer for anybody who passes the reigning champ, even Jeff Gordon when he passed Johnson later in the race.
And by lap 294, I am cheering wildly as Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt are racing wheel to wheel for the lead, but an incident involving Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle brings out the fourteenth caution, not before Earnhardt takes the lead.
Now, I am not normally a fan of caution-filled wreckfests, but this is Martinsville, and old school as in Saturday night circle burners, and this is to be expected. Besides, the wrecks seem to have little effect on the driving ability and winning potential of many of the drivers who have been involved in wrecks. The wrecks and cautions, therefore, are part of the Martinsville experience.
While on the asides, a note to my favorite Kenseth fan, Babs, I didn't mention the driver of the #17 car by name in my preview, for fear of jinxing him again, but when your driver is having such back luck anyway, perhaps a jinx would have had positive effect. I really like Matt, and I am determined to see him do well, but this is just not his day. When Matt loses his temper, you know something is seriously wrong.
By lap 320 I have stopped writing, because that is difficult to do while I am on my feet and nervously pacing in front of the television, with a mixture of nervousness and elation, as my favorite driver moves into fourth position. The nervousness shows its reason for being there as, on the caution that shortly follows, Stewart gives up that position to pit. We are now at that point of the race where all we can do is hope that nothing bad happens, and maintain confidence that Stewart can work his way back to the top section of the scoring pylon. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon is learning that, with the Sprint Cup car, the aero-loose tactic he learned so well and with such finesse from his mentor, Dale Earnhardt, does not work all that well.
Later on, with less than ninety laps to go, we are watching a great race for the lead between two great Virginian short track drivers, which is only fitting as the race is on a short track in Virginia. After taking the lead, Hurricane Hamlin is showing the stuff that earned him that nickname from the locals as he successfully negotiates lapped traffic. He makes it look easy, but this is his specialty. Backtracking a bit to the news that Robby Gordon is back on the track, after a visit to the garage to repair a rear end gear, I have to agree with DW's "Yikes!" in response to that news. I usually tolerate Robby's antics on the track--that is who he is and how he rides--but he has found misery at Martinsville and has been determined the entire race to spread that misery around. Now he is part of that lapped traffic Denny has to deal with, and we hold our breaths waiting to see if he causes more trouble. Denny, however gets by safely. He holds the lead, holds off a late charge by the great Jeff Gordon, and wins the race, which turned out to be very exciting, indeed. To quote race runner up Jeff Gordon, "it was an awesome race!"
Just because the race is over doesn't mean I am ready to wrap this up. I have a few final observations to make.
For instance, Elliott Sadler has to have a big pair of brass ones for racing with a bad back. We know from experience that this is a very painful condition--the pain is, in fact, nearly paralyzing. Sadler had to put up with a lot of pain to be able to finish the race.
Jamie McMurray did what he needed to do this race, to get his car back into the top thiry five in owners' points, and he did it quite admirably, staying on the lead lap, and staying out of trouble.
Tony Stewart may have shown Kyle Busch how a real racecar driver accepts a fifth place finish even if he has a car that is capable of winning. Hopefully the Schrub was watching. I'm not saying that Kyle isn't a real racecar driver, he is, but he still has a lot to learn. More on this in my next post.
I am probably forgetting a few things here, and hopefully my next post will catch these. The main point is, after a week off for Easter, the Martinsville race was well worth the wait.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Beatin' and bangin' is back

This is the weekend we get to see some real old school racing.
Martinsville Speedway, VA boasts the oldest track still in use in the NASCAR Cup series, and it is a classic short track oval. It guarantees some good old fashioned beatin' and bangin' just like what we see at our local tracks. Passing is limited, so there will be much use of the front bumper against the rear of other cars. Hopefully such use will be done in a sportsman-like way, but we know, with the high level of competitive spirit our favorite drivers exhibit, there will be some tempers flying out of control. For those who lament that Bristol no longer features out of control tempers, Martinsville should bring them some vindication.
All in all, Martinsville is a drivers' track, because aerodynamics don't matter, and there will be plenty of caution laps to make sure it doesn't become a fuel mileage race. It comes down to how well the driver can handle close contact, how hard he can enter the turns, and how quickly he can accellerate out of the turns. Other than that, success depends on brakes and breaks.
Although this is not a fantasy picks blog, we do like to say who we want to win and who we think will win, and why.
Who we want to win is obvious to those who read this blog regularly, but even so, Smoke has a pretty good chance of finding victory lane. He is starting in the top ten, and 51 percent of the winners in Martinsville's long history have come from the top ten. He is one of the gutsiest drivers there are, and is likely to drive further into the corners than most of the other drivers, which could give him an advantage. He is among the best of the car control specialists, and that should help him avoid trouble, early on in the race at any rate.
Now as far as who we think will win, the real race will be between the front row sitters, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin. Jeff is certainly the most skilled of the two, but Hamlin can be quite crafty, especially when it comes to short track racing. If he takes the lead early in the race, it will be difficult to take it away from him, which could lead to a lot of excitement caused by drivers trying to overcome that difficulty.
But aside, from Gordon and Stewart, there are a few other drivers who could present a serious challenge to Hamlin. Greg Biffle, in second place in points, comes to mind. He is a very skilled short track driver who is definitely proving that he is among the best of the Sprint Cup drivers. He is on a roll, and we have seen nothing so far this season that would suggest his momentum could be dampened.
Jimmy Johnson is another driver who could be expected to win, and if he is going to regain some of his former glory, Martinsville will be the place to do it.
Jeff Burton is another driver who has a good chance at winning, and he will be trying to do so. This is possibly the only track where you will ever see him move another car out of the way, because that is the safest method at Martinsville of passing another car.
Something in the back of my mind keeps saying the #17 car, and I will let it go at that.
Sunday's race will be exciting if you like and appreciate the skill it takes for a driver at the Cup level to negotiate the traffic and survive the race. It is not for those who like the high speed races, but for racing purists, it will be one of the best of the year so far.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"It's about...."

I was at PPIR in 2003, when Scott Wimmer celebrated his most recent win, previous to his victory today at Nashville. He had come close to winning the championship the previous season, and had run well in races in the 2003 season up to that point, but had yet to close the deal. By the time he crossed the finish line, leading the rest of the field by more than half a lap, he had nearly 40,000 fans in the stands cheering him on. The consensus among the fans applauding and shouting for him was "it's about time he won!"
We can say the same thing about him after his win at Nashville, as he has gone five years without a victory. And we can feel as good about him winning as we did then. As an "underdog" among the Nationwide and Cup drivers in the Nationwide series, Wimmer doesn't have a full time ride anywhere in NASCAR's upper tier. He was not running for championship points except, for the owners points that would go to Richard Childress. He was only going for the win.
The race itself could have been better--the only excitement to be had was Kyle Busch's spin--due to his own driver error--which pretty much took the dominating car out of the running for the top spots. The other part of the excitement for the entire race was, would the car make it to the finish line with the fuel it had.
I know this has been mentioned on this blog, before, but the NASCAR Nationwide series needs to find an identity. The spacer plates that have been implemented in the series do not produce good racing, and the jury is still out on whether they make for safer racing or less expensive racing, as is their intent. This is not the way to uplift the series.
The Nationwide Series regulars can not get the recognition they deserve as long as the series is being run as the "Cup Lite." This doesn't mean that the Cup drivers shouldn't be allowed to drive in the series--if they can qualify, there should be nothing to keep them from racing. What it does mean is that something needs to be done in support of the regular series drivers and teams to help them become more competitive. It is an insult to these drivers and teams to think of the Nationwide series as the junior league, or the little league, as these drivers and teams do have the talent to compete with the Cup level drivers.
Perhaps the series would do better if more of its races were at venues where the Cup series doesn't race, or when at the same venue, on a completely diffeent weekend. Make the track promoters earn their pay by figuring out ways to get as many people to show up for a Nationwide stand-alone event as they do for a Cup event. Promote the drivers, such as Brad Keselowski, David Stremme, Mike Wallace, or Jason Leffler, as the talented wheel men they really are. Promote the cars as having the ability to show a different kind of racing than the Cup races present. Bring special events, such as concerts, or companion open wheel, or motorcycle races to the track on the same weekend, or even same day as the race.
And perhaps NASCAR and Nationwide could do something more to promote the series as well. Get rid of the restricter plates and make it racing the way it is supposed to be. Increase the value of the purse, even if it takes some of the budget away from series promotion. Race at Rockingham, and replace Cup races at venues where there are two Cup races when there should only be one. The main thing is to make the series stand on its own, with its own identity.
And the best way to do that would be to make it about racing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Another retirement in the works?

I really feel for Kyle Petty. I know he hasn't said this publicly, but we know that he wants to put the #45 in victory lane, in honor of his son, and he wants to be the one to do it. But he isn't getting younger or faster, and I think the sweet spot in which he can improve is gone.
He could do the team much better, and even for the 45 car if he would step aside. He can promote VJGC just as well outside the car as he could driving it, and he really ought to think about wearing that owner's hat for a while.
From an article on

"I think Kyle knows he's been doing his job, and it's more a point that the team has let him down from the mechanical side," Loomis said. "We've had some mechanical failures. So we've got to do whatever it takes. Kyle is good at wearing his helmet, but he's good at putting on the owner's hat, too, and he realizes that whatever it might take to keep that car in the top 35 in points is more important than whoever might drive it."

I honor Kyle Petty as a member of the NASCAR racing organization, as a member of the Petty family, and as an actual part of NASCAR racing history. I would not deny him his desire to race., but he needs to think about what he is doing, and what he can do for his team.
It should be remembered that he is very good in the Rolex Grand Am cars, and perhaps he could satisfy his need for speed by getting more involved in that series.
Whatever he decides, I hope he knows what is right for the team.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What Fox missed.

During Sunday's pre-race program on Fox there was an emotional moment as Darrell Waltrip, suffering from laryngitis, was presented with a car that he raced to an undefeated record at Bristol Motor Speedway during his career. That was all well and good, and was emotionally satisfying, but wasn't the big story supposed to be Dale Jarrett's last points race?
Granted, DJ works for a different network than DW, but DW already retired years ago, and Jarrett's retirement was Sunday. Certainly Waltrip deserved the award, but that could have been done at a different time.
I am not usually one to complain about NASCAR on television, but Fox missed out on the big story.
Here is what we missed while watching Fox:

Photo Credit: Fan's photo from the Web, thanks to SF at Racing Nascar

Sunday, March 16, 2008

It's all about racin'

Early Sunday morning, in the opening laps of the Australian Gran Prix, the reigning Formula One champion, Kimi Raikonnen, surprised everybody by moving up from his starting position of 15th to 6th place. As it turned out, he was carrying almost a full load of fuel when he accomplished this, because his car was heavier than many of the cars he passed, which made the feat even more amazing. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish the race.
We saw something similar at the beginning of NASCAR's Food City 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway, as Kyle Busch quickly made the front of the field from a starting position of 22nd with a car that wasn't handling all that well. He later spun out, while in the lead, and finished seventeenth, two laps down.
And we saw my favorite driver lead the majority of the laps of the race, driving very carefully and intelligently, for Bristol, only to be caught up in contact with Kevin Harvick's #29 car, spinning out with less then ten laps to go. Once again, as we did watching the Las Vegas race, two weeks ago, Tony Stewart fans went from an inspirational emotional pinnacle to a very depressing low in a matter of seconds.
But that is just racing.
That is just Bristol.
That is what short track racing is all about, and we have to think of that as wonderful.
It was a race where we saw the cars continuously in traffic, no matter what position they were in. The excellent camera positining Fox Sports had to cover the race gave us terrific views of what it was like for the driver to get through the traffic--a very good rendition of the Bristol experience. We saw the continuous battle for position, or to hold a lap, in circumstances that involved every car on the track. And all this was done without restricter-plates. It was pure racing.
And even though we may be unhappy that our driver, no matter who he may be, didn't win, we can be very happy that we saw NASCAR Cup racing at it's best.
Photo Credit: Racing

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bristol: Random thoughts and such

Last August, Bristol Motor Speedway debuted its new configuration with a concrete surface and progressive banking. Then, we saw, for the first time at Bristol, three-wide racing. Since the speedway was first paved, in 1972, "racing" at the "world's fastest half mile" meant a single file of cars moving around the bottom of the track, and the only way to gain position was to move the car in front out of the way, by making contact with the rear bumper and either forcing it to move up the track or spinning it out and off the track.
Now, the chrome horn isn't necessary, and the drivers can race each other side by side, fender to fender, and door to door (if the cars had doors). This is a feature that, after last August's race, was met with mixed reaction by the fans. Most of those who declared the race "the most boring" they have ever seen at Bristol, may have been the same ones who had yet to accept the Sprint Cup car. Or they may just miss the bump and run tactics of days past. However, the new car is not as aero dependent as the old car was, and the old Bristol style would not be the same thing, even if there was still only one groove. For most of the fans, as well as the drivers, the new configuration continues to promise racing that is very exciting for Bristol. The Cup race is, as always sold out, and the fans will not be disappointed.
Sunday's race will be Dale Jarrett's last show in the Cup series. His NASCAR career is one of the best stories in racing, and he is every bit as much a part of NASCAR history as Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. Always the sportsman, he usually reacted to being spun out not with anger and retaliation, but with a simple shrug of the shoulders and "that's just racin'."
He participated in the sport with a sense of honor that is all too rare these days. He will be missed.
This could possibly be the last Cup race for Kyle Petty. Though he hasn't announced any intention of stepping out of the series, judging by the fact that he seems to be getting slower instead of faster, and that he will be outside the top 35 provisionals, we may not get very many chances to see him in a Sprint Cup race. He will have to qualify his way into the line up from now on, and. though he may be able to do that, there is nothing to show that he will work his way back into the top thirty-five. The pressure of having to qualify for every race may be too much for him, and it seems likely that he will step aside and find another driver for the #45 car.
But of course, I could be wrong, and Kyle Petty is far from done.
With the cars lining up on the Food City 500, according to last year's owners' points, the chances that Hendrick Motorsports will get their first win of the season at Bristol are pretty good. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are lined up on the front row. While Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, has yet to get a handle on the new car at the intermediate tracks, the short tracks and the Sprint Cup car form a combination with which he has some expertise. However, the HMS team that has the most momentum is Dale Earnhardt, Jr's #88 team. These guys seem to know what they are doing better than the 48 or the 24 team, and Bristol, even with the new pavement and configuration, is Jr's kind of track.

Formula One racing begins it's new season tonight, with the Australian GP at Melbourne. The changes in the cars for this year may be as tumultuous for the regular favorites as the Sprint Cup cars have been to the NASCAR Cup regulars, if not even more. Starting this year, the cars will no longer be allowed to have traction control or engine braking. This is no big deal for polesitter Lewis Hamilton, who has not been in Formula One long enough to get used to those features. Robert Kubica, the young Polish driver who timed BMW/Sauber into the second place on the starting grid, has never driven a car with traction control or engine braking, and Heiki Kovalainen, Hamilton's team mate for McClaren Mercedes, has had less experience with the car than Hamilton.
We see a glimmer of hope that real racing may have returned to Formula One.

Back to NASCAR, Patrick Carpentier did not get a chance to qualify for the race at Bristol due to weather. This is somewhat sad, as we have begun to like the Canadian for his wit, his enthusiasm, and his determination. Last week, he went all out in a death-defying second qualifying lap at Atlanta to make the race. We would have hoped to see him do something similar at Bristol. Now we must wait two weeks for Martinsville, a track that can't get 1/20 as many fans to attend a Cup race as PPIR got to attend a Busch Series race. (I just had to get that in while I had the opportunity.)
Juan Paul Montoya seems to have maintained his enthusiasm for racing in NASCAR. It seems even greater now than it was last year, and his enthusiasm is reflected in the fact that he still sees each race as a new challenge. When asked, on Speed TV's Trackside if he would watch the Australian GP tonight, he said no. "The first lap and the standing start are exciting and that's about it."
We may remember that the main reason Montoya gave for leaving F-1 was that he wanted to get back to real racing.
But we have to wonder why the Speed TV program Trackside even bothers to have guests. Whenever a guest driver, such as JPM, Martin Truex, Jr, or Kasey Kahne, begins to tell a story or answer a question, co-host Darell Waltrip quickly jumps in to tell one of his own stories. We get to hear Waltrip's stories every week and in several online and print publications, and personally, I have heard enough of his stories. He should, in my opinion, either let the guests tell their stories, or the producers should stop wasting DW's time with guests.

Well, I can't think of anything witty to end this post with, so I will wish everybody a happy race weekend, Happy St Patrick's Day, and, to my Wiccan and Pagan friends, Happy Complaining About St Patrick's Day Day.
Meanwhile, "It's Bristol, Baby!"

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fantasy shootout: Da Biff vs. Rowdy

Somewhere around the web, I can't remember where, I found a comment saying it might be fun to see a one on one race to the finish between Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch, since their driving styles are so similar. I agree, they are similar, and it would be fun to see them going at each other lap after lap! The fact that Da Biff is now in second place in the points standings makes the proposition even more interesting.
I'm terrible at fantasy racing, because I just can't seem to put stats to practical use, but just for fun I went and took a look at Rowdy vs Biff. Here are the career head to head stats, from Racing
........................................Kyle Busch....Greg Biffle
Head-to-Head..................63 wins...........55 wins
Actual Race Stats Wins......5.....................9
Top 5's.............................33...................31
Top 10's...........................54...................52
Avg. Finish.....................17.4..........,,,,,,,16.5
Rowdy has beat Da Biff in finishing position in 8 races from 2004 to present. Da Biff holds the edge in actual wins. In top tens, top fives, and in average finishing position they are very close.
Next, I checked the stats for each in his Cup Rookie year:
Kyle Busch:
Win: 2 Average start: 18.6 Top 5: 9 Top 10: 1 DNF: 8 Average finish: 21.0
Greg Biffle:
Win: 1 Average start: 20.1 Top 5: 3 Top 10: 6 DNF: 6 Average finish: 19.8
Here Rowdy leads in top 5's and wins, but Da Biff has more top tens and a better average finish.
After all that, these stats tell us very little about what a head to head shootout between the drivers would be like. For that we have to take personal observations regarding the two drivers.
They are definitely similar in driving style. They both like their racecars loose, they both like to use as much track as they can in the turns, and they both make an asphalt track look like it is really a dirt track. The main difference is that Da Biff has been around long enough to know what he can't do, while Rowdy has yet to figure out what he can't do.
I am comparing no one to the Intimidator, so hold your horses, Earnhardt fans, but in relative terms, I would see a race between Da Biff and Rowdy as being similar to a race between Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond.
It would be a contest of guts, who would drive into the corners harder, and accelerate out of the turns faster. It would be a question of who is willing to be most aggressive in side by side racing, and how far they would go beating and banging down the stretch. Most of all it would be a thrill.
Let's set up a theoretical 20 lap shootout between the two at Kentucky Speedway in identical cars. The only cars on the track are those of Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch. I see three possiblities in my view:
1. Rowdy wins by sheer guts
2. Rowdy gets in over his head and wrecks. Da Biff wins by default
3. They wreck each other and nobody wins.

This is a reader participation post. Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
I would like to hear your take on how such a contest would turn out.

Monday, March 10, 2008

How do I say this?

The #18 car that was so successful at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the past, when Bobby Labonte earned six victories for Joe Gibbs Racing, has once again found Victory Lane. This time it was the youngest driver ever to win a Cup race at AMS, and the first time a "foreign" nameplate has won a Cup level race since 1954. Pick your headline.
It would be nice to be able to celebrate Toyota's first Cup points victory with a glowing review of the race. It would be great to report that the race lived up to the expectations we had after the first three races of the season. We honestly can't do that.
There may have been an exciting race for the finish, if something hadn't happened to Carl Edwards' engine. Watching Kyle Busch putting out everything he had to maintain his domination of the race was much like watching Michael Schumacher running by himself in his prime. It was thrilling, but not the kind of thrill for which we watch NASCAR.
"(Racing Clint Bowyer) was the only time I had any fun," said Jeff Gordon. Watching that part of the race was the only fun part for the fans, as well.
There were the butterflies in the stomach we always feel during the last ten laps. Fear that something might happen to Kyle Busch's car, or that he might blow a tire, trepidation that one or more of the three cars racing for second place might wreck in the last few laps, but there was no doubt, at that point, that we wouldn't be seeing any side by side racing.
"The car was sliding all over the track. It was all we could do to hold (the car) on the track. There was no way we could race anybody," said Dale Earnhardt, Jr, who finished third. He added that the right-side tires showed no wear at all, after fifty laps, a bad sign that those tires, that Goodyear had designed to be safe and prevent blow-outs, could not have had enough traction to cause wear.
We thought we had had our rant about the tires, and were done with it, but, considering the snooze fest the race turned out to be, there is more to be said. There is no need to go into Tony Stewart's tirade; everybody has heard that by now, Stewart is known for telling it like it is, and what he tells may often hurt. And, as always, there is some truth in his words.
We don't advocate switching tire manufacturers at this point, that wouldn't happen anyway. What we would like to see is that Goodyear considers that they are supposed to be leasing the teams tires that are good for competition, as well as safety. A competition tire means that the cars can race with it, not just drive around the track and hope that the car doesn't slide into the wall. To go from tires that had wear issues to tires that didn't wear at all is an extreme remedy, and misses a lot of conditions in between, ultimately resulting in the same dangerous situation.
It is no surprise that the top four finishers were the drivers best known for their ability to drive a loose racecar, and in fifth place was the driver who is considered to be one of the best all around drivers in the history of NASCAR. Nobody else even had a chance, with the exception of Carl Edwards, and if his engine hadn't blown up, he would have faded because of tire issues as well.
If Goodyear were giving the tires to the teams, as part of the sponsorship, it would be a different story, but since the teams pay for the tires, they had a legitimate gripe. But Goodyear's involvement is with NASCAR, not the drivers or the teams. They pay for the exclusive rights as the tire NASCAR uses, and to be able to fly their blimp over certain races. In return they can use racing conditions for research and development on sidwall engineering and tire compounds for consumer use. They are not in racing to produce a competitive racing tire, or, at least, that's what it seems.
In Goodyear's defense, they are having the same trouble with the Sprint Cup car that many of the crew chiefs are having. It is a difficult beast on which to get a handle. Perhaps, now that they have figured out how to produce a sidewall and a compound that will make tires last forever on the road, they can try some things that might work for racing.
But, when all is said and done, Goodyear, as part of the NASCAR team, has a responsibility help the sanctioning body present a product the fans can enjoy. Or, at least, they should see that responsibility. Though I am happy for JGR's 1-2 finish, the race could have been a lot better with just a little more responsibility from the tire manufacturer.

Other Takes on This Subject:
From Full Throttle:
Rowdy Stays Inflated--Wins at Atlanta

"And for those longing for the Good Old Days, with only 13 cars on the same lap as Busch, you got it."

From NASCAR Ranting and Raving Blog:
Atlanta: My Observations
"The pace set early was fierce and put a lot of cars down fast, and kept them down - also made the race a little less exciting too."

From Trouble in Turn Two:
View from the couch: Atlanta
"Striking the balance between safety and competition is vital for Goodyear."

From Restricter Plate This:
2008 Kobalt Tools 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway:
"That Juan Pablo Montoya ad for Big Red is awesome!!!"

" Once in a great while there's actually a flicker of racing action... no, wait, that's just someone wiggling coming off of the turn. Never mind."

Friday, March 07, 2008

Tired of tire issues?

"I'm tired," Brett Farve emotionally declared during his retirement announcement Thursday. The fact that Farve's retirement announcement has not effected me at all is reason for football fans to be happy that there are about 130 million of them and only one of me.
But the announcement did send shock waves throughout the sports world, much like the harder tire Goodyear brought this week for the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta sent shockwaves throughout the NASCAR garage. (You saw this segue coming, didn't you?).
The problem is that the teams who tested at Atlanta last Fall based all their notes and set up adjustments on the softer tires Goodyear had provided at the time. The harder tire compound provides less traction, so all those notes and adjustments are practically useless. As pole sitter Jeff Gordon remarked after qualifying, "It was like the brand new tires already had twenty laps on them."
He wasn't the only one complaining. The first practice was dangerous looking, with several spinning cars, but, luckily, no serious damage. The drivers who didn't spin their cars were confounded by the handling enough to know that if they tried to produce any fair amount of speed, they would spin as well.
Goodyear has the policy of using the same tires for the Cup Series as they do for the Nationwide Series, when there are companion races at the same track. This is a practice that seems to be outdated, since the Sprint Cup cars are very different from those used in the Nationwide Series. The tire manufacturer doesn't seem to have realized that, because the tires might be fine for the Nationwide cars, but force the Sprint Cup cars to slow way down on what is supposed to be the fastest mile and a half track on the NASCAR circuit.
If the tire issues are ridiculous, so is the ritual at Atlanta Motor Speedway of having final practice at 6:30 PM, when the race starts at 2:15 the next afternoon, under completely different temperature conditions. This means that most of the information gathered from "Happy Hour" as it is called, would be useful only for the end of the race, if at all.
Still, this is not all about complaining. The Sprint Cup car has brought some incredible racing to the fans, and, as the race begins Sunday, all teams will be equa as far as experience, or the lack thereof, goes. Racing is more thrilling when the outcome can't be predicted, and this is everything we can expect come Sunday's race.
I'm sure NASCAR racing fans will be much happier this weekend than Green Bay Packers fans.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Is NASCAR going too far for a thrill?

Early this week, NASCAR recieved an offer from Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage to add a test session at TMS before the Samsung 500 April 6th, but NASCAR turned the offer down.
Gossage's reasons for wanting the tests were sound, especially when it comes to safety issues. There were eleven cautions at last weekend's UAW-Dodge, in spite of testing, he points out, also noting that because of weather changes, the testing at LVMS earlier this year wasn't conclusive.

"My concern is that they did have an open test at Las Vegas and still had a record number of cautions, including three serious crashes involving former Cup champions," said Gossage, referring to wrecks involving Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. "We only have had a two-car Goodyear test so we could see a lot of crashes, and that causes me concern. I'm sure the teams would like as much data and track time as possible to reach that comfort level with the car and its performance at our speedway."

Texas should have a test, in my opinion, before the Cup race there, because it is probably the most treacherous of the 1.5 mile tri-ovals on the Cup schedule. The transitions from the straightaways to the turns, and visa versa are abrupt, and since everybody will be a rookie at that track it should be important for the teams to find out how the Sprint Cup car will react to those transitions. We can only be certain, from what we have seen, that it will not act like the other car did. Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton agree:

"I think Texas will be the toughest track we go to with this car, [and] it's already a tough racetrack," Gordon said. "And when you look at the transitions, the vertical loads, the bumps and the speeds, it's probably going to be closer to [Las Vegas] than to any other track we go to. The biggest challenge we're going to have with the Impala going forward this year is going to tracks that we haven't tested at and been to and gotten the data and the laps with the telemetry."
Added Jeff Burton, defending champion of Texas' spring race: "I think there are a lot of challenges at Texas -- maybe more so than [Las Vegas]. Texas is a little rougher. With this car, the bumps seem to be a pretty major issue, so I think Texas is going to be quite a challenge with this car. Some teams are going to hit and some teams aren't. The success we were able to do there last year, none of that works. None of that information will be worth a hoot, so it's starting all over again."

Does NASCAR not learn? They waited until after the death of Fireball Roberts before they required fire extinguishers and the rubberized fuel cell that helps prevent fuel from spilling. They waited until after Bobby Allison's near fatal accident, and the fatal accidents of Clifford Allison and Neil Bonnet before they even considered developing a safer car. And their concern about the HANS device and SAFER barriers didn't even surface until it was too late for Dale Earnhardt, Kenny Irwin, Jr, and Adam Petty.
Even though the new Sprint Cup car is much safer than the older car--and probably saved the life of Jeff Gordon last Sunday, and prevented serious injury to him and Tony Stewart, who also suffered a hard hit--there are still many tracks, including the majority of tracks owned by ISC, that do not have SAFER barriers all around, especially where most needed around the emergency access points.
Testing at Texas would be a safety measure, not a competition measure, and NASCAR should reconsider its denial of Gossage's proposal if they really want to prevent bad accidents in the Samsung 500.
Perhaps they don't. Perhaps they somehow feel that the best way to draw the fans is through morbid curiousity.
I know some people find crashes thrilling, but those who do are very, very far from a majority among NASCAR race fans. Maybe I am an idealist, but I like to think that most of us are there for the thrill of the race itself.
Does NASCAR realize this, or are they just hoping for a wreckfest?
I would like to think otherwise, that they really do want to present a good product for the fans--that would be good racing--as they have so far this season. They should not use the safer cars and safety devices as an excuse to promote more wrecks, because any fans they gain in that way would not be real fans, and will not stick around long before going back to their WWE matches.
Gossage offered to have the test the Wednesday before the Samsung 500, or on Thursday, the next day, during scheduled race week activities. That would not seriously disrupt anyone's schedule, and NASCAR should take the offer seriously, instead of precipitously brushing it off as they have initially.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

It isn't going to catch on

The nomenclature being used on this blog for the Car Formerly Known as CoT, "Formula N" is not catching on as I hoped it would. Furthermore, it seems to be causing confusion. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because we didn't want to call it a "Sprint" car because that is what the cars in USAC and WoO are called. We couldn't call it the "new" car because it isn't really new anymore, and I just did not like "Car Of Right Now" because that just sounded CORNy.
But, to avoid further confusion, from now on, as long as the crews are still working to get a handle on it, it will be referred to here as the "Sprint Cup Car," where it is needed to differentiate from the "conventional" car being used in the Nationwide series, or just "the car," otherwise.
I gave it a try, to test my influence on other bloggers and discovered that there is none. That's okay, we enjoy writing about our passion for the sport here and will continue to do so, no matter who reads or doesn't read this blog. Thank-you.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Formula N car wins big in Vegas

Before I catch a lot of grief here for my last post, I didn't mean to say the Sam's Town 300 wasn't an exciting race--it was. My point was that it wasn't really a good race. Winning by attrition--even if the winner is Mark Martin--is not a good win. Martin himself, as the true class act he is, admitted that.
And the major point I was trying to make was that the teams can't be saving money if the money retained by not having to switch engines is consumed by the repair of wrecked cars.
On to better things, namely the UAW-Dodge 400. Now this is good racing. From the very start there was a race for the lead, and all through the pack positions were changing. There were a few wrecks due to tires going down, and fewer, much fewer, due to driver error. Side by side racing was the rule of the day, rather than the exception.
We could see the effects of the different set ups, as one car or another would check out on the rest of the field at each restart, then, gradually, the rest of the field would catch up to the leader.
Now, this may seem a little contrary to a previous statement, but on the Cup level, with all these aggressive drivers, it can be expected to have some attrition in the closing laps when "cautions breed cautions." That is just part of Cup racing, and the wreck that took Jeff Gordon out of the running shortly after the restart with five laps to go was a completely different circumstance. It wasn't because of one car closing too fast on another that has balked for some reason--as is the case with Nationwide's restrictor spacers--but of racing aggressively with thirty lap old tires, coupled with a balked restart by the #88 car. This is classic racing.
In fact, the Formula N car has not created parity by handicapping the better cars to make them equal to the worst cars, it has merely put the racing in the hands of the drivers and the aptitude of the pit crews. One could say that the Formula N car has evened the competition up, rather than down.
All three of the first three races of the Cup season have featured a surprise finish, keeping the racing exciting, but it foils our predictions. Johnson was never in the race, and he was expected by many prognosticaters to make it four in a row. The exciting Kurt "Rowdy" Busch saw his car lose handling as the track cooled and the weather changed, and Steve Addington, his crew chief was unable to successfully play catch up. Tony Stewart, my favorite driver, blew a tire and hit the wall hard just before the half-way point of the race.
In spite of Jack Roush's blowing hot air about Toyota's millions, his relatively minute contribution of $2 million to his own team has paid off with two Carl Edwards victories in a row. The Speed TV booth bunnies have declared Roush-Fenway the new Dominator.
That won't last long. This was the first competition race for the new car on a 1.5 mile tri-oval. Chad Knaus, Steve Addington, Greg Zippadelli, and the other crew chiefs have learned what not to do, as have the drivers. Just as each new race has been, Atlanta will be a "whole new ballgame."
My favorite quote of the week comes from Mike Joy, after Mike Skinner narrowly missed the spinning Patrick Carpentier.
"He (Skinner) is pitting for four tires and a pair...of shorts."
Save of the race: Jamie McMurray's wild ride through the infield was exciting and impressive, but the more subtle save by Greg Biffle late in the race was even more impressive. The #16 car got loose and was heading toward the infield wall, but Biffle managed to straighten it out, hardly missing a beat.

Is this really necessary?

The idea of using restricter-spacers similar to the ones used in the Truck Series in all the Nationwide Series races is one for which the jury is still out, as far as I'm concerned.It is supposed to save the teams money on building engines, allowing the same engines to last for two races rather than one.
The actual reasoning for that is controversial. Some teams have expressed concern that running the engine wide open, even at lower rpms, will do nothing to save the engines.
In these days of concerns about sponsorship, especially in the Nationwide series, it is gratifying that NASCAR is trying to find ways to cut costs, to make sponsorships less expensive, and to help the teams develop, but they changed something that would have worked well for them as far as revenue goes. That is, the quality of the racing.

It will get better as the drivers get used to it, but it was also the cause of several accidents, during both practice and the Sam's Town 300. There were nine cars taken out of the race due to accidents, and at least seven of them were due to misjudgement on the part of the driver in relation to the performance characteristics of the cars. There were also several mechanical failures involving either the engine or the transmission.

The Nationwide series had a chance to have its day in the spotlight. The cars were actually faster than the Cup cars, without the spacer plates, the drivers felt comfortable in the conventional cars, and the racing promised to be excellent this season.The spacer plate seems to have taken away that promise. There is no passing on the straightaways, as we have seen in the Cup cars, because the cars do not speed up coming off the turns, but slow down. Letting up off the throttle causes problems in the cars being able to make the turn, and, as in restricter-plate racing on the Cup level, causes problems for traffic closing from behind.
But, like many a crew chief, NASCAR itself has never heard the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
There is a need to make sponsorship cheaper, and that would benefit the teams, but it would be benificial to ensure good racing that would draw the crowds and the viewing audience, as that is what will capture the interest of the sponsors. NASCAR needs to find that fine line of balance between the two.
(photos by Mark J Rebilas/US PRESSWIRE courtesy That's

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Warming up in Vegas

Once again I find myself having to correct an inaccuracy from one of my previous posts. I hate it when that happens. I mentioned that there were three venues in the Cup Series at which Tony "Smoke" Stewart has yet to win. I believe I correctly mentioned California and Las Vegas, but failed to mention correctly that the other two are Darlington and Talladega. In spite of some of my self-depricating disclaimers, I do hope to be more accurate in reporting statistics, and maintain at least some semblence of credibility.
Last year, at Las Vegas, the track surface was new, the tire compound was hard, and the cars were the familiar "conventional" cars. Many of the teams and drivers had difficulty getting the handle on the car and the track, and the going was relatively slow as NASCAR racing goes. At the end of the caution filled Cup race, Jimmie Johnson easily out ran the rest of the field and beat team mate Jeff Gordon by nearly three seconds. However, in the Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) race there was one heck of a finish while Jeff Burton and Rowdy Kyle "The Schrub" Busch raced hard for the checkers, and Busch got loose after the two made contact and spun out--crossing the finish line in second place while still in a spin.
Fans watched as the young Busch, who had a reputation for being somewhat volitile and immature, approached Burton's car in Victory Lane, expecting a fight, or at least some kind of outburst. Instead, Rowdy reached out his hand and congratulated the winner.
Thus began the warming period.
The Schrub returns to his home track this weekend a superstar in the making. With the help of his new team at Joe Gibbs Racing, and with some accolades from the likes of Darryll Waltrip and Dick Bergeron, the new "Mr. Excitement" is seen as an extraordinary driver, and has thrilled the flock of NASCAR fans across the nation.
Jimmie Johnson is expected to win an unprecedented fourth UAW-Dodge 400 in a row, but he is facing competition that is very different from last year. In spite of his second place finish last week, he seems to have trouble getting a handle on the car in traffic, and couldn't get it to work when he most needed it to work. Success in the Formula N car is mostly up to the driver, as Tony Stewart has pointed out, and Chad Knaus, as good as he is, cannot help the self-proclaimed "Driver of the Year" as much as he has in the past. Johnson is starting 33rd, and has had trouble with his car in traffic, although whatever has been bothering may have been fixed by now.
It is true that nobody has ever won the UAW-Dodge 400 from the pole, so--although there is always a first time for everything--it can't be taken for granted that Busch will win.
Aside from Kyle Busch, I would be looking for Tony Stewart, who has led the most laps at Vegas for a driver without a win, to be crossing another venue off his "Things To Do" list.
Matt Kenseth seems to be able to get a handle on the car that is being used now, and his abilities are very impressive on this type of track. If the previous record at Vegas applies to anyone, it would be to Matt, because he seems to be very adaptable to different styles of cars.
And then you have Greg Biffle, who, in spite of his lack of wins over the last two years, is very capable of winning a race. Between the last few races of '07, and some very good runs this year, he has shown that he can still be a contender.
GEM is also making a comeback, and they had some fast cars in qualifying and practice, includingt Patrick Carpentier's Kasey Kahne wants to prove that he is just as capable of making a comeback as anybody else, and he will want to put on a good enough show to earn acceptance for being given the Budman title.

A sidenote: Kahne's sponsorship
partnership involving Allstate Driver's Insurance and Budweiser made me wonder
about how they could have joint commercials. How about ending a regular Budweiser commercial, featuring Kahne with the words "Allstate Insurance reminds you that drnking Budweiser and driving could result in an increase in your insurance rates?"
So far this year, the racing has been pretty good, even after the mess at Fontana. Once that race started, on Monday, it was interesting and very well worth watching. I think we will see more of this as the season goes on and the drivers get used to the new car. NASCAR seems to be regaining some interest from the, as there was a good sized crowd at the track for practice and qualifying, This may be partly because the three day ticket package for Vegas is a very good deal, as ticket packages go, but the performance of the new car, Dale Jr, Kyle Busch and a possible record-breaking run by the current Champion, have done a lot to bring people back to the track or their television sets. I feel that the obituaries written by many for NASCAR are a bit pre-mature.