Friday, March 20, 2009

Waiting for more

Not long ago, the NASCAR season began with a bang for one week, a fizzle for the next, and then a week off. Now we get a bang, a fizzle, an "okay" race, and a race of uplifting competition before having the week off. Where the old schedule wouldn't even give us enough time in which to build anticipation, the new schedule lets the the anticipation for the next race build, and then lets us down. The big difference now is that we take the week off in anticipation of a race at one of the favorite venues of the NASCAR fan--Bristol Motor Speedway. Bristol seems to make waiting a week so much more worth it.

Another advantage to the schedule the way it is now, is that it gave the teams enough practical experience to see what they needed for the races that will follow, and to use the non-racing week for adjustments, repairs, testing, and promoting for sponsorship. All of these elements are important to each team in increasing their ability to be highly competitive for the rest of the season.

As fans of the sport we used the off week to take a retrospective look at the season so far.

Our assessment is "not bad."

Daytona Speed Weeks gave us our first look at what racing would be like without the testing. We also saw several new teams for the first time, as economic compression created the opportunity for legendary crew chief Tommy Baldwin and drivers Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemecheck to form their own teams.

Baldwin and his driver Scott Riggs thrilled us as they raced their way into the lineup for the Daytona 500. Jeremy Mayfield, with a team that was less than three weeks old, also raised some eyebrows. Then Matt Kenseth, who had not won a race all season last year, took the checkers and the trophy at the 500.

It wouldn't be the Daytona 500 if it didn't have controversy, and this year's was no different. We learned that the difference between controversy and a racing incident is the name of the driver involved. The name of the driver in this case was Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

That was a big enough name to overshadow whatever happened the next week at California. As always, the California race didn't do much to thrill the fans who were watching it on television. The Auto Club Speedway is a driver's track, and it takes a lot of skill and experience to come out on top. For much of the race, Jeff Gordon showed us that his skill and experience still counts for something, and Tony Stewart, with his new Stewart-Haas Racing #14 team, proved that he has enough skill and talent to make something out of a former back-marker team. But the driver who had the most skill and talent on this day was, once again, Matt Kenseth. He became the first driver in NASCAR's modern history to win each of the first two races of the season in one series.

Kyle Busch, who was born and raised in the Las Vegas, New Mexico area, had yet to win a NASCAR race at LVMS. He changed that in week three of the season by winning two, and becoming the first NASCAR driver in history to win two races in two different series at the same venue on the same weekend. This history making feat was largely ignored as everyone was still talking about Daytona and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

However, even though Kyle Busch dominated at Las Vegas, we could still get a look at what the other teams were up to, as there was some very good racing behind the leader for the entire event.

And finally, an exciting race that had plenty of controversy at Atlanta, when a crew member from Marcos Ambrose's team chased a runaway tire to within seventy-five feet of the racing surface. Granted, NASCAR would have thrown a caution flag eventually, to pick up the tire, but the crewman put himself in a very dangerous place, where cars going 180 mph or more often make side trips. This caused a caution to fly while many of the competitors were making their green flag pit stops, thus putting all but six of them at least a lap behind the leaders.

In the long run, the incident didn't have an effect on the outcome of the race. Due to the free passes that occur due to cautions, there were about the same number of cars on the lead lap as the end of the race neared, as there would have been if the race had been run entirely under a green flag. And Busch won again, but this time it was Kyle's older brother, Kurt, who took the checkers. The new "class clown" of NASCAR, who has decided to do something different in celebration of every victory he claims, celebrated this time by driving around the track with his car in reverse gear.

So, that's the season so far. Jeff Gordon is looking strong, and we still feel this could be his year. Tony Stewart surprised many of us by making some strong showings with a team that seemed like it needed a lot of work to become competitive, and we can only assume that a lot of work was done.

Speaking of needing work, the rookies, Scott Speed and Joey Logano, both need some of that. However, we still feel they will both be quick learners,. though it might help Logano if his car had fender whiskers attached.

It is still too early to make an assessment of anything or anyone, but we do know that this season is going to keep getting better. Bristol is always unique and fun, and Martinsville, a favorite of short track fans like the Rev', follows. One thing we know for sure is that anything can, and probably will, happen

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