Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Racing Weekend in Review--NASCAR Phoenix Weekend

The NASCAR racing all took place on Friday and Saturday last weekend, but that didn't mean the racing weekend was over.

The new rules in Formula 1 are turning things upside down. With a new car design, new tire design, and a slower top speed, all the teams in the world's most prestigious racing series have to start from square one. Gone is the dominance by team Ferrari and team McClaren/Mercedes. Now we see the start up team of Brawn Racing--created from the ashes of Team Honda, and racing with Mercedes power--and their driver Jenson Button dominating. I remember many F-1 fans claiming that Button wasn't good enough to be racing in Formula One.

Early Sunday morning, when most of us were asleep, the Bejing Gran Prix was run in wet weather in China. Sebastion Vettle, who surprised everyone in his first win last year with Toro Rosso, took the victory. This was the first victory for Team Red Bull, the "big brother" of Toro Rosso, which is. of course, Italian for "Red Bull."

Mark Webber, Vettle's Red Bull team mate, finished second. Points leader Jenson Button finished third, keeping his podium percentage at 100%.

Add to that, the Formula One "COT" if that is what we may call it, has put the racing more in the hands of the drivers. Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

Yesterday the ALMS Gran Prix was held at Long Beach, California. ESPN/ABC decided to broadcast the race today. Although we already knew that racing legend Gil de Ferran won the race--his first since coming out of retirement--we had to watch anyway. ALMS can give us some of the most exciting street course racing there is, and Saturday's race on Sunday was no exception. With around sixteen laps to go, Boris Said, driving a Corvette in the GT 2 class, was blind-sided by a BMW driver trying to make a heroic, but ill-advised pass on the inside, after Said had already made his commitment. Both cars spun, but continued the race. With six laps to go, Said's Corvette burst into flames. Boris exited the car safely, but the race ended under caution.

Team Corvette, running their final US race in the GT 1 class, took the awesome and dominating C6.R to victory one last time. Although they will still have a presence in the GT-2 class of ALMS, and will race in GT 1 at Le Mans, this feels like the beginning of the end for the last American factory team in motorsports.

Many race fans claim outrage that NASCAR dropped Rockingham from its schedule nine years ago, and that the new Sprint Cup car has ruined racing as they knew it. So, one would expect that when Andy Hillenberg bought the race track at Rockingham, and landed the ARCA Carolina 200 as the main attraction, that these disgruntled fans would flock to that track to watch the aero-cars race. One would think that they would congregate to watch racing untainted by the competition, publicity, and high dollar sponsorships that they complain about in NASCAR. One would apparently be wrong. Less than 10,000 people showed up for last years event, and there were only about a thousand this year. If there was an ARCA race today at PPIR, I bet there would be at least 20,000 people there. I could almost guarantee it.

Anyway, most of the young ARCA stars from last year have moved up to the NASCAR developmental programs, or elswhere. Michael Annett and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr have moved to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and Annett is still making a good showing in the Rolex Grand American Series. Justin Allgiaer is the new Next Great Racer in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. We did see Ken Schrader dominate most of the race, until he ran out of fuel with less than one lap to go.

All of the cautions during the race came in the first 100 laps, and apparantly that was just sorting out the chaff, because the final 100 laps were caution free, which actually caused more problems than Schrader running out of gas. Tires aren't supposed to last that long, especially at Rockingham.

The drivers who hung in there, so to speak, for that final 100 laps were race winner Sean Caisse, Up and coming NASCAR Star and fourteen time AMA Supercross champion Ricky Carmichael--who had tire problems in the closing laps of the race, and finished three laps down--and Brian Ickler, who is Kyle Busch's developmental driver. Ickler stayed on the lead lap for most of the race, but tire and fuel problems forced him to make a pit stop late in the race, after he was lapped. Only six cars finished on the lead lap.

If there isn't more enthusiasm for this race in South Carolina, I don't think it will be there much longer, and race fans will once again lose Rockingham. This time the only fingers they can point will be at themselves.

The street course at Long Beach, CA is the oldest active street course in the USA, at the age of 35. Sunday marked the first time the IRL held a race there. It also marked the return of Helio Castroneves to racing, after he was acquitted of six counts related to tax evasion. Claiming that he was out of shape and out of practiced, he still managed to finish seventh in the difficult race.

Risky pit strategy and full course cautions combined to help Dario Franchitti take the victory, as well as earning Danica a fourth place, after starting at the back of the field. It was almost as if their teams could predict the full course cautions, because the strategy of "pitting just before the caution" worked. It was an interesting race, and watching the long, low slung racing machines go around the infamous hairpin nose to tail was fascinating. We knew that was a recipe for disaster if one of the leading cars were to slip up, and at one point of the race, it did happen, collecting 5 cars whose drivers were unable to avoid the big one.

Also interesting was watching Danica hold her own against road ace Will Power (love that name!). Street racing has not been a strong point for Danica, but she has obviously been practicing. She actually gained time on Power, in some of the most difficult parts of the course. A great racer never stops learning, and although she is not yet a great racer, Danica Patrick will not stop learning. Say what you will about the temperamental, titillating, and tiny bundle of eye candy, but, if Danica continues to improve her racing skills, she will one day be an IRL Champion.

Before we finish this post, we have to remark some more on Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 from PIR. Night racing is fun to watch, and the drivers, for the most part, like it. It provides a challenge for the crew chiefs in keeping up the car set up with the changing track conditions. The racing always seems better at night.

However, we would not recommend that NASCAR add even more night races to the schedule. For one thing, the folks on the East Coast can not, or perhaps should not, stay up that late. Night racing in NASCAR is fun as long as it remains somewhat of a novelty in the top series. Otherwise, we may find that too much of a good thing is just too much.

Besides Mark Martin's outstanding domination of the race, Tony Stewart, David Reutimann, and Sam Hornish, Jr all had notable performances. Tony Stewart finished in the runner up spot, scoring his third consecutive top five finish, and making his top ten score 6 out of 8 races. This is with a team we believed would be slow in building to success, but, so for, Smoke has proven us wrong. We are very happy that we have been proven wrong.

David Reutimann is showing up these days as "The Franchise" for MWR. That nickname is more than just a lark. Racing for a team that is definitely thought of as an underdog, he has 2 top tens and one top five so far this season. He finished eighth Saturday, and currently sits ninth in the points standings.

In the "Where did that guy come from?" category, Sam Hornish, Jr finished ninth, scoring his first top ten in his Sprint Cup career. Hornish, a three time IRL series Champion, reportedly turned down a chance to return to the IRL in favor of continuing his education in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His learning curve has risen much slower than AJ Allmendinger's, but he has been plugging along, learning little by little. Who knows? Along with Allmendinger, Gilliland, Martin, Stewart, and Smith, he could become one of the feel good stories of the year.

And with all the turmoil in our world, we can use as many feel good stories as we can get.

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