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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Random Thoughts and Notes

1.Jeff Burton (finished first): How can you not cheer for Burton to win a race? It’s the same reason that everyone would cheer if Mark Martin won a championship. The last 30 laps created one of the best finishes of the year, and Burton deserved to finally take the checkers.

Cup Chances: Burton has equaled consistency this year. Aside from the universal landmine, Talladega, Burton must conquer Martinsville to have a chance entering the home stretch.

2. Jeff Gordon (finshed third) -6 points behind. Gordon might be in the best shape of any driver. Two top fives at tracks where Gordon has lacked consistency. Gordon quietly worked up to third. Like Burton, Gordon had strong runs earlier in the year but faded at the end of races.

Cup Chances: They are looking pretty good. Texas and Phoenix are still question marks, but continued top 5 runs can ease the pressure by the end. He may have two wins by Texas.

3. Matt Kenseth (finished 10th) -18. It could have been worse, but it should have been better too. The 17 was the dominant car all day, and they were in first place when the caution came out. Both of these elements dictate that you do the safe thing, four tires and fuel. Force another car to risk something on pit strategy.

Cup Chances: Outstanding. Two races and two sub par finishes for the team’s expectations. When sub par is 10th that is a team that is going on. The 1.5 mile tracks are certain top fives, and everywhere else

4. Denny Hamlin (finished 9th) -18. He is in fourth place and yet still under the radar. There isn’t really a radar, and since NASCAR doesn’t allow telemetry on the cars, it would be pointless to have a radar. Still Hamlin is finishing well.

Cup Chances: No one thinks he has a chance and I don’t either. Hamlin’s dominant Pocono car hasn’t been as stout on other tracks. He will continue to grab top tens, but he must run up front more often to have a chance at Homestead.

5. Kevin Harvick (finished 32nd) -54 . He struggled all day and nearly walked away with a top ten. Blown engines happen and Harvick is still in good shape. He will rebound with a top ten at Kansas.

Cup Chances: Harvick has ran well everywhere all year and one tough day at Dover won't change his status as a serious contender.

6. Mark Martin (finished 14th) -75. Like many contenders, Martin got caught by a late caution and couldn't regain his lap. Dover is one of Martin's best tracks and needed to cash in. Martin runs very well at the 1.5 mile tracks, including a win last year at Kansas.

Cup Chances: He is in the hunt as long as his crew can keep him there. The large hurdle is Talladega. Martin has crashed early in the last three races at the longest track on the circuit.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr (finished 21st) -102. For the third week in a row a top five run was spoiled late. This one stemmed from a bad setup that wore out the tires too quickly. Kansas could help Jr rebound, he should be a favorite to get a top five or even win the race. Ignore his previous history, he has been fast at flat, intermediate tracks all year.
Cup Chances: The number 8 team no longer has the luxury to finish in the top ten. Some top fives are needed to draw closer in the points The next three races will be big for DEI. Not even Talladega is sure thing lately.

8. Jimmie Johnson (finished 13th) -136. There is still time, but Dover could have gone better for the 48 team. Johnson gained two spots in the standings but lost more points to the leaders.

Cup Chances: Johnson must turn it up now. Johnson has one top ten (Bristol) since his win at Indy. The 48 team must quickly find a way to run up front. The good news is the tracks line up very well after Kansas.

9. Kasey Kahne (finished 38th)-182. The 9 team is staying positive and they should be. They are probably too far back to catch the leaders, but they have a car that has won 5 races this year.

Cup Chances: Kahne needs a top five at Kansas and to finish the Talladega race in the top 15. Kahne has one lead lap finish at Talladega (13th in October '05). If he can accomplish both and the front runners have a problem, they have an outside shot at making it interesting.

10.Kyle Busch (finished 40th) -224. “We’re done.” Whether you like him or think he’s a jerk; Kyle Busch is pretty candid in interviews. Busch will still contend for a win in the final eight races.

Cup Chances: His chances are in the same shape as his Dover engine: Fried.

-The late caution for Scott Riggs’ crash was the pivotal point in the race. It trapped contenders Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson a lap down. The fewer lead lap cars also insured Matt Kenseth from real disaster after running out of gas. Instead of tenth, it could have easily been 20th or worse.

-Kyle Busch won two races last year, but inconsistency put him 20th in the final standings. It was an impressive first year in Nextel Cup. This year there are three rookies with a realistic shot to make the top 20. Reed Sorenson and Clint Bowyer both exceeded expectations this year. Martin Truex sits in 23rd, disappointing, but still decent for a rookie. This rookie class actually lived up to the hype.

-The least interesting news item during the Chase. The battle for 11th place. Even after his crash on Sunday, Tony Stewart has a 200+ point lead on Greg Biffle. I formally submit my request to the networks and media outlets to not waste any more time on this story line. A million dollar bonus isn't that exciting to these guys anyway.

-The phrase “Drive for Five” is tired. Please stop now.

-Bill Elliott is driving R&J Racing’s #37 car this weekend at Kansas. He has now driven for MB2, Ray Evernham, Michael Waltrip and is scheduled to drive for Red Bull before the end of the year. The R&J deal is puzzling. Is Elliott that desperate to race that he joins a team that has one miraculous top ten finish in three years? Obviously Elliott is not ready for retirement.

-Mark Martin will drive 10-15 races for the No Fear #60 team next year. What happens if Martin decides to enter the Bud Shootout? Boris Said is also eligible for the Shootout thanks to his Pepsi 400 pole.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Chase Roundup: New Hampshire

1. Kevin Harvick (Finished first at New Hampshire)-A near perfect weekend for the 29 team: Winning the pole, leading practices, and dominating on Sunday for his second straight win. Harvick is an excellent driver that is getting consistently great cars. At this point it is hard to find a weak track for Harvick.

Circle the date: Phoenix. After winning earlier at Phoenix, Richmond and now New Hampshire, Harvick is the current flat-track ace.

Next week: Harvick finished third at Dover in June for his second top five and fifth career top ten. Not traditionally a strong track although all three Childress cars ran well in June.

2. Denny Hamlin -35points (4th at New Hampshire)-Another solid finish means Hamlin is not staying under the radar. Hamlin will need more top fives if he wants to be around during the second half of the Chase.

Circle the Date: Martinsville. Normally a daunting track for rookies, Hamlin has raced here for most of his racing career. Gibbs is also usually strong at the paperclip-shaped track.

Up next: Hamlin finished 11th in June in his only start at Dover. He does have two top tens in the Busch series.
3. Matt Kenseth -41 points (10th at New Hampshire)-Kenseth struggled mightily the first two thirds of the race, and still stole a top ten. Now he moves to Dover where he won in June. To have a bad day, lose your breaks and still finish tenth, plus lead a lap is pretty solid. And solid is the word that best sums up the 17 team.

Circle the Date: Homestead. It is hard seeing Kenseth not in contention entering the finale. He’s solid to good at every track, and could probably even afford a mulligan somewhere.

Up Next: Kenseth won the June race this year, but Dover hasn’t been kind to the 17 historically. Kenseth has crashed at the last two fall races, effectively ruining his Chase hopes.

4. Jeff Gordon -50 points (3rd at New Hampshire)-How can Gordon run so poorly at Richmond and the next week spend the entire race in the top 5 at New Hampshire? For the 24’s sake, it doesn’t matter now. Loudon could have been a landmine for Gordon.

Circle the Date: Texas. Gordon has never won at Texas, Phoenix or Homestead. Texas is especially a struggle. A top ten is a necessity here if he wants his fifth Cup.

Up Next: Gordon dominated the June race early, leading 81 laps before tailing off to 12th. In his last five starts, he has three sub 35 finishes. He also has four career wins.

5. Jeff Burton -64 (6th at New Hampshire)-Another solid day for Burton, but there is still room for improvement. He led some laps and finished in the top ten. Once again he slid in the standings late in the race.

Circle the Date: Phoenix-

6. Mark Martin -75 (11th at New Hampshire)-Martin hung around the top ten all day and finished a decent eleventh. The key for the 6 team is their pit stops. Several good runs were spoiled by bad stops or mistakes.

Circle the Date: Atlanta. Martin has had dominant runs at the fastest track, including a solid second this spring. He deserves one more win before quasi-retirement.

Up next: Martin led 39 laps early at Dover only to lose the handle later in the race. He finished 9th, but had a better car. He has five straight top tens at Dover, including four top fives.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr -81 (13th at New Hampshire)-Junior was upset after the race and he should be. He had a top five car for the majority of the race, but tailed off at the end. With other drivers having problems, a top five was a reasonable goal, a top ten crucial. The eight team got neither. The past month the team has excelled at improving the car throughout the race, but they missed on Sunday.

Circle the Date: Kansas. Junior has run very well at flat tracks like Chicago, Michigan and California this year. He must take advantage and shoot for a win.

Next week: Earnhardt Jr grinded out a tenth place finish in June. Historically Dover is a mixed bag for the team. He won in 2001, but has also struggled at times. A tenth place finish is key, especially after coughing up a good day at Loudon. The Bud team must keep within striking distance heading into the last five races.

8. Kasey Kahne -110 (16th at New Hampshire)-A fast car was doomed by a flat tire. It wasn’t the flat tire as much as staying out too long on the flat. Kahne gained two spots in the standings. If he can make it past Talladega without a major setback the tracks play out well for the 9.
Circle the Date: Lowe’s. The second 1.5 mile track in the Chase marks the start of four tracks where Kahne has a good chance at winning. Like everyone, he must slip past Talladega without incident.

Next week: Kahne finished 7th this summer at Dover. He hasn’t finished well at Dover, although he was leading the summer race in ’04 before hitting oil and wrecking.

9. Jimmie Johnson -139 (39th at New Hampshire)-Even without the crash, Johnson’s day was doomed by a lost cylinder. He may have raced longer, but the finish would have been similar. The good news is Johnson had similar problems in 2004 and then won 4 races to have a chance heading to Homestead. He still is excellent at Dover, Talladega, Lowe’s, Martinsville, and Atlanta. He is in a hole for sure, but not buried.

Circle the Date: Talladega. Johnson has two wins at plate tracks this year, finally erasing several incidents in previous races. Johnson can’t afford another dust-up that results in a poor finish.

Next week: Johnson won last year’s fall race at Dover with tricked up shocks. This summer he fell a lap down, spun out and still finished in the top ten.

10. Kyle Busch -146 (38th at New Hampshire)-Most drivers in the Chase have their strong tracks where top 5’s are essential. Busch squandered one of his on Sunday. It’s not impossible, but he is nearly a full race behind Harvick already.

Circle the Date: Dover. Busch has finished in the top five in all three trips to Dover. He must do so to recoup some of the points he lost this week.

Up Next: Busch finished second in last fall’s race which turned into Shockgate ‘05. This summer he led 22 laps before finishing 5th.

Other Notes:
-Didn’t NASCAR announce plans to reduce the number of cars an owner can have? The plan called for a cap at four cars. Instead of reducing cars, Roush Racing is apparently expanding. Boris Said’s No Fear team is basically a satellite team for Roush. They get cars, and engineering support. Now they may get Mark Martin to drive select races next year. Of course Roush is simply following the same plan that other multi-car teams do. Hendrick Motorsports supplies engines and support to the Haas and MB2 teams. Gibbs Racing basically supplied everything except the sponsor for the rookie Hall of Fame team. In other words, NASCAR talks big about rule changes, but doesn’t really have a grip on things.

-Dave Blaney scored his second straight top ten of the season. Blaney's team is obviously improving as the season moves on and they have a lot going for them. Barring some kind of alliance or transaction, Blaney's 22 team is the only Toyota team with a guaranteed spot in the top 35 in 2007 (Dale Jarrett has a Champion's provisional). His team is already established and further along than any of the startup teams, allowing a large head start on their program. And finally after three years without manufacturer support, Bill Davis Racing will have the full backing from Toyota next year. Blaney has recently shown what he can do in an under-supported car, so it's not a stretch to think he can be in the top 20 in points. That would be a big improvement over the past few years.

-Jeff Gordon complained Sunday about teammate Brian Vickers racing him too hard. Gordon has taken issue with each of his three teammates at different times this year. Either TV tries to overplay this issue, or Gordon feels a false sense of entitlement. Vickers had a better car and passed Gordon cleanly. There is nothing wrong with that whether you are in the Chase or not.

-Michael Waltrip and Robby Gordon both completed a race at New Hampshire without incident. It marked the first time since July of 2005. Waltrip even scored a top 25. Congrats boys!

-Tired Topics Covered this week by the mainstream media: Does Jimmie Johnson's crash ruin his Chase chances? Will anyone catch Kevin Harvick and his blessed momentum? Why can't Jeff Burton finish a race strong? Thankfully the Mayfield-Evernham news cycle has ended.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

If I Were French...Simple Changes for Nascar

Many of the issues fans want to see changed in NASCAR do not have simple solutions. Often the problems have so many parties and variables involved, there is not a simple quick-hit solution. It is impossible to reinstate a race at Rockingham, solve the Buschwhacker dilemma, or reduce the number of commercial breaks without spoiling the interests of others (legitimate interests or not). However since the France family and NASCAR do wield considerable power, it does allow for some simple changes that would improve the sport, no democracy needed.

Take away the 5pt bonus for leading a lap under yellow-There is no skill in a 32nd place car staying out under caution to lead a lap. He should not get the same bonus points as a front runner negotiating through the field or beating everyone out of the pits. If a car that’s 36th in owner’s points wants to get bonus points, then stay on the lead lap, stay out longer during green flag pit stops or build a faster car.

Chop the 500 mile races-Races like Daytona and Atlanta tick off the laps fast enough to justify 500 miles. Other tracks can decide winners in less time, without altering the shape of the race. Aside from fewer blown engines, the outcomes will hardly change. Reduce races at California (especially the late starting Labor Day race), Pocono, and Texas to 400 mile events. For its uniqueness, the Coca Cola 600 stays as is. I admit this is not that simple, because track owners, networks and sponsors want the maximum amount of time to push product. However, if they can have a quality 400 lap race instead of a droning 500 lap slumber fest, the value of the time is ultimately increased. Ah, I know, good luck with that.

Modify the Lucky Dog rule-Drivers can only use the free pass once in a race. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch made this change obvious earlier this year. Busch took great advantage of the rule to regain five laps and finish 10th at Watkins Glen. It's not Busch's fault there were no other lapped cars, but the rule is intended to prevent racing back to the line, not give mullignas tor teams with major mechanical problems. Racing back to the line is not an option, it's too dangerous and could result in more foolish crashes involving lapped cars and lead cars.

Consistency from the Nascar Hauler-If competitor A runs into competitor B during a caution, driver A should always get the same penalty regardless of the situation. Make the rulebook public and limit in-season addendums to safety concerns only. Review competition rules only at the end of the season. If a team devises a trick shock that currently falls under the rules, allow them to take advantage until after Homestead. Reward ingenuity instead of striving in vain for blanket equality. On the flipside, if a team is blatantly violating a rule there must be consistent punishment.

Obviously the huge fuss right now is about the points. I agree more points should be granted to the race winner, but there needs to be a balance between winning and consistency. There must be a better way, but that is for another day. Plus the last thing Nascar needs to do is constantly change their Championship criteria. If they want legitimacy among the big three sports, then they can't react to yearly situations.


Monday, September 11, 2006

The Big Mo' and it's Uselessness

Everyone loves to talk about momentum entering the Chase. Announcers and writers love intangibles for storylines. Kevin Harvick has momentum because he won at Richmond, so the easy inference is that Harvick has a great chance to win the Chase. Keep this in mind: The last two winners of the fall Richmond race(Jeremy Mayfield, Kurt Busch) both had problems at Loudon and finished the season in tenth place. It’s nice to think momentum is really important, but it is not as important as running well each week. Harvick has run well the majority of the season, his win was far from a fluke or guessing right. Is it because of momentum or having good cars and a good driver? The teams that bring the best cars and stay out of trouble will succeed. This is why Harvick has a great chance to win a title, not because he happened to win last week’s race.

Other Thoughts
-Of the four or five drivers on the bubble at Richmond, would anyone have said Tony Stewart would be the one to miss the top ten? He could win up to three races during the Chase, starting as soon as Sunday at New Hampshire. Watch out for him to contend at Loudon, Talladega, Martinsville and Phoenix.

-Lots of attention was paid to Stewart’s backup car being an older generation Gibbs car. Since Richmond was an impound race, they were unable to work on it after qualifying. Why didn’t the 20 team try to work on it after qualifying? Starting at the back of the field isn’t very costly when you qualify 40th, especially considering the need to make the Chase. I certainly won’t pretend to know better than one of the top teams in NASCAR, but it is still interesting.

-On a Bill Davis team with no manufacturer support, Dave Blaney’s top five at Richmond was like a victory. It was also one more cut at Michael Waltrip’s disaster called the 2006 season. The 22 team has consistently improved throughout the season.

-NBC's coverage was pretty terrible, especially Bill Weber. He adds no new information when he comments, and occasionally is plain wrong. How many fans need the Lucky Dog or the Chase system explained during every segment? After Harvick took the checkered flag Weber yells, "Kevin Harvick sweeps at Bristol!". I can give a free pass to a fan sitting at home and getting confused. Weber presumably was in the city of Richmond, Virginia all weekend and should know where he is.

Friday, September 08, 2006

How did I miss this?

Prior to Daytona in February, I predicted my top ten drivers for the Chase. Several were no brainers and a few were longer shots. Champions like Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart were slam dunks. I figured Dale Earnhardt Jr would regain his form, and I thought Kyle Busch was ready to make the top ten. The always consistent Mark Martin could get in, especially based on how dominant Roush Racing was in ’05. It makes me look pretty smart with all six in the top ten heading to Richmond.

I also missed on a few that the majority of people whiffed on. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle I haven’t’ seen a person that didn’t pick both to make the Chase. It also was logical to think a Penske driver, either Kurt Busch or Ryan Newman would solve the Charger enough to run up front. Wrong and really wrong (for the record Penske didn’t solve the Intrepid either). It gets worse. For some reason I thought Yates would figure things out to get Elliot Sadler back in the Chase. Now maybe Evernham will, in 2007.

Things happen to teams that surprise everyone. How is it possible that Edwards will not only miss the Chase, but may go winless? While it’s surprising to see Busch struggle, it can’t be considered a total shock after his move to Penske South. While I didn’t think Jeremy Mayfield was an elite driver, I didn’t think he would run in the 30’s every week.

These surprises still are no match for my worst omission. Sixty percent is pretty good under these conditions, but how in the world did I not pick Jimmie Johnson? At the time I reasoned there was no way Hendrick would get 3 cars in. Of course that didn’t stop me from erroneously reserving four spots for Roush cars. I also thought Johnson might be due for a letdown after running so well. That logic looks terrible now.

After the early controversy at Daytona, Johnson's season has been dull. Successful, rich and dull.Sure he has four wins, plus the All-Star race, the most top tens, led the points the past 18 weeks, and the most money. Most weeks Johnson is found somewhere in the top ten avoiding trouble and headlines. He is ninth in total laps led (364), yet second in wins. He has finished every race inside the top 15 except for three.

The past two years Johnson struggled during the summer months and lost momentum heading towards the Chase. This year he is cruising towards the final ten races with no issues to speak of. The tracks set up well for him, and he closes quickly. His six total wins in the last two playoffs is tops, no one else has more than two. Barring major catastrophe, Johnson is positioned to finally win his first Cup. And that won't be overlooked.