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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Performance Enhancing Substances in NASCAR?

Apparently it's news that Barry Bonds' body is different than 15 years ago when he was a Pirate. One of my friends at work and I were discussing Bonds and went off on a tangent about steroids in NASCAR. What if Mark Martin injected HGH into his right foot? Maybe Chad Knaus' baldness is due to heavy use of flaxseed oil which enables him to install illegal car parts? Carl Edwards uses the Cream and the Clear to execute his backflips. Obviously none of it is true, and is one more reason why it is gaining in popularity while baseball can't stop tripping over its own feet.

There is still one driver that is obviously using a substance to enlarge his stature.
1999 2007

Mmm, Blizzards.

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The Top 35 Derby

In European football (soccer for us Yanks) they call it relegation. At the end of the season the bottom three teams in the standings are sent down to the lower division, while three others are promoted. Unlike most US sports leagues, relegation battles create added excitement and interest for teams that otherwise have nothing to play for. Relegation means not only a lower level of competition, but significantly lower revenue. For teams in England, staying in the Premiere League means a piece of a billion dollar TV contract (about $60 million USD per team).

An NFL or NBA team that is out of playoff contention begins playing for next year. This often involves passively improving their draft pick status to land the next franchise player. Aside from waning fan support, there is no incentive for the bottom teams to remain competitive. For a losing franchise in the US, there is no reason to take interest.

Maybe the closest a US sport gets to relegation is NASCAR’s top 35 rule. Teams outside the top 35 in owner points have to qualify on time for seven or eight transfer spots to make each race. It’s not always a popular rule among fans, but it has definitely added excitement and interest for cars near the bottom of the standings. If not for the top 35 rule few would have paid attention to Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin during the Chase. Instead it was an interesting side story as the season wound down. It also means a big difference in revenue for the teams. Obviously missing a race means no prize money, but also the potential of losing sponsors, the costs of traveling to races and their cut in the year end points fund.

The Nextel Cup is only two races in, but some teams are already in a huge hole for 2007. The first big landmark will come after the Bristol race. At that point the top 35 drivers in owner points are locked in. There are 12 teams attempting to enter the top 35, while 35 other teams attempt to stay anchored in the safety zone.

Based on the past three years, 400 points is the magic number for assured safety. That’s the average points total of the 32nd place driver after 5 races. With more full time drivers competing to make races, that might be too high. 400 points breaks down to averaging 80 points per race, or finishing 26th. For drivers like Brian Vickers and Paul Menard, who have already missed one race, the average bumps up to 100 points per race or a top 20 every week. Remember, Scott Riggs missed the Daytona 500 in 2006 and was back inside the top 35 by week 6. It’s not an impossible task.
Twelve drivers are trying to wriggle inside the top 35. The results range from sitting pretty to sitting on the edge of a cliff.

Joe Nemechek-A top ten at Daytona was huge. Nemechek currently has 259 points and sits 7th in points. Ginn Racing has obviously improved all three teams since last year. Nemechek is an excellent qualifier and the points he’s already accumulated provide additional cushion.

Johnny Sauter-After a disastrous 2004 rookie year with Richard Childress, Sauter has returned from Busch purgatory. He was always a good driver-he won a Busch race in 2005- but couldn’t land another Cup ride until this season. Two top 20 finishes in two races quietly puts Sauter on pace to sit inside the top 35 with room to spare. Maybe the bigger concern is ensuring his teammate Jeff Green is around to join him.

Dale Jarrett-It is a different story for Jarrett without his past champion provisional. Using the provisional buys Jarrett at least six races, but he hasn’t piled up points so far. He is 28th with 164 points, but struggled all day at California. How bad was it? His driver rating was 32.9 while running all day. Martin Truex Jr, who blew an engine after 14 laps, had a 37.1 driver rating. Jarrett should be fine in the long run, but MWR must find more speed.

Sterling Marlin-Qualifying on speed is old news to Marlin, who spent a large part of 2006 outside the top 35. The cars have been better so far this season, but an early crash at California hurt. Marlin’s 170 points puts him ahead of the 400 point pace, but he can’t afford the crashes that plagued him last season.

Brian Vickers-Team Red Bull finally made a race, and the finish was impressive. Doug Richert and Vickers form the best crew chief-driver combination of the Toyota cars. Vickers needs to average 88 points over the next three races to reach the 400 point mark. Qualifying for the Toyotas has still been troublesome, but once Vickers is in the race he is good enough to get Red Bull up and running.

David Reutimann-So far his record shows to races made on speed and three DNF’s including the Twin 150’s. He has been one of the fastest Toyotas in qualifying and certainly the most consistent of the MWR cars. Unfortunately he doesn’t have very many points to show for it. He sits 41st with 107 points. With two more speedway races and then the rookie-humbling Bristol, it could be a challenge to make the top 35 after Bristol. Reutimann is definitely capable of making races and eventually entering the top 35.

Paul Menard-All the attention is on his teammates and their blown engines, but Menard had a steady race at California. His 103 points puts him in the ballpark for entering the top 35. He is currently 43rd, although there are two part time drivers ahead of him that he will pass granted he continues to qualify for races. He was second fastest among Need for Speed drivers at California.

Michael Waltrip-The 100 point penalty from Daytona is enormous. After missing the CaliforniaToyota will figure things out as the season continues and all three of Waltrip’s cars will run better. It just won’t be immediately in the top 35. race, Waltrip still sits at -27 points after two races. What’s worse, his teammates were not very good on the intermediate track.

Jeremy Mayfield-The second Bill Davis team was expected to have a head start on the other Toyota teams because it was an established organization. Mayfield is a good driver and should be able to make two or three of the next few races. It is still a large hole missing the first two races. If he can’t make one of the next two races the year might turn into one big R&D session and building towards 2008. It sounds extreme, but that’s how competitive Cup has become.

AJ Allmendinger-It’s not surprising that the driver with no Cup experience would have the hardest time making races. What is surprising is that Allmendinger isn’t running the Busch series. He ran both truck races but he needs as much seat time as possible and Red Bull had to know it would be tough to do so at the Cup level. At least there are two road courses to circle on the calendar.

Mike Bliss, Ward Burton, Kenny Wallace-These teams all have limited resources and zero Cup starts in 2007. It will be a feat to make more than six races combined this year. It will be a greater feat if all three teams are still entering races by the summer.

With five to six outside drivers in good position to enter the top 35, other drivers will fall. Here are five candidates:

Scott Riggs-With a rough start, Riggs again finds himself with a potential battle for the top 35. The 25 point penalty makes the situation more serious. At least Riggs will get crew chief Rodney Childers back for Las Vegas.

Kyle Petty-The 45 team spent last season struggling to regain a place in the top 35. With better funded teams looking to swoop in, Petty can’t afford many more DNF’s.

Ken Schrader-Schrader was the innocent victim of Dave Blaney’s reckless dive-bomb at Daytona. He is strong at short tracks, but he really needs strong runs at Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Jeff Green-Green had a decent run at Daytona ruined by Jimmie Johnson’s crash. Green has always languished in the high 20’s, but that may not be enough this year.

Dave Blaney-A wreck and a blown engine put Blaney in a hole. He has an established team, but the Camry is far from a finished product. Blaney overachieved last season with an under-supported team. If he falls outside the top 35 to start the season it is a squandered opportunity.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

View from the Couch: Auto Club 500

-A flat tire killed Kevin Harvick's chances to win, but he has to be excited about how strong RCR cars were. Not only did they finish strongly, all three hovered in the top ten almost the whole race.

-It was pretty cool to see Matt Kenseth so emotional in victory lane. He won 5 races last season but is still appreciative of how hard it is to win.

-Why did Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch pit after the red flag? They entered the pits in 7th and 8th and then had to pass several cars to finish 8th and 9th respectively. Kurt Busch stayed out and moved from 12th to 7th. Even with fresh tires, seven laps wasn't enough time to make a huge difference.

Where's Carl Edwards? I didn't hear any reason why he was struggling. Either he had problems that weren't mentioned or the #99 was completely out to lunch. Greg Biffle finished 15th, but that's a big drop from where he usually runs at California. Matt Kenseth won the race, but Roush Racing looks like they did at the end of 2006. It's definitely a long season, but right now the Chevy teams are well ahead of Ford and Dodge.

-Brian Vickers scored Toyota's first top ten in Cup. Vickers also moved up to 34th in the standings after missing Daytona.

-David Reutimann's crash looked horrible. It wasn't so much the crash, but Reutimann's reaction from the in-car cameras. Thankfully he was all right. If anyone needed a reminder why NASCAR stopped racing back to the line, this was it. A frozen field allows safety crews almost instant access to the track instead of waiting longer for the cars to slow. Reutimann took a while to get out of his car and there was a fire.

-Wolfgang Puck gave a shout out to his favorite drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Gordon and Johnson had no part in the bit, but that didn't win any new blue collar fans for the duo. As if Hendrick haters needed more ammunition.

-On the flipside, Dale Earnhardt Jr showed his sense of humor by taking a bow after his spin. It was probably less frustrating since his day was already done by that point.

-DirecTV Hot Pass. Nothing like paying to hear Dale Jr say things like “we lost a cylinder” or watch Kasey Kahne's telemetry while he turns laps in 38th place. Does anyone know if you can switch drivers with this service? That would be unfortunate if you couldn't.

-Why does Fox insist on showing the lame 3D video game graphics instead of actual video footage? It's like the friend who just got a new useless gadget, but insists on using it anyway. DW keeps saying, "Fans will love it, drivers will hate it." It's actually "fans hate it, drivers probably don't care."

-Having drivers surf in front of a blue screen. Get it? The race is in California. California is the only race venue where Fox feels compelled to havegimmicky promos. Scrap them all together.

-Larry McReynolds' favorite saying,“Guys I've been watching the __ car”. Dear Larry, watching cars is your job. I guess the alternative is doing a bit with corn dogs and fencing.

-I complain about Fox a lot, but they do a good job overall. Mike Joy is usually on top of the action and is quick to identify cars involved in wrecks. McReynolds and Jeff Hammond are at their best when they describe the technical aspects of racing and DW is DW. Fox also gets credit for catching most crashes, pit stops and restarts.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

California Thoughts

Daytona and Speedweeks are done. It was another interesting two weeks capped with a wild finish. It’s a fun way to get the season going, and stirs up interest, but Daytona has little overall bearing on the season. The next four races will play a huge part in who will succeed this season.

This week’s race at California will start answering questions about the season. There are no major changes to the aero package, so it is a good first look at who has their programs together.
Last year Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle dominated California. Many immediately assumed these were the two drivers to beat in 2006. Both had solid to good years, but were far from dominant on intermediate tracks.

Look at the top ten at California:

  1. Matt Kenseth
  2. Jimmie Johnson
  3. Carl Edwards
  4. Kasey Kahne
  5. Jeff Burton
  6. Jamie McMurray
  7. Casey Mears
  8. JJ Yeley
  9. Mark Martin
  10. Kyle Busch
Some drivers like Kenseth, Johnson, Burton and Kahne obviously had their intermediate programs in top form. Others like Stewart, Biffle and Carl Edwards apparently rolled out cars from 2005 (which also explains the engine failures for Stewart and Biffle). Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray spent the rest of the season trying to duplicate their solid runs at California. Other drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Scott Riggs progressed during the season. A few cars will show up Sunday and dominate the race. It will be interesting to see whether that indicates year long domination or just a holdover from last year.

Other things to watch this weekend:
Juan-Pablo Montoya-He will be exciting to watch all season. He struggled at Daytona, although he did look good during the 150's race. Now he will experience the finicky intermediate aero package. I think he'll qualify well and spend Sunday struggling. That doesn't mean he'll struggle for long this year. Once he figures out how to ask for the right adjustments he will head to the front.

Qualifying-Can Red Bull make a race? They have now entered four Cup races with zero official starts. Brian Vickers' Bud Shootout appearance can't really count. Can the same teams that made Daytona make the field again? Missing one of the first five races is manageable, but two missed races is really hard to crack the top 35.

Momentum-Announcers will surely talk about Kevin Harvick's momentum, but it means nothing. The tracks and cars are totally different. The only momentum that matters is coming off turn 4 in a race, not week to week.

The winner-One of last year's rookies will win. Denny Hamlin had plenty of success last year, Martin Truex Jr had a fast car at Homestead and even JJ Yeley finished 8th here last year. All decent choices, but my pick is Clint Bowyer. After his fiery, muddy crash at Daytona, he'll heed Jay-Z's advice, brush his shoulders off and win his first Cup race. He finished third last Labor Day weekend at California and had some fast cars during the Chase.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tending to the Wilting Busch Series

The Busch Series is in big trouble. So is the Truck series, but since I don’t get Speed TV, it’s rare for me to catch a Truck Race. The Diecast Dude wrote a very good post on the woes of the CTS. There isn’t a simple solution. \there are several complex issues that will take some vision, time and money. I hope to look at some of the problems with the series over the course of the season. Previously I questioned how the series can adequately develop young drivers. Now it's time to peer at the purses.

When you look at the weekly Cup entry list this year, it will top 50 every week. NASCAR officials love to point this out as evidence of the health of the sport. It’s partially true. Nextel Cup has an embarrassment of riches at the Cup level. Lots of prominent teams, plenty of big dollar sponsors and intense competition to simply make races each week.

Unfortunately the Busch and Truck entry lists are less than full fields heading to California. Keep in mind this is a companion weekend when it’s easiest for Cup teams to pull double-duty. The small fields will continue all year. Aside from the Mexico City and the Montreal Busch races, stand alone Truck and Busch fields will be even smaller.

One of the largest reasons for the Busch shortage is the prize money. It is a fraction of Nextel Cup purses. Kyle Petty won $248,050 for finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500. That’s more than double what Kevin Harvick won ($116,200) for winning the Orbitz 300 Busch race. In fact, Harvick’s $1.5 million check for the Daytona 500 was as much as the top 26 drivers in the Busch race.

If a team wants to turn a profit it is much easier to do so in Cup. Spend a little more with a significantly greater reward. Look at part time teams like Phoenix Racing and No Fear. Mike Wallace’s 4th place finish was worth $615, 658. That’s almost as much money that Wallace won in 23 Busch races last season. Obviously small part-time teams can’t count on a top five finish, but simply making a Cup race pays well. Boris Said made $307,375 for No Fear Racing.

The other problem is sponsors. In 2006 Harvick won nine races and the Busch Championship and still lost his sponsor. Either the Coast Guard got a lifetime supply of publicity last year, or they didn’t see the value in sponsoring a Busch car. If a Cup star and Busch Champion can’t hold on to sponsorship, how can Busch regulars hope to? The price for sponsorship in the lower levels is cheaper, but companies often prefer to move to the higher profile Cup scene.

After getting squeezed out the past few seasons by Buschwhackers, full-time Busch teams have either moved to Cup or packed up for good. Now the series will pay for that this year. There are plenty of reasons why the Busch series is struggling and likewise plenty of solutions. Increasing the prize money, especially for the full-time Busch teams, would give more incentive to stay with the series.

Airing all the races exlusively on ESPN plus a new title sponsor in 2008 is a good start. NASCAR now must ensure that the extra cash flow is properly reinvested in the Busch series and for the benefit of the series.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

A few Random Thoughts from yesterday's race.

-Everyone will remember the wild finish and the multiple wrecks in the final 25 laps. That's probably good, because the first 175 laps were very boring. Maybe as boring as next Sunday's race at California.

-Don't get mad at Kevin Harvick for “stealing” Mark Martin's win. He was doing his job. Everyone else wrecked on the final lap trying to pass Martin too. As much as Martin deserves to win a Daytona 500 (and a Cup for that matter), no one was going to simply sit back and hand it to Martin. And there's no doubt Martin would be upset if anyone did sit back and serve him the win.

-People complain the caution should have been thrown. If NASCAR throws the caution, people complain that a good finish was spoiled. Damned if you do...

-In the last two years, Hendrick won five of the eight restrictor plate races. they often placed multiple drivers in the top ten. They were easily the top plate program in NASCAR. Granted yesterday's race placed a greater emphasis on handling than pure horsepower, but aside from Kyle Busch, Hendrick's big guns were never a factor. Yes, Ginn and Haas cars have Hendrick power, and were strong yesterday, but they obviously found a package that worked better than the four in-house Hendrick cars.

-Three commercials really stuck out as entertaining. The Tony Stewart Sunoco commercial where he goes to the grocery store with a fan (and climbs a shelf). Denny Hamlin racing a scooter at a retirement home. Jimmie Johnson showing his Nextel Cup to Elliot Sadler.

-Worst in-race feature: Domino's Hot lap.Fox compared the times of the top five qualifiers on an arbitrary lap in the middle of the race. It is pretty meaningless at most tracks, but a fast lap at a plate race is almost as meaningless as qualifying in the top five. It was even worse when the “winner” of the Hot Lap was Jeff Gordon, who was running 28th at the time.

-Several full-time teams outside the top 35 had pretty good days. Joe Nemechek finished 7th, Johnny Sauter 15th, and Sterling Marlin 16th. Dale Jarrett is secure for the first six races but helped his cause with a solid 21st.

-Brian Vickers, Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger missed the Daytona 500, but at least they are still ahead of Michael Waltrip in the standings. Waltrip earned -23 points for his efforts Sunday.

-Lamest Quote: Mike Joy, “Can you hold your breath for 33 more laps?” Mike, that sounded a lot like something Bill Weber would ask. It's also easier to breathe with so many commercial breaks.

-I skipped the pre-race coverage, but was pleased with the race coverage. Fox didn't dwell on the cheating issues too much, and DW didn't even babble about Toyotas in excess.

-Maybe this is nitpicking. On ESPN's ticker it reads, “Kevin Harvick wins NASCAR Nextel Cup Daytona 500.” It's the biggest motorsports event in the US, and I think even the most clueless sports fan knows what sport the Daytona 500 is in. ESPN would never have to tell people that the Cardinals won the Major League Baseball World Series.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

2007 Cup Predictions (bookmark this for crow-eating purposes)

I realize that my top ten driver and rookie previews will go unfinished. While I'm disappointed with myself, it was fun to run through over 30 drivers leading up to the top ten. It was a combination of other commitments, the feeling that I was writing the same thing for every driver, and also the fact that most NASCAR fans know plenty about the top ten drivers.

I've managed to wait until the very last minute before making my 2007 predictions prior to Daytona. I got five out of ten last year and expect about the same this year.

Predictions for the 12 Chasers:
#1 Martin Truex Jr.-The more I think about him, the more I'm convinced he is going to have a big year. Truex is strong at most types of tracks and the team now has a better handle on setups and in-race adjustments.

#2 Kurt Busch-
Last year was a transition year for both Busch and Penske Racing. Busch is one of the five best drivers in the sport. If he can finish races as well as he starts them, watch out.

#5 Kyle Busch-Some people, including Kurt, believe Kyle is the most talented Busch boy. One question for the #5 team is how they interact with the new team behind the #25 car, including Casey Mears and new crew chief Darian Grubb. He will contend for the Cup, but fall just short.

#07 Clint Bowyer-It's a safe bet that he will win a race in 2007. He took full advantage of RCR's improved equipment, especially on the intermediate tracks. The biggest key for Bowyer is the short tracks, where he will need more patience.

#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr-Look past the contract squabble. Earnhardt and Eury got the job done last year. If they stay on top of the Car of Tomorrow it could be a title contending team.

#9 Kasey Kahne-A new nose for the Charger might help neutralize the cars on speedways. Kahne still needs to hold up his end of the consistency stick by reducing the number of late-race crashes.

#16 Greg Biffle-New crew chief Pat Tryson rebuilt the crew for the 16 car. Things aren't perfect at Roush, but they're still good enough to send drivers to the Chase.

#20 Tony Stewart-Smoke is the trendy pick to win everything this year. There is no reason to think he won't dominate, but it's not guaranteed either.

#24 Jeff Gordon-Gordon and Steve Letarte have the best resources in Cup. The problem is there are too many small holes in their program that take him down a notch compared to Stewart, Johnson or Harvick.

#29 Kevin Harvick-Harvick proved in 2006 that he is an elite driver. Not only did he finally have consistent equipment from RCR, but he also didn't lose his emotions like he had in previous years. Their diligence on the Car of Tomorrow gives Harvick an edge at the mile and less tracks.

#48 Jimmie Johnson-Like Stewart, there is no reason why Johnson can't win the Cup. He should win several races and be extremely consistent, but it is just too hard to repeat.

#99 Carl Edwards-Will there be a backflip this year? Missing the Chase and reuniting with Bob Osborne should allow Edwards to return to form.

On the outside looking in (otherwise known as the drivers that make the Chase when France expands to 15 in 2008):
#17 Matt Kenseth- Things were not right on the #17 car at the end of the season. It might be time for a makeover for the team.
#11 Denny Hamlin- Hamlin's 2006 season was divine. Even when he spun in the grass he could still recover to win the race. Despite top-notch Gibbs equipment, Hamlin will eventually run into a slump this season.
#42-Juan-Pablo Montoya- He'll crash and struggle some in Ganassi equipment, but he may also be this year's Denny Hamlin. While other rookies struggle to qualify, he's busy racing for top tens right off the bat.

And the winner is...
The biggest unknown is the Car of Tomorrow. Five of the Chase races will feature the new ride. The team that figures out how to get the car to turn well is going to win the Chase. RCR has spent a lot of energy and money to ensure they are prepared for the new car. The #29 team was the best at flat 1-mile tracks where getting the car to roll through the corners is vital. That is why Kevin Harvick will have an edge on other teams. It will make the difference for him to capture his first championship at the Cup level.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

NASCAR through the lens of the wife

It’s not only because of Valentine’s Day that I say this, but my wife is pretty smart. She doesn’t really follow sports on her own time, but she is married to me. By default she has graduated beyond an elementary knowledge of sports. For instance she can identify the majority of the cars and drivers in Nextel Cup. From time to time I like to ask my wife what she thinks about current topics in sports. I simply present the facts without my opinion or editorial. It’s amazing how often she comes up with the most sensible answer. For example, I once explained how the BCS system worked in college football. She paused and then aksed, “Why don’t they just do a playoff? Wouldn’t that be easier?” Yes it would dear, yes it would.

Yesterday I told her what happened to Michael Waltrip and the other violators (she loves Kasey Kahne and Elliot Sadler, so the news hit hard for her). I explained that they ejected the respective crew chief/team director/man that sits atop the pit box, and also penalized Waltrip 100 points. Her first question was, “Why don’t they just kick the drivers out of the race?”

I think that echoes what many people think about this latest episode.

Other Thoughts:

With all of the cheating prior to Daytona, I’ve really been wondering what the motivation is. Last year it was Chad Knaus, in 2005 Todd Berrier was suspended for actions at Talladega. Gaining an edge in qualifying for a restrictor plate race makes little sense. Especially when the penalty last year was a 4 race suspension and loss of points.

I don’t like speculating and I have no concrete idea why they cheat. From what I can figure, there are two points worth mentioning. One, teams wouldn’t risk a 4 race suspension unless there was a gain greater than a fast qualifying run at a track where starting position is worthless. There has to be a good motive why teams are spending time and money on cheating. It can’t be as simple as what shows on the surface. No one would risk penalty for mere defiance.

The second point deals with the “why”. My thought is that teams are using Speedweeks as a giant test to see what will sneak past inspection in order to use these tricks at future tracks. It is possible that they try things at Daytona or Talladega for the exact reason that qualifying doesn’t matter. If something is caught, they go to the back of the line. If something makes it through, maybe a team uses a qualifying trick at a track where qualifying is more important.

Instead of my speculation, I would love to see a credential-carrying reported get the reason from the garage. On a related note, is anyone being productive today during the Duels?

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Surprises, quasi-surprises and other thoughts

This morning there is a near consensus among NASCAR writers and bloggers. David Gillialand's pole win is a surprise. I've even seen it dubbed a Cinderella story. Did everyone forget that Gilliland won the last restrictor plate pole at Talladega last October? Or that Yates Engines have captured six of the last nine poles at Talladega and Daytona? RYR's performance has declined in the past few seasons, but the one area that is always top notch is their plate program. It is somewhat surprising that Boris Said qualified fifth, but he won the July pole last year. I thought the bigger surprise was how well the Ganassi cars fared. Both Juan-Pablo Montoya and David Stremme were fast, although something happened with Reed Sorenson's car during the second lap.

-The other prevalent thought among writers and bloggers is that the Bud Shootout proved Tony Stewart will have a big season. I agree Stewart will be a threat in 2007, but not because he won the Shootout. The win enforced that he's a great plate driver and had the best backup car among the field. It's the first action during the season and people love drawing conclusions, but the Bud Shootout has very little bearing on the season. In fact the Daytona 500 itself has little impact on the shape of the season. Races 2-8 will be the real barometer. California, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas will show who has the best intermediate package. Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix will show who did their homework on the Car of Tomorrow. We'll hear plenty about how Stewart has momentum or the Daytona 500 is now a title threat, but ignore it. Jimmie Johnson didn't win or lose the Cup last year because he won the 500. He won because his team was good everywhere.

-I can understand Michael Waltrip's need to push the rules envelope to find a speed advantage. I never understand teams inside the top 35 that try to cheat at restrictor plate tracks, especially during Daytona 500 qualifying. Unless Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth really wanted to win the pole, there is no point in cheating. First, they are assured a place in the race. Second, single-car qualifying beyond the top two spots has almost zero bearing on your starting position for the 500. And third, aside from pit selection, the starting position means very little in a plate race. Yet people constantly try to get away with modifications every year.

-Fox's new 3D model to show crashes sounded good on paper. Then they used it during the last lap crash in the Bud Shootout. It showed nothing that the on-board cameras didn't. In fact it was about as cutting edge as the commercial that re-enacts the 1979 Daytona 500. Maybe it will improve during the season.

-In one weekend, I'm already tired of the DirecTV ad with Dale Jr. Ditto for the Subway ad with Tony Stewart. Each ad must have played 10 times each over two days. Stewart (and Michael Strahan) has to introduce his full name, but Jared Fogel just says, "Hi, I'm Jared." Does that bother anyone else? Who is the bigger star here? It's time for some new NASCAR commercials.

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Break Out the Antacid

For a lot of teams Speedweeks this year is not very fun. Some very high profile, not to mention well-sponsored teams are not going make the Daytona 500. After single car qualifying, there are now 39 drivers locked in for next Sunday: the top 35 in owner points, Boris Said, Sterling Marlin and Johnny Sauter based on speed, plus Dale Jarrett's champion's provisional. Quick math shows there's only four spots left for the Daytona 500. Among the 22 teams on the bubble, nine have plans to run the entire schedule. Most have sponsorship, including prominent companies like NAPA, Dominos, Menards, and Red Bulll. At least five are leaving on Thursday. That means several teams will spend the next three days worrying and working on their cars to find more speed. It also means working on their answer to sponsors for why they missed NASCAR's highest profile race.

Is it possible that Thursday's Duel 150's could have more intrigue than Sunday's race? That's a stretch, but for a lot of teams it will set a tone for the season. Miss a race and it makes it much harder to enter the top 35 in points. Within the greater storyline to make the race, there are several smaller plots. Among the cars competing for the transfer spots, there are three formerDaytona 500 winners. Of the eight Toyota entries, only Jarrett and Dave Blaney have guaranteed spots. Two are certain to miss the race, but based on qualifying speeds, it will be more. Neither Toyota driver in the BudShooutout (Brian Vickers , Jarrett) did anything to show they are better in the draft than qualifying. Another problem is that one of the fastest Toyota's was Mike Skinner, a part-time entry. If Skinner makes the race, but teammate JeremyMayfield doesn't, how will Bill Davis handle that?

The two highest finishing drivers in each heat will make the race, with a few exceptions. If any of the three top qualifiers (Said, Sauter or Marlin) finish in the first two transfer spots, the next fastest qualifier makes the race, which is Jeremy Mayfield, then David Reutimann . The same would happen with the past Champion provisional. If Jarrett captures on the the transfer spots, then the provisional would fall to Bill Elliott.

Handicapping the field, Jeremy Mayfield is in good shape in Heat 1. Ward Burton and Bill Elliott have both won Daytona 500's, but can't overcome the limits of their cars. AJ Allmendinger has one plate race in the Truck Series and Team Red Bull is yet to qualify for a Cup race. It's a real long shot for Allmendinger. It is hard enough for a rookie to get drafting help, let alone a rookie with almost no stock car experience. Michael Waltrip's car was impounded after qualifying. Apparently it's not an infraction, but it does cost the team time that they can't work on the car.Waltrip is a good plate racer who is capable of hooking up with the right drafting partners. It's a big help to have his teammate Jarrett in his heat.

In heat 2, David Reutimann is a rookie, but has raced in 6 plate races in the Truck and Busch series. He was one of the fastest Toyotas and has the best chance of the Toyotas to make the field. DEI traditionally has stronger cars in race trim which should allow Paul Menard to compete better than his qualifying time suggests. JoeNemechek will hope for the same thing, and Ginn racing does have Hendrick power to boos that effort. Brian Vickers is a good plate racer but the Toyotas haven't been very strong so far. Unless he learned something on Saturday night, his chances do not look very good. The X factor as far as full-time teams are concerned is Mike Skinner. He has made two of the last threeDaytona 500's as a part time driver and was one of the quicker cars on Sunday.

All the preparation, speed and drafting partners still might not be enough. Scott Riggs had a mechanical issue during qualifying and then a problem in the pits cost him his chance in the 500. Menard suffered a flat tire in his heat last year. The unknown only adds more pressure and anxiety for the drivers leading up to Thursday afternoon. Obviously missing the first race is not a fatal blow, look at Riggs for exhibit A. The problem is there will be 12 full-time teams next week at California all trying to make the race all over again.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sign up for Fantasy Racing!

I found this article and couldn't resist commenting on it. Apparently all it takes for Jamie McMurray to improve in 2007 is a better mental approach. Forget fast cars, a good pit crew, skilled engineers or a smart crew chief, the biggest factor is how well McMurray's noodle handles the rigors of 36 races. Not only that, but
the writer Jeff Owens never specifies why McMurray is mentally stronger. Instead he says:

His greatest asset, though, may be a newfound mental toughness, one that requires him to focus on positive things instead of any shortcomings.

That could be the edge that pushes him over the top, allowing him to realize his potential and finally produce that much-anticipated breakout campaign.

Did he train under Pai Mei in the offseason, drink raw eggs every morning, or spend endless hours playing chess? No he just thought happy thoughts, which obviously worked for the fictitious Happy Gilmore.

It could be the thing that erases his frown and replaces it with a smile.
Young racers take heed!
Turn that frown upside down and you will win a NASCAR crown!

I don't completely discount mental toughness, it is definitely a factor in success. It has to be when you are strapped in a blazing hot car for 3+ hours while trying to push the envelope for what a stock car can do. Since very few sports writers have a degree in psychology, however, let's leave the mental intangibles angle out of it. Writers and broadcasters love talking about mental toughness, basketball IQ or momentum (
On a side note, I'd love to see Roger Ebert talk about George Clooney's mental toughness or Will Ferrell's movie IQ). The greatest factor for success in any sport is talent. Whether it is individual or a collective team, it is still talent that wins.

McMurray is certainly capable of making the Chase. He will make the Chase because of his driving talent combined with his team's talent. It also doesn't hurt having two additional spots in the Chase.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart Age: 35
5 wins, 15 top 5’s, 19 top 10’s, 24 top 15’s
Avg Start: 16.7 Avg Finish: 13.8
Points Standing: 11th Driver Rating: 97.0
#20 Home Depot Chevy Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli

For Tony Stewart, no season is uneventful, quiet or simple. By those criteria, it was a pretty normal season for Smoke. He won five races, stirred up controversy, fractured his shoulder blade, and missed the Chase.

Stewart’s season began in typical fashion with both success and controversy. A week after warning drivers of excessive bump drafting, it was Stewart getting penalized for ramming into Matt Kenseth at the Daytona 500. Despite damage, Stewart still finished 5th. The following week he led 28 laps before losing an engine late. He led laps in the first nine races, but only one win at Martinsville for his efforts. It was still a solid start and many predicted he would cruise into the Chase and vie for a third title.

A funny thing happened on the way to engraving his trophy. Stewart’s summer was inconsistent and he failed to make the Chase. Stewart’s regular season was very similar to Greg Biffle’s, the driver who finished second to Stewart in 2005. Both ran very well in the majority of races, but often finished much lower than deserved. Cracks began showing in the spring at Charlotte. After two hard crashes in both the Busch and Cup races, Stewart fractured his shoulder blade. This caused great discomfort the following week at Dover. He started the race, but was replaced by Ricky Rudd during the first caution. Rudd finished 25th.

One of the more entertaining images during the season was Stewart pounding dents out of his car after an early crash at Michigan. It was only three weeks after he injured his shoulder. He defended his trophy at the summer Daytona race, his second win of the season, but then things fell apart in July.

He was in the top five at Chicago before running out of fuel to finish 32nd. The following week at Loudon he was leading the race and looked to have a stout car. Then he scuffled with Ryan Newman when Newman tried to get a lap back from Stewart. Both cars crashed and it was Stewart’s second straight finish in the 30’s. The following week at Pocono he again got in a dust-up, this time spinning Clint Bowyer. The crash also collected Carl Edwards, who retaliated by spinning Stewart entering the pits. Stewart was penalized but did recover to finish 7th, but it ended a tumultuous month.

Suddenly he went from a lock for the Chase to sitting on the bubble. The final blow came at Richmond where he crashed his primary car in practice. He struggled during the race, finished 18thth in 2005 but 6 in 2006. and barely missed the Chase. There were plenty of missed chances during the first 26 races. Stewart had two finishes worse than 30

Reduced to driving for wins, Stewart was free to experiment a little during the Chase. He won at Kansas by gambling on fuel. Then the team found a fast setup for both Atlanta and its cousin track Texas, where he won both races. Stewart had five top fives during the Chase including wins 3,4 and 5.

Aside from the disappointment of missing the Chase, Stewart’s season was impressive. He scored 5 wins for the second straight season, led the most laps, was third in top fives, second in earnings and fifth in driver rating. After a nearly flawless 2005, his 2006 effort was a pretty decent encore.

Stewart will begin 2007 like he did in 2006, a favorite to win the Cup and considered one of the best drivers in the world. The #20 team has every ingredient necessary for success. He can win anywhere; in fact there are only four current tracks where he hasn’t won. Joe Gibbs is one of the top three or four organizations in Cup and Greg Zipadelli is the longest tenured crew chief. It all points to one of the elite teams in NASCAR.

One of the tracks Stewart hasn’t won at is Talladega, but it might be one of his best. He has six second place finishes, 8 top fives and an average finish of 11.9. A win at Talladega or in the Daytona 500 would definitely add another highlight to his impressive resume.

No driver has repeated since Jeff Gordon nearly ten years ago and for good reason. There are more requirements and commitments for the current champion than other drivers. This can drain a driver and will ultimately hurt performance at some level. Without this burden Stewart could have another stellar and consistent season.

Maybe the only question mark for Stewart is the Car of Tomorrow. Gibbs and Stewart should cope well with the brand new car, but it is such an unknown that there is a chance to slip. Stewart can certainly drive any type of car on any type of track, so the new body type won’t be a problem granted Gibbs gives him adjustable cars. The only other question mark is his emotions, which can cost him at times.

Stewart will make the Chase this year. Despite last year’s struggles he still almost made the playoff field. With 12 spots, plus a few more points for each win, Stewart should coast into the Chase. Once he gets in he is an instant favorite to win it all.

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Fantasy League Anyone?

Time is running out on the preseason. Speedweeks is coming very very soon. With the Super Bowl finished and hung on the clothesline to drip dry, it's finally time to focus all attention on NASCAR. Some will buy more die-cast cars, others will repaint their Casey Mears or Brian Vickers bobbleheads, and still others will begin preliminary sketches for their #3 (or #6.7) Budweiser tattoos. Personally I'm busy getting my S-10 to work in the draft on the freeway. I move the seat up a few notches, add some tape to the grill, get a car wash, and hit the interstate. It's a nice way to see how bad others have got it. Unfortunately, most drivers don't care for getting bump drafted. Apparently there are not that many NASCAR fans on my morning commute, or maybe they just don't like plate races.

This blog, along with several other great blogs, has helped to soothe my need to talk and experience NASCAR. I appreciate all the people that have read and commented in the past few months. It's kind of neat to be part of a community of sorts. Now I'm wondering if anyone is interested in joining a Fantasy league. It doesn't matter what kind of league, there are so many out there. I played Yahoo's version last season and it was simple. The drivers are slotted into three classes and you have to pick two to four drivers from each class. You can choose different drivers every week, but can only start a driver 9 times during the season. I am open to other style leagues or whatever.

If anyone is interested leave a comment or email me (mjmaruska@gmail.com). I think it could be a lot of fun and shouldn't require a lot of extra time.

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