Monday, October 28, 2013

More Short Tracks, Please!

~ NASCAR 10.26.13~ Martinsville 10.27.13

Ah, Martinsville, now that's racing! More short tracks, please, NASCAR! And what a satisfying ending to both races. The triumph of both youth and experience, all wrapped up in one weekend.

Darrell "Bubba" Wallace. Jr, the first African-American to win a major NASCAR series race since Wendell Scott did so in 1963. Said Wendell's son, Franklin - "when the checkered flag dropped, I heard a big boom from heaven and my Daddy said, 'hell, yeah!' 

If we remember, Wendell was treated pretty shabbily by NASCAR 50 years ago but we've evolved since then and the sport was genuinely thrilled for young Bubba.

And the grand old man of NASCAR, Jeff Gordon, whose invitation to the Chase party came late, arriving only at the last minute. Nevertheless, he donned his dancing duds and his party attitude and came determined to be on the floor when the band quits playing because that's what champions do. 

Furthermore, Martinsville tweaked the point standings and left us with a tie at the top. (Leaving my own bias aside) what could be more exciting with three races left than our two top contenders clawing and scratching for every single point? Matt and Jimmie appear to be so evenly matched, unless one of them suffers bad luck, they look to still be in that position at Homestead. 

To add to the deliciousness of Martinsville, there were the usual hard feelings and retaliations during the race and confrontations after. This one backended that one and that one doored this one and he cut me off and he blocked me. Kevin Harvick said the reason he was leaving RCR was the two arrogant grandkids coming up, Austen and Ty Dillon, who'd always been fed with a silver spoon. Ty called Kevin a punk and Grandpa agreed with him (naturally). Kevin later apologized but it's hard to imagine those allegations won't stick in everyone's craw for the rest of the year. 

Greg Biffle read Jimmie the riot act after the race although it appeared from the videotape that it was Junior who was to blame for his torn off back bumper. Greg apologized later too but it seemed less than wholehearted.

Put a bunch of drivers, worn out after a long season, many of them disappointed, on a half-mile track like Martinsville and you have the makings of a pot that's ready to boil over. And boil over it does because its a relatively safe place to get your licks in, unlike bigger, faster tracks. 

I don't know who owns what in NASCAR. I know the tracks are mostly divided up between NASCAR itself and Bruton Smith but I wish NASCAR would give up one of its larger two-trip tracks in favor of sending the Sprint Cup to Iowa. As far as I'm concerned, the more short tracks, the better.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cool and Calm or Chaotic Carnage?

Miguel Paludo (32) slides down the track on his roof as Darrell Wallace Jr. (54), Jeb Burton (4), Justin Lofton (6), and Kyle Busch (51) crash on the last lap of the Camping World Truck Series Fred's 250.

Talladega held two races this weekend and they were the exact opposite of one another. The Camping World Truck series race was the site of carnage and chaos. The Sprint Cup race was for the most part dominated by calm and commonsense. Which one do you suppose NASCAR fans liked the best?

Fans always say they don't watch for the accidents but of course, that's what many of them do, which is why you hear so much bitching after a relatively tame race like the one on Sunday. And the tracks know it. That's why their pre-race advertising always prominently features cars upside down, cars tumbling in the air, cars sliding through the grass.

Meanwhile, the goal for drivers is to come home with the trophy, naturally, but second best is coming home with your whole car. Its for damn sure you're not going to win, or even get a respectable finish, if your racecar is hauled off the track on a hook. This time of year, that is especially true for Chase drivers who just want to escape Talladega without a huge points loss.

I'm sure it's true for owners too. The truck race probably cost them, collectively, about a gazillion dollars when a last lap wreck took out practically the entire field. By contrast, most Sprint Cup owners left Alabama with their bank accounts intact.

So that yin and yang will always exist at plate races. Instead of applauding drivers for the consummate skill it takes to drive 200 mph with cars on all sides of you without bobbling, we evidently think that if they really loved their fans, they would take a dive and cause a big exciting wreck for our enjoyment.

The bottom line is that it was a good race with a feel-good ending - an emotional Jamie Murray with his family in Victory Lane, breaking a 106-race losing streak. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. It might have been even better if there had been a suspenseful attempt at a last lap pass, with the charge being led by Dale Earnhardt Jr, but rookie inexperience got in the way of that scenario.

For the most part, nothing much changed at the top of the Sprint Cup standings. They came into Talladega with Matt leading Jimmie by 4 points. They left with Jimmie leading Matt by 4 points. I still consider that a virtual dead heat with four races left. The next few in line gained a little but probably not enough to make a difference in the outcome unless both Jimmie and Matt have a purely disastrous race before the season ends. So far, this continues to be the Matt & Jimmie Show. Matt the Mild and Vanilla Jimmie as they are so often characterized although there is nothing mild or vanilla about the calculated, intense, determined way they both race. Passion does not have to be flamboyant.

Restrictor plate racing is my least favorite type of racing. I breathed a sigh of relief when this one was over. Now we head for Martinsville - short tracking - yeah!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sometimes Drama Is Good, Sometimes Not So Much

- When I lived in California and thoroughbred racing was my sport, there was a horse named Silky Sullivan, a gorgeous chestnut, who was a special fan favorite. Silky had his own preferred strategy for running a race. In the first half, he'd dawdle around, off the pace by lengths, like he was just out for a leisurely Sunday gallop. When some internal signal told him it was go time, his head would go down and his stride would lengthen, that long red tail would be flying and one by one, he'd begin passing the other horses. The crowd loved it. It got so in any race Silky was in, that's what the people watched for. Not, "who is leading?" but "when is Silky going to make his move?" When he started his run, a huge roar would erupt up from the grandstands. He was a stakes racer which means that if he'd been a NASCAR driver, he'd have been in Cup. He won a lot but sometimes his timing was off a little. People forgave him for that because he made every race he was in thrilling to watch. 

Kyle Larson reminds me a little of Silky Sullivan. I've had my eye on him since he came to NASCAR (and, obviously, I'm not alone). Kyle isn't always the greatest qualifier and usually in the race, he'll loiter around mid-pack for the first half. I assume he's getting a feel for the track but, watch the leaderboard and you'll notice that he's beginning to move forward, often in dramatic fashion. He was the most exciting driver in the Eldora truck race with his car control and skill at pulling off the slide job.

At Charlotte this week, Kyle was the first driver in the Nationwide race to discover that the top groove was usable and fast as he charged around the high line. Of course, it didn't take long before the rest followed his lead. He was right up there contending for the win until he hit the wall but oh, well, it was sure fun while it lasted.

Then in his Cup debut, Kyle was far and away the most competitive of the Cup first-timers. Brian Scott has been around for what seems like years and drives for a top team but while he was hanging out in the back 20, Larson was heading for the front. He spent most of his time in the top 15, then made it to the top ten. And that was in the 51 car (though it was prepared by Earnhardt-Ganassi), not the most stellar of teams. A blown engine ruined his chance for a good finish but again, he added drama to a race that needed a little spicing up.

I don't know if he'll be the superstar many predict he will be but I can just about guarantee, he'll give NASCAR fans their money's worth in every race he's in....just like Silky Sullivan. 

- I hate conspiracy theories, whether in politics or auto racing, but I do think NASCAR should insist that whatever channel is broadcasting the race, especially Chase races, should, preferably, show us the debris that brought out a caution or at least freakin' tell us what it was. I don't believe ABC did either for the last caution in Charlotte. 

Actually, I've always assumed that NASCAR monkeys around with cautions, not necessarily to favor one driver over another, but simply to make the races more interesting, especially the finishes. No one, except the fans of that particular driver, enjoys watching the leader streak along five seconds ahead of the field. The more preferable scenario from NASCAR's point of view is to bring the cars back together for a re-start. And that's probably preferable from the average fan's standpoint too. We usually only get upset about debris cautions when they harm our driver. 

I don't even consider bogus cautions to be that egregious of a the regular season. But I do think they are unacceptable in the Chase, when the championship is on the line. Is making a driver relinquish what was almost sure to be a win if the race played out any different than spinning on purpose to give a teammate an edge or allowing a car to pass to allow someone an extra point? Not in my book. 

- Ho hum. Kyle Busch wins another truck race and another Nationwide race. Oh, well, if it hadn't been Kyle, it probably would have been Joey or Brad.

- I was glad to see Danica have a good solid run, finishing the race in 20th. As the Rolling Stones would say, "you don't always get what you want but sometimes, you get what you need." 


Monday, October 7, 2013

Caution is Out!

Phrase of the day on Sunday was: "caution is out!" New tire, new track surface, changing temperatures - they all threw drivers for a loop. It seemed as if the field barely got going until another yellow flag slowed them down again. Of course, as fans, we hate races (a la Dover) that are almost caution free with long boring green flag runs and one driver staying in front throughout most of the race. But, equally, we hate races that are one caution after another. We're like Goldilocks. Our porridge is either too hot or too cold.

This race disproved the adage that you simply can't make mistakes in the Chase. Everyone makes mistakes but some are just better at overcoming them than others. Matt Kenseth got a speeding penalty and came back for an 11th place finish. Jimmie Johnson got caught out on pit road by a caution and had to go around the second time, losing the lead and a ton of track position, yet came back to finish sixth. It isn't that the best teams don't make mistakes, it more that they are skilled enough to minimize the mistakes they make.

It also proved that, as always, the lucky horseshoe plays its part in the outcome. The 48 car was losing an engine on the next to last lap. Jimmie had to let one car go by but he nursed his ailing race car across the finish line in 6th position. If that had happened a few laps earlier, it could have been disaster for the 48. I expect JJ gave the horseshoe as extra affectionate rub on Sunday night. 

This race was a game changer to some degree. The two at the top are the same. Jimmie is now within 3 points of Matt. But below them, Kyle Busch is probably done. As they say on ESPN - "stick a fork in him." And it's not that he'd necessarily have to be done. It is possible, although unlikely, that he could come back but I just don't think Kyle has the ability to put it behind him to focus, laser-like, on what's ahead instead of what's happened in the past. 

Kyle's whole weekend was chaos. It started when he wrecked his primary car and continued in the Nationwide race when, as he so often does, he lost sight of the big picture, getting caught up in the heat of the moment. So, I think his mind was already somewhat scattered during the Cup race, with a predictable result. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon improved their situations. They are now in doable territory, although they have to hope that Jimmie and Matt each have a disastrous race befall them (and Talladega is looming on the horizon). 

I got to thinking about the Nationwide series and the drivers who will very likely be coming to Cup in the future. Quick, which of these things is not like the others - Chase Elliott, Jeb Burton, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon? If you answered that only one of them didn't come from a racing family that gave him a glide path to his chosen career, you'd be right. Only Kyle Larson's parents essentially said, "we can't afford to help very much and we don't have any racing contacts, you're going to have to do this on your own." 

It's not that I blame the Richard Childresses and the Randy LaJoies and the Ward Burtons and the Bill Elliotts and the Dave Blaneys. Heck, I'd do exactly the same for my kids if I was in their situation but when it comes to rooting for someone to make it big, my heart will be with the one who had to scratch and scrape to get where he is. In politics, I'm predisposed to siding with the poor against the rich and I guess I'm the same way as a race fan.

On another unrelated issue, people ask me, usually sort of sneeringly, "well, what do you think of your girl, Danica now?" And what I think is that she is probably having a somewhat normal first season in Cup, especially for someone who didn't even get in a NASCAR race car until a few years ago (think: Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish, et al). I think the learning curve is steep and she's struggling with it. I think Stewart-Haas is still struggling with the new car too. They've had some successes but they've also had a lot of races in which they were mediocre at best. Mark Martin and Ryan Newman didn't exactly have stellar races in Kansas either. So, am I still a Danica fan? You bet. Am I willing to give her more time to prove herself? Yes, I am. Maybe she'll make it and maybe she won't but I'm in her corner until she's had a fair shot at it.

And, lastly, positive thoughts and best wishes to Dario Franchitti after his wreck. Hoping he'll be as good as new in a relatively short period of time.