Monday, March 24, 2014

Thoughts on Kyle Larson....and Fontana

The saving grace of this weekend for me was Kyle Larson winning the Nationwide race with Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick hot on his tail - and then coming in second to Kyle Busch (with Harvick, once again, behind him) in the Cup race. And kudos to Kyle Busch for coming to Victory Lane to give him props.

Jimmie Johnson will be my driver until he hangs up his helmet but since I first heard of him, Larson has been my "next" favorite of the new generation. That opinion was heightened when I watched him slice and dice and pull the perfect slide job in the Eldora truck race and has only grown from there.

I love that he is not a Silver Spoon kid - not that there is anything wrong with that. Anyone would take advantage of it if they could, but the ones who have to work their butts off to prove themselves and find sponsorship on their own have a special place in my heart. I will always root for them first.

I love that Larson (I guess I'll always have to call him Larson or KL since Kyle is Kyle Busch) shares some qualities with Jimmie. He's aggressive but he's so smooth along with it. Like Jimmie, he's more like a scalpel than a Bowie knife. He seems to have an abundance of patience for a young man of 21. He doesn't try to win in the first lap but takes his time to get a feel for the track and the flow of the race before he begins making his moves.

And, wow, doing donuts while holding his steering wheel out the window, that was an exciting new twist to a victory burnout!

So, as a Kyle Larson fan, it was a great weekend and I think there will be plenty more where that one came from. As a JJ fan, not so much. Second week in a row that I watched a tire ruin his chances at a win. This one was especially heartbreaking - two seconds ahead and seven laps to go.

But he certainly wasn't the only one to have his fortunes affected by tire problems and that's the way it goes sometimes, so it is onward and upward to Martinsville. At least it seemed as if the 48 team had captured that little bit they'd been missing since the start of the season. They appear to have their winning mojo back, so it is only a matter of time until Jimmie is in Victory Lane. I'm not worried but still, I'll have a sense of relief when it happens and he's in the Chase.

So far, no one team is tearing them up. All the usual suspects have had their outstanding moments and their dismal moments. Dominance one week and disaster the next. Five races, five winners.  Still, there are no real surprises in the top ten, except perhaps for Austen Dillon. There has been quite a bit of movement among the leaders but it is mostly the same teams jostling among themselves. Except that we all want our guy to be number one, that makes it more interesting.

I think the racing this season has been excellent and so it was at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana with three wide and four wide racing and passing all over the track. I don't know what the perennial whiners have to bitch about although I'm sure they'll find something.

A few other quick notes -

Congratulations to Danica on coming home 14th. She has shown steady improvement this year from last.

Positive thoughts sent to Denny Hamlin. It seems that the condition that sent him to the hospital might be more serious than we first heard.

Don't we have a truck series? I think it is nuts to take such a long hiatus at the very beginning of the season.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Shake'em up and Roll'em Out - Bristol


NASCAR fans are having their loyalty tested this season! First, Mother Nature (who has been a grouch all winter) forced lengthy rain delays for both Daytona and Bristol. And then this week, good old Fox changed channels in midstream, leaving many fans unable to come along when they went back to racing and screwing up those who'd set DVRs.

Still, the reward for those who hung in there was a heck of an exciting race, full of drama of various kinds. Clear up until Carl Edwards won, most of the usual suspects you expect to see at the front experienced misfortune. Joey Logano lost his power steering. Jimmie Johnson underwent The Case of the Unraveling Tire. Kyle Busch spun out. Kevin Harvick went up first, in smoke, and then, in flames. Matt Kenseth was wrecked, as were Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski.  Dale Junior's momentum came to a screeching halt. Kurt Busch had bad luck, as did Martin Truex and Clint Bowyer.

Lots of hard racing and trading paint under the threat of more rain. The groove widened out so there were cars all over the track, top and bottom and middle, three-wide. Hitting oil and crashing each other. Alex Bowman's lost battery spewing reams of paper on the track and in the fence. A weird caution light coming on for seemingly no reason (NASCAR later explained that someone inadvertently hit the button), followed by the hardest downpour of the night, effectively ending the race before the green/white/checker.

My driver, Jimmie Johnson, labored around the track three laps down after his tire became a rope. But I found pleasure in the race, nonetheless. I was happy to see a 1, 2, 3 finish by Ford. I like it when all the manufacturers are on par and Ford had seemed a crucial notch behind Chevy and Toyota. But not last night - Carl and Jack Roush won and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was at the top of his game - and hurray, both Richard Petty cars finished in the top five! We've watched that company struggle for the last few years but I think they are finally getting where they should be. And Tony Stewart came in fourth. That was good to see. SHR needs him to be the old Smoke. Despite a wreck here and there, Danica ran a good race. And both Kurt and Kevin were fast if the ornery Bristol imps hadn't got to them. Both the Ganassi cars were competitive. My pet rookie, Kyle Larson, finished tenth, after running in the top two or three much of the night -  with Austen Dillon only one spot behind the rookies did good. (Kyle Larson also came in second to Kyle Busch in the Nationwide race - for the second year in a row....damn, I so badly wanted him to win!) Jeff Gordon continues on his roll with four straight top tens so far this season. Hard to believe that in his illustrious career it's the first time he's pulled that off. Brian Vickers finished in the top ten.

So, Bristol mixed'em up. Put'em all in a box, shook it up and threw them out on the track. Fun to see.

Still, I hope everything is back to normal in California next week - sunny skies, dry track. I want Jimmie to get his Chase-ensuring win and a pole would be nice too.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When Is Losing Winning?

On the one hand, what a heartbreaker for Junior....another cup of fuel and he wins. On the other hand, it was also a triumph...another cup of fuel and he wins. You can't complain about an average 1.67 finish in the first three races. If he could pull off one more second place finish at Bristol, he'd accomplish something only The King has done in the past.

Heartbreaker for Kevin Harvick too. He might have won had it not been for a brake problem.

And, of course, Brad Keselowski did win...getting the weekend sweep at Las Vegas. Those Penske Fords are really looking strong so far this year. They took the front row in qualifying two weeks in a row. There must be techniques to knock-out qualifying because the two teams - Penske and Ganassi - whose owners also own IndyCar teams, have both done exceptionally well. Expect others to catch up though. Nothing stays a secret for long in the NASCAR garage.

The current situation is exactly what some people worried about out of SHR. I discount Tony because I think his problems are still related to his injury. He says he is only 65 percent. You don't get 100 percent results at 65 percent physical condition. Danica was about what I expected. I see better performance from her this year. But Kevin and Tony - that could be a worry. Kevin is excelling. He's won a race and was running extremely well last week until a parts failure. Meanwhile, Kurt's season so far has been a bust. With Kurt' s personality, I think resentment stemming from that will grate on him. Will he be able to keep his cool for the time it takes to get to get his team more or less even with the 4?

In the Nationwide race, I just tried to ignore Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski to concentrate on the kids. What an outstanding performance by Chase Eliott. And my boy, Kyle Larson, was right up there in the mix with K. B and Brad. Of course, technically, he's a Sprint Cup driver this year too but his experience level is certainly not on par with the other two. There seems to be something of a media blackout regarding Larson. The coverage of Busch, Keselowski and Elliott was extensive but Kyle Larson's name was barely mentioned. Has the media decided the horse they're going to ride this year is Austen Dillon, do you suppose? (Okay, I'll take off my tinfoil hat now.)

We are certainly talking differently about results since the new points ranking changes. Normally, we would be discussing how drivers are sitting in the points but now, because we've essentially gone to a win and you're in system, we are focusing on those wins. Still, there isn't much chance that any of the top drivers will be left out of the Chase. Jimmie, for instance, let's assume he goes through the regular season without a win (hard as that is to imagine) - if he's consistent enough to stay somewhere near the top of the points, he'll still be in the Chase unless there are 16 different winners....which has never happened. It's during the Chase itself with the new elimination system when wins will be absolutely crucial.

I think we've had a tremendous start to the season so far and the best is yet to come - yeah, Bristol, Baby!  


Monday, March 3, 2014

Pros and Cons of Phoenix


Pros - Phoenix

I enjoyed seeing Kevin Harvick win a race early on with his new team at Stewart-Haas. He was almost as giddy as Dale Junior was at Daytona. When you make a momentous decision like leaving the team you've been associated with your entire Sprint Cup career, especially for one that is new and untested, it has to be a hugely gratifying relief to have that decision validated. And it wasn't a fluky win....the driver and the car were spot on through the whole race.

I liked seeing Dale Junior carry his momentum from Daytona on to Phoenix. People can always say Daytona is a one-off and doesn't mean that much in the course of a season but Phoenix is a driver's track and proves the 88 is for real this year.

I was cheering for Kyle Larson to have a solid run, the best of the rookies. Of course, he was a lap down for much of the race but first, Joey Logano and then, Kevin Harvick, kept up such a blistering pace that lots of good cars were a lap(s) down....and he got it back at the end.

Even though I don't root for them, I was pleased for Brad and Joey. My preference is for all the teams to race at the top of their game so it was good to see Brad back in championship form. I always did think last year was an aberration for him.

I thought knock-out qualifying was more interesting and exciting than single-car runs. Sure, they may have some bugs to work out but that's always the case with something new.

It seemed like there was quite a bit of passing at Phoenix. I haven't looked up the statistics to see if that was actually so but it seemed that way to me.

It's been fun to watch Junior dive into Twitter, tweeting like a pro.

Watching from a winter-weary Indiana, it was great to spend my Sunday in the Valley of the Sun.

Cons - Phoenix

Ho-hum....watching Kyle dominate the Nationwide race, I was actually happy that I didn't have to sit through the last 32 predictable laps. In fact, the top five finishers were all Sprint Cup drivers (although I'd argue that Kyle Larson didn't quite count, having run only one Cup race this year prior to Phoenix). I really, really hope NASCAR addresses this situation soon rather than later.

Oh, geez, at this point, I'd just like to see Danica get through a race without being wrecked!