Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gladiators Battle at the Last Great Colosseum


Well, it was Bristol all right - wrecks and spins and furious drivers throwing HANS devices at offending cars, drivers and crew chiefs yelling at one another, drivers walking off in a snit, cars being hauled off on the hook missing their fronts or backs or sides, pissed off drivers trying to navigate around uncooperative slower traffic. Favorites being disappointed despite looking good for a while (Jeff, Junior, Denny, Kyle, Kevin). Have-to-wins being even more disappointed despite looking good for a while (Kasey, Larson, Bowyer, McMurray) - with Kenseth in both categories.

I was so hoping one of the "have-to-wins" would win but it wasn't to be. I rooted for Kasey and I rooted for Matt, and I rooted for Kyle Larson and I rooted for Jamie McMurray but evidently my support was like the kiss of death. In the end, it was a great night to be a Penske driver with Joey winning and Brad coming in second. The 48 was the only Hendrick car to have a good result, finishing 4th despite two (count'em two!) speeding tickets and two long trips from back to front.

I always root for Danica but she wasn't having a good race even before she spun out. I always root for Kyle Larson but his whole weekend was a disaster. He wrecked in practice, got wrecked in the Nationwide race and got into a couple more incidents in the Cup race.  He still managed to finish ahead of his competition for Rookie of the Year.

It was fun to see Ryan Blaney beat Kyle Busch to the draw on the final restart in the Nationwide race. And I was okay with Brad getting his first win in the Truck Series. I don't have such hard feelings about the Cup guys winning some lower series races when they are actually investing in that series by putting their money where their mouths are and owning in their own team.

I'm glad Jimmie talked Lowe's into changing the White Lightning car back to blue. Jimmie fans on some of the sites I belong to have been complaining about the curse of the white car for weeks. Myself, I'm not really superstitious, but still........

We finally know for sure that Carl is going to Gibbs. He must realize himself that his sometimes overbearing personality turned off his teammates at Roush because I've heard him mention several times about being a better teammate. That would seem wise considering the mix of egos at Gibbs. I don't think Matt would tolerate being the red-headed step-child to Carl's fair-haired boy again. And Denny and Kyle, well, they are Denny and Kyle.

Of course, I said the same thing about Stewart-Haas and they all seem to be doing fine.

Except for Tony, of course. I really don't expect to see him back on the track until the legal questions are dealt with. I can't imagine he'd want to return with the possibility hanging over his head of charges being filed against him. After that, I don't know. He's been through two traumatic events in the last year. As much physical therapy as he needed after he busted his leg, he may need as much emotional therapy now.

It begins to look like the last few drivers will get into the Chase based on points. Bristol was probably the last, best chance for Larson, Ambrose, McMurray, even Bowyer. Not that they couldn't win at Atlanta or Richmond but the odds aren't as good as they were at Bristol. If anyone new gets a win, my guess is that it will be Kenseth with Larson still being my wild card (probably a more emotional selection than practical).

So, we're down to a pair of races left, knowing that those two will be last chance dog fights. Who ya' got to squeak in?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Last Verse Same As the First

Well, the 24 was leading at the start and leading at the finish. Way to polish off your third win of the season, Jeff!

Of course, there were a few twists and turns in between the dropping of the green and the flying of the checkered. Some of the cars that have had atrocious luck lately still had atrocious luck. Kyle Busch hit the wall early on. By the time they got him back on the track, he was many laps down. Kenseth got caught up in a wreck. So much for his day. Danica spun out. Kyle Larson's tire went down and took his Chase hopes with it. Jimmie's gear shifter broke and he was a lap down by the time it was fixed although he still managed to eke out a 9th place finish.

Joey was Jeff's stiffest competition. My guess is that six months ago, Joey might have won because Jeff simply hadn't learned how to nail restarts. It was his weakest area in the early races but he's got it down now. I expect when you know you're in the Chase, you have the confidence and security of taking chances you might not have taken when points were still important. At this stage, Jeff can go for broke and let the chips fall where they may and he did.

So that's three of Hendrick's drivers with three wins a piece and Brad with three wins. Kevin Harvick really should be there with them but he appears to be stuck in that "always a bridesmaid, never a bride position". His cars are always fast but some little miskabobble always seems to crop up to keep the ultimate prize out of his grasp.

One of the most interesting situations in NASCAR this year is watching the competition between Kyle Larson and Austen Dillon. I think they are about even up in talent but they offer a stark illustration of two basic types of drivers. In Larson, you have the aggressive risk-taker. He draws attention with his daring moves. He'll rim ride higher than anyone else and pull a slide job that looks impossible.

But then there is Austen. He's cool, calm and collected and appears to focus on the long-term goal of finishing every lap (which he has done more often than any driver in Cup). He'll take the safe 10th rather than take a chance of wrecking to get a 5th.

So, which of these two techniques will prevail over time? The Gambler or Mr. Steady As She Goes?  It will be fun to see how that turns out.

Of course, Tony Stewart skipped another week and may miss Bristol too. I assume he is waiting until the conclusion of the investigation which will either exonerate him or charge him with some crime. Who could race without distraction with that uncertainty hanging over your head? I couldn't. Even when the legal part of this sad story is settled, it will still be difficult for Tony to get back in the groove, I think. Shattering his leg was bad enough but it is much easier to grit your teeth and get through pain to your body than it is to overcome an invisible wound to the psyche.

Three more races until the Chase means three more chances for those without a win. Who will they be? Kenseth? Bowyer? Kahne? Larson? Or someone else? I'm rooting for Larson myself. How about you?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Emotional Rollercoaster


Watkins Glen - It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

First, was that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach with the news of Tony Stewart hitting and killing a young Sprint driver, Kevin Ward, Jr. I haven't watched the video. I don't want to see it so my opinion is simply based on what I've read. Nothing could make me believe that Tony Stewart would ever hurt, much less aim to kill, anyone on purpose but having said that, we know he can be reckless when he's angry and those chickens came home to roost with a vengeance at Canandaigua Raceway.

Law Enforcement has said no charges will be filed and I'm glad about that but I believe Tony will be his own harshest judge and that the psychic sentence he imposes on himself might be far worse than anything the courts could do. (Not to mention that I expect a ginormous civil penalty will eventually be paid).

So, that was the dark emotion that overhung the event when it started but we were able to put those thoughts on the back burner as the race unfolded. Chocolate Myers on Sirius Radio always says that what he wants out of NASCAR races is drama and this one offered drama in spades. The class of the field from the first seemed to be Jeff, Marcos and A.J. but then, unaccountably, Jeff's car lost power and that was the end of his day. He left A. J. and Marcos to fight on.

Some of our biggest stars were sidelined by various and sundry incidents - Kyle Busch, Brad K., Jimmie, Ryan, Denny.....

NASCAR fans always declare that they don't watch racing for the wrecks but of course, there is an adrenalin rush that comes from watching cars spinning and crashing and being torn to pieces. The first thought may be for the drivers but once assured, they are all right, the residual emotion is a kind of charged-up excitement.

We had to wait out a long red flag but that was okay, at least for television watchers. I always enjoy the interviews with drivers and crew chiefs that go on during the delays.

Back to green - there was some good racing going on in the pack and a few more cautions, even another red flag, but basically, from that point on, A. J. and Marcos stole the show. Sometimes, it is the drivers who are driven - by passion and desire and heart. With the Chase being the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow, it was so clear to see how badly they both wanted it. I couldn't even pick one to root for. I was cheering them both. Either one winning would have been a great story, a happy story, a fairy tale story.

Those last laps at Watkins Glen were some of the most suspenseful I've seen in NASCAR (which is rather typical for this track, isn't it?) Two great road course drivers duking it out at every turn, first one prevailing and then the other. Bumping and rubbing until you were sure they were going to wreck (with Kurt Busch waiting in the wings in case they did) but they took it to the farthest edge without falling over through sheer skill.

And when it was over, A.J. was in Victory Lane, being congratulated by Marcos, and Roger Penske and Richard Childress and of course, his ecstatic owners and crew, the Little Team That Could. It was such a joyful occasion it sort of washed away the bad taste from Tony's situation. Americans love stories about redemption and A.J. has lived that story. This was his triumph over the past heartbreak he'd brought on himself.

I'm a huge Kyle Larson fan but damn, I was pissed at him for causing Jimmie to wreck. Ole Six-Time probably would have had a top five finish, having worked his way toward the front even after their strategy turned against them. In the end, I decided to let it go as a racing incident (funny how it is easier to do that when you like the offending driver). And for Kyle to come in fourth - a rookie who'd never raced the Glen in a Sprint car before, well, it is further proof his exceptional talent.

Honestly, I don't mind seeing the biggies like Jimmie and Jeff and Kyle and Brad getting knocked off sometimes to make room at the front for the smaller teams with so fewer resources. Think what a boost this will be for the JTGDaughtery group to have their sponsors in the Chase? (Sponsors, incidentally, who just re-upped with the 47 car).

I will admit that it is thanks to the new Chase format that I can be so sanguine about Jimmie's last several awful long as they get it together before the championship battle starts.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Pocono Broom for Dale, Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

First, hurray for Junior! He and Jeff are both in similar positions though Dale's was more severe. They're both coming off long spells of under-achieving the goals their fans have for them and they have for themselves. We watched them being interviewed a couple of years ago and saw disappointment on their faces and heard it in their voices. Was Jeff about ready to hang up his helmet, we wondered. Has the Old Man lost the killer instinct it takes to win in NASCAR today? Meanwhile, there was Dale, always looking down and mumbling when a mike was stuck in his face, giving us some platitudes about how hard the team was working, not even seeming to convince himself, much less us.

But, low and behold, in 2014, they've both proved that if you don't give up, the magic can come around again. Week after week, Jeff has led the point standings. Now, Junior is the top seeded contender on the Chase grid. I imagine those triumphs are even sweeter after emerging from the tunnel of despair.

We always hear about how Tony Stewart gets hot in the summer (though he's letting the summer of 2014 slip through his fingers). Now, I begin to think that Jimmie is just the opposite. He goes cold in the summer. He went through this same run of fair to terrible finishes last year at about this time. Fortunately, his fans don't have to worry about the Chase. He's already locked in with three wins but still......

Some drivers just seem to be plagued with bad luck. Danica, for one. She's showed real improvement this season in qualifying and in speed but something on the track always seems to nail her. Part of it is still probably her inexperience but part of it is just plain old misfortune beyond her control. Same with Matt Kenseth. In some races, I've thought, "well, okay, finally Kenseth is going to break his streak of losing," but nope, catastrophe always seems to intervene.

Damn, I didn't want Brad to win the Nationwide race! I won't go into that whole issue of Cup drivers in the lower series because it's an argument we've re-hashed a million times but bottom line is: in that race, I was rooting for Anybody But Brad. However, reality is that if I'd had $1,000 that I had to bet on the outcome race, I'd have put my money on Keselowski.

So, are we going to have to wait a couple of years to see Roush get back to the top? It seems likely, doesn't it? Ricky should improve next year. I've always heard that it's the third year in Cup when drivers begin to hit their stride and next year will be Ricky's third year. Trevor hasn't shown much, even in Nationwide so I don't expect him to make a lot of waves. Will being the Top Dog at Roush have a positive effect on Biffle? I really think it might. He's been low man on the Roush totem pole for so long, being the leader of the pack might just spark something in his outlook and determination to give it one last shot. We know that a new situation can ignite a driver's competitive juices (i.e. Kenseth to Gibbs, Logano to Penske). Perhaps, we'll get to see if new furnishings in the same old house can do the same.

We worried about a clash of personalities this year at Stewart-Haas what with Smoke, Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica, hotheads all. That seems not to have occurred. I haven't heard a breath about those drivers not getting along. So, in 2015, we'll wonder about the same thing at Gibbs (assuming that Carl ends up there as everyone seems to expect). It probably all depends on whether Carl goes in with a relatively low profile or if he tries to throw his weight around.

Will we see another new winner at Watkins Glen? Maybe Marcos? That would give Richard Petty Motorsports two drivers in the Chase. I wouldn't bet a nickel on either of them being competitive for the championship but nevertheless, it would definitely be a step in the right direction for Petty and I'd like to see it happen.