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Monday, December 9, 2013

Winning Races Is More Important In Search For Cup

Prior to NASCAR making recent changes to their points structure, many people, fans and drivers alike, made a plea to make winning more imperative to win the Sprint Cup.  Many said the added points for wins entering the Chase just was not enough.  Well, apparently the changes NASCAR made has worked.

For the past nine years (2005-2013) the NASCAR champion has had a season win total of 5 or more.  The last time a champion had less than 5 was in 2004 when Kurt Busch won the championship with 3 wins.  Of course, much of the Chase came about after the 2003 season when Kenseth won the Cup with only 1 win.  The average win total of the champion from 1999-2004 was 4.2.

With Johnson totaling 6 wins this season on his way to his 6th championship, the average win total for the champion since 2004 is 6.1. 

Drivers and teams alike are striving more to gain wins through the summer stretch to amass larger bonus point totals heading into the Chase.  In seasons past, teams would be more likely to be conservative through the summer in order to maintain their standing heading into the final stretch of the year. 

Yes, every driver want's to win, but no driver is going to press a 10th place car to win, chancing a bad finish, unless he thinks it is worth the risk.  In years past, it was much more worth it to maintain a solid foundation for an end of the year run for the title.

Not every result anticipated by NASCAR after their changes to the points system has come to fruition, but it looks fairly safe to say that their will be no more 1 win champions.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Biggest Surprise And Biggest Dissapointment Of 2013

With every coming season, pundits and fans alike have their preconceptions about how the season will go.  Who will be strong?  Who will be looking for a ride at the end of the year?  And will any newcomers stake out their place at the table?

This year had many story lines, and as I included in my previous post, some of them were not so good for NASCAR as a whole.  One definite story line throughout the season was the constant ups and downs of the Penske Racing Miller Lite team and their driver Brad Keselowski. 

In 2012, the 2 team won 5 races, 2 of which came in the Chase.  They never fell below 12th in the points after the Talladega spring race, which began their gradual climb to the top.  And finally, the Miller Lite team had no DNF's after the first race of the year.  As a whole, the team was consistent, communicated efficiently, and was constantly a threat to win.

After all the banquets, parties, and appearances on late night talk shows, Keselowski and Penske Racing began the process of changing over to Ford from the departing Dodge Racing.  All seemed well as the season began: Keselowski opened up with 4 straight top 4 finishes and 7 top 10's out of the first 8 races. 

Then came Richmond.

Keselowski finished the 3/4 mile track 8 laps down and in 33rd position.  All seemed fine from the outside, but problems adjusting to the new Ford front for the Gen 6 car and other engineering changes for Ford power plants no doubt added to bad luck.  Over the next few races and then during the summer run up to the Chase, the 2 team had 3 top 5 finishes and 4 top 10's in 17 races.  In 2012 they had 2 wins, 8 top 5's, and 11 top 10's over the same stretch.

The frustration was clear.  Team radio chatter showed a break down in communication almost on a weekly basis.  Despite their best efforts, the Miller Lite team came up shy of the Chase cutoff and could not defend their championship, earning them the "Biggest Disappointment" title for 2013.

Entering speedweeks in 2013, most people took for granted that the dominant teams of the season would be, as always, the Hendrick, Roush, Penske, Gibbs, Stewart-Haas and Childress teams, perhaps adding some success by Michael Waltrip Racing.  Although many people in and out of the garage had and will have respect for the driving abilities of Kurt Busch, successfully driving a single car team to the Chase was not thought of as a probability.

2013 would prove interesting for the Furniture Row Racing team.  Their new driver, fresh off season a season of aggravation driving for Phoenix Racing, was coming into the season with the knowledge that if he did not succeed with the 78, and did not do so without controversial on or off track events, he may well be finished.  That is, at least, for the top tier teams.

This season saw some of the brash older Busch, but never crossing the line, always careful to stay away from the press when he couldn't control his tongue.  On track, Busch was back to his old form.  He didn't quite pull off a win for FRR, but a Chase berth for a single car team is just shy of a championship.  After 1 top 5 finish and 5 top 10's for Phoenix Racing, Busch posted 11 top 5's and 16 top 10's in the 78, including 3 top 5's in the Chase.

Although he has gone winless for two straight seasons now, Busch did win a ride for a top tier team, Stewart Haas Racing, and along with it, the "Biggest Surprise" title for the 2013 season.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What Have We Learned From 2013?

Close the book.  Another year in the history of NASCAR has come to a close.  All of the preparation of the garage for the new Gen 6, the plate races, the summer stretch, and the Chase - over.  No more "Five Time", Jimmie Johnson now has 6 in his attempt for the most cups.

With everything over and written down, just what have we learned this season?  What bits of wisdom has 2013 imparted to us to clarify what is coming in 2014 and beyond?

First, we have re-learned that Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are nowhere near finished dominating the sport.  It is utterly amazing how much their combination is made for the Sprint Cup setup and would not work without one of the two.  Johnson has a 1 win to every 6.6 race ratio in Sprint Cup, an unbelievable fact when placed beside his 1 win to 93 race ratio in the Nationwide Series.

Many people say that the 48's success lies solely with Chad Knaus or is only because of Hendrick money.  Those people should think about the 3 races Johnson drove in Hendrick cars without Knaus with an average finish of 31st.  They should also consider that in 35 Sprint Cup races without Jimmie Johnson, Knaus has zero wins, zero top 5's, and only 1 top 10 with an average finish of 24th.

No, Knaus, Johnson, and Hendrick make a mixture precision, determination and, yes, money, that will be successful as long as the three are combined.  Will there be a 7th championship?  Probably.  Will they continue forever?  Nothing lasts forever, but for now there is no end in sight, so get used to it.

Second, we learned that the fall from dominance and competitiveness is a steep one.  Last year we had a young and exciting new champion who looked like he would carry his success forward with a new make, but Brad Keselowski's change from Dodge to Ford proved anything but successful.  Penske Racing did not change crews, kept the same crew chief, the same driver, and merely changed engines and decals.  Still, the blue deuce ended up 14th at the end of the season and was not able to compete in the Chase to defend their championship.

Yes, Keselowski still had a win, and yes he led laps, but after the trouble began in mid spring after a penalty for questionable parts sidelined his crew chief, they could not rebound.  They began the season with 4 straight top 5's, then had a 10 race run in the spring that saw them outside the top 20 for 6 races and aggravation became disappointment when his new teammate made the Chase and he did not.

Finally, we learned that the more things change the more they stay the same.  NASCAR has spent years and dollars changing the image of the sport from the "if you ain't cheatin, you ain't tryin", brawling blue collar sport of the 50's, 60's and 70's.  Yet what did we get this year?  "Is your arm starting to hurt?....Itch it..."  And, "Good job man, hopefully we'll get something out of that."  For any readers who don't get the reference, these were radio transmissions from the Richmond race where drivers, crews, and owners reportedly conspired to affect the points so particular drivers could make the Chase.

With these three things in mind, an outlook on 2014 would have to conclude that Johnson will be strong, Keselowski will be looking to make a point, and NASCAR drivers and owners will continue to do anything they think they can get away with to win.  All three of these probabilities should make for another great season.

How many days until Daytona?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dale Jr's Best Start To A Season...

Prior to the start of the 2013 season, 2004 and 2008 stood out as the best seasons for Dale Jr. out of the gate.  Both seasons were important from different standpoints for Junior: 2004 was Junior's first real title challenge and 2008 was Dale Jr.'s first season with Rick Hendrick.

In '04, Junior started the season with wins at Daytona and Atlanta, a 5th place finish at Rockingham, and a 10th place finish at Darlington.  Although some may say Dale Jr. was better at being aggressive in his earlier seasons, he definitely wasn't as good at taking care of his equipment, which led to a few dissappointing finishes early and late in the season.

All in all, 2004 was a great year for Junior, but had he been able to finish the season the way he started we may all have been calling him a former champion.  His late season finishes of 33rd at Martinsville and Atlanta effectively removed him from the championship hunt.  Even a Phoenix win just before the end of the season couldn't bring him back.

With the 2004 season ending in "What might have been.." Dale Jr. lost his crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., to a "promotion" and began working with his cousing Tony Eury Jr.  Fifteen of Junior's nineteen Sprint Cup wins came with Tony Eury Sr., along with two Nationwide Series Championships.  Even though the '04 season began with promise, iit ended in a change that didn't go as well as many hoped.

The 2008 season, as in '04, began strong, with three top 5's and a top 10 finish.  Everyone was expecting Dale Jr. to show what he could do now that he was finally in Hendrick race cars and away from his stepmother.  The fan fare didn't last long, though, as frustration between he and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. grew from inconsistent finishes which gave way to poor finishes nearing season's end. 

Again, Dale Jr. was left frustrated and confused in the off season.  Soon after, he and cousin crew chief were separated again, and Junior began a long, cold era of his career.

This year, Dale Jr. has started out with 5 straight top 10 finishes, including 3 top 5's.  His average finish so far is 4.4, worlds better than any other season.  He has 47 laps led so far, 5 less than his season total for 2011, a season which he finished 7th in points. 

Dale Jr. is also the current point leader, a spot he has only held in 2 other seasons: 2004 and last year.  Only time will tell, however, if he can hold that spot nearing season's end.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Drivers To Watch In The Daytona 500

With all of NASCAR's rule changes enveloped in a new car design, this year's Daytona 500 is full of uknowns.  The cars will all be bunched up again into large packs, but the ability of cars to drive up and side draft alone may be greater than it has in years.  With a change in maneuverability and the abandoning of 2 car drafts, it will be each driver for himself (or herself, of course) for more than the last few hundred yards.

This new car design and how it affects the cars in the draft at 195 mph has changed how most drivers view the race.  Some, such as Carl Edwards, say the racing is much more fun.  But others may be unsure about their chances and their strategies entering NASCAR's premier event because they have either never raced this style of restrictor plate racing or they had minimal experience with it prior to the 2 car tandem racing that developed after the COT was put in place.

The wild and aggressive style of racing from this car definitely lends itself to drivers like Kevin Harvick who has won the Sprint Unlimited and his Gatorade Duel.  Also benefited by this style would be drivers like Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, and Greg Biffle, all who like aggressive racing and are very good at handling cars that are moving around.

Some of the drivers who had plenty of experience and success at the old plate racing style, such as Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, may do well due to their experience at sensing the momentum of various lines and working their way to the front of a pack.  However, Waltrip has had much less seat time in recent years due to his semi-retirement, Earnhardt Jr. has not been pleased with his car's ability it pull up to cars in front of him, and Gordon has not won at a Daytona since 2005 and has an average finish of 20.8 since then.

There are a few new drivers who may do well this weekend.  All of the media's attention is on rookie of the year candidate Danica Patrick for getting the pole for this weeks race.  She does have a very fast car, but more attention should definitely be paid to drivers such as Austin Dillon who finished 3rd in his Gatorade Duel behind Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne.  In that race he had an impressive driver rating of 111 due to his ability to not only finish near the front, but to have maintained that position most of the race.  Also, Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne was quite strong in his Gatorade Duel, leading most of the race prior to wrecking.  If the 21 crew has a strong backup, Bayne may be seen near the front at the end of Sunday's race.

On particular driver who be a bit of a sentimental favorite for many this week is Mark Martin.  Martin has said he does not plan to come back next year for Michael Waltrip, and although he may still drive a limited schedule, the likelihood he will be in a top tier, or near top tier, ride at Daytona in the future is slim to none.  After coming close so many times, it would be great to see him finally win on NASCAR's largest stage.

Whoever wins Sunday, you can guarantee their will be plenty of passes, some extremely fast racing, and yes, some large wrecks.  As drivers are just becoming accustomed to the Gen 6 car's handling and how the drafts and "air bubbles" are being affected, as we have seen in the past week, there will be plenty of torn up cars going back to the garage. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

'01 Til Now, With Dale Earnhardt...

This week marks 12 years since the 2001 Daytona 500 which ended in the tragic death of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt.  In the wake of Earnhardt's death, NASCAR embarked on the largest safety renovation in its history, resulting in the safety of the sport in 2013.  After NASCAR celebrated the coming Daytona 500 with a remebrance of Dale Earnhardt, one must think about what might have been.

How would the sport have progressed in the past 12 years had Earnhardt not died?  Would safety measures have been made and what other differences would their be?  Lets take a look back at how the past 12 years would have been with Dale Earnhardt around.

Imagine the victory lane celebration February 18, 2001 when Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dale Earnhardt finished 1, 2, 3.  Earnhardt now has an established NASCAR Cup Series team, capable of winning and competing each week.  He just finished second in the points in 2000 and is on the upswing again in his career.  After winning a couple races in 2001 he finishes a close second to Jeff Gordon in the 2001 Cup Championship.

In the next couple of years, driver injuries and another driver death add to the recent deaths of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty to force NASCAR into further safety measures.  Only a handful of drivers still use open-faced helmets, but all drivers use some form of head and neck restraining device.  NASCAR is also developing safety measure in the cars to absorb more force on impact.

After finishing 5th in the 2002 Cup Series Championship points, Dale Earnhardt decides to retire after the 2003 season.  Dale Jr. finished the 2002 season 3rd in points propelling him to a Championship challenge in 2003.  New talk by NASCAR about a wider, taller, safer car with identical front ends for all manufacturers is met by contention from NASCAR veterans.  NASCAR adapts the front ends to incorporate more brand identity.

In 2004 Dale Earnhardt joins Darrell Waltrip in the broadcasting booth for a few races to add commentary, but decides against a long term contract citing too much hot air in the booth coming from Waltrip as a reason to stay on pit road.  With late season coaching from his father, Dale Jr. wins the 2004 Championship, giving DEI its first Championship and the Earnhardt family its eighth. 

Over the next few years NASCAR sees many changes amongst teams.  There is an addition of a 4th DEI team, as Earnhardt has recruited Tony Stewart away from Joe Gibbs Racing, making the DEI stable every bit as strong as NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.  Hendrick, losing hardheaded driver Kyle Busch to JGR, adds newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya from F1 in a single car partnership with Chip Ganassi and adds Mark Martin from Jack Roush's stable, outbidding startup owner Ginn Racing.

Heading into the current decade, NASCAR has now begun to eclipse the NFL in total market share, and continues to expand into new markets, despite a steep downturn in the economy.  However, fans still appreciate NASCAR's roots, such as its annual Labor Day weekend at the Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina.

No, that is not how things turned out, and probably light years from how it may have happened, but one could definitely see how the sport would have been different had the '01 500 ended differently.  Dale Earnhardt was a huge part of the sport's success, not always perfect, but always a part of the conversation.  No doubt NASCAR would be different, but one can only speculate in what ways.

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