May The (Lack Of Down)Force Be With You In Atlanta

This weekend, the Cupsters, cable guys, and truckers all congregate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Because why not.

Atlanta is an oddity in that it’s big, fast, and slicker than an used car salesman who dabbles in insurance on the side running for office. Because it’s not nearly big, fast, and slick enough, NASCAR is rolling out its new aero package for the Sprint Cup cars this weekend. Less downforce! Softer tires! The pace car passing everyone after ten laps as drivers slow to a crawl in order to stay on track! WHOOO! Seriously, I get NASCAR wanting to make it tougher in order to encourage that passing stuff they’ve heard is popular among fans. Here’s hoping they didn’t go too far in the other direction.

Favorites? Let’s see, which active driver refers to being sideways on the track as hitting the sweet spot … oh yeah, Kyle Busch. Although keep an eye out for Rapid Roy the stock car boy, a dirt track demon in his ’57 Chevrolet.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone.

The Case Of The Puzzling Manufacturer Switch

Now that some of the dust has settled and shock has worn off regarding SHR’s surprise announcement the other day that it would trading its bow ties for blue ovals starting next year, time for some analysis.

First, the announcement’s timing. While at first glance it seems more than a little peculiar to drop such a bombshell while the track workers are still sweeping confetti out of Victory Lane at Daytona, there is a certain method behind the madness. One, it puts a fair amount of additional pressure on the existing Ford teams to produce, given how the eight hundred pound gorilla will be grabbing from the same bunch of bananas come this time next year. Two, it gives SHR a convenient excuse should this year become a nothingburger – “hey, what did you expect, we’re a lame duck, you think Chevrolet and Hendrick are going to be sending us the good stuff?” The onus then falls on Chevrolet and Hendrick for looking like jilted brides.

Second, why the switch. Let’s look at it from Ford’s perspective. Other than Team Penske, what do they have? Roush Fenway is in a deep slump, and Petty Motorsports is firmly in the thanks for coming department. This leaves Ford’s hopes resting solely on Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, neither of whom are exactly beloved characters in the garage. You don’t think every other driver on the track silently yelled “ATTABOY!” when Matt Kenseth punted Logano last year? And it wasn’t all about the driver’s code. Long story short is Ford could use drivers with both broad fan support (Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick) and drivers at least somewhat less likely to rouse the ire of one and all every time they put on a firesuit. Plus Harvick and Kurt Busch know how to win, which is reportedly the idea in auto racing.

Now, you may have noticed beyond the obligatory carefully worded press releases there has been little wailing and gnashing of teeth from Chevrolet or Hendrick. Why? While doubtless they rue letting SHR go from a winning standpoint (Harvick) and a marketing standpoint (Patrick), plus no longer being associated with Tony Stewart, they also no longer have to shell out both money and manpower for four other cars, thus freeing said money and manpower to be lavished on both Hendrick and Richard Childress. It also saves them from any further association with Gene Haas, who but a few short years ago spent a year plus in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to commit tax evasion. GM has enough problems without such an association, and it’s nothing Rick Hendrick can be enamored of either.

So, while at first glance it seems weirder than weird, there is no great mystery behind why this move and why now. Ford gets a top-flight team, SHR gets out from under Hendrick’s thumb … er, shadow, and both GM and Hendrick can now say to Gene Haas go with God but go. See? Simple.

Denny Hamlin’s Most Excellent Day At Daytona

NASCAR prides itself on being unlike any other major American sport. Fact is, it’s right. Example? Consider this:

  • You win the Super Bowl, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the World Series, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the Stanley Cup, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the NBA Finals, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the Daytona 500, you … go to Atlanta with everyone else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Atlanta, although I can’t say I greatly enjoyed walking around downtown the couple of times I’ve been there (never have made it out to Atlanta Motor Speedway, alas). Rather, it points out how NASCAR is the only sport that opens its season with its biggest single event. More people at the end of the year will remember who won the Daytona 500 than won the Sprint Cup. This year it’s Denny Hamlin for the former. The latter will be determined the same month we decide who the next President will be. Speaking of such, what are the odds of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders making an appearance at a NASCAR race this year in an effort to convince folk they’re fellow down-home folk? ‘Twould be a sight to see. But I digress.

Today’s Daytona 500, which if you think of it is a bit redundant as there won’t be one any other day for a year, was a mercifully quieter affair than we’ve seen in recent races. No Big One, people for the most part kept their cool, and the last lap thrills came from who won rather than who’s upside down and/or on fire. Which is all you can ask from restrictor plate racing. Tide us over until the schedule sings the sweet short track happy blues.

Denny Hamlin proved (again) he’s pretty good at this restrictor plate thing, dumping Matt Kenseth like a hot potato on the last lap, pinching Kenseth off to where throwing a block was impossible, and then eking out the win over Martin Truex Jr. Before that it was trying to avoid the slip sliding away combining a hot track and this year’s car created. When you’ve got Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing a solo spin, you know it’s slicker than a promise in the year of election. (One can never have too many U2 references.)

The day was noticeable more for who didn’t finish well, or at all, than who did. Chase Elliott fell victim to the pathological inability of most tracks hosting NASCAR events to hire a groundskeeper, thus forcing drivers to cut the grass themselves. Seriously, as long as these cars have splitters, lose the green stuff and slap on some extra pavement so we’ll stop losing cars that nine times out of eight could gather themselves up and re-enter the fray. Rumor has it people who attend races prefer this over a local attempt to recreate Butchart Gardens. Later on in the day, Danica Patrick and Greg Biffle took the foot fight concept to a whole new level, fried chicken and fig bars flying through the air. Along with Danica. Quite fortunately, her car stayed perpendicular when briefly airborne, as the front end could have easily have dipped just a bit, caught the aforementioned grass, and … yeah.

Ah well. It’s done and everyone is in one piece. On to Atlanta.

Photo Credit:  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Photo courtesy NASCAR Media

Look Ma – No Big One At Daytona!

The most remarkable thing that happened at today’s NASCAR 35th Annual Powershares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway XFINITY Series opening race for 2016 – say that three times fast, I dare you – was what didn’t happen. Namely, a massive wreck on the last lap. See, Cupsters? It can be done.

Also remarkable was Chase Elliott’s ability to not only keep his car pointing forward while during the aforementioned last lap Joey Logano was doing his best to trade his front quarter panel for Elliott’s back quarter panel, but hold off Logano period and snag the win. We know the kid has skills, but his driving today officially took him into mad skills territory.

Other than a couple of early incidents when people got a little excited and insisted on sharing the wealth with others, the race was remarkable pileup free. A nice change of pace. As is usually the case with restrictor plate races, things settled down to a lengthy stretch of everyone playing choo choo, but near the end it shook out into good racing mercifully minus bad decisions on anyones part resulting in Mater being the first one to cross the finish line.

On to tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Photo courtesy NASCAR Media

It’s Daytona! It’s The XFINITY Series! It’s Liveblogging!

Okay, let’s see if I remember how to do this …

The 35th Annual Powershares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway provides our kickoff for the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series. But of course you know that, or else you wouldn’t be reading this. Or you might, if you’re nostalgic for real blogging. But I digress.

All eyes are on Erik Jones, the wunderkind flying the Toyota flag high. But, since this is XFINITY, in all likelihood it’ll be a case of not paying that much attention to who actually wins, as it’ll most likely be whichever Sprint Cup driver decided they wanted to get out of the motorhome for the day. The driver I’m looking at to make an impression is Darrell “Bubba” Watson Jr. Kid has the skills, the backing, and wouldn’t it be awesome to see a black NASCAR champion? You don’t get a trophy in November because someone in marketing wants you to.

And away we go …

Lap Two: There will always be a twinge seeing the #3 at Daytona. That said, remember there is an entire generation of NASCAR fans to whom Dale Earnhardt is in the same category as Richard Petty: a name from a past of which they have no memory as they weren’t there.

Lap FIve: Already? Be nice if we had seen what happened.

First Commercial Break: Yes, Cialis, hanging drapes always makes everyone horny.

And one-stop portfolio management of multiple stocks. Sponsoring a NASCAR race. Um, sure.

Lap Ten: Mom! Mom! WAKE UP! Anyway, back to the race.

Lap Twelve: Well, they’re trying to make three lanes work.

Lap Thirteen: Oops. They are going to have to sell some extra boxes of Reser’s macaroni to pay for that. And will FS1 ever show us a replay of what happened?

Okay, they showed it (sort of). Chase Elliott bumped the 18 (Bobby Labonte), there wasn’t enough room because they were doing the accordion dance up front, then the 43 got caught up in it behind, and things went rapidly downhill from there.

Lap Eighteen: And we’re back. Can we actually race for a while?

Lap Nineteen: Middle is working pretty well. So is the outside lane. And the inside lane. What can go wrong?

Lap Twenty-Two: Oh goody, another caution. At least this time it wasn’t a multi-car melee.

Lap Twenty-Three: Interesting … everyone can make it from here on one more stop. One would assume one and all will take advantage of this.

Um … one would assume incorrectly were one to assume this.

Hey look – kids are at the race! Hey look – SOMEONE BOUGHT A TY DILLION T-SHIRT!

Lap Twenty-Seven: And we’re back (again). Have at it, boys … sort of.

Lap Twenty-Eight: I wish Kevin Harvick did every NASCAR race. He brings a world of knowledge to the broadcast booth, and he’s not afraid to share it.

Lap Thirty-One: Tire rub. Might want to go grab a new shopping cart wheel, Kyle Larson.

Lap Thirty-Three: Looks like things have settled down. Not surprising. Probably stay that way for sixty laps or so. Saying that should bring about five-wide for the lead in a lap or so.

Lap Forty-Three: Everyone has taken the chill pill. More or less.

Yet Another Commercial Break: Time to announce my Unpopular Opinion Of The Day: I believe Amy Schumer is seriously hot. Okay, back to racing.

Lap Fifty-Five: Single file slip ‘n slide.

Lap Fifty-Seven: So if you didn’t pit on lap 23 or thereabouts, you’re pitting now and will have to pit again, but if you did pit on lap 23 or thereabouts you can make it on one more stop after running another ten laps or so, therefore … if the race stays green throughout this cycle it’s not going to make a lick of difference provided there is a caution after this set of stops to bunch up the field.

Lap Seventy-Four: No caution, so everything is as it was, more or less. String up front (four cars), a small gap, then two abreast. Which will join the front four shortly.

Lap Eighty-Three: To the surprise of approximately no one, Joey Logano is leading. Five-car train up front. Five or so car train running well behind. Might be able to catch the front line, but it’s not a given.

Lap Eighty-Eight: Second train is getting closer. Should catch the first train in a lap or so. Question is how long will everyone be content to run in a single line. Also, one more pit stop for everyone.

Huge shoutout by Harvick for my man Bubba. #ThumbsUp

Lap Eighty-Nine: Stratergy talk!

Lap Ninety-Five: Pit stops. Don’t screw up, boys.

Lap Ninety-Nine: I’m thinking that if it’s a last lap duel between Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano, advantage Logano.

Lap 100: Sadler may or may not be presently thinking it’s good to have a teammate who’s racing more or less for the fun of it.

Lap 101: Caution. Insanity looms.

Lap 106: Um, Danielle Trotta? You are a very attractive young woman. But that outfit is, shall we say, kind of distracting. Be a bit more professional next time, please. Anyway, back to racing once again.

Lap 109: I doubt anyone is all that interested in pushing Logano to the front, because should he regain the lead it’s most likely game over.

Lap 110: Front six are now the front nine.

Lap 111: Or not.

Lap 112: Getting antsy up front.

Lap 114: Not much breathing room. Logano trying to make it happen from the outside lane.

Lap 116: Waiting for Suarez and/or Wallace to dive in front of Logano.

Lap 118: Anyone going to make a move?

CHECKERED FLAG: Whew! Chase Elliott holds off Joey Logano for the win. Impressive. Even more impressive: no last lap mayhem. Think the Sprint Car crew can do the same? (Probably not.)

Wrapup in a bit.

Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images
Photo courtesy NASCAR Media

Wide Wide World Of Whatever Is Going On, Which Isn’t Much

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant lack of variety in whatever little news there is with NASCAR in the pre–pre–preseason:

    • Richard Petty Motorsports has snagged rights to the number 44, which they will use next year for Brian Scott, who replaces Sam Hornish Jr. For us old farts whose memory of NASCAR stretches all the way back to the dim and distant past known as the 1990s, 44 is immediately associated with Kyle Petty and his Hot Wheels car. Given that Mattel no longer makes any type of NASCAR–related die cast, and they just lost their ten bajillion dollar a year contract to Hasbro for manufacturing Disney toys, it’s highly doubtful I’ll we will ever see another Hot Wheels car. Although, a Barbie car during breast cancer awareness month would be a nice touch.
       

      Nostalgia aside, the question is what makes Richard Petty think Scott, whose racing record is anything but spectacular, will produce better results than Hornish. Then again, Kyle Petty never won a race in the 44 car. Hopefully for Scott’s sake, RPM isn’t going for consistency as well as nostalgia.

 

    • Julia Landauer, who in addition to the minuscule amount of fame currently afforded anyone who has appeared on Survivor can drive a race car, will have a full-time ride in the K&N West series this season. Who knows; if she has the right stuff she might wind up being the first Stanford graduate ever to drive in Sprint Cup.

 

  • It’s interesting that among Landauer’s teammates are a 16-year-old and a 15-year-old, and that JR Motorsports just signed a 15-year-old to run a Late Model car. At this rate I’m not sure whether to look for future stories on upcoming drivers on the cover of NASCAR Illustrated or Teen Beat.

Before The Watch, A Clock

Even as NASCAR’s future waved its flag yesterday when Darrell Wallace Jr. captured the flag at Martinsville, so NASCAR’s past refused to wave the flag of surrender today as Jeff Gordon ran down Matt Kenseth to win today’s Sprint Cuo race at the venerable track.

Even as Martinsville is venerated by the NASCAR faithful, so is Gordon. No longer the kid pushing aside a slowing Dale Earnhardt as the sport’s leading light, Gordon is now the one whose every non-winning move is followed by whispers that his time is coming to an end. He made this year’s Chase far more via the twilight zone than being in the zone, written off as having no shot at any title save the sentimental favorite. Yet he is the one whose first move tonight after a day wheeling around NASCAR’s toughest track will be consulting with Ingrid about where to shoehorn yet another grandfather clock into the trophy room.

The race was as vintage as Gordon and Martinsville itself, filled with bumps and spins and strategy gambles that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Kyle Busch saw the paper clip remaining frustratingly outside his reach, another good run thwarted at the end as he faded from contention. Other Chasers suffered similar fates, Clippy clipping down if not completely trimming away their trophy dreams. Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson continued to make every lap toward the championship must see TV even as their private little war gained a new third party knocking at the door, the AARP man reminding the two comparative kids that the old man has no intention of leaving them alone to settle the title by themselves. In the end, it was Gordon who chowed down on the victory hot dog while others ate Martinsville, as is its wont, once again serving several large portions of humble pie.

The Chase just become even more interesting. On to Texas.

Darrell Wallace Jr. Is The Only Story From Martinsville Yesterday, And Here’s Why

Forget Martinsville’s nuclear hot dogs and the equally nuclear tempers demonstrated yesterday by Kevin Harvick, Ty Dillion, Richard Childress and associated minions. The story — the only story worth discussing — is Darrell Wallace Jr.’s win in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 200.

And not for the reason you think.

Yes, Wallace is black. Yes, he came out of NASCAR’s oft-ridiculed as nothing more than a publicity stunt Drive for Diversity program. Nice back stories. But, given how no car manufacturer has ever produced a steering wheel and/or pedal that can sense a driver’s ethnicity, still not the story.

The story is that a twenty year old beat a whole bunch of seasoned NASCAR professionals at Martinsville. And if that does not make you sit up and pay attention, you know absolutely nothing about NASCAR.

Martinsville is the nastiest, toughest, most unforgiving track on the circuit. Think you can blast down the deceptively long straighaways and slam on the brakes for its paper clip turns? Bye bye brakes. Don’t want to abuse the brakes so you don’t push it down the straightaways? Get ready to be abused by your competitors as they turn you into a rolling speed bump. It takes a precision mixture of aggressively pushing and feathering the gas, cutting the corners just right and stainless steel nerves plus maximum concentration on every inch of every lap to so much as have a decent run at Martinsville, let alone win. No place for hot shot kids. Martinsville is men only territory (no offense, Danica). Talent is key here, but experience is king.

In other words, no place for kids who can’t so much as legally buy a beer to wash down that Martinsville nuclear hot dog. Certainly no place for said kids to figure out where that grandfather clock will go in their apartment.

Until yesterday.

Darrell Wallace Jr. is the total package on and off the track. He is intelligent and well-spoken; a sponsor’s dream. Behind the wheel he is even more of a sponsor’s dream; a smooth David Pearson type seldom noticed until you notice how he’s passing everyone on his way to posing for pictures with the company owner in Victory Lane. Wallace Jr. made Clippy his own yesterday, putting his name alongside NASCAR legends in the record books. And not because of his skin color.

Because he is that good.

(Wishing For A) Talladega Tornado

This weekend, while the claims jumpers take a nap the Cupsters and truckers make their way to Talladega. Oh, lucky them.

NASCAR fans are of an either/or persuasion when it comes to Talladega. Either they love its restrictor plate action, forty or so cars thundering as one lap after lap in a dizzying lockstep where the slightest miscalculation will at best send you to the pack’s back and at worse (i.e. normally) instantly change your ride from a snarling best to Scrapheap Sally, or they are working out the logistics of what it would take to disguise the track as a giant mobile home park just prior to tornado season. In short, turn the track into a used car lot and look for someplace else in Alabama where a nice little short track would suit people just fine.

There was a time when Talladega and Daytona were almost purposeful, venues showcasing stock car racing in an atmosphere as close to open-wheel oval racing as could be achieved. That time has long since passed. You no longer need to artificially jack up the speed in order to have a competitive, exciting race. What is needed is for cooler heads to prevail, assign Talladega to the memory banks and build a track that genuinely honors the Alabama Gang with some authentic racing action, not a vapid thrill ride looking for a place — which it almost inevitably finds — to spill.

Favorites? Whoever survives.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone.