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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

True, I never finished my BCS sim-tournament, but it's time I put something up again.

With tomorrow's official kickoff to the NASCAR season at the Daytona 500, here are a few things to watch for, or at least consider if you don't plan on watching.

Hendrick Motor Sports is off to another insane start. Mark Martin (oldest full-schedule driver) won the poll with the fastest qualifying lap and Dale Jr. is second. Jimmie Johnson wrecked his primary car in practice and then won a Gatorade Duel in his backup car to start right behind them on Sunday. That means 3 of the 4 Hendrick drivers are starting Top-4.

Speaking of Dale Junior, there's a lot of pressure on NASCAR's favorite son to perform well this year. He won no races last year and missed the Chase (NASCAR's equivalent to the playoffs). This was the 2nd time in 3 years Junior won no races and missed the Chase (2007). He may be the most popular driver year after year, but the fans are starting to consider that he isn't such an amazing racer as was once thought.

We also have the debut of Danica Patrick in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR's 2nd-tier series. Typically the Spring Cup races are Sunday (or occasionally Saturday night for tracks with lighting) and the Nationwide Series is often at the same track racing the day before. As I type, Danica is racing in the Nationwide race at Daytona. Everyone wants drivers to come in and win right away, and Danica's fans are no different. In a recent interview, she admitted she would love to win every race she enters, but understands that's just not reasonable. A more obtainable goal this week will be to finish the race with the car running and minimal damage...a trickier task than you might think, since we are at Daytona.

And since we're talking about Daytona, here's a quick recap of what you can expect, in case you haven't read some of my previous posts. Daytona is what the sport considers a Superspeedway. That means the track is more than 2 miles around (Daytona is 2.5). The only other track similarly configured is Talladega, though experts and drivers would find many ways to tell you they are very different tracks.

For the casual fan, there are obvious similarities. Daytona and 'Dega use restrictor-plates on the engine's carburetor. This limits the amount of fuel-air mix going into the engine and controls the max RPMs the engine can reach, thus limiting overall top speed. This, in turn, causes the cars to run in packs because no single car has the available power and speed to pull away. Much like the peloton in cycling, the wind-break caused by a pack of cars allows the drivers to reach a faster speed than one car on its own. Daytona's track is a little rougher and slightly less banked than Talladega, so small groups tend to break off, but the overall "pack" racing remains.

Because Daytona is like the Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Daytona 500 is like the culmination of 2 weeks of activities, some more entertaining than others (a la, Pro Bowl in Miami this year). One such event is the Bud Shootout. Basically a 75-lap race at Daytona with a mandatory break after the first 25 laps. This year's race featured a few wrecks, and some entertaining TV for only about 2 hours of programming...a theme I think NASCAR should embrace. Couple the dramatic wrecks in the Bud Shootout with the ARCA race and the Nationwide race, and you can see why Daytona is the Mecca of stock car racing.

Taege's Power Rankings
This first installment is based off how last season ended. Not necessarily the way the points played out (though you will see many of the same names at the top), but more so the momentum the drivers bring to this week's event.

1. Jimmie Johnson - a record 4th-straight Championship; with another year of Hendrick equipment and Chad Knauss (crew chief), it is likely he will be the odds favorite to win a 5th consecutive title
2. Mark Martin - before joining Rick Hendrick's team in 2009, Martin had resigned himself to running a part-time schedule; now considered one of the most-likely to upend Jimmie's dynasty
3. Tony Stewart - the first owner-driver to experience real success in the sport; he won 4 points-races in 2009 and held the top spot in the standing for 3 months over the summer; Stewart also happens to use Rick Hendrick engines in his cars (noticing a trend here?)
4. Jeff Gordon - still a threat to win races every year, though Jimmie Johnson has replaced him as the dominant driver to watch; Gordon has been hounded by some back pain in recent years, and with the addition of his first child, I get the feeling he's not as focused on racing as he was in the late 90s
5. Kyle Busch - possibly the best pure-talent driver in the sport, but also known to be very immature; he often refuses interviews after losing races; when he does interview, he's not afraid to give short, curt, and sometimes rude responses; my favorite driver
6. Kurt Busch - brother of Kyle had a very successful 2009, winning twice and finishing 4th in the Chase; Kurt could be higher on this list, but a new crew cheif and his overall inconsistency has me thinking 2010 won't be as great
7. Denny Hamlin - quality driver, who excels on short-tracks and at Daytona and Pocono; won 4 races in 2009, including his 5th career win at Pocono just 2 days after his grandmother died; tore his ACL in the NASCAR off-season and is delaying surgery until after the 2010 season
8. Juan Pablo Montoya - after the influx of open-wheel drivers (Indy, CART, etc.), Montoya is easily the most successful so far; made his first Chase last year after 4 years in the sport; 1 career Sprint Cup win, on a road-course, which are said to favor open-wheel drivers, though he is getting better on all track-types
9. Carl Edwards - in 2008, Carl won an insane 9 races and finished 2nd;  unfortunately, had a terrible 2009 follow-up, winning no races and missing the Chase; known for his signature backflip after a win; never bet on Carl in a restrictor-plate race...he notoriously causes or is involved in spectacular wrecks
10.  Kevin Harvick - after a bad year for Richard Childress Racing in 2009 (no drivers from RCR made the Chase), the team started to improve late in the season with drivers finishing 2nd and 3rd (Harvick) in the finale; began 2010 by winning the Bud Shootout (back-to-back Bud Shootout victories); looks to carry that momentum into Sunday for a 2nd career Daytona 500 victory

(Danica Patrick crashed out halfway and Dale Junior just flipped his car with 29 laps to go in today's Nationwide race...that is why this track is entertaining)
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