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Sunday, March 4, 2012

NASCAR is Back

Rev those engines, cuz Amurrica's favorite form of televised patriotism is back.

With the Daytona SNAFU (don't worry, I'll explain) pushing the race finale all the way back to the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I didn't get a post up last week. So today you get to read and see and think and feel the first two weeks of NASCAR's premier series, the Race for the Sprint Cup.

Let's start with the Debacle at Dayton...


At Daytona, every car comes to win. Teams have spent 3 months in the off-season preparing a car that will hopefully survive 500 miles at 200+ miles per hour. The payoff is huge, and the style of racing is conducive to literally anyone potentially winning the race. Last year a relative rookie to the Sprint Cup, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, won the sport's biggest event on a partially funded team.

Trevor Bayne after winning the 2011 Daytona 500
In more than 50 years of running the race, the main event has never been cancelled. However, sporadic rains throughout last Sunday caused the race to move to Monday afternoon. Additional rain and track-drying activities pushed the race even further back to starting in prime time Monday night.

Recently at Daytona, teams and drivers have expanded their in-car radio capabilities to allow drivers to communicate directly with each other, sometimes with direct channels for a driver to talk directly with up to 10 competitors on the track. What was once a pack race had become tandems of 2 drivers pairing up to push each other to the front. NASCAR termed this style "pod racing" and felt it was detrimental to the fan experience. So this year, they changed the rules to say no direct driver-to-driver communication would be allowed. Drivers were nervous that NASCAR had taken too much communication away, and the race would be dangerous.

The green flag finally flew and just as the cars completed lap 1, a slight contact between Elliott Sadler and five-time champion Jimmy Johnson sent Johnson's Lowe's Chevrolet crashing into the outside wall, collecting a few other drivers in the process, including NASCAR's newest superstar Danica Patrick.
Danica with her clothes on

Patrick is probably known most for her sexually provocative commercials for GoDaddy.com and her feisty attitude, despite having only one win in an IndyCar. She is a polarizing figure, and her announcement to join NASCAR has been met with both positive support and negative criticism.

The Daytona 500 would be Danica's first race at NASCAR's top level, and the media spent a significant amount of attention on her leading up to, and during the race. Even after her car was damaged and out of contention, she was frequently in the spotlight as the race progressed. To be fair the racing on the track wasn't very interesting.

After the early crash, there were a few small spins and engine problems for some well-known drivers, but most of the race was boring as Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth traded turns at the front of the pack for team owner Jack Roush. Both had finished well in the Gatorade Duels earlier in the week (the Duels are a special qualifying race used only for the Daytona 500), and it became evident that one of the two would probably win the race.

In NASCAR, there is little more boring that knowing the race outcome when the it is barely halfway complete. Fortunately, there was one more defining moment with just over 100 miles to go. During a typical caution, Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet had just completed a pit stop, and was headed around the track to catch up to the pace car and pack of drivers waiting for the race to resume. As he entered turn 3, something broke under his car, and he slid up the track sideways into one of the jet driers clearing excess debris from the race surface. FOX came back from commercial showing Montoya stumbling from his destroyed Chevy Impala, just as thousands of pounds of jet fuel caught fire and starting trickling down the track.
Juan Pablo make truck go BOOM!
Jet fuel burns around 1000 degrees, and the driers each hold about 200 gallons of the stuff. The resulting efforts to extinguish the fire, remove the destroyed truck from the track, clean up the excess spilled fuel, and repair any part of the track damaged by the fire and dragging of the truck took more than 2 hours. Montoya and the truck driver were both confirmed to be okay after the disaster.

The race finally resumed, and Matt Kenseth held off teammate Biffle, and a final surge by fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the final 50 laps to win his 2nd Daytona 500. Total time from the intended start Sunday until the actual finish Tuesday morning was roughly 36 hours. Other than the wreck on lap 2 and the explosion on lap 150, this truly was a very boring Daytona 500. The outside line (closer to the wall) was never really able to pass the cars on the inside. NASCAR's prodigal son Dale Jr. had no teammates available to help him at the end of the race. And race-winner Kenseth has one of the least exciting personalities in the sport.

Fortunately, it was a short week leading up to the encore at Phoenix International Raceway.

Most NASCAR tracks run in a traditional oval or d-shaped oval style. Phoenix is an exception and entirely unique in design. The Subway Fresh Fit 500 is 500 kilometers instead of miles, so not quite as daunting as Daytona. And with no Danica Patrick to distract the cameras and analysts, we actually were able to see some quality racing among the best in the sport.

NASCAR off-season changes of drivers and crew chiefs is called the silly season and results in new faces and new sponsors throughout the garage. The best crew chiefs in NASCAR are like head coaches in the NFL. Imagine firing a head coach like Bill Cowher the same season after he leads your team to a Super Bowl Championship. That's basically what Tony Stewart did last season. Tony qualified for the Chase (NASCAR's version of the playoffs) without winning a race during the regular season. Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, was informed halfway through the Chase that he would not be retained after the season ended. Stewart and Grubb teamed to win 5 of the 10 Chase races, and defeat runner-up Carl Edwards by tie-breaker (they finished with the same number of season points) to claim his 3rd NASCAR Championship.

Grubb signed with Joe Gibbs racing as crew chief of the #11 FedEx Toyota team driven by Denny Hamlin for the 2012 season. Hamlin ran strong at Daytona, but like Dale Earnhardt Jr., no one could help push Denny to the finish line. He managed to come home with a solid 4th place finish however on a track where he's had previous success.

The Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix was an exciting race featuring multiple lead-changes among the sport's top drivers. 53-year-old Mark Martin started in the pole position and looked strong enough early in the race to compete for a win.

Jimmy Johnson soon took the lead and dominated for roughly 50 laps. This was a big boost after his DNF (did not finish) 42nd place at Daytona. In addition, Jimmy and his team have been potentially docked 25 points due to some improper body structure in the Daytona race, so he entered Phoenix with -23 championship points, pending an appeal. The laps led and 4th place finish in Phoenix have him back out of the hole.

Greg Biffle turned in another strong showing and 3rd place finish in Phoenix, moving him to #2 in the season standings.

Kevin Harvick had a strong race all-day, but he ran out of fuel while trying to close in for a victory in the final 2 laps. Harvick was able to coast home in 2nd place ahead of Biffle.

The big winners of the day were Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb. The car looked strong from start to finish, and Grubb and his crew executed the pit stops perfectly to put Denny in position to take the victory. This was probably especially thrilling for Grubb to get his first win with his new team while former driver Tony Stewart had fuel issues that cost him big at the end of the race. Stewart rolled home in 22nd place.
Don't let the sunglasses fool you. Denny's not THAT cool.

For Denny, it cemented what many (including myself) might have already predicted. The combination of a talented, young driver and a Championship crew chief could be hard to beat this year. The win propelled Denny to the top spot in the standings, but the season is long, and only 2 races are behind us so far. Additionally, Denny has always run well on the "flat" tracks (like Phoenix) and superspeedways (like Daytona). Meanwhile, Tony Stewart has a history of running well on the common 1.5 mile, high-banked tracks like Texas and Atlanta. Next week is Las Vegas (another cookie-cutter 1.5 mile track), and it will be a good test if Hamlin and Grubb have the tools to make a run at the title.

WEEK 1 & 2 AWARDS
Big Winner: Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Toyota - 4th place at Daytona, 1st place at Phoenix
Big Loser: Tony Stewart, #14 Office Depot Chevrolet - 16th place at Daytona, 22nd place at Phoenix
Good Surprise: Bobby Labonte, #47 Toyota (47 years old; hasn't finished season in top-15 since '04)
Bad Surprise: Jamie McMurray, #1 Chevrolet (blown engine at Daytona & damage at Phoenix has him in 36th place)
My Pick to Win the Cup: Denny Hamlin
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