Pocono Round Up

NASCAR ran out of luck with the weather man. The fastest traveling circus around got washed out at Pocono over the weekend. I’ve sat through rain delays, watching people try to dry the track. It’s not fun, especially since I remember when it was just old tires dragged around behind pickup trucks. It’s doubly worse when the whole show gets rained out. Locals can skip out another day of work, anyone who travels in is hosed.

I’m sure there are people clamoring for NASCAR to get rain tires. Happens every time there’s a delay. Let’s not push our luck with safety. NASCAR doesn’t need rain tires. Honestly, who the hell wants to sit four hours in the rain? Track promoters have enough work cut out for them. No one needs rain tickets.

kurt wins poconoOnce the rain finally stopped and the race happened for real, Kurt Busch won his first of the year, stretching out his fuel mileage to the max. It may be his first win of the year, but continues an extremely impressive start to the year for him. We’re fourteen races into the year and only two of Kurt Busch’s finishes were outside the top ten (Fontana and Martinsville). I had to double check that stat because he’s sitting second in the points, but it’s been a very quiet second. He’s been a top ten machine even if he hasn’t been mixing it up for wins. Add that up with a pair of pole starts this year and it was only a matter of time before he was going to win again. It’s been almost ten years since he last won at Pocono, but the track has always given him solid results if not a W.

Now, I know fuel mileage races aren’t the most exciting for the outsider (or the NASCAR Twitternauts that need something to complain about), but this is a very impressive fuel mileage win. His crew chief, the old school Tony Gibson, was suspended  because of NASCAR’s omnipresent lug nut drama. The lead engineer for the team, Johnny Klausmeier, stepped in and told Busch he was two laps shy of fuel and to start saving.

That’s not just a little bit short.

He was dropping 40mph of speed in the corners and coasting through them to horde every drop of fuel he could and then put the hammer down on the white flag lap to make sure it all stuck. That’s some fancy driving and a fancy call from Klausmeier to even try to stretch it.

Keselowski and Gordon going at it again

keselowski at poconoSo Keselowski and the #2 team finished third at Pocono. That’s a sweet finish, but early on in the race, Keselowski’s team was penalized in the pits. The jackman pulled one of those hip checks just forward of the rear tire. Pops out the panel, adds more sideforce, and now the car has an aero advantage. NASCAR has been policing this a lot lately. And it may be more just a matter that they’re catching it more with the camera run pit monitors the officials use now. Regardless, Keselowski was irked.

“I don’t know what (NASCAR) saw so it is not really fair for me to say anything about that,” Keselowski said. “I can tell you that every car I saw had some body modifications on it after pit stops out there. I don’t know if ours was more egregious or even if we had one. That is for the team guys to really answer.”

Ok cool. “Every car I saw had some body modifications on it.” I’m going to call a “DUH” on this one. A crew chief, and by extension, the crew, are supposed to push the envelope as much as they possibly can. It’s part of the game. You push and push and push the limits of what NASCAR is going to allow. That’s how you get ahead. With the competition up front being so close, every little bit counts and can be the difference between a W and a 10th, a Championship and a busted season.

Conversely, sometimes the NASCAR officials are going to bite back. Does that make the #2 team a bunch of cheaters? Nope. Not at all. It’s part of the game. That’s how it’s always been in NASCAR, a constant push and pull between teams and The Rules. Like bleeding the air out of the tires last year. It’s also why NASCAR has a sliding scale of penalties. There are the gross and obvious “What the hell were you thinking” penalties and the “You pushed, but this is as far as you can go” penalties. We move on with them.

That’s a whole lot of words without getting back to the bold header of this section but it relates, I swear.

Keselowski called out Gordon up in the booth because Gordon talked about similar crew tactics from the 2 team won in Vegas earlier in the year. Fact checking later, NASCAR didn’t penalize the Penske crew for any body mods at Vegas, it was a speeding penalty on the same stop. Gordon owned up to that one later on ye olde twitter.

jeff gordon mug shotKeselowski does bring up a point about having people biased in the booth. Gordon and Keselowski have a history as drivers. Gordon has been a part owner in Jimmie Johnson’s #48 team since the start of that ride. Keselowski is saying that the commentators need to be neutral parties.

I appreciate Keselowski speaking his mind, I always do even when I disagree with him. Which I do in this case. Having a wholly objective observer sounds better on paper. Ken Squier will always be known as the voice of NASCAR. He was never a driver or team owner. Neither was Mike Joy. But a lot of the best announcers in NASCAR were former drivers. Michael Waltrip still runs restrictor plate races to this day and will do his prerace duties in his firesuit before hopping in the car and running laps. I think Brad Daughtry is one of the better prerace guys and he co-owns Allmendinger’s car. Ned Jarrett in the booth calling the race as his son passed the elder Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500 is ever going to say that was wrong. That’s a classic moment in NASCAR history, in part because of Ned Jarrett being in the booth on live TV.

Where do you draw the line of being “biased” as a commentator? Are we going to say that Rusty Wallace should never do NASCAR commentary because he used to race for Penske? Or his brother Kenny, one of the funniest and well spoken people in NASCAR, can’t talk about… well, half the owners on the track? Should we stop listening to Larry Mac because he used to work for Childress?

Oh and by the way, Ken Squire owns a race track in Vermont and Mike Joy co-owns the Sonoco racing fuel distributor in New England. Does that count?

See the thing is, all these people I’m talking about, they’re professionals in the booth. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be doing this year in and year out. I for one, think that Jeff Gordon is very good in the booth and hope he has a long career in the booth.

It happens in every sport. Being a part of it gives you a leg up when covering the game. Many of the best sportscasters started out as players/coaches in their respective sports. No one honestly thinks John Madden should have gone his career without covering a Raiders game. Or Pat Summerall a Giants game.

Ditto goes for NASCAR.

Tony Stewart Troubles

tony at poconoI hate to say this, but it’s not looking good for Tony Stewart to go out with a swan song. He had his best starting position of the season so far this past week at Pocono and he was running in the top ten, but got tangled up in a wreck… with Danica of all people.

NASCAR is better with Tony Stewart in it. Doubly so when he is the happy, engaging, fiery, Tony Stewart. It’s been rough on the track for him since his come back from injury. Really, it’s been rough on track for Tony for a couple years now. I think a lot of NASCAR would love to see him hit that walk off home run and pull a mic drop by walking out with a championship. Very few in any sport get to do that. Finish 29 laps off the pace cause of a wreck isn’t going to get him very far. Remember, he’s going to finish in the top 30 in points and get a win for his waiver to matter. 34th place finishes aren’t helping.

Rough Day for Jeb Burton

burton at poconoNormally a 29th place finish for the raced-by-committee GoFAS #32 isn’t much to remark on. This week, however, they put a new driver in the seat for Pocono. Jeb Burton got the call to run his first Cup level race since he was a victim of downsizing at BK Racing in the off season. He got the call to run the Richard Petty Xfinity car though so we thought it was good for him. A better car, albeit in a lower tier.

Bad news though, RPM shut down the #43 Xfinity team because their sponsor decided not to pay their bills. Racing takes deep pockets, no matter who you are. Deeper pockets if you want to do it well. Petty isn’t like Penske, or Haas, or Hendrick, or Roush… he doesn’t have an extensive business to fall back on. (Although, just ask James Finch, that doesn’t always work either) Petty’s only business is racing, so when someone doesn’t pay their sponsor bills, there’s nothing left to soak up the hurt.

Frankly, I think this whole thing sucks. Burton is a very promising racer for the future of the sport. He’s got a Truck win and two top ten point finishes in that series. Given the right equipment, he could be one of the future stars to carry the sport like Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney. Doubly so because the traditionalists love a family connection in NASCAR. He had it rough last year with BK racing, DNQ’ing for nine races and then becoming a victim of charter system downsizing. I had figured the Petty Xfinity ride would get him back in a competitive car again and get things back on track. NASCAR’s relationship with the checkbook is a harsh mistress though. I hope he can land on his feet.

Shout Outs

elliott at poconoThis first one hardly seems like a shout out because he is running so consistently, but high five to Chase Elliott. He pulled off his 10th top ten on the season so far. Everyone expected the #24 car to still run well, after all, it’s a Hendrick team that was winning races last year with Gordon, but Elliott is exceeding everyone’s expectations. Still, I have to give a shout out for Elliott leading the most laps on the day, even if he didn’t score his first W yet. Chase is constantly impressing everyone. He’s highest in the points without a win yet at 7th on a season so far. I seriously expect him to win. Soon and often.

ty dillon at poconoThe other shout out on the day goes to another guy who’s going to carry the sport into the future. Ty Dillon got the start in the Circle Sport-Levine ride as an unofficial 4th RCR car. It’s a deal that Childress has been doing with Circle Sport for a few years now ever since the former sold the owner points for the #33 to the latter. Austin Dillon did the same thing before he was officially a rookie, running a few races as an RCR flying the Circle Sport banner. Brian Scott did too when he was running Xfinity for Childress. Ty Dillon is making the most of these starts he gets. In the thirteen starts he’s made at Cup level, his best finish is 14th at Michigan last year. He didn’t top that this past week at Pocono, finishing in 21st, but he led some laps up front. Childress will get him into a Cup car in a year or two and he’ll be leading a lot more laps than that.

Pit Stall 13 Update

headshot via aricalmirola dot comAric Almirola was lucky driver to occupy the glorious Pit Stall 13 at Pocono. It didn’t translate to too much for the RPM #43 car this week though. He had a middling start in 16th and finished 20th. This day wasn’t one where just managing to stay on the lead lap was going to bring home much of anything in terms of finish. He ran as high as 14th and as low as 29th, so a 20th was right about where you figured he’d end up. They did have an “over the wall too soon” penalty pitting on lap 62 which put lost them their midpack position which the car was never fully able to recover from.

Charterless Update

  • 10th – #21 Ryan Blaney – He’s having a very good season, currently in the Chase grid on points, but is frequently overshadowed by Chase Elliott (i.e. like this week)
  • 27th – #30 Josh Wise – This is the best finish for the TMG #30 car this year finishing just one lap off the pace. This little team busts hump every race so it’s nice to see them making gains. Small steps are better than no steps.
  • 28th – #98 Reed Sorenson – The Premium Motorsports drivers swapped cars. Neither has a charter so…. reasons? Sorenson did get his best finish of the year out of it though.
  • 30th – #55 Cole Whitt – Swapped numbers with his teammate and cruised to 30th. Attrition helped.

Onward to Michigan!

Michigan is up next and I think it’s going to be a good race, unlike last year’s high drag debacle. It’s a very fast track with plenty of room to race so here’s hoping the low downforce package creates lots of passing. I think it should.

While not a plate track, this place favors teams that can put down raw speed similar to the plate tracks. I think RCR has this track circled as a place to take a huge swing and hope for a home run, especially the 31 and 27 teams. If they miss here, Newman is eyeing Daytona and New Hampshire, Menard is watching Daytona and Indy. They’ve got to take a big swing and go for a win. Newman could still point his way in, but Menard had a few races with bad racing luck and tire problems. He can’t soak those up and still point his way in. This time of year, look for the Neon Rocket, and plenty of other teams, starting to take big gambles on those W’s.

I also expect Brad Keselowski to run up front here. The best he’s ever finished at the track was 2nd during his championship year, but it really is a thorn in his side that he hasn’t won at his home track. With two wins under his belt and a spot in the Chase lined up, I expect him to go all out for that hometown crowd.

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All Star Weekend Round Up

The subtitle for this post is “WTF happened in Charlotte?” with WTF standing for “What’s This For?”

Because no one really had a clue what was going on except for maybe Keselowski since he’s the one that came up with the idea.

Remember what I said last week “there’s some complicated thing involving pit stops that was proposed by Keselowski.” Oh yeah. Complicated didn’t even explain half of what happened for the All Star Race.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. First let’s talk about the Showdown.

Despite getting rained out Friday night and moved to lunchtime Saturday where I caught in on TV by accident, the Sprint Showdown was the most successful part of the whole All Star Weekend. The Showdown (or whatever it’s called in whatever year we’re talking about) has always been broken up into segments. Or at least I think it has been. Look, the constantly changing format makes it confusing and after watching for so many years it kinda blends together.

Anyways. If there is one thing that NASCAR takes out of this cluster of a weekend, is that the Showdown worked perfectly. Win any segment and you’re into the big show. Used to be only one person transferred from the Showdown and one from the Fan Vote. Now three get to transfer from the Showdown and two Fan Votes. NASCAR just made heat races way more fun than the Xfinity Dash4Cash heat races going on this year… because people actually miss the show and it’s not just some glorified qualifying parade.

bayne wins all star segment 1Trevor Bayne won the first with a glorious three wide pass on the last lap of the segment. He won by .005. The man is becoming relevant with some frequency all of a sudden. Biffle won the second in ho-hum fashion proving that not every race is going to be a home run. The second segment featured a lot of people setting up pit/tire strategy for the last one. Kyle Larson put on another high octane show seriously throwing down with Chase Elliott for the win on segment three. They were beating and banging for half a lap before Larson got the edge at the finish line. Thrashed the right side of the car and the #42 crew gets props for having the car ready to go for the big show later that night.

I as actually surprised that Danica didn’t pull the number one spot on the Fan Vote. Sure, she got voted in at number two but Chase Elliott won the Fan Vote. Matt DiBurrito scored third with his surge from that Bristol finish.

allstarrace1

So back to the big show. The All Star Race. Unfortunately it was pretty down hill from there. The complicated segment format involved mandatory green flag pit stops. Then pit stops between segments. Then more mandatory green flag pit stops. Then another round of pits between segments before the last one.

So in 113 laps of racing there were five pit stops. And of course, like any good crew chief, people were trying to game the system in whatever way they thought would work. Some came in wicked early to get it out of the way. Kenseth held out as long as possible. Then a caution flew. Hosed up the whole field. Everyone was a lap down because the #20 hadn’t pit yet. But he was peanalized a lap for not getting his green flag pit in. But no one could take the wave around.

And that’s how you put most of the field a lap down and confused the everliving b’jebus out of all of NASCAR. Except Brad Keselowski.

The only driver in favor of it was Keselowski and a lot took to twitter to make it know. As one is wont to do.

logano all star carAnyways. Once the final segment happened and all the confusing crap was out of the way. Larson showed up again to put on a good show throwing down with the #22. Logano won the All Star Race in the only segment of the big show to make any sense. Larson used up his race car and brushed the wall, hosing up his car and having to bring it in the pits. Afterwards, even Logano said he had no idea what was going on with the format and figured he’d just drive and let his crew chief worry about it.

Keselowski defended his format talking about passes for the lead within the last couple laps and such. I get that. I really do, Brad. Charlotte isn’t exactly known for being a track that produces nail biter finishes. I’m looking to Darlington, the short tracks, or the plate tracks for those. Keselowski is correct when he says that the last few All Star races didn’t have much passing. Frankly, they were snoozers and I’d loaf about reading a book and only half paying attention to the race. We didn’t get a snoozer this time, but Brad, it wasn’t anything to do with your gimmicky format ideas.

Points for trying. Seriously. No sarcasm there. Points for you and NASCAR trying to do something positive. It was a flop. Own up to it and move on.

See, the parts of the racing that were good were the straightforward parts. NASCAR is on that hot streak of epic finishes this year.

larson elliott all starTrevor Bayne didn’t need some weird pit stop format to pull a gutsy three wide pass to win the first segment. Larson didn’t need any gimmicks to thrash is car in an all out effort for the W. NASCAR has put together a fantastic aero package for the cars this year (after last year’s flop) and the competition level is at an all time high. That should have been good enough.

So, keep the Showdown as is. Scrap the ever living hell out of Keselowski’s Folly. Let them race.

Shout Outs!

I covered this already, but Shout Out to Kyle Larson!

Not to dismiss Trevor Bayne’s epic pass, but the Target car is what made the race worth watching. It’s too bad that Larson finished 16th out of 20 in the big show, but it’s a checkers or wreckers kind of race. The Ganassi team is showing up with all their ducks in a row again. Everyone was focused on winning the big check, but it also doubles as a giant practice for next week’s Coke 600. Larson pulling the W there would be epic.

Pit Stall 13 Update

Seems a bit anticlimatic after the slick ranting and raving I already did to just slide into a Pit Stall 13 Update.

Especially since there was none. No one used that pit stall since pit road was working on every other stall drawn by random order.

On to Charlotte

Well, not really “On to Charlotte” since the teams are already in their home base for the All Star Weekend. More of a “Continue to Stay at Charlotte” for the Coke 600.

I am one of the people who advocate for shorter races. 400 miles had worked just fine for Pocono. I’ve been going to New Hampshire since it opened and they run slightly over 300 miles. Look at the drama that the heat races — excuse me, Showdown segments, produced in only a handful of laps. That said, I think the Coke 600 needs to stay the Coke 600. It’s one of the crown jewels of NASCAR and in this instance, I am fulling on board with the traditionalists.

The All Star race always serves as a big preview for who is going to do well for the 600. You’d think that would give the early edge to Logano and Keselwoski since they finished one-two. They’re fast all over and leading the Ford teams.

But I think the real edge goes to Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Since the Showdown was moved to Saturday during the day, they performed well on the track both in the sun and under the lights.

And of course, the other storyline to watch is going to be Kyle Busch. Charlotte is one of only two tracks he needs to win at for a sweep of all current NASCAR tracks.

Richmond Round Up

One last week of short track racing at Richmond before the whole circus packs up and pulls a 180 at Talladega. It’s our last entry in the “I made it up last week” hashtag #ShortTrackRumble. Let’s get our fix in now, cause we won’t have this much sheet metal banging and beating until we hit the first road course race at Sonoma in June.

Let’s get right into this thing.

edwards wins richmondCarl Edwards won with a bump and run on his teammate in the last corner of the race.

I’m going to stress this again. LAST CORNER OF THE RACE!

NASCAR fans are being spoiled this year with one epic finish after the other. Yesterday’s race was the very first time in the history of the series at Richmond. And Richmond isn’t one of those new cookie cutter tracks that opened during the building surge of the late 90s and early 00s. Richmond has been hosting NASCAR Cup level racing since 1953.

Carl Edwards has now gone back to back for the first time since 2010. Joe Gibbs Racing has won four in a row and five of the nine races at the one quarter mark of the season. Edwards leads the points with only one race outside the top seven so far this year (Vegas). The team, and the driver, have positioned themselves at the favorite at this point the season. JGR teammate (and victim of the bump and run), Kyle Busch is the defending champion and all, but I’d still favor Edwards. Yes, Busch has two wins and sits 4th in the points, but he had the adversity of the injury comeback to fuel his focus last year. He’s one of the most talented drivers in the history of the sport, whether you think he’s a hero or a heel, but I still want to see him hold his focus for a full 36 races before I can consider him a perennial contender.

stewart at richmondTony Stewart is back!

One of the biggest news items in NASCAR during the off season was Tony Stewart’s impending retirement followed by the injury suffered during a vacation tooling around in some sand rails out in California. Back injuries are nothing to mess around with so everyone knew it would be a while before he could safely race again. He’s been walking around at the track the last couple weeks playing the role of owner and mentor to his team and the Vickers-Dillon combo keeping his car warm for him. It’s a role that Stewart will excel in just as he has in all his other racing endeavors.

But we’re all happier that Stewart is back in his car for the rest of his final season.

Stewart ran a mid pack race all day, losing a lap, getting it back, beating and banging all day. He tangled with Logano and ended up with a shredded tire fighting for the lucky dog position. It happens. The man was just ecstatic to be on the track again.

Of Lug Nuts and Fines

Of course NASCAR shot itself in the foot and created a PR cluster for themselves by fining Stewart 35k for speaking out about lug nut safety. The crazy thing about the fine is that the statements were very tame by Tony Stewart’s standards. It stems from the rule about not having a NASCAR official monitor that all five lug nuts are secure on each wheel anymore. Junior has spoken out against the same thing. So has Biffle. NASCAR has made it sound like it’s a self policing policy. But teams are paid to push the limits. Three or four lug nuts for an extra tenth on pit road on the final pit stop? Hell yes that’s going to happen. Many drivers feel this is a huge safety risk and are put into a bad position by NASCAR.

hamlin helmet in carWell, the new(ish) Driver’s Council decided to step in and pay off Stewart’s fine. That’s a big deal. NASCAR has never traditionally tolerated dissension in the ranks. Hamlin was quoted as saying “that we just believe that we should have the right to speak our opinion” and not everyone exactly agrees with Stewart’s opinion. The Driver’s Council just sent a shot across the bow.

I think this is a good thing. The Race Team Alliance and the Driver’s Council are a happy medium for the sport between NASCAR doing whatever it wants and having contentious battles between NASCAR and some sort of union. There are too many players with money in the pot to form a full fledged union in NASCAR. Baseball and the NHL have months and whole seasons to union battles and not that long ago. Frankly, NASCAR would not survive something like that. Baseball and hockey barely did. Hell, baseball losing the ’94 World Series to a strike let the NFL swoop in and take the title of the most prominent sport in America, a title the NFL’s billions aren’t going to let up on any time soon. Baseball has never fully recovered. Hockey hasn’t recovered. NASCAR has too many of it’s own issues to ever survive a proper union blow out.

But what the Driver’s Council is doing here is important. NASCAR, the tracks, the sponsors, the TV partners, they’ve all got fat stacks of cash involved with the sport but the driver’s are still the stars. The council makes sure their voices aren’t lost in the shuffle. This is NASCAR’s new reality and it seems like it will be healthy for the sport. People constantly deride the sport for becoming too button up corporate. Guys like Keslowski have said they censor themselves because they don’t want to be fined. But NASCAR needs to let the driver’s be human beings, not machines. We’ve got machines, they’re called race cars.

One Angry Cat

I really have nothing to add here beyond Kyle Busch’s Banfield Pet Hospital paint job will go down as one of my favorites all time. The cat on the right rear looks so pissed at having that thing on its head. I love it.

kyle banfield livery jgr facebook 4-20

Shout outs!

So now that I’ve rambled on about NASCAR’s unnecessary distraction with those Tony Stewart fines, (side note, some day I want to figure out how much in his career he’s been fined… I imagine a lot), time for the Richmond Shout Outs!

My predictions from last week… eh. It was a lot of the usual faces with no huge surprises like last week at Bristol.

kahne at richmond mtn dew blackThe biggest shout out goes to Kasey Kahne.

Richmond was his third top ten and first top five of the year. Although he hasn’t been running as well as he did in the first nine races of last year, Kahne needs more finishes like this. With Chase Elliot out performing his rookie expectations already, he does not want to be mired in a lower tier of performance than the rest of Hendrick Motorsports. Again. Kahne is 14th in the standings at the one quarter mark of the season. That’s not bad per se, but his teammates are 3rd, 6th, and 11th. More races like this will help Kahne a lot. Started 8th and never left the top ten on the day. That is an excellent day for anyone.

The other shout out on the day goes to Chase Elliot.

The rookie started way back in 23rd place after qualifying was rained out and went to practice speeds. He spent over 150 laps running a lap off the pace but managed to get the lap back and claw his way back up to a 12th place finish. Twenty six cars finished on the lead lap this week, a very high number for a short track even in this modern era of waive arounds. Getting his lap back was a big deal, especially after running so long without it. I think it takes more focus to have the patience and perseverance to get the lap back the way he did rather than running 12th all day long. Chase is showing a veteran temperament behind the wheel again.

Pit Stall 13 Update

ragan at richmondDavid Ragan in the BK Racing #23 was the lucky recipient of pit stall 13 this week. He ended up finishing in the same spot as his number, but the BK team had a solid race anyways. Ragan started 30th after the washout of qualifying but he leap frogged a pile of cars early and stayed on the lead lap the entire race. Ragan raced in the top 20 most of the day. A series of cautions late in the race made the lead lap pretty crowded for a short track so he lost a couple spots near the end, but this kind of race is very good for the little team that could. After Matt DiBenedetto’s epic run last week at Bristol, I’m glad to see BK’s whole performance is getting better.

Charterless Update

  • 28th – #21 Ryan Blaney – Top of the Charterless again, but finished a lap down on a day where a lap down wasn’t going to get you much
  • 37th – #93 Ryan Elis – Running a third entry for BK Racing, this was Elis’ second start at Cup level. He’s got a couple more on the books later in the season
  • 39th – #30 Josh Wise – Survived ten laps off the pace
  • 40th – #55 Reed Sorensen – Survived ten laps off the pace, but actually with a sponsor this time. Also note how all 40 cars finished the race this week.
  • DNQ – #98 Cole Whitt – The primary Premium Motorsports car missed the show after qualifying was set by practice speeds. First race since Daytona where anyone DNQ’d.

The 98 had the lowest speed of the Charterless, a half mile per hour slower than Elis. But notice how I said Charterless. Annett would have missed the race normally since he posted no time after damaging his car earlier in the weekend. Annett, Bowyer, Jeffery Earnhardt in the #32 all posted slower practice times than Whitt.

The irony is that HScott’s charter for #46 was leased from Premium. So the team that missed the race did so to the person they gave up their charter to. Annett got a 36th place finish out of it.

On to Talladega!

We’re done with short tracks until August and NASCAR switches things up as much as they possibly can by hitting Talladega next week. The biggest track in the sport provides a holiday for the state of Alabama. This is the most rambunctious track out there.

We got two big news items already for Talladega. The official race entry list has not been released this early in the week, but Tony Stewart will still run the superspeedway. When talking about his return to the car last week, he said that he’ll start the race to get the points, but will likely hand over the car to Ty Dillon. The big track makes a driver change a hell of a lot easier than most places. I also think this shows Stewart is playing his recovery smart. Spinal injuries aren’t something to mess around with so no need to put more strain on it than he needs. After Talladega, the next race with speeds even approaching that like that won’t be til Michigan in June.

ives twitterThe other item was floating around Twitter this morning. Greg Ives, crew chief for Junior, said that Amelia has been repaired and will return to the track this week. If you don’t know, that’s the name of Earnhardt’s favorite restrictor plate car. He’s won a pile of races with that car but it got banged up. This is going to put Earnhardt way inside his comfort zone and, like his father, he is an ace at the plate tracks.

Earnhardt is instantly the favorite for Talladega. He would be even without his favorite car behind repaired. Other favorites to look out for… Hamlin, first of all. The Gibbs cars are the top in the sport right now and Hamlin won the last plate race in Daytona.

I keep wanting to say to watch out for the RCR cars. That team tends to perform well at the plate tracks, but with Austin Dillon having a rough couple of weeks and Newman and Menard having trouble carrying on with their top 15 parades, I’m putting a big asterisk on the end of that. I really don’t want to. Just like with Roush, the sport is better off with RCR, one of the old school teams, being relevant. At this point though, I think RCR needs to swing for the fences to break their win drought. Talladega is a place to do it.

And of course, we get to see what little team is going to bust out a good finish. That right there is my favorite part of restrictor plate racing.

Hillman Sues Circle Sport-Levine for Charter

mcdowell promo picWe all knew coming into the season that Charters would change the way the back end of NASCAR operates. I talked about all the charter maneuverings before the Daytona 500. In the direct lead up to the charter announcement, there were moves among some of the smaller teams to secure one of the coveted charters.

BK Racing shrunk to only two full time cars. So did Front Row Motorsports. The Wood Brothers were left out in the cold but in a proper old school mentality shrugged and got to work kicking ass anyways. Premium Motorsports shrunk to a single full time car and then leased their charter out to HScott for their Clint Boywer year (although, look how good that’s working out for them).

cslfr logoThe big move among the little teams was the merger between Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing #33 and the Levine Family Racing #95.

Circle Sport has been running full time long enough to score the charter. Just barely. That team purchased the points off of RCR back in 2012 and struck a deal to be an unofficial fourth RCR car for certain races when Childress wanted to get his Xfinity drivers seat time in Cup. Brian Scott and Austin Dillon picked up a few starts this way before they were officially rookies. Ty Dillon has a few, including a start in this year’s Daytona 500 with the new merged CS-LFR.

Levine Family Racing kind of got hosed by the charter system. They were one of those little teams that started out part time and was chugging along, surviving, getting better, and on the road to running full time. Even prior to the charter system, I expect they would have been running full time this year anyways.

So the two teams struck a deal. Falk’s charter and deals with RCR. Levine’s gear and driver. Seems like it’s a win for the two groups.

Problem is, a lawsuit dropped this week in North Carolina says there were more investors left out in the cold.

Back when I first wrote about the charters, I mentioned that Mike Hillman, owner of the #40 Hillman Motors car that was often run by Landon Cassill before he moved to Front Row, sounded pretty annoyed about all the work he put into his team to be left out in the cold.

Cassill @ Martinsville, 2013
Cassill at Martinsville, 2013

I felt he had every right to be annoyed by it and bitter. In among the preseason moves, if you follow the little teams, Premium Motorsports bought up most of the #40’s equipment and took Hillman on in a role with that team. Made it sound like the #40 was up the creek without a paddle without a charter. They entered in as an open team into the Daytona 500 with Reed Sorensen, but did not qualify for the race. They haven’t attempted a race since (although, not terribly uncommon for the part time teams to skip the west coast run).

See, the thing is, Hillman and Falk used to run their cars together. At various times during the last few years, Hillman and Circle Sport were listed as a single entity. In fact, as of the day of posting this, Hillman’s entry on Wikipedia still lists the team as Hillman-Circle Sport.

In 2012, Hillman and the #40 teamed up with Michael Waltrip for him to run the Daytona 500. Per the rules at the time, that classified the #40 as a MWR car and maxed out the four car limit. Hillman was out of the game and couldn’t run his own car. Falk bought the RCR points for the #33 that year and started running full time. Hillman got in on the deal with Falk in 2013, and it included some discounted ECR engines from Childress starting with Indy. The #40 car was half a season short of qualifying for a charter. Despite the two groups working in tandem to run in Cup, Circle Sport was the official name on the #33 so when the charters came down, it went to the #33.

Sorensen at Daytona
Sorensen at Daytona

The full details of the lawsuit spell out how the relationship between Hillman and Falk soured starting with last year. Hillman accuses Falk of leaving the #40 side of the partnership with more of the bills. Supposedly Hillman and Falk were planning on cutting ties at the end of 2015 anyways but neither ever officially signed off on the agreed upon terms. The biggest thing is that Hillman was totally unaware of any pending deal with Circle Sport and Levine. The details in the lawsuit certainly imply that the investors in the #40 car had to liquidate everything they had (to Premium) and are still left with a hefty amount of debt. The complaint straight up says “As a results of the circumstances described … the 40 points are of negligible value, the Partnership is unable to race full-time during the 2016 race season, Hillman and Hillman Racing have no ability to pay for the significant debt incurred in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 race seasons, and the remaining partners have been forced to liquidate many of the Partnership’s remaining assets.’’

Hillman is seeking cash damages, the rights to the #33 team, the #95 charter and all profits/benefits gained from the charter.

So those are the details in summary. What is going to come of all this?

It’s hard to tell. From the public information out there that NASCAR fans can find with a little Google-fu, the ownership ties between Hillman and Falk seem murky at times over the last few years. I’m sure more details of their ties will come out over the course of the lawsuit because right now, what details we have are from Hillman’s point of view. Falk has not commented on anything because the case is pending. Childress will definitely be roped into this because of the ongoing deals he had to supply equipment and the checks he cut to run his driver/car/crew under the #33 banner (now the #95 banner).

mcdowell at daytona 59
McDowell at the Daytona 500

I think that the biggest loser in this fight is Michael McDowell. He is considered one of the nicest guys in the garage and committed to making Levine a better team. He was slated to finally run the full season (or pretty close to it depending on the number of Ty Dillon races with RCR). The drivers concern themselves with what happens on the track. The owners worry about behind the scenes. That’s why the owner-driver fad in the 90s fell apart and frankly, I’m surprised Stewart has so much success in the dual role.

Whatever happens between Hillman and Falk, I really hope McDowell doesn’t have to suffer as a result.

I think whoever loses this lawsuit, is likely broken and out as a Cup level owner. Hillman already seems to be busted so if he loses, he’s no worse off in terms of Cup racing (his debt is a different matter though). If Falk and Levine lose, there are a couple ways I could see it going. Falk is likely out as a Cup owner either way. Levine may or may not be. One of the big questions at this point is what, if anything, Levine knew about the situation between Hillman and Falk. That could lead to more lawsuits. The only asset belonging to the #95 that Hillman seeks is the charter itself (which was originally the #33’s). So Levine could survive without it and run as an open team. Their assets and deals might not be affected, just their guaronteed spot. Which, of course, is a big deal in itself, so who knows what that means in the new charter environment.

How much debt Hillman has racked up running the #40 over the last couple years is likely to come out in the lawsuit. All their gear is liquidated already. So depending on how much debt they’ve already got, winning the charter from CS-LFR may not enable them to race. No gear, no money to buy more gear, no racing. But charters are worth a few million a pop. We know this because Kaufmann sold his from MWR to the #19 and #41 teams. The initial thought seems like that even if Hillman wins, he’d have to sell the charter to get out of (some) debt.

Then we get to play the game of “Who Wants to Buy a Charter?” (answer: Penske-Wood)

Fontana Round Up

Last stop on the PR approved hashtag #NASCARgoesWest. Auto Club Speedway, which since I’ve been watching NASCAR for over 25 years, I still call Fontana, has been producing fantastic races over the last few years. Even with the mediocre aero package last year, Fontana was a highlight of the season. Expectations were very high for this race. The track is wide and speeds top 200mph. Lower downforce this year means there was lots of passing. Junior had a race high 144 green flag passes. 144! Last year’s crappy aero package didn’t produce that many passes by the whole field at times.

So….

Did NASCAR’s trip to southern California live up to the expectation?

Yes. Yes it did.

johnson wins fontanaJimmie Johnson won a race that Kevin Harvick dominated. Harvick has been the guy everyone wants to beat so the fan base seems more than ok with him losing. Even though the #4 car led 145 of the race’s laps, almost 2/3 of the race, there was a lot more passing than that stat makes you believe. The wide track lets drivers find speed all over the place with multiple viable racing lines right from the green flag. Restarts can fan out four or five wide without wrecking anyone.

The big thing about this race again was tire issues. Multiple people had flat tires that hosed up decent runs. Kyle Busch lost a tire while running second. Larson had a scary solo crash after losing a right rear. The Fox coverage talked about how teams often ignore Goodyear’s recommended PSI on the tires. The tire pressure builds up as the heat builds on track, but it wears those tires out faster, especially when combined with aggressive camber (which we saw create issues last week). Frankly, I think ignoring Goodyear’s PSI rec’s is a self policing issue, like number of lug nuts on the tires during pit stops. Ignore Goodyear at your peril.

larson fontanaThe comfort for this is that NASCAR is safer than it was years ago. Larson’s crash on Sunday was the second or third of the year that I don’t think the driver would have walked away from 20 years ago. Maybe not even fifteen. Larson hit that wall at over 150mph head on. The crash looked spectacular when the SAFER barriers flung him back out on the track, but that was the barrier doing its job. He was winded, but ok. Danica’s wreck (which was totally Kahne’s fault) was similar. The in car camera showed just how close she came to flipping a barrel roll in traffic. Roof flaps for the win. I remember before cars had those and everyone winced when a car got turned around hoping it wouldn’t flip.

Crashes make the highlight reels among the mainstream media, but I only want to see highlights of passing and checkered flags. I don’t want to see our drivers in danger.

Safety rant aside, how did my predictions do?

newman practice fontanaWell RCR ran well during the front half of the race. As a high horsepower track, they tend to do well at Fontana. Dillon started on the pole. For a large chunk of the race, he was in the top ten with teammates Menard and Newman. The #31 ended up with an ok 14th place finish but pit road miscues doomed Dillon and Menard to mediocre finishes. The #27 team in particular needed a good finish after the tire issues at Phoenix gave them an 38th place finish and the whole or RCR got docked those 10 points a couple weeks ago. Dillon ended up 24th but still good enough to remain 10th in the early season points.

The Penske cars both pulled top 10 finishes. Keselowski’s was pretty quiet. Logano mixed it up at the front and had a run in with Truex to hose up the #78’s day (more on that later). Jimmie Johnson who I called out with the early advantage, well, we already know he won the race.

Shenanigans!

Fontana had a lot more shenanigans than a high speed track usually does. Expect NASCAR to drop some penalties very soon.

danica wrecks fontanaFirst, Kahne wrecked the hell out of Danica. As much as many people in the sport snark about her mediocre finishes in top shelf equipment, myself included, nothing about that wreck was her fault. Kahne hooked her car and dumped her in the wall. Now, I don’t think it was intentional, but if it wasn’t, it was definitely careless. Kahne has never been a beating-and-banging kind of driver and he’s never had a beef with Danica like some others have. I remember run ins with her and Vickers, Gilliland, and if memory is serving me correctly, Cassill. In her post-wreck interview on TV, Danica said “…the next thing I know I was getting spun up the track. I was passing him. He was behind me in the right rear. I don’t know what kind of day he was having. I just heard he was a lap down, actually. I feel bad if he felt like he was put in a position to have to be that desperate a lap down.” She was running the lead lap, he wasn’t. I think Danica hit the nail on the head with ‘desperate.’ I can’t be the only one who thinks Kahne’s job is going to be on the line real soon if he doesn’t improve.

Will Kahne get penalized… I don’t know. A big part of me wants to say no. NASCAR has made a trend of not over policing the drivers in the last few years. It’s not like Kahne pulled a pile driver like Kenseth did last year with Logano. But NASCAR has also made it clear that context matters and with two cars on different laps… eh… hard to say.

Speaking of Danica…

After the wreck, she marched up the track go give Kahne the ol’ WTF gesture. Not the first time she’s done that when pissed. But it is the first time she’s done that since NASCAR dropped a rule post-Kevin Ward that says it’s a no no. I expect a fine. Jennifer Jo Cobb got nailed with $5k in fines for doing that in a Truck race last year. Cup fines tend to be more what since they make more money to start with.

The most amusing shenanigan of the weekend comes courtesy of Cole Pern, the crew chief for Truex’s #78 team. Logano ruined their day. It didn’t quite seem like contact was made between the cars, but Logano took the air off the spoiler anyways and still managed to ruin it. Pern broke the number one rule of Twitter, don’t tweet while angry. The tweet, which as been deleted, said that Logano couldn’t see with his “squinty douchey eyes.” I find this wonderfully hilarious.

Fines? Eh, probably not. As long as you don’t trash NASCAR itself and don’t say anything bigoted, NASCAR usually lets that stuff go.

Speaking of trashing NASCAR (as the shenanigans list gets even longer), Kyle Busch expects to be in trouble. He blew a tire in the lead on the last lap of the Xfinity race, which Austin Dillon ended up winning. Well… NASCAR didn’t fly the yellow flag, which would have frozen the field and given Busch the win even though it was his tire which caused the yellow. But the yellow didn’t fly. Suarez took the lead for a straightaway and then ran out of gas handing the win the Dillon (which makes every Xfinity race won by Cup regulars this year). Busch was livid on the radio about how NASCAR got their wish to fix the race. Woah. That’s a big one.

I normally don’t care if drivers get heated or use salty language on the radio. The radio is primarily for them. Fans and TV don’t have to listen in on them even though it has become a big thing to do so. Look, I’m glad someone beat Busch in the Xfinity race. I’d rather it was an Xfinity regular, but take what you can get. But to even hint that NASCAR delayed the yellow to make it happen, whoa, that is going to get all the ire of the NASCAR front office right there. That’s big time fighting words.

Shout outs!

This post is getting real long, but I have to drop some shout outs for some good finishes. It is one of my favorite parts of these posts and we’ve got a new cast of characters to shout out this week at Fontana.

stenhouse fontanaThe first shout out goes to Rickey Stenhouse Jr. Look at that, a Roush car in the top five! This is his first top five since the spring Bristol race last year and only his fourth top five in Cup. With a 10th at Atlanta and a 12th at Vegas, it looks like RFR and Stenhouse are starting to turn the corner and live up to their potential.

Shout out number two goes to another driver with a quietly solid run. AJ Allmendinger finished in 9th place and ran solid around the top ten most of the day, except for a stretch in the middle when he was off sequence in pit stops. Every race this year for the one car JTG Daughtry Racing has been an improvement on the last for this team and scored them their first top ten since the August Pocono race last year.

Brian Scott, the rookie racing for Petty, matched his best finish in Cup with a 12th place finish. He ran a handful of races before this year in the Circle Sport But Really RCR car, but now he managed to score a good finish for himself with his full time team. The team only had three finishes better than this last year with Hornish so this is a good boost for the Petty team. If Scott can keep throwing down decent results, combined with Almirola’s constant gains, Petty Racing could be in the mix for the Chase.

Pit Stall 13… er… 12A Update

Fontana is just like Daytona in that there is no Pit Stall 13. Sad face. Harvick did have pit stall 12A which is close enough for an update, but won’t count for real in the season standings. By the way, I’m making a season standings for the 13th pit stall.

12A is in a good location at Fontana with an opening in front. Harvick had McDowell and the #95 team behind which works out for them as the #4 can be in and out before the #95 rolls in. Harvick led the most laps by far but only finished 2nd.

Charterless Update

  • 26th – #98 Cole Whitt – Ran flag to flag, finished on the lead lap. This is an excellent finish for the small team.
  • 35th – #21 Ryan Blaney – The Wood Brothers team was running ok, but mishaps cost them ten laps on the track.
  • 36th – #30 Josh Wise – Ten laps off the pace, but Wise has talked about the progress the tiny team is making.

Martinsville Up Next

NASCAR takes the Easter weekend off so all the teams have a week to stew about the Fontana shenanigans. Or, if you’re Landon Cassill, you get your wisdom teeth out.

I love short track racing. Love it love it love it. And three of the next four races are all short tracks. This is one of my favorite stretches of the year. I love when NASCAR gets to roughhouse on the track and the short tracks are all about the driver.

martinsville promoWhat do I expect from Martinsville? Well… I think things will get hairy fast. Drivers let their on track beef linger until the short tracks show up and they can shove each other around (somewhat) safely. You can’t pull a payback move at Daytona, but you can at Martinsville. So expect hard racing. Expect ugly sheet metal. Expect good racing.

Early advantage… Kyle Busch. He’s going to be racing mad after the close-but-no-cigar races this past weekend and the New Kyle Busch gets focused when he races mad unlike the Old Kyle Busch which would fall apart if things weren’t perfect. The Gibbs Toyotas are top of the class to start with and Martinsville favors the Busch brothers.

I want to see Allmendinger take his momentum to Martinsville too. He’s finished 11th or better in 3 of the last 4 races at the track. The man has been sneaky good there. With the team making gains this season, I’d like to see them continue. The driver and team both bust ass week in and week out so I like to see the small teams get the paydays to reward the work.