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.

Dover Round Up

There is a theme to NASCAR in 2016.

Our theme is epic finishes.

Dover provided this year. Holy moly Dover provided.

The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone expected an epic race out of Dover. I know I expected Jimmie Johnson to roll in and house everyone. Or Harvick. The Big Four teams, Gibbs in particular, have been wicked dominant this year. I really expected a runaway race here and for the opening of the day at Dover, that’s exactly what we got. Clean air meant a lot out front.

Then the track took rubber and the racing grooves opened up.

kenseth wins doverKenseth had to work hard to earn his win this week. I thought Kyle Larson was going to score his first win. Him and Chase Elliot were flying around the track. The ironic part is that if Larson hadn’t needed to hold off Chase, I think he would have had the time to wear Kenseth down. The 20 was slipping and sliding all over the place by the closing laps. Larson was too, but that’s the way he likes it, rim riding around the Harry Gant Lane. He just ran out of time there at the end.

I really did think Larson had him at the end too. Kenseth is a crafty veteran though. Larson could have used the chrome horn too. No one would have blamed him for going all out to score his first win. But Larson made it a point to race clean. “You can see, there’s some drama in the sport, and it takes drivers years to get over it. … I try to race everybody with respect,” he said after the race. Good on Larson for taking the high road. (Also sounds like a bit of a backhanded dig there)

Larson v Kenseth made for a fantastic ending but that wasn’t the craziest part of the race.

IMG_20160515_163037On a lap 355 restart during a race where track position was a big deal, Jimmie Johnson had the outside lane. The lane had been working best most of the day. Truex was behind him having gamed the run off pit road to get the outside lane. The 78 car was wicked fast and it was shaping up to be a showdown between Truex and Johnson. When the green flag dropped, Johnson’s transmission didn’t click. The thing got stuck in neutral. Truex got sandwhiched. The whole lot of them spun out in front of the field. Carnage. Took out a lot of the best cars on the track. Officially eighteen cars were involved, just shy of half the field. More than a couple were down for the count. You don’t think of Dover when you think of “The Big One.”

Youth Shows Up

Chase_Elliott_Road_America_2015-wikiSo I talked about Larson and Chase Elliott but they’re not the only young guys to show up with a strong race at Dover. Take a look of the ages of the top ten. Larson is 23. Elliott is 20. Blaney is 22. Trevor Bayne is 25 and finally starting to live up to his potential. Sometimes people get worried about the future of NASCAR. When I see results like that, I won’t. Add in Austin Dillon, who got crunched by the Monster Mile earlier on with some busted parts, there are five guys who are going to end up in the winner’s circle. Five guys who can carry the sport onward. I love that these guys are getting finishes to go with all the promise they came into Cup with.

Truex’s Doom and Gloom

truex at doverTruex just can’t catch a break. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned this in 2016. Read that above paragraph. Truex was just the innocent bystander in that wreck. Green flag drops, you gotta go. That’s what he did. The red flag to clean up the big mess was advantageous though. Teams aren’t allowed to touch the cars, but everyone rolls into town with pre-fabbed bumpers and fenders. The Furniture Row team preassembled the new body work and strapped it all down on the car to get the aero functioning again. I get the sense they pretty much hoped for the best with all the internal stuff. They battled back. The car was fast and Truex managed to pull off a ninth place finish.

So I guess this doubles as a Shout Out too.

The Rest of the Shout Outs

Shout out number one… Danica!

danica at doverThat’s right. Giving a shout out to Danica. She dodged the big mess when Johnson’s transmission decided it didn’t feel like working anymore. I snark that she’s not living up to her potential and that someone else should get a shot in that top shelf equipment… and I stand by that. But credit where credit is due. This day at Dover was one where survival was not easy to come by. Many good cars got taken out and success in NASCAR is often determined by jumping at the opportunities that show up. Danica jumped. She actually spent the first two thirds of the race mired a lap off the pace in the 30s and high 20s. Once the cautions started showing up, she got her lap back and when half the field went CRUNCH into the wall, she jumped a lot of positions. A thirteenth place finish on a day like this isn’t anything to scoff at. It’s her best finish of the year and the best since the spring Bristol race of last year.

Shout out number two goes to The Man with the Checkbook.

menard at doverMr. Paul “Fear the Beard” Menard got a much needed decent finish with an 11th place at Dover. When you point your way into the Chase, a string of bad luck can kill off your whole season, something Menard had happen to him in years past with a Truex-style raincloud of doom following him around in the middle of 2014 to hose up his chance at the post season that year. Menard was the caboose last week at Kansas and had two 26th and a 38th already this year. It’s hard to soak up races like that when you’re living and dying by the top 15. Personally, I think RCR is improving as a whole this year even if not all the finishes are showing it. Menard has Michigan, Indy (where he’s won), and Daytona circled as places where the Neon Rocket can roll in and contend for the win. The trick is to keep up the good finishes in the mean time.

Pit Stall 13 Update

kahne inspection at vegasRolling in to the amazing 13th pit stall at Dover was Kasey Kahne. Despite starting well in 11th, he faded fast and spent a lot of the race rolling around midpack in the teens and low 20s. Kahne however, was on the inside lane when the Big One showed up to Dover. He skirted all the mess that happened up in the high line and snuck in with a fourth place finish. That’s good enough for third in the Pit Stall 13 Standings.

Kahne’s performance came with a kicker though. Monday morning announcement over the wire service said the #5 car failed post race laser inspection. NASCAR packed up the car to the R+D center. No word yet on any penalties or whathaveyou. Wait and see on this one.

Charterless Update

  • 8th – #21 Ryan Blaney – Took a decent midpack car and danced into the top ten towards the end of the race
  • 27th – #98 Cole Whitt – The car DNF’d near the end, but survived longer than a lot of people at Dover
  • 36th – #30 Josh Wise – The TMG car had mechanical issues a couple times, finished running though
  • 38th – #55 Reed Sorensen – Crashed out at lap 214, actually had a sponsor again though.

All Star Weekend Up Next

NASCAR heads home for real this time, no Kansas pun involved. The All Star Weekend hits Charlotte and all the glory and shenanigans that come with it. The format has been tweaked … again. I don’t even know what’s going on with it. I’ve heard that NASCAR is trying a new aero package as an experiment and that there’s some complicated thing involving pit stops that was proposed by Keslowski at the Driver’s Council. I tend to not pay attention until I turn it on and see what’s going on. It’s too tough to keep track of.

Frankly, I would love to see the All Star Race rotate locations. Maybe even hit up places that Cup doesn’t normally go to. How awesome would it be to see the Cup guys tear it up at Eldora in a race for money and glory? That would have the potential to be the best thing ever. EVER.

I do get why NASCAR keeps it in Charlotte. Old timers whine about tradition, and there are about five races where I’ll give them that. Really, I think having two weeks at home is the real treat for the NASCAR traveling circus. Except for the guys in Furniture Row being based out of Denver and not Charlotte like everyone else. The sport has three off weekends a year and it’s going down to two next year. Hanging out at home in Charlotte is a big bonus for everyone and I can live with that even if I think the All Star Race would benefit by moving around.

As for what to expect?

Well I seriously hope that someone beats Danica in the fan vote. Josh Wise getting in with the DogeCar was one of the best things ever. I stand by my statements that NASCAR needs internet nerds as fans and poo-pooing the Reddit community that supported Josh Wise and his underdog (under-doge) team was a bad move. Anyways. The fans get to vote in two people this year. The top five are currently Danica, Blaney, Elliott, Larson, and DiBenedetto.

dibenedetto at bristolDanica is kind of a duh to get in. Honestly, I have no idea who will get the other spot. Blaney, Elliot and Larson clearly represent the future of the sport. DiBenedetto is a guy I think out drives the equipment he has and after his run at Bristol and the DiBurrito campaign, he might get some of the Reddit crowd on his side. If I had to pick one to throw down money on, I think I’d have to go with Elliott. He’s getting good finishes and has the second generation built in fans.

I also applaud NASCAR letting in three winners from the segments into the main show. I’ll call on Blaney, Larson and Elliott all as good shots to get in via segment wins. Could leave the door open to DiBurrito.