Michigan Round Up

Low downforce. Low downforce. Low. Down. Force.

Dear NASCAR, I cannot say it enough. Low. Down. Force.

The bigwigs from the NASCAR R+D center pegged this past weekend at Michigan and another three weeks out at Kentucky as the tracks to experiment with a different aero package. They did the same thing last year with a “high drag” package which everyone agreed was a drag. (Ha! See what I did there?) This year NASCAR went the experimental route with ridiculously low downforce.

The spoilers were cut down so much, I’ve seen more solid aero packages from hoonigan Honda Civics trolling around Rhode Island.

On the Fox broadcast, DW commented that the spoilers were cut down more than he had ever seen since he started racing forty years ago.

This is fantastic. The race was a great one.

logano wins michiganYeah, Joey Logano kind of housed the field. He led the most laps by a ridiculous margin, but it’s not exactly surprising that a Penske Ford did well at Michigan. They like to go all out for the hometown crowd. Logano led 103 more laps than 2nd place Chase Elliott. No one else led more than ten laps. The funny thing is that Logano wasn’t really keen on the super low downforce package. Guys like Edwards were super stoked to run the low downforce package. A lot of people, myself included, figured that the aero down to only 1660lbs (as opposed to 3500 just two years ago) would fall into the wheelhouse of the ex-dirt races like Larson, Stewart, and Kahne.

Speeds at Michigan topped out around 216mph on the straights and dropped to the 170s in the corners. The 40mph swing really put the race in the driver’s hands a lot more than previous years at the track. For the last couple years, races at Michigan were looking like restrictor plate races. Put the hammer down and hold on, whoever have the most oomph in the engine will win it out. That is a much different style of racing than we got this past week. I’m more than ok with that. Once the drivers got comfortable with how the cars would handle forty on track at a time, there was plenty of passing. Menard led laps after starting 32nd. Harvick finished top 5 after starting 29th. Kurt Busch spent the front half of the day in the 20s and rallied up to tenth.

So despite the dominance of the #22 team up front, the race was a good one. A very good one. I understand a single good race is not a predictor of a season of success, but I think NASCAR should take a hard look at putting a similar package in place for good.

Kyle Busch’s Summer is Not So Hot

kyle at michiganThat’s pretty close to being a weather related pun, but seriously, I’m not going there.

The defending champion has been having an abysmal few weeks. In the last four races since he won at Kansas, Busch’s best finish was a 30th at Dover. Wind at Michigan this past week dropped a lot of trash on the track and hot dog wrappers have been affecting the outcome of races for decades. Toyota engineers said the #18’s engine overheated courtesy of said trash and it blew in a fiery mess. Busch limped it into the garage but his day was done and he finished in the caboose position.

The cynical Twitternauts were saying that after putting three wins in the bank already, the Chase grid format means he can play R+D car for the rest of the season. I’m pretty cynical and there are some drivers where I might believe that… however I don’t think that would sit well with Kyle Busch. He might swing for the fences, go big or go home style, but that’s pretty much how he races anyways on a normal day. Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch hates to lose. This four week stretch at the tail end of the field is eating him up.

Buescher’s Bad Day

buescher at michiganChris Buescher went from Xfinity Champion to a Cup car that can just almost crack the top 20 on a good day. That’s pretty rough. Competition in Cup is tight. There are only 40 seats to go around and a only a dozen of those are perennial contenders. With the speculation that the Michigan aero package would fit the newer driver’s real well, Buescher was actually having a pretty solid day for the Front Row #34. He spent much of the front end of the race in the top 20 and even cracked the top 10 for a while a mid race.

His finish of 20th was actually his second best on the season so that seems good… except I don’t think he should go on twitter for a few days.

On lap 63 he got loose in the turn, as most everyone did on the day, and drifted up the track. He tagged Junior who was stuck in the back of the pack from poor qualifying. Earnhardt and the #47 of Allmendinger pancaked the wall hard enough at 180+ to ruin the day and DNF’s for both. Buescher kept going. Junior’s legions of Twitternauts rage faced. Yeah… Buescher should just not turn his computer on for a while.

Shout Outs!

tony at michiganJust one week after talking about how he’s in trouble, Tony Stewart gets the Shout Out today. This was the kind of week where Tony had his old swagger back. He was racing well and having fun, at one point he messed with his crew saying he was coming in to pit out of the blue then laughed over the radio instead.

Smoke qualified third, his best on the season, and he ran in the top ten all day. A lot of that was in the top five. The #14 got shuffled around a bit in all the cautions and restarts on the back end of the race, but he finished 7th. This is good for Tony, and this is good for NASCAR. Yes there is a youth movement going on in NASCAR not seen since the late 90s, but a jovial Tony Stewart is the best Tony Stewart.

The 7th place finish puts him 45 points off of 30th place Brian Scott. Through the first 15 races, Scott has an average finish of 27.9. Tony has a 19.4 through his seven races since he came back from injury. Let’s call it an average of a 9 point gain every week by Stewart based off the numbers we have already. There are 11 races left until the Chase. The averages are in Tony Stewart’s favor to get in the top 30 in points. With the way his car ran at Michigan, there is reason to believe that Stewart could pull off that win to qualify into the Chase. Of the 11 races left before the Chase cut off, Tony has won at 9 of the tracks. Granted, some were years ago, I was surprised to see his last Bristol win was in 2001, (Chase Elliott was in kindergarten) but he still has a W there. Darlington and Kentucky are the only ones in that stretch he hasn’t won at and Kentucky will have the same aero as Michigan. I would love to see Tony pull this off, qual for the Chase, and retire with a big shit eating grin on his face.

mcmurray mcd colorsSo that was a lengthy Shout Out/Tony Update, but I still want to flag one more Shout Out for Michigan. Jamie McMurray pulled off a stealth run at Michigan. He ran in top 15ish for the first half of the race and once the cautions started flying frequently, he fell back into the 20s. As late as lap 180, he was down in 19th place. Over the last cluster of restarts, Jamie Mac surged to the front and snuck into a 9th place finish in a classic “Where the hell did he come from?” The #1 car is sitting 14th on the Chase grid only ten points to the good above Blaney. He needs these top 10s if he wants to be in the conversation come fall.

Pit Stall 13 Update

truex at doverThe magical pit stall this week went to Martin Truex Jr in the 78 Furniture Row Team.

Truex’s finish of 12th would be good by most people’s standards, however, after the epic beatdown dished out for the Coke 600, I’m sure the team would have expected more. The fact that he did so well is a testament to his crew though. Early on in the race, Truex made contact with Bowyer’s #15 who was running a lap down. He spun but managed to not hit a thing. NASCAR penalized the team though for a flared out fender. Personally, I thought it was an iffy call since it was visibly damage from the contact, but eh, not my call, NASCAR doesn’t pay me to do it. The team rallied to a good finish and frankly, runs like that are the ones that make or break a championship season.

Charterless Update

  • 17th – #21 Ryan Blaney – Ran top 10 at times but contact with the wall dropped him back to a 17th place finish. Still in the Chase grid via points.
  • 27th – #55 Cole Whitt – Still with the swapped numbers for some reason, matched his best non-plate race and finished on the lead lap. That’s a solid day for Premium.
  • 30th – #30 Josh Wise – Ran a couple laps off the pace but not bad for a minnow car.
  • 31st – #98 Reed Sorensen – Attrition helped get them up to this spot

On to Sonoma!

Oh snap! NASCAR is going to turn left AND right next week!

The traveling circus we all love is going west to Sonoma for one of the two road course races. The sport doesn’t really have true ringers anymore when it comes to turning in both directions. Boris Said can’t get a top shelf car and compete for the win anymore when top drivers need to run every race and are much better rounded than back in the day. However…. we do get some different people in the conversation for Sonoma and The Glen than on the circle tracks.

Ambrose and Montoya are gone, but anything short of a W is unacceptable for AJ Allmendinger and the 47 team. His team’s performance has been improving across the board since he joined JTG Daughtry, but the Dinger is the closest we have to a road course ringer in modern NASCAR.

The Dinger’s NASCAR W came at The Glen though. Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch are the only active drivers with multiple wins at Sonoma. Truex won there running for MWR a couple years back and could easily win again. Still, got to throw out the advantage for Allmendinger. The JTG Daughtry team will swing for the fences and expect a home run.

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Talladega Round Up

This year’s Talladega race needs no preamble from me. The carnage is best in the driver’s words…

“I hate it. I’d much rather be at home,” Kyle Busch

“If they’re cheering for crashes, man, it’s not a good thing,” Austin Dillon “I’ve grown up in racing, watched a lot of bad crashes. I don’t think they’re true fans if they like the excitement.”

“You get butterflies in your stomach even thinking about coming here because you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Trevor Bayne

“I don’t know if really anyone in our sport knows the answer,” Keselowski

“Hell, I’m going home,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the second accident. “I’m done. We need to park the car for a while, too.”

“That’s probably the most scared [I’ve been] trying to hop out of a car with a fire on the inside,” Danica Patrick “I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. … It hit really hard.”

“All the time I’m upside down, I’m praying the whole time it lands on its wheels because I think I’ll be pretty claustrophobic if it lands on its roof.” Kenseth

“I am pretty sick and tired of speedway racing at this point,’’ Buescher

Brad Keselowski won at Talladegakeselowski wins vegas in a race where 35 of the 40 cars were involved in accidents. There were three Big Ones within the last 30 laps. The only safe place on the track was up front. And even then, that’s iffy. The first Big One was triggered within the top ten on lap 162 when Kurt Busch tagged Jimmie Johnson and hooked him up the track into Paul Menard.

The only drivers who missed the wreckfest were Keselowski (winner), Kyle Busch (2nd), Elliot (5th), Ty Dillon who took over for Stewart mid race (6th) and Trevor Bayne (10th).

Everyone else wrecked at some point in the race.

The car’s leaving NASCAR’s biggest track looked more like they were leaving Bristol. At 200mph that is a big problem.

Wrecks are part of the sport. The cars are made as safe as possible, in fact, NASCAR’s safety has come a long way in the last fifteen years. But when cars are getting airborne routinely, we are in trouble. Airborne cars became rare after the introduction of roof flaps. As a kid when I watched, any time a car got backwards on a superspeedway, there was a good chance it was going over. NASCAR introduced roof flaps and made the sport safer. They’ve added hood flaps since to allow air to escape the underside of the car better.

buescher talladegaYet for some reason, we are seeing a rash of cars going airborne. During an Xfinity race at Daytona a couple years ago, Larson went into the catch fence on the start-finish line. Last year in July’s Daytona race, Austin Dillon’s car hit the fence and was so thrashed, everyone was surprised to see him walk away from the hunk of metal. Fans were injured that day. This past Sunday, Buescher barrel rolled down the back stretch when he was hooked from behind. Kenseth was in midair heading for the infield camping areas. Harvick slid across the top of the SAFER wall like a skateboarder grinding a stair rail.

Let’s not forget all the other hard crashes.

Edwards car broke and slammed Earnhardt into the wall at full speed, destroying an already wrecked car. Danica hit the wall at close to 200mph, hard enough that she needed chest Xrays to check for broken ribs. Harvick’s skateboard move across the wall put his car on top of Stenhouse and Allmendinger. NASCAR’s tv spots like to keep showing the Talladega race from a couple years ago where Tony Stewart barrel rolled over the hood of Paul Menard.

It’s gotten to the point where I am surprised we don’t have an injury report after every single plate track.

How do we fix this? I dunno. If anyone did, it’d probably be done by now. NASCAR is in a tough spot. This is a sport where the more you know about it, the more fun it is. When you know all the little ins and outs of the sport, it makes the drama on the track better. But NASCAR needs to get eyeballs on the screens and asses in the seats first. Get them hooked so they want to learn. The sport has been gifted a lot of excellent races this year. We haven’t had a single snoozer yet, but TV ratings are still tough to come by. I agree with Austin Dillon’s rant about how if people are only cheering for the crashes, they’re not real fans, but how else can NASCAR sell the sport? Stewart’s barrel roll over Menard’s hood has been a staple of the NASCAR promo spots since it happened. I cringe every time I see it.

A less dramatic crash than all of these killed Dale Earnhardt at Daytona.

A less dramatic crash than all of these killed Adam Petty at New Hampshire.

allmendinger at talladegaThe irony here is that the first half of the race, before the wreckfest, was one of the better plate races that I’ve seen in a long while. With the possibility of rain, the drivers were racing hard and not just logging laps (as happens often in plate races). This year’s Daytona 500 was a great race without all the crashes. It’s just a crap shoot if you going to get them or not.

But, then we had the wreck fest. Cautions breed cautions, no matter the track.

I’ve seen some of the reactions out there. Ideas that, I may not think are good, but are well intentioned and dreamt up out of a love of NASCAR. Jeff Gluck of USA Today said to ditch the banking or use the infield road courses. Hamlin mentioned getting rid of the restrictor plate and let the cars spread out at 250mph. Crazy speeds but no packs.

Personally, I think NASCAR should bring back tandem racing. I have no idea why people hated it so much. I’ve always been in the minority that loved tandem racing at the plate tracks. There was much more passing and excitement than most plate races where big chunks of it involve logging laps. It would succeed in spreading the cars out more to prevent the Big One. But that might not work anymore. There’s a new generation of cars on the track since tandem racing was a thing.

And if I had all the answers, I’d be working for NASCAR, not blogging about it.

Good Runs Busted

One of the non-life threatening problems of NASCAR’s latest wreckfest, is that it hosed up a lot of good runs from people who needed them. Plate races are often where smaller teams get to shine, but this past week, they shined briefly before they were snuffed out by the big wrecks.

menard talladegaECR Engines showed up to party. Menard and Newman were both in the top ten when they were taken out. RCR affiliate Casey Mears was running well at the front end of the race before he got damage early. The other RCR affiliate, Michael McDowell in the Circle Sport-Levine car broke into the top ten a couple times. Whoops. Too bad for all of them they lost the Talladega dice roll.

Danica and Larson led laps. Cole Whitt led laps and was cruising for a top ten before the last Big One. Bobby Labonte in the GoFAS car led laps. Regan Smith made it look like all the kids at Golden Coral might get to eat for free. Not a single one of them got a finish to go with it. (Although for Cole Whitt’s Premium Motorsports, they’ll be happy with the 18th)

Logano and Kenseth… Again

After Kenseth got out of his wrecked car he said to the tv cameras “I thought we were done with that, but maybe we’re not.” Logano and Kenseth were racing for the same real estate on track when Kenseth was shoved out of line and lost a lot of positions. That put him in the back of the pack to get caught up in the mess that flipped his car.

Kenseth was caught on camera later having (angry pointing) words with Logano. Logano meh’d if off.

Frankly, from watching the race, I want to chalk that one up to “that’s racing” and tell Kenseth to deal. There was aggressive racing all day and what Logano did wasn’t any worse than how everyone else was racing. I think if Kenseth had been shoved out of line by anyone else, it would have been a complete non-issue.

Shout outs!

Usually plate racing shout outs go to the little teams with the good finishes. This week it’s more about “did you survive?”

dillon at talladegaThe best “did you survive” story of Talladega goes to Austin Dillon. The front end of his car is more duct tape than sheet metal. Aerodynamically, it imagine it was like a brick. On the last restart, he still managed to power from 17th all the way to a third place finish. If I hadn’t watched the race and you showed me the picture of that car, I would have guessed Bristol. Two wrecks. 17 pit stops for repairs. Dillon drove the wheels off that car and huge props to Slugger Labbe and crew for keeping that rolling heap in a position for that to happen.

Shout out number two goes to one of the few who survived unscathed. Tony Stewart started the race to get the official points, but on the advise of his doctors, (and holy crap, it’s a good thing he listened) he turned the car over to Ty Dillon at lap 50ish. Stewart said afterwards that Ty had been a rockstar for the team. Doubly so today. He kept the car intact which was no small feat this week, and scored 35 points for Stewart who needs every point he can to hit the top 30 and pull a Kyle Busch to get in the Chase.

My other shout out goes to Landon Cassill. He was involved with the wrecks, as was most everyone, and managed to get an 11th place finish for Front Row. I’ve said repeatedly that I want to see him in top shelf equipment. He has become an adept plate racer. Five of his seven top 15 finishes have come at restrictor plate tracks. This week ties his second best finish with his three best races all being at Talladega. Harvick had words about Cassill after the race, but Cassill laughed it off saying Harvick is too “emotional.” (I totally agree and don’t really take anything Harvick says seriously… let’s just say I don’t think I’d hang out with him). After Buescher’s barrel rolls, Front Row will be more than happy with this.

Charterless Update

  • 9th – #21 Ryan Blaney – Did well last year on plate tracks for the Wood Bros. and survived well again.
  • 12th – #55 Michael Waltrip – Waltrip took his old MWR Toyota over to Premium this time instead of BK Racing like he did for Daytona. Led some laps, had the longest most awkward spin ever, and finished well.
  • 17th – #35 David Gilliland – After missing Daytona, he did well in an extra Front Row car. Was one of the first battle scarred car to show everyone the scars didn’t matter much. Finished decent, could have done better with some luck.
  • 18th – #98 Cole Whitt – Look at this, all the Charterless in the top 18. Whitt was doing even better until he was caught up in the final Big One. Spent time in the top ten and led a lap.
  • DNQ – #30 Josh Wise – I’m sure he would have rather been racing than not, but after the mess last Sunday, maybe he was in the best position… home with his kids.

On to Kansas

There’s no place like home. I couldn’t resist, but I think we can breathe a sigh of relief to head back to a sane track.

It’s a cookie cutter mile and a half so expect the power teams to show us all why they’re the power teams. I’ll put my money on the Gibbs cars. They are the team to beat until they show us otherwise. Jimmie Johnson has the best driver rating on the track. I expect Penske to ride some momentum and Kenseth to be all pissy about Logano. Should be a fun race where we don’t have to worry about people not walking away from their cars.

Rookie of the Year

The NASCAR Rookie of the Year completion can be an odd thing. A driver’s rookie year doesn’t always predicate a career of success. Some of the sports biggest names missed out on a RotY title. Jimmie Johnson. Mark Martin. Terry Labonte. Dale Jr.

Remember guys like Andy Lally, Kevin Conway, and Stephen Leicht? They all won. There was a severe dry spell of rookie drivers between Joey Logono and Rickey Stenhouse Jr.

However, I feel that the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year competition is slated to be one of the best in years. The sport has been seeing a generational shift in the last couple years and it is intensifying this year. Let’s take a look at the candidate who have been announced for this year’s rookie campaign…

Ryan_Blaney_Road_America_2015-wikipedia
R. Blaney via Wikipedia

Ryan Blaney

Blaney ran part time in Sprint Cup last year for the Wood Brothers. He’s been working closely with Penske and Keselowski in the lower tiers. There is a lot to be glad about with Blaney running for RotY this year. I was worried he was going to get Trevor Bayne’d and told he ran too many races to qualify as a rookie. The Wood Brothers have formed an alliance with Penske now and they’ve got the funding to run a full season for the first time in years. This is fantastic for one of the oldest teams in the sport and it’s a fantastic opportunity for Blaney. He picked up a couple top tens last year, including having a shot for the win at Talladega in May. The improving fortunes for the Wood Brothers are only going to mean improving fortunes for Blaney. He’s going to be strong at the plate tracks and I won’t be surprised if he snags a win this year.

Chris_Buescher-wikipedia
C. Buescher via Wikipedia

Chris Buescher

Buescher is the reigning Xfinity champion and following along the path that Stenhouse and Dillon have done recently by jumping up to Cup. Buescher is making the move with Front Row Motorsports and say what you will about the recent performance of Roush or RCR, FRM does not have the same level of resources. This is a team that has survived as a multi car operation for years, and that is no small feat in NASCAR, so I do not want to diminish their success. Hopefully they will be able to take another step forward with the new talent behind the wheel and a proper technical alliance with Roush. Buescher is still a developmental driver for Roush so the timing of his promotion to Cup and the technical alliance make sense. Roush just didn’t have any available seats for Buescher and wanted to keep him in Ford stable. Here’s hoping it doesn’t hold back Buescher. FRM does have a plate win from a couple years ago so I do expect Buescher to do well at Daytona / Talladega as a minimum.

Jeffrey_Earnhardt_2014_wiki
J. Earnhardt via Wikipedia

Jeffery Earnhardt

NASCAR finally has two Earnhardts that will be competing on a regular basis again. There’s a certain segment of the fan base that’s going to get stoked about that. However, this Earnhardt is not running the same level of equipment that his uncle and grandfather have. The Go FAS Racing #32 was driven by committee last year, including two starts for Earnhardt (including the September NH race I was at). The best finish for the team was a 23rd at Talladega with Bobby Labonte at the wheel. The Earnhardt name should attract more sponsors to the team and the team’s can make some progress from where they are. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, plate tracks are the great equalizer and Bobby Labonte is going to still drive the car for those races.

Chase_Elliott_Road_America_2015-wiki
C. Elliot via Wikipedia

Chase Elliot

NASCAR has been chomping at the bit for this for years now. Elliot is the most heralded second generation driver since Dale Jr started driving full time in 2000. He’s taking over one of the most storied rides in NASCAR history now that Jeff Gordon has retired. Love them or hate them, Hendrick cars set the bar as far as performance goes. If you’ve ever seen Elliot speak in any tv interviews, he handles himself like someone far more mature than someone who is only 20 years old. I definitely do not think the pressure is going to get to him. I think there are a lot of fans that will be disappointed, though, if he does not win a race this year. I think that is an unfair expectation, even with his pedigree. Unless the Chevrolets drop the ball across the board, Elliot should be competitive. I even think that there is a good chance he will out perform his teammate Kasey Kahne. I think it is more realistic to expect Elliot to have a similar trajectory in Cup as Larson and Dillon (whom I expect to both score wins this year).

Brian_Scott_Road_America_2015-wiki
B. Scott via Wikipedia

Brian Scott

Scott is a longtime Xfinity racer and actually the oldest Cup rookie this year at 28. He’s been running for RCR in the second tier series and as the unofficial fourth RCR Cup car with their arrangement with Circle Sport in the #33. He’s switching over to Fords and taking over Hornish’s renumbered car with Petty’s team. Scott is going to take guff this year because he has a built in sponsor, Shore Lodge, which is owned by his family along with some grocery store out west that I’ve never heard of on the East Coast. Look, NASCAR can be as financially responsible as taking a boat load of money and sinking it out in the Atlantic. It takes money to run. If you have money and no talent, you’re just going to run out of money fast. If you have talent and no money, you still behind the 8-ball. So what Brian Scott has a built in sponsor? It’s not like he’s a slouch. Scott has five consecutive years in a row of top ten points finishes in Xfinity. In ten Cup races last year, he pulled off three top 15’s and would have had better numbers at the plate tracks if not for wrecks. Does he have the pedigree of Elliot? No, but he will hold his own just fine. Richard Petty Motorsports are making great strides the last couple years, just look at Almirola. I don’t quite think Scott will be challenging for wins, but I think he can pull off solid results and work his way into competition along with RPM as a whole.

Overall

I think that the stake of 2016’s Rookie of the Year battle mirrors the state of the sport. NASCAR is changing the guard. It happens. This is a good thing. It’s healthy. It happened in the 90s when Jeff Gordon helped bring the sport outside of a southern niche. This is a very strong rookie class. Blaney and Elliot should be able to compete for wins and a spot in the Chase. Scott and Buescher should have some strong showings. Even Earnhardt running with the minnow team is going to improve that team’s fortunes and be able to build off of something. I think that all five of these rookies should have some staying power in the sport and it’s been a while since a whole rookie class had that feel. 2007 was the last year which had five rookies become regular contenders (Montoya, Menard, Ragan, Reutimann, Allmendinger). Despite all the doom and gloom of tracks downsizing grandstands and tv ratings and such, this rookie class signals to me the sport will be just fine.

Prediction

Conventional wisdom says Elliot. I’m going to buck the trend.

  1. Blaney
  2. Elliot
  3. Scott
  4. Buescher
  5. Earnhardt