Speedweeks – Clash and Pole Day

NASCAR had to wait half a day to get the seasons started thanks to that pesky Florida weather. I’m sure there are plenty of traditionalist who were happy to see the Clash, back with its preferred name, during the day, back at its preferred time (if only accidentally). NASCAR can throw down the Clash whenever it wants as long as we can get a good show.

The end of the race did not disappoint.

logono-wins-17-clashLogano won the Clash with a last lap pass thanks to Keselowski and Hamlin wrecking. Really the whole Clash came down to Penske vs Gibbs. Those two teams are the powerhouses of Monster Cup right now. Yeah, Jimmie won the championship last year, but he had a very un-Jimmie-like season with a lot more ups and downs. Hendrick is close behind in third and would be right there if Kahne was running better.

The Clash looked like it was going to be Hamlin’s to own. Again. The four Gibbs cars got nose to tail and were housing the field. Four fast cars are tough to beat. Kyle Busch, running at the tail of the Gibbs train, would be the most likely to throw down with his own teammates at the end, but no way he could have gotten a run on Hamlin by his lonesome with Suarez and Kenseth behind the 11.

Fortunately for everyone, Penske was there. Keselowski was not going to coast around and let that Gibbs train happen. Things like that are why he is one of the best things to happen to NASCAR. It was a very Dale Earnhardt like bull rush up there to break up the Gibbs train and set up the nice finish.

So Logano got the win. The big teams showed up to play. None of these things are surprising. What else did we learn from the Clash?

dillon-at-17-clashAustin Dillon showed up to race. RCR hasn’t won in a long time (Going back to when Harvick was still on the team) but they tend to finish a little better on plate tracks. Dillon seemed to will his car forward more than once without help. He couldn’t make it up front without dance partners though. His qualifying time was pretty pedestrian later that day, but Newman and Ty (running ECR engines on the Germain team) did well. A couple tweaks and someone to run with and I like to think RCR can be a factor in the 500. We’ll have to see how they run with more cars on the field during the Duals.

bowman-at-clashAlex Bowman is solidifying my opinion that Dale Jr is grooming him to be his hand picked replacement when he finally does retire (hopefully on his own terms). The chaos at the end of the race let him sneak up into a third place finish. He did it without much in the way of drafting help since Jimmie wrecked out and Chase Elliot wasn’t around. Even on Bowman’s BK Racing days, I always thought he outdrove the equipment he had. He’s done very well when he’s been given the top shelf equipment. It’s very unfortunate that he can’t get into a good car full time already.

In a shocking development (sarcasm only mild), Danica actually took advantage of the Danica Rule. Eligibility for the Class was tweaked a couple years ago to say any past Daytona 500 pole winners got in if they didn’t hit any of the other check boxes. The end of race chaos let her sneak into a fourth place finish. So a top five finish in a field of seventeen cars isn’t super impressive, but any time a driver mired in the bottom half week in and week out can sniff the front of the field, it’s positive. This is definitely a put up or shut up year for Danica, and with her sponsor woes, up front TV time is a must.

elliot-dale-jr-17-daytona-pole-dayAfter the Clash rolled up, Pole Day time trials hit the track that afternoon. Showing Gibbs and Penske not to forget about the Chevys, Hendrick swept the front row with Chase Elliot getting back to back Daytona 500 poles and Junior hitting second in his first track action after injury. Kahne even showed up to play, hitting the second round and qualifying eighth fastest.

This year’s rookie class has high expectations. After running well in the Gibbs freight train in the Clash, Suarez managed an okay 15th on time. Erik Jones with the new Furniture Row car could only hit 20th. The only rookie to make it to the second round of qualifying was Ty Dillon who ended up with a 12th place time. Germain Racing this year might as well be another RCR team, the same way that Furniture Row is practically an extension of Gibbs. Good on Ty and Germain Racing for getting a good run in qualifying, but it’s got to be frustrating to RCR that the technical alliance teams keep out performing them. Newman made a top ten time but Menard and brother Austin were both down in the 20s.

Single car runs at Daytona only mean so much though. Things will change a lot during the Can-Ams. (Hey look! I’m finally remembering to call them the correct name and not the Twin 125s)

What am I watching for on the Can-Am Duals this week? The big teams are there to party but that’s not the interesting part for me. The health of the sport is reflected in the health of the little teams so the qualifying bubble is what I want to see.

There are six charterless teams attempting to qualify for the 500 this year. The two fastest on time are guaranteed a spot. Long time Xfinity racer Brendan Gaughan (remember he ran a full Cup rookie season back in 04) in the part time Beard Motorsports #75 is locked in to his second Daytona 500. Tommy Baldwin Racing sold off their charter to Levine Family Racing as part of the off season charter dance, so the 7 car is running as a part time open team. Elliot Saddler locked the car in on Sunday for his 14th Daytona 500, but his first since 2012 as a spare RCR car.

Who’s got to race in?

Reed Sorensen in the Premium Motorsports #55. Premium got a charter when HScott shut down, but they’re using it on the #15 that Michael Waltrip is running his last race in. That team was pretty consistant about showing up and making the show last year with two open cars so I think they will be ok to make the show.

kennington-daytonaDJ Kennington in the part time Gaunt Brothers Racing #96. Kennington, from NASCAR’s cousins to the north in the Canadian Pinty’s Series, is slated to run the restrictor plate tracks. This team isn’t completely out of nowhere even though it is brand new. The owners also build engines as Triad Racing Technologies supplying the non-factory supported Toyotas.

Corie LaJoie in the BK Racing #83. BK downsized to just one charter and will run this car as a full time open team. It will be driven by committee. LaJoie is a second generation racer who’s had a couple starts in Cup back in ’14 and has been picking up some races in Xfinity. He’s looking for his first 500 and only his second start on the track in any series. This might be a tough hill to climb but he does have his teammate in the same Dual and they start nose to tail (albeit at the caboose).

t-hill-daytonaTimmy Hill in the Rick Ware Racing #51. This team is jumping up to Cup from Xfinity and will be racing by committee. They plan to run the whole season but Daytona is going to be a tough bill. The 51 car ran a whole half mile per hour slower than Jeffery Earnhardt’s in the Circle Sport’s Partnership of the Year car.

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Daytona 500 Roundup

The 2016 Daytona 500 is in the books and damn, we got a good one for lots of reason.

The obvious? Denny Hamlin won the closest Daytona 500 in history.

Just look at that finish!

daytona 500 finish

Not only was it the closest Daytona 500 finish, according to Jayski, there have only been six finishes in NASCAR closer than that one. (The closest being Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch in 2003)

Five hundred miles and the checkered flag comes down to about four inches.

But it’s easy to forget about the other 199 laps when that last one was pretty sweet like that. The whole race was a good one from flag to flag. After the lackluster Can-Am (plus big crash at the end), I was worried the cars would hook up nose to tail and start freight training laps. I get that not every race is going to be a classic for the ages, but logging laps via freight train isn’t the best way to get eyes on the race. I am soooo glad that wasn’t the case with this race. Whatever aero package NASCAR has for the plate tracks needs to stay exactly the same. While the race still skewed towards “leader controlled” there was never any huge breakaway. I think the biggest one was about eleven cars in mid race and they didn’t stay ahead that long before the rest of the pack reeled them in. This is a good thing. This is the platonic ideal of a restrictor plate race. NASCAR…. don’t touch a thing! Keep this package!

Now of course, it wouldn’t be a NASCAR race without the Let’s Never Change Cadre whining about something. I had thought that the “Grrr Toyota isn’t ‘merican!” crowd faded away into well deserved obscurity with their tin foil hats long ago. Toyota’s been in the sport for ten years. Pretty sure they’re committed while American brands have faded away from the sport. I guess some of the Let’s Never Change Cadre was going on twitter (huh, they’re ok with *that*… prolly only for Junior/Stewart/Danica) about how it was a fix or some crud like that. Really? Did you even watch the race? Four teammates/affiliates made a drafting block and outran everyone else. Swap Gibbs cars for Hendrick/Hass and they don’t whine. Get over yourselves Let’s Never Change Cadre. You’re whining is hurting our sport.

Also, you figured out twitter, learn to use google. Toyota is more “American made” than anything else.

Also, my Subaru is cooler than the Toyotas or the ‘Merican street cars.

Sorry for that rant. The Let’s Never Change Cadre bugs me. On to happy things about happy racing!

If this Daytona 500 is a preview of things to come for the whole season, the NASCAR world is in for a treat this year.

How’d my predictions do?

Well, I already said that the race was way more exciting than I thought it would be. More than ok being wrong about that one.

jr pitstop daytonaPrediction: Junior for the win….. Result: Swing and a miss

Earnhardt was one of the many during Speedweeks talking about how the plates races have become “leader controlled.” Not hard to see that, especially when Junior and his spotter TJ Majors have the #88 in the front. Those two work together better than anyone in the field. Listen to the constant stream of information that Majors gives Earnhardt and it’s easy to tell how they can keep the car bouncing between lanes to ride the push from the cars behind them.

The problem for Earnhardt is that his car drove like a dump truck once he was in traffic. He pushed it too hard and the car got away from him. Same kind of wreck happened to Chase Elliot. Handling played a bigger factor than it has in the past due to the wind and the hot weather. The worst part for Earnhardt is his favorite car is heading to the scrap bin.

Prediction: The Gibbs cars would be Earnhardt’s main competition… Result: Home run there

Ok, well, Earnhardt wasn’t up front to be in competition, but most of the race was dominated by Hamlin, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr in the Gibbs aligned Furniture Row car. They formed up a drafting block that kept a pretty solid lock on the top spots most of the race. Edwards was riding in the back for much of the race, not sure how much was intentional. He got a mess of right front damage during one of the wrecks but kept the lead lap and put it back together with duct tape and hope. Fox’s bumper cams showed that hunk of fender flapping in the wind and I was surprised it stayed on. Edwards taking that car and managing fifth is one of the most impressive feats of the race lost in the chatter of the epic finish.

Prediction: Blaney will be just fine… Results: Spot on

Plate races being what they are, Blaney in the Wood Brother’s #21 did get shuffled back at the end. He was scored with the 19th place finish but that doesn’t really tell the story of his race. The Penske affiliate out performed Keselowski, who never really made any noise during the race. Logano picked up at the end to be a factor while Blaney faded in the end, but the #21 was mixing it up in or near the top ten for most of the race. I don’t think being charterless will hurt the team on the track (though, it will hurt their wallet).

r smith at daytonaShout out to the little teams!

One of my favorite parts of plate racing is seeing the little teams throw it all out on the track and come home with a finish. I predicted someone would (though, I called DiBenedetto who wrecked out).

This year, the little team with the big finish was Tommy Baldwin Racing and Regan Smith in the #7 car. The Golden Coral/Toy State car showed up at the end of the race for an 8th place finish. This is the teams second best finish ever since 2009 and only their third top ten. Just last year, TBR DNQ’d for the 500 and ran six races unsponsored. This team is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the charter system and I find it fantastic to see all the hard work Baldwin had made in the last few years show some success.

mcdowell at daytona 59I also want to throw a shout out to Michael McDowell and Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing’s second car. With Ty Dillon using the chartered #95 as the “unofficial” fourth RCR car, McDowell had to get the #59 in charterless. He made the 500, had some pit road drama with Stenhouse, and managed to roll in 15th. That’s a very solid finish for CSLFR. Plate tracks are still a great equalizer, even if they aren’t as much as they used to be. Circle Sport has gotten some good finishes out of the being the unofficial 4th RCR car. It’s nice to see the merged team take their actual RCR alliance and get a good finish for themselves out of it.

The Charterless

  • #59 McDowell – 15th place finish
  • #21 Blaney – 19th place finish
  • #26 Richardson – 38th place finish
  • #93 DiBenedetto – 40th place finish

I talked about McDowell and Blaney already. They had good races, even if Blaney’s finish was a bit lower than his performance. Shrug that off as “eh, plate racing.”

I had picked DiBenedetto as the rep of the little teams and instead, he wrecked with #34 Chris Buscher mid race. It was a hard wreck. It took a while for him to get out of the car and he said on TV later that it knocked the wind out of him. Yay SAFER barriers! 190mph head on hit and just a bit winded? Sport’s come a long way.

BK Racing had a rough day with Richardson losing his engine and finishing 38th to boot. Somewhat ironic that the three drivers in their first Daytona 500 finished 38th, 39th and 40th.

Richardson doesn’t have anymore races on tap right now, so it’s back to the ranch in Texas. DiBenedetto and McDowell both get to run with charters next week since Michael Waltrip goes back to the TV booth until Talladega and word on the street is Ty Dillon is going to run the #14 next week.

On to Atlanta!

Success, or lack there of, at Daytona can only really predict performance at Daytona or Talladega. Sometimes not even then. So with just the one race under our belt in the 2016 season, there’s not much to go by for the mile and a half track.

kyle at daytonaBut we do know that NASCAR is going with the low down force aero package now for all the non-plate tracks. After the shows we got last year for Darlington and Kentucky, I think we are in for a good season. So to make any predictions for Atlanta, we’ve got to look at the drivers who favor looser cars, often one in the same as the drivers who came from dirt.

Johnson, Larson, Kahne (if he’s going to decide to show up this year), the Busch brothers, Keselowski. Too bad Stewart and Jeff Gordon aren’t running right now. Until we see otherwise, I am going to call these drivers as the having the leg up on mile and a halfs.

Can-Am Duels

Can-Am_Duel_logoWhat did we learn from the Can-Am Duels?

Well, first of all, I learned how to spell Duel.

I thought this whole time it was Dual, as in two of them, not Duel, as in a face off. Spellcheck doesn’t help you when you type in a different word. Do the words Duel and Dual sound different to people with a southern accent? My Connecticut accent has them sounding the same combined with not being able to spell worth a damn meant I was wrong for a very long time.

What did we learn about the Daytona 500?

Well, we learned that really, when you get down to it, all that changes really just stays the same.

Daytona and Talladega are not quite the crapshoot that they used to be. The Let’s Never Change Cadre would be up in arms about that, except it’s their favorites that have become safe bets on plate tracks.

dale jr at daytonaDale Jr won his Duel. Kyle Busch won his. The Gibbs cars showed up to throw down and the Hendricks were their main competition. Keselowski got shuffled back in the pack, but Penske teammate Logano and affiliate Blaney were throwing down in the end. Roush, decent enough finishes all around but you’d have to look up the results afterwards because they made no real noise during the race. At this point, that doesn’t surprise anyone. RCR and affiliates were hot and cold. The Dillons ran well enough for some TV time. Mears made some waves til he ran out of gas. Menard and Newman ran strong but konked out with engine issues. McMurray and Larson were willing to dance but not a huge factor. The little teams showed some spark but that was all.

Copy and paste that general sentiment for all the plate races recently.

can-am damageThere was a lot of freight train racing with a big mess at the end. Kenseth, Truex, Johnson, Allmendinger, and Scott are all heading to back up cars for the 500. Kurt Busch took a hard hit but kept going across the finish line and the team expects to repair the car.

The results were mostly as expected.

And the Let’s Never Change Cadre is happy again.

I know I’m in the unpopular minority that loved tandem racing on the plate tracks. Eighty lead changes and constant passing, yet for some reason people cried “TRADITION!” and it got tossed by the wayside. The Unlimited and the Duels are the prelude to the big show. The Daytona 500 has all the pomp and circumstance as the marquis event in the sport. We’re all excited to see a proper race after the off season.

But freight train racing at our biggest event of the year is not how NASCAR is going to grow. The Ragan/Gilliland run from 10th to 1st at Talladega in 2013 was one of the best plate races in years. Not every race is going to turn into a classic, I get that, but the tandem racing puts on fantastic racing. That’s how you grow the sport.

Tangent aside.

busch wins can-amHere’s what we really learned (tho we knew these things before the Can-Ams)…

  • Dale Jr is the favorite
  • The Gibbs cars will be his competition
  • Blaney is going to be just fine

 

The Charterless

The Duels are not like back in the day when a dozen cars might miss the show. There were eight charterless cars gunning for four spots. No matter what happened, Blaney and DiBenedetto were going to be in by speed, but if either ended up being the highest finisher in their Duel, then the next fastest on speed would be in, McDowell and Richardson, both driving extra rides for their teams. So there was a lot less drama than in the past, but McDowell, talking to Ryan McGee on ESPN, said it was a lot more intense since “the margin of error was zero.” Beat the other guys, you’re in.

So. Blaney. He’s going to be just fine. I figured that even before Speedweeks considering the speed and results he showed last year in the limited schedule. His Wood Brothers Ford actually had a loose wheel during his Duel, lost a lap, got it back and managed to finish third.

McDowell, running the second CSLFR car with Ty Dillon in the #95, finished 14th, beating out Wise in the TMG #30 and Cole Whitt in the #98, who spun and retired out with damage.

In the second Duel, DiBenedetto finished in 9th with a similar situation as Blaney. He was the fastest on speed, beat out the other charterless, so the other open spot fell back to #26 Richardson, his BK Racing teammate running another extra car for the team. It looks a little odd though, because Gilliland in the extra Front Row car actually had a better finishing position, but it goes highest finisher and then fastest speed. Richardson had better speed than Gilliland so that’s the end of that.

richardson dibenedetto can-amI think it is super worth noting that BK Racing managed to get four cars in the Daytona 500 with only two charters. For a small team, that is a huge accomplishment. For people who keep all their eyes on the front of the track in NASCAR, it could be easy to miss all the improvement that this little team is doing just to survive ever since they took over the old Red Bull Racing. They sunk a lot of money into buying up a bunch of the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas so they get to run with some proper TRD engines. They’re stepping up their game. Four cars in the show is going to hand out a solid pay day for BK.

One of the great things about the Daytona 500 is talking to those guys who get to make their first show. It was a pleasure to see DiBenedetto and Richardson, a longtime Xfinity racer, get into the 500.

The Feels

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Junior fan or not, NASCAR collectively had some feels when he won a race at Daytona on Feb 18th.

daytona can-am 2Daytona Predictions

What do I think will happen during the 2016 Daytona 500?

Winner – Junior. His vocal fan base will go nuts. It will be a great accomplishment for him. Said happy fan base will let the NASCAR officials go “Everything’s ok” no matter how the other 199 laps turn out. Junior, meanwhile, will have to park his favorite car (named Amelia) in the museum for a year and he won’t have it available to run for the other three plate tracks which may come back to haunt him later in the season.

As for the rest of the field? Well, copy and paste my summary of the Can-Ams. Gibbs, Hendrick, solid. RCR, hot and cold. Roush, decent enough. RPM, constantly improving but not quite there yet.

Someone from a little team is likely to pull off a top 10, but not threaten for the win. Cassill could do it, his best finishes are all at plate tracks and he’s played that role before. Josh Wise did it at Talladega last year but he missed the show and Phil Parsons Motorsports doesn’t exist anymore. Labonte in the Go FAS #32 might get that shot as the wily veteran. David Ragan could do the same for BK Racing. If I had to pick one guy who could pull it off though, I’m gonna call DiBenedetto’s name here. Solid finish in his Duel and showed more speed than a lot of the other minnows.

The number one prediction that I can guarantee…

Truex and Vickers running with the same sponsor is going to be confusing as hell.

two bass pros