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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Speedweeks Round Up

Heading into the Don’t-They-Make-Those-Backward-Trike-Motorcycles Twin 125s.. or are they Duels now? Heading into the Gaterade Twin 125s, ‘cause I’m old school like that, the biggest news of the week is PR gold for NASCAR.

Elliot at DaytonaChase Elliot, the rookie, the young guy stepping into the #24, the heir to Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, scored the pole position for the Daytona 500. He was one of only two cars to top 195mph and will share the front row for the race (and number one starting spots in the Duels).

NASCAR has had a pretty solid string of PR wins with the Daytona pole. Chase this year. Last year Jeff Gordon scored it with his final 500. Austin Dillon scored the pole as a rookie in 2014 and the return of the #3 to NASCAR. Danica won the pole the year prior.

Of course, Dillon and Patrick haven’t won a race yet. Guys like Gilliland and Jeff Green and Mike Skinner and Loy Allen Jr have won the pole at Daytona and never won races so it’s not always an indicator of success. Chase Elliot himself said [quote from Elliot gets the pole article] “Nothing special I did to earn it. It’s about those guys, the kind of car they brought to the race track. That’s the biggest thing I look at.”

Plate track qualifying is all about putting the hammer down and seeing how much your crew put into your machine so it’s nice to see a young guy like Elliot have a very mature perspective about it.

It’s still an accomplishment that should be celebrated because despite what outsiders say about our sport, NASCAR is a team sport.

Hamlin wins the Unlimited

Hamlin at DaytonaI still want to call it the Clash, but whatev,#11 Hamlin won the exhibition race last Saturday followed by #22 Logano, #27 Paul “There was a smile under that beard all along” Menard, #42 Larson and #13 Mears.

The race got messy, as plate races are wont to do, so out of the 25 cars, only 15 were rolling at the finish and not all of them on the lead lap. It isn’t a points race and what since plate races are such a gamble anyways, everyone wants to win (or they wouldn’t be race car drivers) but it does get treated as an extended practice. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really have any long winded thoughts about the Unlimited. It’s fun to finally get to watch NASCAR again after the off season. They let in a lot of cars to guarantee the 25 people, which… eh… When the sport first did that a lot of the cynics, myself included, called it the Danica Rule, but whatever. The head honchos want 25 cars, it’s not like we’re gonna skip watching because there are more cars than there used to be.

Stewart’s Fill In

VickersBrian Vickers got tapped to run the 500 for Tony Stewart in the 14 and subsequently had a rough go of it at the Unlimited, wrecking out and finishing 24th of 25. I’m glad the guy can get a shot at running some more races. He’s had some bad luck with his medical problems coming and going. Vickers has the chops, he’s won a few races, including New Hampshire in 2014 on a part time schedule, but with such an unreliable availability, no one can take a chance on a full season with him. So yay Vickers on getting some more seat time.

Word on the street though is Ty Dillon is going to land at least a few of the open #14 races. Bass Pro Sports, which still has some sponsorship with Stewart’s team, has also been a long time sponsor of both Dillons through the years they came up the ranks. Ty Dillon is running the 500 in the Circle Sport – Levine chartered #95 (regular CSLFR driver McDowell is running a second, charterless entry), and was scheduled for a few races with them through the year. Basically he’s pulling a Blaney and getting as much seat time as NASCAR will let him but still qualify him as a rookie when he does go full time. RCR had deals with Circle Sport like that for a long time. Brian Scott and Austin Dillon did exactly that.

Getting long winded on this, but Ty wasn’t scheduled to run the #95 for the next handful of races, and Bass Pro Shop is signed on to sponsor the #14, so Ty is in. Brandan Gaughn has experience in Cup and has been tossed around as another seat filler for the #14.

Bass Pro Shops sponsorship rotating among Stewart, Truex, Vickers, and Ty Dillon might get confusing. And doesn’t Austin Dillon run a couple Cup races with them too?

Truex’s #78 gets impounded, Harvick and Vickers penalized

Truex at DaytonaIn “This might be big news,” the #78 car of Truex got impounded before being allowed to make a qualifying time over the weekend. It failed inspection and the specific penalty is a “roof flap violation.” So with no qual time, Truex has to start at the back of his Duel. It’s a plate track so ok, sucks, but not the end of the world. It’s not like he has to start at the back of the pack at Bristol. With the new charter system, it’s not like Truex even has to race his way into the 500 anyways. The car has a guaranteed spot.

The potential catastrophe for the #78 team comes from the roof flap penalty itself. It can be as high as a P5 penalty and NASCAR has said that context matters when they bring down the hammer. An aero issue is going to be taken a lot more seriously at Daytona than it will at Watkins Glen. P5’s carry a minimum 50-point penalty, a minimum $75,000 fine and a minimum six-race suspension to the crew chief. All kinds of bad news and having the crew chief on the bench is serious, but more so for a team starting with a new manufacturer this year.

The #4 of Harvick and the #14 of Vickers had their times disallowed because of bad track bars. Again, these are chartered cars and we’re on a plate track so not the end of the world for either driver. It’s the other penalties that could hurt, but no one is talking as high as P5 for either of them.

The Charterless

Blaney at DaytonaThis is something I am going to follow week in and week out, because in the last few years I think the health of the minnow teams can be a better indicator of the health of NASCAR than just the top tier teams.

Qualifying being such a unique procedure for the Daytona 500, it’s not just the fastest four Charterless teams get in the show. For the 500, the fastest two on time trial day are in and the top finisher in each Dual is in. If the top Charterless finisher in a Dual is also the fastest on speed, then it goes to the next finisher.

#21 Blaney and #93 DiBenedetto were the fastest Charterless cars. Blaney, in a car everyone expects to be very competitive this year, had the 7th fastest time and DiBenedetto pulled off the 24th fastest time. Normally, DiBenedetto will be in a chartered car, the #83, but Waltrip is running with that number/charter for the couple races that he pulls this year. So those two guys are in. Who’s left to race their way into the 500?

  • #59 McDowell – 25th fastest – extra ride for Circle Sport Levine
  • #26 Richardson Jr – 36th fastest – extra ride for BK Racing
  • #98 Whitt – 37th fastest – Premium leased their charter for the season to HScott’s #46
  • #25 Gilliland – 38th fastest – extra ride for Front Row
  • #30 Wise – 40th fastest – TMG did not qualify for a charter, longtime Xfinity team, part time Cup since 2015
  • #40 Sorenson – 41st fastest – Hillman Racing did not qualify for a charter, Part time Cup, slowest car that had an allowed time

 

Three of the teams that have to race in for spots, plus DiBenedetto’s #93, are not planned to be full time competitors this season. So having such a crowd for the Charterless seems like it will be unique to the plate races. On a normal week it seems like it’s going to be Blaney, Whitt, and whoever rotates into the TMG and Hillman cars. On the weeks Ty Dillon runs the #95, CSLFR may run the #59. I haven’t seen any news on how often they plan on rolling in with two cars as opposed to just one.

We may be at peak drama for the Charterless right now, but it will be something that I follow throughout the year.

Wood Brothers leave RTA

wood bros logoIn related news of the Charterless, and also a duh moment, the Wood Brothers announced they are leaving the Race Team Alliance. I don’t blame them. I’m not the only one thinking that they got left out to dry by the new charter system. I saw a note in an ESPN article about driver contracts and driver pay that mentioned the performance clause for a team losing a charter is not what I hoped it would be. A team has to be in the bottom three points standings of chartered teams for three years straight. That’s a long time. A long long time. I’m going to crunch some numbers later, but I am not sure if that’s a practical number to ever let another team in by performance. I think that’s not cool at all.

I don’t blame the Wood Brothers for telling the RTA to screw.

Jeb Burton Lands a Ride

jeb-twitterThere’s some happy news for up and coming driver Jeb Burton. The son of Ward and nephew of Jeff, he was showing some solid results in the Truck series in 2014 and even scored a win, but his teams funding fell out from under him right before the start of last year. He scored a ride with BK Racking but DNQ’d for a few races and BK went with David Ragan and DiBenedetto for the two chartered cars. Burton announced that he landed a full time ride in the Xfinity with Richard Petty Motorsports.

High five for this. I like when drivers are allowed to climb the ranks of the sport without being rushed. Yes, guys are doing it at a much younger age than they used to, Elliot is 20 but he’s got some seasons under him already. I remember all the careers that flamed out in the rush to find the next Jeff Gordon in the late 90s and early 00s. So watching guys like Chase Elliot, the Dillons, Eric Jones, Rico Abreu, and Bubba Wallace actually get a chance to work their way up the ladder gives me a good feeling for the health of the sport once all the current stars pull a Jeff Gordon and retire to the broadcast booth.