Monday, April 30, 2012

2012 season no Field of Dreams for Edwards

Carl Edwards might not have been allowed to race for the win Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, but Edwards and his team also have reason to come away with some optimism. For the first time this season, Edwards clearly had a car that was capable of winning. After losing the championship on a tiebreaker last year, Edwards and the No. 99 team is certainly in need of a victory. Edwards' last victory came 42 races ago, the third race of the 2011 season at Las Vegas. By anyone's standard Edwards had an outstanding NASCAR Sprint Cup season in 2011. He led in the points standings for much of the year. He had just six finishes out of the top 15 in the series' 36 point races. He had just one win, but was the model of consistency. It was known early in the 2011 season that he would be a contender for the title. He was first in the standings after 21 of those 36 races last season, including races 30 through 35. The problem is after that 36th and final race, he was No. 2. It was by the slimmest of margins, losing on a most wins tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, who pretty much had to win the last race to get the title, and then went out and did it. Edwards, who is looking for his first Sprint Cup title, took pride that his team didn't give the title away. And the numbers back that sentiment up. In the final 10 races, NASCAR's Chase for the Championship playoff-type system, Edwards' worst finish was 11th. He also had an eighth and a ninth. In the other seven races he finished in the top five, including second in each of the last three. Clearly, Edwards and his team, led by crew chief Bob Osborne, a Delaware County native, did not choke. Stewart took the title by winning five of those last 10 races, one of the hottest streaks in NASCAR history. However, being right on the cusp of reaching the pinnacle of your profession and not getting it can be quite a blow, no matter how it happens. It's like being interviewed for that job you've wanted for years, knowing you have a good chance to get it, knowing you're qualified to not only do it but do it well, and then not getting it. As Burt Lancaster said when playing Archibald "Moonlight" Graham in Field of Dreams, the character who reached the major leagues but never got an at-bat, "It was like coming this close to your dreams (holding his fingers about an inch apart) ... and then watch them brush past you like strangers in a crowd." It takes a while to get over that kind of disappointment and Edwards and his team may be going through the same kind of process this season. That was more evident Saturday night at Richmond, when a confusing restart led to a controversial penalty for Edwards and cost him a 40-mph drive through pit road penalty, essentially ending his chance to win. But the good news for Edwards and his team is that their dream is still alive. It's not that this season has been a disaster. He's ninth in the points standings, a place where a lot of other drivers would like to be. However, Saturday night at Richmond was the first time he was a serious contender to win this season. He led 206 laps Saturday, after leading just one lap in the first eight races. Even after Saturday's race, Edwards' numbers were not as strong as he, Osborne and owner Jack Roush would like. Of cars in the top 10 in the 2012 standings, he has run just 52.9 percent of his laps in the top 15. The next lowest number in the top 10 is 55.9 percent from 10th place Ryan Newman. The rest of the top 10 is at 72 percent or better in that category. Also, among drivers in the top 10 in the points standings, Edwards has the lowest amount of passes of cars in the top 15 at 51 percent, just behind Newman's 52 percent in that category. Edwards' number is a little misleading in that category because if you're leading a lot of laps like he was Saturday, that means there's no one left to pass. What may be a bit more disturbing for Edwards is that the start to this season is similar the start of the 2009 season, after he had finished second in the standings to Jimmie Johnson in 2008. In the first nine races of 2009, Edwards had two top 10 and one top five finish. He's had a better start to things this time around, with six top 10s in the first nine races, but the best finish has been fifth. Also in Field of Dreams, Lancaster's character says of that almost moment, "You know we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was the only day." The good news for Edwards and his team is that there will be plenty of other days. And while the start to this season may be a disappointing and a little frustrating, it will probably take, to put in baseball terms, that one big hit to get things started. It may have happened Saturday with Edwards and everyone else knowing he had a winning car. Stewart proved last year as he limped into the Chase ninth in the standings that it's a matter of getting hot at the right time. And for Edwards, there's plenty of time for that to happen and to achieve his dream of winning a Sprint Cup title.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Richmond spring race no different than Richmond fall race ... sort of

The Sprint Cuppers head into Richmond for a 7:30 p.m. Saturday affair on FOX. It's the first visit to Richmond this year and as most of you know the second visit will likely have the feel of much more significance. The September race at Richmond International Raceway is the final regular-season event before the Chase for the Championship and in all probability there will be two or three drivers looking to crack the top 10 to make the Chase and probably two or three in the top 20 in points looking for a win to earn one of the two wild-card spots to make the Chase. But here's the thing: The points gained or lost and the win Saturday night will count exactly the same as the race in September. Of course, you say, any third-grade math student (or maybe even first or second grade math student) can figure that out. But the good teams will put just as much importance on this race as the fall race. Yes, the situation and potential finality of it all will add more pressure in the fall, but when the season's over and it's time to sit back and simply look at the facts, yes, both Richmond races count the same. So, that's the theme you will see in this week's picks. So here we go: Denny Hamlin: He won last week at Kansas. He's got two wins at this track. This also is his home track and teams seem to step up a little more in those situations. Kyle Busch: He's had a disappointing start by his standards, being 13th in the points after eight races and not a serious contender to win most of the time. If things are going to change for him, then it could be at Richmond where he's got three wins and an average running position of 7.6. Jeff Gordon: OK, yes he's in the way-back machine (at least for him) in the points standings at 18th, but that's really a reflection of the kind of cars he's had at the track. He's been fast in most of the races this year, but has had a string of bad luck in the pits and on the track. He's got two wins and 15 tops fives in his career at Richmond, so why not number 3? Kevin Harvick: Happy has been consistent this season, but he's looking for a win now. He's got two of them at Richmond and an average finish of 7.4, so he could be a lot happier after Saturday night. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: OK, I'll admit it, I didn't really want to pick him here. But he says he's the best driver at Hendrick, so it's time to back it up. Often times if an athlete in any sport says that, it means he or she is feeling confident. He does have three wins at Richmond, so hey, it's as good of time as any for him to break that 137-race winless streak (for those of you still snoring at home). Should, woulda coulda: OK, I'll admit it. I did want to pick Tony Stewart here. He does have three wins at Richmond and it's a special place to him because it's also the site of his first win. But he's looked a little unimpressive the last two weeks, so not pulling the trigger this time. ACCOUNTABILITY GROUP Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Kansas. Greg Biffle - 5th. The points leader admitted that it wasn't his best day, but the rally for a fifth-place finish on a day like that is the kind of thing championship contenders do. Jeff Gordon - 21st. A disappointing day as he finished three laps off the lead. Jimmie Johnson - 3rd. The No. 48 had another nice run, but wasn't in serious contention for the win at the end. Tony Stewart - 13th. He was not in contention to lead all day, but to hang around and get a 13th is certainly not a disaster. Mark Martin - 33rd. His day was derailed by engine failure after 255 laps. Here's a look at my results after eight races and 40 picks 2 wins 10 top fives 7 top 10s Grade for the week: C. Biffle and Johnson were solid, but the showings of Stewart and particularly Gordon hurt. One Last Thing: Speaking of Gordon, here's one stat that tells you about the bad luck he's been having. Even though he sits 18th in the points standings, he leads the Sprint Cup Series with 73.8 percent of his passes coming while running in the top 15. If his car stays fast, eventually the luck will have to change. Until next time

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Some lasts in the Land of Oz ... and picks

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Kansas this week and the visit there doesn't come without some lasts in mind.
Kansas was the last place that Hendrick Motorsports won a race. The elite team is also looking for its 200th Sprint Cup victory, so hey, maybe it's a match made in the Land of Oz.
Another last is that this will be the final race their before the track is repaved. It's one of a number of tracks that has been on the repaving list in the last year. So, when they return for the Chase for the Championship in the fall, the cars might react the same way, or they might not. Crew chiefs won't be able to depending only on past history for the Chase.
But they can this week, and that's the basis for this week's picks.
Greg Biffle. The points leader is coming off a win at Texas, has been excellent all year and he has two wins at the track. So, hard not to pick him here.
Jeff Gordon. He's been fast all year, but also extremely unlucky. They finally had a bit of good fortune, to go along with a fast car, to finish fourth at Texas last week. Gordon is 17th in the points coming in, and he'll look to make a big jump in the standings.
Jimmie Johnson. He's also got two wins at Kansas and has been knocking on the victory door for the last few races. So a breakthrough here would be no surprise and give Hendrick that landmark victory.
Tony Stewart. He's also got two wins here and we're guessing that last week's poor showing at Texas was anamoly, and won't be a regular occurrence.
Mark Martin. He's showing he can still drive with the best of them, even at age 53. Martin is driving the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing and has been solid this season. He's also got a win at Kansas.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Kansas is also Clint Bowyer's home track and it would be a great story for him to get his first win at that track. He's been OK there with a top five and three top-10 finishes. That's not enough to make him one of the top five here.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Texas.
Matt Kenseth - 5th. He was competitive throughout the night and led 15 laps, even though he didn't have a chance to win at the end, still a nice run.
Greg Biffle - 1st. Well, finally I got another winner here. Biffle went from having a good season, to being a serious contender to the title by proving he can win on one of the Chase tracks.
Tony Stewart - 24th. It was a no-brainer to pick Stewart as one of the contenders at Texas. But the team missed completely on the set up and was never in the running to even get a top 15 finish.
Denny Hamlin - 12th. He had an OK day, but was never a threat to win the race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - 10th. See comment for Hamlin. Winless streak now at 136 for those of you snoring at home.

Here's a look at my results after seven races and 35 picks
2 win
8 top fives
7 top 10s

Grade for the week: B. Biffle's win is big and Kenseth came through, too. Stewart's non-competitive car of no help.

One Last Thing: Here's a look at what Jimmie Johnson has done this season, thanks to help from NASCAR's Loop Statistics. The five-time champion has the most fastest laps run at 249, the fastest average green flag speed, led the most laps at 359, led the most miles at 403.89 and the fastest average speed in traffic. There's one thing he hasn't done yet this year - win. That may very well change Sunday.
Until next time

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Numbers no longer slumbering for MWR

Seven is the perfect number, and to paraphrase the late and great song writer Larry Norman, those who aren't for real in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings will now begin to slumber.
The Sprint Cup series is just under one fifth of the way through the season, just completing its seventh race Saturday night at Texas. And while it's common for two or three drivers to start off the season strong in the first couple of races and then fade, by now we are getting an idea of who the real contenders are.
We've got many of the usual teams in the top 10 with the Roushkateers of Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, the Hendrick guys of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Stewart-Haas duo of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, and Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick.
Those teams and drivers are expected be there. If they weren't at least in the top 12, many would be asking what has gone wrong.
But the team to do a lot of things right so far this season is Michael Waltrip Racing. The Toyota-powered team has Martin Truex Jr. in the fourth spot in the standings, 20 behind Biffle and Clint Bowyer in 10th. And if you go by the owners points, the No. 55 car shared by Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers is seventh in points.
Thanks to NASCAR's statistics these days, there's evidence that at least one, if not more, of Waltrip's drivers will be around to stay when it comes to the final 10 races, otherwise known as the Chase for the Championship.
Truex Jr. is just one of three drivers to run all of the 2,295 possible laps this season, along with Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr., who are tied for second in the points standings. Another good sign for Truex Jr. is that he has run the most laps inside the top 15 this season at 1996, just over 88 percent.
That means Truex Jr. hasn't been hanging around the top 20 in some of these races, and then just slipping into the top 10 or top 15 just because of others' misfortunes at the end of the race. Truex Jr. is also second in laps run on the lead lap, at just over 98 percent, just behind Kenseth.
Another good sign for Waltrip Racing is that Martin has run 78.5 percent of his laps in the top 15, too. And even though he has not driven in two races (Bristol and Martinsville) he is still 20th in points. Martin is scheduled to run 26 races this season. If he runs well enough to finish in the top 20 in points, and wins two races, he could make the Chase. It's not likely, but stranger things have happened.
And of course there is Bowyer, who is 10th in the standings and has run nearly 70 percent of his laps in the top 15 and is certainly capable of winning at any track. And that could happen this week as Kansas is considered his home track.
Michael Waltrip Racing can't quite be called an elite team yet when it comes to comparing it with Hendrick, Roush or Gibbs. That's because you can't be considered truly elite until you win a title
There's no doubt Waltrip Racing has come a long way since its embarrassing debut at Daytona in 2007, where penalties cost the team 100 points (that was under the old points system).
The numbers undoubtedly tell us the team is gaining on the rest of the field. The question is not if the team will make that key winning pass, but when.
That's when the numbers will be just perfect for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Night time is right time in Texas ... and picks

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series moves into Texas for its first scheduled night race of the season (Daytona eventually became a night race) at 7:30 Saturday on FOX. There's no doubt that racing at night affects the surface and how the cars handle. Texas is a fast track, so the teams able to make adjustments depending on the temperature of track will likely find success.
There's no doubt that the Roushkateers have found their share of success at Texas. Roush cars have won eight times in the Lone Star State, including the last night race there last spring. So there will likely be a theme in the picks this week, but there are also a few who could interrupt the Roush/Ford party, too.
So, here we go:
Matt Kenseth - Yes, he won the last night race here last year and has been generally strong this spring. He also won under the lights on the fast track at Daytona, so it's hard not to pick him here where he has an average finish of 8.7.
Greg Biffle - He's hanging on to the points lead, six ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He needs a strong showing at Texas and it's quite possible for him. He has one win there and six top fives. But his average finish is 17.2, so it's kind of an all or nothing deal for him as he also has four DNFs.
Tony Stewart - He won the fall race at Texas and has two wins this season. He, along with a few others, are just 12 points out of the series points lead. It's difficult not to pick him these days.
Denny Hamlin - He's got two wins at Texas and five top fives in his 13 starts there. And with Darian Grubb as he crew chief, this is a team that will be able to make key in-race adjustments.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He's got to get a win sometime and Texas has been good to him. He has one win in 19 starts and has been competitive this season. He actually may be ready to break through and end that 135-race winless streak.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Carl Edwards. He's had plenty of success at Texas, with three wins and a runnerup finish to Stewart in the fall race last year. And while this season has not been a disaster (see Kasey Kahne as exhibit A for that), he still has not led a lap, which is a bit alarming for someone who's accustomed to running up front. So, I couldn't pull the trigger on Edwards wearing the six-shooters in Victory Lane this week.

Here's a review of the picks from two weeks ago at Martinsville and how they finished.
Tony Stewart - 7th. Never was a serious contender to win and late wreck by others helped his finish.
Denny Hamlin - 6th. He was in the mix for a while, but didn't have as fast of car as Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon.
Jimmie Johnson - 12th. He very well could have won the race as he was battling Gordon in the final laps before the big wreck took him out of the picture. Not as disastrous of a finish as it could have been for him.
Kevin Harvick - 19th. He was somewhat strong early, leading 21 laps, but clearly didn't make the adjustments to stay with the frontrunners.
Brian Vickers - 18th. He had looked so good on the concrete at Bristol, finishing fifth, but it didn't translate into a contending kind of day on the mixed surface at Martinsville.
Here's a look at my stats after six races and 30 picks.

1 win
7 top fives
6 top 10s

Grade for the week: B minus. Had it not been for the late yellow, Johnson would have won or finished second. Harvick was the big disappointment here.

One Last Thing: When looking the numbers after six races this season, there's one driver's that do not make sense. Jeff Gordon is leading the Sprint Cup Series with 337 laps led, and in percentage of laps led at 17.5. He also has the most quality passes (under green in the top 15) at 82.5 percent. However because of a string of bad luck, he is without a victory and sits 21st in the point standings. However, Gordon led 329 of those laps at Martinsville last week. So, while the numbers don't lie, they don't always tell the whole truth either.
Until next time

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reutimann, Patrick NASCAR's pawns in Martinsville mess

When disaster strikes, it's usually not a result of just one bad decision or singular event. It's often a confluence of things coming together at the same time.
And that's what happened late in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Of course, everybody wants to blame everybody here. So, today, let's eliminate at least of couple of people from the blame game for what caused a green-white-checkered finish that sabotaged what could have been another classic Martinsville finish between Hendrick Racing teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
So let's aquit the following:
David Reutimann: It seems many were wanting to throw him under the NASCAR hauler, so to speak, after Sunday's race. Reutimann was driving the No. 10 car for Tommy Baldwin Racing, which is affiliated with Stewart-Haas Racing, which is affiliated with Hendrick Racing. The key here is that the top 35 in the Sprint Cup owners points standings are guaranteed starting spots in the next race, which is April 14 at Texas. And the other key here is the the No. 10 car has been riding that fence early in the season. And a third key here is that Danica Patrick is slated to drive that car in nine more races this season. That's a lot of keys to fit into one door. So, in a car, that a had a broken suspension piece, and an engine that was about ready to quit, Reutimann was trying to limp the car home well under race pace speed in the final 15 laps and keep that car in the top 35 in points. He actually did a good job of avoiding traffic when he was out there. It was clear he didn't want to cause an issue in the race. It was also clear he was under trickle-down economic pressure to stay on the track, from sponsors, team owners, etc. He seemed to have accomplished his feat until the engine finally shut down. None of this is directly Reutimann's fault. He's driving part-time for the team, trying to make a good impression for an owner, just trying to do the right thing to survive in the sport. A big chunk of drivers, like Johnson, Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. have either forgotten or don't know what that's like. So, no, not blaming Reutimann here.
Danica Patrick: Yes, it's true, NASCAR had been trying to lure her into the series for probably the last couple of years. She would have loved to have won the Indy 500, which kept her in the open-wheel circuit probably a little longer than NASACAR wanted. Patrick though, finally couldn't resist the guaranteed money, attention and let's face it, the safer cars to drive in. Though she hasn't said this, probably out of respect for her former fellow Indy Car drivers, the fact that she came to NASCAR after the horrible crash that claimed the life of Indy Car star Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas last fall is probably not a coincidence. When it comes down to it Patrick is enough of a sponsor attraction that she's got more money now than she will ever spend. But really, what's the point of having it if there's a real fear you're not going to be around to spend it and enjoy it? Yes, Patrick will be driving the No. 10 for Stewart-Haas Racing at times this season, with her next schedule date May 12 at Darlington. But remember, she's just a driver, not an owner or sponsor telling Reutimann what do. It's not her fault that she is one of the few who can attract sponsors these days. It's part of her job and what happened at Martinsville Sunday was not her fault.
So, really, just who is to blame?
You can look at the top 35 rule. It's a way to guarantee fans they will most likely see their favorite driver when they pay more than a pretty penny for a ticket, merchandise, etc., when they go to a race. Certainly, it played a role in this situation.
You can look at Tommy Baldwin a little here. He's under pressure too to keep that car in the top 35 in points after making an affiliation deal with Stewart-Haas Racing before the season began.
What about Tony Stewart? Well, maybe. He knows Patrick will bring money and sponsors into the team. He's also a driver and the defending champ though, so I can't imagine he was thrilled at seeing the No. 10 limp around trying to stay out of Harm's Way in those final laps.
That brings us to Rick Hendrick. Well, it's always easy to point the finger at Hendrick, one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport. He's an easy target that sometimes gets more blame than he deserves. He's also a sharp businessman who completely understands what having Patrick in the Sprint Cup field does for the sport financially in all types of sales. Kyle Busch once called Hendrick Racing a six-car team (only four cars are allowed by NASCAR rules), saying he included the Stewart-Haas cars of Stewart and Newman. Maybe Patrick belongs in that group, too, now.
And maybe that whole Martinsville mess is symbolic of how NASCAR has compromised itself in the name of safety and quality racing in order to make a dollar.