Thursday, May 31, 2012

Who will master Dover's Monster Mile?

Dover is a great place to watch a race. The track is just one-mile around and you can pretty much see everything that happens no matter where you sit.
And, as is the case with smaller NASCAR Sprint Cup tracks, a driver's patience can sometimes wane when there isn't enough room to make a pass, or a driver trying to keep from going a lap down makes it particularly difficult for the leader to make a pass.
And Dover has done a ton of stuff to make this a fan-friendly event. That includes a $10 ticket for any child 14-and-under accompanied by an adult. And one adult can buy several $10 tickets if they are leading a group. There's also a kids zone and plenty interactive of exhibits that fans can experience before the race.
So, a thumbs up to the good people at Dover for trying to make a day at the race a fun and complete experience.
Just which drivers will have the best experience during Sunday's 1 p.m. race on FOX is the big question.
Dover begins the second part of the three-part 36-race season. After spending most of May in Charlotte, this is when the real season starts and the best teams rise to the top.
Here's a look at which drivers could finish at, or near, the top Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson - It's hard not to pick this guy every week. And he's got six wins at Dover, so how  can you not pick him?
Greg Biffle - He is the season points leader and he's got two wins at the Monster Mile. Even if he can't beat Johnson's No 48, expect him to run well.
Matt Kenseth - He's also got two wins at Dover, but just as impressively, he has 12 top-five finishes and 17 top 10 finishes.
Kyle Busch - He also has two wins on the concrete mile with seven top-five finishes and nine top 10s.
Martin Truex Jr. - Have to pick a Junior somewhere, so it might as well be at this Junior's home track. Truex Jr. is from South Jersey and his only career win came at Dover. It could be a sweet homecoming.
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda - Tony Stewart. He has two wins at Dover, but the last time he won there was 2000 when he won both the spring and fall races. He also has finished 21st or worse in three of his last four races at Dover. During his remarkable and victorious run in the Chase for the Championship last year, Stewart finished 29th, six laps down, the only blemish in the final 10 races.
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in the 600-mile race at Charlotte.
Jimmie Johnson:  11th. No truth to the rumor his gas man was overhead yelling, "I said whoa, not go!"
Jeff Gordon: 7th. Not bad for No. 24 as he avoided bad luck for once.
Kasey Kahne: 1st. This win had been in the works for a while. He's on a roll now.

Matt Kenseth: 10th. Never a threat to win it, but hung in there for an OK points day.
Mark Martin: 34th. Engine woes ended what could have been a pretty respectable day.

  Here's a look at my results after 11 races and 55 picks.
  6 wins
20 top fives
26 top 10s

Grade for the week: B. OK, that's five winners in a row counting the All-Star race. Otherwise an OK week that would have been better if Johnson hadn't tried to drag the gas man and attached gas can out of pits resulting in a penalty that put him a lap down.
One Last Thing:  Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver to complete all 3,888 laps this season. However, when it comes to laps led, he is 15th in those standings with 68 led this season. The most laps led this season have been 501 by Jimmie Johnson.


Friday, May 25, 2012

The fix is not in for Dale Jr. to win ... and picks

One of the funniest things to read about in various NASCAR articles, or the comments that follow them, is that NASCAR is trying to fix races so Dale Earnhardt Jr. can get a win.Yes, there's probably a good amount of truth to it that NASCAR's leaders would love to see their most popular driver win for the first time in nearly four years in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday at Charlotte (6 p.m., FOX).
And yes, there is reason for optimism for Junior fans as he led all 40 laps of the Sprint Showdown (although admittedly against a weak field) and 19 of 20 laps to win the fourth segment of the All-Star race. And yes,  Junior's crew chief Steve Letarte is using a bit of common sense by bringing back the all-star car for the 400-lap event at the 1.5-mile track.
But even with all of this, the fact remains Junior has not won a race since June 15, 2008. That's a total of 140 Sprint Cup points races without a win, yes, for those of you still snoring at home. Obviously, that's a long time for a driver of an elite team to go without a win. There are Junior fans who have started families and have yet  to share the joy of victory with their children.
And that's the point.
While all of this makes for good speculation for the Junior haters out there, I have to break the bad news to you.  If NASCAR could actually put the fix in for Junior to win a points race, he wouldn't be winless in his last 140 tries. I'm on neutral ground when it comes to Junior. Not my favorite. Don't hate him either. That's probably rare territory - almost as a rare as seeing him in Victory Lane.
So the question remains, will we see him there sometime late Sunday night?
Here are my picks for this week:
 Jimmie Johnson - He's won this race six times. It's at Charlotte. He could drive a scooter around the place and probably figure out a way to win.
Jeff Gordon - He's been the king of bad luck this season. It's hard to believe he is 24th in the points standings. But Charlotte has been good to him, too. He won his first race here and has five victories in this race. In spite of the bad luck, just a feeling this could be a real good day for him.
Kasey Kahne - Yes, I k now, another Hendrick car, and it's still not Junior. But Kahne has won this race three times and has been eighth or better in the last five races.
Matt Kenseth - He was strong in the All-Star race and has won the 600-miler once, too. He's got the necessary patience needed to make it to the end.
Mark Martin - All right, I know, he's bit of a sentimental pick here, but he's in better shape than most 20-somethings out there, so forget about his age. He's also won this race four times with an astounding 18 top-five finishes. And the No. 55 car he is has been strong all year.
Should, woulda, coulda - OK Junior fans. I couldn't pull the trigger on him winning this one. Hendrick cars at great at Charlotte, but I can't pick all four of them, so no, not this week.

Even though they don't count in the points standings, or on my record, Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in the All-Star race.
Jimmie Johnson:  1st. It's Charlotte, No brainer.
Brad Keselowski: 2nd. No shame in being No. 2 behind No. 48.
Kyle Busch: 4th. Was strong all night, but couldn't mount challenge in final 10 laps.

  Here's a look at my results after 11 races and 55 picks.
 5 wins
19 top fives
23 top 10s
Grade for the week: A. OK, that's four winners in a row now and also a 1-2-4 finish. Not much room for improvement..
One Last Thing:  A NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race/Coca-Cola 600 sweep has occurred seven times. Johnson has a chance to be the first to accomplish the feat twice. The drivers who have accomplished and the years they did it were Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (’91), Dale Earnhardt (’93), Jeff Gordon (’97), Jimmie Johnson (2003), Kasey Kahne (’08), Kurt Busch (’10).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

NASCAR's All-Star event laps other sports

As professional all-star sporting events go, they often brag about putting their best athletes on the court, or field, or ice, together in one game, but rarely do we get to see their real talent put on display.
The NBA and NHL games are similar. While those players' contracts are guaranteed, it does give fans a chance to see what happens if they didn't really try to play defense in those respective sports. But again, who wins or loses,  doesn't really matter.
Baseball's game has the most relevance of these four sports. In order to add some juice to it, the league that wins the game gets home field advantage in the World Series. It's a silly plan (why doesn't the team with the best record get the home field advantage?) but whatever it takes to make their all-star game relevant. But still even with that,  let's not fool ourselves. The days of Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in the all-star game are long gone. Just by the nature of the game, the baseball players can play with more effort than the guys in other sports. But still there is that risk and generally speaking, baseball players have more of a business sense of the game than players in other sports. They know their careers can last long, so if it means running into the wall to make a big catch in the all-star game, that's probably not going to happen. Again, too low of a reward for the risk involved.
And that risk is just what makes NASCAR's All-Star event the best. That's because there are times during NASCAR's points races that some drivers will play it safe in order to have a solid top-10 finish. There's too much at risk for them to take a chance and not make the Chase for the Championship, or if it's small budget team, to wreck their car beyond repair.
But Saturday's Sprint Cup Showdown and Sprint All-Star race at 7 p.m. on SPEED, is all about taking risks. It's a non-points event, so playing it safe means nothing. The only goal is to win and really that's it. There will be four 20-lap segments to the race, with the four winners starting in positions 1-4 for the 10-lap finale that will be worth a million dollars to the winner. Not too shabby.
The event also gets the fans involved. There are 20 drivers guaranteed spots in the race and  three more will make it with the top two finishers in the pre-all-star race Sprint Cup Series Sprint showdown and the top vote getter in the Showdown from the fans also making it in. So, basically that guarantees Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make it in. If he doesn't finish first or second he's a virtual lock to win the fan vote. But that means only two out of  a group that includes Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray will make it in.

But no matter who gets in, there will be an all-out battle to win the all-star race. Second won't matter.
"Checkers or wreckers" is a common theme in this kind of race. That's because, unlike the other sports' all-star events, there's no risk in going all out in this one. There will be no time to wait and see how the track is driving or feeling out the race atmosphere.
It will be time to go for the win. It will be an all out, no holds-barred, and maybe no cars spared,  rush to get to the front. No worries about contracts, just worries about winning.
They way  it should be...
OK, even though this is not a points race, and I won't count these selections in my overall results for the season, you can't help but try and pick a winner here. With a smaller field, we'll go with three selections this week instead of the usual five.
1) Jimmie Johnson - Anytime he's driving a car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he has to be a pick to win.
2) Kyle Busch - He likes taking risks, so this seems like the perfect race for him.
3) Brad Keselowski - He's another youngster who's not afraid to go for it.
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Darlington.

Greg Biffle: 12th. He contended for the win for a while, but faded after the track cooled off.
Jimmie Johnson:  1st. Well, it was going to happen sometime. He had been running too good for too many races.
Denny Hamlin: 2nd. He contended for the win late and added to his other strong showings at Darlington.
Tony Stewart: 3rd. He never led a lap, but performed well on a track that has been a nemesis to him.
Kasey Kahne:  8th. Continued what has been a consistent stretch and has been eighth or better in five straight races.

 Here's a look at my results after 11 races and 55 picks.
  5 wins
14 top fives
  9 top 10s
Grade for the week: A-. OK, that's three winners in a row now and also a 1-2-3 finish. Also, I gave you four of the top eight and five of the top 12. That's a real nice week.
One Last Thing: Five drivers have won the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race and the Sprint Cup championship in the same year. They are Darrell Waltrip (1985), Dale Earnhardt (1987, 1990, 1993) Rusty Wallace (1989), Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997, 2001) and Jimmie Johnson (2006).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Will Danica be a Darlington darling? ... and picks

They call Darlington the Lady in Black, but for at least some NASCAR fans, Saturday's 7 p.m. race on FOX will be about the lady in green. Yes, Danica Patrick will make her first appearance in the Sprint Cup series since the season-opening Daytona 500. This much we know because the No. 10 car owned by Tommy Baldwin Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing has been reserved for Patrick and is inside the top 35 in owners points.
For sure  there are some Danica haters out there. She's become popular just as much for her appearance as for her driving skill. But as women face an uphill battle to break into a sport that is predominantly male, can she really be blamed for using all of her assets to bring in much needed sponsorship dollars?
Unfortunately, it's hard to blame her for that.
 I say unfortunate because there are some talented male drivers out there who are having sponsorship issues. Can somebody tell me why a young handsome, well-spoken driver and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne can't find a full-time sponsor? Or even former Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth, this year's Daytona 500 winner and a title contender again, has taken nearly one third of this season to find a regular full-time sponsor?
So, no, don't blame Danica for doing what she has to do. Ultimately, what she does on the track will matter - at least that's what we think. Whether that will be true or not remains to be seen.
As for how she will do Saturday night, Danica fans shouldn't come in with any big expectations. If she finishes inside the top 20, that would be a good accomplishment. If she finishes in the top 10, that wold be a big deal. Darlington is not kind to newcomers, so expect a big learning curve here.
As for the regular picks this week, here's a look at my top five:
Greg Biffle: The current points leader has two wins and five top 10s, so he's gotta be picked here.
Jimmie Johnson: Also two wins and he has yet to win this season, so he's really due for an appearance in Victory Lane.
Denny Hamlin: He doesn't have a ton of experience at Darlington with just six races, but he does have one win and an average finish of 6.5. And he normally drives a black car, so hey, the Lady in Black must like him.
Tony Stewart: This is one of two Sprint Cup tracks Stewart has not won on yet, so he'll be fired up to contend. He does have an average finish of 12.3 and three top fives at Darlington.
Kasey Kahne: He's had a string of good finishes now, including last week's fourth at Talladega. He does have the seventh-best driver rating and started on the pole last year, which shows he knows how to get around the 1.25-mile oval.
Coulda,shoulda, woulda: The numbers are jumping right out of the computer screen on this one, but couldn't pull the trigger here. Jeff Gordon has seven wins at Darlington and his team, Hendrick Racing, has 13 total victories. And the Hendrick team is still looking for that elusive 200th career Sprint Cup win. But just too much bad luck for the No. 24 this year to pick him this time.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - 9th. So much for my lock stock guaranteed absolutely without question can't miss winning prediction. The winless streak is now at 139 for those of you snoring at home.
Brad Keselowski: - 1st. OK, so I didn't give you a guarantee here, but that's two winners in a row I've given you.
Kevin Harvick - 25th. He was a contender again until getting caught up in a late accident.
Jimmie Johnson - 35th. He had a grenade engine, nothing more restricting than that at a plate track.
Juan Pablo Montoya - 32nd. Well, he didn't run into the jet dryer. Doesn't that count as a win?
Here's a look at my results after 10 races and 50 picks.
 4 wins
12 top fives
 8 top 10s
Grade for the week: B. We did get another winner this week as at least one of the Penske cars continued to run strong on a plate track. Engine woes and accidents put a damper on the rest of the day.
One Last Thing: Carl Edwards finished 31st last week at Talladega and dropped to 11th in the points standings. Edwards was the runner-up in for the championship last year and is trying to break a recent stretch of poor performances the following season by the previous year's runnerup. Denny Hamlin finished ninth last year, Mark Martin was 13th in 2010, and Edwards was 11th in 2009.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Junior is going to win at Talladega

The Sprint Cup hits a restrictor plate track for the second time this season with Sunday's 1 p.m. FOX race at Talladega. There's been some debate in recent weeks on the long green-flag runs that have occurred in races this year. Some like it, because the actual best car gets to win. Others like to see more action (translate that to wrecks for some) and closer side-by-side racing.
Well, one reason to watch at Talladega is that there is a possibility for both. The fact that the cars will be running in tight packs at nearly 200 mph for much of the race makes it exciting enough. However, there is always a possibility for the "the big one" as its called, that can wipe out big chunks of the field.
The unpredictability is one of the things that makes Talladega great. Just as a warning, or sign of hope, depending which side of the fence you're on, that long green flag run is possible, too. In fact, in 1997, Mark Martin won a caution-free race at Talladega with a NASCAR Sprint Cup record average speed of 188.354 mph in a race that took 2 hours, 39 minutes and 18 seconds to complete.
So, really, no one knows for sure what's going to happen Sunday. That's great as a race fan. Not so great in trying to pick who will win. But at any rate, here we go:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Yes, it's been a long time, 138 races, since Junior pulled into Victory Lane. But I say that streak's going to end Sunday. If I had just one pick for this race, this would be it. He's got five wins here and the Talladega fans love the Earnhardts. No better place for the losing streak to end other than here.
Brad Keselowski - The Penske cars have raced well on restrictor plate tracks for a while now. Keselowski has calmed down down a bit since he sent Edwards airborne to win at Talladega and then Edwards returned the favor. And besides, if there's a red flag with drivers having to stay in their cars, we know who to follow on Twitter to find out what's going on.
Jimmie Johnson - Five-timer comes in looking for his first win of the season. He's won here once before and been close to victory several times this season.
Kevin Harvick - He's truly one of the guys who knows how to hang around until the end and then finish strong and contend for the win. He's also got one win here and if by some miracle Junior doesn't win this race, the next best thing for fans might be seeing the guy who took over Dale Earnhardt's seat win it. And besides, you've got to pick at least one Childress car on this kind of track.
Juan Pablo Montoya - OK, this is a bit of an upset special. But after the jet dryer accident at Daytona, don't you have to give this guy a chance on a plate track? Well maybe not, but it would make for a great storyline. Too bad though that the 88 winning will make a better one.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Jeff Gordon's numbers jump off the charts at Talladega. Mainly, it's the six wins. But lady luck has not been on his side this year, even though most weeks he's unloaded at the track with a fast car. It would be interesting to see the amount of trash thrown in the track though, if he does pull off the victory.
 ACCOUNTABILITY GROUP Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Richmond.
Denny Hamlin - 4th. Never led a lap, but hung around for a nice finish on his home track. Jeff Gordon - 23rd. Had early issues and never recovered, finishing a lap down.
Kyle Busch - 1st. That's four straight spring wins at Richmond for Rowdy. Can't not pick him there.
Kevin Harvick - 19th. He was a contender early leading 13 laps, but adjustments backfired and the team spent the rest of the race trying to get back what it lost, but couldn't.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - 2nd. He never really got close enough to win it, but it was such a wacky race anything could have happened at the end.
Here's a look at my results after nine races and 45 picks.
3 wins
12 top fives
7 top 10s
Grade for the week: B-plus. I got you three of the top five, including the winner. That's a pretty good day.
One Last Thing: When scrolling down through the standings, starting at the top, who is the first driver to not lead a lap this year? Now it's down to Kasey Kahne, who is 23rd in the points standings. Kahne helped did help his cause to try and reach the top 20 in points with a fifth-place finish Sunday at Richmond.