Friday, July 27, 2012

Indy a true Indicator of who Sprint Cup champion will be

It can be debated where the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stands among NASCAR's best tracks. It built its tradition so much that another major series, IndyCar, is named after it. They have been racing at the famed 2.5-mile oval for over 100 years.
NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series didn't come to Indianapolis until 1994 and while Sunday's 400-mile, 160-lap race will be the 19th Sprint Cup race there, the track seems to have cemented its place as one of NASCAR's major players. It's hard to say if the speedway deserves to be held in the same esteem as say Daytona, Talladega, Darlington or Bristol. If NASCAR had four so-called major events, such as golf and tennis do, the four places that would be considered a NASCAR major would bring about a lot of debate.
But one thing that can't be debated about Indianapolis is that if a driver finishes well there, it often bodes well for the rest of the season.
Of the 18 races there,  eight times the winner went on to win the Sprint Cup title. Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat three times, Jeff Gordon twice, and Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte each did it once.
However, there is more.
There have been 11 drivers win at Indianapolis, and they have combined for 22 titles, led by the late Dale Earnhardt's seven, Johnson's five, Gordon's four and Stewart's three. The only drivers to win at Indy who have not won a Sprint Cup title at some point in their careers are Ricky Rudd in 1997, Kevin Harvick in 2003, Jamie McMurray in 2010 and Paul Menard last year.
But that's not all.

Of the 18 previous seasons since NASCAR has been at Indy, history also tells us the eventual Sprint Cup champion will likely have a good finish there, even if it's not a win. In those 18 races, the Sprint Cup winner has finished 12th or better 16 times. The only exception to the rule was Johnson, who was 22nd in 2010 and 39th in 2007.
And here's one more item to think about: The eventual Sprint Cup champion has finished sixth or better 14 times, including Stewart taking sixth last year.
So, that brings the question of why is Indy such a prime indicator of who that season's champions will be?
Here are a couple of possibilities.
First, there is the pressure. Indianapolis is one of those races teams covet to win, this includes the crew chief, pit crew, spotter and driver, making all the right calls and all the right moves. If that happens, it's one sign the team is performing well. While there's pressure to do well every week, there are certain places, like Daytona and Indy, for example, where it means a little more.
Second, involves all the variables at Indy. It's the only track on the NASCAR circuit that has four distinct turns. The rest of them, count one continuous corner as two. You'll often hear a driver talk about being loose going into Turn One, or needing more bite coming out of Turn 2. But really, it's just one long sweeping turn.
That's not the case at Indy. Each corner is separated by what is called a short chute, a small stretch of straight track 660 feet long.  So, a car has to have good handling capabilities to perform well. You can't win at Indy on just power alone.
But yes, power is a factor, too. The front and back straightaways are also long, each at over 3,300 feet, so yes, good power is required.
When it comes down to it, a driver and team at Indy have to be hitting on all cylinders (both figuratively and literally) to run well at Indy. And maybe that's a big reason why teams that do well at Indy, also usually do well over the course of the season.
The guys with strong Indiana ties always want a top performance in their home state, but there's no guarantee of that happening either. Jeff Gordon (Hoosier-raised, not Hoosier born though), Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are among the Hoosiers who will want to finish well.
Here's a look at who look for at the 1 p.m. race that will start ESPN's coverage of the Sprint Cup Series.
1) Tony Stewart:  He's got two wins at Indy, with six top-five finishes and nine top 10s. A pretty safe bet on his home track.
2) Jimmie Johnson: He has three wins at Indy and is a major threat to get his fourth.
3) Jeff Gordon: Going with another home stater here. He has four wins and even though he's 17th in points, his car has been good all season. There's no better place for him to breakthrough and get his first win of the year.
4) Kasey Kahne: No, he doesn't have a win at Indy, but he's been running well lately, picking up the win two weeks ago at New Hampshire. Also, he's a Hendrick Motorsports driver and that team has had plenty of success there.
5) Kevin Harvick: He's the only driver in the top seven without a victory this year. He does have one win here and has seven top 10s in 11 races at Indy.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: It would make a great story if Juan Pablo Montoya became the first driver to win the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400, but it's not something that has a big chance of happening. Montoya has only one top 10 finish at Indy in NASCAR and has not been a regular contender at other places this season as he sits 21st in the points standings.
I was a perfect last week. Since there was no Sprint Cup race at least I can say I didn't get any wrong.
Here's a look at my results after 19 races and 95 picks.
10  wins
34 top fives
45 top 10s
One last thing: Well, really, it's two last things today. The estimated attendance at Indy has dropped each of the last five years, from 270,000 in 2007 down to 138,000 last year. Also, if you're into flyovers, the one for Sunday is scheduled to be two United States Marine Corp V-22 Ospreys, one of the coolest flying machines you  can see. A part of those V-22s are manufactured at the Boeing plant in Delaware County, Pa.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Did one point really cause Osborne's exit?

Just one point.
That was the difference between Carl Edwards racing as the defending champion this season instead of the runnerup. If Edwards had been able to make one more pass in the final 10 races for whatever place, then he, not Tony Stewart would have left Homestead last November as the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. But it didn't happen that way as they ended in a tie for the points, with Stewart taking the tiebreaker for having more wins, five to Edwards' one.
And this week, we found out what that one point meant. So, instead of Edwards and now former crew chief Bob Osborne, racing this season as defending champions, and presumably having some kind of extended grace period in case they hit a tough stretch, they were racing under the microscope. And it didn't take a scientist to see that the duo that has been together since 2004 and won 18 races was struggling, 11th in points after the first 19 races, and maybe bigger, without a victory.
This isn't to blame Edwards for not making that one more pass last year. He's proven himself a quality driver over the years, and he probably wondered many times himself where he could have made up one more point.
And the same is true for Osborne, who probably wondered many times if he would have made a different call on tires, or pit strategy, or chassis adjustment, that may have allowed Edwards to finish one place better somewhere.
It's human nature to wonder about such things.
Osborne, a Chester, Pa., native, stepped down as Edwards' crew chief this week for what was cited as health reasons. And certainly, everyone who knows Osborne hopes that there is no serious health issue here. He's always been a first-class guy and not one who appears to have some self-serving agenda. The so-called "health issues" can sometimes be a nice way for a person in a high position (in sports, it's usually a general manager, manager, or head coach) to make a clean and neat exit from a situation that just wasn't working. And if that's the case here, that's OK, too, because if Osborne deserves anything in this scenario, it's to be treated with class and dignity, which sometimes does not happen when a person of authority is asked to make an exit, especially in the sports world.
And it was good to hear that Osborne will be staying at Roush-Fenway Racing in some capacity. He's too good of guy who knows too much about how to make cars go fast to simply be cast aside.
But the fact is Edwards has not won in 52 races. It's not like the Dale Jr. type of streak of 143 that ended when he won in Michigan in June, but it's enough to get the attention of an elite team. Maybe new crew chief Chad Norris will make a difference for Edwards and at least help him qualify for the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR's version of the playoffs, which he is currently not in with seven races left in the regular season.
But the so-called maybes seemed to have haunted the No. 99 team all season.
And that's one more point that Edwards and Osborne couldn't do anything about either.

Since this is the last off week for the Sprint Cup Series, there are no picks this week. But one thing we can do is take a look at the drivers in the wild card hunt who have been the most successful in these next seven tracks, the final ones in the regular season before the Chase for the Championship begins.
Jeff Gordon: Yes he is 17th in points, but a win could put him right back in the thick of the wild-card hunt. He's got 27 career victories at the remaining seven tracks, including four at Indianapolis, which is the next race July 29.
Carl Edwards: There is some hope. He's got nine wins at the remaining seven tracks.
Kasey Kahne: He's coming off the win at New Hampshire and may stay on a roll. He has five wins at the next seven tracks.
Kyle Busch: He has struggled lately due to engine and pit stop woes, but is still in the Chase at the moment and has five wins at the next seven stops.
Ryan Newman: He's just out of the Chase at the moment, but has four wins at the next seven tracks.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Daytona
Tony Stewart: 12th. Not really a factor to win this at all, but managed a respectable finish.
Ryan Newman: 10th. Ran better than Stewart most of the day, but also not a factor to win it at any point.
Jimmie Johnson: 7th. May have challenged for win but bad luck with late caution didn't cost him several spots.
Jeff Burton: 21st. New Hampshire is probably his best track. It seems good finishes for him these days are more of coincidence than a regularity.
Clint Bowyer: 3rd. He contended for the win for a while, but wasn't as good as eventual winner Kahne or second-place Denny Hamlin. 
 Here's a look at my results after 19 races and 95 picks.
 10  wins
34 top fives
45 top 10s

Grade for the week: B- No winner this time. Maybe Johnson would have had a shot if not for the late caution that came just after he had pitted under green. Newman and Stewart were both disappointing given their history of success at New Hampshire, but were not disasters either.
One Last Thing:  Tony Stewart has 17 wins on tracks in the next seven races, the most of any driver in the top 10 in points.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Edwards living on the edge of Chase history

There's still time left for Carl Edwards to make NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, the Sprint Cup's version of the playoffs. With eight regular-season races remaining on the schedule, including Sunday's race at Loudon, N.H., Edwards is 11th in points and currently not in the Chase.
This season has been a disappointing one for Edwards and the No. 99 Ford-powered team. He finished second on a tiebreaker to defending champion Tony Stewart last year. And it would be logical for Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne to think that the next step would be to win the title. That would seem to make sense.
But history is telling us something different and it's something Edwards and his team don't want to repeat.. When a driver finishes second in the Sprint Cup standings, the following year often is one that they would like to forget.
Starting with Denny Hamlin in 2011, the best points finish by a driver who finished second the previous year in the last seven seasons was Matt Kenseth taking fourth in 2005, a year after finishing second to Tony Stewart. Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who was fifth in 2005, are the only drivers to finish in the top five in points in that time period a year after finishing second.
Here's a look at how the last seven second-place finishers did in the following season: Hamlin was ninth in 2011, Mark Martin was 13th in 2010, Edwards was 11th in 2009, Jeff Gordon was seventh in 2008, Kenseth was fourth in 2007, Greg Biffle was 13th in 2006 and Jimmie Johnson was fifth in 2005. The last driver to win the Sprint Cup title a year after finishing second was Stewart in 2002. Bobby Labonte also accomplished the feat in 1999 and Gordon also did it in 1996.
But Edwards certainly isn't doing what he wants to on the track in 2012. Heading into Loudon, he is 31 points behind 10th-place Clint Bowyer. Edwards also does not have a win this year, meaning he has to get into that top 10 to qualify for the Chase. If he can get a win, then he would be in position to win a wild card, which goes to the two drivers inside the top 20 in points with the most wins.
And while much was made over Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaking his 143-race losing streak earlier this season at Michigan, Edwards is well overdue for a win to. The last time he performed one of his patented off-the-car victory back flips  after a Sprint Cup race was at Las Vegas last year, a span of 51 races. His best finish this year has been fifth twice.
But not all hope is lost here. Is Edwards in an impossible situation? Certainly not. Does he need to start climbing that hill to reach the Chase, whether it be with a string of top-five finishes, or the much-needed win? Certainly yes.
And if there's anything that Edwards and others learned from last year it's that if you can just get in the Chase, anything can happen. It was just last season that Stewart, who admittedly struggled, and did not have a win, made the playoffs by being ninth in the points after 26 races. He then caught fire and won five of the last 10 races in a historic title run.
And that's the kind of history Edwards and Osborne wouldn't mind repeating.

So, here is a look at who could fare well at Loudon this week.

Tony Stewart - It's the summertime and Smoke is on his usual roll. He's got three wins at New Hampshire and 14 top five finishes.
Ryan Newman - He's always run well here with three wins and six poles. It's good timing for him as the No. 39 team is looking for sponsorship for next year.
Jimmie Johnson - He also has three wins at Loudon and is still a top contender at any track.
Jeff Burton - He hung around and finished second last week. His only chance of making the Chase is to get a win somewhere, and he's got four of them at Loudon.
Clint Bowyer - He's got two wins at Loudon in his career. He is sitting 10th in points with one win on the season. One more victory this year would likely guarantee him a spot in the Chase.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Kurt Busch has three wins at Loudon, but being on an underfunded team has hurt him all year. There's no doubt Busch has the talent to win, though, which made him worth consideration here.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Daytona
Tony Stewart: 1st. A big push from Kasey Kahne on the final laps got him the win.

Matt Kenseth:  3rd. Easily could have won it, but lost drafting partner Greg  Biffle for a few seconds on the final lap.
Dale Earnhardt Jr: 15th. He probably would have had a better finish but got caught up in the last lap melee. He was never really a serious threat to win though.
Kevin Harvick: 23rd. Also was gunning for a decent finish until final lap crash-fest.
Jimmie Johnson: 36th. No C-posts issues this time at Daytona, just accident issues that allowed to run only 123 of the 160 laps.

 Here's a look at my results after 18 races and 90 picks.
 10  wins
33 top fives
42 top 10s

Grade for the week: B I gave you two of the top five, including the winner, which isn't bad for a restrictor plate race where anything can and usually does happen.
One Last Thing:  Just show good has Jeff Burton been at Loudon? In 1999, he started 38th and won. Then in 2000, he led all 300 laps in a win at Loudon.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Smith's caution words cautionary tale for NASCAR

Call it what you want (and it's mostly not good), but NASCAR track owner Bruton Smith's declaration that there needs to be more cautions during races said a lot about the sport (and it's mostly not good).
Most importantly, it's saying the races aren't good enough. And he's certainly got a point. Unless the cars are on a restrictor plate track like they are at Daytona this weekend, the possibilities of a great finish are small. Watching Kasey Kahne pick his way through the field at Kentucky last week was one of the most exciting stretches of racing we've seen this season. And he didn't even win, He finished second.
Back over a month ago while watching the Indianapolis 500, there was quite a revelation during the race, especially in the later stages when the lead kept changing hands almost every lap. I was actually disappointed when a yellow flag came out to stop the racing. That's right, instead of hoping for a yellow to come out and close up the field, I was really rooting against it. It was almost like rediscovering what a race should look like.
I think most race fans know that not every race will be like that, but it's good to get one on occasion, or maybe even a little more often. When was the last time I watched a NASCAR Sprint Cup race hoping for no cautions? I don't know.
I do know who not to blame for the lack of close racing, at least for the most part. That's the drivers. They want to race and most of them came through dirt track ranks of some sort where close racing was the norm, not the rarity.
What about the rules? Well, yes, they hurt a little bit, especially when it comes to points. Yes, NASCAR made a step in the right direction by putting more emphasis on wins to make their final 10-race playoff system. And Tony Stewart's five wins in the final 10 races on the way to the title last season, also helped, But if a driver got 10, or even say 15, extra points for a win, that might make a difference, too.
And then there are the rules that car manufacturers must follow. It's important to have them because it's an effort to keep teams on even ground and safe for drivers, no matter how much funding there is. But really, it's kind of back-fired because  the teams with the biggest wallets are the consistent favorites each week. NASCAR is continually trying to tweak the rules to help cause closer racing, but it may be a lost cause at this point.
The biggest issue may well be the kind of tracks they race on. I'll admit, when there is a 1.5-mile track on the schedule, it's difficult to get excited about it. I anticipate the two road course races more than the 1.5-mile track races. How many times do we have hear about clean air? Sure, the crew chiefs and drivers are just being honest when they say it matters, because it obviously does. But NASCAR needs to come up with a car design that's just as good in dirty air as clean air.
The Indycar folks did it. Now it's time for NASCAR's turn to do it, too, no matter what Bruton Smith says (whether it's mostly bad or not).

So, now it's time for the second Daytona race as the NASCAR Sprint Cup season hits the halfway point at 7:30 Saturday on TNT. But maybe more importantly  it's getting closer to crunch time in the series' regular season, which is 26 races. The top 10 in points and the next two drivers with the most wins in the top 20 in points will make NASCAR's playoffs, the Chase for the Championship. Among the names who would not be in the Chase if it started this week are Carl Edwards, last year's runnerup and Jeff Gordon. Edwards is 11th in points and Gordon is 18th in points and neither have a win this season. But a win by each of them would either put them in, or on the cusp of making the Chase. So they may be thinking more about winning now, then just a good finish.
It's always tricky at these plate tracks because of the close racing and large packs or cars. A driver can run well for say, 150 of the scheduled 160 laps of this race, and get caught in "The Big One" or maybe a jet dryer fire, and still end up finishing 30-something.

So, here is a look at who could fare well in the final trip to Daytona this year.

Tony Stewart - For reasons beyond even his explanation, he does well in the July Daytona race, but has yet to win the 500. Stewart has three victories in this race and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him make it No. 4.
Matt Kenseth - He won the Daytona 500 and will try to become the fifth driver to win both Daytona races in the same year. The most underrated champion and current points leader in recent times.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - OK, now that the 143-race losing streak is over (we're back at 1 for those of you snoring at home), he's always a big threat to win on a plate track and he has two wins in the Daytona July race and he will have a special patriotic paint scheme. All that may be too much for the rest of the field to overcome.
Kevin Harvick - He's been under the radar lately, but he's got two wins in the July Daytona race and usually about the time you forget about him is when he strikes for the victory.
Jimmie Johnson - Don't look now all you five-timer haters, but he's just 23 points out the lead. His season started with a disaster in Daytona and, he'd like nothing more than a little redemption for his team and maybe even his C-posts.

 Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Jeff Gordon has been running much better lately. He piled up a long list of bad luck finishes early in the season and that's all that's keeping me from picking him this week. This really is a case of a guy who could win it (he's done it six times) or finish well back in the pack.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Kentucky
Kyle Busch:  10th. Led a race high 118 laps, only to be derailed by a broken shock mount.
Jimmie Johnson: 6th Also was contending for win until he thought a tire was going down late in race, but rallied late.
Tony Stewart: 32nd. Early fuel injection issue cost him a lot of laps early in race.
Brad Keselowski:: 1st. Was strong all night, and then led last 56 laps.
Matt Kenseth: 7th. Another solid run for the points leader.

 Here's a look at my results after 17 races and 85 picks.
 9  wins
31 top fives
42 top 10s

Grade for the week: B+ I gave you the winner in Keselowski and then three others in the top 10. Both Busch and Johnson would have been in the top five if not for their issues and Kenseth is consistent as always. Stewart still has not won at Kentucky and Darlington, the last two tracks he needs to cross off of his list.
 One Last Thing:  Matt Kenseth will be trying to do something that only four drivers have accomplished, win the July Daytona race the same year as winning the Daytona 500. Those who have accomplished the feat are Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarborough and Fireball Roberts. Allison was the last to accomplish the feat in 1982.