Before I jump into what I thought about the action is past weekend at Daytona, I have to do some house cleaning first. With this site I’ve admittedly neglected it over the past year. Without diving too much into, I needed a break and needed to re-find my focus on what I wanted to do with Start ‘N’ Park Blog. When I started this many years ago the mission was simple, give unfiltered opinions. Then I tried to be an information hub re-posting press releases, which was fine but a lot of work. These teams put out a lot of press releases beyond the news. Then I became unfocused and drifted around until taking a break last year. Continue reading “Post Daytona Thoughts”
NASCAR once again came up with a new rule that misses the point on what it is trying to prevent.
Enter starting next season Cup teams will have to use 13 engines during the year for two full race weekends. The rule, which sounds on the surface to be a cost savings measure for teams, actually seems designed to keep drivers from “burning it down” after victories. Continue reading “Engine Rule Misses The Point”
The call of a championship raised the performance for all four of the drivers going for the Sprint Cup Series title on Sunday. That was evident by all four being in the top-5 at multiple times during the race. Statistics and history was thrown out the window for the most part, but those pointed to Kevin Harvick winning, and that’s exactly what happened.
It wasn’t overall surprising to see Harvick capture the crown, given that the team has been fast every week. The only thing they could not get going was luck on their side, but they did it the correct way. Get all the bad luck out of the way early, then execute for the title. Interesting that the pit crew for Harvick was able to pick up their second championship, the first being with Tony Stewart in 2011.
Ryan Newman made a big statement in his second place finish that he did not luck his way into this battle. His team even improved up their performance as the race went on, going from losing Newman spots to gaining him spots on pit road. That was key to getting him close to the lead for the final stretch of restarts. This team has a lot to build on and I’m hoping there is not second place hang over.
For the team of Denny Hamlin, they showed a lot of guts making calls late to put them in a position to win. It was just worn tires were not his friend and the nail in the coffin was spinning his tires on the second to final restart. That made him loose track position he could never get back. It will be interesting what Joe Gibbs does with his crew chiefs, as a major swap seems evident.
While Newman’s crew came through at the end, Joey Logano’s team failed him at the end. Well, you can’t blame the crew too much for the side of the car giving way, but because of that, the car fell off the jack, and a lot of valuable time was lost trying to get it back in the air. He will be left with dwelling on what could have been had that executed as planned, but there is always next year.
This new format really puts the television producers in a small box for their finale coverage. Luckily I had a vested interest in two of the final four drivers, so I didn’t mind the extremely bias coverage of them. I could see how someone who was a Jimmie Johnson fan, for example, could get frustrated with the coverage. That said, it is the title and that is more important than whatever position Johnson (for this example) could have gotten. Tough spot for NASCAR and ESPN, but based on the early numbers, I don’t think many are complaining.
Congratulations are in order for Brad Keselowski, who is the first loser. He was able to rise to fifth place and with Jeff Gordon can just think about what could have been had they made it into the finale. Well, just hopefully they don’t think about that together, because that could get ugly.
As much as I would like a Super Bowl like feel of moving the season finale among many tracks, Homestead does provide a lot of action and options for drivers. You can run high, low, middle, and even push it four wide, and we didn’t see many big accidents because of that. The racing was hard and fast, just the way it needs to be for the title.
Looking at the history of close point battles, you could put this one at the top because of the one point difference between Harvick and Newman. Realistically that was fabricated by the rules, so I would throw that out on that level. Looking overall I would rate this as the top four best season finales: 1992 when Alan Kulwicki out smarts Bill Elliott, 2004 the first Chase where Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson all went neck and neck with Busch prevailing, this title fight, and the 2011 Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards duel that ended with Stewart rising the occasion.
Kevin Harvick flat out dominated the Quicken Loans 500 from the Phoenix International Raceway. He led 264 of the 312 laps and punched his ticket into the Chase finale with his win. Joining Harvick with a shot at the title at Homestead next weekend is Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman.
Here are some observations on the Chase and this weekend’s race:
Anything For A Championship
If the past few weeks haven’t been indicators of the pressure teams and drivers are under, today provided another example of that. While there were no post-race fights on pit road, Ryan Newman did everything he could to wrestle 11th place from Kyle Larson, which included a slide job into Larson to get the spot. Different from last weekend, Larson did get into the wall, but still salvaged a 13th place finish. Dirty move by Newman? No way, he’s going for a title and it is racing. Larson might not disagree, but he’ll understand in time like Newman said.
Second Just Isn’t Good Enough
Jeff Gordon finished second and became the first loser when it came to the Chase cut off. He might have tied Kevin Harvick for fourth place, but Harvick’s win gets him in. After last weekend, there will be lots Gordon will dwell on, but this season has been a major resurgence on his career. Capping off with another Homestead win will go a long way to putting this behind him.
Hamlin And Logano Try To Give It Away
Both Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano tried to give away their positions in the Chase. Hamlin had a tire go down and lost two laps, but battled back to make it in with a top-5 finish. I had already given up on Hamlin, equating him to being toast at one point, and began to wonder where crew chief Darren Grubb might be working next year. They hang on for one more race, but I can’t imagine there will not be changes across the board at Joe Gibbs Racing. Logano had a simple pit miscue, and like Hamlin, he just couldn’t get through the traffic back in the pack fast enough. Both persevered and will look to take home a title.
First Timer Next Weekend
We will have another first time champion when the checkered flag falls next weekend. The only driver of the four that has a NASCAR title on his resume is Kevin Harvick, owning two Nationwide Series championships. A quick look at the title contenders at Homestead, you’ll see by virtue of average finish it is Harvick’s to lose. He’s averaging an 8.08 finished followed by Hamlin (11.22), Newman (17.00), and Logano (20.80). Hamlin though owns two wins at the track versus the zero for everyone else.
Harvick Takes The Record
Kevin Harvick used his dominating performance to move past Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Jimmie Johnson to become the all-time lap leader in Sprint Cup Series history at Phoenix. He now has led 978 laps, which is 45 more than Johnson. This is one record that could seesaw over the next couple of years, but it is an impressive list of drivers Harvick got past. Rounding out the top-10 are Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Denny Hamlin.
Johnson Continues To Look At 2015
It’s hard to rationalize a four win season as being “terrible,” but when you’re Jimmie Johnson, that’s how the bar is set. Phoenix was another forgettable race for Johnson and his team as an accident knocked him out on lap 235 for a 39th place finish. Dominating last weekend to near last the next has been the exact example of his season.
Ambrose Gears For The End
Marcos Ambrose’s NASCAR career has one more race left in it, but he is not going down without a fight. Ambrose picked up his 46th career top-10 finish at Phoenix with a late charge past Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson. Coming into Homestead, Ambrose has a lot to be proud with after his eight years in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so looking back at NASCAR’s decision of an emphasis on winning it shouldn’t be surprising that tempers are flaring at every turn. With time running out before the season finale, another flare up at the Texas Motor Speedway has again put NASCAR in an interesting box.
Post-race fisticuffs have demonstrated that NASCAR handles it as a crap shoot. For the most part financial penalties are used. Precedence for this year includes the famous Ambrose v. Mears situation from Richmond in May, and then there was Charlotte just last month.
In that instance, at Charlotte, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and Brad Keselowski were involved in post-race shoving matches. On the track, Keselowski and Tony Stewart used their cars to point out their frustrations. Keselowski and Stewart got fines and probation for the use of their cars. Hamlin and Kenseth on the other hand, walked away without any penalty. This seems to fit into how NASCAR has made on track safety a priority after the death of a sprint car driver in August during an altercation with Stewart.
On Sunday there was no on track altercation, minus the contact between Jeff Gordon and Keselowski that led to Gordon losing a tire late in the race and his temper after the race. The race was over and once the cars were parked on pit road, Gordon came down to talk to Keselowski about what happened. While Gordon was yelling at Keselowski and being held back by crew members, Kevin Harvick shoved Keselowski close to Gordon, close enough for Gordon to grab onto Keselowski’s uniform and then it was chaos as crew members all piled on top of the drivers. Once it was broken up Gordon had a fat lip and Keselowski had blood on him, presumably not his own.
So what to do this time around? No drivers used their cars to settle scores, so the fine and probation route that was seen at Charlotte is null. Even though both Gordon and Keselowski were left bloodied, neither landed a punch on each other. In fact, it was a crew member of Gordon’s who landed a punch on Keselowski. This then makes the Ambrose/Mears precedent null because no drivers struck one another. That time around Ambrose landed a right hook on Mears’ face, which led to NASCAR having to act.
Then there is the Kevin Harvick variable in all of this. Harvick threw no punches, but was the clear catalyst for the whole scene. His shove of Keselowski got him close enough for Gordon to act and then all Hell broke loose. How should he be penalized and should he be penalized for his part?
The answer to what should happen is simple, no penalties. Add to it that Keselowski’s probation from Charlotte should have no bearing since he did nothing but be a punching bag on pit road. On the track his move that drew the ire of Gordon was a racing moving, he went for a hole between Gordon and eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson, and the hole closed up. There’s nothing that NASCAR can or should do to penalize that, it’s just racing. Based on what we saw from Charlotte, tackling a competitor is ok in NASCAR’s mind, so that will clear both Keselowski and Gordon in all of this. Looking at Harvick, I can’t imagine he’ll be penalized based on that as well, especially because all he did was shove Keselowski then get the heck out of there.
While NASCAR is likely to come out and condone the actions of Sunday night, in private they will be loving this. This “boys have at it” type feuding has brought a buzz and excitement to the sport it hasn’t seen in a long time. If the temperature keeps rising, one can only imagine what the scene will be at Homestead in two weeks for the finale.
That kind of unknown anticipation should bring a lot of people either to the track to see it or on TV to watch what might happen. Should everything go well, you know there will be clips from this Chase that NASCAR will make into commercials to promote the new Chase.
If not NASCAR, then Texas Motor Speedway will jump at the chance to promote these antics. Jimmie Johnson ran away with the race on Sunday, one of the more boring races of the season, but no one will remember that. The new Chase is here along with a new era of NASCAR racing, where winning is everything.
Tempers and the pressure of the Chase got to a few drivers last night unlike any that we’ve seen in recent times. Brad Keselowski tried to pick fights with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, which inadvertently involved Tony Stewart in some post-race fireworks. Many fans on Twitter have taken to calling out Keselowski for his actions, but I am here to defend him.
Because I had picked Keselowski to win last night, I made it a point to listen to his in-car audio throughout the duration of the Bank of America 500 from the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Coming to the first run-in with Kenseth, after it happened, Keselowski and spotter Joey Meier tried to figure out what happened. Eventually Meier concluded he might have missed Kenseth, but there was no room up high anyways.
As the race continued on, an event happened that no one in the reporting world (on Twitter at least) noted until it was mentioned at the end of that race. Kenseth had gotten the lucky dog pass, and as he made his way on the high side around the field to get his lap back, he turned into the side of Keselowski’s Ford. This damaged the right front and relegated them to “junk” as Keselowski put it.
At that point, Keselowski began suggesting he would pay Kenseth a “friendly” visit after the race to discuss what happened. Again he, crew chief Paul Wolfe, and spotter Meier went back to the original incident to recall if they had been in error, coming to the same conclusion.
On the final restart Keselowski scrapped with Hamlin and there was no talk of retaliation on that front. My opinion is Keselowski was dead set on getting to Kenseth, but before he could do that on the cool down lap, Hamlin brake checked Keselowski. An already mad Keselowski then added Hamlin to his hit list; trying to spin out Hamlin, without much success.
Then it was on to finding Kenseth and I’m going to deviate for a second here. What got Hamlin and Kenseth so fired up was that Keselowski hit Kenseth’s car while he had his seat belts undone. That is inexcusable in itself and NASCAR should review the cool down lap procedures. When a driver is in a vehicle going around the race track, going five mph or 200 mph, he should be belted in.
On Twitter I got some flack, with people saying “it is a known procedure to loosen belts on cool down laps,” which is a terrible defense. That’s the same kind of defense that came up when Tony Stewart had his unfortunate accident in August, where it was known that people get out of their cars to confront drivers. It took tragedy to have NASCAR and other sanctioning bodies to step in and enforce rules to keep drivers in the cars. Now I believe NASCAR needs to step in and stop this habit right here because these post-race bumps happen more often than you think.
Back on track, Keselowski and Kenseth make contact, of which it causes Keselowski to get into Tony Stewart’s car. Funniest part of this is how Stewart reacted; by gunning it in reverse to run into Keselowski’s car. Then on pit road Hamlin and Keselowski make more contact before going to the garage, where Hamlin has to be restrained from coming after Keselowski.
See, here again, Keselowski calmly got out of his car, but it is Hamlin who is flipping out to get to him. Hamlin should remember how tangling with a Team Penske driver worked out in the past. Anyways, I’m still confused how Hamlin, who started it by brake checking Keselowski and now trying to fight Keselowski, is coming off as more of a saint than Keselowski.
By the time they defuse the Hamlin bomb, Kenseth comes out of nowhere to tackle Keselowski between the haulers. Again, Kenseth put his nose where it shouldn’t have been, takes a cheap shot at Keselowski while getting his lap back, then takes exception to the retaliatory bump on the cool down lap. How did you not see that coming Kenseth? How did you not think, “Gee, this guy might get back at me.”? How is his spotter not keeping him informed that Keselowski is coming?
I think Keselowski had it correctly in his comments afterwards, saying “those guys can dish it out, but they can’t take it. I gave it back to them and now they want to fight, so I don’t know what’s up with that.”
That’s exactly it, Hamlin and Kenseth can be on the offensive, but once they are put on the defensive, they wig out. The television can only show what they capture, it was dumb luck a cameraman was following Keselowski when Kenseth tackled him. Imagine what else they would have seen had they been following around Saint Hamlin and Saint Kenseth the whole time.
Last night’s Budweiser Duels provided an interesting insight into what we can expect in Sunday’s Daytona 500. With most of the early practices gear towards single car qualifying, it wasn’t until the Sprint Unlimited where we saw how the racing could be with this new package on the Daytona International Speedway.
Results there were of a wreckfest, with nearly have the field eliminated in accidents because cars were unstable and drivers were unused to the closing rates. Wednesday during practice we had a similar situation which saw more cars destroyed, and drivers opted not to practice much in the night time session.
What we saw in the Budweiser Duels was a lot different and should translate into the Daytona 500. Drivers raced side by side, but did so with caution they did not have prior. Whether this was because teams couldn’t afford to wreck any more cars or drivers got acclimated to the new package has yet to be seen. The first race went caution free and the second nearly went caution free, and that caution was due to Jimmie Johnson running out of fuel, not errors by any drivers.
Something that is a bit disturbing, from a fan’s perspective, is that there was very little movement in the top-5 during the final six laps of each race. The first Duel saw the same drivers who were first through fifth with six to go cross the finish line the same way to end the race. Second place Kevin Harvick was disqualified as his car fail post-race inspection, which throws this example off on paper.
In the second Duel, it was shaping up to finish the same way until Johnson ran out of fuel. That jumbled the order up, but the same drivers who were first, second, and third with six laps to go crossed the finish line as the top three drivers. Only Jeff Gordon managed to get past Kurt Busch for second place when it was all said and done.
Each race featured minimal lead changes (eight total between the two races) with five drivers leading 96.67% of the total laps run last night. The others who led did so because of pit stops or because they started on the front row.
Another indicator that drivers were happy riding last night is the average position of each driver. In the first race, the top four finishing drivers had the top four best average positions (minus Harvick, who had he finished second would have made it five for five). Kenseth and Earnhardt average a running position of fourth place (along with Harvick), Marcos Ambrose averaged a fifth place position and Kasey Kahne averaged a seventh place position.
The second race has nearly the same result with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch among the best average running positions with seventh, third, and fourth respectfully. With the accident at the end it did drop drivers like Jamie McMurray (averaged eighth), Casey Mears (averaged eighth), and Carl Edwards (averaged sixth).
On the flip side, drivers who were out back didn’t really gain much by the race’s conclusion. The bottom three finishers in the first race had the worst three average running positions (excluding Harvick). In the second race, the fourth worst running drivers were aided by Brad Keselowski’s problems and Ryan Truex and Justin Allgaier were able to get past Michael Annett by the finish, who had a better average running position than both of them. This is a moot point for Truex, who missed the Daytona 500, whereas Allgaier and Annett both made it.
Passing as always will be critical and one thing did jump out at me when looking over the box score. Factoring in that each race only featured 24 drivers, there was a good number of drivers who were in the 90% of quality passes. Quality passes is a stat NASCAR keeps track of for every time a driver makes a pass of a car for position who’s running in the top-15. Marcos Ambrose led the way with 64 of his 64 passes being quality passes for a 100% mark. Others who rated high include: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (96.3%), Brad Keselowski (92.9%), AJ Allmendinger (92.8%), Kurt Busch (91.9%), and Jimmie Johnson (90.6%).
I didn’t like that Earnhardt tried to go with Ryan Newman to the front in the closing laps of the first race, but Newman passed on the invitation citing it was too early and the bottom of the track wasn’t good for a run. I hope we see some racing near the end instead of just a single file line to the finish.
My theory is that during the Daytona 500 most drivers will be happy to ride single file if they can for as long as they can. There will be the traditional jockeying for position around mid-pack, but once someone gets to the lead they will try to stay there. This might mirror last year’s race, when Matt Kenseth put his Toyota on cruise control for much of the race until his engine expired. As the second race showed, when it comes to the end of the race, anything can happen and probably will.
Even if drivers want to stay single file, someone is going to try a move to position themselves to potentially win the Daytona 500. Not only would they gain the accolades of winning the Super Bowl of stock car racing, the win could secure them into the Chase for the Sprint Cup after one race.
With the stakes that much higher we might see more moves than we did Thursday night when they were racing for starting position and not a points paying victory. The action gets underway at 1 PM EST and can be seen on FOX.