The Frontstretch: 5 Points to Ponder: Where Have All The Cars Gone? Hamlin Slowing?, More by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday February 15, 2011

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5 Points to Ponder: Where Have All The Cars Gone? Hamlin Slowing?, More

Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday February 15, 2011

 

ONE: This Isn’t 2010’s Denny Hamlin

Just as he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in last year’s Chase, the second most prevalent question this offseason behind ‘Can Johnson win six titles in a row?’ was ‘Can Hamlin recreate the magic of 2010?’ that saw him lead the Cup Series in race wins even after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery midseason. If the start to the very young 2011 season is any indication, the answer to the second question is no.

Exhibit one was seen coming to the checkered flag on Saturday night. Hamlin, no stranger to taking care of business in this event (he won the Shootout as a rookie back in 2006), was in perfect position to steal a win from Ryan Newman…until he chose to make his final pass to the low side instead of going high. With the double yellow line leaving Hamlin’s Toyota no room for error, all Newman had to do was pinch down, sending the No. 11 down onto the apron and out of contention for the win.

Hamlin was quick in post-race remarks to note that it was go low or send Newman into the grandstands. It wasn’t that simple. Sure, at the extremely high speeds that were seen on this Saturday, a decision as to where to go had to be made in the blink of an eye. But that ignores the fact that Hamlin, the second place car for the final few laps, opted until the final turn of the final lap to make a one-and-done attempt at winning. It also ignores the fact that for all the precedent that Regan Smith set at Talladega in 2008 trying to avoid a wreck in a plate race, that a former Shootout winner that’s proven capable of getting the job done made the one move that guaranteed he would not get it done this night.

Fast forward to the next afternoon in Daytona 500 qualifying. Coming up to speed just after exiting pit road, Hamlin’s machine suddenly veered off the track in a hard left and plowed through the grass…because the steering wheel fell off. A minor error? Yes. An equipment problem? Maybe. But to not have the steering wheel of a race car secured properly is about as glaring a mistake as a driver or team can make. And call it making a mountain out of a molehill, but two mistakes have already cost the No. 11 a shot at a win and nearly destroyed a Daytona 500 race car. It’s going to take a whole lot more than that to give Jimmie Johnson another serious run for the crown.

TWO: An Unhealthy Car Count for the Daytona 500

For the first time since 2005, fewer than 50 cars showed up to attempt the Daytona 500, not only the most prestigious of stock car races, but also its richest payday. 48 cars is the lowest count since 2004, when only 46 entered (and only 45 actually made it onto the track). And with at least six of those entries being part-time cars, the 2011 season is opening with less than a full field of full-time entries.

It doesn’t take a magic 8-ball to figure out what this means once the Cup ranks take their traveling circus out west; the danger of a short field is very real. But in the shorter term, it also is of great detriment to a vital component of Speedweeks…Thursday’s Gatorade Duels. Races that have already had their significance and their impact castrated by the advent of the top-35 rule, the prime source of drama for the events…those who have no choice but to race into the Great American Race…is rather underwhelming this year.

There’s a good sporting chance that there won’t be all that much excitement in Thursday’s Gatorade Duels.

Take a look at the heavy hitters…they’ve already secured their spots in the field thanks to qualifying speed. Awesome Bill, Texas Terry, Joe Nemechek and Travis Kvapil can all rest easy because whatever happens in the qualifying races, they’ve already qualified. That leaves Duel One to be a likely three-way battle between Dave Blaney, Kevin Conway and Michael McDowell (JJ Yeley’s car was well off the pace at under 181 mph), with Duel Two pitting Michael Waltrip’s one-off entry against the two Germain cars (Todd Bodine and Casey Mears (can you say, team orders?), and the two slowest cars that took speed this past Sunday in Derrike Cope and Brian Keselowski. Cope couldn’t catch a whiff of the lead draft in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout…and Keselowski was slower than him. Neither one will be racing…they’ll be riding and praying for attrition.

It’s always a thrill to see stories like Kirk Shelmerdine or Kevin Lepage race their way onto the sport’s biggest stage. But a race within in a race for something so important can and should come down to more than a handful of cars. Waiting to see a wreck isn’t the same as watching drivers battling each other to make their way in. But the former is not likely what Thursday will bring.

THREE: Will The Earnhardt Factor Determine the Daytona 500?

Rewind back to July of 2001, the return for Cup racing to Daytona after the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 500. The 400-miler came down to a battle between Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Waltrip had the look he needed to make the pass and take the win…until what he attributed to all-but-divine intervention in his recent publication prevented him from making the pass, allowing Jr. to score an emotional win that ignited over 100,000 fans in the grandstands.

Think back to last summer, when Dale Jr. announced that he would for the first and only time drive his father’s No. 3 in NASCAR competition, taking to the Nationwide Series circuit for a 250-miler on the hallowed high banks in the Wrangler colors his father made famous. Jr. had a car that was among the class of the field. But the race ended with very little drama. Despite being trailed for numerous laps coming to the checkers by a stout line of cars that included the vaunted JGR Toyota of Joey Logano, no driver dared step out of line, and Jr. took the checkers unmolested.

Now, on the tenth anniversary of Sr.‘s death, Earnhardt Jr. is suddenly the favorite for Sunday. He’s on the pole. Hendrick horsepower is proving to be as good as anything that’s under the hood in Daytona Beach. Chances are, barring a wreck, he will be near the front of the field when this upcoming 500 is settled. Question is, if the No. 88 is at the point with the race on the line…will anyone have the balls to pass him?

I don’t claim to have proof of larger restrictor plates being shuffled around the garage stalls, or instructions being given that an Earnhardt is to win a race, or any of the other conspiracy theories that have floated around restrictor plate races the last decade. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize how big a story it would be to have Jr. start 2011 by winning the 500 on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death. It would light a fanbase dying for a spark. It would be a public relations coup for NASCAR.

Is there a driver out there with the gumption to take all that for himself (or at least try anyway) should this scenario play out this weekend? The answer to that question, should it show itself, will say more about the state of this sport than any feel-good victory ever could.

FOUR: Probation for Michael Annett Sends the Wrong Message

Yes, young people make mistakes. Yes, putting a driver on probation after a DUI is consistent with NASCAR’s policy precedent (Scott Wimmer received the same penalty as a Cup rookie in 2004). But what does it really say to a race car driver when, mere weeks after doing something both as asinine and dangerous as driving a motor vehicle at four times the legal alcohol limit, they still get to show up at Daytona and race as if nothing happened?

Obviously, there’s not going to be any sponsor backlash in this case; Pilot Travel Centers and Michael Annett are a family deal. And obviously it’s not necessarily the job of NASCAR or Rusty Wallace Incorporated to ensure that their drivers are fine, upstanding citizens.

Michael Annett’s arrest for Extreme DWI last week was embarrassing. The fact that Annett will race on Saturday is a travesty.

But this is a sport that involves doing highly dangerous activities…with cars. Like it or not, there is a massive perception problem to have drivers with serious moving violations racing stock cars professionally in front of national audiences without some form of repercussion for their actions. Further, probation obviously isn’t an effective deterrent to curb these kind of incidents…seeing as how the Wimmer story didn’t really seem to register on Annett’s brainwaves.

NASCAR should have parked Annett. On second thought, they never should have had to, because Rusty Wallace Incorporated should have parked him, sponsor considerations be damned. What really happened or not, the way this is playing out is a driver with his own sponsor got a slap on the wrist despite an egregious wrong, and will continue with a dream job as if it never happened.

FIVE: The Real State of the Sport

There is reason for stock car fans to be excited…namely, the Daytona 500 is less than a week away. NASCAR’s crown jewel is all but here. And listening to the word coming out of Daytona Beach, rumor has it that ticket sales are up 30% from where they were last year, when the 500 sold out maybe 24 hours before the green flag dropped.

That claim is impossible to substantiate, and very hard to believe after seeing the crowd for the Budweiser Shootout. With the backstretch closed and large swaths of the grandstands in turns 1 and 4 closed as well, there were a noticeable number of empty seats in the pricier upper deck (regardless of the checkered flag pattern the seats were painted in). NASCAR said there were 80,000 people there, just like they did last year. Problem is, between the patchy crowd in the upper deck and the vast sections of closed bleachers, there’s no way the grandstands at Daytona were 50% full.

The margin for error in terms of a sellout of the 500 was very slim last season. If the Shootout was any indication, it’s going to be that much closer this year, no matter what the forecasts say. And what does that say about any sport, that it’s Super Bowl has empty seats? The attendance ticker will tell quite the tale on this Sunday before a single car takes the green.

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Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Budweiser Shootout Edition
What Happens After Daytona Is Much More Important For Junior
No Bull: Random Thoughts On Whiners, Plates, And Winners Entering 2011
Talking NASCAR TV: FOX Unveils New Look, But Old Issues Must Be Solved For ’11
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NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum
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Jacob
02/15/2011 07:25 AM
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On, point one, Bryan, you are definitely making a mountain out of a mole hill.
The argument could be made, just as easily, to say that since the shootout is meaningless aside from the money, Denny made the right call in not tearing up a bunch of cars. As for the steering wheel in qualifying, well there is nowhere that qualifying is less important than a restrictor plate track. And there is no restrictor plate race where your qualifying lap is less important than for the Daytona 500, so it is the perfect place to screw up if you are going to have one.
Now, I’m not aying Denny will make the chase, or even contend if he does make the chase, but you are stretching your credibility to the breaking point by declaring his season to be a dud already.

Everything else you say is spot on. Although I doubt there will be short fields. There will be 43 cars at every venue, but don’t be surprised if as many as 10 of them race each other to see who can load up and leave first.

randy “need one more?”, “volcanonacho”, “dansmom”, JACOB goldman, do you have anything stupid to say under my name?

pepper
02/15/2011 09:13 AM
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So now you’re taking Michael Waltrip’s word for fact? How low can you go? And starting a conspiracy theory about a larger RP? How stupid do you think your readers are?

Carl D.
02/15/2011 10:02 AM
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It’s probably just me, but every time someone interviews Hamlin, he still seems to have that shell-shocked look on his face, like he still can’t believe his team choked last season. I’m not sure Denny and the #11 team has put 2010 behind them yet, and that may not bode well for their 2011 campaign.

Or I could be completely wrong and he could kick everyone’s a$$ this year.

Steve
02/15/2011 11:48 AM
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Re Hamlin: I agree with Jacob on this one. He made the decision to go low and it was the wrong one. Its not like his season is a disaster already because he didn’t win the shootout. Would you consider it an utter failure if he didn’t win every race? Even super Jimmie doesn’t win every race.

RE Earnhardt factor: I have been thinking the same thing this week. Nascar doesn’t fix races but if he is contending at the end it will be interesting to see if he gets that debris caution or if the other drivers start to drive a little different.

Re Annett: Not shocked at all by this. He has a big name sponsor and races for Rusty Wallace, so just a slap on the wrist. If this was a back marker, they would have come down heavily on him. It just depends who you are. Rusty should be more ashamed after his tough talk after the incident happened. He essentially did nothing.

RE Attendance: I wouldn’t be surprised if the 500 sold out, but I expect empty grandstands everywhere else this season.

EZ
02/15/2011 11:49 AM
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There’s only one thing worse than being at the track,having to watch on Fox, with the ying yangs they have for commentators.

There should be NO PENALTY to Annett, no different than any other job,What you do away from work is none of the employers business.If you got a DUI should you be suspended from writing here?

Surfcaster
02/15/2011 11:53 AM
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To all Jr bashers talking about him taking the pole position, all that just means is your driver did not get it.

laxbro25
02/15/2011 12:39 PM
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I’m pretty sure no one bashed jr for getting the pole. it was a good lap with good equipment. calm down

Bill B
02/15/2011 05:52 PM
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Bryan,
You might be right about Hamlin (we’ll see as the season unfolds) but I think you are stretching a bit.
I am no Hamlin fan but I have to point out that he was in contention to win, Johnson wasn’t even in the foursome coming to the line. Yes, he made a bad decision but he took a shot for a win in a non-points race and almost pulled it off. Bet he doesn’t go below the line if he’s in the same position Sunday.

Dave in Ohio
02/15/2011 09:13 PM
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Conspiracy Theory? I think it will become conspiracy fact. A Jr. win on this weekend will be a PR bonanza for Na$car and anyone associated with it worth literally millions. Awful lot of temptation for a plate just a hair bigger. Wouldn’t be the first instance of cheating and race fixing, and won’t be the last.