The Frontstretch: Dialing It In: The Stories You Should Be Watching In 2011 by Jay Pennell -- Thursday February 10, 2011

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Dialing It In: The Stories You Should Be Watching In 2011

Jay Pennell · Thursday February 10, 2011

 

Every February, when the NASCAR season is just around the corner, the butterflies start to build and the excitement of finally seeing cars back on the track is at an all-time high. Along with that anticipation is the challenge of figuring out what cars have new colors, new drivers, new numbers, new guys calling the shots and pitting the cars. Now, throw in all of the changes NASCAR has made for the 2011 season and it is enough to make you take a day’s worth of Goody’s.

So, with the official start less than a week away – qualifying for the Daytona 500 is this coming Sunday – here are a few things I will have my eye on throughout not only the opening weeks, but the entire season.

It’s a gas, gas, gas…

NASCAR announced last year a number of changes to the fueling system, the type of fuel used and how that fuel is put in the car. With pit stops and fuel mileage playing such a crucial role in NASCAR, these changes are bound to cause concern for teams, and I expect to see some stumble out of the gates.

A switch to ethanol fuel, plus elimination of the catch can man during pit stops has Sunoco front and center in the NASCAR news cycle for 2011.

The most noticeable change in 2011 will be the use of E15 ethanol in all of the cars. While this adjustment may not be so visible at the track, it sure will be sitting at home watching on television. According to The Daly Planet, the green flag will now feature an AE logo and each green flag will be sponsored by American Ethanol. If the term “double-file shootout style” was any indication of things to come, ethanol and NASCAR’s involvement will be crammed down the throats of those watching at home.

At the track, however, the biggest change for the teams will not be the type of fuel being poured into the car, but how that fuel is delivered. The new fuel can operates with a system of seals and valves. According to many in the garage, gas men will have to be more precise than ever hitting their marks and locking the can in place. Talking with some pit crews at the end of 2010, many expect more spills and a learning curve up and down pit road.

Not only has NASCAR altered the dump cans used to deliver the fuel into the car, they have also eliminated the need for a catch can man. While this may seem like a small move to some, for the now six men going over the wall to service those cars it is a huge deal. Over the past decade, pit stops have progressed to a sport in and of itself. Now, thanks to the loss of the catch can man, the synchronized symphony had to be rewritten and perfected during the offseason. Talking with crew chiefs and pit crew members, many expect the stops to be up to a second slower while everyone adjusts.

In addition, the catch can man was the go-to guy when it came to making adjustments during a stop. With that crew member now gone, teams are forced to find another to fulfill that job – in the midst of performing other duties. During the media tour in January, our own Mike Neff informed me not all teams are on the same page when it comes to who will fill that void, different sources outlying different strategies for how each one of their stops is going to play out.

As the teams work through the mileage issues ethanol presents, the challenges of the new dump cans and the reworking of the pit stop, it should be interesting to see who figured it out in the winter months and who will be playing catch-up.

Nobody could have predicted the string of misfortune and change at Red Bull Racing last year. But after a relatively quiet offseason, will they be ready to soar in 2011?

If Red Bull gives you wins, do you fly…

Earlier this week Bryan Davis Keith touched on the interesting situation Red Bull Racing finds itself in for 2011. With Brian Vickers returning to the car for the first time since June and Kasey Kahne joining the organization for one season before moving to Hendrick Motorsports, Bryan expected the team to continue the struggles it was forced to deal with in 2010.

I, on the other hand, could not disagree more.

There is no doubt this organization was dealt a heavy hand midseason last year and they certainly struggled simply to regain their composure. However, with Vickers back in the car and a renewed hunger in Kahne’s eyes, I expect big things from the Red Bull team right out of the gate.

Here is another thing I will be watching as the season and the rumor mill progress – what happens if Kahne is successful and does not want to leave in November? While some may point to the contract he has with Hendrick Motorsports, Scott Speed’s comments in his Beyond The Cockpit interview prove the Red Bull organization will do what it takes to sidestep one.

Also take into consideration there have been rumors in the past the team has considered a switch from Toyotas to Chevrolets. Were all the pieces to fall into place, could the Red Bull team become yet another Hendrick satellite? Vickers has a past with HMS and is close friends with many of their drivers. Kahne is contractually obligated to join the team, but were this to happen – and I stress this is purely my own speculation – would he not still be tied to Rick Hendrick?

Imagine a champion in a black car with a No. 3 on the door…

Much will be made about the tenth anniversary of the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the next few weeks in Daytona. While many recall he was running up front and pushing his cars to the win, few remember that team owner Richard Childress contends they were poised to make a championship run that season. Finishing second in the standings to Bobby Labonte in 2000, Childress has often told of how prepared they were to break history and give Earnhardt his eighth championship trophy.

Now, ten years later, the team is yet again talking championship and coming off a season in which they nearly won the title – Harvick led the standings for the majority of the year and finished third in the Chase to Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Not to mention, the No. 29 car is also sporting new colors and a new sponsor. The black paint scheme with white Budweiser lettering is reminiscent to Earnhardt’s, and a No. 3 remains on the door still to this day.

Harvick has grown in the ten years he has been in control of Earnhardt’s former ride from a rowdy young hot shoe to a mature driver looking at the bigger picture. Coming close to the ultimate goal last season, it was clear in offseason conversations Harvick once again has his eyes set on the Sprint Cup trophy.

It’s all about the he-said, she-said…

According to Brian France, the fans are the ones calling the shots for NASCAR and the direction he chooses to take the sport. Over the past few seasons, fans have bemoaned tweaks made, complained about television coverage and called for many additional changes – few of which France or NASCAR have actually listened to or implemented.

Heading into a fresh season, stock full of changes once again, I will be keeping an eye on what you, the readers and the fans at the track are saying, what you are calling for and what you would like to see changed. NASCAR has simplified the points to make it easier for fans to understand, but many contend that was an unnecessary move. Others have called for changes to the television broadcasts, yet no visible changes have been made yet.

NASCAR is a sport driven by the fans, and those fans are passionate about the sport they love. Were the changes made enough to placate their concerns? Is it time to leave the sport alone and see what develops? Will more changes be made in the future? Only time will tell, but one of the primary clues to that answer will be how the fans react to the action on the track in 2011.

All-in-all, I’m just excited we’re about to see race cars once again and kick off yet another season of NASCAR. Despite all the criticism and contention with those at the top of the totem pole, one thing remains the same; once those drivers strap in and fire those engines, they will put on one hell of a show.

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Thursday on the Frontstretch:
MPM2Nite: Answering Questions Nobody Asked
Potts’ Shots: Figure-8 Racing And The Story of Big Bumpers
Getting the ‘Cheerleading’ Out of My Journalistic System
Did You Notice? … What The NFL Teaches NASCAR, Pesky Hangovers And Hanging On
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Jacob
02/10/2011 06:19 AM
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I don’t know how teams couldn’t all be on the same page when it comes to deciding just who will be responsible for making chassis adjustments to the car. With the catch can man gone, the only person realistically able to adjust the chassis is the rear tire carrier. The gas man will be busy gassing the car, the rear tire changer is otherwise engaged during the entire stop, the jackman has to monitor the jack, and would have to move around two people to change the track bar or right side wedge, and three people in order to change the left side wedge. That leaves just the rear tire carrier to do the work. Any team that hasn’t figured that out yet, will do so before the checkers fall for the 500.

I don’t think that Red Bull will be contending for wins right out of the gate. I do, however, think that they will benefit greatly from having two capable and competent drivers in their cars for an entire season. They didn’t get a lot of useful data last season between Scott Speed and the myriad of other drivers. I expect this season to be one of catching up. But they should be able to catch up with their driver line-up as it is.
I wouldn’t worry too much about them switching to Chevy. Any rumors to that effect could be nothing more than the team’s attempt to leverage more money and support from Toyota itself. Red Bull is interested in speed on the track, and the Toyotas are every bit as fast, if not faster than the chevys. Even if their drivers aren’t as consistent as the benchmark #48.

I always believed that 2001 would have gone to Earnhardt had he not died. The team’s incredible speed and consistency shown while in complete disarray and mourning shows what the season could have been. Kevin Harvick finished in the top 10, even though he missed one race. When’s the last time that happened in Cup?
As for Happy winning the title, we will have to wait and see. Since 2001, a good year for RCR has been followed up by a dismal one. The last time being the last time they attempted to expand to 4 cars.

Let me vote for the changes that I want to see:

  1. Dump “the chase”.
  2. Change the points so that winning is more important than riding.
  3. Strap brian france onto the very next rocket being launched and send him anywhere in the Universe but here.
  4. Do the same to anybody that vows to continue with the “sweeping” changes brian made to NASCAR, making it into NA$CAR.

Those would be a good start.

Sherri T
02/11/2011 11:20 AM
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I totally agree with Jacob on the changes that need to be made! Although I might move #s 3 & 4 to 1 & 2 and move the other two down as it looks like 3 & 4 will have to happen before we’ll see things go to the way they should be!