Did You Notice? The giant black wrecking ball on the track Saturday night? NASCAR was looking for a new wrinkle to make the races more exciting, and…
Hold on a second. That was David Stremme? Ohhhh… now it all makes sense. Seriously, it’s hard to think of a worse debut for a driver with a top-level team. I know the Shootout is an exhibition race, but Stremme was putting on an ugly exhibition of his own Saturday night, involved in multiple wrecks while destroying his Veriz… er, Penske Championship Racing Dodge. He followed that up by falling flat in qualifying the next day, taking full advantage of his Top-35 exemption into the field after timing in a dismal 41st.
I know, I know; it’s hard to criticize a driver before they’ve even completed a full points race this year. But let’s not forget this is the very team that passed Tony Stewart on the last lap to win the Daytona 500 a year ago. Anything less than a top 10 would be a major disappointment for Penske, and right now it doesn’t look like that car is capable of running in the top 20. And then there’s the whole matter of that “Veriz,” otherwise known as Verizon Wireless – the company which inherited sponsorship of the No. 12 after a merger with Alltel. While they can’t put their logos on the car due to NASCAR’s exclusivity clause with Sprint, the company is still pouring millions into the sport in advertising through television and other initiatives. And for a company in direct competition with the sport’s title sponsor, there’s a strong desire for them to be successful; after all, what better way to shove it in your competitor’s face than to be standing in their victory lane with your car?
All this pressure adds up to a critical next few weeks for Stremme. If he stumbles out of the gate, there aren’t a whole lot of drivers out there that Penske can sub in right now. But if Justin Allgaier comes out strong in Penske’s Nationwide No. 12… let’s just say this whole deal is reminding me of Jason Leffler’s decision to drive the No. 11 of Joe Gibbs Racing three years ago. In over his head, the Nationwide Series veteran lasted just half a season – paving the way for Denny Hamlin’s eventual rise to stardom in the FedEx machine instead. Could Allgaier be the one following in Hamlin’s footsteps? We’ll have to wait and see; this thing is certainly still Stremme’s ride to lose. But first impressions are hard to break… and he hasn’t made a good one to start.
Did You Notice? That speaking of Hamlin, he’s giving away four tickets to every race this season? I’m really interested to see who wins next week at California – just to see if they’ll simply say, “No thanks,” and mail them right back.
Did You Notice? The big announcement on Thursday concerning Boris Said? It’s at 10:00 a.m. at the Media Center, and while I’m not yet at liberty to divulge details, rest assured this thing is big. I mean, big with a capital B. For Said, the most important thing is it’s going to give him an opportunity to finally compete a full-season schedule (by 2010) and see how he stacks up against the big boys. For years, he’s wanted a chance to see if his road-racing expertise could translate onto the oval tracks, but no owner or sponsor was willing to take a chance on him for more than a few races a year.
Now, for Said the waiting will all be over; he’ll have the funding he needs, and the chance he deserves. In a larger sense, there’s no question his weekly presence will be a fresh boost for the sport desperately in need of new blood; a loyal breed of “Said Head” fans make him more popular than most Cup veterans who’ve driven in the sport for years. But this partnership will run much deeper than Said’s driving career. Said and his new African-American co-owner, Rick Clark, have a plan in place that’ll make his team the talk of the town in the weeks and months to come. Just pay attention, watch on Thursday, and wait for the major twist.
Did You Notice? The irony in Mark Martin winding up runner-up for the Daytona 500 pole to Martin Truex Jr.? Two years after his second-place finish, Martin comes up the bridesmaid once more in Daytona – to the very team he left at the end of the season for greener pastures at Hendrick Motorsports.
And while Martin will wind up with a far better season in the No. 5, there’s no question his HMS team was looking up at the ECR (Earnhardt Childress) horsepower they saw muscle down the back straightaway on Sunday. Here’s the one thing that makes me nervous, though, about this whole ECR engine resurgence – we haven’t gone 500 miles yet. Wasn’t the old DEI breaking parts and pieces to the tune of nearly one team per race just a year and a half ago? I’d like to see Truex do well, but I have this nasty feeling he’s got “contender for 400 miles before unforeseen mechanical failure knocks him out” written all over him.
One more note on Martin before moving on… he hasn’t won a pole since Richmond in May of 2001. Since that time, he’s qualified on the outside pole 16 times – including six in 2008 alone. Sometimes people think the whole Martin “hard luck” storyline is an exaggeration – but you just can’t make this stuff up.
Did You Notice? This whole double yellow-line thing? In my opinion, it’s a whole bunch of bull. Do you really think an extra yellow line painted on the pavement was going to keep Regan Smith from going for the win on the final lap at Talladega? Of course not. All that extra line has done is highlight once again the utter stupidity of holding races at a track where you feel like you need an out-of-bounds for safety reasons. Either come up with a solution that allows drivers to go back to running on the ragged edge… or admit the track is unsafe and find a way to remove the plates or change the overall design of the oval. It’s really not that hard to use common sense in this scenario…
One more thing while we’re on this subject. I was watching classic finishes of the Daytona 500 in the offseason, and just think of how many passes would have been disallowed if the yellow-line rule were in place. The first one that comes to my head is Jeff Gordon’s pass of Rusty Wallace to win his second 500 in 1999. That’s looked at as one of the greatest passes in racing history, still talked about by many longtime fans today; but in this era of “safety first,” Gordon would have finished at the tail end of the lead lap, handing the victory to someone else.
And NASCAR wonders why they’re having a problem keeping fans entertained. Ugh.
Did You Notice? Since we’re on the topic of safety, that horrific crash between Patrick Sheltra and Larry Hollenbeck in the closing laps of Saturday’s ARCA race was one of the scarier ones we’ve had in a long time. I have to tell you, I’ve been coming to the track full-time for three years now, and I’ve never been as worried as the moments after that wreck. Sheltra was certainly blessed, because another foot or two to the left and that hit could have very well been fatal.
For all of us, those tense moments after the crash – where the cars were cut open and both men got transported to the hospital – reminded us all that this sport is inherently unsafe. No matter how many soft walls you put in and no matter how many safety innovations you come up with, there will always be the chance a car winds up at the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. It’s tough to think about, but impossible to avoid… and not something a double yellow line is going to keep from going away.
Did You Notice? How all over the place the cars were in Saturday night’s Bud Shootout? In one sense, it’s refreshing to see drivers struggling to come to grips with handling to the point they can actually spin out on their own because they can’t keep the car under control. With all the criticism of the Car of Tomorrow, I do believe it’s made the man behind the wheel a little bit more important than two or three years ago.
But… and this is a big but… the bounciness of the cars makes the racing look awkward at times, especially when cars are struggling to say side-by-side. Their difficult handling characteristics just appear to be that much more exaggerated; you can easily tell when one of those cars is loose. It’s made the old body style seem so silky smooth in comparison – even when those cars were on the verge of being out of control. And even as the teams get a better feel for how to adjust the CoT, you can’t get around the simple fact the things just look ugly. And we all know what happens to ugly cars – they don’t sell.
At least the racing was some of the best we’ve seen in years for an exhibition race, though. Here’s hoping it continues right through the Duels and the 500 next Sunday…