Curtains have fallen on the first “real” race of the season, as NASCAR’s 2009 debut on the West Coast proceeded as many California races have before. Long green flag runs and a strung out field are the best ways to describe an event where the majority of the cars struggled with handling, leaving only a select few drivers to find themselves with a real shot at the win.
Adding to the boredom was the dominance of a select few. Kyle Busch came close to scoring the first “hat trick” in NASCAR history, finishing third in the Cup race while scoring impressive wins in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events. Matt Kenseth followed up with his second consecutive win in the Sprint Cup 500-miler, although Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle each had cars capable of getting to Victory Lane. Gordon drove a masterful race, only to come up just short, while a Biffle miscue on pit road and other miscues of his own left him with a surprise appearance on this week’s “Hot, Warm, Cold” list.
Here’s a breakdown of where Kenseth, Gordon, Biffle, and some of the series’ other top drivers stand heading to Las Vegas next week:
HOT – Matt Kenseth: Duh. Three words describe the ’03 champ’s 2009 season to date: two-for-two. Kenseth won the Auto Club 500 in a much different fashion than the Daytona 500 – he actually led the most laps and proved he had the fastest car throughout the day. Kenseth’s “Killer Bees” pit crew, headed by 1.000-hitting crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, also got Kenseth on and off pit road better than any other crew on the grid, producing a net gain of 10 spots during the entire 500-mile event. In the end, by holding off Jeff Gordon, Kenseth became the first driver to win the first two races of the NASCAR season since Gordon accomplished the same feat in 1997.
And if you’re thinking this team is going to slow down anytime soon… think again. Las Vegas is next up on the schedule, and the No. 17 has always run well there. Watch out!
HOT – Jeff Gordon: Despite his second place finish, the No. 24 was clearly the car to beat for much of Sunday’s race until Kenseth took the lead with a killer pit stop following the race’s final caution on Lap 213. Gordon, who has been winless since the fall Lowe’s race in 2007, was hungrier then ever to get to Victory Lane, but never made the desperate move that sometimes takes drivers out of contention. He and Kenseth battled hard through the final laps before the four-time champ used up his tires and let the No. 17 slip away.
HOT – Kyle Busch: No, I am not going straight down the results of the race and saying the top three drivers are the three hottest on the circuit just because they finished that way. Each one has legitimate reasons to be on the list; and considering Busch nearly made NASCAR history, I’d say he’s one of the hottest drivers out there. Busch came two positions short on Sunday, but wrote his name into the NASCAR record books on Saturday, becoming the first driver to win two NASCAR national touring series races on the same day. On the Cup side, Busch avenged his poor finish last week — one where he should have won the race before Daytona’s “Big One” — by taking a car that belonged in the latter half of the top 10 and nursing it to a solid top five.
WARM – Jamie McMurray: Jamie Mac technically led the field to the green flag on Sunday, because pole sitter Brian Vickers changed an engine and had to start from the back. The No. 26 Ford then ran solidly in the top 10 throughout the day, looking good until brake problems forced a late pit stop and took him out of contention. The soft brake pedal and the loss of track position wound up leaving McMurray and the No. 26 team with only a 16th place finish to show for a great effort. But this much is clear after the first two races: the Crown Royal Ford is running head and shoulders better than it has for the past three years with Donnie Wingo atop the pit box.
WARM – Tony Stewart: Stewart’s foray into ownership is off to a great start. Two solid runs to open 2009 have silenced many doubts about Stewart-Haas Racing. Despite losing a total of three cars during Speedweeks and Ryan Newman having some rough luck in the first two races, Stewart and the No. 14 team have run well; not great, but better than expected. If Stewart can avoid the bad luck that plagues many driver/owners and keeps his nose clean, he will find himself in the Chase.
WARM – Juan Pablo Montoya: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing straight up struggled in California. Daytona 500 pole sitter Martin Truex, Jr. meddled around in 27th place, while youngster Aric Almirola ran around 30th for most of the night before suffering a mechanical failure and finishing 35th. But in the wake of these disappointing runs was an 11th place finish by Montoya in the No. 42 Chevy. Montoya hung in or near the top 10 all night, staying on the lead lap as the leaders picked off the rest of the field one by one. Montoya opened the season with a great Gatorade Duel run and a 14th place finish in the 500, and as a result, he now finds himself 10th in the season standings. Montoya struggled last year — especially on tracks like California — so his surprising run gives his team some much-needed momentum in 2009.
COLD – Greg Biffle: Yes, Biffle. Have you noticed how many incidents Biffle has been involved in this season already? He bounced around like a Baywatch lifeguard during the Bud Shootout; crashed out of his Gatorade Duel race; did not lift at all for Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, causing the rookie to crash; spun out all by himself in the opening Nationwide Series practice; did not give Brian Vickers a bit of room on the apron of the track during the Nationwide Series race Saturday, causing Vickers to spin himself out of contention; and simply ran over Brad Keselowski in the same race, forcing the driver of the No. 88 into the wall and well off the lead lap. On Sunday, Biffle had a great car and lost himself a chance at the win by nearly overshooting his pit box and parking on the air hose, forcing the team to back the car up and add at least five seconds to the stop. Biffle fell from second to 11th and rebounded to fourth place, showing how fast the No. 16 car really was. He is a great driver on a great team — but mistakes like these can ruin your championship chances.
COLD – Paul Menard: The third year driver has had some awful luck this season. Nevertheless, he has compiled finishes of 37th and 38th, and appears he is continuing his DEI tradition of only getting on camera when he causes trouble. In Sunday’s case, Menard’s mechanical troubles did not even garner a mention on the FOX broadcast — so that formula did not work this time. Travis Kvapil will have the last laugh if Menard falls out of the Top 35 and Kvapil, who lost his owner points after a Yates Racing switcheroo in the offseason, manages to squeak the No. 28 inside the bubble of comfort after race five.
COLD – Jeff Burton: Sponsor Caterpillar has to be displeased at best with its debut races on the No. 31, as Burton has opened the year with finishes of 28th in the Daytona 500 and 31st in California. But while Burton got caught up in Menard’s mess in the 500, he and his team simply struggled at Auto Club Speedway. Burton’s highly-funded Richard Childress Racing team got lapped early and finished as the last car three laps down, sandwiched in the running order between David Gilliland in the TRG No. 71 and John Andretti in the Front Row Motorsports “EGR” No. 34. This team has made the Chase the past three years, but needs to get its act together on “cookie cutter” tracks if they to stretch their playoff run to four straight.
Here are some HOT and NOT instances of the past week:
HOT – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. manning up: The fan response against Earnhardt, Jr. for the crash between him and Vickers fell heavily against Little E. Junior was initially defiant about the incident after the race, claiming little responsibility for both the wreck and for missing his pit box. But on Sunday, he sang a far different tune to Darrell Waltrip. In an interview with the commentator on FOX, he accepted as much of the blame for the crash as Vickers, while also revealing that he and Vickers spoke on the phone and patched things up. Junior also admitted that he was mad about missing his pit box, blaming his dumb mistake on his pit sign simply to cover his butt.
Junior wasn’t the only one apologizing, either. Vickers also claimed partial responsibility for the crash in an interview that followed Junior’s during FOX’s pre-race show, another mature gesture for a driver who followed his questionable blocking move in the 500 with an over-aggressive pass attempt on Biffle during Saturday’s Nationwide Series race — where he spun himself out as a result.
NOT – Auto Club Speedway: The excitement of Daytona International Speedway got splashed with a bucket of cold water following three highly uneventful races at Auto Club Speedway out in California. Attendance for the Sprint Cup race may have been decent (it was, according to the FOX broadcast, although their assessment has to be taken with a grain of salt), but there was sparse attendance for the Nationwide and Camping World Series races.
There is a really good explanation as to why fans aren’t coming, and it’s not exactly the economy: racing action at California gets strung out easily, and it’s been that way since the track opened in 1997. Kyle Busch led nearly every lap in the first two races of the weekend, and passing the leader during the Cup race proved to be a more-than-daunting task. Fortunately, Busch’s attempt at history made the Truck and Nationwide Series races easier to watch, and the storylines surrounding Kenseth and Gordon during the Cup race — plus their great duel in the closing laps — made that event seem more exciting. Without these dramatic plot twists, this weekend of racing is filed under “Extremely Boring.”
HOT- Truck Series success: The Camping World Truck Series is often regarded as the division out of NASCAR’s top three with the best racing action. The ratings reflected this for the series’ Friday night Daytona race, which was rated the highest in its time slot on cable! Yes, that’s not a misprint: the Camping World Truck Series on SPEED Channel beat out every other program on cable. Unreal.
Every year, the championship points battle for this series goes down to the wire, and the racing is often door-to-door and fender-to-fender. But what’s also hard to believe is that despite the ratings success for the series, many teams are without sponsorship and cannot run, leaving it with a plethora of start and park teams and sometimes short fields.
NOT – Starting and Parking: Both the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races had full fields this weekend… technically. Just as age is only a number, so are the numbers 43 and 36. In both the Truck and Nationwide Series, there were at least seven start and park teams in each race this past weekend. Starting and parking is legal, and should be, but is a disgrace to real racers. Sure, these teams would run more laps if they had the money, but seeing so many of them punk out of races early is just awful. Fortunately, the Cup Series has been immune to this so far this year, but if some of the newer, low-level, startup teams start running out of money, we may see it.
Last but not least, here’s a brief “NOT HOT” note about finishing races: Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 team blew a motor Sunday, ending an 81-race long streak of races they had completed — a modern-era record. Considering Harvick got wrecked late in the October Talladega race and still finished, this streak was hard to watch come to an end. Harvick’s RCR teammate Clint Bowyer now holds the mark for consecutive races without a DNF at 75, putting last year’s Nationwide Series champ within 10 races of breaking Herman Beam‘s all-time record of 84.
NASCAR Sprint Cup teams prepare to roll the dice on the racing surface at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next week. Turn here next Tuesday to find out which teams hit the jackpot… and which hope their bad luck in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Listen to Doug on the WSB 120 racing show this Saturday, from 2-4 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also download his FastCar Podcast weekly from CaptainHerb.net.