NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Catch 21 – Thoughts, Questions & Observations 3 Races Into 2009

21, as many of you will know, is a lucky number in Las Vegas. So, here are exactly that many questions, observations, and thoughts – in no particular order – on the season so far as the series leaves Sin City to head back east:

Nothing changes for Casey Mears

New team, new number, new sponsor, new crew chief, new cool colors – same awful results. Mears’s finishing positions so far this year have been 15th, 24th and 30th in his No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevy, good enough for just 27th in Sprint Cup points. In a result-driven business, luck and running well are niceties. Results are what count… and mid-pack efforts just ain’t going to get it done.

All downhill for Elliott Sadler

After conspiring to lose the Daytona 500 on the last lap (an accurate portent of his in-race radio chatter), Sadler’s results have trended south. Fifth in the biggest race of all was followed up with a 25th-place effort at Auto Club Speedway and a two-lap down, 29th-place run in Las Vegas. He needs a storming run and a strong finish in Atlanta, that’s for sure.

New colors – new Jeff Gordon?

Whether it’s the benefits of flying commercial in the offseason and reducing his carbon footprint, or perhaps the snazzy new paint scheme, there’s a real purpose – a vim and vigor, if you will – to the four-time champ this season. Despite a pit-road entry miscue and severe right-side damage with the blown tire that came from it, he still managed a sixth-place finish and snatched the overall points lead at Vegas. As Jeff noted himself: “Three weeks in a row, I’ve felt like we’ve had the car that can win – and that’s quite a change from last year.”

Lucky 13 for Joey Logano

Rarely will 13 have felt like such a lucky number for the rookie, who had his highest-placed Sprint Cup finish in six attempts. After an inauspicious start to the season (and indeed, his Cup career) riding around in the top 10 for part of the day and finishing well will be a great tonic to boost this youngster.

Where did that No. 33 come from?

Clint Bowyer has to be the driver whom I give the least props, which is not to say that I don’t rate him – I just don’t “expect” him to run so well. But the owner of the longest streak without a DNF (76 races) looks well placed to make a run at a third straight Chase berth, even with the new colors, team, and crew.

NASCAR redresses the balance

After two weeks of nothing but success, you can’t help but wonder if the NASCAR Gods shifted the balance a little in the case of Matt Kenseth. A blown engine in just six laps saw the driver of the No. 17 Ford Fusion go from hero to zero in an instant, with his quest for three-in-a-row over no sooner than it had begun.

Everybody’s got Goodyears, he’s got Goodbyes

So said Larry Mac as Kyle Busch hurtled into the late-race lead – a great line he surely prepared in advance. As Busch assumed the lead from Bowyer, the Vegas native keyed his radio and drawled, “Say Goodnight, Gracie.” Cocky, yeah, but heck; if you’re that good, you may as well flaunt it. This is racing, not crochet. (Sorry, dear readers: I once again appear incapable of writing an article this season without mentioning Busch the Younger.)

The Cat in the Hat and Mr. H are out of luck in Sin City

In the 10 Sprint Cup races run at Las Vegas prior to Sunday, Roush Fenway Racing drivers won six races, while Hendrick wheelmen have won the other four. All the pundits sagely predicted this trend would continue yesterday; as you know by now, it surely didn’t. Kyle’s win was the first for Toyota and just the second in history for a man not employed by Roush or Hendrick when driving this 1.5-mile oval.

Marcos Ambrose is keeping his nose clean

17th-, 20th- and 22nd-place finishes are not much to write home about; but for Ambrose in his first full season at the Cup level, it represents a fine start. Here’s to hoping it continues; now, if Krista Voda would just stop imitating (appallingly) his Aussie accent…

Can Michael Waltrip keep it up?

When M-Dub announced at the start of the season he would vacate the seat in the No. 55 car if he ran badly this year, I really thought the writing was on the wall for the Owensboro, Ky. native. But this season, the veteran of a quarter century of NASCAR racing has looked racier than ever before in his own equipment.

A weekend to forget for Denny Hamlin

After a poor qualifying effort on Friday, two pit-road speeding penalties, and a premature, fiery end to his first Nationwide race of the season on Saturday, Hamlin parlayed his inauspicious start into a lap down, 22nd-place finish in the big show. Expect the Chesterfield, Va. native to rebound over the next four or five weeks on tracks that suit his style.

A much better weekend for Jamie Mac

In what will likely to be a futile attempt to keep his seat before he’s shunted to the Roush “B” team (Yates Racing) at the end of the season, Jamie McMurray‘s shown some signs of life amidst another slow start. A ninth-place finish at Vegas, after some poor luck in the first two races, was just the tonic he needed to get on track. Reunited with his old crew chief, Donnie Wingo, much is expected of the amiable McMurray this year. It likely won’t prove to be enough to hold onto the No. 26 ride; but he’ll go down trying, that’s for sure.

And a terrific Sunday for David Gilliland

For the fourth-year Sprint Cup driver, a 14th-place finish for a team that has no plans to run beyond Bristol must have felt like a victory. Whether it will keep the underfunded team running week in and week out remains to be seen; but at least for now, there’s some positive evidence to show potential sponsors.

Not the start Mark Martin was hoping for

Time waits for no man, goes the old adage – and although he’s got plenty of races to right the ship, it’s not exactly been the blazing start Martin hoped for, especially in such top notch equipment. My money still says he’ll bounce back and make the Chase, though, starting with a top-10 run at Atlanta.

Likewise, Brad Keselowski

A popular preseason pick for the Nationwide Series crown, Keselowski has had a horrible start to 2009. 22nd at Daytona was followed by a pair of 27th-place runs, leaving him 244 points out of the lead just three races in. At the Sprint Cup level, he failed to qualify for the 500, then crashed in the first two laps at Vegas and finished 38th, 64 laps down. He’ll bounce back at the Nationwide level, at least – but the man’s dug himself an unnecessary early hole.

It’s much worse for Mayfield and Riggs, though

Fair play to Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs for keeping their appearances on SPEED Channel’s Trackside Live on Friday night. Both missed the Cup show in qualifying, and could have easily just packed up and gone home instead. Indeed, both find themselves behind the 8-ball in what’s now a losing battle to creep inside the Top 35. But in a sport increasingly weighted against the underdog, any form of success for either driver would be a terrific story of victory against the odds.

And speaking of beating the odds… go Max Papis!

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story, and Papis finding a way to launch a NASCAR career at the age of 39 seems more unlikely than most. I’m almost certain it’s not going to happen, but I’ll be rooting for the Italian every time he straps into a Cup car.

Allmendinger loses his “mo”

After a terrific third place finish at Daytona, AJ Allmendinger has had a dismal couple of weeks. The frenetic search for full-time sponsorship will not be helped by poor finishes, and perspective backers have hardly been wowed by the last two – both outside the top 20. Hopefully, the open-wheel convert bounces back at Atlanta – a track he’s run well at in his previous two visits to the speedway.

The disaster called Digger

I have two new tactics toward Digger; the first is to ignore it completely, and the second is to count down the races until we finish FOX’s shows – and I no longer have to see the furry critter until 2010.

Spin Cycle

There was more spinning than an Olympic cycling practice at Las Vegas this weekend. Watching car after car lose control – often to devastating effect – at both the Nationwide and Cup level left me feeling a little dizzy.

It’s not been great, but I still love it

A great friend of mine back home in the UK is a huge Formula 1 fan. He really knows his stuff, goes to races and the like; so for the last year or so since I’ve been writing this column, we’ve engaged in some good-natured banter about the differences and strengths of our respective favorite forms of motorsport. He’s watched some NASCAR here and there, but this Sunday, he texted me to say he was going to watch the Vegas race – to give stock cars another chance. I haven’t actually responded to him yet, though… largely because I’m worried what he’ll say. And based on the evidence of Sunday, it would be tough to argue against any criticisms he might have…

Yes, it’s true to say it hasn’t been the banner start to the season we all hoped for. In fact, it’s been anything but. But as I wrote before Daytona, there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful – some of which are listed above – and I still believe this to be the case. NASCAR has flaws, for sure, but I still relish my weekly dose of racing. And if all else fails, there’s always the fast forward button on the DVR if it gets really dull.

After Atlanta, we reach the first of four off weekends on the 2009 Sprint Cup calendar before we head to Thunder Valley. A full house and a fantastic race, Bristol style, might be just the antidote everyone needs…

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