Kyle Busch Still the Driver to Beat
Daytona was just a minor hiccup: the No. 18 team is back with a vengeance in 2009. Las Vegas native Kyle Busch won the pole this weekend, only to have to start at the back after an engine change. Nonetheless, Busch methodically made his way back to the front to score his first career win at his hometown track, a win that he likened to being as big to him as the Daytona 500.
Throwing the points out the window, Busch has had top-three cars in each of the first three races to date. His crew chief, Steve Addington, also proved yet again on Sunday to be more than a match for his driver’s frustration whenever he’s not in front. And JGR’s engine program proved to be just as stout as ever, with Busch’s engine troubles in practice nothing more than an anomaly for the race.
Barring something unforeseen, Busch will be the Cup points favorite all the way to the Chase in September. Whether or not he’s matured enough to pursue a title beyond that remains to be seen…
RCR Picking Up the Pace
After a very disappointing performance at Fontana had many questioning whether or not Richard Childress Racing had fallen back behind the curve with their intermediate program, this weekend’s race quickly proved otherwise. Kevin Harvick was back to his dependable top-15 ways on Sunday afternoon, while Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton used differing pit strategies to get to the front and stay there. Bowyer and Burton wound up racing in close quarters for the final 20 laps, with Bowyer narrowly edging his teammate for a second-place finish.
Speaking of Burton and Bowyer…
Burton Has Got Hard Tires Figured Out
One more note in the RCR fold. Back in 2003, when Ryan Newman dominated the Cup Series in the second half of the season, it was largely because in addition to knowing how to calculate fuel mileage, the Rocket and his crew chief Matt Borland also knew to a science how far they could push Goodyear’s then-harder tires.
Fast forward to the present day, and Burton and crew chief Scott Miller have hit upon something similar. Much as they used a no-tire pit strategy to win the Charlotte Cup race in October, Burton and his No. 31 crew elected to use tire strategy to get to the front of the field at Las Vegas. And once Burton got up there, he had no trouble holding his position, running in the top five for the entire second half of the race on old rubber.
Whether or not it’s a good thing for teams to be able to go as long as Burton did on older tires and remain competitive is debatable. However, as long as Goodyear continues to produce tires with little give-up, it seems that Burton will be a contender for a number of wins on intermediate circuits.
As for Bowyer…
Simple Math: Bowyer >>>>> Mears
He has got to have his former sponsor Jack Daniel’s wondering “Why, exactly, did we agree to sign this Casey Mears guy?” Driving for a brand new team, Bowyer has scored two top-10 finishes and vaulted his way to second in points heading to Atlanta. Meanwhile, Mears finished well off the pace Sunday in 30th, giving him a finishing average of 23.0 thus far in 2009.
Mears underachieving? Some things never change.
David Gilliland Proving His Mettle
And while Mears quietly rides in the back of the pack in a high-caliber ride that he’s done nothing to earn, Gilliland is quietly proving himself to be a worthy Cup driver after all. Back home on the west coast, the former Yates Racing driver managed to race the TRG Motorsports No. 71 car into the field at Fontana and Vegas, and in Sin City posted a remarkable 14th-place finish for the new operation. The team is still searching for sponsorship to run a full season (hoping to put a long-term plan in place beyond that). But if the last two weeks are any indication, they’ve at least found a driver to build around.
Yates Racing Carries the Ford Banner
Even though they released the aforementioned Gilliland, Yates Racing was as competitive Sunday as they’ve been in years. Bobby Labonte gave both Yates and Ask.com their money’s worth with a top-five run, Labonte’s best since a third-place finish at Martinsville in October of 2006. Paul Menard, on the other hand, would have enjoyed a lead-lap top-20 performance… had this race been 400 miles instead of 427. His late-race wreck aside, Menard and his No. 98 team well complemented Labonte’s stellar day.
Surprisingly, Yates Racing was the leading team carrying the blue oval on Sunday, because…
Engine Woes Marring the Start to 2009
Thanks to Roush Fenway Racing’s struggles with their engine packages, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan all failed to finish Sunday’s race (with both Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray having scares with their motors as well). And while RFR’s problems were in the spotlight Sunday, theirs were just the latest to hit the Sprint Cup ranks this season.
After Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers both faced engine trouble at Fontana last week, TRD officials were forced early in the Vegas weekend to change the motors in five of their racecars for Sunday’s Cup race. In addition, Hendrick Motorsports has had their share of failed engines, with Mark Martin blowing up two consecutive weekends and Dale Earnhardt Jr. losing one at Fontana.
There has been speculation as to what the specific cause of all these engine failures is, but one can’t help but wonder if this may be the first tangible impact of the testing “ban.” Sure, all of the Cup Series’ engine builders tested the living daylights out of their products on dynos and in their shops during the offseason – but could a lack of track time coming into 2009 be impacting engine performance? There is no real substitute for race conditions, but the lack of it may well be the only thing to blame for the epidemic of engine failures seen so far this year.
Newman Can’t Catch a Break in 2009
One driver whose start to 2009 has been marred, but not by an engine failure, is none other than Newman. After having his pit crew drop his car off a jack on pit road (literally) at Daytona, then failing to get a handle on a car that was dropping everything from pieces of the wing to a transponder at Fontana, Newman and his No. 39 crew finally were starting to get a handle on their new Impalas. After earning a Lucky Dog early in the running, Newman was running in the top 15, only to have to short pit with what appeared to be a loose wheel. When the yellow flag flew for Jeff Gordon’s blown tire about 20 laps later, Newman was trapped two laps down and wound up finishing there (in the 25th position). Sadly, despite this misfortune, that top-25 run in Las Vegas was the best of the season for Newman.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway Packs a Punch
Since LVMS went from a long flat-track to a high-speed oval, it has proven to be a difficult circuit for even the best in the business to handle – and this weekend was no exception. Between the crash-filled Nationwide race and Sunday’s Cup show, a number of NASCAR’s biggest stars managed to wreck themselves. Busch spun himself out only 22 laps into the Nationwide race trying to take the lead from Harvick. Burton later in the day did almost exactly the same thing in turn 4. In the Cup show, Denny Hamlin ventured too high into the marbles, slamming the wall exiting turn 3. And the defending Cup champ, Jimmie Johnson, spun himself around late in the race entering turn 2 – an accident that left Johnson with a 24th-place run after leading the most laps on the day.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway Packs ‘Em In
Bad economy? What bad economy? Just like always, LVMS was hopping both Saturday and Sunday, with crowds estimated between 80,000 and 100,000 for the Nationwide race Saturday and considerably more for the Cup race on Sunday.
To put this in perspective, the Nationwide race this weekend drew about as many fans as attended the Truck, Nationwide and Cup races last weekend at Fontana. Combined.
The efforts of LVMS and the race fans of Nevada deserve a standing ovation, as people were coming out in force all weekend.