Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Gray-Haired Success Stories, Some Vigor in Vegas & Tony & Hendrick Snuggling Up?

Did You Notice? The difference in the atmosphere at Vegas compared to Fontana the week before? If you could notice it that much on TV, just imagine what it was like in person. The last two Sundays, I walked through the Cup garage at the exact same time prior to the drivers’ meeting. At Fontana, there were a handful of fans trying their best to sneak a peek at superstars entering the doors from above – there were a few feeble shouts, but certainly nothing too crazy, almost like the atmosphere at a AAA baseball game.

At Vegas, it was 10,000 fans doing their best to scale over fences. What a mob scene, as people screamed at the top of their lungs for men like Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards – heck, even Vegas native Kyle Busch.

The atmosphere was just positively electric, no two ways about it. A lot of the credit has to go to Bruton Smith and the way he designed the new fan zone inside the infield; people can get up close and personal with their drivers right up into the sides of the Cup garage. Man, if only every track could have the design of Daytona and Vegas, I’d feel like people would never stop going to races; at these tracks, the fan interaction can get so close it really does feel like a larger than life event on race day.

Think what you will about the track itself, but it’s been a long time since I’ve left the garage feeling that energized. So to all the Vegas fans that made Sunday’s experience so great, I thank you. There’s no question in my mind at this point we’d be better off with this track – not Phoenix or California – as the one on the west coast that has a second date.

Did You Notice? Speaking of hometown hero Busch, did you see the heartfelt hug he exchanged with brother Kurt Busch after the race? These two have had their share of run-ins over the years, most notably the ’07 All-Star Race in which Busch the Younger slammed into Busch the Older and took them both out.

But it appears that both have finally realized what most of us in the real world already know – that the bond of Brotherly Love is not all that easy to break apart. The fact the two were willing to acknowledge their heartfelt emotion in public was very refreshing to see – especially since they’re both known for their less than desirable tempers.

Did You Notice? That despite all the worries about TRD blowing their engines during the race – five cars were sent to the rear after changing their engines – the only one from their camp that expired was from the underfunded No. 64 Gunselman Motorsports Camry. All of the teams which changed parts and pieces – including winner Kyle Busch – made it to the end without so much as a minor problem.

Whether you like Toyota or not, you have to admit that’s impressive. The manufacturer acknowledged it had an issue, took quick action, and put replacement parts in place that didn’t break for these teams. It’s that type of follow through that gets you somewhere in this business.

Did You Notice? Through three races in 2008, Edwards had won two of them and established himself as the early man to beat for the Sprint Cup title. One year later, he’s led a total of just three laps while settling quietly in the lower half of the top 12. Already, he’s been involved in one wreck, one engine failure and watched his teammate Matt Kenseth – winless all of last season – take two out of three checkered flags instead.

Momentum can be a real fickle thing in this business and it’s that unpredictability which has always helped make NASCAR so great. I think Edwards will turn it around real easy starting this week – after all, Atlanta’s one of his best tracks on the circuit, if not the best – but his performance these first three weeks has been a real head-scratcher. Track position has definitely hurt them; at Vegas in particular, I counted Edwards losing a total of 24 spots in two consecutive stops due to poor decisions on pit road.

As we’ve seen with the CoT, getting back in traffic like that digs a hole that’s hard to climb out of, and it really seemed to hamper the No. 99 on Sunday with what I believed was the best car on the racetrack at times.

Did You Notice? For anyone wondering if the cream will fail to rise to the top once again this season, take a look at the laps-led totals by team through three races:

Hendrick Motorsports – 264
Roush Fenway Racing – 150
Joe Gibbs Racing – 140
Richard Childress Racing – 79
Everyone Else – 54

Need I say any more? In between the surprises, it’s still the Big Four spending the most time out front; they’ve just been busy stabbing themselves in the foot more often than expected with uncharacteristic mechanical failures. You can’t expect that type of thing to continue all season long, right? But until they stop fooling around.

Did You Notice? The old guard is fighting back three weeks into the NASCAR season? After years of being dominated by the era of younger, more marketable drivers, these senior citizens still remaining in the sport have put together some admirable performances under the radar these first three weeks (Mark Martin’s engine failures aside). Consider…

  • 66-year-old Morgan Shepherd has 19th- and 13th-place finishes these past two weeks, good enough to launch him into the top 20 in Nationwide Series points. I don’t know if the AARP is willing to sponsor someone, but you think somebody might give this ageless guy a look? I always knew something good might happen if the man just stopped starting and parking.
  • 45-year-old Todd Bodine won the Daytona Truck Series race with an unsponsored No. 30 Toyota, then was “best of the rest” in the Kyle Busch Truck Series 200 at California to move to second in the standings. Then, in just his second attempt driving an underfunded No. 64 Toyota in the Cup Series, he not only made the field but had the car running in the top 25 during its debut in Vegas before blowing an engine over the final 50 laps.
  • 45-year-old Michael Waltrip has more top-15 finishes than 2008 title contenders Edwards and Jimmie Johnson?
  • 44-year-old Bobby Labonte pulled together his first top-five finish since the fall of 2006 with a consistent, fifth-place run at Las Vegas. Finishing no lower than 22nd in his first three starts with Hall of Fame/Yates Racing, he’s surged to 10th in Sprint Cup points.
  • 39-year-old David Reutimann is one of only two drivers (Gordon) to start the season with three top-15 finishes. Fifth in the series standings, he’s outperforming 23-year-old David Ragan on the racetrack, whom former sponsor UPS aligned themselves with long-term to get younger and hipper after the 2008 season.
  • 39-year-old Max Papis qualified for his first Cup race on an oval this weekend, clocking in 26th after his engine struggled to start on pit road before heading out.

With Gordon and Tony Stewart having unexpected surges at 37 years old, it seems like the era of the young gun is finally starting to tilt back the other way. It’s now just a matter of getting marketing to follow suit, but for the sport’s newest big-money sponsor to align with someone like Labonte is a very, very good sign.

Did You Notice? If the season ended today, eight of the 12 Chasers from 2008 would still make the playoffs? Here are the four drivers on the outside looking in: Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson (yes, the defending champ) and Jeff Burton. As of now, they’ve been replaced by Reutimann, Waltrip, Labonte and Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch.

It’s still early, but that alignment tells us a few different things…

  • Right now, Michael Waltrip Racing has performed as well, if not better, than Richard Childress Racing. Las Vegas was definitely a step in the right direction, but you can really tell the RCR bunch would have loved to steal the win there in order to lick their wounds. Bristol and Martinsville will be a real important swing for them at the end of the month.
  • The power team in the four-car superstar camp at Hendrick is clearly Gordon and Johnson’s No. 24/48. They’ve gotten out to such a solid start, Junior’s and Martin’s teams have given the early impression of teams trying too hard – and too desperately – to keep up.
  • Stewart’s doing a great job as a driver/owner to remain in the top 12, better than everyone expected. But when you’ve got Rick Hendrick in your corner, you almost wonder if the amount of help they’re giving Stewart is putting some strain on Hendrick’s own teams. So far, Stewart has one hug from the man in victory lane, someone that’s not even supposed to be his owner… and Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t even gotten close. Just a thought… I mean, did you see Hendrick interacting with Haas CNC Racing even once last year? It’s tit for tat, as Roush Fenway has its own “B” team as well (Yates Racing), but still…

For more analysis on some of the top-12 party crashers, Vito Pugliese actually has a real good article out there today on their chances of holding off Junior, Johnson and Edwards as they charge back up the ranks. Check it out….

Did You Notice? The racing at Vegas itself is actually improving? Yes, Vegas isn’t quite at the competition level of the pinnacle of 1.5-mile tracks, Atlanta. But as the track ages and the new pavement sets in, there’s definitely a level of improvement every time we go there. I honestly thought the weekend’s two races were more then acceptable; and as Matt McLaughlin mentioned Monday morning, the Nationwide race was one of the better ones we’ve seen in the series the past 12 months.

I really like a racetrack where even the best drivers have to showcase maximum talent or risk losing control on their own, and the way NASCAR’s biggest stars were spinning out on Saturday made me wonder if we were racing at someplace like Rockingham or Darlington instead.

Is the Car of Tomorrow still incredibly restrictive towards side-by-side racing in Cup? Yes, there’s still no question it’s a problem. Was the middle portion of Vegas filled with some spread-out, follow the leader-type action that had the crowd letting out a collective yawn? Absolutely. But by and large, the overall quality of racing was not that bad. I know that after the first two weeks, fans are looking for a series of A+ races to make up for that sorry start.

But the chances of those happening quickly, in succession, are slim to none no matter what types of cars you have on the speedway; so everyone needs to take a deep breath and hope things keep improving at three of the series’ best tracks: Atlanta, Bristol and Martinsville up next.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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