A weekend in noisy Thunder Valley following a quiet week of rest provides a jarring wakeup call to drivers, crews, and fans alike. But while Sunday’s Bristol race itself did not spark the normal beating and banging fest people are used to seeing, it did help bring to light what this season’s short-track races may bring for some teams. While the Food City 500 proved its top finishers are going to be threats next week at Martinsville, at Richmond and the fall edition of all three of these races, it also proved that others have some major strides to make if they want to contend on the type of track that makes up roughly 15% of the schedule.
Here are the best and the worst of the litter as the Sprint Cup Series leaves Bristol and makes its way to Martinsville.
HOT: Kyle Busch – This week’s winner avenged his offbeat 18th-place finish at Atlanta two weeks ago by not only taking the checkered flag, but also leading a dominant 378 of 503 laps. Busch and the No. 18 were also the driver and car to beat in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race before pit road problems cost them the necessary track position needed to win. Busch now sits fourth in points, only 85 markers behind leader Jeff Gordon, and has led almost twice as many laps this season (517) as the second-place man in that category, Jimmie Johnson (265).
HOT: Kurt Busch – After dominating at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch began the season’s fifth race by getting caught up in a chain reaction fender-bender while trying to free the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge from its 32nd starting position. The damage done to the front of the car appeared to be a death sentence for the five-time Bristol winner (in fact, FOX incorrectly announced him as retired from the event soon after the wreck.) In fact, it may very well have been if this type of thing had happened one year ago. Last season, Busch seemed to find himself out of contention early in many events, a continuous a season-long slump that proved his worst since debuting as a rookie in 2001. But on Sunday, the Blue Crew, led by crew chief Pat Tryson, made enough repairs to give Busch the car he needed to nurse home a very respectable 11th-place finish. With three top 10s, a win, and four lead-lap finishes in five races, Busch now finds himself just one spot out of the points lead. Ironically, Busch’s one blemish so far was at his home track in Las Vegas – a place where his brother The Shrub claimed victory. It’s a Busch Brothers type of year so far in 2009…
HOT: Gordon – I just can’t take this driver off the list until he slips up. Gordon’s fourth-place run could be considered disappointing by some, since he never found himself in true contention for the win; but nonetheless, Gordon’s fifth-place finish continues a run of solid, championship-like performances and leaves the four-time champ as one of only three drivers to complete every race on the lead lap. Gordon now takes his spot atop the points standings to Martinsville next week, where he has seven career wins and is in perfect position to end his 46-race winless streak on the Sprint Cup circuit.
WARM: Kasey Kahne – The sixth-year driver certainly deserves more credit than he’s gotten this season. Kahne has four straight top-15 finishes and has run better and better each week, crossing the finish line in fifth place at Bristol for his season-high finish to 2009. Much like Clint Bowyer, Kahne has quietly maintained a decent points standing (sixth) while working out the kinks within the newly-formed four-car Richard Petty Motorsports organization. If he keeps up this steady improvement of finishes, the No. 9 should be scheduled to visit victory lane at Texas in two weeks – where Kahne won in April 2006, the last time he was considered a serious championship contender.
WARM: Denny Hamlin – Hamlin was quieter than expected in Bristol, but as the race wound down the driver of the No. 11 found himself in nearly the exact same position he’d been in the past two years at the track. But while he led the 2007 and 2008 spring races on the white flag lap, Sunday’s event saw Hamlin on the back bumper of teammate Kyle Busch on the green-white-checkered restart, where he fell nearly half a second short in his quest for victory. Though having performed unspectacularly to date, Hamlin’s FedEx team now sits eighth in driver points, a solid start in his quest to make a fourth straight Chase. The series’ next stop at Martinsville is also the site of Hamlin’s last win one year ago, giving hope he’ll be able to break through in the Gibbs camp yet.
WARM: Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose is technically not a rookie, but this year is his first full Sprint Cup season, and his No. 47 JTG Daugherty team is adjusting well to the Cup scene. JTG’s alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing is obvious, as Ambrose’s only poor finish this year was two weeks ago in Atlanta because of a blown engine. Bouncing back on Sunday in a big way, the Aussie’s surprising 10th-place run at Bristol on Sunday was his second career top 10 – and it only pads the already good reviews both this driver and team are receiving. And to think, that top 10 could have easily been a top five if Ambrose wasn’t on seven cylinders for much of the second half of the race!
COLD: Scott Speed – Even taking into account that Speed is a rookie, his season could be going worse, not better. After starting the year safely inside the Top 35 in owner points, Speed’s finishes in 2009 will force the No. 82 team to have to time itself in to next week’s Martinsville race. Unlike fellow Raybestos Rookie of the Year challenger Joey Logano, Speed has had zero good runs so far this year. Even when both freshmen had their best finishes of the season three weeks ago at Las Vegas, Logano finished on the lead lap in 13th while Speed finished one lap down in 21st. Sunday’s Bristol race proved just as fruitless for the open-wheel convert as he finished 28th, three laps off the winning pace. Speed, like Logano, has shown potential at every level of stock car racing he has tried his hand at – but he may be in over his head to start out 2009.
COLD: David Ragan – 2009 has not been what Ragan and many others have expected. After beginning the year with a sixth-place run in the Daytona 500, the No. 6 UPS Ford has not finished on the lead lap, with a best run of only 17th in the four races since. At Bristol, Ragan has routinely run poorly and kept that tradition intact, placing three laps down in 28th on Sunday. He now sits 26th in driver points, a far cry from a top-12 spot he was expected to secure early on in 2009. Martinsville may show more promise for the 23-year-old than Bristol did, as he has three top 15s at the half-mile paperclip track – including both races in 2008. Ragan also made his “dart without feathers” Sprint Cup debut at the sport’s oldest track in 2006.
COLD: Jamie McMurray – Roush Fenway Racing was surprisingly struck with handling issues and bad luck on Sunday, as four of their five cars finished outside the top 25. In short-track racing, it’s the tough luck that usually leads to tough handling – and McMurray learned that firsthand. McMurray caught the bad side of Juan Pablo Montoya early on, which sent the No. 26 spinning right out of contention. After another spin, loss of track position, and damage, McMurray could not recover and ended the day 37th. Now 27th in points, the bright side of this story is that the No. 26 team is running better than last year and enters Martinsville inside the Top 35. But with his job on the line, is that really going to be good enough if things don’t improve?
Here are some other HOT and NOT items from the past week in racing:
HOT: Allmendinger’s schedule – The whole “I’m supposed to be in the No. 19, oh wait, no I’m not, but I will drive the No. 44 in as many races as I can qualify for, oh wait, I’m qualifying for all of them and running well,” story that AJ Allmendinger has lived the past couple of months has been both perplexing and fascinating to follow. The best ending for the tall tale would be to see RPM land a sponsor or two and campaign the No. 44 full-time for the rest of 2009 and beyond. And after placing 16th in owner points through five races, it looks like that dream is closer to coming true: RPM has announced they will now campaign the car at least through the Charlotte races in May. A myriad of sponsorship has been pieced together to make this thing happen, and is a good sign for an improved driver and team moving forward.
NOT: Braun Racing starting and parking – The start-and-park issue has been mentioned often, both on this site and throughout the racing community this season because of frequent occurrences of the act in each of NASCAR’s top three series. Most of the teams that do it are small, underfunded, and are simply trying to scrape together the funds to get to the next race. On the other hand, top-tier Braun Racing appears to have picked up the practice in 2009, tabbing youngster Kelly Bires to pilot the No. 10 Toyota at Las Vegas and Bristol. After a decent 18th-place starting position out west and an even more impressive fifth-place start at Bristol, the No. 10 mysteriously ended up in the garage just laps into each race. Sure, there may have been “ignition” issues in Vegas and broken “brakes” in Bristol, but the unsponsored entry likely is just a pocketbook filler for the organization to funnel more funds to its No. 32 and No. 38 Toyota teams. Even more shameful is the fact that Bires has to resort to being a field filler, failing to find a decent ride after running fairly well in mid-level equipment the past two seasons.
HOT: The Scotts Saturday Night Special Legends Race at Bristol – Send another thumbs up to an SMI track, this time Bristol, for hatching and executing a wonderful promotion to jazz up fans of the sport. The idea sounded like a dream: get a whole slew of successful NASCAR racers from over the years, put them in late models painted up like their old NASCAR paint schemes, and send them out to beat and bang around Bristol. Unless some other track promoter gets smart, we may not see an event like this 35-lap fantasy in a long time. As a young race fan (yes, I’m 23, and the first race I watched intently was the 2001 Daytona 500), I never got to watch the likes of Cale Yarborough, David Pearson (though he sat out the event), Junior Johnson or even Harry Gant race. To see them duke it out at Bristol of all places is one of the best ideas hatched this season. Blessings go to ESPN2 for not only carrying the race, but also for allowing Ned Jarrett back into the booth to commentate with his son, Dale.
NOT: The Scotts Saturday Night Special Legends Race at Bristol – Above were my thoughts before I watched that race… and then, the green flag dropped. As cool as seeing Sterling Marlin pilot a yellow No. 4 car was while wearing a Coors driver’s suit, he led the entire race from the pole without one pass for the lead. Gant, the outside polesitter in the green and white No. 33, stayed close to Marlin before having to pit under green with a flat tire. As the race wore on, legends like Yarborough and Junior Johnson wasted no time getting lapped, which was mighty depressing. I think that many were expecting these guys to contend, forgetting that, well, they are well up there in age.
When the race was all said and done, after 35 laps of single-file – except for Rusty Wallace charging hard to try and get to the front – it ended almost as fast as before it began. And not only was the action less exciting than expected, but the cars looked like they were going about 35 mph. Insurance must have been really expensive…
But whatever the reasons, much like the Cup races we watch today we saw another overhyped, sparse-passing parade of pretty colors at Bristol Saturday night… and that was a shame.
Martinsville marks the spot for the Sprint Cup Series next Sunday. Turn here for the latest scoop on who’s handling the mail and who might as well me mailing it in after the season’s second short track race.
Listen to Doug Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. on the Alan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with Captain Herb Emory, on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com.