NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Keselowski Kicking Logano’s Butt, Harvick Unhappy at Intermediates & Nationwide’s No-No?

Did You Notice? What keeps Kevin Harvick from being labeled a serious championship contender? It’s his lifetime performance on 1.5-mile ovals. Those tracks used to be easy pickins’ for Harvick – his first two Cup victories came at Atlanta and Chicagoland in 2001 – but over the last few seasons, his fortitude has faded at facilities which make up four of the 10 tracks in the Chase (and if you count the 2-miler at Fontana, it’s actually five).

Not only has Harvick not won at any of these facilities since July of 2002 at Chicagoland, his team has struggled to remain even competitive on these tracks, period. Here’s a breakdown of how bad it’s gotten:

Atlanta – Two top 10s in last 15 starts
Charlotte – No top-10 finishes since the fall of 2003
Fontana – One career top five in 14 starts
Fort Worth – Four career laps led, no top-five finishes in last five starts
Kansas – No top-five finishes in eight career starts
Las Vegas – Career Average Finish: 14th
Michigan – No top fives in last five years

The two exceptions to this rule are Chicagoland and Homestead, a track where Harvick finished second in the 2008 season finale. But by the time he got there, it was already far too late for him to make a serious run to the title.

The reason I was reminded of all this stuff is Harvick’s No. 29 car was acting like a moving chicane at Texas. Running well outside the top 30 for most of the race’s first half, the RCR team never got the handling right as Harvick wound up three laps off the pace in 27th. And every time we go to a track like this one, it’s the exact same scenes from the exact same horror movie. I would say it’s an organizational problem, but there was Jeff Burton on Sunday, running in the top 10 with a car that’s won races at both Charlotte and Texas in the last few seasons.

You think about how successful Harvick’s been as an owner in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. But what about Harvick the Sprint Cup driver? Wasn’t he supposed to be the next great championship contender a few years back? Last time I checked, I thought one race win in two and a half years would be considered underachieving for a program that once won six championships with Dale Earnhardt (remember, Earnhardt’s seventh came with a different organization in 1980).

So much criticism this season has been directed towards Earnhardt’s son for failing to live up to expectations. I guess I’m just wondering if we’re throwing so much flak Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s way, why is no one pointing out Earnhardt’s replacement at RCR could easily be thrown in that same boat.

Did You Notice? Brad Keselowski outran both Joey Logano and Max Papis out of the “rookies” in the field this Sunday at Texas? Driving for a fifth, part-time Hendrick team, Keselowski wrestled a car that started 38th and brought it home 23rd – his third top-25 finish in just four career Cup Series starts.

In comparison, Logano brought his full-time, fully-loaded Home Depot Toyota home 30th after struggling for the vast majority of the race. Luckily for him, Keselowski has never officially declared for Rookie of the Year this season – even though he plans on a total of 17 starts between his Hendrick No. 25 and the No. 09 of Phoenix Racing. For if Keselowski did decide to declare… he might be capable of winning the award despite half as many starts as the rest of the field.

LUMBIS: SPRINT CUP ROOKIE REPORT AFTER TEXAS

What makes the difference between Logano and Keselowski? Simple: the amount of developmental starts under their belts from other series. Keselowski’s up to 74 – a total that spans over portions of four different seasons – while Logano has just 23. The added experience allows Keselowski to come to these tracks more confident and more prepared. And even though he’s running a fifth, part-time car, Keselowski has the experience of running with underfunded equipment at the beginning of his career with a variety of different teams, so he has a tendency to know how to adjust to the equipment he’s got underneath him. For Logano – a kid who’s been pampered with the best of the best for the past several years now – that doesn’t seem to come so easy.

I think Logano is still plenty safe in the No. 20 car… for now. But you just wonder how much better things would be if he and Keselowski were staging an epic rookie battle in the Cup Series for 2010 instead.

And just one note on Logano before moving forward: The chances that Gibbs will make a change in favor of Martin Truex Jr. (as has been rumored) appear to be pretty slim. But there’s a bit of an advantage (although I disagree with it) to pulling Logano out of the seat right now. The second the 18-year-old qualifies at Phoenix, his rookie status for 2010 and beyond is permanently lost, so if Gibbs is going to make a move that preserves that for the future, they’re going to have to do it within the next 7-10 days.

Did You Notice? Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield – two drivers with teams dedicated to running the full distance – have been knocked out of the race three out of the last four weeks by start and parkers? The No. 09 and No. 66 cars have had no intentions of completing all 500 miles, but the Phoenix Racing and Prism Motorsports cars, respectively, are taking valuable spots away from cars that would at least attempt to make a go of it.

Certainly, those two cars qualified for the race on speed, and as such you just can’t gift their place in the starting lineup to Riggs and Mayfield. But it would be a real shame if some of these new car owners NASCAR is hoping to break into the sport were forced to bow out by those hoping to use it as a business instead.

Did You Notice? Jeff Gordon’s 162-point lead in the standings is the largest at this point in the season since the inception of the Chase. But if the playoffs started today, he actually wouldn’t even have the point lead – that honor would go to both Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Just another reminder it doesn’t pay to peak too soon under this format….

Did You Notice? Nationwide’s Dash 4 Cash program, designed to reward Nationwide Series regulars with extra cash, still has the ability to cater to the so-called “Cupwhackers” instead? Don’t get me wrong; the idea is brilliant, with a $50,000 bonus awarded to the driver who accumulates the most points over the four Nationwide Series standalone races this season. For each individual race, the highest eligible finishing driver will receive an additional $25,000 under the program.

The problem comes in when the money is likely going to wind up with the teams that need it the least. Here’s the actual “restriction” to try and keep full-time Cup guys out of gaining this extra money from the program:

* Drivers who have a full-time ride in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series must enter, qualify for, and compete in every NASCAR Nationwide Series event to be eligible for the bonus cash.

Hmm… yeah, I’m sure Busch and Carl Edwards are going to forget to submit their entries, seeing as they were announced as championship contenders before the season even began. I know it doesn’t look so great for the money to go to, say, a third-place finisher if one of these guys won a standalone race. But remember, this is a subjective program not tied to the points title; Nationwide can reward whoever it wants. If it completely eliminated anyone in the Top 35 in Sprint Cup points from being eligible to win money under the program, you’d guarantee it going to a Nationwide-only team that could really use the funding to better themselves. And can you imagine the additional TV coverage for these guys, drivers battling in a race within a race in order to collect the extra cash?

Sadly, more than likely this program will instead be dominated by the likes of Edwards, Busch, David Ragan and others who are going to be a part of these standalone events. That’s not who I think it was intended to help… but just look at the stats. The four standalone races haven’t been won by all Nationwide-only drivers since way back in 2004 – the same year Greg Biffle became the first Cup driver to try and run for both titles in a season.

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