The conclusion of the Anti-Climatic 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway Monday leaves the NASCAR fanbase wondering exactly which driver should have won. Since the race began in the middle of the day on Monday instead of early in the evening on Sunday, drivers did not have to encounter as many changes in track conditions as expected, throwing possible contenders a curve some never recovered from. As the race wore on, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers proved to have the fastest cars – but would all three of these drivers have remained the ones to beat had the race gone the distance? Since the rainy conditions and subsequent pit strategies shuffled up the entire running order and many teams mid-pack were likely biding their time before making a run for the front, this week is yet another tough time to determine the current HOT, WARM and COLD drivers. Nevertheless, here they are as we prepare to head to Delaware for racing at the Monster Mile….
HOT: Ryan Newman – The polesitter for the Coca-Cola 600 had a car capable of running near the front, but a costly pit-road mistake cost the No. 39 valuable track position. Newman, however, managed a runner-up finish Monday by staying out on the track behind race winner David Reutimann while most of the other lead lap cars pitted. Running well is not only a function of good skills and a good car – Newman has some championship-contending good luck on his side as well. Monday’s finish was the Army team’s fourth consecutive top five, and Newman has three career wins at Dover, the next stop on the Sprint Cup tour.
HOT: Reutimann – Reutimann may not currently be the hottest driver on the circuit, but his victory was a major breakthrough for him and the young Michael Waltrip Racing operation. MWR, especially the No. 00 and No. 47 teams, has really turned some heads this season, and now has one of the season’s biggest trophies to show for it. Reutimann in the No. 00 has run consistently in the top 15 and now sits 13th in the standings, just six points out of the top 12. Even though “The Franchise” did not have a car to win the race, a win undoubtedly will give the driver and team some needed momentum as they try and qualify for the Chase.
HOT: Joey Logano – OK, so placing Logano on the HOT list may seem hasty – but take a look at some numbers and circumstances. Logano’s ninth-place run at Lowe’s (in the Home Depot car) was his third such run in four races… and it was fully earned. The No. 20 Toyota ran in the top 10 for much of the day, and likely would have finished higher had the race been completed. Logano’s ninth-place finishes (all career highs) show the young driver’s blossoming versatility: they came at Talladega (a restrictor-plate race), Darlington (the sport’s hardest track), and Lowe’s (an intermediate track that is tough to get a handle on). Top fives and maybe wins are soon to follow.
WARM: Matt Kenseth – After a great start to the season, Kenseth hit a particularly rough patch and fell to bottom of the top 12. Recently, however, the No. 17 has put together some respectable runs. Consecutive finishes of 13th, 10th and 10th in the last three races have moved the 2003 champion into ninth in points and, combined with his stellar run in the All-Star Race, the DeWalt team may be heating up again just in time for summer.
WARM: Vickers – The No. 83 team has struggled to give Vickers a top-10 car every single week, but the team definitely has the equipment to contend at intermediate ovals. Four of Vickers’s five top 10s this season have come at these tracks, meaning Team Red Bull probably has a promising summer stretch ahead. Vickers’s 33 laps led Monday were a sign that the team may not be far from victory lane if certain breaks end up falling their way.
WARM: Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya’s No. 42 team has been about the only thing that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing facials have been able to crack a grin about this season. Montoya sits 14th in points and continues to run well week in and week out. The Target car finished eighth in the Coke 600, a finish that is a sign of both the No. 42’s and Montoya’s improvements at the track – his previous best finish in Charlotte had been 28th. If Montoya can continue to work well with his team and not make brash moves that put him in compromising positions on the track, the open-wheel convert could remain in Chase contention until September.
COLD: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Dale Jr.’s run in the Coca-Cola 600 was probably his most embarrassing performance since the March 2004 Las Vegas race, where he drove a No. 8 car that was so ill-tempered he could not keep it up to minimum speed and had to retire from the race with handling problems. Monday was not much different, as Junior started 28th and fell back immediately, eventually ending the day in 40th place behind such overwhelming underdogs as Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs. This run may be the nail in the coffin for Tony Eury Jr.’s job security at Hendrick Motorsports. Sitting 19th in the points, Junior and the No. 88 team need a good run, quickly, as they’re 200 points outside the Chase cutoff. Right now, a top-10 finish would be more like a win for what was once supposed to be a potent partnership between Earnhardt Jr. and HMS.
COLD: Kevin Harvick – This guy cannot catch a break. After seeing his crew and cars get completely switched with the No. 07 team a couple of weeks ago, Harvick has yet to score a top-10 finish. In fact, Harvick’s last top 10 was a fourth place back at Atlanta in March! Harvick’s early contact with Sam Hornish Jr., blown tire and subsequent wreck took him out of contention early, and the team ended the day a disappointing 41st. Richard Childress Racing as a whole slumped in Charlotte, and those struggles are indicative of RCR’s deficiencies at 1.5-mile racetracks – a problem that needs to be corrected in a year where all four of its teams could conceivably miss the Chase.
COLD: Riggs – This may be the veteran’s final appearance on this list this season, but not because he and the No. 36 car are getting any better. Late last week, Riggs announced that he and the Tommy Baldwin Racing team are parting ways in a mutual decision. Not mincing words, Riggs essentially said his reason for leaving was because the team was forced to start and park in some races due to a lack of sponsorship. And while the No. 36 had sponsorship at Lowe’s Monday and intended on running the entire race, Riggs’s Toyota was so far off the leading pace it ended the day 38th. Now a free agent, Riggs probably will have to look outside the Sprint Cup Series if he wants a more competitive ride this season.
Here are some of the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: The consideration of double-file restarts – Considering the mudslide of bad public relations that NASCAR is deservingly getting buried under, the revelation that the sport’s brass is kicking around the popular idea of double file restarts during points-paying Cup’s races is surprising to say the least. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said this week that talks of the idea always get louder around the All-Star Race, which uses the format, and that the fan interest in the idea helps spark NASCAR’s considerations of it.
This idea rocks! Since the field during many races gets strung out and pushes even the most diehard race fans to the brink of slumber, bunching up the leaders during every restart before, let’s say, the 20 laps to go mark would help alleviate that problem. The idea of the 10th-place car starting within five rows of the leader is tantalizing, especially since that same car starts in the equivalent of 20th place when the lap down cars start on the inside row under today’s format.
Drivers, for the most part, have spoken out against double-file restarts, which are used in many short-track racing series. But, as PRN announcer Mark Garrow so perfectly put on WSB Radio’s Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory last Saturday – if drivers oppose the idea, it’s probably a good one.
Please, NASCAR, do the right thing… at least this one time!
NOT: The Carl Long penalty – On the flip side of the PR wheel, NASCAR decided last week to levy one of the harshest penalties of all-time against Long and his underfunded No. 46 team. Docked a 12-race suspension, $200,000 and 200 owner and driver points for having a blown engine come up slightly too big in an inspection before the Sprint Showdown last weekend, Long and his small team face an uphill battle if they want to get back on the track anytime soon. As Long put in a statement on his website last week, the engine simply was too big and there is no explanation as to why. Long also said, however, that the engine builder is reputable, and the engine itself was still 50 horsepower less than what most teams were running.
Besides the initial shock of the large penalty falling on such a small team, the real injustice in the penalty lies in the question of equal treatment. Would NASCAR suspend Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team or Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team for 12 races, or for any races, if the same problem were to occur? The answer, of course, is no. NASCAR went as far as to add two spots to the Chase when Gordon, Junior, and Tony Stewart missed the playoffs once each in the span of two years. The problem with this assertion is that we will never know how NASCAR would actually react in a situation like this for a bigger team… because no one will ever know if one of their engines actually fails an inspection of this magnitude or not. How frustrating! If Long’s penalties were the actual punishment handed to every team for the same infraction and Long actually had a true advantage to gain from this, then his penalty would be much easier to stomach. Instead, NASCAR makes many sick to theirs.
(Writer’s Note: Long, contrary to his original statement, will be allowed to work his everyday job at Front Row Motorsports during his suspension, which means he will be allowed in the garage area. Though this is good news for Long, it also brings up the question of why Jeremy Mayfield cannot appear in or near the garage while his situation is up in the air. What a mess.)
HOT: The Indy 500 broadcast – I didn’t get to see most of the Indy 500, but the parts of the broadcast I caught reminded me of what races on television should be about – the racing. The ABC crew stuck to calling the action at the Brickyard while referring sparingly to other distractions and promotional segments. The race itself was not a barnburner… but the storyline behind Helio Castroneves’s victory was. The crew may have covered the two-time 500 winner more than it should have, but his utter dominance at IRL’s biggest track after nearly going to jail warranted extra coverage.
FOX, TNT, ESPN and SPEED all have to pay more bills to cover NASCAR. Since the broadcasting rights fees are astronomically high and the cost of production is not exactly cheap, having more commercials and promotions than the Indy 500 broadcast is understandable. That being said, all four networks should take notes from Sunday’s gem and from the countless number of seamlessly covered NASCAR races in the 1980s and 1990s. If they do, they will see what the fans really want.
ESPN/ABC begins covering Cup races soon, so hopefully the network will emulate its Indy crew in preparation for the Brickyard 400 race it will cover in August.
NOT: Any rain-delayed broadcast – Not many would want to be in FOX’s position of having to fill an undetermined amount of time and keep viewers interested in a race broadcast that is being interrupted by rain. Nevertheless, the mind-numbing material that makes its way to the airwaves during said instances is too much to tolerate. During Monday’s race, such examples as Dick Berggren’s asking Kyle Busch why he was eating a banana, Darrell Waltrip giving a rendition of “Singing in the Rain,” and almost every broadcaster downplaying the weather situation instead of reporting the actual track conditions were all good reasons to get fed up and turn the broadcast off. During rain delays of NASCAR broadcasts, interviews that cover the basics of some drivers that get little coverage would be much more practical than asking Kyle Busch why he prefers a wet helmet to a dry one. If the crew runs out of people to interview and things to talk about, go back to local programming and update the situation in the commercial breaks.
Hopefully, the concrete of Dover next week will be dryer than the asphalt at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Turn here next week to see which drivers leave the Monster Mile with a wave of momentum and which ones’ weekends end up a wash.
Listen to Doug this Saturday on the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 with Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com from 2-4 p.m.