Race No. 13 in the 2009 season was an unlucky one for Goodyear, as periodic rains in Dover washed rubber off the track after both the Friday practice sessions and the Saturday races. With entries in both the Nationwide and Truck Series having right-front tire issues, Sprint Cup teams knew that tire conservation during Sunday’s race would be the only way to increase the chance of avoiding the damning blown tire punctures. Despite a competition caution and other precautions, several teams suffered tire failures with their Goodyears, while many others’ days were ruined by a caution during a green-flag pit sequence that John Andretti’s blown right front and subsequent brushing with the wall brought out.
These factors combined with a barn-burner finish, shuffled up this week’s HOT, WARM and COLD drivers leaving the Monster Mile. Let’s take a look….
HOT: Jimmie Johnson – Johnson’s second win of the 2009 season seemed to be in the bag through the middle part of the race, as the No. 48 dominated at Dover. Pit strategy, however, shuffled the field as several teams took two tires compared to Johnson’s four, leaving the Lowe’s Chevy in eighth place for the final 10-lap run. With Tony Stewart in the lead and Johnson also having to battle lapped traffic, a shot at the win seemed to fade; but, just like he did last fall at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson showed his teeth and passed his Chevrolet in the nick of time for the win. The three-time defending champ also led a career-high 298 laps and is now only 64 points out of the lead.
HOT: Stewart – David Reutimann, Stewart’s one-race foe at Lowe’s made a pit gamble to win the Coca-Cola 600 after staying out and taking their chances while the rest of the field chose to stay out. Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb almost did the same by taking two tires on the final pit stop and assuming the lead late in the Autism Speaks 400 Sunday. In similar Hendick-esque equipment as Johnson, the two multi-winning Cup champs put on a ‘Heluva Good’ showdown in the closing laps of the race. In all seriousness, though, Stewart has been red hot lately and has the second most points earned in the last five races. Annually a slow starter, Stewart capitalized on Jeff Gordon’s bad day and is now the points leader. But if Stewart is off to a slow start now, what is the summer going to spell for Smoke?
HOT: Matt Kenseth – Kenseth and the No. 17 team are not setting the world on fire, but his third straight top 10 finish is a marked improvement in consistency for the DeWalt team. Up a spot to eighth in points, Kenseth has not won at Pocono, the next stop on the circuit, but he has finished in the top 15 there in every race since June 2006.
WARM: Greg Biffle – Believe it or not, the Biff has the third most points in the past five races and showed some strength in Dover, leading 41 laps. Getting trapped a lap down during the early green-flag pit sequence kept Biffle from being a tougher challenge for Johnson; by the time he made it back to the front, his car was worn to pieces and he ended up dropping to third. Biffle and the No. 16 Ford have been strong on most tracks, except for the short tracks where the entire Roush program has been off. As a result, Biffle sits one spot behind Kenseth in the point standings, but beware – intermediate tracks pepper most of the schedule ahead.
WARM: Kasey Kahne – Kahne’s start on the outside pole of Sunday’s race with the new Dodge motor under the hood seemed to be a sign that the sixth-year driver’s season may be turning around. The Budweiser Dodge fell back early in Sunday’s event, but remained solid through much of the race, taking the checkered flag in sixth place. Kahne’s season started with progressive improvements through the first few races before the finishes nosedived over the next stretch. Now, armed with back-to-back top 10s in his pocket, a slim 66-point margin is all that sits between himself and the top 12. Kahne, the defending champion of the June Pocono race, clearly has momentum on his side heading into this month.
WARM: Carl Edwards – 2009 has been a quiet season so far for Cousin Carl, and it has certainly been a far cry from the nine-win triumph he produced in 2008. After Sunday’s seventh place effort, Edwards has scored back-to-back top 10s for just the second time this season. Like teammates Biffle and Kenseth, Edwards has not been anywhere near dominant lately, but the No. 99 team is starting to calmly hit its marks so it can hang on for a Chase berth. Edwards, by the way, won in his first ever start at Pocono in 2005 and scored the win in his last start there last year.
COLD: Paul Menard – Here is the good news first: Menard has two top-15 finishes (Talladega and Darlington) in the last five races. The bad news, of course, is that his other finishes in that stretch are 39th, 29th and 32nd and the No. 98 Menards Ford is 33rd in the driver points. Though he has shown some promise at times, Menard’s Cup credentials do not warrant his being employed – but his sponsorship ties do (there will be more on this later). The third-year driver is not the answer for Yates Racing, however, if they want a driver who can help the team return to the motorsports empire it once was.
COLD: Andretti – And by cold, I mean ice cold. Andretti took a couple of weeks off from his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports/Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team to run the Indy 500. That breather apparently did not leave him enough time to clear his head, as Andretti got caught speeding twice entering pit road and once for exiting pit road too fast. These infractions, combined with a cut tire and contact with the Dover wall, left him with a 34th-place finish that spoiled his NASCAR return. And while his team still sits 35th in owner points, Andretti has not scored a top 25 in this car since the Daytona 500. And considering his past lackluster Cup results combined with the current situation, couldn’t this team find a better driver willing to take the wheel?
COLD: AJ Allmendinger – Since Allmendinger was not supposed to even have a ride this year, yet has been on the track each race, placing him in this category is tough. The numbers speak for themselves, though and they shout that something needs to turn around on the No. 44 team. Allmendinger has not had a top 15 since Martinsville (ninth) and has only two top-25 finishes in that eight-race stretch. Feeling the same ill-effects of most Richard Petty Motorsports teams, Allmendinger has managed to keep his chin up and continues to improve, meaning his finishes will – as soon as his car does.
Here are some of the HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: Parity – The down economy, a lack of testing, and pure luck (or lack thereof) have combined to allow the results of many non-Hendrick affiliated teams to end up similarly. Even Kyle Busch’s flashy three wins have been tapered by his bad luck, and former points leader Gordon has scored just enough poor finishes to surrender the lead atop the standings. Edwards is 11th in points, just one year removed from nearly capturing the title. Drivers with seemingly lackluster results remain in Chase contention, such as Juan Pablo Montoya (-92 points from 12th place), Clint Bowyer (-118), Brian Vickers (-131), and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-215), though he is a long shot. This season has also seen two first-time winners (Brad Keselowski and Reutimann). While the racing action may not seem as exciting as it once was, each race since Phoenix has been at least decent… and sometimes darned foot-stomping. With talk of the possible implementation of double-file restarts and the widening of the box that teams can adjust the Car of Tomorrow in, there may be a light at the end of the dark tunnel – a tunnel that we have all had to pass the Jeremy Mayfield drug fiasco, the Carl Long penalty, and NASCAR’s general apathy toward fans.
NOT: Daddy’s money – Mention of Menard and his father’s Menards sponsorship arose some thoughts of mine about two Georgia drivers in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In Saturday’s race, John Wes Townley, driver of the No. 09 Zaxby’s Ford for RAB Racing wrecked Ken Butler III, part-time driver of the No. 23 R3 Motorsports Chevy sponsored by Aaron’s.
Townley’s father Tony co-founded the popular chicken chain and has fully funded his son’s career in motorsports. Townley, only 19 years old, and Travis Kvapil replaced Zaxby’s franchise owner Joey Clanton in the No. 09 Roush Fenway Zaxby’s Ford Truck last season after Clanton fell into bad graces with the team following the season-opening Daytona race. Townley raced only seven times in the 2008 Craftsman Truck Series and failed to register a top-10 finish. Nevertheless, RAB Racing and Townley began a campaign late in 2008 to run the Nationwide Series. Townley made three races in only seven attempts and destroyed his share of racecars. That tradition has carried over into his full-time 2009 schedule, where, despite working with veteran crew chief Brad Parrott, Townley has failed to qualify for two races and has run dreadfully in the 10 others. Townley lasted just 26 laps Saturday, making a bonzai, over-zealous move under Butler and wrecking both. Townley finished 38th at Dover.
Meanwhile, Butler III has shown a bit of promise this season, but still is very much the beneficiary of grandfather Ken Butler’s heavy involvement in sponsor Aaron’s. Butler has a season-high finish of 17th at Las Vegas, but has wrecked out of (or been wrecked) in three of his last four races.
Combine these examples with the earlier one of Menard’s Cup Series presence, and a major downside of racing is exposed. Teams cannot race without money… and sponsors pay the bills. As a result, these fathers and heads of large companies need to look hard at where their money is going before suiting their sons up and making them the captains of rocket ships.
Now, it’s on to the triangle track otherwise known as Pocono Raceway – a speedway that amounts to a strange Bermuda Triangle of sorts. Turn here next week to see which teams survive and thrive at the grueling 500-mile race and which others struggle in the mountain air.
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 this Saturday from 2-4 p.m.