NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: 2010 Shootout Aftermath Edition

ONE: Was Jamie McMurray the right signing for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing?

Well if the Budweiser Shootout is any indication, the answer would seem to be a resounding YES. Wheeling a racecar that was loose and nearly an out of control, Jamie McMurray stole the show even from race winner Kevin Harvick, scoring an impressive third-place finish in his debut race in the EGR No. 1 car.

But how much can be gleaned from McMurray’s run? It’s already well known that Jamie Mac knows how to get around the plate tracks; two of his three career Cup wins have come in restrictor-plate races. While it certainly was impressive to see him wheeling a wicked car around the high banks this past Saturday night, let’s not forget that race was for 187.5 miles… a far cry from the 500-miler on tap for this coming Sunday. Whether or not McMurray, or any driver for that matter, will be able to wrestle cars that strung out for 500 miles remains to be seen.

Furthermore, the same holds true for Speedweeks as for anytime NASCAR tackles a plate track… it offers no true indication as to how a team’s season will unfold. Not only has the Daytona 500 winner in each of the last three seasons gone on to do nothing in the rest of the Sprint Cup schedule, the races are so dramatically different from the others on the circuit that a team that nails the setup can’t transfer it anywhere else. Besides, it’s not a secret that EGR has a solid plate-racing package… just look at Martin Truex Jr. at Speedweeks last year.

McMurray delivered a solid performance in a form of racing he always has done well in, and in a car that has run well at Daytona. Until he and the No. 1 car hit the intermediates and downforce tracks, the jury still remains out on whether or not a reunion with Chip Ganassi will help Jamie Mac hit the potential level he’s never really had since his breakthrough in 2002. What’s more, BASS Pro Shops doesn’t seem to be sold on the idea either. Did you notice how they suddenly have an associate sponsor presence on both Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman‘s cars as well?

TWO: Is it time to revisit the Daytona 500 qualifying procedures?

It’s been time to revisit this ever since the Top 35 reduced the Gatorade Duels to putting only four cars in the Great American Race. Not only does it minimize the significance of the Duels in terms of strictly limiting the number of cars that actually can race their way into a race (funny how that gets left out), it also takes away incentives for teams to race at all in those 150-milers. Take a look at Joe Nemechek, who because he ran a single fast lap, is locked in no matter what he does in the Duels. Now, chances are he will not be parking the No. 87 on Thursday, because his second car (the No. 97 of Jeff Fuller) has to race its way in and he’ll likely play the good teammate.

But if Fuller wasn’t in the race, what real motivation would there be for him to race hard? Sure, a better starting position, but does that really matter at all in a 500-mile plate race? Face it, the only two positions that offer hardware are decided already. And for that matter, what motivation do the drivers locked in already have to lay it all on the line on Thursday? The cars outside the Top 35 will race hard and put on a good show, but there’s something wrong about watching races with 54 cars in them where less than 20 actually have something to race for. Kind of like that whole Chase thing….

THREE: Is all well in the Hendrick Motorsports camp?

To call Hendrick’s performance in the Shootout underwhelming is putting it lightly. Outside of Stewart, no cars running Hendrick equipment were ever a serious player in Saturday’s night race. Even worse, both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman, who each are less than two seasons removed from winning the Shootout and Daytona 500 respectively, ran like junk in the back of the field all night. Newman even struggled to keep up with the draft during the race’s second segment.

Now, it’s certainly possible that this is nothing more than a case of Hendrick rolling out cars from the back of the garage to fill the Shootout field while spending all their time and efforts polishing the 500 cars. But is it also possible, just maybe, that amid all the off-season posturing about Johnson’s upcoming fatherhood, Mark Martin‘s aww shucks attitude and coming up short despite having the best Hendrick had to offer all year, and Dale Jr. being priority one, that staying ahead of the curve with regard to plate packages slipped through the cracks?

It’s probably nothing, a minor hiccup. But maybe the Hendrick camp missed one here. Or, maybe Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt-Ganassi and Roush Fenway all put a heavy emphasis on Daytona, while Hendrick Motorsports was busy working on the rest of the season.

Whatever your thoughts, Saturday’s results were provocative in that the Hendrick camp was off. Not just Junior, but all of the Hendrick team.

When was the last time that happened?

FOUR: Should Danica be taking JR Motorsports’ guaranteed spot in the field?

All right, the (lack of) suspense is over. Danica Patrick will race in the Nationwide Series event at Daytona. Surprise!

And she’ll be in the race, thanks to the owner points that Brad Keselowski accumulated last season. While ESPN and NASCAR stand to make loads of money thanks to Danica’s NASCAR debut, one driver could pay a heavy price for her racing… none other than JR Motorsports’ full-time driver, Kelly Bires. As this is being written, no entry list for Saturday’s Nationwide debut is available, so there’s no way of knowing whether or not JRM will enter a second car to allow Bires to attempt the race… and a full schedule. But even if JRM does, with Danica locked in, Bires will face the unenviable task of racing into the show, which is historically one of the most competitive fields seen throughout the Nationwide Series season.

Sure, Bires will be in a de facto Hendrick car if he has to race his way in, meaning all the necessary horsepower and then some will be there. But one loose plugwire or one cut tire, and Bires will have an ugly DNQ marring what can and should be a title-contending run for the prospect. All because Danica and the marketing machine that made her decided to make an all-too predictable spectacle out of whether or not she’d actually race at Daytona. Come on, did anyone ever buy there was a chance she wouldn’t?

FIVE: Should NASCAR take any lessons from Saturday’s ARCA race?

Late in the going of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200, with ARCA officials facing a time limit for their race (because NASCAR really needed the Zac Brown concert to go off on time… and they wonder why fans are leaving the sport in droves), the yellow flag did not fly despite a late-race incident that spun out multiple drivers. Instead of simply throwing the yellow and conceding the race to finish at pace lap speed, they did the unthinkable… they actually let the drivers race to the finish. With the drivers that spun well out of the racing groove, ARCA let their race unfold.

NASCAR’s been making a huge issue about getting back to their roots. I get the feeling that back in the day, a simple spin, a brush with the wall, a hot dog wrapper were not enough to justify throwing the yellow flag. Want to remember what old-school races used to be like? Take a lesson from your ARCA counterparts.

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