NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Season So Far

Four races deep into a 36-race season may be a bit premature to start drawing too many conclusions. Things could radically reverse themselves in the next four races. But already some trends are emerging this season and we’ve got some stuff to talk about here beside the rising tide. This column is also based on one irrefutable truth: It’s tough come up with anything to write about the sport going into an off-weekend, especially with my fellow Frontstretch writers having already grabbed up all the slam dunk Carl Edwards Vigilante Justice or Villain slots while I still dutifully was banging out my Sunday column.

Oh, and the sooner I get done this column the quicker I can return to the garage and continue getting the toys ready for springtime after the Winter From Hell here in Philly with a week off dead ahead.

The first four races of the season have offered a variety of tracks. Naturally there was the Daytona 500, one of four plate tracks on the schedule and an animal all to itself. Even absent the ever present hype leading up to the 500 Florida weather means this track is uniquely different in July to the point it might as well lay in a different latitude. This year’s 500 was a bit frigid, but by July, Florida will be tropical again.

Then we had races at California, a low-banked medium-size speedway, Las Vegas, a moderately-banked medium-size speedway, and Atlanta, a high-banked medium-size speedway. The first short-track race – once the staple of the sport – isn’t until a week from Sunday. Nowadays the mid-size speedways make up a majority of the schedule so we are getting a good glimpse of who has what.

Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla in the room – one James Johnson, reigning Cup champion – who is showing every sign that he’s ready to pick up where he left off last year… and for the last four years now. Johnson has won two of this year’s four points races, in dominating fashion at California and slipping by teammate Jeff Gordon late at Las Vegas on four fresh tires. Only his 35th-place finish at Daytona has Johnson out of the points lead. I’m sensing a growing number of fans who bear no personal animosity towards Johnson the way they once loathed Gordon (after all Johnson never routinely beat Dale Earnhardt Sr.) but they’re feeling like “Enough is enough.”

I’m not sure what Johnson and the No. 48 bunch are supposed to do about that sentiment. It’s not like they’re going to stop winning races or titles for the future good of the sport, and in fact in a year when NASCAR seems to want to promote rivalries maybe this is good for the sport. Earnhardt himself and Gordon weren’t very popular in some quarters either, and some fans would tune in just hoping to see them fall on their faces. The more they won the more their detractors tuned in to watch them fall. As Earnhardt himself once famously said of the fans, “If they ain’t cheering, they better be booing.” There’s nothing worse than watching a bunch of dispirited fans leaving the racetrack halfway through an event because they’re bored. You just know they ain’t coming back.

Johnson is so damn vanilla that he hasn’t incited the ABJ (Anybody But Johnson) brigade yet, but it may be coming. Meanwhile I truly feel that the only thing that can derail the No. 48 team is Chad Knaus leaving Hendrick for greener pastures the way Ray Evernham once did. Rick Hendrick recently joked that he’d love to sign Knaus to a lifetime contract but he can’t afford it. From where I sit I don’t see how he can afford not to.

That leaves Johnson’s three teammates from the dominant organization in the sport. Gordon is off to an unsteady start. He dominated at Las Vegas only to lose due to questionable pit strategy on the final stop. Other than that he’s led just 13 laps and he’s averaged a 21st-place finish in those other three races. Sunday at Atlanta, Gordon looked particularly hapless, perhaps because the tires Goodyear brought didn’t agree with him.

The ageless one, Mark Martin – racing’s equivalent to rock’s Bruce Springsteen – is off to a better start. He finished 12th at Daytona and fourth the next two weeks. A wreck not of his own making dropped Martin to seventh in the standings, but he’s still got the scent of the leaders. How many more years can he keep competing? Until he’s damn well ready to stop. This cat is just born to run.

That leaves Hendrick’s problem children, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88. To avoid sacks of hate mail I’ve learned it’s important to say positive things about Junior. He certainly does seem to be qualifying better this year. A second-place finish at Daytona wasn’t too bad. But since then it’s been back to the doldrums. For whatever reason the No. 88 team just doesn’t have the knack to take a car that’s bad at the start of a race and turn it competitive. They have shown an uncanny ability to take a car that’s decent at the start of the race and turn it to junk. Somewhere in the course of the afternoon Junior tends to get angry and from then on he’s just phoning it in. Has AMP ever considered a new product with Prozac in the mix?

Certainly one of the bright spots of the season for those tired of watching HMS win has been the dramatic return of Richard Childress Racing after a frustrating 2009 campaign. Kevin Harvick currently leads the points and his two teammates, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, are also in the top six in points. This trio has finished 11th or better 10 of a possible 12 times. Why the dramatic turnaround?

Damned if I know.

Usually for every year a team takes digging itself into a hole it takes them three years to dig out. I will say Richard Childress has been doing this a long time and isn’t shy about spending money. And he’s got three good drivers in his stable. Burton is an elder statesman of the sport and a veteran campaigner. Harvick has been at this eight years now and is finally showing some maturity. Bowyer is entering his fifth full season of Cup racing and is beginning to show some of the form that used to light up the crowds in his home state of Kansas. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see some new faces running up front.

What about the other superteam, Roush Racing? Well it’s been a mixed bag so far. Matt Kenseth is second in the standings after four straight top-10 finishes. He’s only led nine laps, but Kenseth has never been a flashy driver. He comes on at the end when they’re ready to write the checks. It seemed odd that a driver off to a fine start would wind up with a new crew chief but it’s hard to argue with a second-place finish at Atlanta.

Greg Biffle also has four straight top-10 finishes and in the earlier races this season he was carrying Roush’s flag. Edwards’s season is off to a rockier start. He has just one top-10 finish and zero laps led. As a result of Sunday’s retaliatory incident with Brad Keselowski, Edwards is on probation for three races (I’m sure he’s shivering in his snake skin booties) and he’s already mired 20th in the standings.

David Ragan has had his “UPS” and downs. With an average finishing position of 25th four races into the season, he’s got a deep hole to dig out of. After watching Jamie McMurray – formerly of Roush, but released after 2009 – win the Daytona 500 one has to wonder if Roush released the right driver. For all the Roush team’s past dominance head to head with Hendrick, it’s hard to dismiss the fact that only McMurray has won a Cup race in a Roush entry in over a year. Yet Roush seems hesitant to use Ford’s new FR9 engine. I dunno. If I’m getting my face rubbed in the mud every weekend I’m pulling everything I can out of my bag of tricks. If you’re going down, go down swinging.

McMurray’s win at Daytona was one of the feel good stories of the year. A driver tossed to the scrap heap by his former team, competing for the burnt out wreckage of two once mighty teams wins the big prize.

Chevy has been dominant this year winning the first three races and dominating the top 10. Dodge’s Kurt Busch – driving for Roger Penske, who fields the only Dodges out there – finally broke the streak on Sunday at Atlanta. He is currently 10th in the standings.

Kasey Kahne got off to a fast start with a surprise win in his 150-mile Daytona 500 qualifier and he could easily have won at Atlanta as well if his pit crew hadn’t let him down stop after stop. He’s been running far better than his 17th-place position in the standings. To date he’s led 148 laps in his first four races in a Ford. Perhaps even more surprising is Kahne’s RPM teammate Paul Menard who finds himself ninth in the standings ahead of such luminaries as Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.

Busch is off to a slow start with Joe Gibbs Racing. He has yet to finish better than 14th in a Cup event though he has won a Nationwide race. Perhaps owning his own teams in NASCAR’s other two touring divisions is distracting Busch from his day job.

Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin, who many felt was a good choice as a darkhorse contender for the Cup this year, is off to an even worse start with no finishes better than 17th and an average finish of 22nd. Toyota pilots are screaming that they’re at a horsepower disadvantage right now. Maybe they need to install some of those sticking throttle pedals that turn mere Camrys into rockets?

Teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman seem mired in a sophomore slump their second season out. Between the two of them they have yet to post a single top-five finish. Newman’s season got off to a particularly difficult start with two straight DNFs that find him currently mired 29th in the standings.

One of NASCAR’s stated goals to improve the racing is 2010 was to “let boys be boys” and get back after it without fear of getting slapped on the wrist for playing a little rough. Well they’ve got some feuds going already. Juan Pablo Montoya is mad at McMurray and they’re teammates. Busch isn’t happy with Boris Said. (Then again, when is Kyle ever happy?) Stewart’s mad at Keselowski.

Hamlin is mad at Keselowski. Just about everyone is mad at Keselowski but a few fans of his who post to internet message boards and tend to spell poorly. But Edwards is madder at Bad Brad than anyone else. Edwards is now notorious for his actions at Atlanta, wrecking Kesolowski while Edwards was more than 150 laps down after an earlier incident Sunday. Quite frankly I think it’s time his fellow drivers learn Cause-a-Catastrophe some manners, but looking at the mangled roll-cage in the driver’s compartment of the No. 12 car after the flip was sobering. My take? Right move, wrong place. Speeds are too high at Atlanta for that sort of stuff. Martinsville is coming up soon. But in the first week NASCAR emerged from the Olympics shadows, Mr. Edwards surely has given us something to talk about, hasn’t he?

NASCAR’s “The Gloves are Off” strategy is just part of their apparent effort to win back disenchanted fans who no longer attend or even watch races. The wings will be gone off the cars soon replaced with blade-type spoilers the way God and Dale Earnhardt intended racecars to look. The earlier start times are welcome though with two west coast races and the rain delay at Daytona we haven’t seen how those start times will truly affect ratings and attendance. Now it behooves NASCAR to do away with the two things that truly irritate long time race fans, the Car of Sorrow and the Chase. Until both are consigned to the Museum of Monumentally Bad Ideas beside New Coke and the Pontiac Aztek there’s a lot of folks who ain’t coming back.

Four races into the season I’ve already decided I’m a dinosaur. I don’t tweet and I don’t have a Facebook page. Hell, I don’t have a cell phone. It seems that media members and drivers have decided to take it straight to the fans without such bothers as thinking and editing what they want to say or even writing in complete sentences. Edwards is taking his case directly to the fans after Sunday’s incident rather than through the media. That’s what we used to do, but just as the Internet displaced so many print journalists, this tweeting and About Face Booking seems to be the wave of the future. And it’s not just young people who aren’t old enough to know better.

I’m told Darrell Waltrip, who is older than dirt, has become a Tweeter adherent. My guess is his 30-word electronic outbursts are easier to take than the constant cacophony of nonsensical verbiage and self-aggrandization he spews on Sunday. You don’t want to know what I’m doing every minute of every day. You don’t need to know I’ve crawled out of the rack on Saturday morning at a decadent hour, I’ve pinched a loaf and having scrupulously scrubbed my hands clean I’m searching for my lost box of Captain Crunch for breakfast. That’s how my brain functions weekend mornings until the nicotine starts firing off some neurons. Sorry, but I’m not a twit and I’m not going to tweet. If that means I’m out a job I’m down with that. There’s lots more for me to do in the garage frankly. Know anyone who wants a righteous gold big block ’72 Chevelle without a speck of rust on it?

Tweet me. Oh, right….

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