NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Talladega Testing Confusion, Four NASCAR #1s & Mayfield Pops Up?

Did You Notice? We learned everything and nothing from this Talladega test… at the same time? In many ways, NASCAR’s choice to squeeze this experiment onto the schedule was good for two reasons:

1) The cars started out too fast with the initial plate package offered (a flat, 4.5-inch spoiler with two-inch extensions on either side, paired with a 66/64ths-inch restrictor plate). Those caused speeds well in excess of over 200 mph. Officially, NASCAR said the highest lap speed was over 202 but unofficially, drivers were playing a game called “What’s The Highest Number We Can Say Without Someone Calling You Out?” (I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. won that one, claiming his highest speed was 213 down the straightaway. Our sources had the highest actual speed pegged at 208… but who’s counting?)

The bottom line is the speeds were way too fast, and the teams ended the day with a better package: a 62/64ths-inch plate, a flat 4.5-inch spoiler, and speeds comfortably in the mid-190s for drafting, about five mph below that 200 “magic number” speed sources have consistently told me through the years NASCAR won’t go over. (For the record, NASCAR insists there is no such thing as a magic number). So now, R&D has a baseline to draw from going forward, with a full month to come up with the answers they wouldn’t have had with no test.

2) Drivers were given an opportunity to feel out how the spoiler changes their closing rates at a track where a wreck wipes out half the field. That’s critical, because it’s a completely different style of drafting drivers appeared to relate to the way the Truck packs work at Daytona. Faster acceleration means a completely different rhythm to adjust to at a track where you slow down only to make sure you don’t hit someone from behind.

How fast were the closing rates? Crew chief Mike Ford was quoted as saying drivers will feel like “Superman” in the draft. That’s one feeling you want to have a little experience with before coming back in April for real.

But just because drivers expressed cautious optimism over the package – there seemed to be good vibes throughout the garage over this test – doesn’t mean all our questions got answers. To the contrary, I still have a whole bunch that’ll last until well beyond next week’s bigger test at Charlotte. Why? Consider the venue, for starters: Talladega is a plate track, an animal like no other on the Cup circuit where “wide open” is the name of the game all the way around the 2.66-mile circuit. How can you discover how the spoiler handles when you’re never putting your foot on the brake?

Because of that, the package for ‘Dega is also going to be different than all other tracks. Supposedly, the spoiler will be shorter at all other speedways – a proposed height of four inches right now, according to an article by SceneDaily’s Bob Pockrass, which changes the way the cars will drag and handle on an intermediates. Yes, the data gathered will be good for this track… but how about the other 15-plus on the circuit?

A full day of testing also doesn’t answer the most important question of whether these cars will stay on the ground. You can’t exactly spin someone out and see how no wing affects the physics of the car now, can you? That’s just going to have to wait for a practice mistake at Talladega at the end of next month, or sadly, the Big One within the race itself.

So was this test a good thing? Yes, and I think it’s going to lead to a great Talladega race. Our Doug Turnbull was reporting late yesterday that NASCAR is considering allowing the teams to change gear ratios, giving them additional adjustment options that will hopefully cause the big pack to break up into smaller groups. But as for whether the spoiler will make racing great everywhere else?

That’s up there with if you picked the best tournament bracket. Right now, nobody knows….

Did You Notice? With the NCAA Tournament, all you see these days are NASCAR puns relating to March Madness? I won’t go that far, but the concept of four number one seeds did get me thinking. After four races, if I had to pick four drivers who stood out as championship contenders, who would they be?

Here’s my selections:

Jimmie Johnson: Without a doubt, the clear-cut overall No. 1 seed. You don’t win two of the first four races, lead 119 laps, then lose your title as the man to beat. Kevin Harvick may be the points leader, but the No. 48 is still the team everyone fears.

Matt Kenseth: Tough to pick a No. 2, but Kenseth stands out for three reasons: 1) He fired his crew chief after a top 10 at Daytona, got a replacement that hasn’t had a win in four plus years (Todd Parrott), and is still running better than we’ve seen since 2006 – when he was Johnson’s biggest hurdle to clear for his first title. 2) Roush got behind in failing to do enough testing for the Car of Tomorrow. Let’s just say they won’t make the same mistake twice; not only have sources told me they’ve got their ducks in a row this time, more support from additional Ford programs (what are there, 11 Roush-supported teams?) leaves a mountain of information for the No. 17 to utilize. 3) The trademark Kenseth consistency is back. Four races, four top-10 finishes – exactly the type of rhythm you need for the fall.

Mark Martin: You hate to have two guys from the same team inside the top four, but Martin’s slyly flown under the radar this season while everyone else is getting some press. Four races into last year, he was struggling to simply stay inside the Top 35 in points after three straight engine failures/wrecks. This year, he’s seventh, has stayed out of trouble and is quietly building up a notebook for the playoffs. You say you can’t win a title at 51? I seem to remember someone named Harry Gant winning four straight races and finishing fourth in points at that age.

Jeff Burton: Yeah, I know, not exactly everyone’s top pick for the fourth “top seed.” But doesn’t the final selection always come with a little bit of controversy? Harvick and Clint Bowyer may have outdone him this season, but Burton’s consistency stretches all the way back to last October – when Todd Berrier jumped on board as crew chief. And while Harvick (free agency) and Bowyer (experience) come with their own set of question marks, Burton, at 42, sees his window of opportunity closing just as RCR is surging upward again. With just a handful of years left for him to race, Burton knows more than anyone else you need to take advantage of your opportunities – and this is one he can’t afford to pass up.

Close Calls: Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Harvick, in that order. Notice also there’s no Joe Gibbs Racing drivers (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin) on the list. How can they be when they’re 0-for-8 on top-10 finishes this season? Your racing “RPI” can only rely on past performance and future predictions for so long…

Did You Notice? The 3.5-inch fin that NASCAR implemented for the left side of the rear deck lid and window, used at this year’s Daytona 500, will be standard on all cars once the spoiler’s introduced? That’s an excellent move, as it’s universally accepted this side plate helps keeps these cars from getting in the air.

More importantly, it’s another portion of the car teams will be able to adjust on race day. Crew chiefs getting a shot at innovation once again? Now that’s a long-term policy I can live with.

Did You Notice? People say there are “lies, damn lies and statistics.” But here’s a couple that stand out over the first four races of the season:

Scary Hendrick: For the first time in team history, all four Hendrick cars are 13th or better in points after four races.

Slumping Gibbs: Two top-10 finishes amongst three cars is the worst performance for Gibbs through four races since the first year of their expansion in 2005. And if the season ended now, none of the three cars would be in the Chase; the highest-rated driver is Joey Logano in 14th, the lowest placing by them through four races since 2001.

Childress The Champ? This is the first time an RCR team (Harvick) has led the points four races in since 1999. Believe it or not, it wasn’t Dale Earnhardt back then but Mike Skinner… who promptly faded to 10th by the end of the season. So don’t count your chickens just yet….

Paul Menard Ninth In Points: Last year, he had six top-20 finishes in 36 races. This year, he has four in four.

Speedin’ Ahead: Scott Speed had six lead-lap finishes in 35 starts last year. This year, he’s already halfway towards that total in four races.

Did You Notice? A little Facebook posting by Shana Mayfield about the Carl – Brad situation last week? Pulled straight from her status messages…

“Claritin D is a “drug of concern,” but using a racecar as a weapon to intentionally wreck someone is not a ‘concern?’ WTF????”

I bring this up for two reasons. Number one, it’s one of the more interesting points from this wreck no one’s really explored. If NASCAR’s going to suspend someone indefinitely for drug use that increases the inherent level of risk they’ll injure someone else on the track, how could they not do the same for intentional retaliation, which, in essence, is doing the exact same thing?

Yes, I know, I understand the point drugs are illegal and inherently warrant suspensions in all kinds of major sports. But it’s at least a discussion point worth thinking about. And that brings me to reason number two I brought this up: let’s not keep the Mayfields far out of our thoughts.

Ever so quietly this spring, while NASCAR tries desperately to mount a comeback the Mayfield case continues to rumble its way towards a trial date in the fall. Not only is there no settlement, but the case is resembling more of a circus atmosphere every day. The latest news last week is ESPN’s David Newton may be subpoenaed by Lisa Mayfield, who wants him to give a deposition in a related defamation lawsuit against her stepson.

That came just a few weeks after Mayfield’s defense sought to embarrass the France family during a thorough examination of Brian France on the stand, challenging his state of residency in a bid to move the case from federal to North Carolina Superior Court. It was a “small potatoes” attempt at a much-deeper private investigation, a warning shot sure to be ten times worse when the Frances take the stand for “real” later this fall.

The fact they will is nothing short of amazing. With the Kentucky lawsuit seemingly out of the way, this remains the lone working case against NASCAR capable of doing major damage, making it a “no brainer” in many peoples’ eyes to get it settled and prevent any type of additional negative press. But Mayfield, his career ruined, continues to refuse any type of financial compromise, “determined to teach” his former place of employment a harsh lesson.

So keep this one on your radar screen, folks. The worst may not be over yet.

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