NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Censorship Gone Wild, Carl & Kyle Sitting in a Tree & More

ONE: Almirola the Right Move for JR Motorsports

Aric Almirola‘s third-place finish in his debut race with JR Motorsports this weekend could hardly be considered a surprise. A veteran of scores of starts across the Nationwide and Cup series, as well as a title contender in the Truck ranks this season, he’s picking up wins and respect with his current full-time ride over at Billy Ballew Motorsports. Now straddling the line between young gun and experienced vet, it’s that exact reason he’s the driver JRM should be looking to sign to the No. 88 for 2011.

Certainly, there’s been no shortage of talent taking turns in JRM’s cars this season. Josh Wise has gone from backmarker driving the No. 61 to a top-10 contender. Steve Arpin scored a top 10 in his Daytona NNS debut. Coleman Pressley showed promise in his runs at Kentucky and Nashville. But what Almirola does bring to the table that none of them do is some level of experience, one that’s much greater than a raw, rookie development driver starting out completely green.

Case in point: the one driver that managed to sustain success in JRM’s flagship ride, Brad Keselowski. When he jumped behind the wheel of the No. 88 for the first time, he had nearly 20 starts in the Nationwide Series in addition to a full Truck Series campaign under his belt. Having those starts in subpar rides had Keselowski accustomed to taking care of equipment, knowing how to adjust on racecars and how to deal with starting in the back. The results he posted in his Nationwide campaigns for JRM speak volumes as to how valuable those starts were.

Well Almirola has even more previous experience than his predecessor, and in better cars. He’s a proven race winner, a title contender and someone, like Keselowski, who’s taken a lick or two getting to this point. While Keselowski endured years of underfunded rides and start-and-park, Almirola took one of the biggest backhands in recent NASCAR history when JGR benched him while running in the top five – just so Denny Hamlin could go on to win a race at Milwaukee in 2007 for Rockwell Automation. Sponsor-driven or not, that move was nothing short of appalling.

There’s no shortage of fire or talent here, and as past history shows, an experienced young gun is what the No. 88 needs more than anything. Almirola seems to fit like a glove.

TWO: McMurray Winning The Big Races… But What Does it Mean For His Sponsor?

First the Daytona 500 and now the Brickyard 400 this Sunday. Jamie McMurray‘s making a habit of winning NASCAR’s big name events, or at least making a strong showing (he also finished second in the “Southern 500” and the Coca-Cola 600 this season). Yet a Chase berth is far from assured for one of the sport’s amazing comeback stories. McMurray followed his first win of 2010 with three consecutive finishes outside the top 15, and still sits over 150 points out of 12th place even after his second victory.

But does that really matter? Chip Ganassi looked awful happy about becoming the first car owner to win the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season. Bass Pro Shops representatives in victory lane looked right at home in Gasoline Alley. And McMurray’s future with both Bass and the No. 1 has gone from being one of the biggest early question marks for 2011 to a seemingly done deal. Not too shabby for a driver who left Roush Fenway Racing branded nothing short of an underachiever….

The more interesting point than McMurray’s performance, to me, is the question that should be posed to Bass Pro Shops: Does winning these big-time races mean more for the company than a Chase berth would? David Pearson built his legacy not on winning Cup titles, but showing up when the money was good… and beating everyone else to it. But in today’s points over prize money culture that has seen the checkered flag take a back seat to consistency, is there room and corporate sense for a team that, intentionally or not, is showing up when the trophy and purse gets bigger?

I certainly hope so. Frankly, I find it exciting to know that when a big race is coming up, there’s at least one team out there bringing a different frame of mind to it, a driver who brings a different confidence. Intentional or not, the No. 1 car is seemingly different when the big lights turn on, and that’s landing them the big fish in 2010.

It’s been fun to watch.

THREE: Is the Brickyard a Big Deal Anymore?

McMurray’s “big” win notwithstanding, is the Brickyard 400 as prestigious as the track and purse would imply? The answer was an emphatic “Yes!” during the race’s first running 16 years ago, when the track’s grandstands were packed and 86 cars showed up to try and make the field. But, fast forward to 2010, and the Brickyard was anything but a monumental event.

A crowd of 140,000 was reported Sunday, a number that looked at best slightly inflated. A field of only 47 cars attempted the show, then four of those who made it start-and-parked at one of the most hallowed racing venues anywhere in the world. Then, there’s the on-track action – or should I say lack thereof. It’s a race that, while not as snore-inducing as years past, still couldn’t hold a candle to what we see at Daytona.

Of all those indicators, it’s probably the crowd that’s most telling of how far this event has fallen down the food chain. Economy down or not, the Daytona 500 sold out, while the Indy 500 drew easily over 200,000 fans without having to inflate those numbers. That same day, the Coca-Cola 600 drew over 100,000 dedicated stock car enthusiasts. Labor Day at Atlanta drew over 100,000 last year, and likely will again – even though that tradition is only embarking on its second year. In comparison, Indy was less than half full, and that’s after the track lowered ticket prices. So for all the talk among drivers of how big a deal it was to race there, the fans didn’t seem to share their sentiment. (Though, to be fair, after dealing with the tire debacle of 2008 and years of racing that produced next to no passing, maybe they just opted to stay out of the heat.)

Back in the 1990s, NASCAR at Indy was a big deal. It was a novelty, a Berlin wall falling that saw the South’s burly son kick the door in on IndyCar’s holy ground, a signal that stock car racing was becoming the elite of American motorsports.

But now NASCAR, like the Brickyard 400, is in serious decline. And all the economic excuses, all the history that has nothing to do with our sport, and all the bells and whistles in the world can’t hide the fact that a poor race can’t be a big deal indefinitely.

FOUR: Carl and Kyle Having a Bromance

To steal a line from fellow writer Tom Bowles, Did You Notice? that Carl Edwards made a point to visit victory lane after probation scared NASCAR’s battering ram into allowing Kyle Busch to drive to victory at ORP Saturday night? The two have no shortage of “bad blood” in their history, including battering each other after the checkered flag at Bristol in the summer of 2008. That followed an incident in a Nationwide Series race at Richmond earlier that year, one where Edwards accused Busch of pile-driving him.

But on that night, Edwards and Busch shared both an embrace and a quiet word in victory lane, with Busch enjoying his defeat of rival Ron Hornaday and Edwards expressing gratitude for a clean finish – seemingly oblivious that last week’s messy conclusion was courtesy his front bumper. Guess those performance-enhancers screw with memory a tick…

It’s an ironic pairing of drivers that suddenly “respect” each other – ones that are espousing their own abilities to race clean – but it makes sense. Busch has been the target of much of NASCAR Nation’s scorn for seasons now. As for Edwards, the bullseye is a little bit of unmarked territory, as the negative fallout from his ugly tangle with Keselowski at Gateway last week had the “aw shucks” Missourian launched into the “bad guy” zone more than at any time during his seven-year Sprint Cup career to date.

On the plus side, at least the two are finally recognizing just how similar they are, both off and on the racetrack. Draw your own conclusions about that one.

FIVE: NASCAR Fines Drivers… for Dissent

In a shocking report, the Associated Press reported on Monday that a number of NASCAR drivers have been secretly fined by NASCAR in 2010 for making disparaging comments about the sport. In one of those cases, a superstar driver was reportedly fined $50,000.

Information is still trickling in, but let me make a couple of points here. First of all, there’s no doubt that one of those drivers is Hamlin, even if the AP refuses to name him (Editor’s Note: As of Monday night, several sources within the garage have insisted to Frontstretch Hamlin’s on the list). Hamlin’s comments about debris cautions and their history, including his infamous tweet from Talladega last fall that “we signed up to drive our cars, not be told how to” have been among the most publicized negative comments made by anyone, competitor or commentator, about NASCAR in 2010. Second of all, where there’s AP NASCAR reporting, there’s Jenna Fryer… and where there’s Jenna Fryer, there’s a Denny Hamlin quote or story.

So hey, NASCAR, here’s a thought; take that fine money, hire somebody competent, and maybe your competitors will have a harder time finding something to complain about. Lord knows they’ve got plenty to choose from right now.

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