ONE: Sunday’s Win a Big Step for Hamlin, No. 11 Team
Two races into the season is hardly enough time to make a lasting prediction for the remainder of a long regular season that will stretch till September. But no matter how early in the season, Sunday was a very big day for the No. 11 team and driver Denny Hamlin. Two races in, Hamlin sits atop the point standings; in six previous full-time seasons, he’s averaged 20th in points by now. It was a second straight convincing showing that had the No. 11 among the class of the field, demonstrating that the learning curve between driver and new crew chief Darian Grubb may well be a short one.
Most importantly, especially for a driver such as Hamlin that’s often been done-in not by racing but by psychology, winning at Phoenix gave the FedEx team a trophy at the very track that started their epic meltdown in the 2010 Chase, a disastrous effort that cost them a championship. What’s more, Hamlin didn’t just win the race, he won it on fuel mileage, the same strategy that bit both he and his team in their bid two years ago to unseat Jimmie Johnson. There’s something significant to be said about winning a race in such fashion.
Now granted, it’s easy for Grubb and Hamlin to be clicking right now. Two races in, they’ve been fast from the get-go, faced no real adversity, and let the combination of talent and top equipment score points. Only the eventual challenge of a grueling season, and how they manage to navigate that, will truly tell the tale of whether Hamlin’s ready to make another go at the sport’s top prize. But a long-lasting prediction or not, Sunday was a very big day for the No. 11 team… especially the wheelman.
TWO: RAB Racing Ownership Isn’t Selling Desperation
It’s not often one hears of Kenny Wallace being a Debbie-downer, but that was reportedly the word out of Phoenix, with team owner Robby Benton expressing concern that Wallace’s approach of playing the desperation card in seeking sponsorship is going to be counter-productive, the opposite image that Benton wants conveyed of an No. 09 team that he is convinced is a viable, competitive organization. That’s not an unfounded perception… see Wallace’s top-10 season last year.
And Benton’s also right. Time and time again selling a sad tale in a bid to stay on the racetrack has proven not to work. Be it Morgan Shepherd’s seemingly endless insistence that his race team is bankrupt and on the verge of folding (it’s been over six months since that pronouncement; the No. 89 team has yet to miss a race) or forgotten ARCA driver Billy Tanner assailing fellow racers after a 2007 wreck at Talladega as rich kids with daddy keeping racers like him off the track, there’s a common thread to approaches like theirs. They don’t land backing.
There’s nothing wrong at all with painting oneself and one’s race team as an underdog fighting an uphill battle. That’s not even a picture, that’s reality. But the reality also is to garner corporate backing and to earn the fan support and dollars needed to stay on track, one has to be ready to be the face of a corporate entity and of their employees.
Good luck finding a business out there that wants to be represented by someone that solely reminds them of how bad things are. To be clear, that’s not an indictment of Wallace, who’s proven more than able a spokesman over the years. But Benton also has a point; Wallace has certainly been more downtrodden of late even on-camera. For the owner to speak up the way he did publicly suggests that off-the-track, behind closed doors, it may be even worse.
THREE: Reason to Worry for Sadler Fans?
Yes, Elliott Sadler broke a winless streak of over a decade in the Nationwide Series this weekend, blowing past a strong Brad Keselowski to take the checkers at Phoenix. Yes, Sadler left PIR with consecutive top-five finishes leading the points and carrying the flag for a red-hot RCR organization. And no, Sadler will not be driving for Michael Waltrip Racing in the Cup Series this season. Frankly, none of those should be surprising, Sadler was a very close runner-up in the title chase a year ago, and RCR has a well-deserved reputation for being the class of the Nationwide Series whenever they show up.
Which begs the question: What were driver and MWR thinking to make such an announcement? That a Chevrolet-backed driver, and a title contender at that, would get the green light to drive a Toyota on the side?
Like it or not, this doesn’t appear to be a case of an excitable Michael Waltrip speaking before ducks were in a row. Sadler acknowledged to SPEED that he was scheduled to run five races with MWR before sitting down with RCR executives that said otherwise. No, Sadler instead saw a chance to drive Cup, and took it without asking questions. Can’t fault any driver for that. Who would ever think of saying no to a ride in the premier level of stock car racing?
Problem is, with strong competition for the Nationwide title this season in the form of teammate Austin Dillon and the ever-strong Roush Fenway Racing organization, Sadler’s going to need to maintain complete focus to be a factor in this title run. In two weeks he’s caused a massive wreck in a Cup race and followed that up by jumping over his head into a Cup deal at Phoenix that anyone with a lick of sense would realize didn’t stand a chance in hell of being OK’d by all involved. Let’s just say that doesn’t reek of focus.
While such behavior and mentality hasn’t impacted his NNS efforts yet, it’s hard to see the two arenas being segregated for 31 more weekends.
FOUR: Kurt Busch’s Do or Die Weekend
For all the wrecked cars at Daytona, lost in the shuffle was that Busch’s debut with Phoenix Racing had no shortage of speed or competitiveness. Just as always, the elder Busch was able to mix it up with the best in the business at plate racing, nearly winning the Nationwide race and pulling some of the more memorable charges of the Bud Shootout.
Fast forward to Sunday’s race at Phoenix, and Busch again delivered the goods. He avoided tearing up any equipment, ran consistently, and brought home a top-15 finish for the No. 51 team. To put that in perspective, the last time longtime owner James Finch’s team enjoyed that type of result at PIR was 2005, the last time they finished a race there on the lead lap, much less in the top 15. It wasn’t totally unexpected; with Hendrick horsepower alone and a championship-caliber driver, the results for the No. 51 weren’t going to be ugly this year.
Now as the circuit turns to Las Vegas, the real benchmark is approaching for just how much Busch and his new team will be able to accomplish this season, for LVMS marks the first intermediate race of the season. Ultimately the cookie-cutter ovals, with their aero dependence and setup sensitivities, are always the tracks that tell the tale of a season. They’re the most prevalent on the schedule, and owing to what it takes to run well on them, they lend themselves to drivers and cars that have big-time backing, and teammates with which to collaborate.
Busch has neither. What he has is the fact that he’s run well enough not to be discouraged by the limitations of his new ride heading into his hometown race. Motivation will be no issue for Busch, nor should psychology. And with the driver on his A-game, look for this third race of the year to be the most viable benchmark for Phoenix Racing and what they can expect to do in their anticipated season with the 2004 champ behind the wheel.
FIVE: If I See that Damn Picture One More Time
By now, the only NASCAR fans that aren’t aware of what Twitter is have been watching the races on mute and ignoring the little blue birds draped over seemingly every racecar and firesuit in the garage area. Twitter has become a staple of both NASCAR media and interaction for race fans. And shockingly, that picture has already replaced Danica Patrick’s Bud Shootout crash as the most over-referenced, over-played episode of the season.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) February 28, 2012
Does that make Keselowski’s in-car picture from Daytona the epic, game-changing event it has been made out to be in the press and on TV? NO! For God’s sake, the man took a cell phone picture from a parked car. Call Guinness already.
Social media is nothing new to professional sports, but to listen to this weekend’s NASCAR broadcasts one would think racing is being done at 140 characters these days. Let’s keep this in perspective folks; Keselowski took a picture. From a parked car. With a cell phone.
Oh look, a stock car race.