_Did you see all of the race action this weekend? Or, like a lot of busy fans, did you miss a late-night adventure, a Friday controversy, or a juicy piece of news? If you did, you’ve come to the right place! Each week, The Frontstretch will break down the racing, series by series, to bring you the biggest stories that you need to watch during the week ahead. Let our experts help you get up to speed for the coming week no matter what series you might have missed, all in this week’s edition of Pace Laps!_
*NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: The Runner-Up Blues* Is there a runner-up jinx in NASCAR? For several drivers in recent years, it probably seems like there’s a hex on the second-place points finisher the next year. In fact, since the Chase began in 2004, the runner-up has finished in the top 5 in points the following year, and none has ever finished better than fourth. In recent years, it’s been even bleaker; since 2008, the previous year’s second-place finisher has finished no better than ninth. So, should Carl Edwards worry?
Well, yes. He shouldn’t push the panic button yet, but Edwards does need to step up his game; with eleven races to go before the Chase, Edwards finds himself on the outside looking in. But there is time to fix that–and Edwards can take heart in the fact that his teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are first and third, respectively, on the point charts. But Kenseth and Biffle didn’t have a grueling championship run last year, and neither ultimately fell short by a single on-track position.
In the end, it’s not a jinx so much as it is the runner-up team is spending so much time and energy on winning the Chase that they are at a disadvantage when the season ends. There’s generally a reason they fell short in the Chase, and if, during that time, they don’t have the time or manpower to devote to preparing for the next year, they will also start that year behind the eight ball. As we’ve seen time and again, when a team gets behind, it can take months to catch up. And in playing catch-up, it’s hard to get ahead. The summer weeks will prove critical for Edwards, who finished eleventh at Michigan… while Kenseth and Biffle finished third and fourth. Edwards can make the Chase, but the next few weeks will give a clear picture of whether he’s a real contender. _–Amy Henderson_
*Izod IndyCar Series:* Some looked at the grandstand at the Milwaukee Mile and saw it was half empty. Michael Andretti looked at the grandstand and saw it was half full. His Andretti Sports Marketing took over as promoter of the event in February because the future of the race was in question after poor attendance in 2011. The company has already announced plans for next year’s race weekend on June 14-15 and plan to begin ticket sales today.
Andretti was aware his company would need to rebuild the race’s audience, and to that end, came up with the Milwaukee IndyFest concept that not only featured the race but concerts, rides and a family fun zone. The hope is that a successful event this year would generate interest among both fans and potential sponsors.
Andretti was optimistic after the event, saying, “We felt like if we did a really good event this year and displayed it well, that the skeptics are going to be the ones who hear how great the event was and we’ll get them to come the next year. Year Two should be bigger, hopefully, than Year One. This is a building year.”
For Andretti, who won the Milwaukee race nine times himself–including one year when he shared the podium with his cousin John and father Mario–the race is an important open-wheel tradition he wanted to see continue. Next year’s race will be the one to by which to measure. _–Toni Montgomery_
*NASCAR Nationwide Series:* Rewind back to 2009 on the Cup side of the garage, and it was one of the greatest resurgences seen in recent memory. The Kid, one Mark Martin, made the move to Hendrick Motorsports, and set the world on fire. Four wins and a runner-up finish in the points later, Martin was primed for a late-career assault on the championship that had long eluded him. But 2010 and 2011 were anything but title-contending seasons. What made 2009 different? It was the one season that Martin and his No. 5 team got first pick of chassis and engines in the Hendrick shops.
The same situation may well be about to play out in the Nationwide Series over at Richard Childress Racing. Although Elliott Sadler maintained his points lead after another disappointing showing for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon made up even more ground with a top-5 finish and now sits only eight points out of the lead, even as a rookie without a win. The defending Truck Series champion has gone from a solid contender to a legitimate player in this race just as the season hits the summer stretch.
Which begs the question… who’s going to be getting the first pick in the RCR shops now that the teams are sitting 1-2 in a virtual dead heat? For Sadler, 2012 has taken on renewed importance both in making up for his agonizing loss to Stenhouse a year ago as well as a dismal showing in his return to Cup racing at Daytona in February. But Dillon is family, and he’s making a major league push to win a championship… now, not next year. The RCR shop is obviously clicking, given the results their Nationwide program is postin; but in the end, the Nos. 2 and 3 are competing with each other. Equipment selection in a race this tight can and will make a difference. As the summer heats up, keep an eye on RCR. _–Bryan Davis Keith_
*ARCA* Probably the most intriguing part about ARCA racing is how much of the unpredictability and the man vs. machine elements (that have largely disappeared from the big three NASCAR series due to advances in both equipment and budgets) still show their face. Take, for example, the case of Brennan Poole and Venturini Motorsports at Michigan this weekend. Despite qualifying five cars in the top 12 and points leader Poole following up back-to-back race wins at Elko and Pocono by leading the first 59 laps, by race’s end only one of those cars scored a top-10 finish (John Blakenship). Poole, Ryan Reed, and Kevin Swindell all finished three laps off the pace due to two little words: tire management.
It was hardly surprising to see tire issues arise for Hoosier at Michigan given the recent repave and the speeds that resulted. But what defined Friday’s race was seeing the powerhouse Venturini cars completely unable to overcome tire wear issues, to the point that their Nos. 15, 25 and 55 cars were all making stops under green to put fresh rubber back on the cars. That opened the door for a fantastic battle in the closing laps between Alex Bowman and Chris Buescher, with Buescher taking the checkers by a nose.
Tire management ended up being the story of the race. When the Venturini cars faltered, both Buescher and Bowman found a way to back off and keep their Hoosiers in acceptable condition. It was purely a case of the drivers having to adapt, and both driver and machine having dramatic impact on a race. Friday’s event at Michigan, even with a down car count, was an example of what makes ARCA, and stock car racing, worth watching. And its what has this season’s points race as volatile as the European economy. Stay tuned. _–Bryan Davis Keith_
*Short Tracks:* Local short track racing is generally close-quarters racing with many opportunities for trading paint. Generally speaking, week in and week out, the same drivers at a given track are in the front battling for the wins, and ultimately trading paint from time to time. This week, it happened again at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Virginia. Lee Pulliam and Frank Deiny ended up making some contact late in the race which resulted in Pulliam having to park for the night while Deiny went on to win the race.
Pulliam has been battling hard since returning to racing in May, after serving a NASCAR suspension after intentionally crashing into national champion Philip Morris’ car at South Boston at the end of last season. Amazingly, Pulliam has won six of the races he’s competed in this season since his return, and has climbed to 12th in the national points standings. He’s putting on a full-court press to try and get himself back in the title discussion, but Saturday night didn’t help.
This isn’t the first time that Pulliam and Deiny have tangled on the track, having had a very public brake-checking, foot-slipping-off-the-accelerator battle last year which greatly damaged Pulliam’s run at the 2011 national championship. Pulliam will certainly be minding his Ps and Qs thanks to his recent suspension, but do not expect him to back down from Deiny.
Rivalries bring fans out to watch racing, whether it is for national touring series races or local short tracks. Just in the Southeast this year there have been several rivalries brewing, and the fans have been responding at tracks like Greenville-Pickens, Kingsport and Motor Mile. Everyone is anxiously awaiting the next time Pulliam and Deiny are on the race track to see just how things will turn out. _-Mike Neff_