NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Winds Of Change

The season is finally upon us, ladies and gentlemen. In just two short weeks, the IZOD IndyCar Series will be back in full swing for the first race of the season on the St. Petersburg Street Circuit. There will undoubtedly be a great deal of pomp and circumstance from IndyCar officials surrounding the event, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the folks in charge will cheerily gloat about how all is well in the world of IndyCar and this season will be the “best season in years†despite organizational in-fighting that could derail that very goal. Will this season deliver on the inevitable promises made by series higher-ups? Before we can answer that, we have some catching up to do in terms of you may have missed over the off season. On the driver and team front, there have been some off-season moves which have shuffled the deck in terms of who is where. The most high-profile driver to make a change was Graham Rahal, as he departed from Chip Ganassi Racing in order to join forces with his father at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Rahal’s new teammate will be James Jakes, who will also be running for Rahal after a stint with Dale Coyne Racing. Takuma Sato departed from the above listed Rahal team in order to join the ranks of A.J. Foyt Enterprises. A.J. Allmendinger is making a return to the series with Penske Racing, as he will be racing a part-time schedule that includes the Indianapolis 500. Rookie Sebastien Saavedra will be piloting a car for Dragon Racing, and Simona De Silvestro will be taking her talents to KV Racing Technology. Finally, the biggest winner in silly season was E.J. Viso, who landed a plum full-time gig with Andretti Autosport. Following on the numerous driver and team changes made in the offseason, INDYCAR officials also ushered in a variety of rule and regulation along with other general changes to the series as a whole. Most notably, another round of downforce reductions on the cars was made in a continued effort to put the racing back into the hands of drivers. For better or for worse, doubleheader races will be making a comeback, with the races at Toronto, Belle Isle, and the new Houston street circuit all being two-day/two-race affairs. Speaking of the race Houston, it will be joined by Pocono Raceway as tracks that are new to the schedule in 2013, with the Pocono race being designated as a Triple Crown event. Oh yeah, did I mention that Triple Crown? It’s back, and in addition to the Pocono event, the Indianapolis 500 and the season finale at Auto Club Speedway will all comprise this new promotion, and IndyCar will award a $1,000,000 bonus to any driver who can win all three events. As for the on-track racing, this may just very well be the best season in years. The DW12 platform that debuted last year proved to be a rousing success. Not only was the on-track product improved by the new car, but it more importantly proved to be an improvement in terms of safety. After the tragic death of Dan Wheldon at the end of 2011, the sport absolutely needed to take a proactive and forward-thinking approach to safety, and it did just that. Many kudos must be given to INDYCAR for putting safety first, and to see that the new car raced well to boot was just an added bonus. Expect to see much of the same in 2013 as teams have had a full year under their belts in terms of getting these cars up to speed. The oval races will be absolutely scintillating, especially the newest oval to join the schedule, Pocono, as the drafty but driver-input-sensitive DW12 proved to be arguably the best car the series has ever raced with on such tracks. The above mentioned downforce reductions ought to make the racing even hairier on such tracks as drivers search and struggle for grip. There are undoubtedly still far too many road and street circuits, but the DW12 raced well enough on such tracks last year that the racing on the twisty circuits ought to be passable. But alas, despite the general optimism provided by a new car and some great racing, fans of the IndyCar world were left in a state of peril at the season’s end. In case you missed it INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard was abruptly fired after the season late last year, leaving many to wonder about the future of the sport. Rumors swirled that the series was in major financial trouble, and some insiders even warned that the series was close to going under. Where is this fine sport heading? Is American Championship Open-Wheel Racing on a path for failure? Those will be the questions asked continually throughout the season, as INDYCAR once again finds itself in a state of flux. The organization has had a nasty habit over the years of finding creative ways to shoot itself in the foot, and it has done so, once again. There is no getting around that. Bernard’s replacement (who is only an interim, tell me that’s not an indicator of how disorganized INDYCAR leadership is) is Jeff Belskus, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Hulman & Company, the group which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Nothing against Mr. Belskus, but how are fans supposed to have any sort of faith in the direction of the sport if an actual, long-term CEO could not be found despite the sanctioning body having four months to do so? How can this organization be trusted to make the right moves? Off-track matters, both of organizational and financial in nature, will most definitely be underlying stories each and every week. Expect to hear some nasty rumors, organizational shuffling, and eventually a new CEO. INDYCAR’s greatest challenge this season will thus lie in the marketing department as they try to put the on-track racing at the forefront of the media’s attention while simultaneously burying all of the inevitable off-track closed doors shenanigans. With another new season comes a whole new set of challenges. INDYCAR will try it’s best to weather the current storm it is ensconced in at the moment. If INDYCAR is able to work it’s way out of the mess it is currently in financially, the sport could begin a golden age, as the on-track product is the best it has been in years. The racing is hot and heavy, and the current crop of drivers is as diverse and talented as ever. However, if the organizational and financial pitfalls of the sport’s offseason continue, INDYCAR could very well vanish completely. The fate of the sport thus currently rests in the hands of a select few shadowy individuals led by Jeff Belskus. If they can steer the ship in the right direction they will be hailed as saviors. But if that ship could sink if they are not careful, and it could sink fast. This is INDYCAR in 2013 ladies and gentlemen, and just about anything could happen. Buckle up, because it is going to be a bumpy ride. *Connect with Matt!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/MStall41\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Matt Stallknecht\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/38642/

Four Burning Questions In Las Vegas: Fines, Tires, and \"Quality\" Concerns

Viva Las Vegas, baby. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the site of this week’s Sprint Cup Series race, and as we enter the third week of the grueling Sprint Cup Series season, the field is beginning to take shape, with the haves rising to the top and the have nots slowly beginning their descent to the bottom of the series standings. However, for the third week in a row, the performance and raceability of the Gen-6 car will undoubtedly be the hot topic amongst media types and fans alike, and less than stellar races in Daytona and Phoenix have suddenly given pause to the seemingly boundless optimism that surrounded the new car. Are we in for another parade at Las Vegas? There’s little doubt that's the main question on everyone’s minds as we gear up for the Kobalt Tools 400. *1. Will the Gen-6 finally come alive in the Sin City?* NASCAR was not bashful at the start of this season when touting the raceability of it’s prized Gen-6 race cars. Seemingly every day over the course of the offseason there was a new quote from some NASCAR higher-up singing the new car's praises and raising expectations for the 2013 season to a fever pitch. Well, here we are in Week 3, and so far the cars have failed to deliver as promised. Daytona was a 3.5 hour parade, and Phoenix was only marginally better. Is this the week that we finally get to see the Gen-6 perform like it was supposed to? I’m an optimist so I never rule anything out, but I wouldn’t count on it. Not yet at least. Phoenix painted a very telling picture as to what the drivers and teams are dealing with in the new Gen-6 machines. Many drivers, most notably Denny Hamlin (who angered NASCAR officials with his remarks, more on this later), were quick to point out how hard it was to pass at Phoenix, mostly due to aero sensitivity issues. Brad Keselowski’s comment was perhaps the most telling of them all, as he went on to say that the new car is the “hardest car I’ve ever had to drive in traffic.” Its possible that this was a Phoenix specific issue (it has long been hailed as one of the most difficult tracks to pass on), and that the car may in fact drive differently on the 1.5 mile tracks that the cars were designed for. Indeed, there is one saving grace that could play into NASCAR’s favor here, and that is the draft. That absolutely massive spoiler you see on the back of the new cars is the biggest one NASCAR has used in a very long time, and in addition to all of the extra downforce it creates, it also creates a very sizeable draft effect. Phoenix is too small for that draft to come into a play, but the 1.5 mile high-banked Vegas track may just be big enough for it to work. If the draft effect is sizeable enough, it could theoretically negate whatever aero grip is lost in the corners and allow drivers to race closer than they have in years past (note that this wouldn’t yield pack racing, as the drivers will obviously still be lifting quite a bit in the corners). The draft may be NASCAR’s only hope for good racing at 1.5 milers, and we will find out soon enough if it’s viable enough to finally be the spark the Gen-6 cars need. <div style=\"float:right; width:250px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/14928.jpg\" width=\"250\" height=\"367\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Denny Hamlin incurred the wrath of NASCAR for criticizing the raceablity of the new Gen-6 cars but says he won't pay the $25,000 fine he's been issued.</p></div> *2. Will Denny Hamlin’s penalty affect driver-media relations going forward?* Ridiculous is the only word apt enough to describe this mess. In case you missed it yesterday, NASCAR announced that they were fining Denny Hamlin $25,000 for “disparaging remarks about on-track racing at Phoenix”. The specific remark Hamlin uttered that angered NASCAR is supposedly as follows “It (the Gen 6 car) did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars did here.” Hamlin, who is irate over the fine, has vowed not to pay it, and said that NASCAR could suspend him if they wanted to. Yikes. NASCAR is once again going down a dangerous road. They boast about wanting the drivers to show their personalities and speak their minds, yet they fine a driver when he makes even the (admittedly quite accurate) slightest of negative comments about the new car. The simple fact is that nothing Hamlin said was worthy of a fine. He correctly pointed out that it was hard to pass in Phoenix, and that the cars needed more work to become racier. NASCAR’s ultimate message is clearly that they don’t want anyone to say anything negative at all about their new cars. The sad irony of this whole ordeal is that the fine will likely have the opposite effect of the intended one. If anything, the fine just draws more attention to the growing pains of the Gen-6 cars. So where does this leave driver-media relations going forward? Well, frankly, it completely sours them. What driver will want to speak his mind to us media types now that he/she knows NASCAR will drop the hammer on just about any comment that paints the sport in a negative light? With the Hamlin fining now set as a precedent, you can expect even more political correctness and vanilla faux optimism about the new cars than we had before. And trust me, more political correctness is the last thing this sport needs. *3. Will JGR and TRD get their engine woes straightened out?* For those keeping track at home, Toyota Racing Development, who supplies engines for powerhouse teams Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, has already had issues with four of their engines in the first two weeks of the season. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth both had their Daytona 500 hopes dashed by late race engine woes, and last week both Busch and Denny Hamlin were forced to start from the rear at Phoenix because of another rash of engine issues. This is nothing new to anyone who follows the Toyota teams, especially JGR. JGR struggled mightily with mechanical issues all throughout 2012, and engine issues plagued the team even before they switched engine suppliers to TRD. Interestingly enough, Toyota sister team Michael Waltrip Racing has not suffered near as many issues as JGR has with engines, suggesting that this may be a JGR-specific problem in which their engineers are perhaps overtuning the engines past their limit. Whatever the problems are, both JGR and TRD need to get them figured out before this weekend’s race in Las Vegas. The engines will be turning some of their highest RPMs of the season at the fast and unrestricted Vegas track, meaning that engine strain will be heavy. Mechanical issues derailed JGR in 2012, and they can’t afford to have that same fate to befall them once again in 2013. They need to either figure out their problems now, or face another season of wondering what could have been. *4. Will the tires hold up in Vegas?* Last week in Phoenix, for the first time in quite a while in the Sprint Cup Series, tire blowouts were a very real concern. Many teams dealt with tire issues, but none more so than Stewart-Haas Racing as Ryan Newman suffered two right front tire failures while Danica Patrick suffered one that resulted in an accident so vicious that it was covered Monday night on the FOX News show “The Five”. Drivers blamed overtly hard left side tires as the main culprit, as they created a “balance issue” (as termed by Denny Hamlin; he’s been popular this week hasn’t he?) in which the right side tires were forced to do too much of the work, especially the right front. However, for as much as drivers complained last week about tires, don’t expect to hear quite as many this weekend. Goodyear is reportedly bringing a softer tire this week, and the slightly aged surface of the Vegas track ought give teams more leeway in building their setups in such a manner that blowouts have less of a chance of happening. Drivers may still complain that there isn’t enough falloff, which is a legitimate grievance, but I wouldn’t expect any outright blowouts. We have to remember that the Phoenix track was repaved only a year and a half ago, and brand new surfaces always cause problems for Goodyear. Thus, last week’s tire problems were something of an anomaly, and it probably won’t be something teams have to worry about for this weekend at least. *Connect with Matt!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/MStall41\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Matt Stallknecht\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/38642/

Four Burning Questions: Phoenix (Johnson’s Momentum And The First Real Gen-6 Test)

The stars and cars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head west this weekend as the series descends on Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Round 2 of the Cup season. After an utterly boring Daytona 500, there is hope that the uniquely shaped one mile Phoenix facility will deliver a scintillating race. Of course the biggest story heading into this weekend will be how the still new Gen 6 cars perform in the series’ first non-plate race, and needless to say many of the questions surrounding the car’s race-ability will come a step closer to being answered after Sunday’s race.

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