Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Earnhardt’s Strategy, Martin’s Last Stand And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?* … Steve Letarte’s in a tricky situation when it comes to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? For most of the year, the crew chief’s done a fantastic job in boosting the sport’s Most Popular Driver after two straight ugly seasons. But as we enter the homestretch, just three races until the Chase cutoff Junior is trying every which way to erase all the momentum he’s gained.

Make no mistake; since a solid sixth at Pocono in June, the No. 88 team has spent their summer learning every which way to skydive off a cliff. They have just one top-10 finish the last nine races, two runs of 30th or worse and have led just eight laps over that stretch. In fact, for the season Junior’s on track to lead less than 100 laps, by far his lowest total since a five-race Sprint Cup debut in 1999. Along the way, we’ve seen Earnhardt’s confidence take a hit, at one point blaming the tire compound at Loudon for struggles that weren’t there with those Goodyears come April, May, or June.

Did You Notice? … A Tilt Towards Strategy, Not Speed, And Four Rookies That Could Have Been

*Did You Notice?* … Why so many races have switched towards a fuel mileage strategy? In the last few months, it’s the number one question/concern/complaint I get from fans, eager to know why the multitude of this year’s races have been won via a calculator, feathering the throttle and shutting off the engine – seemingly the opposite of a sport built on speed.

For answers, it’s pretty simple. Let’s go to the quotes of the drivers themselves.

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Real Silly Season Story: Not Carl, Contraction

*Did You Notice?*… The reason the Carl Edwards saga won’t go away? Sure, the sport’s most popular free agent has been begging for privacy, impossible to receive in this age of public transparency where every celebrity’s move is documented in full. Too many drivers, team members, and heck, even sponsors are affected by this decision for them to sit in silence, working off Carl’s schedule as the clock slowly ticks towards Homestead.

But the sad part about this whole scenario is these people are on edge because, just like the current economy, NASCAR is very much an _employer’s_ market. Drivers like Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Trevor Bayne, even Brian Vickers know their _only_ opportunities could come if Edwards opens the door – and a ride – at Roush Fenway Racing. That’s it; there’s no plan B, temp agency or million-dollar reality game show ready to save them.

Did You Notice? … Stability In The Driver’s Seat; But Which Crew Chief Leaves Next?

*Did You Notice?* … That despite the Sprint Cup crew chief carousel as of late, not a single driver replacement this season has happened within the fully-funded, full-time operations? The closest we’ve seen to a switch has happened at the No. 09/51 team, where Phoenix Racing dumped former Cup champ Bill Elliott early in the year for Landon Cassill. Front Row Motorsports has also subbed out for Travis Kvapil, but considering the driver had another ride – running full-time in the Truck Series for Randy Moss Motorsports – it’s not like they were kicking him to the curb. And FAS Lane, for what little money they have doesn’t count; a driver merry-go-round depends as much on specific sponsor funding as it does performance.

Did You Notice? … A Secret Million-Dollar Bonus, The Power Of Adrenaline And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?* … The wonderful decision by Sprint to bring back some type of million-dollar bonus competition for winning? The $3 million Sprint Summer Showdown, announced Sunday at Loudon is a great way to keep the excitement high throughout all of NASCAR’s 30 or so teams capable of competing for victories. Long story short, the winners of the next five events – Indy, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol will have a chance to earn $1 million if they win again at Atlanta Motor Speedway Labor Day Weekend. $1 million will also go to a lucky fan paired with the driver, along with an additional million to that driver’s charity of choice.

Did You Notice? … Midseason Oddities, Risk Takers, And The Trouble With Turning 40

*Did You Notice?* … These statistical oddities that tell us the story of the Cup schedule halfway through this season. Predicting the future can be dicey business, but these quirky trends stand out to me:

– No driver is on track for more than *six wins* this year. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick lead the circuit, with three apiece although they’ve gotten there in entirely different ways. Busch tops all drivers with 1,060 laps led, while Harvick sits 14th with just 130. In fact, during Harvick’s three victories he’s paced the field for a _total_ of just nine laps.

Did You Notice? … NASCAR Divorce Reporting 101, Kentucky Contenders And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?*… How one little divorce can cause so much controversy? The back-and-forth on Kurt Busch’s separation from wife Eva has caused a furor on both sides of the fence, a spirited debate on whether such news should even be reported based on individual privacy. Fans appear divided on the issue, too, with “Dustin Long’s Backseat Drivers Fan Council”:http://hamptonroads.com/blogs/dustin-long reporting in at 46.9 percent yes, we want to hear about the Busch problems while 53.1 chimed in at “No / I don’t care.” Clearly, there’s a case to be made for both sides, so before forming an opinion let’s examine each one:

*The Case For Reporting It:* As in any job, when a driver struggles (or succeeds) their personal life can often influence said result. Just look at what happened with Tiger Woods in golf, post-Elin or on the positive side Brett Favre of the NFL, who looked superhuman a mere 24 hours after losing his father. Personal adversity becomes part of the story, because after all, sports are 90% mental, right? (Or at least that’s what Yogi Berra used to say).

Did You Notice? … Kurt Busch in Championship Form, Sonoma Strategies, More

_Welcome to another edition of “Did You Notice?” This week, I will be subbing for Tom Bowles… but don’t worry, loyal readers, Tom will finally be back for good next week. Until then, here’s some things about last Sunday’s race at Infineon Raceway that you may or may not have noticed._

*Did You Notice* … Kurt Busch’s impressive performance marked the official one-eighty turn-around of the Penske organization after their early season woes. Ever since the Coca-Cola 600, both Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski have turned a corner performance-wise in 2011. The fact of the matter is that Team Penske has won two of the last three races. They have employed fuel strategy and pit strategy in those wins, but the performance has picked up by leaps and bounds. Busch has gone from a driver struggling to stay in the top 10 in points to a legitimate championship contender while Brad Keselowski has made an equally impressive metamorphosis from somewhat of a Sprint Cup disappointment into becoming a legitimate force to be reckoned with, not to mention being a driver with an outside shot at a wild-card berth in the Chase for the Cup in the past few weeks.

Did You Notice? … Bad Breaks, NASCAR’s Wild Card Contenders And Ratings 101

*Did You Notice?* … How one bad break, however small can change the course of a race team forever? The latest example comes in the form of an ugly Divorce Court, crew chief Pat Tryson having the rug pulled out from under him Tuesday after Michael Waltrip Racing grew concerned about their underperforming premier driver, Martin Truex, Jr. Perhaps the quietest, most mild-mannered Cup driver on the circuit the New Jersey native had been agitated in recent weeks, launching into an angry tirade over his pit crew at Richmond after a penalty during a green-flag pit stop cost the team a top-5 finish. Two replacements came within a week, but the damage was done; inconsistency has remained the theme for the No. 56 Toyota ever since.

Still, a closer look reminds us that the Tryson-Truex duo spent the first part of their tenure together turning heads… until an unfortunate incident at Infineon last June. It was there that Jeff Gordon spun out Truex, taking a possible winning car and throwing it deep into traffic where it would later become an innocent victim of a multi-car wreck. The NAPA driver blew his lid back then, insinuating disrespect on Gordon’s part while vowing on-track revenge that never truly came to fruition. The crux of the issue, according to the driver was he wasn’t being showcased any on-track respect despite being one of the cleaner, easy-to-race-with drivers on the Cup circuit.

Did You Notice?… Establishing Consistency, NASCAR’s Big Picture And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?* … The inconsistency of NASCAR’s Sunday caution calls at Charlotte? Let’s review what caused a yellow flag and what didn’t:

– Jamie McMurray blowing an engine on Lap 182. (oil on the track)
– Jimmie Johnson blowing an engine with five laps to go. (oil on the track)

*CALL: Consistent.*

– Debris cautions three times: Lap 76, Lap 172, Lap 283.
– Green-white-checkered wreck where cars were slowing and/or spun around in Turn 1. Jeff Burton’s No. 31 car clearly put debris on the racetrack, limping around simply to complete one of two laps and end the race. No caution thrown.

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