NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt Stallknecht

Four Burning Questions – Daytona: Will Smoke Finally Rise In The Unlimited?

Can you feel that? Daytona Fever is in the air once again as the NASCAR world gears up for the 2014 edition of Speedweeks. To say that a lot has changed since I left you all back in November would be an understatement. We have a new points system, new …

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Open Wheel Wednesday: The Sudden Death of the Indy Lights Series

Question for the readers: have you caught any of the races in the Indy Lights season this year? Oh, you have? Well, what have you noticed? Anything that bothers you, makes you a bit nervous? Perhaps something relating to the series car counts? You have? Excellent, because you aren’t alone.

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Four Burning Questions For Talladega: Passing, Plate Racing, Denny & Danica

It’s big. It’s bad. It’s fast. It’s Talladega. That’s where the traveling road show that is the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is headed this week, and just like any other time the series heads to the behemoth, 2.66-mile facility there is plenty to talk about heading into the race. Richmond continued the dramatic, feud-filled theme that has run rampant throughout the 2013 season, and the race even brought us a few surprises along the way, namely the resurgence of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and the ongoing downward spiral of Tony Stewart. In other news, Denny Hamlin is making a (partial) return this week, while his JGR team continues to rebound from the levy of penalties placed on them after Kansas. However, the main focus of this weekend of course (like any other time we visit a plate track) will be on how the cars will compete on Sunday. Will the racing be improved from the last plate race in Daytona? That is a seriously burning question that will undoubtedly be the center of discussion as we edge closer to Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

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Four Burning Questions In Bristol: Rim-Riding And Flaring Tempers

Ah Bristol, you never cease to amaze us. Whether it was Texas Terry Labonte getting punted by Dale Earnhardt on a warm August night in 1999, or Tony Stewart delivering a perfectly timed helmet toss at the car of an unsuspecting Matt Kenseth just last summer, there’s always something to remember after a race at Bristol, and that is exactly where the stars of NASCAR are headed this weekend. There are of course a litany of questions that need to be answered heading into the race, most notable among them being whether or not the track will still have some of the “old Bristol magic” that made a bit of an appearance the last time the series made a trip to the famed half mile oval. What about the drivers? Who looks primed to take the first short track race of 2013? Well folks, I’m here to offer some clarity as fans across NASCAR Nation mull over this week’s line up of Four Burning Questions. <div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"\" width=\"275\" height=\"181\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Last August brought a return to the old Bristol so will we see the beating and banging we are used to on the short track again this week?</p></div> *1. Will the Bristol of old return this weekend like it did last August?* The fans wanted it. The fans got it. Well, sort of at least. After six years of listening to fans complain about how stale the racing had become at the race track he reconfigured (well, he ordered it to be reconfigured, but you get the point) in 2007, Bruton Smith finally bit the bullet and made an attempt at “fixing” Bristol Motor Speedway. After the aforementioned 2007 reconfiguring, it turned what used to be a one-groove-around-the-bottom track to a bona-fide mini cookie cutter track with progressive banking and multiple grooves to race in from top to bottom. ‘Ol Bruton’s attempt at reconciling this mess was made last summer, as track operators ground the top groove of the track in order to turn the facility back into a one-groove race track. It worked, but instead of the one-groove being around the bottom of the track like the Bristol of old, the groove ironically went to the top of the track. Whether or not you agreed with Smith’s decision to “fix” Bristol, what’s done is done, and Bristol is back to being a one-groove race track, which, quite frankly, it should be. Last year’s summer race (which took place under the “fixed” configuration), saw much of the beating, banging, and wrecking that made Bristol a can’t miss destination in the first place, and there is little reason to believe we won’t see such racing again this weekend. The Gen-6 cars more than likely won’t change the racing much, as short-track racing is only minimally affected by aero changes (which is really the only thing separating the Gen-5 from the Gen-6 cars). Most drivers this week seem to be in agreement that the groove will once again be around the top, and thus there will only be two ways to complete a pass. The very best cars will be the ones who are able to complete a pass on the bottom and slide back into line up top, and this will be the only way to make a pass cleanly assuming the racing hasn’t changed much since August. The other method of passing, of course, will be to use the chrome horn. With passing likely to be at a premium, drivers who are struggling to make the bottom work will be forced to bully their way to the front using the “bump and slide” maneuver that we saw a lot last August (see Denny Hamlin’s race winning pass in that race to see what this looks like). Any time the chrome horn is in play, the caution flag follows suit, so expect many laps to be run under yellow and expect there to be more than a few frayed tempers as drivers get frustrated with the lack of racing room on restarts. *2. Just how much will pit strategy affect the outcome of the race?* Part of the reason why last August’s Bristol race was so unpredictable was because of the constant barrage of differing pit strategies which jumbled the event’s running order. With Bristol being a one-groove track (not to mention the lack of fall off in Goodyear’s tires), a two-tire or no-tire call can gain a team some serious track position, and track position will be incredibly important this week. The right pit call at the right time could very well win you the race. Of course, much of this pit strategy business will be dictated by the flow and frequency of caution-flag occurences in the race. The August race was an absolute caution-bonanza, thus opening the door for teams to go wild with varying strategy calls that created all sorts of mayhem in the running order. If Sunday’s race turns out to feature a lot of wrecks and a lot of cautions, you can fully expect that crew chiefs up and down pit road will be employing all sorts of pit strategies in a desperate attempt to stay up front on restarts. Knowing all of this, expect teams with savvy crew chiefs (think Paul Wolfe, Chad Knaus, or perhaps even Jason Ratcliff) to be the ones dueling for the win on Sunday. *3. Could this be Aric Almirola’s coming out party?* Go take a look at the current top 10 in the standings right now. Notice anything unusual? If you’re answer to that question was “Yes, I noticed Aric Almirola is sitting 10th in points,” you would have answered correctly. The 28-year old Cuban American is quietly off to the finest start of his young NASCAR career, and I actually believe that this could very well be the weekend that he delivers his first career Sprint Cup win. Many of you who just read that last sentence are probably sending pointed e-mails to my editor demanding I be fired after what would seem to be such a shocking statement. This is of course the same Almirola that I personally called out to be fired for lack of performance on this very website last year, no? But if you look at Almirola’s last 10 Sprint Cup races (dating back to last year’s Chase), suddenly he starts to look like a real contender. Over these last 10 races (3 in 2013 and 7 in 2012), Almirola has delivered a top 5, 2 top 10s, battled for the lead multiple times, and has scored the 9th most points of any driver in that time span, all while driving subpar Richard Petty Motorsports equipment. Mr. Almirola is for real, and his quiet but effective start to 2013 is a testament to that. But why, the lingering doubters would ask, could Bristol be the sight of Almirola’s first win? Well, Almirola has traditionally performed best on short tracks. One of Almirola’s aforementioned top 5s came at Martinsville, another short track. Going a bit further back, Almirola scored his first ever top 10 in Sprint Cup back in 2008 at, you guessed it, Bristol. Thus, if Almirola is going to score his first win this year, it’s going to happen at a track shorter than 1 mile, and with how much unpredictability beckons at Bristol, this weekend could be the one in which Almirola finally breaks through. *4. Will we see Gordon v. Bowyer Round III at Bristol?* Remember that little tussle that happened in last year’s Chase race at Phoenix? Remember how Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon have yet to say that either party has “made up” with the other? Keep that in mind on Sunday when you see the 15 and the 24 car near one another, because if there were ever a place for the two drivers to go at it once more, Bristol would be it right? Many followers of the sport set aside the Gordon-Bowyer rivalry two weeks ago after there were no fireworks between the two in Phoenix, the very track where their rivalry came to a boil. But let’s be honest, Phoenix doesn’t necessarily foster the close beating and banging that leads to rekindling of an old conflict. I really can not stress enough the fact that these two drivers still do not like each other. This point was rendered rather clear during the Daytona Media Blitz when both drivers continually dodged and weaseled around questions pertaining to the rivalry. If Gordon and Bowyer happen to be fighting for position late in the race, or God forbid the win, expect to see some contact. And if there is contact…there may not be enough of a police presence in the Smokey Mountains capable of containing the ensuing brawl. *Connect with Matt!* <a href=\"\"><img src=\"\"></a><br> \"Contact Matt Stallknecht\":

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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=\"\"><img src=\"\"></a><br> \"Contact Matt Stallknecht\":

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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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