Saturday, March 27, 2010

Report Cards: Top-35 Edition

Yesterday, I gave report cards to the go-or-go-home teams. Today, I’m not going to delay and instead get right into grading the teams locked into the top-35 in owner’s points, and therefore locked into the race. Working from the bottom up…

Front Row Motorsports
35th: No. 37 David Gilliland
34th: No. 34 Travis Kvapil
32nd: No. 38 Kevin Conway
Grade: C-

Bill Jenkins, the owner of Front Row Motorsports, truly understands that the key to making a little money in NASCAR is to start with a lot of money. Last year, Front Row was a bit of a haphazard team, and driver John Andretti just barely hung onto that 35th position at the end of the season.

This year, however, Jenkins has invested in a better shop, better cars, and secured backing from Ford. Now, five races into the season, FRM has all three teams in the top-35 just barely. Even rookie Kevin Conway, with not even a full Nationwide season under his belt, hung onto that 35th position before swapping rides with Gilliland to give himself more of a cushion.

However, their performance is still lacking. Their cars, though better than some, they admit are not the best. The whole season, they will be using the old and aging Ford engine, and that will hurt them in the long run. At least one of their cars might face a serious challenge for that top-35 berth from the Tommy Baldwin-owned no. 36 or Robby Gordon’s self-owned no. 7.

Team Penske
33rd: No. 77 Sam Hornish
30th: No 12 Brad Keselowski
6th: No 2 Kurt Busch
Grade: A-

“Wait,” you say, “An A- with two teams below 30th?” Yes. Penske, as an organization, has been running extremely well this year. “Sideways Sam” Hornish seems to finally feel comfortable in a stock car, and Brad Keselowski has had some good runs. Kurt Busch has won a race and sits sixth in points.

The reason for Hornish’s and Keselowski’s poor points showing is because of plain old bad luck (and, to an extent, Carl Edwards). As the season wears on, I expect all three cars to be contending on a regular basis.

Hornish still has some work to do, but he’s finally showing he’s a champion racecar driver. Keselowski still has to figure out how to qualify. But, all-in-all, not bad for Team Penske.

Michael Waltrip Racing
24th: No. 00, David Reutimann
20th: No. 56, Martin Truex Jr.
JTG-Dougherty Racing
31st: No 47, Marcos Ambrose
Grade: B+

This organization is not as good as I thought they would be this year. To be fair, they have also had more than their fair share of bad luck. Martin Truex is their shining star who almost won the Daytona 500 and has since had really promising runs only to end up on the caboose end of a wrecker.

Reutimann is normally fast in practice, but hasn’t been able to close the deal in the races. On Sunday, we normally see him running upper-middle pack. Truex has been a rocket ship, and Reutimann has been mostly sedentary.

Marcos Ambrose is clearly in a sophomore slump, not running to expectations at all. However, he was a contender at Bristol until the obviously bored bad luck demon gobbled his engine.

It is hard to grade them though. Their performance last year, with Reutimann on the cusp of the Chase, was exceptionally better than anyone expected MWR. They had hopes placed on them this season that were almost impossible to live up to, especially with the addition of Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson.

I do think they will contend to win many races this year, but just not every week.

TRG Motorsports
29th: No. 71, Bobby Labonte
Grade: C

Last year, this start-and-park team would have had a D. However, with the addition of Bobby Labonte and partial sponsor, they’ve brought their team into solid mid-pack standing. Sitting 29th in owner’s points, Bobby Labonte can put his past champion’s provisional back in storage for the foreseeable future.

This team has a small-team mentality. It’s working for them, but it’s not going to make them contenders week in and week out. Plus, they still don’t have sponsorship for the full season. They don’t need as much sponsorship as other teams will to be competitive because of their small-team mentality… but they need something.

What they don’t have is Crew Chief “Slugger” Labbe. When Labonte decided to sign with TRG, he remarked on how much he liked “Slugger and the guys.” Labbe is known as one of the best crew chiefs in the garage, and his loss was a big, unexpected blow to TRG I’m sure.

But all is not lost. They’re still running well. TRG does have a racing background, just not in NASCAR until last year. With more money and their seasoned, champion driver, this team can have just a few good runs and contend for a win or two at Bobby’s stronger tracks.

Furniture Row Racing
28th: No. 78, Regan Smith
Grade: C

They’re just average, and they’ll probably stay there. They don’t have a whole lot of resources other than an alignment with Richard Childress Racing. They’re not bad by any means, just average.

Roush-Fenway Racing
27th: No. 6, David Ragan
13th: No. 99, Carl Edwards
4th: No. 16, Greg Biffle
2nd: No. 17, Matt Kenseth
Grade: B+

Two A+’s, an A-, and a C average to a B+ in my book. I think Darrell Waltrip put it best at Daytona when he said, “This is the last year I’m going to wait for David Ragan to have a breakout year.” He first came on the scene in 2007 to replace the retiring-or-so-we-thought Mark Martin, almost made the Chase in 2008 and was expected to have a breakout year in 2009.

It didn’t happen. To be fair, none of the RFR teams had a good year in 2009; but, in 2010, Ragan still appears to be the odd man out.

With Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle sitting second and fourth in points, respectively, it surprises me to see Edwards in 13th. He’s still searching for that first victory after winning nine times in 2008.

Those two, however, signal the beginnings of a turnaround at RFR from their dismal 2009 season. It just hasn’t been translated to all their teams yet, and they need to get at least Edwards back into Chase contention to get that A.

Stewart-Haas Racing
26th: No. 39, Ryan Newman
5th: No. 14, Tony Stewart
Grade: B

Stewart is solidly in Chase contention. Much has been made of how he’s not running as well this year, but hey… he’s fifth in points.

A far cry from his teammate Ryan Newman, who sits 26th. I don’t know the X factor that this team is missing, but the no. 39 has never had as much of it as the no. 14 has.

Part of the reason they’re perceived as not running so well this year is because of how well they ran last year – unexpectedly, at that, after Tony Stewart bought this also-ran team and suddenly turned it into a contender.

These cars, also, are essentially Hendrick cars, being built in the Hendrick shop then shipped to be serviced in the SHR shop. The Hendrick cars are running great… just not all the SHR cars are.

Richard Petty Motorsports
25th: No. 19, Elliott Sadler
23rd: No. 9, Kasey Kahne
21st: No. 43, A.J. Allmendinger
9th: No. 98, Paul Menard
Grade: A-

Paul Menard gets my vote as the most improved driver in NASCAR. For years, he took his Menard’s sponsorship from team to team, looking for that performance that some wondered if he would ever get. Last season, I almost wrote an article I would have called, “Who shouldn’t be here and who should be here instead.” Paul Menard would have been one of the ones that shouldn’t have been here.

First, I wanted to see how silly season played out. I guess I found out.

He and the entire Petty gang have been running exceptionally well. Always fast in practice, qualifying, and the race. Unfortunately, they too have been bit by the bad luck bug. Their performance gets them their A-, their results just don’t show it.

Some say, “I would rather have bad luck than no luck at all.” I think the Richard Petty Motorsports team would just rather not have bad luck.

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
22nd: No. 42, Juan-Pablo Montoya
15th: No. 1, Jamie McMurray
Grade: B+

This team was placed with impossible expectations when Jamie McMurray, in his first race with the team, won a race totally unlike any other race, the Daytona 500.

Once again, bad luck. But, here’s the thing with bad luck: there is no room in the Chase for teams with a lot of it. To get back in championship form, they have to have a whole lot of good luck, and run at peak level… something I don’t think EGR is able to make both of their cars do the entire season yet.

They’re a top team, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of top teams this year. I think McMurray might win once more or so and Montoya will finally get his first oval win, but they’ll probably both be shut out of the Chase.

Did anyone else find it funny at Las Vegas when McMurray’s McDonald’s car had the McDonald’s Golden Arches as the “M” in “McMurray” above the doors?

Joe Gibbs Racing
19th: No. 11, Denny Hamlin
17th: No. 20, Joey Logano
10th: No. 18, Kyle Busch
Grade: B

I don’t know what it is about this team, but they’re just off. In the off-season, Denny Hamlin was billed as the best threat to unseat Jimmie Johnson. Right now, he’s 19th in points and, in late breaking news Friday night, will have knee surgery on Monday to repair a torn ACL.

Other than that, there’s just not much I can say. JGR, though dominant in the Nationwide Series, has just been unimpressive in the Sprint Cup Series. They could be stuck in the same boat Roush-Fenway was in last year, where they improved, just everyone else improved more.

Hendrick Motorsports
16th: No. 5, Mark Martin
11th: No. 24, Jeff Gordon
8th: No. 88, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
3rd: No. 48, Jimmie Johnson
Grade: A+

This team is on its game! They have set the mark that all other teams are shooting for. Watch any TV this week? Read anything online? The entire sport is talking about the head game Jimmie Johnson’s team is playing. Every crew chief on pit road is judging his decisions based on what Chad Knaus is going to do, or at least what they think he might do.

Even Dale Jr., after his awful 2009, is 8th in points. What this driver needs, simply, is confidence. He needs to go win himself a race somewhere – as Darrell Waltrip says, in the Camping World Truck Series, perhaps – and he will start finally contending for wins again.

Mark Martin has simply been bitten by bad luck. He’s often the top Hendrick car the entire weekend.

It seems really weird to say this, but Jeff Gordon appears to be the weak link. He’s getting better though – he’s had a sort of nonchalant attitude about his not winning the first few years, and he’s really begun to work out more and get in better shape to start winning races again.

But no one, not even anyone at Hendrick Motorsports, has what Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have. They’re just about unbeatable, and would be leading the points of not for that broken axle at Daytona.

Last year, reminiscent of Babe Ruth pointing to the right field fence before hitting his home run, Johnson said over the radio to, “Start preparing the champagne bottle now.” Maybe, just maybe, they’re becoming alcoholics…

Team Red Bull
18th: No. 82, Scott Speed
14th: No. 83, Brian Vickers
Grade: B

Team Red Bull is in the same spot they were last year, just about. Yes, Scott Speed is running exponentially better than last year, but both he and Vickers are running in about the same place Vickers was running in 2009 – mid-pack, with a few good runs.

Chase material? We’ll see. The entire Chase field is going to be much tighter than it was last year, and only the best get in.

Richard Childress Racing
12th: No. 33, Clint Bowyer
7th: No. 31, Jeff Burton
1st: No. 29, Kevin Harvick
Grade: A+

This year, after a lackluster 2009, RCR has emerged as the top all-around rival to Hendrick. All three teams are running up front, the drivers are getting along marvelously, and their engines are absolutely hauling!

Whatever went wrong last year appears to be fixed this year.

The true indicator of how things are going internally at RCR is Kevin Harvick. Last year, he was very publically at odds with Richard Childress, and he is a free agent at the end of this season. In the middle of last year, he appeared to want to close the book on his career with Richard Childress and move on.

Being first in points will go a long way towards getting him to sign back with RCR. Now, he just needs to win himself a points race. I think all of the RCR cars will do that this year, and maybe just win the Championship.

-David Dubczak
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Go-Or-Go-Home Report Cards: Teams Now Using 2010 Owner's Points

Well folks, we've reached that point in the season where NASCAR Sprint Cup teams will be using 2010 owner's points for situations such as top-35 qualifying and rainouts. For the first five races of any season, NASCAR uses the owner's points standings from the previous season, making the fate of teams dependent on how they performed last year.

Now, however, they have to rely on how well they've performed this year. The money some teams put down to buy the owner's points for defunct teams is no longer valid. Starting this weekend at Martinsville, those who can't make the cut... might not make the cut.

So, let's look at some report cards, starting with the go-or-go-home teams. I'm not going to look at the start and parkers, just the teams on the bubble that run the full races.

Germain Racing No. 13 - Max Papis, Driver

Grade: C-

Germain Racing has an alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, and the entire MWR crew and their aligned teams have been performing better. Driver Max Papis is developing a better relationship with crew chief Bootie Barker, and has steadily improved as a stock car driver.

But they're not there yet.

They don't run well in practice, and they're normally far off the pace in the race. However, when it come's time to qualify... Mad Max can get up on the wheel and put the car in the show. If not for that spin-out on his attempt at Bristol last week, he would have qualified for all five races this year.

Let's get one thing straight, though: Germain Racing is not Michael Waltrip Racing. Yes, MWR is doing great, but those performance increases have not translated into better performance for Germain Racing. I would have given them a D, but Max's love for NASCAR and true desire to try to make himself a top-knotch stock car driver bump him up to a C-.

Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 36 - Mike Bliss, Driver

Grade: C+

Hey, they're making races, which is leaps and bounds better than they were last year! They have partial-season sponsorship from Wave Energy Drink, better cars, better engines, and a better crew.

Are they contenders? Not yet, but they're not making fools out of themselves either. This was a start-and-park model that worked out perfectly - they showed they had what it took to get it done, and now that they have sponsorship, are doing just that. They're making the races and running respectably.

If anyone knows how to make Tommy Baldwin Racing a top team, it's Tommy Baldwin. With time, patience, and money... they'll get there.

Lattitude 43 Motorsports No. 26 - Boris Said, Driver
Grade: F

I honestly don't know what this team is doing. The only reason they're higher than TBR and Germain is because they've qualified for all the races, and even then only because they were able to buy the owner's points from the Roush no. 26 that NASCAR forced them to shut down.

This team tried to run all of Daytona Speedweeks with a single engine, and owner Bob Jenkins hasn't shown me a great deal of commitment. Now that he's out of the top-35 and forced to qualify on time every weekend (something that wouldn't have been able to do these first five races if they hadn't been in the top-35), we'll see how committed he is. Is he willing to provide the investment necessary to make fast cars, or was he just trying to collect the money and go home?

What confuses me even more is Boris Said. For years, he's said he wants to run NASCAR full-time and try to establish himself as a good oval-track driver rather than just a road-course ace.

So... he chooses this team to try to prove himself? Bad career move.

Keyed Up Motorsports No. 90 - Casey Mears, Driver

Grade: D-

This is another team with whom I initially doubted the owner's commitment. In the Gatorade Duels at Daytona, it came down basically to Mike Bliss versus Casey Mears for the transfer spot into the Daytona 500. I was rooting for Mike Bliss because I knew they were committed long term and had a future ahead of them. As much as I like Casey Mears and his crew chief Doug Richert, I wasn't sure about his owner's long-term commitment.

And it showed by their failure to qualify for their first four races.

That is, until the past few weeks. They've begun using Earnhardt-Childress Engines, moved to a new shop, and gotten better cars. At Bristol, they finally qualified for the race, and raced the whole race.

It's these small improvements that bump their grade up to that D-. Their owner shows commitment, and hopefully they can make some more races now that the No. 26 is no longer locked in. However, you can't ignore the first four races for which they didn't qualify.

Robby Gordon Motorsports No. 7 - Robby Gordon, Driver
Grade: D

This is a team that's fallen off the map. RGM formed an alliance to provide cars and technical support for BAM Racing and their fully-sponsored effort by Warner Music Nashville. However, in the races for which Gordon does not have sponsorship, the BAM Racing car essentially becomes Robby Gordon's no. 7.

They were in the top-35 for most of the year last year, but simply haven't shown the chops this year. Even when not plagued by bad luck, they just haven't been fast. Their season-best 22nd at Bristol was largely due to other's bad luck.

RGM was never great in the first place, but this year has just been hard to watch. I don't know what they're missing, but everyone seems to have gotten faster except them.


Well, that's it for the go-or-go-home teams. Check back on Saturday for the report cards of the super teams.

Also, keep checking back this weekend as we go through a bit of a gear change at The Racing Tool. We'll debut our new look later this weekend.

And remember... become a fan on facebook or follow us on twitter.

-David Dubczak

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

NASCAR's First Off Weekend Really Bites

Here I am, a college student smack in the middle of Iowa. A few weeks ago, when we were first starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a long, hard winter, we had Daytona, and it was glorious.

This weekend, I have spring break. No pressure, no busyness, nothing.

Nothing. Including NASCAR.


I finally have the chance to sit down and watch a good race without having to worry about anything to do. I guess NASCAR has considered this weekend a good weekend to have NO racing action. None. Neither the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series, or the Sprint Cup Series have a race this weekend.

Is there a national holiday this weekend? No. Some sort of religious holiday? Not that I know of. Some important President's birthday? Well, Andrew Jackson's birthday is on Monday, but it's been an awful long time since I've heard of a crew member lamenting over not being home to celebrate Andrew Jackson day.

Oh wait... Daylight Savings Time begins on Sunday. What a royal pain this is. I totally understand now. No wonder NASCAR doesn't dare to stage a race this weekend. We're all better off for it, I guess.

OK, enough with that. What I want to know is why none of NASCAR's three national series are racing this weekend. Not even the K&N Pro Series can be found on SPEED.

NASCAR is trying to rebuild a fan base that has shrunk in the past few seasons. Coming off a storyline-generating race at Atlanta, where we now have feud brewing between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, thousands of excited new fans want to tune in this week and see what happens next, and...

Nothing. NASCAR better hope these fans have a good memory.

What about the Camping World Truck Series? They only race once a month for their first few races? What's up with that? It's awfully hard to build a following for a series that only races occasionally.

What will the newspapers have to print on Monday? Nothing.

How much money are tracks going to bring in this weekend? None.

Few, if any, of the NASCAR Home Tracks and their weekly racing programs are operational yet, so that's not an option. The midwest is still buried in snow. Wouldn't it be smarter to throw the Home Tracks a bone and have a completely free weekend in the middle of the summer where NASCAR can tell everyone via TV to go to their Home Track?

So, for the seriously, seriously addicted and crazed NASCAR fans, what is there to do this weekend? Nothing. I will be on vacation not doing the things I like to do on vacation.

But I'm freak.

The NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway that was in my mall closed a few years ago too. Geez.

OK, now I'm just ranting.

I hope NASCAR makes a change next year so this doesn't happen again. I see absolutely no reason for there to be absolutely no racing, from anyone, this weekend.


Other NASCAR Notes

I guess we now have a feud between Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards. I think this might have staying power because Edwards has apparently held a grudge against Keselowski for quite a while and never acted on it.

In an interview on Sunday, Edwards admitted, "Brad never gives me any room." Plus, I've never seen him intentionally spin someone out before... much less, the rookie. There's something more to this story, something that has been brewing for quite a while, to provoke such a reaction from Carl Edwards, the mild-mannered good young man from Missouri.

NASCAR clearly wants this to keep happening too, just not to that extent. The three race probation they gave him tells me they're saying, "keep doing what you're doing, just don't go overboard like that."

NASCAR once gave Tony Steward a 6-month probation for spinning out Jeff Gordon... on pit road... when the race was over. It caused mild damage, much less turn Gordon's car into an experimental aircraft.

However, on that note, I'm still waiting for that feud we all talked about between BK and Denny Hamlin...


What will you do in lieu of NASCAR this weekend? Tell us on facebook or twitter.

-David Dubczak

Monday, March 1, 2010

Vegas is NASCAR's Second Home

For the past decade or so, NASCAR has been trying to solidify a presence in the west coast. They race in Fontana, but even though that track is in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, the stands are rarely full. When NASCAR scheduled a second race in Fontana, the stands were even less full.

Then the NASCAR circus travels a three-hour drive to the northwest to Las Vegas, a mile and a half that has now had nine consecutive sellouts.

After 28 years in New York City, NASCAR moved their Champion’s Week to Vegas. The New Yorkers were like “yay, nascar.” After the city barred NASCAR from doing its signature victory lap in Times Square, they moved to Vegas, to a fan base that was more like “YAY, NASCAR!” The Champion’s Week in Vegas was a bigger event than NASCAR had been able to envision in years.

Las Vegas has some crazy NASCAR fans, and this is very good.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway also has one of the best fan experiences in the country. Racing action in Vegas started on Thursday with the World of Outlaws at the bullring behind the track, the same bullring that Kurt and Kyle Busch grew up racing at.

Fans also have access to the Neon Garage. Most garages in NASCAR are closed to fans, but Vegas built a garage that has a fan skywalk, so fans can go have a birds-eye view of what the teams are doing below them, and live entertainment throughout the day. No other facility has this. None.

Vegas is a tourist destination anyway! How many people actually live in Las Vegas? It’s just a revolving door of people and tourists. NASCAR is just another excuse for people to come to southern Nevada, stay in the plentitude of hotels, drain some money into the casinos, maybe get married, and watch the race (or perhaps get married after the race to the person you spilled your beer on. Who knows).

As an added plus, the additional banking given to Las Vegas Motor Speedway a few years ago has made the racing great! This track has some of the fastest speeds of any mile and a half, and the banking allows the cars to hold to the track in the corners, making for some fast and furious side-by-side action.

The culture of Las Vegas is closer to that of the Confederate south than any other part in the west. In the middle of the desert has arisen a city of people work hard and play hard. The sport and culture of NASCAR is ideally suited to a populace like Las Vegas.

NASCAR has tried so far to make their sport work in Fontana, but those efforts have been to no avail. Sometimes, it seems, they can't fill those stands even of they gave tickets away for free. No, NASCAR, Las Vegas is your second home.

Other NASCAR Notes

Danica Watch: It finally seemed this weekend like Danica Patrick knew what she was doing. Though still not running with the leaders, she felt confident and had her car under her the whole time.

Now, don't make a big deal out of it that she was able to go and actually race people - look, this is what racecar drivers are supposed to do! She's shown me she can drive a stock car, but is she above average? That remains to be seen. My guess is, probably not.

But, I still think her story line is fun to follow. Welcome to NASCAR, Danica.


Jeff Gordon: Last season, I made the prediction that he is close to retirement, especially if his back problems persist. Turns out, I was wrong. It was announced this week that Jeff Gordon plans on racing for at least another 5-6 years.

This story is yet more ammunition to show that racecar drivers are, in fact, athletes. At the very least, they have to be in good shape to drive at the elite levels. Gordon has been plagued the past few years by persistent back pain. Last season, he began a stretching routine that helped alleviate it. This season, however, he's undergone an intense workout regimen that owner Rick Hendrick says will have him in better shape and more competitive than ever.

Do you have to be in shape to drive a car? No. Do you have to be in shape to be competitive at the end of the NASCAR marathons? Yes. These cars are hard to drive, and drivers work best when they can focus on the car and the track, not on how tired they are or how much their back hurts.

Jeff Gordon wants his fifth championship with a fire I've never seen before in a competitor. He's realized that little, if any, of what helped him be so dominant in the late 1990's is going to work today. Since he won his last championship in 2001, the whole ballgame has changed. Jeff Gordon is remaking himself as a new driver.

He's said himself: not having won a championship under the Sprint Cup Chase format is like not having won a championship at all. He would give up all four of his old-format Winston Cups to win just one Sprint Cup.

Add that to the fact that Jimmie Johnson, the driver he hired and mentored, has turned out to be the only one who can beat him on many an occasion... the Gordon-Johnson battles are sometimes the best ones to watch.


Finally, congrats to the USA Bobsled Team, using Bo-Dyn sleds designed in part by NASCAR Driver Geoff Bodine. More on this later this week.

And remember - fan us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter

-David Dubczak