Sunday, April 29, 2012

NASCAR: They’re Back

Kyle's Back
Busch, JGR and Debris Return at Richmond

 Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing are back.
And so, at least for one night, was the debris caution.
Busch won for the first time in 2012 and for the first time since last August.  It was his fourth straight victory in the spring race at Richmond, breaking a mark he shared with Richard Petty.  It also tied him with brother Kurt for Cup wins at 24. 
Busch, however, probably had a fourth place car.  Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jimmy Johnson all appeared consistently faster.  Edwards led 206 laps and Stewart 118.  But Edwards and Johnson ran afoul of NASCAR officials and were forced to come from the back of the pack.   With those two fighting their way through the field, Stewart seemed set to cruise to the finish, running comfortably and consistently more than a second ahead of Busch. Then came a yellow flag for “debris.”
Everyone stopped for tires, Stewart’s team slightly slower than Busch’s.  Stewart spun his tires on the restart and that, was that.
Much of pre-race talk had been about the lack of accidents and cautions in the previous two races, leading to lengthy green flag runs and not exactly exciting finishes.  Combined, Texas and Kansas saw only five total cautions.  Richmond was following suit, with only four yellows for less the 30 laps.  Then the late-race caution.
Busch said he “had no idea” what caused the yellow flag.
"It was a gift,” he said.  “Glad there was something somewhere.  Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace.  Put us in the right position there coming down pit road behind Tony, and the guys did a fast pit stop; got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage.  Just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.”
Without the caution, did Busch have any shot of catching Stewart?
No.  No catching Stewart without that caution.  He was just so fast.”
Stewart had an idea about the cause of the caution and he didn’t like it.
"When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it's hard to feel good about losing that one," Stewart said.  "And we gave it away on pit road. So we did everything we could to throw it away – it got taken away from us.  That's what it looked like to me. I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps.”
It also was the second straight win of the year for Joe Gibbs Racing and the third of the year for the team, Denny Hamlin having won at Phoenix and the previous week at Kansas.  That’s quite a turnaround for a team that appeared to be losing its mantle as the lead Toyota team to a reinvigorated Michael Waltrip Racing.  Joe Gibbs, ever gracious, gave MWR some of the credit for his team’s improvement.
“I think we have a great relationship with Michael's group,” Gibbs said.  “I think having partners like that, it pushes you. I think it's great. I applaud them, what they've been able to do over there, and I think they've stepped it up, and hopefully at some point, that's up to us to try and keep up with them. 
“But also I think the great thing about our sport – what I love about this sport – you’ve got to earn it.  You can't fake it. There's nothing you can do about it. You're either good or you're not good, you're going to be up front or not up front. I love the competitive part of it.”
INDYCAR:  No lack of accidents or yellow flags for the IndyCar race on the tight Brazilian street course.   Will Power dominated for this third straight win and the fourth consecutive win for Penske Racing, the first time the team has ever started the year with four straight wins.  It also was the fourth straight win for Chevrolet, as the Bow Tie brigade finished one-two and took seven of the top 10 positions…Honda received approval to run a slightly different turbo in Brazil after being denied in Long Beach.  The Hondas seemed to be more competitive, although Dario Franchitti said they couldn’t match the Chevy for fuel economy.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Danica Mania, Part II

The hype leading up to Travis Pastrana’s Nationwide Series debut didn’t quite reach Danica Mania proportions.   But it was hard to turn on Speed or ESPN during the week before the Richmond race without seeing something on Pastrana.
Unfortunately, once again, the hype exceeded reality.  Pastrana qualified 25th.  He ran in the top 20 for most of the race, before picking up a speeding penalty during green flag pit stops and losing a lap.  When asked about the race’s lowlight, he had a hyped-up answer:  “Being beat by both the girls!”  Johanna Long finished 20th, Patrick 21st and Pastrana 22nd.

Oh, by the way, in a great finish, Kurt Busch hung on to win in brother Kyle’s car, edging Denny Hamlin by inches for the victory.  It was the first Nationwide victory for Kyle Busch Motorsports.  Kyle called it his most emotional win – ever.

Meanwhile it was another driver making his first Nationwide start, 18-year-old Ryan Blaney, who impressed most of all.   A third generation driver, son of Cup driver, short track wizard and proud father Dave Blaney, Ryan’s start was more anticipated by the NASCAR regulars than either Patrick or Pastrana.  Both Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick were singing his praises earlier in the week.  Blaney delivered, finishing 7th.  Only a botched pit stop kept him from a top five finish.    
Both Blaney and Pastrana will race again in two weeks at Darlington. Wanna bet on who beats who?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Painting NASCAR Green

Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR
The Sprint girls go green

NASCAR went Green for Earth Day.

Or at least it tried to.  With little else to work with, NASCAR resorted to the same tactics the auto industry often uses when there’s not much to talk about: paint and tape.  It’s a time-honored tradition.  When a car has nothing really new to offer when the new model-year rolls around, introduce an all-new color and stripping.

NASCAR painted the back straight wall green and put a green logo in the grass at the start/finish line at Kansas Speedway.  The Camry Hybrid pace car also carried the logo and special green stripping.  Miss Sprint Cup wore a green fireproof jump suit.  Jimmy Johnson painted his car an old GM hot rod green. Winner Denny Hamlin used green where purple normally is on his car and a number of other cars featured special green highlights.  Sprint highlighted a recycling program for electronics.  Even the television coverage got into the act, putting a nifty green border on its scoreboards.   Mike Joy wore a bad green tie.  (Somebody needs to explain to me why DW and Larry Mac are in purple every week.  But that's a different story.)

NASCAR also put out a White Paper on its environmental efforts.  The use of E15 ethanol remains the main fallback for the series, which noted it has now run more than two million miles on the fuel since it was introduced at the start of last year.  No mention of the fact all four NASCAR manufacturers are currently fighting the Federal government on the expansion of ethanol or the many other criticisms of the fuel.  

The other highlight of the NASCAR report?  The introduction this year of Electronic Fuel Injection.  NASCAR says EFI provides more efficient use of gasoline.  Yup, that’s true and one of the reasons EFI has been used on Indy cars since the ‘50s and most passenger cars and trucks since the ‘90s.  Not exactly ground breaking.

That's about it.  In the end, NASCAR discovered what Kermit has known all along.  It’s not easy being green. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"No To F1"

A riot police officer walks past an advertising board promoting Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix in Manama, Bahrain, Thursday, April 19, 2012. Nervous shop owners closed their doors and security forcesSebastian Vettel, the defending World Champion, won the Bahrain Grand Prix Sunday on the tiny Gulf Island Kingdom. It was his first win of the year.  He was the fourth different winner, in four races, from four different teams. The first time that has happened since 1983.

Normally that would have been big news. 

But the big news in Bahrain was the fact the race was held at all.  It was cancelled in 2011 when unrest surrounding the Arab Spring was spreading through the Mid East.  Many, led by Amnesty International, asked F1 to cancel the race again this year.  So why, just two weeks before the race, did the FIA announce plans to go ahead with the event.  

Had calm and tranquility returned to the country?  Hardly.  There continues to be rioting in the streets and another protester was killed just days before the race.

The answer is easy.  $$$$$$$$.

The government of Bahrain is said to have spent $40 million to bring the Formula One circus into the country.  It was a way to show the country had returned to stability.  They even had a theme for it, "UNIF1ED."  The government also owns the track and rights to the race.  It even owns half of the McLaren team and other members of the royal family own potions of other teams.  The race brings an estimated $500 million to the kingdom.

Give Speed credit for its coverage of the race.  It would have been easy to ignore the issue.  But they addressed the issue right up front, Bob Varsha calling it one of the most difficult weeks for Grand Prix racing in recent memory.  He compared the Bahrain to South African, where a Grand Prix was held for many years under the shadow of Apartheid, not exactly F1's finest hour.   But then Varsha rather naively wondered if the race could bring the country together.

Race day was relatively calm. Organizers said all 100,000 seats were sold and maybe so. The rest of the country was locked down tight. By nightfall, however, the marchers were back.  Thick clouds of black smoke were billowing from neighborhoods within sight of the track.  The statement was clear, F1 may have moved on, but the problems remain.

The marchers even had a new chant.  "No to F1."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

NASCAR: The Biff Arrives

There is no one, no one, who drives a race car as hard – lap after lap – as Greg Biffle.  No one.

And there is no one with better car control in NASCAR than Greg Biffle.  No one.

No, not even Kyle Busch, although he comes closest.
At least once a race you’re treated to a shot of the No. 16 car completely sideways in the corner with “The Biff” somehow maintaining control.  It’s not necessarily the fastest way around a track, but it sure is fun to watch. 
So why hasn’t he won more races? 
Biffle, from Vancouver, Washington, captured the Camping World Truck championship in 2000 and the Nationwide Series title in 2002, both driving for Jack Roush.  When he moved up to the Sprint Cup series in 2003 with Roush, most figured it was only a matter of time before he became the first driver ever to score the NASCAR Triple Crown, a championship is all three major series.
That was 377 races and just 17 Sprint Cup wins ago.  Not bad, better than most, but certainly not what was expected.  He didn’t win a race in 2011 and was out of contention for The Chase by mid-season.  It was a career low point. No one mentioned Biffle early this year in the pre-season discussions about championship contenders.    Biffle is first to admit that things have been tougher than he thought.
“You know, when I moved from the Truck Series to Nationwide, it was a huge step,” Biffle says.  “It was much, much harder. And when I moved from the Nationwide to the Cup Series, I had no idea that the competition was going to be what it was.  I knew it was going to be hard.  But man, it’s tough, and there’s a lot of great drivers in this sport and a lot of good equipment.  But I knew it was going to be hard.”
This year has been different from the start.  Things actually began turning around last year when Matt Puccia took over as crew chief, with Biffle capturing three second-half pole positions.  He should have won this year’s Daytona 500.  Only a faster pit stop by Kenseth and Biffle’s willingness to sacrifice his own chance at a win while pushing Kenseth to the finish line, relegated him in third place.  He followed that with third place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.  But still no wins. 
Until Texas.  
The win came in impressive fashion, Biffle chasing down Jimmy Johnson and diving under him when the five-time champion flinched in traffic.  Biffle went on to the win, while Johnson went on to scrap the wall trying to keep up and whine about slower cars getting in his.  It was classic Biffle, on the edge, lap after lap.   
"I was driving sideways around the corners trying to catch him, and I could tell I was catching him,” Biffle said.  “He got in some lapped traffic and I got my shot. When I got underneath him, I was surprised how easy it was."
The Biff had arrived.    And he’s primed to take off.
Next up is Kansas.  He’s very good at the track with two wins, six top fives, eight top 10s and one pole position.  He has the best average finish among active drivers of 8.2, just ahead of Johnson at 8.3.  Still ahead are Darlington and Michigan, both driver tracks where Biffle shines.  By mid-season this year, just one year after Biffle's lowpoint, it may be that no on is asking why he doesn't win more.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

More Power to Him

Will Power spotted the competition 10 starting positions and two laps of fuel and still led the final 15 laps to win the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.   It was the third straight win for Chevrolet since returning to IndyCar racing at the start of 2012.

It appeared Long Beach would be all Honda’s after all the Chevrolet teams were penalized 10 starting positions for an “unauthorized engine change.”  A blown engine during testing tipped Chevrolet its engines were in jeopardy, so the company decided to change’m and take the penalty. 
But it didn’t help Honda when its two fastest qualifiers, Dario Franchitti and Josef Newgarden, starting on the front row because of the penalties, collided on the first turn of the first lap, knocking Newgarden out of the race and slowing Franchitti.  Franchitti also stuffed his car into the wall during the morning warm-up session, finished 15th, two laps back.

Teams were divided before the race on whether to pursue a two- or three-stop pit strategy.  Make three stops for fuel and tires and go flat out.  Or make two stops and hope there are enough caution flag laps and you’re able to save enough fuel on the green flag laps to finish the race.    

Takuma Sato led much of the race for Honda and pursued the two-stop strategy.  But even with two more laps of fuel than Power, he wasn’t able to hold on to the lead or run with Power.

Another Honda driver, Simon Pagenaud, elected to go with the three stops and was rapidly reeling in Power at the end, but needed one more lap

Seven of the first 10 finishers were Chevrolet-powered. It also was the third straight win for Penske Racing and the second of the year for Power, who moved into the IndyCar championship point lead. 

Pit Stops:  Seems as if the most competitive series in racing at the moment is Formula One.  Three races and three different manufacturers in victory lane.  Nico Rosberg won his career first F1 race Sunday in China and Mercedes recorded its first win as a manufacturer since 1955 (although it has many wins as an engine supplier).   Most surprising of all, two-time defending champion Red Bull has yet to win a race this year…Also winning on moving into the points lead was Greg Biffle, taking the Sprint Cup event in Texas.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Slow Going

Indy cars ran a second day of testing at the Speedway
Two races into the new era of IndyCar racing -- along and a key test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- and it remains to be seen if the new DW12 race car is the answer the series has been hoping for.

There wasn’t much racing in the first race of the year, at St. Petersburg, but then there’s never much racing at the street race.  It was better on the Birmingham natural road course, although the racing took place back in the pack, not necessarily for the lead.  Next up is Long Beach, another street race that lends itself more to a good time than good racing.

Last week each team was allowed to send one car to Indianapolis for a day of testing at the Speedway.  That followed disappointing speeds during the initial test of the new car at the track last fall.  An updated aero package was used, although some drivers thought improved engines deserved more credit than aero for higher speeds.  Speeds were still well under the stated goal of 225 mph, however, topping out at about 219 mph.  And there were as many teams under 215 mph as over it.  But the cars were at least drivable.  In the fall, they weren’t.

"It was more balanced,” said Tony Kanaan, who drove the Chevrolet-powered KV Racing Technology car at Indy.  "We worked on it, we talked about it. Some people criticized (the car) at the end of last year, but it's a new car and we have to figure it out. 

“I went out of the pits and went flat out right away, so I have to say that the aero kit is definitely a little bit better. We're going to see some quality drivers giving positive feedback so when we come back here in May we can have the right stuff."

All the teams were using engines slated for  Long Beach.  No Lotus-powered cars took part in the tests as the company's engines remain at a premium.  In addition to Kanaan, other Chevy drivers included, Ed Carpenter for Carpenter Racing, Marco Andretti for Andretti Autosport, JR Hildebrand for Panther Racing and Helio Castroneves for Team Penske.  Honda teams were represented by Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Takuma Sato for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Mike Conway for A.J. Foyt Racing and Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne Racing.

“Balance was much improved I think,” said Dixon, the fastest of the Honda contingent.  “It was also hard to do a lot of miles because all of us had to use race engines that we may have to use, will definitely use, at Long Beach.   All in all, I think a lot of the improvements on speed, a lot of that was from the engine manufacturers as opposed to the drag reduction from Dallara. I think everything is moving in a positive way, and it was enjoyable to be back out there yesterday. The speeds are definitely picking up, so it's good to see.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fools

Gordon and Johnson dominated then...
With four laps to go in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 Sprint Cup race a Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, it appeared Rick Hendrick was finally going to pass out some hats.  

For six months Hendrick Racing has been hauling hats recognizing the team’s 200th Sprint Cup victory from track-to-track, waiting for one of its drivers to win a race.   And with five laps to go, Hendrick cars were running one-two-three, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson running side-by-side.  And just in case those two happened to take each other out, teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was lurking a few car lengths back.  Time to get the hats to Victory Lane.

It was a dominate weekend for the Hendrick team.  Kasey Kahne qualified on the pole and although he dropped out with engine problems, Gordon and then Johnson dominated the race, the pair leading a combined 440 laps with Earnhardt adding three more.  But it was not to be.
April Fools.
With Gordon just inches ahead of Johnson, out came a caution flag when David Reutimann’s car quit on the straightaway.   While Gordon and Johnson stayed on the track, all the other lead lap cars came in for fuel and at least two tires.  From running away with the race, Gordon and Johnson were now sitting ducks.
While the two Hendrick drivers struggled to restart on the old tires, Clint Boyer, pushed by Ryan Newman, dove to the inside in turn one.  Too fast.  Boyer took out both Gordon and Johnson.  Newman slipped through on the inside and held off A. J. Allmendinger in the final restart to win.
Afterward it was Reutimann, who had been limping around the track for many laps, well off the pace, who took the wrath of other drivers.   Earndardt was typical of most driver comments.
"I would like an explanation on why that happened, from him, his crew chief, somebody," he said.  “It doesn't seem like there could be a logical reason for him to end up stopped on the track.”
In fact there was a very logical reason and an obviously distraught Reutimann tried to explain.  His team is desperately trying to keep the No. 10 car in the top 35 in points.  Cars in the top 35 in points are guaranteed a starting spot in the next race, regardless of qualifying speeds.  And in an unusual arrangement, the points belonging to the No. 10 are shared with Danica Patrick, hopefully assuring her a starting position in the Cup races she plans to run.
"I just hate that I was involved in anything that changed the complexion of the race, so I've got to apologize to the guys that it affected," Reutimann said.  “We needed to finish the next couple of laps to try to stay in the top 35."
Reutimann was more than 60 laps behind the leaders, having been in-and-out of the pits with several car problems.  But by staying out he picked up two extra places, finishing in 35th, with one more lap than Kyle Busch, who also spent many laps in the garage.  That allowed him to hold on to 32nd in points.
Newman’s win was the third of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing.  Ironically, Stewart-Haas runs cars and engines prepared by Hendrick Racing.  Adding to the irony, the No. 10 car Patrick races is a Stewart-Haas-Hendrick entry.   
Patrick’s next race is scheduled for Darlington on May 12.  That will keep the pressure on Reutimann and his Tommy Baldwin Racing team for the next month to stay in the top 35. 
No fooling.