Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Richmond Preview: Phoenix Players Will Be Strong Again, Including Johnson and Gordon

By Micah Roberts

You have to love NASCAR’s new era of fantastic finishes where five of the nine races have ended with green-white-checker finishes. It’s apparent that last week’s thrilling finish at Talladega recaptured some NASCAR’s lost audience as evidenced by the overnight Nielson rating of 4.9 which was up slightly from last years event, the first time all season that NASCAR has shown gains in the ratings department.

To be fair in the ratings game, NASCAR has had to go head to head the Olympics for their first three races of the season and then had to deal with two races running on Monday’s due to rain. On Sunday, NASCAR was again on top as the top watched sporting event of the weekend blowing out anything the NBA Playoffs had to offer on ABC.

This is the first real sign that some of the NASCAR changes like the double-file restart and three attempts at a Green-White-Checker finish have won over the fans. NASCAR should be commended somewhat, even reluctantly so by myself, for having the nerve to react so quickly into making the changes that are obviously coming to fruition.

NASCAR has hid behind the “Giving the fans what they want” motto when speaking about the changes and haven’t once talked about the real focus which is gaining a larger network contract when their deal expires. How can they possibly expect gains in the network money given to them if there haven’t been any gains in ratings since 2008.

One of the areas of new NASCAR change we haven’t seen come into play yet has been drivers showing more emotion on the track. Carl Edwards proved how far a driver can go within the kangaroo court of justice of solving matters on the track amongst themselves by ending Brad Keselowski’s day earlier this season, but everyone else has been a little tame.

After this week’s race at Richmond, we could see the biggest uproar of the season by a few drivers just because of how the track runs. If this were three season’s ago we would have already seen the feuds explode at Bristol, but it didn’t happen because of the new multi-groove track that doesn’t have a premium set on the low line.

The combination of racing under the lights and some of the rowdiest fans hailing from the Confederate Capital always creates some kind internal battle among the drivers, with or without repercussions of showing emotion and personality.

The most intriguing battle brewing this week is one that even Hollywood couldn’t have conjured up where we have teammates, one of whom is the car-owner and mentor, battling each other. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have been going at it. Following the Texas race where both bumped and banged each other, they each separately told the media that they would talk it over once they got back to the shop. But it never happened. They let it fester by not talking at all, only communicating via text and e-mail, perhaps the most impersonal way of communicating ever.

When Johnson made a bone-headed move at Talladega where it just so happened that Gordon was the recipient of the move, Gordon lashed out in the media once again saying that “The 48 is testing my patience”.

No word yet on whether or not they have actually discussed the matter, but both are still using the media as their conduit to each others ear. Johnson admitted he made a bad move and took full responsibility.

We have been searching for almost a decade for some kind of real rivalry involving any of NASCAR’s top drivers but none have materialized, probably because for fear of NASCAR retaliation under the old rules that forced the drivers to be responsible for all the sponsors. But now we get two of the best, going at it, just short of going toe-to-toe on the track waiting for the first round bell to start the boxing match.

Gordon finally has a release now to show all his frustrations of being somewhat jealous because of all Johnson’s success. When Gordon brought Johnson into Hendrick Motorsports, he was on top of his game. He has just won his fourth Cup title in 2001, his fourth overall, and felt he was on his way to becoming even better for the years to come.

Since then, Gordon only has 20 wins with no Championships while Johnson has 50 wins with four titles. Gordon fought hard to win all four of his titles while Johnson kind of gravy-trained his four. Who wouldn’t be a bit jealous? And now Johnson has the nerve to bite the hand that fed him when Gordon is finally showing that he has car almost as good as Johnson’s.

NASCAR and Fox couldn’t ask for a better storyline to help promote watching this Saturday night at Richmond. Beyond their feud, they are actually two of the favored drivers to win. Johnson comes in with three career wins on the track and is 5 to 1 at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book while Gordon has six straight Top 10 finishes there along with two career wins and is listed at 8 to 1.

Perhaps the best indicator of why Johnson and Gordon will do well this week is because of their Phoenix runs a few weeks ago. Every year, whoever has success at Phoenix usually has it translate well to both Richmond and New Hampshire. Though the tracks look vastly different, the distance and flat nature of each requires much of the same set-up so the crew chiefs usually bring the same chassis to each.

At Phoenix, Gordon probably should have won the race but got beat on the drag race into the first turn and settled for second. Right behind Gordon was Jimmie Johnson who tied for the most laps led on the day.

The winner of the Phoenix race was Ryan Newman. He had a solid car all day running in the top-10 but was helped dramatically by being given the opportunity to restart double-file with a green-white-checkered finish. He should still be considered a contender to run well, but there are a few meatier prospects out there.

Kyle Busch tied Johnson for the most laps led at Phoenix and looked sewn up until the final caution came out with two laps to go. Busch comes into a place at Richmond now where he has eight top-5 finishes in career starts for an average finish of 6.0, easily the track’s best among active drivers.

Denny Hamlin hails from Virginia and always seems to dig in a little more when racing in his home state. He’s already won at Martinsville this year and would love nothing more than to sweep the early season of Virginia races which would give him three wins for the season and get him that much closer to toppling Johnson in points. Among active drivers, only Busch has a better average finish than Hamlin at Richmond. He won the last race there held last fall.

Mark Martin finished fourth at Phoenix and with little surprise, he comes in with equally good recent finishes at Richmond. He has finished in the Top 5 in his last four Richmond starts. His one and only Richmond win came in 1990.

Tony Stewart wasn’t as good as Newman at Phoenix this year, but it’s impossible to keep to Stewart down for long at Richmond. He’s finished second in three of the last five Richmond races and has three career wins with his last coming in 2002.

Dale Earnhardt Jr also has three career wins at Richmond and is currently on the upswing, both mentally and in team unity. He never really contended at Phoenix but did finish a respectable 12th and should be looked at this week as a quality contender for a top-10 finish earning him more valuable points.

One driver to take a long look at this week at 18 to 1 odds is Juan Pablo Montoya. He led over 100 laps at Phoenix on his way to a fifth-place finish and will be using the exact same chassis this week.

Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
5) #5 Mark Martin (12/1)

Check out for all your NASCAR, Baseball, Hockey and Basketball statistical needs.

No comments: