Friday, April 30, 2010

Rule Changes and Feuding Fuel NASCAR Upswing Heading to Richmond

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

All the major changes NASCAR has done in the Sprint Cup series have finally come to fruition after nine races into the 2010 campaign. Everything from loosening up on the past policy of visible driver emotions, double-file restarts, three attempts at a green-white-checker finish, and going back to the fin spoiler rather than the wing have helped create somewhat of a buzz that NASCAR was looking for.

The best evidence to support that NASCAR’s changes have been a success is by monitoring the Nielson ratings. Last week’s Talladega race that prominently featured all of the changes in one gift wrapped package to the fans had the highest increase in ratings that NASCAR has seen this season going from a 5.0 rating in 2009 to a 5.2 rating this year.

The reported 4% increase may not seem like much, but for a sport that has seen the ratings drop drastically the last year and a half, it has to be a sigh of relief. Not only does this signal that perhaps some of their lost audience is back, but it helps assure prospective sponsors that their money spent on the sport still carries as much weight as ever, even during the current economic climate. It also shows the Networks that they can still rely on NASCAR to routinely be one of the watched sporting events over a weekend.

The new spoiler looked to have a major affect on the racing at Talladega that some used to their advantage. We saw a record breaking amount of passing with 88 lead changes among 29 different drivers all culminate with three spectacular double-file restarts in the green-white-checker format.

While the emotions of the drivers were still kept to a minimum, we did witness another chapter in the brewing feud between teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson where Gordon stated that “the 48 is testing my patience” after Johnson, for the second consecutive week, tangled with Gordon.

The only real test we’ve seen regarding NASCAR’s loosened policy on drivers showing more personality and emotion on the track was Carl Edwards ending Brad Keselowski’s day with nothing but a mere slap on the hand as the penalty. The drivers have been reserved somewhat all season, but the Johnson-Gordon feud is a dream rivalry for NASCAR that not even Hollywood could conjure up.

For almost a decade now, NASCAR fans have been waiting for some kind of beefy rivalry that involve the heavyweights of the sport to no avail. Ever since Dale Earnhardt passed, none of the drivers have stepped up to be the enforcer as the respected voice among the drivers and part of that is because of the old conduct policy where drivers were routinely penalized and fined for their actions for fear of scaring off corporate sponsors.

This Saturday night, deep in the south of the Confederate Capital in Richmond, under the lights with some of the rowdiest fans on tour, something is bound to happen, and the hopes for many is that it happens between Gordon and Johnson.

The prospective bout has so much to offer for everyone and could offer more action than the 12-round dancing that Floyd Mayweather and Shane Mosley will offer on the same night. For Gordon, who has been booed louder than anyone over the last two decades at Richmond, he’s become somewhat of a fan favorite much in the same way that Earnhardt endeared himself more to the fans by standing up to the young Gordon.

The majority of NASCAR fans don’t like seeing wins and championships come so easy as they have for Jimmie Johnson. He’s a likeable guy and doesn’t offer much in his personality to irritate the fans, but he just does somehow, and no one has stepped up to set him straight in the fans eyes until now.

For that, whether teammates or mentor/car-owner, Gordon will likely get the biggest cheer he has ever had during driver introductions of what has been his toughest crowd. It only took 17 years, but the drama that unfolded between he and Johnson has now made him a man of the people like never before. He’s gone from being like Johnson is his own right where all the wins came so easily to now being the guy scratching and clawing for his next win against someone who he once resembled.

NASCAR fans love tough underdogs, and Gordon is showing them all in his later years that he won’t back to down to anyone. It kind of sounds like the beginning of Earnhardt’s transition story when he began to win hearts of NASCAR Nation.

Things to Watch For at Richmond
Richmond is labeled as one of the three short tracks on the Cup circuit, but actually runs closer to what Phoenix and New Hampshire does. Many of the crew chiefs that have success on one of those tracks opt to bring the same chassis to the others. Though none of the three are configured the same, they all are relatively flat and run nearly the same distance.

Since the April 10 Phoenix race was not too long ago, many of the teams that did well then can be expected to do the same this week. Most of all the top performers from that Phoenix race are bringing the exact same chassis with hopes of duplicating their success.

Over the years, the trio of tracks have proved to be linked by the same drivers winning multiple times between the three. Drivers like Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson have all pulled off two or more wins on the group of three mid-sized tracks during a season.

The relevance to what happened three weeks ago at Phoenix is almost stronger than what happened in Friday’s practice where only two sessions were run. Of those two sessions, only the first was run with a race set-up for it’s entirety as many used the final session to prepare for qualifying. Following qualifying, the cars were impounded with no other practice time until the actual race starts.

The notes and what was learned at Phoenix will have just as much value for the crew chiefs as anything found out Friday. The practice times also ran during the day which makes the initial race set-up crucial because the Saturday race will be run under the lights, just like the last half of the Phoenix race was. 

The best bet this week is to focus on the top Phoenix drivers with a few exceptions.

Top Drivers To Watch Saturday Night
Kyle Busch comes in with the best average finish at Richmond among active drivers at 6.0. He won this race last season culminating a sweep of the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races, and did so on his 24th birthday. Busch has been climbing up the points ladder with top-10 finishes in his last three starts and currently sits fifth in the standings. This week he has brought the same car that led a race high 113 laps and finished eighth, a race he was leading with two laps to go when a caution came out.

Jeff Gordon has been a keg of powder waiting to explode the last month and teammate Jimmie Johnson is lighting the fuse. I’ve written the last few weeks about Gordon not having the same fire as he once did, and he’s proved me dead wrong. He will win very soon and it could be Saturday night. He had a terrific Richmond practice to go along with a great run at Phoenix, a race he should have won following the late caution. Because of his strong opinions against Johnson, a driver many fans root against, Gordon may find himself as a fan favorite for the first time ever at Richmond. Six straight top-10 finishes at Richmond coming into this race suggests he’ll be pretty strong this week.

Clint Bowyer won this race in 2008 and was one of the better cars in Friday’s practice sessions. He was second fastest in the first practice with one of the best average speeds and was fastest in the final session prior to everyone using their qualifying trim. In eight career Richmond starts, Bowyer has an average finish of 10.0 which ranks third among all active drivers.

Denny Hamlin had an awful time at Phoenix a few weeks ago as he toughed out the entire race despite recent knee surgery and having a replacement driver on stand-by. His Friday practice times weren’t very good, in fact, they were down right terrible. However, all anyone needs to look at this week is what state their in and what car he’s driving. Richmond is Hamlin’s home track and battles anything he’s in to win in front of his fellow Virginians. All you have to do is look at what he did in Martinsville, the other Virginia track, with the bad knee on his mad dash to the front with two laps to go to see just how much he loves racing in Virginia.

Hamlin won the fall Richmond race last season for his first Cup win. He should have a few more Richmond wins already because he’s had the best car on the track in three other instances. What seals the deal this week making Hamlin a top candidate among all other things is the car he’s driving this week. This week’s chassis started three races in 2009 and won all three (Pocono, Martinsville, and Homestead-Miami). Those kind of stats rarely happen in stock car racing, let alone the Breeders Cup which is why Hamlin is one driver you don’t want to bet against Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson has three career Richmond wins but has also had some rough times mixed in that has inflated his 18.3 career average. His three wins and a second-place finish are his only top-10 finishes over 16 career starts which is amazing for someone of his stature. Who could ever guess that Johnson has more finishes of 30th or worse at any track than he has top-10’s?

Based on Johnson’s Phoenix run, no one should feel too much sympathy for his past Richmond struggles. He’ll be bringing the same car that finished third and led multiple time at Phoenix. He also had a great combined practice session before the qualifying trim came on.

Others To Keep An Eye On
Juan Pablo Montoya will be using the same chassis this week that he finished fifth with three weeks ago at Phoenix. Ryan Newman won late at Phoenix after having a steady run throughout the race and showed the same consistency through Friday’s practice.

Mark Martin is the only driver to have participated in every race run on the then newly re-configured three-quarter mile track. He hasn’t won at Richmond since 1990, a span longer than any current Cup driver was even in the series. Age hasn’t made him miss a beat though as he’s been at his best in the last two seasons at Richmond finishing in the top-5 in all four races.

Jamie McMurray’s Friday practices looked very similar what he did during practice at Phoenix, however, those runs didn’t translate well to the race where he finished 24th and never was a serious contender from the drop of the green flag. His fast practice runs in both sessions while in race trim is still something to ponder.

Joey Logano was an animal in practice finishing third in both sessions. He’ll be using the same chassis he finished 10th in at Phoenix. Kurt Busch had the best average lap times of among the serious drivers who ran practice laps with the intention of actually racing and not just qualifying. Busch won at Richmond in 2005 and was runner-up in the fall race last season.      

Read More Here...Top 10 Driver Ratings For Richmond

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