Tuesday, March 1, 2011

5 Questions After ... Subway Fresh Fit 500

So, Jeff Gordon broke a 66-race winless streak, Kyle Busch came this close to pulling off another sweep, and several drivers found themselves angry with one another during the race.

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
Ah, NASCAR…. It’s good to have you back!

Here are some questions on my mind as we head out of Phoenix…

How aggressive is “too aggressive”? … Less than 100 laps into the race, no less than 20 cars had been involved in some sort of accident. The biggest accident involved 14 cars and red-flagged the race for just over 14 minutes. The accident happened early enough in the race that most of those involved were able to continue. Trevor Bayne and Travis Kvapil weren’t so lucky.

The early bent-up sheet metal had many drivers crying foul, saying too many drivers were racing too aggressive too early. The race was only 500 km (312 miles), so it wasn't particularly a race where drivers had a lot of time to mellow out and hang back. The race was just over three hours long, but several 2010 Chase contenders found themselves in a deep hole just two races into the season.

Then again, this is racing, not cruising on the highway on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This new points situation might be a part of it since it’s so crucial to finish in the highest position possible. Not that the old system didn't promote the same thing, but a lot of 2010 championship contenders had horrible finishes in Daytona. Maybe that was a reason there was so much aggression early on in the race.

What does Gordon’s win mean for Hendrick Motorsports? … Over the off-season, Hendrick Motorsports initiated a major team shake-up that has been the talk of the Sprint Cup Series garage since the season started.

Jeff Gordon is now working with Alan Gustafson and the old No. 5 team. The No. 24 shop will now be sharing a shop with Mark Martin’s No. 5 team, which now has the No. 88 crew chief (Lance McGrew) and crew members.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 team (last year’s No. 24 team) will now have Steve Letarte calling the shots atop the pitbox and moves over to work with the No. 48 crew in their shop.

If you’re confused, let me break it down for you:

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now paired with Steve Letarte (Jeff Gordon’s crew chief/crew members from 2010)
  • Jeff Gordon is now paired with Alan Gustafson (Mark Martin’s crew chief/crew members from 2010)
  • Mark Martin is now paired with Lance McGrew (Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief/crew members from last year)
  • The No. 24 and No. 5 teams are now operating out of the same shop. The No. 88 is now working out of the same shop as the No. 48 team. The old shops used to be the No. 5/No. 88 shop and the No. 24/No. 48 shop.

Yeah. I know. Wow.

Anyway, Gordon broke a 66-race winless streak this past weekend at Phoenix with Gustafson, while Earnhardt/Letarte finished 10th, and Martin/McGrew 13th. Johnson finished third.

Definitely not a bad start to the season for all the new faces in new places at HMS! While there’s definitely time for the chemistry to fall apart, outlooks are optimistic for 2011 at the dynasty that is Hendrick Motorsports.

How good is Kyle Busch? … Just seconds after winning the race, Gordon radioed back to his crew, “We just beat Kyle Busch!” He was elated, and sounded almost shocked, to have beaten the Joe Gibbs Racing driver (who finished second 1.137 seconds behind Gordon).

There aren't many drivers better than Busch out there right now, but to hear that from a four-time champion in Gordon was a bit shocking. Yes, Busch had won two of the three national series races in Phoenix that weekend, but it’s Jeff freaking Gordon! Do I really need to explain my shock here?

There are several drivers I can imagine being almost giddy that they had out-raced Busch — for instance, drivers that DON’T have four championships in NASCAR’s top division. Busch himself doesn't even have one Cup title to his name. He does have a Nationwide Series title and a Camping World Truck Series owner’s title to his credit.

Heck, even his Sprint Cup Series statistics are pretty amazing! 19 wins, 67 top 5s, and 105 top 10s in just 224 career starts? Yeah, that’s pretty impressive in such a short amount of time, but they pale in comparison to Gordon’s 80+ victories and did I mention… FOUR Sprint Cup Series titles?

Congratulations, Mr. Busch, on impressing a legend.

Did everyone jump off the “Bayne-wagon”? … Phoenix was brutal towards the Daytona 500 champion. Bayne crashed in practice the Friday before the Sprint Cup Series race and only made it 49 laps in the race before sliding across Travis Kvapil’s nose into the outside wall.

Bayne didn’t do very well in the Nationwide Series race, failing to finish after his right front tire gave up 164 laps into the race. He wound up finishing 31st.

Bayne went from zero to hero back down to zero again in the course of just a couple of weeks. Yes it’s still early in the season, but it had to have been a huge punch in the gut to the 20-year-old that had been on top of the world no less than 48 hours earlier.

I can’t help but wonder how many of his new “fans” stuck around after the rough weekend, either.

What do we gather from the points situation so far? … As simplified as this new points system is supposed to be, I find myself with a lot of questions!

I don’t have a hard time keeping up with eligible and ineligible drivers. As long as you pay attention, it’s pretty simple to figure out why one guy is earning points and why the other isn't. Maybe casual fans have trouble figuring it out, but that’s what the commentators are there for.

I know it’s too early in the season to decide who is going to win the championship, and that’s not where my confusion lies. In fact, confusion might be the wrong word. There are just a few things I’m having trouble adjusting to.

For instance, Kyle Busch has a three-point advantage over Kurt Busch heading into Vegas. Tony Stewart and A.J. Allmendinger are tied for 3rd at 11 points back and Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin are tied for fifth at 15 points back. If the points were that close with the old system, that would be fantastic. Fifteen points was not much to make up at all. Now, I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around how big of a deficit 11 or 15 points really is.

I know that’s at LEAST 11 or 15 positions to make up, not including the bonus point for leading a lap. 15 positions is quite a bit, so I would imagine that’s going to be kind of difficult to overcome without Busch having some sort of issue. With the old system, 15 points could be made up within just a few spots.

It’s not hard to figure out the new system, it’s just hard to adjust to what the deficits mean. It’ll take some retraining of what I know, as it will for others, but so far I like what I see.

Bonus questions: Was Ella happy that her two favorite cars finished 1-2? … Are Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch going to have the first “Boys, have at it” incident of 2011? … Could Logano have pounded that steering wheel a little bit harder?

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