Thursday, April 26, 2012

5 Questions Before... the Capital City 400


As Unique Hiram explained last week, Summer Dreyer began the the "Five Questions Before/After" franchise. As a relative newcomer to the Skirts and Scuffs team, I'm honored to be able to contribute to the mystique.

This week we head to Richmond International Raceway for the Capital City 400 presented by Virginia is for Lovers. Under the lights, no less. Saturday night short-track racing. The 3/4 mile track blends the excitement of a short-track racing with the smoothness of an intermediate track. For history, you can't get much richer than RIR; our Chief 187™ describes it well in her "Why I Love NASCAR" column this week.

Now for the questions. I'm avoiding the obvious ones like Hendrick's 200th and Earnhardt's next. Maybe like the watched pot that never boils, an over-discussed win never comes. The Brothers Busch need no more press, and Richmond's not getting a repave (at least we hope not!) so discussing the track surface will have to wait until the Pocono edition.

So...what does that leave? Here are my eponymous five questions:

What tricks does  Mother Nature have up her sleeve to challenge the teams?

We've had the song-title cliche races at Daytona (Fire and Rain) and California (It Never Rains in California), the gale-force winds at Texas, and unseasonably cool temps at Kansas. Snow delayed the tire test at Pocono this week. What's next? Hail? Flies? Locusts? Who knows! The current forecast calls for a 30% chance of precipitation on Saturday, but that means a 70% chance there won't be precipitation, right? Seems to me that the teams most able to adapt to changing weather conditions have the best chance of winning. Well, that and having a fast car that doesn't either blow up or get wrecked. Having a fast, un-wrecked, un-blown-up car really helps. 

Will Greg Biffle hang onto the points lead yet another week? 

Photo credit Lisa Janine Cloud
 for Skirts and Scuffs
The Biff' left Las Vegas in first place on the strength of three straight third-place finishes and has held that lead since. Winning at Texas helped boost his lead to 15 points over second-place Martin Truex Jr., who is only two points ahead of Matt Kenseth and 21 up on Dale Earnhardt Jr. That's right, the same Greg Biffle who seemed content to push Carl Edwards through restrictor plate races last season leads this season's championship points standings for five weeks with only a little fanfare and no flourishes. Will he widen that lead or will the competition start to close the field? 


Will Michael Waltrip Racing finally capture a win, and if so, which driver will it be?

Photo credit Lisa Janine Cloud
 for Skirts and Scuffs
Wait just a minute. Look back at the previous paragraph. Did that say Martin Truex Jr. is in second place in points? What's up with that? Truex Jr.'s had three top fives and six top tens in eight races. That's as many top-five finishes as he had all last season. New team member Clint Bowyer sits eleventh in points and has been a threat to win several times this year. Even Epic Swag Mark Martin, who's only run six of the eight races, sits inside the top 25! MWR drivers bring the good stuff every single week, so it's only a matter of time before one of them streaks into Victory Lane. But which one? And when? We shall see. 

Will Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne be able to continue climbing in the points?

Photo credit Lisa Janine Cloud
 for Skirts and Scuffs
If I had written in the off-season that eight races into the season that two MWR drivers would be in the top 11 but Jeff Gordon would be clawing to stay in the top 20, and Kasey Kahne would be two places behind Martin despite having run all the races, you'd have told me to stay out of the bars. Yet Four-Time and his new teammate started the year badly and every time they climb in Sprint Cup championship standings the next week they tank. Granted, they've had a lot of help tanking (Thanks, Junior...thanks Bowyer..and boy do we miss Randy Dorton.)  Both Gordon and Kahne need--truly need--a good finish at Richmond to make it into Chase contention. Will we see that this weekend? We'll see Saturday night. 

How many cautions, laps of caution, and lead changes will we see?

Finally, if you think that, despite the long red flag period at Daytona, this season the races are speeding by, then you're right. They are significantly faster than they were last year with fewer cautions for fewer laps. Put this season and last season side-by-side and you'll quickly notice the differences. Last season saw 66 cautions for 329 laps at this point. This season? 43 laps for 250 laps, making the average race speed increase at each track, sometimes by as much as 10mph. Another item of interest: no winner has started from further back than 13th. In addition- and this factoid probably contributes to the overall impression that racing has been been...well...boring. There have been only 139 lead changes so far this season as opposed to 237 thus far last season, making track position more crucial than its ever been. 

What does all that mean? That so far, pit crews played even more of a vital role this season than they have in past seasons. The slightest mistake in the pits can make a bad day worse or ruin a good day. 

There you have them. My five questions. Comments? What are your questions before we go trackside at RIR? 

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