Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sprint Cup 2011: Race 2 -- Flying at Phoenix

Before we discuss Phoenix, there’s still a lot of buzz about last week’s Daytona 500 fairy tale victory. Imagine what it must be like for a 20 year old kid who grew up a huge Jeff Gordon fan complete with #24 lunch box and getting photographed with his idol at a young age to be working with that same Jeff Gordon in practice and the 125. Jeff Gordon didn’t win his first Daytona 500 until his 5th season. Considering Darrell Waltrip won in his 17th attempt, Dale Earnhardt in his 20th, and drivers with long distinguished careers like Rusty Wallace won ZERO, young Baynes’ triumph is even that much more significant. We got to know the young star a lot better over the course of the week, and the lad is most impressive. He’s intelligent, personable, has a great sense of humor, and seems very well grounded. Trevor Bayne has a bright career ahead as he looks forward to only his third Sprint Cup Race. For a manufacture that was all but shut out of the action last year barring Carl Edwards comeback at the very end, to have their most historic team, the “legendary” Wood Brothers racing a factory sponsored car with a likable 20 year old driver, the excitement must be tremendous and that the “blue ovals” won the top three even better.

This early in the season, prognosticating Sprint Cup races is a difficult process. The Daytona 500 has little relevance for the race that follows other than perhaps identifying some under financed teams that of course wear their Sunday best for the big race. This year, the cars have a new nose with a molded splitter on the front, not the award design where it’s held on with cables, rubber bands and chewing gum. Ford’s engine program has come a long way from the first use of the FR-9 engine with its limited rollout last summer. Most competitive drivers return to their same teams as last year. The biggest move is Kasey Kahne moving from Richard Petty Motorsports to Red Bull for a one year gig. Perhaps the driver/crew switcheroo in the Hendricks shop for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Mark Martin will change the chemistry there. The new kid sensation, Trevor Bayne, falls back to earth, having crashed his #21 in practice and going to a back up.

Working off last year’s book won’t be as helpful this year since the race is moved from April to February, night to day as such perhaps the data from last November’s race would be more relevant. Sun getting in drivers’ eyes created issues in the fall race. How could February differ?

For what it’s worth, 2nd round practice looks like this:

1- Kyle Busch, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
2- David Ragan, Ford, Roush/Fenway
3- Carl Edwards, Ford, Roush/Fenway
4- Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, Earnhardt/Ganassi
5- Greg Biffle, Ford, Roush/Fenway
6- Mark Martin, Chevrolet, Hendrick
7- Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, Stewart/Haas
8- Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, Stewart/Haas
9- Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
10- Paul Menard, Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
11- Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
12- Juan Montoya, Chevrolet, Earnhardt/Ganassi
13- Regan Smith, Furniture Row, Chevrolet
14- A.J. Allmendinger, Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
15- Joey Logano, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing

The champ, Jimmie Johnson, a dominant racer at Phoenix, had the 21st best results.

Here’s how they line up after qualifying:

1- Carl Edwards, #99,Ford, Subway
2- Kurt Busch, #22, Dodge, Shell/Penzoil
3- Kasey Kahne, #4, Toyota, Red Bull
4- Kyle Busch, #18, Toyota, Combos
5- Regan Smith, #78, Chevrolet, Furniture Row
6- Joey Logano, #29, Toyota, Office Depot
7- Martin Truex Jr., #56, Toyota, NAPA
8- Jamie McMurray, #1, Chevrolet, Bass Pro Shops
9- Brad Keselowski, #2, Dodge, Miller Lite
10- Greg Biffle, #16, Ford, 3M
11- David Regan, #6, Ford, UPS
12- Denny Hamlin, #11, Toyota, FedEx
13- Paul Menard, #27, Chevrolet, Vertis/Menards
14- Ryan Newman, #39, Chevrolet, Tornados
15- A.J. Allmendinger, #43, Ford, Valvoline

Note, NO Hendrick drivers. They qualified as follows: Jeff Gordon – 20th, Mark Martin—23rd, Jimmie Johnson – 28th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 35th, and Tony Stewart (who shares Hendrick equipment does better, 18th.

Only Brian Keselowski failed to make the field. Daytona 500 victor Trevor Bayne starts 33rd sharing a driver who’d damned well better compete or quit the Sprint Cup series as this would be his third year cluttering up the field, Joe Nemechek in 32nd. All other rides except Tony Raines in the #32 Ford racing for Front Row have sponsorship; however, Front Row did not engage in “start and park” last year. They’d better not this year. We will continue our truculent lobbying that no car should enter the field without the equipment and intent to complete the entire race. Imagine a PGA golfer walking off the course after three holes in a Sunday event, an NFL team playing one quarter, or a baseball team playing just two innings. That NASCAR condones this is baffling.

When the checker flag drops, Sprint Cup fans will begin to see the first steps of how the field for the 2011 season will sort itself out. With Atlanta and Fontana being reduced to one race a year and the schedule being shuffled as a result, Bristol’s first race will be March 19th, then the field returns to the west coast, Fontana a week later at which time the owners points will lock in. Having a short track in the early stages provides a much truer test of a team’s capacity before the season’s first milestone is met.

For Jimmie Johnson haters or fans who sneer at Hendrick in general, don’t take last week’s results or tomorrow’s starting lineup as any harbinger of what could lie ahead, they’re just warming up. Remember how well Matt Kenseth started in 2009 and what happened to him?

Gentlemen, start your season!


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