Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Four contenders make their mark in first Chase for the Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire.

In front of a sold out crowd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the first chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race lived up to all of the hype as Sunday’s Sylvania 300 showed survival was the key to not only victory, but a much needed top 10 finish.

It’s amazing to see what a few changes can do for a race. For example, a racetrack adding some banking to the corners and NASCAR creating this ugly, yet cost effective COT car normally isn’t the recipe for a good race however for some reason while it hasn’t worked on tracks above 1.3 miles in length, it has worked for tracks like Phoenix and Darlington.

The same can be said for last Sunday’s Cup Series race at New Hampshire which for the fourth time in two years, fans saw one hell of a race. Now this isn’t Bristol nor Richmond or Martinsville, but the race ended up being exciting nonetheless and the race also showed what I have been thinking all season long, drivers are just being more aggressive on the track, partly due to economy and the sponsors, remember the old saying, “Your only as good as your last race”, well this last race for some key drivers proved to show they are here to race for it.

Sunday was two races within a race. First was for the 12 chase drivers to mount a charge to take the top spot in the points to contend for the championship. I believe that there are three, maybe five drivers that are championship contenders at this point. On Sunday, Mark Martin came out firing on all eight cylinders, leading when it counted, at the end by holding off a hard charging Denny Hamlin and a chase new comer Juan Montoya who lead the most laps Sunday to win the Sylvania 300. With the victory, Mark Martin (who is the sentimental favorite to win the championship this season) adds to his points lead with 35 points over Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Right now, those three drivers that I believe are real championship contenders are Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, they all have their stuff together. For smoke, after winning the regular season and despite his 14th place finish on Sunday, he is still in this. Right below those top 3 is Denny Hamlin. Two wins on the season including last weekend at Richmond, he is almost there, a silent contender, he hasn’t made a lot of noise this season, but yet has 10 top 5’s and 15 top 10’s so far. Right below Hamlin is a wild card, meaning I have no idea what he is going to do nor can he keep it up, yeah Juan Montoya.

The rest of the top 12 hasn’t been there all season long, let along on Sunday, so it will be a surprise when someone outside of those five comes on strong.

The second race was for the rest of the field, the non-chase drivers that some call second class citizens. I don’t believe in the whole “second class citizens” phase, all 43 drivers that show up to race the entire race and not start and park are important, somebody needs to tell the media and especially ESPN/ABC that they are all here to race, including for the victory period.

Two non-chase drivers who on Sunday sent a message to the rest of the field that “hay while I’m not in the chase, I am still a contender for race wins” is Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yeah, I can’t believe it that I have pin pointed these two drivers neither, but impressive runs and standing out among the chase contenders is big in my book and Kyle Busch’s 5th place finish and Dale Jr’s running in the top 5-10 both stood out to me.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran up in the top 5 and top 10 some of the day and was on his way to a top 5 or top 10 finish when a late-race incident (lap 283 I believe) with David Reutimann sent junior spinning into the wall and out of the race. I can understand Dale Jr’s reaction after the crash, David Reutimann over drove the corner, washed up the track into Dale Jr. and sent Dale Jr. into the wall.

However while a top 5 finish for Kyle Busch was big, his #18 car failed post race inspection, his left front was found to be too low, as a result, according to NASCAR PR, “Crew chief Steve Addington has been fined $25,000 and placed on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31. Driver Kyle Busch and car owner Joe Gibbs have been penalized 25 championship driver and 25 championship owner points, respectively.”
For everybody who just looked at that, that penalty isn’t a big deal, he’s not in the chase, so it doesn’t mean much and he still keeps the 5th place finish.

Of course there were two topics that caught my eye throughout the past week:

1. Last week Marty Smith wrote an article called “Is racing for free dedicated enough?” that details that the Richard Petty Motorsports driver Reed Sorenson is racing the remainder of the season for no salary. "The decision I made was to keep racing. The reason I did that is I thought it would help me find a job next year," Sorenson said. "And any race car driver that has the choice to sit at home or race is probably going to choose to race, unless they're at the end of their career.”

This is hard to read, yet imagine happening to anyone especially a driver. While I can understand why he is doing this and keep in mind he is keeping him crew working with a pay check, I can’t believe an owner would put a driver in this position. I don’t know the whole story here, but the car has sponsorship, so I don’t get it and you wonder why drivers want out of their contracts.

For drivers, crew members, owners, everybody, respect is a two-way street, you treat people with respect to get respect, this isn’t respecting somebody and yet this same team has a merger (Richard Petty Motorsports) with Yates Racing...I wonder about this organization, and remember we had the Elliott Sadler lawsuit before the season began.

2. Speaking of Richard Petty Motorsports, Kasey Kahne had a blown engine last Sunday at New Hampshire. ABC (ESPN) speculated that this was due to the merger and getting rid of the Engine shop for RPM. They should applause to the fans and to RPM for saying that, that was uncalled for.
Now is Kasey Kahne that is 161 points out, out of the championship hunt? No, no one is, yes it’s a tall order, but anything can happen in the next several races and he could be right back into this. Ask me after race 5 who is in and who is completely out.

Well next up is chase race two, Dover, what a race that should be and I would say that Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin will be the odds on favorites to win, but I wonder if Roush-Fenway Racing will be in the hunt?

(Photo Credit: Gregg Ellman/Pool-Getty Images)