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Four Burning Questions

Four Burning Questions In Bristol: Rim-Riding And Flaring Tempers

Ah Bristol, you never cease to amaze us. Whether it was Texas Terry Labonte getting punted by Dale Earnhardt on a warm August night in 1999, or Tony Stewart delivering a perfectly timed helmet toss at the car of an unsuspecting Matt Kenseth just last summer, there’s always something to remember after a race at Bristol, and that is exactly where the stars of NASCAR are headed this weekend. There are of course a litany of questions that need to be answered heading into the race, most notable among them being whether or not the track will still have some of the “old Bristol magic†that made a bit of an appearance the last time the series made a trip to the famed half mile oval. What about the drivers? Who looks primed to take the first short track race of 2013? Well folks, I’m here to offer some clarity as fans across NASCAR Nation mull over this week’s line up of Four Burning Questions. <div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/13955.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"181\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Last August brought a return to the old Bristol so will we see the beating and banging we are used to on the short track again this week?</p></div> *1. Will the Bristol of old return this weekend like it did last August?* The fans wanted it. The fans got it. Well, sort of at least. After six years of listening to fans complain about how stale the racing had become at the race track he reconfigured (well, he ordered it to be reconfigured, but you get the point) in 2007, Bruton Smith finally bit the bullet and made an attempt at “fixing†Bristol Motor Speedway. After the aforementioned 2007 reconfiguring, it turned what used to be a one-groove-around-the-bottom track to a bona-fide mini cookie cutter track with progressive banking and multiple grooves to race in from top to bottom. ‘Ol Bruton’s attempt at reconciling this mess was made last summer, as track operators ground the top groove of the track in order to turn the facility back into a one-groove race track. It worked, but instead of the one-groove being around the bottom of the track like the Bristol of old, the groove ironically went to the top of the track. Whether or not you agreed with Smith’s decision to “fix†Bristol, what’s done is done, and Bristol is back to being a one-groove race track, which, quite frankly, it should be. Last year’s summer race (which took place under the “fixed†configuration), saw much of the beating, banging, and wrecking that made Bristol a can’t miss destination in the first place, and there is little reason to believe we won’t see such racing again this weekend. The Gen-6 cars more than likely won’t change the racing much, as short-track racing is only minimally affected by aero changes (which is really the only thing separating the Gen-5 from the Gen-6 cars). Most drivers this week seem to be in agreement that the groove will once again be around the top, and thus there will only be two ways to complete a pass. The very best cars will be the ones who are able to complete a pass on the bottom and slide back into line up top, and this will be the only way to make a pass cleanly assuming the racing hasn’t changed much since August. The other method of passing, of course, will be to use the chrome horn. With passing likely to be at a premium, drivers who are struggling to make the bottom work will be forced to bully their way to the front using the “bump and slide†maneuver that we saw a lot last August (see Denny Hamlin’s race winning pass in that race to see what this looks like). Any time the chrome horn is in play, the caution flag follows suit, so expect many laps to be run under yellow and expect there to be more than a few frayed tempers as drivers get frustrated with the lack of racing room on restarts. *2. Just how much will pit strategy affect the outcome of the race?* Part of the reason why last August’s Bristol race was so unpredictable was because of the constant barrage of differing pit strategies which jumbled the event’s running order. With Bristol being a one-groove track (not to mention the lack of fall off in Goodyear’s tires), a two-tire or no-tire call can gain a team some serious track position, and track position will be incredibly important this week. The right pit call at the right time could very well win you the race. Of course, much of this pit strategy business will be dictated by the flow and frequency of caution-flag occurences in the race. The August race was an absolute caution-bonanza, thus opening the door for teams to go wild with varying strategy calls that created all sorts of mayhem in the running order. If Sunday’s race turns out to feature a lot of wrecks and a lot of cautions, you can fully expect that crew chiefs up and down pit road will be employing all sorts of pit strategies in a desperate attempt to stay up front on restarts. Knowing all of this, expect teams with savvy crew chiefs (think Paul Wolfe, Chad Knaus, or perhaps even Jason Ratcliff) to be the ones dueling for the win on Sunday. *3. Could this be Aric Almirola’s coming out party?* Go take a look at the current top 10 in the standings right now. Notice anything unusual? If you’re answer to that question was “Yes, I noticed Aric Almirola is sitting 10th in points,†you would have answered correctly. The 28-year old Cuban American is quietly off to the finest start of his young NASCAR career, and I actually believe that this could very well be the weekend that he delivers his first career Sprint Cup win. Many of you who just read that last sentence are probably sending pointed e-mails to my editor demanding I be fired after what would seem to be such a shocking statement. This is of course the same Almirola that I personally called out to be fired for lack of performance on this very website last year, no? But if you look at Almirola’s last 10 Sprint Cup races (dating back to last year’s Chase), suddenly he starts to look like a real contender. Over these last 10 races (3 in 2013 and 7 in 2012), Almirola has delivered a top 5, 2 top 10s, battled for the lead multiple times, and has scored the 9th most points of any driver in that time span, all while driving subpar Richard Petty Motorsports equipment. Mr. Almirola is for real, and his quiet but effective start to 2013 is a testament to that. But why, the lingering doubters would ask, could Bristol be the sight of Almirola’s first win? Well, Almirola has traditionally performed best on short tracks. One of Almirola’s aforementioned top 5s came at Martinsville, another short track. Going a bit further back, Almirola scored his first ever top 10 in Sprint Cup back in 2008 at, you guessed it, Bristol. Thus, if Almirola is going to score his first win this year, it’s going to happen at a track shorter than 1 mile, and with how much unpredictability beckons at Bristol, this weekend could be the one in which Almirola finally breaks through. *4. Will we see Gordon v. Bowyer Round III at Bristol?* Remember that little tussle that happened in last year’s Chase race at Phoenix? Remember how Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon have yet to say that either party has “made up†with the other? Keep that in mind on Sunday when you see the 15 and the 24 car near one another, because if there were ever a place for the two drivers to go at it once more, Bristol would be it right? Many followers of the sport set aside the Gordon-Bowyer rivalry two weeks ago after there were no fireworks between the two in Phoenix, the very track where their rivalry came to a boil. But let’s be honest, Phoenix doesn’t necessarily foster the close beating and banging that leads to rekindling of an old conflict. I really can not stress enough the fact that these two drivers still do not like each other. This point was rendered rather clear during the Daytona Media Blitz when both drivers continually dodged and weaseled around questions pertaining to the rivalry. If Gordon and Bowyer happen to be fighting for position late in the race, or God forbid the win, expect to see some contact. And if there is contact…there may not be enough of a police presence in the Smokey Mountains capable of containing the ensuing brawl. *Connect with Matt!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/MStall41\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Matt Stallknecht\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/38642/ Read More »

Four Burning Questions In Las Vegas: Fines, Tires, and \"Quality\" Concerns

Viva Las Vegas, baby. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the site of this week’s Sprint Cup Series race, and as we enter the third week of the grueling Sprint Cup Series season, the field is beginning to take shape, with the haves rising to the top and the have nots slowly beginning their descent to the bottom of the series standings. However, for the third week in a row, the performance and raceability of the Gen-6 car will undoubtedly be the hot topic amongst media types and fans alike, and less than stellar races in Daytona and Phoenix have suddenly given pause to the seemingly boundless optimism that surrounded the new car. Are we in for another parade at Las Vegas? There’s little doubt that's the main question on everyone’s minds as we gear up for the Kobalt Tools 400. *1. Will the Gen-6 finally come alive in the Sin City?* NASCAR was not bashful at the start of this season when touting the raceability of it’s prized Gen-6 race cars. Seemingly every day over the course of the offseason there was a new quote from some NASCAR higher-up singing the new car's praises and raising expectations for the 2013 season to a fever pitch. Well, here we are in Week 3, and so far the cars have failed to deliver as promised. Daytona was a 3.5 hour parade, and Phoenix was only marginally better. Is this the week that we finally get to see the Gen-6 perform like it was supposed to? I’m an optimist so I never rule anything out, but I wouldn’t count on it. Not yet at least. Phoenix painted a very telling picture as to what the drivers and teams are dealing with in the new Gen-6 machines. Many drivers, most notably Denny Hamlin (who angered NASCAR officials with his remarks, more on this later), were quick to point out how hard it was to pass at Phoenix, mostly due to aero sensitivity issues. Brad Keselowski’s comment was perhaps the most telling of them all, as he went on to say that the new car is the “hardest car I’ve ever had to drive in traffic.†Its possible that this was a Phoenix specific issue (it has long been hailed as one of the most difficult tracks to pass on), and that the car may in fact drive differently on the 1.5 mile tracks that the cars were designed for. Indeed, there is one saving grace that could play into NASCAR’s favor here, and that is the draft. That absolutely massive spoiler you see on the back of the new cars is the biggest one NASCAR has used in a very long time, and in addition to all of the extra downforce it creates, it also creates a very sizeable draft effect. Phoenix is too small for that draft to come into a play, but the 1.5 mile high-banked Vegas track may just be big enough for it to work. If the draft effect is sizeable enough, it could theoretically negate whatever aero grip is lost in the corners and allow drivers to race closer than they have in years past (note that this wouldn’t yield pack racing, as the drivers will obviously still be lifting quite a bit in the corners). The draft may be NASCAR’s only hope for good racing at 1.5 milers, and we will find out soon enough if it’s viable enough to finally be the spark the Gen-6 cars need. <div style=\"float:right; width:250px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/14928.jpg\" width=\"250\" height=\"367\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Denny Hamlin incurred the wrath of NASCAR for criticizing the raceablity of the new Gen-6 cars but says he won't pay the $25,000 fine he's been issued.</p></div> *2. Will Denny Hamlin’s penalty affect driver-media relations going forward?* Ridiculous is the only word apt enough to describe this mess. In case you missed it yesterday, NASCAR announced that they were fining Denny Hamlin $25,000 for “disparaging remarks about on-track racing at Phoenixâ€. The specific remark Hamlin uttered that angered NASCAR is supposedly as follows “It (the Gen 6 car) did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars did here.†Hamlin, who is irate over the fine, has vowed not to pay it, and said that NASCAR could suspend him if they wanted to. Yikes. NASCAR is once again going down a dangerous road. They boast about wanting the drivers to show their personalities and speak their minds, yet they fine a driver when he makes even the (admittedly quite accurate) slightest of negative comments about the new car. The simple fact is that nothing Hamlin said was worthy of a fine. He correctly pointed out that it was hard to pass in Phoenix, and that the cars needed more work to become racier. NASCAR’s ultimate message is clearly that they don’t want anyone to say anything negative at all about their new cars. The sad irony of this whole ordeal is that the fine will likely have the opposite effect of the intended one. If anything, the fine just draws more attention to the growing pains of the Gen-6 cars. So where does this leave driver-media relations going forward? Well, frankly, it completely sours them. What driver will want to speak his mind to us media types now that he/she knows NASCAR will drop the hammer on just about any comment that paints the sport in a negative light? With the Hamlin fining now set as a precedent, you can expect even more political correctness and vanilla faux optimism about the new cars than we had before. And trust me, more political correctness is the last thing this sport needs. *3. Will JGR and TRD get their engine woes straightened out?* For those keeping track at home, Toyota Racing Development, who supplies engines for powerhouse teams Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, has already had issues with four of their engines in the first two weeks of the season. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth both had their Daytona 500 hopes dashed by late race engine woes, and last week both Busch and Denny Hamlin were forced to start from the rear at Phoenix because of another rash of engine issues. This is nothing new to anyone who follows the Toyota teams, especially JGR. JGR struggled mightily with mechanical issues all throughout 2012, and engine issues plagued the team even before they switched engine suppliers to TRD. Interestingly enough, Toyota sister team Michael Waltrip Racing has not suffered near as many issues as JGR has with engines, suggesting that this may be a JGR-specific problem in which their engineers are perhaps overtuning the engines past their limit. Whatever the problems are, both JGR and TRD need to get them figured out before this weekend’s race in Las Vegas. The engines will be turning some of their highest RPMs of the season at the fast and unrestricted Vegas track, meaning that engine strain will be heavy. Mechanical issues derailed JGR in 2012, and they can’t afford to have that same fate to befall them once again in 2013. They need to either figure out their problems now, or face another season of wondering what could have been. *4. Will the tires hold up in Vegas?* Last week in Phoenix, for the first time in quite a while in the Sprint Cup Series, tire blowouts were a very real concern. Many teams dealt with tire issues, but none more so than Stewart-Haas Racing as Ryan Newman suffered two right front tire failures while Danica Patrick suffered one that resulted in an accident so vicious that it was covered Monday night on the FOX News show “The Fiveâ€. Drivers blamed overtly hard left side tires as the main culprit, as they created a “balance issue†(as termed by Denny Hamlin; he’s been popular this week hasn’t he?) in which the right side tires were forced to do too much of the work, especially the right front. However, for as much as drivers complained last week about tires, don’t expect to hear quite as many this weekend. Goodyear is reportedly bringing a softer tire this week, and the slightly aged surface of the Vegas track ought give teams more leeway in building their setups in such a manner that blowouts have less of a chance of happening. Drivers may still complain that there isn’t enough falloff, which is a legitimate grievance, but I wouldn’t expect any outright blowouts. We have to remember that the Phoenix track was repaved only a year and a half ago, and brand new surfaces always cause problems for Goodyear. Thus, last week’s tire problems were something of an anomaly, and it probably won’t be something teams have to worry about for this weekend at least. *Connect with Matt!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/MStall41\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Matt Stallknecht\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/38642/ Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Phoenix (Johnson’s Momentum And The First Real Gen-6 Test)

Four Burning Questions: Phoenix (Johnson’s Momentum And The First Real Gen-6 Test)

The stars and cars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head west this weekend as the series descends on Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Round 2 of the Cup season. After an utterly boring Daytona 500, there is hope that the uniquely shaped one mile Phoenix facility will deliver a scintillating race. Of course the biggest story heading into this weekend will be how the still new Gen 6 cars perform in the series' first non-plate race, and needless to say many of the questions surrounding the car's race-ability will come a step closer to being answered after Sunday’s race. Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Will the Gen-6 Cars Live Up To The Hype In The Unlimited?

Four Burning Questions: Will the Gen-6 Cars Live Up To The Hype In The Unlimited?

It seems like just yesterday Brad Keselowski was hoisting the Sprint Cup championship trophy in honor of his grand performance in the 2012 Chase. But alas, it’s been almost three months now since NASCAR last took to the track, and this Saturday night the stars of the sport will make their glorious return to start 2013, competing in the newly rebranded Sprint Unlimited race (formerly known as the Bud Shootout). There will be a mind-boggling array of changes on display in this event, such as (another) new style of drafting, new rules, new jet dryers, and of course the much-ballyhooed Gen-6 race cars. It goes without saying that we have lots to cover this week, so let's get started, shall we? Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Will Brad Seal the Deal in Homestead?

Four Burning Questions: Will Brad Seal the Deal in Homestead?

Well folks, it took 10 months, but we’re finally here. This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its final road trip of the year for the season finale in Homestead-Miami, FL. Jimmie Johnson’s tire failure midway through last Sunday’s race in Phoenix essentially doomed his chances for a title, and Brad Keselowski now sits with a comfortable 20 point advantage heading into the season’s final race. And, word on the street is that there was some sort of altercation late in last week’s race, apparently involving Jeff Gordon? Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Will JJ and Brad K Duel Again in Phoenix?

Four Burning Questions: Will JJ and Brad K Duel Again in Phoenix?

Phoenix International Raceway is the site of the penultimate round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, and with only two races left before we crown a champion, the battle for 1st place in the final standings is white hot. Brad Keslelowski and Jimmie Johnson went toe to toe for 334 laps last week in Texas, culminating in an epic late race battle that saw Johnson emerge victorious. With time running out and tensions rising to an all-time high, can one of the two title contenders strike a final blow to the other’s championship hopes? We answer that and much more in this week’s edition of Four Burning Questions. Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Will the Chasers Light Up the Lonestar State?

Four Burning Questions: Will the Chasers Light Up the Lonestar State?

After one of the best races of the season last week in Martinsville, the Sprint Cup Series heads west to the uber-fast Texas Motor Speedway for Round 8 of the Chase for the Championship. This race will almost certainly not live up to the ludicrous level of hype that race promoter Eddie Gossage insists on building every year for it, but it should be a decent race nonetheless. Jimmie Johnson has a slim 2 point advantage in the Series standings over Brad Keselowski, and the spotlight will be shining bright on these two drivers this weekend as both have impressively managed to distance themselves from the rest of the Chase. Can one of the two championship contenders steal a win in The Lonestar State? That’s just one of many things to watch for in this week’s AAA Texas 500. Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Junior’s Return and Allmendinger’s Second Chance

Four Burning Questions: Junior’s Return and Allmendinger’s Second Chance

It’s surprising to me to think back to last year’s race at Homestead and realize we are already coming up on one year since that race between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. This year has flown by and already so much has happened, including last weekend at Kansas. Now, we head into Martinsville for yet another chapter in what is turning out to be the same exciting battle – albeit it between two different drivers. Read More »

Four Burning Questions: Will Kansas Speedway Shake Up the Chase?

Four Burning Questions: Will Kansas Speedway Shake Up the Chase?

The NASCAR circuit is making it’s second trip of the year to the Kansas Speedway this weekend, and much has changed since they last visited the Sunflower State in April. The track was repaved during the summer months, and new state of the art progressive banking was added as well. The track is now up to 20 degrees in banking and butter smooth, meaning that high speeds and a few tire blowouts will likely be the order of the day. How the Chasers fare during what has been billed as a wildcard round of the Chase leads our list of things to watch heading into this weekend. Read More »