Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder SPECIAL EDITION: 2011 Too Tough to Tame 200 at Darlington

ONE: Old-School Track Exposes New-Fangled Rules Flaws

For no other feasible reason than to ensure that a doubleheader of 125-mile Truck and ARCA races at Pocono could fit into a compressed window for the SPEED channel or doubting the attention span of the average hardcore race fan that actually watches qualifying is capable of handling only one truck being on track at a time on the tricky triangle, NASCAR decided last year to compress qualifying for the trucks, having more than one on track at a given time.

Try and sell one of those rationales to Parker Kligerman. A go-or-go-homer for Saturday’s 200-miler at Darlington (March 12), Kligerman had already warmed up his tires on the track’s gritty race surface and was preparing to come to the green flag when Brad Sweet, on the clock for his own qualifying attempt, spun coming off of turn 4.

Though Sweet hit nothing and was nowhere near Kligerman’s machine when he spun, the damage was done; the driver of the No. 29 was forced to abort his run, report to pit road, and wait to make his go-or-go-home attempt until the rest of the field qualified in order… on tires that would have to be reheated.

Fortunately for the No. 29 team, the truck was strong enough to make the field anyway (Kligerman timed in 18th). But that didn’t stop the driver from radioing to his crew that he was “pissed off” about the whole situation. “That’s why the go-or-go-homes should go out by themselves” he curtly told his team.

It’s really hard to argue with him. Even after the repave, being forced to qualify on Darlington’s legendary race surface on reheated tires that will get covered in sand and debris even on a pace lap is a dramatic disadvantage. In this case, it only resulted in a truck that was seventh in final practice qualifying near the back of the top 20. But imagine if this had been a smaller-budget team, teetering on the edge of qualifying or heading home early. No team or driver should have their starting spot even influenced by the error of another.

Especially at the start of this season, where jam-packed fields are sending even full-time entries home, with or without competitors spinning on time-trial runs.

TWO: Same Story, Different Rule: The Points

The major exigency that led to NASCAR’s much bally-hooed change to force drivers to declare a championship to pursue on the race track was far off in the Nationwide Series, after Sprint Cup regulars scored five consecutive minor-league championships in dominating fashion much as a schoolyard bully steals lunch money from a second grader and laughs about it later.

The predominant concern (besides the fact that the “simplicity” of the new points system did not shine through when Brian France stumbled through explaining it like a drunk driver screwing up the alphabet on the side of the road) was that in allowing Cup regulars to still run unlimited Nationwide races and to accrue those trophies and purse money, the value of the series title could find itself tarnished, with a driver winning around one race with a dozen top 10s being a near non-factor most weekends and still winning a national touring title.

As expected, that reality is playing out over in AAA. But shockingly, it’s also playing out in the Truck Series despite a lower number of Cup interlopers. With Kasey Kahne‘s overpowering win in Darlington on Saturday night, non-Truck regulars have won the first three races of the 2011 season. That’s never happened in the history of the series. Matt Crafton leaves South Carolina with the points lead (as he should, being the only driver in the Trucks to score three top-10 finishes to start the year) but Timothy Peters meanwhile is top three in points on the strength of one top-10 finish, ahead of eight series regulars with more top-five or top-10 finishes.

Sure, the math to these points may be simpler and maybe a complete unfamiliarity with these point sums (a seventh-place finish is worth 146 points dammit) is playing tricks. But the eventual series champion in both the Nationwide and Truck series has not yet won a race and we’re a month into NASCAR season.

Try explaining that to the casual fan. Even with simple arithmetic.

THREE: ARCA Veterans Take a Licking at the Lady’s Hands

Few that witnessed it will forget the day that Darlington Raceway thrust 1995 ARCA Racing Series champion Andy Hillenburg into the spotlight of the then Nextel Cup Series back in 2004; running a vastly underfunded car dramatically off pace for Hover Motorsports, Hillenburg was tagged from behind by an impatient Tony Stewart, collecting four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon in an early wreck that left NASCAR’s field-fillers of the 2004 season basking in attention no racer ever wants.

Seven years later, this Lady still apparently has a bone with the products of the ARCA Racing Series. Just run down the list of recent ARCA transplants that endured hard-luck days at Darlington; Chase Mattioli cuts a tire on lap 89 and slams the wall, finishing 34th; Joey Coulter gets collected in the wake of trucks trying to avoid a wounded Nelson Piquet Jr. on lap 75 and limps home 28th; Justin Marks is a non-factor while teammate Cole Whitt won the pole and finished in the top 10, two laps down in 24th when the checkers flew; much the same story for TJ Bell, one lap down in 22nd.

Even those that cracked the top 20 had little to celebrate. Craig Goess ran as high as ninth inside of 20 laps to go, but fell all the way to 19th by race’s end, a disappointing end to an already sour day for Eddie Sharp Racing (ARCA regular Chad McCumbee DNQ’d the team’s start-and-park No. 45 entry earlier in the afternoon). Kligerman finished 14th, but had struggles in qualifying (see point one). Only Justin Lofton, finishing 13th, had the closest thing to an uneventful race (and he still got hit on pit road by Norm Benning).

There’s no profound revelation to be had here about the ARCA veterans as a group; Saturday just wasn’t too kind to them. Some “lady” in black she was.

FOUR: Red Bull’s Development Finally Got One Right

AJ Allmendinger has proven to be a capable Cup driver, but was thrust in the unenviable position of learning stock cars at the Cup level for an upstart race team with the support of a new manufacturer. As a result, the ‘Dinger went an ugly 44 for 66 just qualifying for Cup races in a two-year stint with Red Bull Racing before his release.

Scott Speed came within one race of winning the 2008 ARCA Racing Series title, but the jump from ARCA to Cup proved to be way too much; Speed scored only three top-10 finishes in a two-year stint with Red Bull Racing before his release.

Apparently, Red Bull’s driver development plan has finally taken a realistic approach. Whitt, the team’s former K&N East Series driver, has been promoted to a full season of Truck racing, with Cup not even being remotely discussed. One can only hope his development plan is handled competently, because Whitt looks every bit the real deal.

Winning the pole at Darlington in his first visit to the track was impressive enough. Leading the first 27 laps with Kahne draped on his bumper like a cheap suit was even more so. But it was Whitt’s performance the final 50 laps that showed everyone in the stands and the pits something this Saturday. Dropping back to 26th in the running order courtesy of a plug wire that came loose under the hood, Whitt proved methodical and adept to picking up the give-and-take of Darlington’s in-traffic racing, running a clean charge through the field to an eighth-place finish, his second consecutive top-10 result.

Whitt’s currently second in points behind longtime veteran Crafton. Regardless of the points system, this kid may be staying there. Red Bull’s future star is in the wings. Here’s hoping they don’t screw this one up.

FIVE: The Lady Is…On Her Way Back

Todd Bodine and the No. 30 team couldn’t stop using the phrase “we’re back” after shaking off a disastrous start to their 2010 title defense with a near-win and third place result on Saturday. And while the phrase was largely directed to the No. 30 race team, the comment was also pointed towards the Darlington Raceway, who now several years off a repave is starting to show her old face again.

Ricky Carmichael was adamant over the radio during practice that he wanted his team to put extra tear-offs on the windshield to counter the track’s vicious sandblasting. Elliott Sadler asked his crew during the event to lobby NASCAR to allow an extra man over the wall for windshield service. Tires did prove to be a dramatic advantage; using pit strategy that left an extra set of stickers in their pits late, Peters charged from 18th to sixth in the final 27 laps of competition.

And of course the ever-present bump in turn 1 entry threw every truck, well-handling or struggling, anywhere it pleased. The old girl was definitely showing more than just an old-school red and white paint job on her retaining walls this Saturday night.

It’s not back to the way it was; the old Darlington would have never entertained two-tire pit stops (employed by both Sadler and Whitt’s crews over the course of the event). When Peters can go from 18th to first in those final 27 laps, she’ll be back.

That said, she was still Darlington this Saturday night. Nothing more needs to be said. Is it the first weekend in May yet?

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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