Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Underdog Encores for Brian & Kenny? & Why Bristol Holds the Key to 2011

ONE: Will Brian Keselowski Make Another Cup Race?

This sport has a way of humbling even its greatest stories in a big-time hurry. While Trevor Bayne made headlines in Phoenix by wrecking in Cup practice, suffering a hard crash in Nationwide competition courtesy of a blown tire and then wrecking his Cup car early on Sunday (Feb. 27) the week after winning the Daytona 500, Speedweeks’ other big story was nowhere to be seen… except on the trailer headed home.

Brian Keselowski, the Cinderella story of the Gatorade Duels, was the slowest of 44 cars; the lone man to DNQ repeated the feat a week later in Las Vegas, turning a promising rookie start into an ugly dose of underdog reality on the Cup circuit.

Heading into Bristol, that same scenario appears all too likely to play out for Keselowski. 44 cars are on the entry list, with the same cast of drivers that has bested the driver of the No. 92 the past two races. The lone exception sits inside FAS Lane’s No. 32 Ford, which has enlisted the services of short-track veteran Ken Schrader this week. But in 60 starts across NASCAR’s top-three series at Bristol, the Midwestern veteran has never failed to qualify; don’t expect that pattern to change now.

So, if history means anything, that spells disaster for the elder Keselowski this weekend. In his six career Cup attempts, he’s now been the slowest car to take time in all but one of them. How can he buck the trend? A little help from the competition; Bristol does tend to produce a wreck or two during time trials and that may be the best hope for K-Automotive trying to break back into the Cup field. Should he do it, anything is possible at a track where attrition can often mean top-20 finishes for even the slowest qualifiers.

Unfortunately, without the convoluted Daytona 500 qualifying procedures, being able to race competitively in a points event isn’t going to matter for the No. 92 until next February. Two laps at high speeds are all that are going to matter this weekend and all the weekends to come… meaning that those first-generation Evernham Motorsports cars are going to be like a knife at a gunfight, every time.

Even at the series’ smallest speedways.

TWO: What Kenny Wallace’s Fan Car Really Means

One of the sport’s more popular drivers, Kenny Wallace made off-track headlines at Montreal back in 2009. With sponsor U.S. Border Patrol unable to sponsor his entry on foreign soil, the veteran raised $100,000 from fan contributions to race on the road course. Now, the No. 09 RAB Racing team is bringing the program back for October’s Nationwide Series race at Charlotte. And, from what the press releases say, it’s “by popular demand.”

Convenient, but the chances that popular demand is the whole story here are about as good as HP Racing’s No. 66 car running a race the full distance. Financially, Wallace has done an admirable job over the past two seasons, both with Jay Robinson Racing and now with RAB of piecing together a patchquilt of sponsorships to keep racing. However, doing that 35 times a year is a daunting task which hasn’t gotten any easier in NASCAR’s current economic environment.

RAB’s No. 09 team is no stranger to that struggle, either; ever since losing John Wes Townley and his Zaxby’s money at the end of 2009, the organization has been conducting the same race-by-race sponsorship search that Wallace has. Kenny’s not a bad driver, RAB’s not a bad team, but they’ve both still come up short of securing the stable funding needed to make full-time Nationwide competition happen.

Let’s not forget that when Wallace announced the program for his first fan car back in 2009, he termed it a one-time effort. And now we’re at two?

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Wallace, an impressive eighth in points despite his meager financing pursuing this strategy. In the midst of solid results, it’s a great story to see a driver with a fanbase that’s literally willing to put its money where its mouth is to see their driver race. But just as this promotion is one that will have both Wallace and thousands of his fans very happy come Charlotte race weekend in October, there is an economic reality to this story as well.

When drivers from the surprising Wallace in Nationwide, to Bayne’s part-time Cup effort, to defending champion Todd Bodine over in the Truck ranks can’t find sponsorship, we have a problem. Bodine’s issues are the most glaring; he hasn’t even sold half of the season’s races on his quarterpanels. It just goes to show that despite ratings and attendance turning the corner, an ugly elephant remains left in the room; the depth of the hole the marketing side of this sport finds itself in looks daunting as ever.

THREE: A Short Field at Bristol? Not Gonna Happen… But Not a Great Sign, Either

Seeing a short field at Phoenix for the first time since 2008 in the Nationwide ranks probably wasn’t surprising, given that it was part of a two-week trek out west and only the second week into a season where teams were transitioning to newly built racecars. Scene Daily reported that NASCAR attributed the short field to expected challenges for smaller budget teams as well as the race at PIR being a long trip out west.

Both of those excuses ring hollow this week, a return to racing also proving a benchmark for the health of the Nationwide Series. Over a month into the season and coming off a bye weekend, preparation time is substantially increased, be it for a part-time operation targeting the short tracks or a full-time team regrouping after the western swing. And Bristol, Tenn. may be a drive, but we’re talking a few hundred miles, not a few thousand.

Yet with only 42 cars as of Monday night slated to make an attempt, a Bristol Nationwide race is facing a short field for the first time since 1996. Coming off a 22% ratings increase at Las Vegas, it’s not exactly the follow-up number the sanctioning body would like to see for its number two division now in perpetual entry list crisis.

This week, though, I expect we’ll see this number rise. For a marquee event in close geographic proximity to Charlotte, you’d have to like the odds of a few late entries popping up. Besides, considering the TV bonus money that officially doesn’t exist but definitely does for full fields, the lack of a West Coast rationale for the shortage of cars will have a certain sanctioning body whispering in a lot of owners’ ears to roll out some backup cars.

And then there were 43 on Saturday. But considering those extra entries will be little more than glorified start-and-parks, the negative trend here is one that can’t be ignored any longer.

FOUR: Bristol a Pivotal Weekend for Junior and the Team That Bears His Name

With back-to-back top-10 finishes pushing them right into the top 10 in points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team have momentum on their side for the first time since, well, ever. Now, Earnhardt is fortunate to have the Bristol bullring next on the horizon to keep confidence high.

A previous race winner at the facility, he has run well at the bullring even during his recent struggles at Hendrick Motorsports, a historical trend that needs to continue this weekend more than ever. Being able to channel the momentum over an off weekend will speak volumes as to just how real this hot streak is and just how excited Junior Nation should be.

Even more so, though, Bristol comes as a pivotal weekend for his Nationwide Series operation. For Aric Almirola, seventh in Nationwide points after three races the time is now for JR Motorsports’ lone title hopeful to make himself relevant in the field. Driving for a No. 88 team that has also won at Bristol before, it’s primetime for Almirola to pull another stellar run out of nowhere and assert himself as a true championship contender.

Taking a big step forward is something he’s done at this track before; in 2007, matter of fact scoring a top-10 run while sharing DEI’s No. 8 car with Mark Martin. And as for Danica Patrick, who’s actually resembled a stock car driver at least on the score sheets thus far through 2011, Bristol will, fairly or not, define just how far she’s come. A track where driver means more than car, one where there is no way to get out of the way is a challenge she has not faced yet during her brief NASCAR tenure to date. Plus, let’s not forget that one year ago Dover, or “Bristol on steroids,” was possibly her worst performance of 2010.

With that in mind, a top-15 run for Patrick here would be huge… and possibly even more historically significant than her fourth-place run at Vegas was. Because, short of Darlington, there aren’t many tougher tracks out there on the Nationwide circuit.

FIVE: How Goes Bristol Goes This Season

Despite shorter fields, lack of sponsorship and the usual asinine management off the track, stock car racing has enjoyed a surprisingly positive start to 2011. More people are coming to the track, more are watching on TV and the racing hasn’t been bad to boot. But thanks to said asinine management throwing an off weekend in a mere three weeks into the season, whether that wave of momentum was real or simply a Bayne-induced sugar rush is a question that will be answered this weekend.

That means to keep that uphill climb going, Bristol needs to deliver as it usually has before. Close racing, beating and banging, bent-up sheetmetal and at least one feud that will simmer until the trip to Fontana are all “must haves” on Sunday. Oh, and returning to sell out status wouldn’t hurt, either.

Here’s the good thing: if either one of those two happen, it’s time to buckle up, folks. 2011 may be the season everyone’s been waiting for.

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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