Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Beating Hendrick, Denny’s Return and Racing Without Ratcliff

In what I would consider to be a challenging week for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, these never say die teams will cap it off at the track “Too Tough to Tame” for Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500. Following an exciting, controversial and temper-flared Aaron’s 499, at Talladega Superspeedway, there are sure to be more feisty drivers who will take to this track to not only earn their Darlington stripe but attempt to withstand any challenge thrown in their way to win.

Now, we have to ask which teams and drivers can truly prove that they can withstand the controversy and hurdles both on and off the track to be on top at Darlington? Thinking on that, let’s get into the hurdles that are sure to be on the minds of many fans, drivers and even NASCAR this weekend.

Which team is most likely to challenge Hendrick Motorsports?

The wave of the green flag on Saturday will begin Jeff Gordon’s 700th-career Sprint Cup Series start and with this driver and team’s continued success at this track (Jeff Gordon’s seven wins and Hendrick’s 14 wins) is it possible to stop their winning streak? While it will be a challenge, there are other teams who are figuring out what it takes to win in the new Gen-6. Granted, this will be the first trip to the Lady in Black, but there have been non-Hendrick drivers and teams who have tapped into her charm in the past who can tame this beast.

Could Brad Keselowski be the one to break the Hendrick stronghold on victory lane at Darlington without the help of crew chief Paul Wolfe?

Despite having to overcome recent penalties and fines, Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske Racing Ford team have had past success at Darlington. Yes, wins continue to elude Keselowski and his hard working team this year, but I have a strong feeling that the penalty reduction received this week is just the push that this team needs to overcome the black cloud that has been looming over them since Texas.

Speaking of penalties, another team and driver that I am keeping my fingers crossed for this weekend is the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing machine of Denny Hamlin. Hamlin will jump back into his No. 11 FedEx Toyota full-time, on Saturday night, following a spine injury received at Auto Club Speedway only a short couple of months ago. Hamlin gave Jimmie Johnson a run for his money in the final laps of the 2012 Southern 500. If he is truly able to stay in the race on Saturday, I believe that we may have another David vs. Goliath moment in Darlington. Which brings me to my next burning question:

Can Denny Hamlin go the distance for a top finish?

Denny Hamlin received a pretty serious spine injury less than two months ago and while he has been cleared to compete, I continue to question his decision to return to racing so soon.

For those who were tuned into last Sunday’s race, you witnessed Hamlin’s brief, but successful return to competition. I have to give Hamlin a thumbs up for sticking to the plan and relinquishing the driver’s seat to Brian Vickers after the first caution. Unfortunately, this was short lived due to Vickers being swept into a major crash after only a few laps around the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Fortunately, it wasn’t the already injured Hamlin.

Although he seemed to keep a cool head about it all while in the Hollywood Hotel, it’s likely that Hamlin is continuing to be antsy sitting on the sidelines while watching another driver take the wheel. I can’t help but continue to wonder if it’s worth the risk of a potential Darlington stripe leading to a permanent injury?

Let’s just hope that I am wrong in this matter and that Hamlin can persevere and go the distance for an amazing comeback win.

What can we expect from Matt Kenseth and JGR without Jason Ratcliff?

While the penalties recently received by Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as crew chief, Jason Ratcliff and driver, Matt Kenseth, were reduced this week, Ratcliff will be forced to sit out this weekend.

Matt Kenseth will have to spend this weekend at Darlington without head wrench Jason Ratcliff.

Meanwhile, former Cup Crew Chief, Wally Brown will take over for Ratcliff in Darlington. While Brown has yet to achieve any wins, he has had some success with Kenseth’s former Roush Fenway teammate, Carl Edwards. While working together in 2006, Edwards and Brown scored seven top 5s and 16 top 10s in only 27 races. My biggest concern is that Brown and Kenseth have yet to work together to forge a chemistry that’s critical, especially at a place like the Lady in Black, where Brown has yet to prove himself.

Fortunately, Kenseth’s record has continued to improve while with Joe Gibbs Racing, despite his recent penalties. He has also had luck at Darlington, having won the Diamond Hill Plywood 200 Nationwide Series race in 2009 and starting on the pole for the 2009 Southern 500. Hopefully with some of his past luck at the track “Too Tough To Tame”, Kenseth and Brown can team up for a terrific finish this weekend.

Will fans be tuning in or tuning out the Southern 500?

Despite an incredible finish to last Sunday’s Aaron 499 Sprint Cup race, the overnight television ratings continued to decline. Even with the rain pushing the final laps into the primetime hour, Fox received the lowest overnight ratings since it began televising this race in 2001. Down six percent from last year and four percent from 2011, this race even trailed an NBA playoff game as well as largely trailing the Kentucky Derby.

While I will be one of the first to admit that there have been a few races that have had me napping on the couch, last weekend’s Cup race wasn’t one of them (excluding the long rain delay). If we can continue to see competition as well as finishes like what was seen at Talladega it is worth tuning in and I strongly believe that the Bojangles’ Southern 500 will be one of these races. I just hope that other fans will agree with me?

Just remember folks, if we don’t tune in why will the networks want to continue to pay the expensive price to televise these events? I am advising that you at least DVR this race because you could be missing a momentous moment in history!

Contact Ellen Richardson

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