*Did You Notice?…* A focus on everything but the drivers at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing? As we spoke about “in Mirror Driving today,”:https://frontstretch.com/md/42022/ EGR is switching to Hendrick engines next season, moving away from an internal program combined with Childress in an effort to improve on-track performance. That follows a total housecleaning, at the end of 2011 where just about everyone important _behind the scenes_ got a Pink Slip lump of coal from Target Santa. Among those who got the axe: Competition Director Steve Hmiel, Team Manager Tony Glover and Lead Engineer Ed Nathman. Considering Hmiel and Glover were at the top of the charts in the ‘90s, with Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin, respectively; they had dozens of Cup Series victories, Daytona 500 triumphs and pole positions earned in a combined six-plus decades of NASCAR service.
20 points down in the title Chase, entering Sunday Martinsville for Denny Hamlin was pivotal. At a place where he’d won four times, more than at any Cup track on the schedule, a fifth would put him back in the throes of title contention. With rival Jimmie Johnson just as successful, the race was a clear case of make-or-break.
So Hamlin heaved a deep breath, took the green and followed the path of so many Joe Gibbs Chase contenders before him.
There’s just something about Martinsville. NASCAR’s oldest track, on the schedule since 1949, has a certain ambiance that is missing at the high-banked, high-dollar speedways that take up the lion’s share of the schedule. The little track, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, seems to have been passed over by the sands of time.
But there is another reason why the drivers want to win at the little paperclip-shaped oval in the hills, and it’s not just bragging rights. It’s the trophy.
Since 1964, the speedway has handed out what is perhaps the most unique prize in motorsports, a grandfather clock, manufactured locally by Ridgeway Clocks. It’s worth a cool ten grand, but that’s not why the drivers want it. It’s different, a symbol of conquering what is still one of the hardest tracks in all NASCAR to master.
*Did You Notice?…* Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is coming back with no real incentive to do so? Yes, you can tell me all you want about how Earnhardt loves to race, there’s still four chances to win and an outside shot to sneak back inside the top 10 in points, an improvement that would give the driver a little extra TV time at the Las Vegas Championship banquet. At heart, these men are racers, the passion for their craft pushing them to get back in the driver’s seat as quickly as possible. But outside of Martinsville, the No. 88 hasn’t exactly had the history as of late to suggest wins will come at Texas, Phoenix, or Homestead. Momentum for 2013 is a moot point, both in setup notes and at-track finishes as a new car will wipe the slate clean come Daytona. And while Earnhardt could assist teammate Jimmie Johnson with setup information, their relationship being better than Johnson and Regan Smith’s, it’s arguable that Smith was producing better results, driving quickly into the top 10 at Charlotte before blowing the engine and slotting in seventh at Kansas, the team’s best all-around performance since Michigan in August.
On Tuesday, NASCAR revealed multiple changes to the sport that will affect both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series when they take effect come 2013. Most prominently, the sanctioning body announced the abolition of the top-35 rule for qualifying and new testing procedures.
Let’s waste no time and take a closer look at all three changes, one by one.
Most notable is the Sprint Cup Series’ new qualifying format. Well… new-ish. Actually, come to think of it, it’s not very new at all. Recycled is the better term.
*10.* I’ve got teammates! I’ve got teammates! I’ve got teammates!
*9.* Ah, it’s probably just another telemarketer..
*8.* Hey, this Amp stuff is pretty good! I feel like I could run laps around the shop! I feel like I could run laps around Jimmie and Chad! Wheeeeee!
Joey Logano proved once again that the Nationwide series is his world and the rest of the Nationwide drivers are just squirrels trying to get a nut. Logano led a race high six times for 62 laps. Logano beat Kevin Harvick to the line for the win. Elliott Sadler, the series point leader came home in third. Kyle Busch drove the No. 54 to a fourth place finish with Denny Hamlin finishing up the top 5.
Logano has not run all of the races on the Nationwide schedule this season but, when he has climbed behind the wheel in the junior series, he’s won almost half of the races. This victory is number eight for the year for Logano in Nationwide competition, far and away the most in the series. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is second in season wins with five while Sadler has four. The race was slowed by five cautions, four of them for on track incidents. There were nine leaders who participated in a total of 21 lead changes. Sadler played it conservatively because he is the leader in the point battle, and in the end added to his point lead by not opening himself up to potential pit road pitfalls.
In light of Dale Jr.’s shocking announcement yesterday, there are a few observations and/or questions that I’d like to throw out there.
As I read through the “transcript”:http://www.jayski.com/news/teams/story/_/page/88-Hendrick-NASCAR-Team-News of the news conference, the first thing that caught my eye were a few statements that seemed a bit off. Well duh, you say, the man has a concussion! Yeah, that’s very funny and all, but here is what struck me as strange.
The point of this column each week is to separate the winners and the losers after each race. It is to point out those who are trending up and those who are sliding back. After Sunday’s race at Talladega, it was hard to find many winners.
Ten of the 12 Chase drivers were involved in the chaos that ensued on the last lap, and every driver besides Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle lost ground on leader Brad Keselowski. The race that was supposed to tighten up the championship battle instead just knocked worthy drivers such as Clint Bowyer further out of contention.
*Key Moment* – Matt Kenseth entered Turn 3 of the last lap a sitting duck – even though he was leading the race. Seconds later, he exited Turn 4 the only car still standing in a 500-mile event that could have easily been run as a 1-lap Demolition Derby.
*In a Nutshell* – A spectacular, heart-stopping final 20 minutes of side-by-side drama turned into an eyesore of an ending. Drivers left angry, owners lost millions, officials are lucky no one was killed, and the sport wound up with a virtual punch in the face.
Look at the headlines this week, and you might think they tell the story of the early weeks of this year’s Chase. First Brad Keselowski and then Denny Hamlin grabbed attention for their winning efforts at Chicago and New Hampshire, respectively, and each was touted as the title favorite after the victory. And then, of course, there’s Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Chase champion who is the overwhelming favorite to win this weekend at Dover and who also happens to have the points lead.
And then there are the drivers on the opposite end of the spectrum: Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick…and the speculation about what has gone wrong, why they’re done and why they think they’re not. Throw in a couple of props to the Michael Waltrip Racing team and how they’ve flown in under the radar and are poised to make the team one of NASCAR’s elite. That about sums it up, right?
Hearing the news of Kurt Busch’s arrival at Furniture Row Racing next season might cause one to recall the path that the team has traveled to get to 2013 — from Jerry Robertson to a former Cup champ. But, aside from the fanfare of a superstar driver’s big announcement, it also elicits a worthwhile question: what happens to Regan Smith?
Smith, who’s been within the NASCAR ranks since 2002, came to Furniture Row, a Denver, Colo.-based, single-car organization, in 2009, when the team was running on a part-time basis after failing to qualify for multiple races from 2006-2008. After switching back to full-time status in 2010, Smith and the No. 78 team scored a popular victory in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington. Just this past off-season, Smith moved to Colorado to be closer to the rest of the organization, expecting his future to lie with the Denver-based race team.