Debating Bristol, a regular season champion, and Cup dates in Montreal or Iowa
NASCAR north of the border. (ASP, Inc.)
Since starting the Backseat Drivers Fan Council last season, there have been some questions that members were nearly split on but perhaps not as close as one of the questions in this week’s survey. And another question, which had three possible answers, was nearly as close in the final results.
Members said they had some tough choices on some issues. Check out how they answered them:
Iowa or Montreal? Fan Council members were asked if they could choose adding a Cup race at either Iowa or Montreal, which track would they select:
50.3 percent chose Montreal
49.7 percent chose Iowa
What Fan Council members said:
• This was tough since I love road course racing but the calendar lacks short tracks and I haven’t watched a boring Iowa race yet.
• After seeing the last Cup race at Watkins Glen and the Nationwide race at Montreal, Montreal needs to be on the schedule and possibly even a Chase race … mix up the Chase with some different tracks other than the cookie cutters that some guys are always good at. Give the boys a challenge!!
• Iowa, hands down. The NNS races that have been there have been outstanding. Can you imagine how much better it will be with all the Cup drivers?
• Montreal, for numerous reasons: 1. Brings Sprint Cup into Canadian market. 2. The racing is phenomenal there! 3. The Chase needs a road course!
• I attended the very first Nationwide race at Iowa. It's a fantastic track with great racing. It's a great place for those of us in the true Midwest whose only other track is Kansas. Would love to see Iowa get a Cup race some day.
• Let's make NASCAR Sprint Cup a bit more international ... even if it's only baby steps. I also think you will have a larger crowd in Montreal than in Iowa.
• NASCAR is a USA origination — let’s not put it in another country. Enough stuff has been sent to other countries, keep the money and jobs in the USA!
• This was a really tough decision as I think either race would be great. My love of Canada won me over. I also think Canada is starved for NASCAR (if my Twitter followers are any indication!) and adding a Cup race there would bring in tons of fans.
• While the racing at Montreal and the road courses is excellent, it has gotten to the point where the races are almost as random as a restrictor-plate race. NASCAR is in desperate need of more short tracks, so Iowa is a much better choice.
• Tough one because I live a half hour from the Iowa Speedway, but I honestly think NASCAR needs a road course in the Chase before Iowa needs a Sprint Cup race.
• Iowa has been a great venue for the Trucks and Nationwide. As I learned last week, (Iowa) has the most race tracks of any state! And the fans have packed the place. Time to reward the loyal fans in the seats, not behind the TVs.
• The sport needs more road courses!! I'd love it if NASCAR could move away from the oval image it has had for YEARS. Montreal would be PERFECT. The race fans are very excited every time the Nationwide Series comes, there's a great crowd, and it's a great market that is unserved. Plus Montreal produces great racing. It works out on both sides for sure.
Racing in NASCAR's Colosseum. (ASP, Inc.)
What will happen this weekend at Bristol? This week marks the Cup Series’ first visit since changes were made to Bristol to narrow the groove and create closer racing. Fan Council members were asked what kind of impact the track change would have in Saturday night’s race:
39.7 percent said the change will work and provide great, tight racing 30.1 percent said the change will have a minimal impact 30.1 percent said the change will ruin the racing and turn it into a crashfest
What Fan Council members said:
• Some say that side-by-side racing at Bristol is “real racing.” However, what made Bristol more appealing than other tracks were the tempers and contact not many others offered. While the three-wide racing at Bristol might have been good, it wasn't what made Bristol great. It was like Bristol became a mini 1.5-mile track. These changes will hopefully make the half-mile race like a half-mile again.
• As a Bristol resident and longtime season ticket holder, I am praying the track changes bring back the intensity of the old Bristol. That doesn't mean I want huge wrecks, but rather the beating and banging that made Bristol so unique and exciting in the past.
• Bumping and beating is the polite way of saying "lots of crashes.” I'm not excited about that, but I do love it when they race close to each other. I hope the racing is good and that they can pass and move around without just slamming into one another the whole race.
• I don't think it'll turn it back to the “old” Bristol, but there may be more tight racing and side-by-side racing. I liked the racing the “new” Bristol provided and will be disappointed if it's a wreckfest. That isn't racing.
• Since I am going to the race and it's a bucketlist item for me, I want bumping and beating and an exciting race with my favorite driver as the winner!
• I'm not expecting much. All this talk about it makes me think we are all going to be very disappointed in the race.
• The concept that Bristol “had to change” was disheartening to anyone who loves racing for the sake of racing. I guess the folks who like wreckin’ more than racin’ won.
• If there's not helmet throwing, I'm never watching a race at Bristol again.
• The Chase has ruined Bristol. Because of the proximity to the Chase cut-off, drivers are hesitant of attacking because they might get wrecked. The back markers are afraid to challenge contenders as they don't want to be the one that causes a top driver to miss the Chase.
• The laws of unintended circumstances will reign supreme and spoil everyone's expectations.
What should the points leader after Richmond receive for winning the regular season title?
35.5 percent said ensure that they start atop the reset point standings
26.4 percent said “other”
23.4 percent said nothing, they’re in the Chase and that’s enough
7.7 percent said pay them at least $1 million
7.0 percent said give them a trophy
What Fan Council members said:
• I always thought that the person leading the points at the end of the regular season should be first in points when the Chase starts. I know that we wanted wins to matter, but the person in first when it starts should stay there.
• The winners of the regular season in other sports get home field advantage. Maybe give the leader the first pit stall choice for the Chase or something along those lines.
• What does an NFL team get for winning there division? A hat and shirt (that) says “AFC South Champions.” The New York Giants barely made the playoffs last year and won the Super Bowl. Do we remember where the Packers finished? And they had the best regular season record! Or who barely made the Chase and went on to win five out of 10 races and won the title. Oh that's right Tony Stewart ... we only race/play to win the TITLE!!!!
• Race wins need to be rewarded, so guaranteeing the regular season winner the Chase lead, despite possibly having no or only one win, doesn't work. However, having no reward for the points leader is ridiculous. The points leader deserves about a five-point bonus — enough to matter but not enough to disqualify meaning for winning races.
• Drivers get three points per win in the first 26 in the seeding, I would give the points leader three points as well.
• The Chase has rendered this position completely, utterly and totally meaningless. Why recognize something of no significance whatsoever?
• I'd like to see them at least get to stay at the top of the standings and receive a trophy. I don't think any of those drivers needs another million bucks.
Grade Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan
62.3 percent called it Good 30.6 percent called it Great 6.1 percent called it Fair 1.0 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• A lot of drama made this one of the best 2-mile races in the last few years. The blown engines, racing for the lead and conflict between the 88 (who did outstanding in a backup car) and 24 made the race very entertaining.
• The racing at MIS was actually good enough to change my dad's mind about going there. He's always been in the camp that the racing wasn't good enough to warrant going, but he said it was exciting enough to make him want to go to the track for a race. We were both born in Michigan, but live in Florida. It’s on my bucketlist is to go to every track on the NASCAR schedule before I die, so I want to get to a MIS race sometime in the future.
• Strategy (both fuel and track), lead changes, unforeseen mechanical issues, not knowing who was going to win until the checkers fell — all of which makes a great race.
• One of the best races Michigan has ever had. The repave worked well!
• Wow, a race I can rate as “great!” No phantom cautions, no red flags not thrown when they should have been, no long stretches of boredom! Plenty of good, side-by-side action. Other than my favorite driver losing so many laps because of a broken valve spring, I can't think of much to complain about. So happy for Greg Biffle, in my opinion he's one of the most underrated drivers out there.
• Kudos to Goodyear for bringing back a better tire that made for great racing!!
• Although the racing action wasn't that great, the real suspense was wondering which Hendrick engine would have an issue.
• Michigan is typically boring, and the only reason that I give it a “fair” was Mark Martin's odd crash and the last three laps. How does Michigan have two races? Who cares that it is close to Detroit? Detroit is not a big deal anymore.
• I was at MIS. The crowd was up and there was a buzz at the track I haven't seen since the early 2000s. I think the Dale Jr. factor was in place since he won in June. It was one of the best races I've seen at MIS and the track is top notch. Roger Curtis and the MIS gang deserves a high five. GREAT WEEKEND.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane on Sunday. (ASP, Inc.)
Four years and 143 races. That’s how long it had been since NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had won a Sprint Cup Series race.
In that time, the sport’s favorite son went from wildly popular to wildly questioned. The theories from fans and talking heads alike grew in relation to his winless skid: Would Earnhardt ever be a championship contender again? Heck, was he even capable of engineering a race win? Was he all “show” and no “go?” Had the surname simply carried him this far, to a cushy ride at stock-car behemoth Hendrick Motorsports? Was he the Anna Kournikova of NASCAR, or a great athlete slumping beneath the pressures of his singular situation?
The answers, of course, are as elusively undetermined as the questions are radically rash and, often, unfair, borne out of ignorance of the sport, the driver and/or the circumstances that have shaped his career. But that comes with the territory when a legion of fans — residing within the sport and in the hazy midst of casual onlookers that value sticks ’n’ balls over gears ’n’ lugs — expect, then simply yearn, for results. Big-time results. Race-winning results. Results that are assumed when interest resides at a fever-pitch.
All that said, Earnhardt’s 2012 season has been more successful than most in the Sprint Cup ranks. A series-best 11 top 10s in the season’s first 14 races — including two runner-up and two third-place showings — found him second in the point standings. He and crew chief Steve Letarte have been on the brink of a return to Victory Lane, but until the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, it had eluded them.
On Sunday, that consistency was trumped by dominance, as Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps en route to a nearly 4.5-second win over Tony Stewart.
It was a performance that harkened back to his six-win season in 2004.
“I feel like we are getting stronger,” Earnhardt said of his team’s performance. “One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little — even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive — I was a little disheartened that I didn’t progress through the year. I didn’t find more speed as the year went on.
“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that’s been a thrill for me.”
His No. 88 team certainly did not disappoint on Sunday. With a repaved racetrack, record speeds and new tires flown in to curtail blistering, the event had the feel of a perfect storm —a perfect storm of uncertainty, that is.
But while other drivers came and went — Stewart, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all spent time atop the pylon — Earnhardt’s crew took one big setup-adjustment swing in the early stages of the race and left the driver to do the rest. It worked, as Earnhardt ascended to the point on lap 70 and remained there for 95 of the remaining 130 circuits.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane in 2008. (ASP, Inc.)
Now, with the long-awaited win behind him, the questions will shift to whether Earnhardt can maintain his winning ways. After all, following his last win in 2008 (which, ironically, came at Michigan International Speedway) his season slowly sputtered, from sitting as high as second in the championship standings to ultimately finishing a distant 12th.
“You know, I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously, and we’ll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond.
“But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top 10 at that place. We have a lot to accomplish this year.”
How much the team accomplishes in the season’s 21 remaining events may well go a long way in answering questions, both fair and frivolous alike, about the driver.
There was no fuel mileage or weather-related strategy involved in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — only pure, unadulterated horsepower. And Kyle Busch had the most of it, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checker restart to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2011, and in the process, take the lead in the championship standings.
Of course, the first order of business for Busch was disposing of Johnson, whose ascension to the top of the pylon was a fortuitous one. He was the first driver to make his regularly scheduled pit stop under green flag conditions with 32 laps remaining. As he exited his stall, the yellow flag was displayed, and when the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road under caution, Johnson assumed the lead.
He held that position — followed by Busch — after the green waved until a hard-charging Busch passed the five-time champion with 18 laps remaining. Busch drove away from there, but was drawn back to the field when his brother, Kurt, blew a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall with four laps to go.
Under the ensuing caution, the top 8, including Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, stayed on the track while a number of cars — led by eighth-place Ryan Newman — hit pit road for tires.
No amount of new tires, yellow flags or green-white-checker restarts would stop Busch, though. He dusted Johnson at the line when the green waved and walked away for a .568-second victory.
“I saw the 2 (Keselowski) was going to restart on the inside,” Busch said of the final restart. “I didn't know whether he was going to push the 48 (Johnson) or try to make it three-wide. I figured I'd just give myself the best opportunity to win, and that was just to run the topside, keep my momentum rolling up through Turns 1 and 2.
“When we got down in there (Turn 1), we were side-by-side a little bit. Jimmie had to pinch his car a little bit too much being the inside guy. Whether you get tight or loose, it's going to be hard to hold yourself off that outside guy. I figured I'd just give myself all the room that I needed to my outside in case I needed to run as high I could. There wasn't much debate from my side.”
With the win, Busch became the first driver to clinch a Chase berth and now leads the series with four wins this year.
“I feel like it's anybody's game right now still,” Busch said of the championship. “Although the 99 (Carl Edwards) had problems today, they can still come back. (The) 48 is going to be tough; 29 (Kevin Harvick) is going to be good. Hopefully, we can get our teammate in there with the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and he'll be good, too.”
Edwards and Hamlin — two drivers that had experienced a plethora of success at Michigan over the last few years — were both snakebit on Sunday. Edwards had engine issues early that dropped him 28 laps off the lead lap and finished 36th. Hamlin hit the wall with 71 laps to go when a tire went down and wound up 35th.
The poor showing dropped Edwards from the points lead to a tie for third, 39 markers behind Busch. Hamlin’s day may prove to be much more costly. Already on the playoff bubble, last year’s Chase runner-up slipped to 14th in the standings; his only saving grace being a win that — as of this week — would qualify him as a wild card Chase participant.
The other current wild card qualifier is Keselowski, who finished third, marking his third consecutive top-3 finish. At 12th in the standings, he owns two wins which lead any driver outside of the top 12 — and with apologies to Busch and his No. 18 crew, may be the hottest driver and team on the circuit.
“One good run breeds another good run,” Keselowski said. “I'm not sure how to quantify that — how or why. I think I'm probably a little too close to the fire to truly understand it. But (the last three weeks have) been amazing. It's been more than I could ever ask for and exactly what we were looking for out of our team here at Penske Racing and everyone that supports us.”
Three races remain in NASCAR’s regular season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart sit ninth and 10th in the standings and, despite not having a win, would be the final two to qualify for the Chase via points. Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points behind Stewart, but does not have a wild card win to fall back on as of yet. Keselowski, in 12th, is 72 back of Stewart, followed by Greg Biffle (-58), Hamlin (-59, one win) and AJ Allmendinger (-62). Paul Menard and David Ragan are the only other two drivers ranked 11th-20th that have a wild card win, but they sit mired in 18th (Menard) and 20th (Ragan).
From the Spotter's Stand
Denny Hamlin had one Heluva Good! run at the June 2010 race with the sour cream dip sponsor, leading 123 of 200 laps and cruising to his second straight win — after taking the checkers at Pocono the week before — with a 1.246-second margin over runner-up Kasey Kahne and pole-sitter Kurt Busch (60 laps led).
The August trip in 2010 to the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn, Mich., was a little more exciting. Kevin Harvick became the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase after outdueling runner-up Hamlin, passing the 11 ride on Lap 190 before taking a 1.731-second victory. Despite not taking tires on the final caution, Harvick was able to handle well enough for his first MIS win.
Earlier this season, it was Hamlin again finding Victory Lane. Although Greg Biffle led the most laps (68), but Hamlin's FedEx crew got the No. 11 Toyota on track first under a round of yellow-flag stops with under 10 laps remaining. He then outran Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards to grab his one and only win of the year thus far.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Michigan is a track that demands a driver hit his marks lap after lap, setting the car up for a run into the next corner. If the momentum is lost, the lap time goes with it. A delicate combination of balance, using downforce and grip, ultimately separates the contenders from the mid-packers. Drivers love Michigan, and a large part of that is because it’s easy. It’s wall-to-wall racing. The driver can run low, high or in the middle. It’s easy to pass. It’s not the fans’ idea of a perfect track, but it’s pretty close for the drivers. Michigan’s pavement has very low grip, but it’s not too big a problem because the track is so wide and there’s so much room.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Carl Edwards’ 12 top 10s in 14 starts (two wins) at MIS is ridiculous. Pretty Solid Pick: Carl’s Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Good Sleeper Pick: Red Bull Racing’s Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers could turn heads here, as each has one Michigan win already on the resume. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite being red hot lately, Brad Keselowski has been ice cold at his home track. Insider Tip: Fuel mileage will come into play. Know which teams get good MPG and have crafty crew chiefs.
Classic Moments at Michigan
It’s Awesome Bill’s most awesome performance at what may be his best racetrack, as Bill Elliott drives the iconic No. 9 Coors Melling Thunderbird to its fourth consecutive win at Michigan in the 1986 Champion Spark Plug 400.
Elliott leads 125 of 200 laps in an event that isn’t without controversy. A hard-charging Tim Richmond falls from second to fifth late in the race after confusion over when a caution is displayed. Richmond races back to second after the restart but is not able to run Elliott down on the last lap.
The race is also notable in that David Pearson makes his final NASCAR start. Pearson, who won a record nine races at MIS, finishes 10th in the No. 21 Chattanooga Chew Chevy.