Thursday, February 4, 2010

Things I'll Be Watching In The 2010 Racing World

With Daytona’s Speedweeks underway, I figured I’d take a moment to discuss the upcoming racing season. Last weekend, the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona was run and I have to say, it is kind of fun watching. It is held on a 3.56-mile (5.73 km) combined road course, utilizing portions of the NASCAR tri-oval and an infield road course. The event actually has two races going on simultaneously. The Grand Am Series and the Grand Turismo Series (which is the one I prefer). With the Grand Am series, you get what are called Daytona Prototypes. Specialist chassis makers like Riley, Dallara, Lola and Crawford provide the DP cars for the teams and the engines are branded under the names of major car companies like Chevy, Lexus, Ford, and Porsche. The Daytona GT series for me is a lot more fun to watch although the cars aren’t as quick. While I had the event on and wasn’t watching thoroughly, I noticed at about the 3 hour mark on Saturday, the GT’s started to get lapped by the Prototypes. The GT class cars at Daytona are closer to the road versions, similar to the GT3 class elsewhere. For example, the more standard version of the Porsche 996 is used, instead of the usual RS/RSR racing versions. Recent Daytona entries also include BMW M3s, Chevy Camaro’s, Corvettes, Ford Mustangs and Mazda RX-8s. Since I don’t know who too many of the drivers are, I was rooting for the Camaro’s! One of the neatest things about watching these cars was probably the fact that when the race started, it was raining. Maybe Nascar can’t run in the rain at Daytona or Talladega for safety reasons, but I don’t know why they can’t use this technology to run the road courses or the small tracks with rain tires and wiper blades.

In the land of NASCAR, we’ll also get to watch the Danica Patrick story unfold. I wish her the best, but believe it or not, at age 28 it’s now or never to adjust to this bigger heavier car. I’m not sure that by not giving it a 100% commitment (since she’s continuing in Indycars) that it’ll work out as well as it otherwise might. She signed a contract to drive the #7 Go Daddy Chevrolet Impala for JR Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide Team. Can you imagine the marketing? You’re going to have two hugely popular racers working together. I hope they find as much success on the track as they will undoubtably have off of it. Danica will compete in 12 (poosibly 13) events for the minor league stock car team (The Nationwide series is kind of the equivalent of AAA in baseball). I have to say, I not only hope she’s successful in the good ol boys series, I think she’s got the right temperment to take on the sexism that runs rampant in this southern based sport. Richard Petty once said of her, "I just don't think it's a sport for women, and so far, it's proved out. It's really not. It's good for them to come in. It gives us a lot of publicity; it gives them publicity. But as far as being a real true racer, making a living out of it, it's kind of tough.” Gee Richard, has it ever occurred to you that you rednecks have never given any woman a real chance, which might be a bigger part of the problem? Maybe you should ask her to bake some cookies for you! I’ll never forget when she got wrecked in the pits at the Indy 500 in 2008 by Ryan Briscoe and was headed towards his pit for a confrontation before IMS security intercepted her. I thought, wow that’s some fire! It’s up in the air whether she will run the Nationwide season opener at Daytona. Because of the speed of the cars and the fact that she’s never run a stock car in a points event (applicable to all), she has to run the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) event on Feb. 6 to get clearance. That series is basically "the AA" and are actually retired Sprint Cup Cars. It’s a proving ground as to whether the drivers are competent enough that they won’t be a safety hazard at the superspeedway. If I had to bet, she’ll make it. I’m sure she’ll have the very best “retired” car on the track. I would also like to give two thumbs up to Dale Jr. and his manager, sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge for giving Patrick the chance. Yes, they’ll make money marketing, but if they didn’t think she could drive, she wouldn’t have gotten the deal. Also a nod to Indiana native Tony Stewart who said, "I think obviously she's got talent; she's been successful in every form of racing she's been in so far and I don't see why she wouldn't be successful here NASCAR.” Take that Redneck Petty.

And last, but not least is the upcoming Sprint Cup Series. Will Jimmie Johnson win his fifth straight title? It’s hard to bet against him, but I’m going to. Tony Stewart finished sixth last season with his first year team, although they would’ve been third under the old (& better) points system. If they can avoid some of the pitfalls from last season, we will see “Smoke” back at the top. I’ve never been a big fan of Stewart personally, although he’s softened his public persona over the last several years, he is the guy I enjoy watching the most. In my opinion, he is the closest driver, ability-wise to Dale Earnhardt out there. Stewart, like Earnhardt has the ability to manhandle a lousy race car to a top 5 finish when it had no business even finishing in the top fifteen. I’ve watched him go into backwards slides, through grass, inches from the wall and figure out a way to correct and only need to replace the tires instead of the whole car. That is natural talent.
Everyone points at Johnson and Jeff Gordon as the standard bearers in this era and they do have the championships to prove it, but Hendrick Motorsports also has by far the best equipment, technology and not everyone can drive for them. I don’t begrudge them any of that. Whether you like the Hendrick teams or not, Rick Hendrick has constantly reinvested into his teams. For all the Hendrick haters out there, Jack Rousch at one time was in the same position as Rick, but he chose to not reinvest at the same rate and now fields second tier teams. As for the other Hendrick teams, expect Mark Martin to have another solid year, but I don’t see him duplicating 2009. The big question mark is Dale Earnhardt Jr. I don’t see that he has anywhere to go but up. However going from 25th in the points to 17th will not cut it. Not when your teammates finished 1, 2, 3 last year. This guy needs to figure out what is different within him. His first five years, he was a constant threat to win, the last five, not so much. I still say it goes back to that Corvette crash and fire and if that’s the case, he needs to deal with it with a professional if he wants to continue racing.
One rules related thing that I’m happy to report is that NASCAR is getting rid of that stupid wing on the backs of the current cars. Not only were they ugly from a fans prospective, I’m sure it was a contributing factor when Stewart hit one of Michael Waltrip’s pit members last season. Stewart was pulling out of his pits when in the blink of an eye, Waltrip's right rear tire changer was unexpectedly there. Many if not all Cup drivers have expressed the view thru the car ahead is much less with a wing than it was with a spoiler. Improved visibility is always a good thing. A full-field test is scheduled for March 23-24 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and after that a decision will be made on when to reintroduce the spoiler based on teams' input.

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