It was one of those weekends why we dig this sport. The unexpected happened, which is one of the most appealing aspects of motor racing.
Here are the facts after the Kobalt Tools 500 Sunday at Phoenix: Hamlin leads four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson by 15 points entering the season finale this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick is third, 46 points behind. It’s the closest three-way Chase with one race remaining.
Muzzle the mouth or walk the walk, Mike.
Now to the opinions. It might be a good idea for Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, to keep a low profile heading into South Florida this week. Ford crowed after the Texas race Nov. 7 that crew chief Chad Knaus may have lost a fifth consecutive title for Johnson by essentially firing Johnson’s crew mid-race and replacing it with the crew of Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.
The end result was that Hamlin is rattled. He ripped his team after the race by saying, “Like I said, I did my job.” Not exactly a rousing vote of confidence or rallying of the beleaguered troops by a wise veteran. More of the impetuous Denny we thought had grown up. And at just the wrong time.
Hamlin pledges a pedal-to-the-metal approach at Homestead. He’s going to need it, as there are only two guaranteed routes to the championship for him, either winning the race or finishing second and leading the most laps.
My money still remains on Johnson to hoist the Cup for the fifth straight year. Who is your pick, and why?
Judging by the feedback I received from the Nov. 8 edition of Splash And Go, it appears that the many dramatic subplots of the AAA 500 last Sunday weren’t enough to draw back those of you who have abandoned the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup this fall. Your attitude seems to match that of Kyle Busch to the NASCAR official during his stop-and-go penalty for pit road speeding last Sunday at Texas — the big, fat middle finger.
Guess many of you feel the same way about the Chase, which is too bad.
That’s a shame, as no one is going to convince me this isn’t a compelling Chase. The top three drivers within 59 points. Two races to go. Forget about the COT. Forget about the Chase system.
Four-time reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson trails leader Denny Hamlin by 33 points after Hamlin won last Sunday at Texas. But there are few better places for a JJ rebound than Phoenix, as he has won the last three fall races at The Desert Mile.
Hamlin is hot, as he’s racing no differently during the Chase than he did during the “regular season” — the dude is driving to win. So anyone Chase naysayers complaining about conservative “points racing” better not point to Hamlin. Oh, sorry, I’m on that soap box again.
And what about Kevin Harvick? He’s 59 points behind leader Hamlin, and Mike Mulhern suggests it might be a must-win situation for Happy this Sunday at Phoenix.
It should be vewwwy interesting, as Elmer Fudd would say.
Is this Kyle Busch after a speeding penalty or NASCAR fans who still think this year's Chase stinks?
So, Chase naysayers: Are you happy now?
If not, then just end your illusion of any allegiance to NASCAR. Just come clean: You’re not a NASCAR fan anymore.
Because if you didn’t find the AAA Texas 500 even the slightest bit entertaining, then you should just move on. Pass Go, collect $200 and move to your latest sport du jour or continue to long for the “glory days” that had no more glory than what was on track Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
I’m far from a NASCAR apologist, as there are times I think reading toaster oven wiring manuals is more exciting than watching a Sprint Cup race. But this season has been solid, and no race has featured more drama, excitement and over-the-top entertainment than Sunday at Texas.
Let’s start recapping the plot lines. I bet we’ll need to move to a second hand to get a complete count.
One, Denny Hamlin uses a great inside-out move on Matt Kenseth to win the race. Denny could have sat back in second and taken the safe route, knowing he still would have left Fort Worth with the points lead. But Denny did what champions are supposed to do: Drove his ass off for a victory. (It’s a shame that NASCAR doesn’t reward winning drives like this with more points, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Two, Jimmie Johnson is out of the points lead with just two races remaining. Johnson entered the race 14 points ahead in his Drive for Five, yet he left Texas 33 points behind Hamlin, in second, after finishing ninth. Kevin Harvick remains third, 59 points out of the lead, in the closest three-man race this late in the Chase since the format started in 2004.
Three, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, benched his pit crew mid-race for poor performance, orchestrating a swap with teammate Jeff Gordon’s pit crew. It was about as stinging as a public rebuke can be, but it’s not surprising considering Knaus’ Texas-sized ego. Plus even though Knaus never has met a mirror or the pronoun “I” that he didn’t like, look at the man’s record: He delivers. Johnson didn’t seem that torn up about the divorce from his pit crew after the race.
Four, smack talk by Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford. He said the mid-race Hendrick crew swap could be the tipping point toward Denny ending Jimmie’s run of four consecutive Sprint Cup titles. Brash, bold talk — you’ve got to love it.
Five, Gordon’s crew was available because Jeff Burton inexplicably took out Gordon, precipitating the Backstretch Bash. The Driver formerly known as Boy Wonder stomped toward Burton on the backstretch, gave him a strong two-handed shove and started to throw punches before being restrained by NASCAR officials.
It wasn’t exactly Cale vs. Donnie and Bobby on the backstretch at Daytona in 1979, but it was quite compelling. And because the combatants were Gordon and Burton, two of the more sage, even-tempered elder statesmen in the NASCAR garage, you know it was real.
NASCAR is in the midst of its most exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup since the inaugural year of the format, 2004, when just 16 points separated champion Kurt Busch, second place Jimmie Johnson and third place Jeff Gordon at the end of the season. Yet the endless bleating, soul-searching and head-scratching continues about NASCAR in reverse gear.
Make no mistake: NASCAR has problems. Declining TV ratings and race attendance. Top teams struggling for sponsorship. Yet it’s still the most popular form of motorsports in America, by far. Every other series in the U.S. would love to have NASCAR’s “problems.”
But can we just focus on the racing for the next three weeks? There are three races remaining in what has been a compelling Chase for the Sprint Cup. Four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson leads Denny Hamlin by just 14 points and Kevin Harvick by 38.
It’s high-octane drama, yet from Tuesday through Thursday of every race week during the Chase — after the race reports and analysis are out of the way by Monday and before the race previews and coverage start Friday — all I read about on NASCAR blogs and websites are theories and speculation about the root cause of the great withering of NASCAR. Dustin Long, who I read daily and whose work I admire greatly, even wrote that the close Chase could be hurting NASCAR.
Isn’t there a two-month offseason during which endless column inches and online bytes can be devoted to the Great NASCAR Decession? You know, when no actual racing is taking place?
Is it a winner's trophy from Dover or Carl Edwards in a rage?
Jimmie Johnson is giving new meaning to the words embossed on the passenger-side mirrors on vehicles: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Johnson climbed to second place in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, just 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin, after his victory from the pole in the AAA 400 last Sunday at Dover.
But does anyone think Johnson isn’t the favorite to win his fifth straight title after this victory? Raise your hand. I think I see one or two brave palms in the back of the room.
One of those hands belongs to Dustin Long, who thinks the Chase starts this weekend at Kansas. Sorry, Dustin, I disagree, because last weekend at Dover was a microcosm of why Johnson and the entire No. 48 team are the best and won’t be topped.
Johnson won from the pole and led the most laps in the race. Meanwhile, points leader Hamlin engaged in a war of words with fellow Chaser Clint Bowyer over NASCAR’s penalties for Bowyer’s illegal car that he drove to victory lane Sept. 19 in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
Then Bowyer’s teammate, Kevin Harvick, defended the honor of Richard Childress Racing by bumping and sideswiping Hamlin in practice, which led to a shouting match in the garage between Harvick and Hamlin.
It was good theater and the kind of soap opera that NASCAR breeds every other week. Call it what you want, but it’s entertaining.
So the list of focused Chase drivers was down to nine before the race even started Sunday. Not a great strategy for trying to topple Johnson and Co. And a few of the Chasers had lousy races. Matt Kenseth finished 18th, Greg Biffle 19th and Tony Stewart 21st. Biffle is 140 points behind Hamlin, Stewart 162 and Kenseth 165.
Hamlin showed Friday that he doesn’t have the focus or maturity yet to lead a championship team when he spouted off about Bowyer’s penalties, which led to Harvick’s road rage during practice. Kyle Busch is third in points, just 45 behind Hamlin. But Rowdy’s mind is more erratic than Hamlin’s. Plus he still insists on running Nationwide and Truck races on event weekends, and I don’t care what anyone says: That distracts from and dilutes a Chase-winning effort.
Don’t believe me? How many Nationwide or Truck races has Johnson run down the Chase stretch in the last four seasons? You can probably count them on one hand.
The countdown is on for the Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 this Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, after which either points leader Will Power or Dario Franchitti will be crowned the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series champion. Power leads Franchitti by just 12 points.
It’s pretty safe to say these cats are ready for Saturday night at Homestead. It should be a hell of a duel to the finish, but dramatic title races decided at the season finale are nothing new for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
The Firestone Indy Lights season ends Saturday at Homestead, with the name of rookie J.K. Vernay all but engraved on the championship trophy. Vernay leads second place James Hinchcliffe by 48 points and only needs to start the 100-mile race to win the title.
While there’s not much air in the title chase balloon for Lights this Saturday in South Florida, it will be nice to see Lights veterans Ana Beatriz and Sebastian Saavedra step up to the IZOD IndyCar Series in the big show Saturday night for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Conquest Racing, respectively.
It was all quiet on the MotoGP front last weekend, as the series is heading to Motegi for the Grand Prix of Japan this weekend. That race was postponed earlier this season when the Icelandic volcano forced the disruption of travel throughout Europe. Thanks to old Smoky Top, MotoGP now has three races in three consecutive weeks. Hell for the riders and teams, heaven for us MotoGP fans!
World Superbikes had a big weekend, though, as Max Biaggi clinched the 2010 championship at Imola. Meanwhile, Suzuki thanked Leon Haslam for chasing Biaggi all season by releasing him because the Alstare Suzuki team lacks sponsorship for 2011. Haslam, second in points this year, is expected to move to BMW.
This move also could have ramifications on MotoGP, as the fate of Suzuki’s MotoGP team apparently is under discussion at the home base in Japan. Suzuki has put a bucket of bolts on track in MotoGP for the last three seasons, but the championship still needs major manufacturers. Kawasaki left after 2008, and Suzuki could be gone soon. That would leave only Honda, Yamaha and Ducati in MotoGP, which is not good.
Webber and fellow title protagonist Lewis Hamilton made contact while fighting for third, and Hamilton was forced to the garage early for the second straight race. Webber survived to finish third behind Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
Parking early for the second straight race put a dent into Lew’s title hopes, as he’s 20 points behind Webber. Vettel is 21 points back in fourth, and reigning World Champ Jenson Button is 25 points behind in fifth. It’s a hell of a struggle among superstars with just four races remaining.
Or are there just three races left?
The debut Korean Grand Prix looks to be on shaky ground as the final layer of asphalt hasn’t been laid on the circuit, and the race is scheduled for Oct. 24! Yeah, Oct. 24 of this year. Even F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone, who shrugs off criticism of the lunacy of putting F1 races in countries with no motorsports heritage or infrastructure, is a bit worried about whether the Korean race can be pulled off.
Say what you will about the 2010 Indianapolis 500, but the right man won. Anyone who disagrees with that either had too many pops while watching the race on TV or sat in the Easy-Bake Oven otherwise known as a broiling Race Day at IMS for far too long.
Sure, there were moments you wondered who was going to win the fuel game. Sure, there were times over the last two laps where you thought maybe, just maybe, Dan Wheldon might finally put Panther Racing into Victory Lane at Indy after two straight years of near-misses.
But the right man won. Dario Franchitti drank milk and caressed the Borg-Warner Trophy for the second time. He clearly deserved it.
How could anyone say otherwise? Dario led 155 of the 200 laps. He catapulted to the lead on Lap 1 from the outside of the front row, putting a boot to the throat of the rest of the field.
It was the most dominant winning performance at Indy since that Juan Pablo Montoya kid crushed the field in 2000 to lead 167 laps and win as a rookie, also in a Target Chip Ganassi Racing car.
Despite Dario’s dominance, there still were plenty of drivers and teams who put on strong performances Sunday at Indy inside and outside of the spotlight.
The first tip of the Lexan visor must go to Andretti Autosport. Like most after Bump Day, I thought this team was out to lunch, gorging on the all-you-can eat special at the Old Country Buffet. When Tony Kanaan stuffs two cars into the wall, problems are much deeper than simple driver error.
AA started none of its five drivers in the first five rows but put three drivers in the top 11 at the finish. That’s not a bounce-back; that’s an atomic super ball dropped on a driveway from your sister’s bedroom on the second floor. Ba-BOING!
Kanaan’s charge from shotgun on the field – 33rd for those keeping score at home – to second, challenging and taunting Franchitti until a late pit stop, was breathtaking. TK passed EIGHT cars on the first lap in one of the most stirring displays of driving skill since Tomas Scheckter sliced through seven cars in Turn 3 alone after a restart in 2004.
Marco Andretti also proved again that he is a victory waiting to happen some year at Indy with his strong third-place finish, and Danica Patrick made amends for throwing her team under the bus on Pole Day by singing deserved hosannas for the GoDaddy crew after great stops and smart strategy vaulted her to sixth at the finish on Race Day.
Ryan Hunter-Reay also was competitive during the race for AA, and he showed serious stones by driving the second half of the race with torn ligaments in his thumb. He also must have taped four-leaf clovers throughout his cockpit or ate a water tower-sized bowl of Lucky Charms for breakfast on Race Morning after escaping without injury when Mike Conway’s destroyed car sailed overhead in the horrific accident on Lap 200.
Conway and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammate Justin Wilson also were unsung heroes on Race Day. Sure, Mike and Justin led 15 and 11 laps, respectively, late in the race because they were on a different fuel strategy than Franchitti. But they didn’t look out of place, and three-time winner and 2010 pole sitter Helio Castroneves couldn’t catch Conway or Wilson while running third behind them on a similar fuel strategy.
D&R also was the only team to put four cars into the show on Pole Day. If you had told me that before Opening Day, I would have asked you for your bottle of Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka. D&R just might be the “best of the rest” in the IZOD IndyCar Series right now behind Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.
Panther Racing also had a very strong Race Day by finishing second for the third consecutive year, the second time in a row with Wheldon. Danny Boy really does turn it on for Indy. And Ed Carpenter proved again that he’s one of the best oval racers in the series, as he was headed for a strong finish for Panther before an ill-timed late caution forced him to drop to 17th at the finish.
But my MVT (Most Valuable Team) for the month was the FAZZT Race Team. Alex Tagliani was quick all month, qualified fifth after making the Fast Nine and finished 10th. Bruno Junqueira turned about six laps for the month before becoming the fastest qualifier on Bump Day with a speed that would have put him into the Fast Nine a day earlier.
FAZZT has nowhere near the resources of a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. It punches WAY above its weight, like 147-pound Manny Pacquiao trading shots and standing upright against a prime, 220-pound Mike Tyson.
Still, when it comes to North American motorsports teams, nobody can stand up to the Penske and Ganassi organizations right now. They’re both major league ass kickers.
Chip Ganassi might be smug. He might be irascible. He might be a demanding SOB. But he wins – a lot. And that’s the goal of any race team. With the last two IZOD IndyCar Series titles, two of the last three Indianapolis 500 victories and a Daytona 500 victory in February, Ganassi is the reigning Red Baron of internal combustion right now in America.
Roger Penske also had a month to remember, winning the Indianapolis 500 pole for a record 16th time and seeing his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch double up by winning the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.
Both Ganassi and Penske also have won major North American sports car championships in the last three seasons.
Seriously, name me two stronger racing organizations in the world – across a variety of disciplines – right now than Penske and Ganassi. You can’t.
•Formula One: Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button finished 1-2 in the Grand Prix of Turkey on Sunday, which many people called yet another thrilling F1 race.
I call bull excrement.
This race was “exciting” only because drivers violated one of the cardinal rules of F1 – don’t race your teammate. Red Bull’s Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel ran 1-2 when Vettel decided to – GASP! – pass his teammate for the lead. The two cars collided, knocking Vettel out of the race and Webber to third, where he finished.
And then Hamilton and Button had “confusion” about team orders – don’t kid yourself; team orders still occur in F1 despite regulations banning them – and ended up racing each other at the end, with Hamilton prevailing.
Sure, it may have looked good on TV. But the bleating by Steve Matchett of SPEED about Vettel making a critical mistake by not asking his team to tell the slower Webber to pull over illustrates exactly what’s wrong with F1.
Race drivers are paid to pass people. F1 drivers are paid millions of pounds, Euros or whatever to pass people. They NEVER should be forced to request from a team boss to pass someone, even if it’s their teammate.
Yes, this is another rant from me about the sad state of F1. And it’s not because I dislike the series or have a serious case of “Screw them furriners.” Au contraire. I love F1. But what disguises for excitement in the series these days is pathetic. Team orders and complaints about dirty air. Oh, joy.
At least there’s a MotoGP race this Sunday at Mugello to satisfy my proper international racing jones.
•Song of the Week: This week’s top tune is the obscure but cool “Faster” by the late, great George Harrison, who was a Formula One fanatic. There are two reasons why it came to mind immediately after Dario Franchitti’s victory Sunday at Indy. One, the video opens with a still shot of the great Jim Clark of Scotland, the 1965 Indianapolis 500 winner who is Franchitti’s racing hero. Plus it was an easy choice since Franchitti was just flat-out, ahem, faster than anyone else Sunday at Indy.
It was a quiet racing weekend over Easter in the United States, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and IZOD IndyCar Series both had the holiday weekend off.
Still, it’s funny sometimes how a common thread can emerge from even the sleepiest of racing weekends.
The bond between two races on the schedule last weekend was breakage – or lack thereof.
Formula One raced at the Grand Prix of Malaysia in steamy Sepang. Once again, the dominant Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel proved they were the fastest cars on the grid by taking the top two spots in qualifying.
Vettel appeared to be running away with the first two races of the season, in Bahrain and Australia, before mechanical problems forced his retirement. Much like the Infiniti engine in the IZOD IndyCar Series back in the late 90s and early 00s, the Red Bulls were fast but about as brittle as cold glass.
So when Vettel made a brilliant move to dive past Webber in the first turn of the opening lap at Malaysia, the big question wasn’t whether Webber could catch him. He can’t. He’s not as fast as Vettel regardless of how much of the Aussie hard man act he puts on. Webber better learn to handle the truth: Sebastian Vettel is faster than him and a better racer than him.
The big question was whether the pin had been pulled on the hand grenade known as the Red Bull RB6. Would Vettel make it to the finish? It was almost as if the clock had been turned back, and I was watching Eddie Cheever Jr. lead with an Infiniti-powered car back around 2000. Could the damn thing stay together and win?
Well, hells bells: The RB6 didn’t detonate or shatter, and Vettel cantered to an impressive victory. Webber finished second.
But Vettel didn’t produce the most impressive drive of the race. That laurel goes to Fernando Alonso, who drove without a clutch after it broke during the formation lap. Alonso was forced to push the throttle while downshifting for the gearbox to work. Yet Alonso still managed a feisty battle for position with fellow World Champion Jenson Button until Alonso’s engine expired with a big exhale of white smoke with two laps remaining.
I know people like to rip F1 for its sometimes-processional racing. Fair enough. But F1 still maintains an interesting aspect of motor racing that is almost extinct in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and IZOD IndyCar Series – mechanical unreliability.
The mechanical engineering of Honda, Dallara and NASCAR chassis and engine builders is fantastic. Stuff does not break anymore in those two series. The chassis and engines are damn near bulletproof.
That’s great for the reputation of those companies, but it does rob the sport of some drama. Can you imagine the lore of the Indianapolis 500 without Parnelli’s turbine breaking with four laps to go in 1967? Without Bill Vukovich dropping out with nine laps remaining in 1952 due to steering failure, handing a win to a young California cat named Troy Ruttman? Without Tom Carnegie’s famous “Mario Andretti is slowing down on the backstretch!” declaration on the PA to the crowd? Hell, this blog wouldn’t have a name without that, either.
I don’t yearn for the days when one-third of the field is eliminated by engine detonations that look like crop dusting in an IZOD IndyCar Series or Sprint Cup Series race. But it would be cool if once, just once, the thought of “Is this dude’s rig going to hold up to the finish?” entered the equation like it sometimes does in F1, especially early in the season while teams are still finding and squashing mechanical bugs.
The other issue of breakage came Friday night during the Camping World Truck Series race at Nashville Superspeedway.
Winners of races at that facility receive a gorgeous Gibson electric guitar hand-painted by renowned motorsports artist Sam Bass. Kyle Busch infuriated track officials, Bass and millions of fans last year when he smashed his winner’s guitar in Victory Lane, Pete Townshend-style, after winning the Nationwide Series race last June in Nashville.
Busch pulled off a dominant win in the truck race last Friday night at Nashville. But he wisely decided to keep the guitar in one piece in victory lane. Smart move, Kyle. Busch actually gave the guitar to Bass and told him he could smash Busch’s truck in retribution for Busch’s antics last year.
Yeah, right, Kyle.
•This weekend: After a low-key Easter weekend of racing, worldwide racing blasts back into life this weekend. NASCAR Sprint Cup races Saturday night at Phoenix, the IZOD IndyCar Series races for the first time on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday in Birmingham, Ala., MotoGP finally comes alive like Peter Frampton on Sunday at Qatar, World Superbike is racing at Valencia, Spain, and Grand-Am races Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park.
Damn, I better check the fuse box here to ensure my DVR doesn’t blow up my electrical system. The good, old recorder will be humming this weekend.
Best of luck to Americans Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies as the Americans take on the “aliens” – Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo – in MotoGP. I’m not going to rank series by excitement factor, but I will say that you’re seriously missing out on insanely good racing if you don’t watch MotoGP. Good luck also to American rookie Kenny Noyes in Moto2, the new final ladder class en route to MotoGP.
•Song of the Week: With all this talk about parts breakage, Tom Petty’s classic “Breakdown” is an easy choice as this week’s top tune. Here’s a killer version from the “Southern Accents” tour in 1985, in which lead guitarist Mike Campbell is en fuego: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNxfPAF1frM
Until next time, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel … and don’t forget to visit IMS on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IndyTalk and continue to stop by here at our place on Facebook.