A few random observations as the Easter break ends and NASCAR teams head to Phoenix International Raceway for a string of 14 races without a break:
* Say what you want about the NASCAR points system, but it still tends to reward consistency over excellence. Jimmie Johnson has won half the races so far this season but has one bad finish at Daytona. Greg Biffle has opened the season with six straight top-10 finishes, with a best finish of third in the Daytona 500, where Johnson finished 35th due to a mechanical failure.
When you add the points, Johnson has just 14 more than Biffle.
You might say that the system is keeping Johnson from running away with the points lead, but the numbers also prove that it’s mighty difficult to overcome one bad outing. And that’s even more critical in the Chase, with just 10 opportunities to get points.
* It used to be in NASCAR that a driver owning his own team was an almost sure way to guarantee mediocre results. But that’s not the case when the combination is a Cup driver owning his own Nationwide and/or Camping World Truck Series teams.
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch swept the recent races at Nashville Superspeedway driving their own vehicles.
The moonlighting Cup drivers are capitalizing on their popularity and skills from the Cup side to dominate the lower divisions. Although Busch’s win was his first as a driver/owner, Harvick now has four this season behind the wheel of a Kevin Harvick Inc. entry. He also won the Nationwide race at Las Vegas and two truck races, at Atlanta and Martinsville.
Imagine the advantages when negotiating with potential sponsors. Harvick and Busch can all but guarantee that a sponsor can go to Victory Lane with a Cup driver, even though it’s not in a Cup race. For marketing purposes, there’s likely very little difference.
* The penalty has been established for intentionally wrecking another driver on a superspeedway. It’s getting parked for the balance of that race followed by three weeks of probation, which in the past has been the same as no punishment at all.
That’s what Carl Edwards got for wrecking Brad Keselowski in the Cup race at Atlanta, and it’s what NASCAR imposed on Nationwide Series driver Jason Leffler for wrecking James Buescher last week at Nashville Superspeedway.
* The results of the two most recent Cup races, at Martinsville and Bristol, are raising new questions about late-race pit strategy in the new NASCAR world, where 500-mile and 500-lap races are being decided by fender-banging short runs in the closing laps, with double-file restarts and up to three attempts at a green-white-checkered-flag finish.
It would seem on the surface that drivers and teams would choose track position over fresh tires in situations where there are only a handful of laps left to run. But Johnson gave up track position for four tires at Bristol and bulled his way into the lead. And Denny Hamlin had an even more impressive run to the front at the end at Martinsville after surrendering the lead, and nine positions, for four fresh tires with six laps left to run.
And this was at tracks where it’s typically hard to pass a lot of cars in a short amount of time.
But Greg Biffle said on this week’s teleconference that he believes there’s still some value in track position.
“Even though the guys behind you [with new tires] are faster, if there are multiple cautions, they’re not going get a chance to get up there and race with you, so track position is still going to be very, very important,” Greg Biffle said. “But it has thrown a curveball. There’s a lot of strategy when it comes to these multiple green-white-checkereds.”
* Two last things: Why is it that the whole sport has seemingly gone to referring to drivers by their car number only? Using a term like “the 48 car” to describe Johnson seems mighty uninteresting.
And hopefully the success of the History Channel’s “Madhouse” series about Modified racing at Bowman Gray Stadium won’t end up spoiling the show there. If the History Channel or some other outfit comes back this year, sponsors will be wanting to get in on the action and it could just ruin a great thing.
Rick Minter is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991 covering motorsports as well as serving as a bureau chief. From 2000-2008 Minter focused on racing exclusively, traveling the NASCAR circuit as the paper’s motorsports writer.
Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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