Monday, September 29, 2008

Up in smoke

It would be a monumental understatement to say that Kyle Busch blew his shot at the Sprint Cup title. The driver and team that could do nothing wrong in the first 26 races have done nothing right over the past three weeks. And it couldn’t have happened at a worst time. Busch had what appeared to be an insurmountable 207-point lead before the Chase began, but because of the recalibrated standings, that was whittled down to merely 30 going into New Hampshire.

Standings after Richmond
1. Kyle Busch – 3878
2. Carl Edwards (–207)
3. Jimmie Johnson (–302)
4. Dale Earnhardt (–390)
5. Jeff Burton (–494)
6. Tony Stewart (–593)
7. Kevin Harvick (–595)
8. Greg Biffle (–598)
9. Denny Hamlin (–643)
10. Jeff Gordon (–657)
11. Matt Kenseth (–746)
12. Clint Bowyer (–762)
13. Kasey Kahne (–831)
14. David Ragan (–839)

So what would the standings look like now had his large lead not been wiped out and would he still be on the verge of blowing the championship if not for the Chase? The answer is yes. Busch’s season has tanked so badly since Richmond that he would’ve lost the points lead even under the pre-2004 points standings configuration. That’s what makes this meltdown that much more incredible as Busch's chances went up in smoke with another poor finish Sunday. It's an unheard of 331-point swing over the last three races. Here’s what the standings would look like without the Chase.

Standings after Kansas
1. Carl Edwards – 4186
2. Jimmie Johnson (–75)
3. Kyle Busch (-124)
4. Dale Earnhardt (-323)
5. Jeff Burton (-358)
6. Greg Biffle (-361)
7. Kevin Harvick (-464)
8. Jeff Gordon (-533)
9. Tony Stewart (-581)
10. Denny Hamlin (-629)
11. Clint Bowyer (-669)
12. Matt Kenseth (-680)
13. David Ragan (-817)
14. Kasey Kahne (-824)

It's not a secret that I hate the Chase. So each week I'd like to revisit these standings to see who the "real" champion would be had NASCAR not blown up a perfectly good points system.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pittsburger 100

Steve Baker led from start to finish Saturday night to win the 20th annual Pittsburgher 100 at Pennsylvania Motor Speedway. Baker of Fairmont, W.Va., held off a late-race challenge by Davey Johnson and beat 30 other drivers to earn $12,000 for the victory. The best finisher from Washington County was McDonald resident Brandon Burgoon, who finished 11th. Forty-eight drivers attempted to qualify for the lucrative race and 16 were sent home. The event was part of the Unified Force Championship Tour that sends late model drivers to tracks in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

Pittsburgher 100 results
1. Steve Baker - Fairmont, W.Va.
2. Davey Johnson - Latrobe
3. Doug Dodd - Cambridge, Ohio
4. Alex Ferree - Saxonburg
5. Josh Richards - Shinston, W.Va.
6. Jeremy Miller – Gettysburg
7. Matt Lux – Franklin
8. Lynn Geisler – Cranberry
9. Al Atallah – Bridgeville
10. Dave Hess, Jr. – Waterford

Crate Late/Semi-late models – 25-lap feature
1. Kyle Lukon - Burgettstown
2. Bryant Hank
3. Daryl Charlier
4. Mike Pegher Jr.
5. Rocky Kugel

E-Modifieds/UEMS – 25-lap feature
1. Keith Berner – Millersburg, Ohio
2. Randy Hall
3. Dave Groves
4. Jacob Hawkins
5. Daryl Charlier

Pure Stocks/B-Cadets – 25-lap feature
1. Pat Weldon - Monongahela
2. Tim Folmer
3. Bill Robertson
4. Bobby Heim
5. Pat Hanley

Amateur Stocks – 12-lap feature
1. Eric Goldberg – Pittsburgh
2. Gary Smith
3. Jeff Broniszewski
4. Brian Huchko
5. Joey Koteles

Monday, September 22, 2008

Three-car chase

What a race. The last 20 laps were astounding as three Roush-Fenway teammates bumped and battled for the checkers in the second Chase event at Dover. The ESPN commentators were saying this was one of the best races at Dover they’ve ever seen. And they were right. Thankfully, the Steelers/Eagles were at halftime, giving me and other Pittsburghers plenty of time to watch the mad dash to the finish.

This wasn’t a typical race with a few cars shifting around each other for an important win. The fact these were teammates, all of whom raced each other clean, is what made this race so special. Matt Kenseth first battled Carl Edwards with about 20 to go and eventually got past him. Then he had to hold off a furious challenge from Greg Biffle, who eventually took the lead on lap 9 and never looked back. All of this, meanwhile, happened around a pack of lap cars.

Most watching had to think Edwards was out of it because he took only two tires on the final pit stop. But several lap cars slowed Kenseth and Biffle, allowing him to catch up and even get a nose under the first place car. It just makes you wonder what team owner Jack Roush was thinking during those frantic 20 laps. Sure, he had a great shot of one of his cars winning, but it seems as if the chances of a three-car disaster were even more likely. Could you imagine the headlines today if those three crashed each other with a few laps to go? But they didn’t, and it appears Roush is well positioned for his third Cup title in six years.

This is what NASCAR should be about. Regardless of how the Chase unfolds in the next eight weeks, this was one of the best Sprint Cup races I’ve seen in quite a while.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bowyer's banana split

It was obvious NASCAR made it to the big time when Jeff Gordon on several occasions co-hosted the popular morning show, Live with Regis and Kelly, earlier this century. But what does it say about the sport when the drivers are seen on that same show having an ice cream battle? Before heading for my late-shift on Wednesday, I turned on the tube and saw the top six drivers sitting on stools and being interviewed by Reg and Kelly. These weren’t your typical racing questions, of course, but the hosts wanted to know why Dale Earnhardt Jr. is so popular. Kyle Busch quickly quipped, “The ladies love him.”

If seeing NASCAR’s six best drivers squirming in suits while sitting on high stools wasn’t bizarre enough, they turned the segment into a game show. After the commercial break, workers covered the set with a tarp, set up large ice cream buckets and fitted the host and their guests scoopers and cones. One driver tossed a ball of ice cream to his teammate, who was supposed to catch it in the cone while several feet away. Pretty stupid and pretty boring. Busch seemed to have the best touch, though, and caught three.

But the most entertaining part came a few seconds after the buzzer rang and the competition ended. The drivers gave a few fake chuckles as they looked over to the official timer. That’s when a large ball of Vanilla came whipping by and narrowly missed Clint Bowyer’s crotch. Carl Edwards, known for his workout routines and chiseled physique, had some serious power behind that flying frozen dairy. Sure, it was a clever prank, but a few inches to the left and Edwards may have turned Bowyer into a true banana split.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Chasing the Top-10

One of my NASCAR buddies brought up an interesting point over the weekend while watching the first Chase race at New Hampshire. Maybe it was obvious to him because his favorite driver is out of the playoffs, but he found it odd that ABC-TV paid little or no attention to the 31 cars outside the Chase. I didn’t find it that unusual, however, considering those 12 Chasers are the most prominent cars going for the championship. But more importantly, could it also be that the best cars are naturally running up front? It would be questionable for ABC to show the field-filler cars running in 30th position. So I looked into the statistics from last year’s Chase and found some interesting results.

Chasers won nine of the 10 races last year with only non-playoff contender Greg Biffle notching a victory last season at Kansas. The percentage for Chase driver finishing in the Top-10 also was surprisingly high. The 12 Chasers combined to finish in Top-10 positions 63 percent of the time. That means on average, about six Chase drivers finished in the Top-10 each race. And eight Chasers finished in the Top-10 in each of the final three races last year at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

So is ABC knowingly showing only Chase drivers, or does it just happen that way because most of them are running up front. The best way to find out this weekend is to watch that scrolling results ticker at the top of the screen. If the first 10 positions are stuffed mostly with those yellow-filled names, then I guess we have our answer.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Weekend events

Pittsburgh Raceway Park in New Alexandria, Pa., is hosting its Nostalgia Day this Saturday. The event begins at 11 a.m. and will feature a car show, car cruise and an eighth-mile drag races using cars manufactured before 1980. Don “Big Daddy” Garlits will be at the track to sign autographs and showcase his “Swamp Rat” 12-B car built in 1968. The Great Lakes Nostalgia Funny Car Circuit will begin making runs down the drag strip at 1:30 p.m.

Tickets to watch the drag racing is $15 for adults. For more information, go to PRP’s Web site.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Southern disaster

You probably already know that Chip Ganassi Racing is in shambles. The racing titan from Western Pennsylvania earlier this year disbanded the No. 40 NASCAR team and lost promising driver Reed Sorensen to Gillett-Evernham. Oddly, the same cannot be said for Ganassi’s open-wheel teams as they continue to flourish in IndyCar. His driver, Scott Dixon, this weekend won his second championship since 2003. Ganassi also has tapped Dario Franchitti, who struggled mightily in NASCAR, to replace outgoing Dan Wheldon. Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 winner and series champion, should be able to make a seamless transition. Why he ever attempted to switch to NASCAR is still questionable, but it did get him out of his contract with Andretti-Green Racing after last year.

But what is going on with Gannasi’s Cup program? Currently, he is running two mediocre cars and only has Juan Montoya under contract for 2009. That is a far cry from when Sterling Marlin was challenging for the Cup in 2002 before sitting out the last few races with an injury. Gannasi bought a piece of Sabco Motorsports in 2000 and thought he could turn the struggling team around. His reasons were well-founded because he was coming off four CART championships from 1996-99 and an Indy 500 victory in 2000. And to some extent, Ganassi proved he could succeed in NASCAR. However, it was short-lived.

Now the question should be asked whether he is tarnishing his racing legacy by running a second-rate NASCAR program that distracts attention from his IndyCar triumphs. Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs don’t flirt with other racing series. And recent history has rewarded them with great seasons. Maybe that’s the problem with Ganassi; although he is very dedicated to the Cup program, he has too much on his plate and isn’t able to keep up with the other teams. He clearly puts a lot of time into the IndyCars as this year’s championship shows, but at what cost to his Cup drivers? He has one foot out of NASCAR and that’s not the way to run a successful program. If this trend continues, it won’t be long before Montoya also walks out that door. If that happens, it’s only a matter of time before Ganassi closes the garage doors in North Carolina and takes up permanent residence in Indianapolis. His luster is starting to wear thin.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Handicapping the Chase

Now that the meaningless first 26 races are in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look at the top 12 drivers and assess each of their chances to win the inaugural Sprint Cup. The three drivers to beat are obviously Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and now Jimmie Johnson with his hot streak. Here’s how the points shake out as we move to New Hampshire.

Kyle Busch – Leader
Carl Edwards – 30
Jimmie Johnson – 40
Clint Bowyer – 70
Jeff Burton – 70
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 70
Denny Hamlin – 70
Greg Biffle – 80
Jeff Gordon – 80
Kevin Harvick - 80
Matt Kenseth – 80
Tony Stewart – 80

Biffle, Gordon, Harvick, Kenseth and Stewart have not won this year, although the No. 20 car has been strong at times. But Stewart and his team can’t be considered contenders with the distraction of his impending departure weighing on their minds. Consider those five drivers out of the running barring a miracle turnaround to their largely forgettable seasons. Bowyer, Burton Earnhardt and Hamlin all have won once this year, but only Earnhardt has been consistent enough to be considered a contender. He certainly has the chance to pour it on at the end of the season, but he must start winning races rather than finishing just in the top 10.

But the true battle remains with the top three. Pay no attention to the slight points advantage going into New Hampshire this weekend. Instead, look at the body of their work. Busch has been unstoppable most of the year and if he continues that early-season pace, he will undoubtedly win the championship and promptly flip the bird to Rick Hendrick and company. But he has been underperforming in recent weeks heading into the Chase, raising the questions of whether his No. 18 is running out of steam.

Edwards has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the year, although he struggled somewhat after losing crew chief Bob Osbourne following his victory at California. Still, the No. 99 is running great at the intermediate tracks that dominate the Chase. But the driver everyone has their eyes on is obviously Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports was left for dead this year until Johnson salvaged the season with four victories, including the last two races. He is the two-time defending champion and should be considered the favorite. It appears he and his team are peaking at the right time, so this should make quite an interesting three-horse race to finish.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Belated Motorsports Monday

Back from the three-day weekend, here are the Labor Day results from Motordrome and Pennsylvania Motor Speedway. The * denotes heat winners.

Motordrome – Aug. 29
NASCAR Super Late Models
1. Garry Wiltrout*
2. Mark Poole
3. Steve Black
4. Richard Mitchell*
5. Bobby Henry
6. Todd Price
7. John Komarinski
8. Cody Quarack
9. Michael Zombar
10. Greg Kelley

1. Adam Kostelnik*
2. Bobby Shipp*
3. Gary Scott
4. George Nicola
5.Harry Opfer

Street Stocks
1. Johnathan Hileman
2. Jon Greenawalt
3. Ted Gibala
4. Joe Nicola
5. Shawn Phillips*

1. Mike Lemley
2. Tracy Keller
3. Chris Spadacene
4. Denny Keller*
5. Robert Garchak Jr.

American Flyers
1. Ed Dineen*
2. Garrett O’Patchen
3. Paul Rosa
4. Ronald Eiford
5. Edward Shelpman

PPMS – Aug. 30
Late Models – 25-lap feature
1. Jared Miley
2. Lou Bradich
3. Al Atallah
4. Brandon Burgoon*
5. John Flinner*
6. Lynn Geisler
7. Mike Johnson
8. Ben Miley
9. Brandon Wearing
10. Rich Apolito

Crate Late Models – 20-lap feature
1. Mike Pegher, Jr.
2. Jason Rider
3. Daryl Charlier
4. Rocky Kugel*
5. Bryant Hank

E-Modifieds – 15-lap feature
1. Daryl Charlier
2. Wayne Tessean
3. Chuck Kennedy*
4. Tom Martineck
5. Kevin Miller

Pure Stocks – 12-lap feature
1. Pat Weldon
2. Vince Kamicker*
3. Jake Simmons
4. Bob Schwartzmiller*
5. Bill Robertson

Amateur Stocks – 10-lap feature
1. Gary Koteles*
2. Eric Goldberg
3. Jason Herniak
4. Rich Mason
5. J.J. O'Patchen

Reading while driving

By Amanda Gillooly
O-R Staff Writer

I’m hardly one to preach about highway safety issues. I’m car insurance poor, and my Dodge POS has the dings and scratches to prove it. I’ve gotten speeding tickets, a citation for running a red light (I kept telling the nice officer it was merely yellow…) and I’ve gotten hit broadside by a huge utility van. I’ve rear-ended a parked car, and I’ve locked my keys in my car several times – but luckily, the engine was only running during one of those experiences.

But I’ve never driven impaired. I don’t want to downplay the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but motorists can be just as dangerous when they’re under the influence of stupidity. I experience these “DUIS” motorists everyday as I cruise the 30-some miles from my palace on Neville Island to my pod on North Main in WashPa. While I understand that we live in a society where multitasking is a given, there are some activities that just need to wait.

I guess I’m not an innocent. I’ve applied lip gloss and swept my eyelashes with black mascara while behind the wheel. But I was at a red light. Promise. But reading the newspaper? No good.

When I reached the Washington County line this morning, I encountered a beige sedan cruising at…wait for it…49 mph. “OK,” I thought. “You can’t fault a man for being cautious.” About 10 seconds after processing that thought, the dude’s car began slowly weaving between the white lines. Not wanting to add any more incidents to my driving resume, I clicked on my left turn signal and slipped into the passing lane.

Out of morbid curiosity, I glanced over at the driver and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The guy had the newspaper spread across his steering wheel. That would explain the weaving, I thought. But my question remains: Aren’t there more comfortable places to read the headlines? My podmate and friend, Barb Miller, had a better question...

“Were they at least reading the Observer-Reporter?” she asked.

That, I guess, would be the silver lining.