Image by The Pit Zone via FlickrNASCAR travels to New Hampshire for a two-race weekend. The big race is Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It's the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, twelve drivers vying for the championship separated by just forty points.
I'm not a big fan of the Chase. I like the old system where a driver had to be consistent over the entire season to win the championship. Now, a driver just has to be consistent enough over the regular season, the first 26 races, to be in the Top 12 and make the Chase. The Chase is a playoff format; the points of the 12 Chase drivers are reset and they begin the playoffs on an almost equal footing. The winner of the Sprint Cup champion is the best of the 12 over the final ten races of the season. Big leads are almost always erased. Last season, Jimmie Johnson took home the championship that should have belonged to Jeff Gordon. Now, I'm not a Jeff Gordon fan so that's not necessarily a bad thing, but I am a Tony Stewart fan and this year eleven other drivers are vying to take home his championship. He had a 197-point lead after Richmond, but starts this Chase ten points behind Mark Martin. NASCAR got tired of drivers running away with championships, clinching them with races left on the schedule, and came up with this playoff format.
I also don't like the scoring system for the Chase. It's the same as any other time of the season, but twelve drivers are competing for the championship alongside 31 other drivers who have their own reasons for being there. Shouldn't the Chase drivers be scored separately from the other drivers?
Another gripe is that the ten races that determine the championship haven't been selected with some grand design in mind. The schedule of 2009 Chase races looks very much like the final ten races of the 2003 schedule, the year before the Chase started. The races have all been grandfathered into the slots on the schedule. If the Chase is anyway representative of the entirety of the whole season it's purely by accident. There's no mystical, magical reason the Chase starts at Loudon, that was just where Loudon has pretty much always fallen on the Cup schedule.
Not that there's anything wrong with Loudon. It's a neat little racetrack. It's a little over a mile long with very little banking. It's similar to Richmond, where last weekend's race was held, but more closely resembles the layout of Martinsville -- long parallel straightaways and tight turns on both ends. In fact, NHMS is sometimes called "Martinsville on steroids." It's a hard track to pass on so track position and the double file restarts will be very important.
Juan Montoya starts Sunday's race with the best track position. He'll be on the pole after a qualifying lap of 28.545 seconds (133.431 mph), a new track record. Tony Stewart will also be on the front row after a lap of 132.581 mph. Seven Chase drivers have spots in the top 10, including Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards, who are in the top 5, but Brian Vickers starts way back in 26th position. Last year's winner Greg Biffle starts 22nd. (Race lineup) Bobby Labonte qualified eighth, but might have to park his race car early if he can't pick up some last minute sponsorship money.
You'll hear a lot about how important it is to win at New Hampshire and take the early Chase lead, but only one driver (Kurt Busch in 2004) has won the late summer/early fall race at Loudon and gone on to win the championship. Consistency over the final ten races is much more important. One bad finish can put a driver in a big hole; two bad finishes can end all hope of lifting the championship trophy at Homestead. But it all begins here, Sunday at 2 p.m. (ABC). The last couple of races at Loudon have been rain-shortened, but weather shouldn't be a factor this time there.
The Nationwide Series takes the weekend off. They'll return next weekend at Dover. The other race this weekend is also at Loudon, a Camping World Truck Series race, the Heluva Good! 200. It's Saturday at 3 p.m. (Speed). Ron Hornaday goes for his third win in a row at Loudon and enters the race with a 197-point lead over Matt Crafton for the Truck Series championship. We'll see if they pick up where they left off last weekend at Gateway.
the 2009 Chase drivers spent the week doing a media blitz of New York City while other off-track news swirled on...
We're still don't know what happened with Pat Tryson at Penske, but the veteran crew chief couldn't have picked a worst time (last weekend at Richmond) to announce that he was going to Michael Waltrip Racing to be the crew chief for Martin Truex Jr. next season. He says he's leaving Penske for personal reasons that have nothing to do with driver Kurt Busch. There were even some rumors that Tryson might leave early if Kurt Busch stumbles in the Chase, but they appear to be together until the end no matter what.
Another departure concerns Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM announced that they have parted ways with Mark McArdle, the team's director of competition. This comes as a surprise to many. RPM had a director of competition? The announcement comes after a heated argument between McArdle and main co-owner George Gillett in the garage last Friday at Richmond. McArdle left the track after the argument and was absent for the rest of the weekend. Meanwhile, confusion seems to be the norm at RPM.
Danica Patrick is still making noise about coming over to NASCAR from IRL, but Tony Stewart says she is not in Stewart-Haas Racing's 2010 plans.
Hendrick Motorsports has announced that they have signed Mark Martin to a contract extension through yet another year, 2011. Brad Keselowski had been waiting for Martin to retire so that he could become the fourth driver for Hendrick, so it now looks like his decision to go to Penske was a good one. This week, Penske announced that they have secured a major sponsor for Keselowski at the Nationwide level, Discount Tire. Over at JR Motorsports, a subsidiary of Hendrick, they've announced the hiring of Kelly Bires to replace Keselowski in their Nationwide program.
And Red Bull Racing had flirted with switching to Chevys, but announced this week that they were sticking with Toyota.