Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tyler Head's Power Rankings: Fontana

After some exciting race and a couple hours of pothole-filling in the Daytona 500, its time for the real season to begin. The Sprint Cup Series heads to the 2 mile Auto Club Speedway, where a teams performance may be an indication of how the rest of their season will go (but don't ask Matt Kenseth that). Without further ado, here are the rankings!

1. Jimmie Johnson

The Daytona 500 has been a struggle for Johnson since his 2006 win, but expect him to rebound at his home track, where he has dominated in recent years, and also earned his first career win back in 2002.

2. Matt Kenseth

Kenseth had a strong showing in the Daytona 500, and Roush Fenway Racing is infamous for dominating the February event at Auto Club. Don't be surprised if he earns the win in Fontana once again this year.

3. Juan Pablo Montoya

Montoya had a solid finish in the 500 last week, and should be among your favorites for Fontana. Last year Montoya was strong on the long, flat tracks, and is still eager to get his first oval victory in Nascar, and he just may get it at Fontana.

4. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin came out of Daytona with a mediocre finish, and spent his practice time rattling rookie Brad Keselowski's cage. Hamlin had a strong car at Fontana last fall before wrecking from the lead on a restart. Hamlin needs to maintain his focus if he wants to come out on top, and stop worrying about trying to get into Keselowski's head.

5. Mark Martin

Martin's attempt to win his first Daytona 500 came up short, but his bid to earn his first championship is just beginning. Martin was strong on just about any size track last year, with Fontana being no exception as he earned a 4th place finish in the fall race. Look for Martin to have a solid points day at Fontana.

6. Carl Edwards

Edwards had a strong speedweeks, and now looks forward to racing at Fontana. Cousin, soon to be father, Carl has had lots of success at Fontana's sister track Michigan, and also has earned a win at Fontana. He is one of only four drivers to finish in the top 10 in both races last year, and should be expected to that, and possibly more, again today.

7. Jamie McMurray

Who saw him coming? McMurray has risen back to the top since returning back to Earnhardt/Ganassi, winning the Daytona 500 and earning the pole for today's race. McMurray is looking to assert himself as a contender, and he may just prove that he is by the end of race 26.

8. Kurt Busch

Busch's speedweeks were miserable, with a couple of torn up racecars and a 23rd place finish in the 500. Kurt will be looking forward to returning to Fontana, where he also finished in the top 10 in both races in 2009.

9. Tony Stewart

Stewart started speedweeks with a bang, flexing his muscles in the Budweiser Shootout and almost winning his duel race. However in the 500 he was a non-factor at the end, finishing 22nd after leading none of the race's 200 laps. He should perform much better at Fontana, where he finished in the top ten in both 2009 races.

10. Kasey Kahne

Kahne was also strong early in speedweeks, finishing 2nd in the Budweiser Shootout and winning his duel race. However in the 500 he fell victim to a late race wreck and finished 30th. Kahne had a top ten run going in the fall race last year before a wreck ended his day, look for him to run top 10 once again.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt gave his fans something to cheer for during speedweeks as he started second and rallied late to finish second in the 500. Now the real test for Jr. begins, as he'll need to perform well on tracks such as Fontana if he wants to make the Chase this year.

12. Jeff Gordon

Gordon's speedweeks can be summed up in one work: crash. Gordon wrecked in the Budweiser Shootout, he wrecked in his duel race, and he wrecked on the final restart of the Daytona 500. Gordon needs to put Daytona behind him and get back on track with a solid finish at Fontana, where he finished 2nd in both races last year.

Other notables:

Greg Biffle - Biffle made a pass for the lead while taking the white flag, but couldn't hold on to earn his first win at Daytona since his rookie season. Regardless, he finished 3rd and has been dominant at Fontana in the past.

Kevin Harvick - Harvick had a solid day at Daytona, finishing 7th after having led the most laps. A strong run at Fontana will put him on the right path to make the Chase.

David Reuttimann - Reuttimann started out the year strong with a top-5 finish. Look for him to contend to win some races this year and possibly be a dark horse to make the Chase.

Martin Truex Jr. - Truex finished 6th in his first race with Michael Waltrip racing. This week will be a test of how well MWR can do on non-plate tracks.

Kyle Busch - Have to mention Busch, he's been solid at Fontana the past few years and should be up front once again today.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Budweiser Shootout Letdown

This year's Budweiser Shootout was great, for the most part. It had just about everything: white nuckle racing, sentimental favorites and new faces running up front, and the sport's greats laying it all on the line for the victory. What it lacked was the most important thing of all: a thrilling finish.

In last year's Shootout there was exciting four wide action in the final laps until a last lap crash in turn three gave Kevin Harvick the win just moments after he made the winning pass around Jamie McMurray. This year's race was set up for another climatic finish, as it restarted with 2 laps to go.

Entering turn one, Harvick made what would become the winning pass on Greg Biffle, though Biffle raced him side-by-side down the backstretch, with a strong push from Jeff Gordon and teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who had dominated the early stages of the event. However, entering turn three contact between Gordon and Biffle sent Biffle around as the cars on the outside line piled into each other, while Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray snuck by as the yellow came out.

Talk about a letdown of a finish. 78 laps of fantastic racing was all leading up to the race ending before the cars could get wound up to full speed. If only there could have been another shot at the restart, maybe the race would have had the finish it deserved.

The unfortuanate part of it all is that the race not only would have been better if it had finished under green, but it was supposed to.

"On TV it said it must end under green," third place finisher Jamie McMurray said in a post-race interview. Even race winner Kevin Harvick mentioned it during his interview on Speed channel's Nascar Victory Lane, after being asked when he knew he had won the Shootout.

"Let me just tell you, on the entry blanket it says 'race must finish under green,'" Harvick replied. "They're celebrating and I'm like, 'I don't think thats right.' I said 'race finish under green' is what I saw on the flyer. I never said anything on the radio until I saw the checkered flag."

Despite this, the race was ended for a wreck in turn three coming to the white flag. We can only speculate how the event may have concluded had another restart followed, though according to McMurray the race may have been best ending the way it had.

"There wouldn't have been anything left. They would have just kept wrecking."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tyler Head's Power Rankings: Preseason

Welcome to a new year of Tyler Head's Power Rankings! After taking a hiatus from blogging, I'm back and better than ever! Okay, maybe I can't promise that I'm better than ever, but I'm back nonetheless! So with that here are the preseason rankings on a 2010 season that is sure to be exciting with Jimmie Johnson unpresidented seeking his fifth consecutive championship, while the likes of Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin look to dethrone him. Meanwhile, Nascar takes a step back to its roots, leaving racing in the driver's hands, and removing the rear wing in favor of a spoiler. Without further delay, here are my preseason rankings!

1. Jimmie Johnson

Are you surprised? You shouldn't be, there's no need to explain why this man is on top of these rankings, considering that he is, and has been for the last four years, on top of the Nascar world. Johnson may not be the points leader in the early months of the season, but when it counts towards the end of the season he'll be right where he wants to be, its up to the other 42 drivers out there to make sure he doesn't stay there. Until that happens though, Johnson stays where he's been for so long: the top.

2. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin had a fighting chance at the title in 2009, but an accident while leading at Fontana and mechanical failures at Charlotte and Talladega kept Hamlin from keeping touch with Johnson, despite earnign two wins at Martinsville and Homestead over the last five races. Despite those issues, Hamlin finished a solid fifth in the final standings, and despite a torn ACL he is one of the favorites to take the championship from Johnson in 2010. Hamlin will only get better as he matures, all he needs is a little good luck to come his way to win it all.

3. Jeff Gordon

On the final race weekend of 2009, Rick Hendrick announced that Gordon was committed to racing full time through at least 2013, indicating that Gordon still has a lot left in the tank. His performance last year shows it as well, with a win and eight second place finishes to his credit, and a third place finish in the final point standings. If Gordon can get things rolling at the right time of the season and close out races strong, he will be among the drivers racing for the title at Homestead.

4. Tony Stewart

Talk about an instant success, Stewart took a team that was sub-par at best and turned it into a championship caliper team, winning four races and making the Chase, silencing all critics of his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing to start his own team. Stewart should perform well once again in 2010, will the foundations of Stewart/Haas Racing clearing well in place.

5. Mark Martin

Remember way back when this guy was retiring in 2005? With a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports to drive full time through 2011, that clearly is a long forgotten memory for the 51 year old veteran. Five wins and his fifth second place championship finish in 2009 show that he can still perform on the track, and his sophomore year with Hendrick Motorsports may just be the one where he finally rids himself of the title "best driver to never win a championship."

6. Kurt Busch

Busch rounded out 2009 with a fourth place finish in points, with wins at Atlanta and Texas to his credit. Roger Penske will look for Busch to have continued success, as he continues to lead the team as Sam Hornish Jr. continues his transition from open wheel racing and Brad Keselowski begins his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series. If 2009 is any indication, the Blue Deuce will be a contended on the 1.5 milers, a complete package in 2010 will put Busch in the hunt for his second championship.

7. Kyle Busch

Coming off a disappointing 2009 campaign where he won four races but failed to make the twelve man Chase at the end of the season Busch will be more determined than ever to win races and compete for a title. Watch out for Busch in the 500 as well, he had strong cars in both the 2008 and 2009 Daytona 500s, and had a streak of three consecutive finishes of 2nd or better heading into the 2009 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona when he wrecked from the lead coming to the checkered flag.

8. Juan Pablo Montoya

Montaya hit the high point of his short Nascar career in 2009, failing to earn a win despite coming close in several races, including the Brickyard 400, but made the Chase for the first time and finished 8th in the final standings. Montoya should continue to improve, earning a wins on ovals and making the Chase. If he can get things to go his way in the final 10 events, he can upset Johnson when the checkered flag flies at Homestead.

9. Carl Edwards

Edwards was supposed to be the one to prevent Johnson from earning a fourth championship, instead he earned fewer top fives than he had wins in 2008, and finished 11th in the final championship standings. Cousin Carl shouldn't stay down long, though, as he'll attempt a resurgance in 2010. If the 99 runs the way it did in 2008, Edwards will be in position to give Jack Roush his third championship. However, Bob Osborne has a lot of work to do to get the team running at that high a level.

10. Kasey Kahne

With rumors spreading that Kahne might leave Richard Petty Motorsports after the 2010 season in favor of a better team, you can expect RPM to the majority of its resources into its star driver. Kahne's 11 career are proof of Kahne's driving ability, its up to RPM to give him the equipment he needs to succeed.

11. Jeff Burton

Richard Childress Racing struggled throughout the 2009 season, with each of its four teams failing to reach victory lane. However, Burton's Caterpilla Impala SS came close in the final races of 2009, earning three top-5's in the final three races. Expect that momentum to rollover into 2010, and for Burton to make his way back towards the top of the standings with consistent finishes each week.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Are you surprised? You should be, Earnhardt's 2009 campaign was dreadful at best, as the 88 team managed to earn just five top-10's in 36 races, with none in the final 12 races of the season. So, why is he ranked so high? Its simple, Earnhardt is coming into the 2010 season a new man, focused more on racing and confident in his team's ability to give what he needs to succeed, as Lance McGrew begins his first full season as Earnhardt's crew chief. You simply cannot keep a star like Earnhardt down, which is why I'm going out on a limb and predicting a resurrection of the fourth Hendrick team.

Other notables:

Ryan Newman - Newman silently made the Chase alongside teammate Stewart. Expect Newman to make a highlight reel or two in 2010, without flipping his car.

Matt Kenseth - The 2003 champion is coming off his first season in which he did not make the Chase. Expect Kenseth to get back on track in 2010, with consistency being a key to success.

Kevin Harvick - Harvick was part of the misery that was Richard Childress Racing in 2009. He'll be driven to get out of the gutter and back to the headlines in 2010.

Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose's oval effort improved dramatically in 2009, and continued improvement in 2010 may just see Ambrose sneak his way into the Chase.

Brian Vickers - Vickers earned the second win of his career at Michigan and made the Chase for the first time, but had little success in the season's final ten races. Vickers and crew would certainly appreciate a second chance to show what they can do when it matters most.