Monday, May 06, 2013

The Upside Down Status Of NASCAR After Talladega

Suddenly the sport - for now - doesn't look the same.

 The Winston 500 was not the most competitive race (it had just 30 lead changes), yet it produced the most amazing finish racing has seen in years, this following an Alabama 500k that almost was the most competitive race in the history of NASCAR's second-tier stock car tour (47 lead changes, just short of the all-time record 56 set in 2011's 312-miler) and topped by a three-abreast finish almost more astonishing than in the 500.

Talladega's Aarons Upsets are just part of a striking change in the sport so far, seen in the varied winners and losers of the weekend.



Front Row Motorsports for the biggest upset and most amazing racing finish in years.  The team is a small outfit even though it is fielding three cars.   What kind of competitive boost comes from this win remains to be seen, but to have gotten this far this fast suggests they can build something going forward; indeed Ford should be working to shore up the depth of its fleet by helping Front Row be able to build its own engines.

David Ragan specifically is also the winner not only of the race, but also the winner in terms of erasing a negative view of his racing career, as he drove Roush Fenway Racing's #6 and managed just one win (the 2011 Firecracker 400); being axed from RFR carried the stigma of career failure, a stigma wiped out in the Talladega rain.

Regan Smith is another big winner, as he was in contention for the Winston 500 and nearly pulled off the Talladega sweep.   Suddenly upward mobility in modern NASCAR may not be extinct after all.

Historically one wouldn't consider Richard Petty's #43 any kind of darkhorse, but given where The King's car owning career has gone the last decade-plus the comeback of the #43 in 2013, notably Aric Almirola's victory bid at Talladega, this on top of Marcus Ambrose's two Watkins Glen wins, counts as the surge of a darkhorse; it also gives Petty ammo if/when Dodge comes back to the sport.

Roush Fenway Racing is also the winner, as it has taken the mantle of restrictor plate mastery from RCR and Hendrick as well as Joe Gibbs Racing.

The other winner is NASCAR the sanctioning body, this despite another example of a race marred because the officiating tower has too much control of the racing - the Alabama 500k was marred because NASCAR ruled Regan Smith the winner based on a scoring loop with the yellow flying instead of by the cars racing to the stripe.   Even with that and the disappointing level of competition for most of the Winston 500, the shocking finish on Sunday combined with the exhilarating level of competition Saturday more than made up for shortcomings.   Sunday also showed real competitive potential with the Generation Six - there was noticeable push-drafting on Sunday and it's no longer implausible to see the Firecracker 400 breaking 40 lead changes and October's Diehard 500 going for 60, and other darkhorses suddenly stealing thunder for the sport. 

NASCAR also deserves praise for finishing the two races despite the persistent rain, though the inevitable calls for lighting at Talladega should be ignored given night racing has not been the benefit to the sport often claimed.


But with winners there are also losers.   Richard Childress, winner at Richmond and once the dominator of Talladega, had a very rough weekend and little to be happy with by the end of Sunday.   Joe Gibbs Racing was also a loser despite Matt Kenseth's 142 laps led - the most at Talladega since Jeff Gordon in 2005.    Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing isn't making anyone ignore the rumored sale of the outfit to John Menard.   Penske Racing had a disappointing weekend.    And Trevor Bayne - the comparisons with Tim Tebow work more than he'd like, because like Tebow Bayne has been MIA since 2011. 

But the biggest loser is Stewart-Haas Racing, in a race that illustrates that Danica Patrick is doing again what she did in Indycars - dragging down the organization for which she races.   SHR has struggled as an organization with Ryan Newman leading the way with four top ten finishes but a paltry 17th in points.   Little Miss Danica is 27th in points and the surge from Daytona Speedweeks has gone the way of expectations after the 2005 Indianapolis 500.   But the biggest surprise is Tony Stewart himself, with one top-ten finish.  

That Newman is right now SHR's top dog is surprising given how much he has slid competitively even with three wins 2010-12 and amid the rumor he is on the way out to be replaced by Kevin Harvick in 2014.   Newman's semi-petulant tantrum after the backstretch melee merely underscores that there is something wrong with how he races to be constantly involved in these crashes. 


And so we approach Darlington, site of Regan Smith's first official Cup win.    In the upside down world of 2013 NASCAR, he may be the favorite.

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