Tuesday, March 15, 2016

NASCAR: California Here We Go Again

The Winston Cup and Xfinity series finish up their pre-Easter West Coast swing at Fontana, and with four races already in the books what has stood out so far is how much every race has become a referendum on NASCAR's neo-5&5 Rule. The cut in downforce has been lobbied for on the varied racecasts every week, and this lobbying - by Rusty Wallace and drag racer Ron Capps last week during the Phoenix race - has struck one as smacking of defensiveness as each race has seen some competitive moments but nowhere has the racing improved from last year or other recent seasons.

Of course loss of downforce has a proven history of not achieving what is advertised of it, and the angle of softer tires helps showcase the futility of the entire war against downforce as demonstrated by crew chief Robert Barker. The tire angle got hotter with five high-profile failures at Phoenix and the issue of melting beads reared its head again.  It remains that Goodyear needs to develop their tire to race more like bias-plies, which are far more forgiving and raceable; a better tire will help the issue of passing and mechanical grip.

For Fontana the age of the surface has also played a competitive role of recent - like Atlanta and Darlington the old surface wears out tires and that's played a part in the outcome.   The 2013 and 2014 runnings were two of the most celebrated in the track's history, with 2013 seeing the track's wildest finish.    Curiously Fontana has seen more than a few competitive races, notably the 2004-2008 period, yet it isn't viewed all that favorably among fans.

Entering the Fontana weekend the Big Four of the Cup series - Joe Gibbs, Hendrick, Penske, and Stewart-Haas - have won the races run so far; Harvick's win came with a racecar whose chief mechanic, Les Huntley, suffered a stroke before the Phoenix race, making the win all the more bittersweet, especially as the SHR team also was without shock specialist Michael McCarville, hospitalized after a bad snowmobile crash before the Phoenix race.

Among the darkhorses - legitimate and relative - entering Fontana, we've seen some quiet improvement in some of the sport's young drivers.   Austin Dillon managed just nine top-10 finishes in his first 85 starts and has three so far in 2016, and that's been it as far as the long-dormant RCR fleet has gone with Paul Menard being what he is and Ryan Newman as yet untracked.

The Roush and Ganassi fleets have been in even worse shape, with just two top-10s combined so far this season; Roush's lone top-10 came from Ricky Stenhouse while Kyle Larson had a seventh at Daytona and has been largely MIA since.

Leading the rookie race so far has been Ryan Blaney in the Wood Brothers #21, with consecutive top-10s and talk of moving him to a third Penske Ford.

A curious dive has been with Martin Truex Jr., who hasn't posted a top-10 since Atlanta.

Unflashy has been Aric Almirola, who hasn't led a lap or finished higher than 12th but has put Petty's #43 on a consistent run so far.

The BK Racing squad has struggled all year but got some respectability for Matt DiBenedetto at Phoenix.

So it goes entering Phoenix.

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