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Minter: Forget Level, Playing Field Has Been Plowed Up

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 1 2009
With the first half of the season these two guys have had, they should be smiling. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

With the first half of the season these two guys have had, they should be smiling. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

As the NASCAR circuit heads back to Daytona International Speedway for the traditional start of the second half of the season, it’s a good time to look at some of the events that have – or haven’t – transpired in the first half.

Rick Minter

Rick Minter

For starters, there’s a Who’s Who list of drivers who are 0 for the first 17 races. Among the top 12 in the points standings are five non-winners – Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, and Juan Pablo Montoya.

What really goes against the grain is the lack of success by some of the big multi-car teams. At Roush Fenway Racing, Matt Kenseth won the first two races of the season, but since then has just two other top-fives. The rest of the team, Biffle, Edwards, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan have zeros in their win columns.

Richard Childress Racing, which had begun to make a habit of putting all its drivers in the Chase, heads to Daytona with none in the top 12. And all four, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Casey Mears and Jeff Burton, are winless so far.

If not for Joey Logano’s lucky win at New Hampshire, Joe Gibbs Racing would have only one winning driver, Kyle Busch, at this point.

And then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., who can solve a lot of his own and NASCAR’s problems on Saturday night. No matter how things are going elsewhere, Junior is usually good at Daytona and Talladega.

This year is shaping up to be the Year of the Unlikely Winner. Brad Keselowski wins at Talladega for James Finch, a car owner who can often be found among the ranks of the start-and-park teams.

David Reutimann wins on a gas-mileage gamble in a rain-shortened race at Charlotte, a day after Mike Bliss pulled off the same feat in a Nationwide race. Joey Logano gets his first win under nearly the exact same scenario.

Ordinarily, races won by underdogs are reason for traditional fans to celebrate. But the outcomes also underscore the influence of NASCAR’s rules changes, which don’t sit too well with the old-time crowd.

At New Hampshire, Logano benefited from two “lucky dog” free passes that allowed him to get back on the lead lap.

And the shrinking of the capacity of the fuel cells in the cars from 22 to 18 gallons has played a major role in the outcome of several races, including Tony Stewart’s win at Pocono as well as Logano’s and Reutimann’s.

Speaking of Stewart, who would have thought he’d be the points leader in his first season as a driver/co-owner of his race team? Answer; most anyone who has ever seen him at work with the short track teams he owns. Stewart is a natural-born leader, a motivator and a great judge of talent.

When Stewart snagged Bobby Hutchens to run his team, old timers in the garage knew that it wouldn’t take the meticulous Hutchens long to transform the old Haas CNC Racing team into a powerhouse.

Stewart’s mom, Pam Boas, likes to tell the story of a young Tony participating in pizza sales with his youth group at church. It seems that Tony would essentially appoint himself chairman, develop a business plan, delegate responsibilities and soon the pizzas would be sold.

Unfortunately, it also seems that Stewart developed quite a liking for pizza and other fattening foods, but his growing girth doesn’t seem to be slowing him a bit on the race track.

Last week’s Nationwide Series race signaled some bad news for Kyle Busch haters. It’s now looking like the guitar-smashing Busch is back on pace to match his 21-win season of a year ago. Heading to Daytona, he has three wins in Cup, five in Nationwide and two in the Camping World Truck Series.

The New Hampshire race appears to be a sign of a shift in race strategy for Busch and his team, one that his detractors won’t like. After leading the most laps in the eight previous races while winning just two of them, Busch let another driver, Joey Logano, do the leading while he tuned on his car for the run to the checkered flag.

From hearing his post-race comments, it’s clear he’s learned a lesson.

“Normally when we’re out front we don’t adjust on it,” he said. “We didn’t have the winning car, we made the winning car. That’s just what seems to be the different thing about our cars sometimes. Sometimes when we’re out front we’re content with what we’ve got and we end up getting beat in the end – the show is stolen from us.”

But no matter what strategy he tries, with the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide program, he’ll win some anyway.

Normally, when the NASCAR circuit hits Daytona in February for the start of the season, there’s much speculation over the unknowns of the upcoming season. Then by July, things have pretty much sorted themselves out.

Not this year. As the second half unfolds, there are unanswered questions about the impact of the cutbacks in spending by the financially strapped automakers that have backed the sport for years. TV ratings and at-track attendance have been a disappointment. The sport’s biggest star is in a slump. Fewer media types are following the circuit. Green-flag battles for the lead are rare at many events.

What NASCAR needs most is something it can’t manufacture with rules for lucky dogs, double-file restarts and smaller fuel cells.

It needs rivalries and unbridled passion from its drivers. It needs Richard Petty vs. Bobby Allison or Cale Yarborough vs. Darrell Waltrip. It needs drivers who don’t seem too happy over “a good points day” and drivers who say what they think, not what they think a sponsor wants them to say.

Where’s Jimmy Spencer when you need him?

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 1 2009
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