News & Media

Track Smack: All eyes on Junior as he looks to end winless skid

February 19, 2011, ,

Could see something never seen before at Daytona with two-car packs

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the pole for the Daytona 500. Can he win it?

Joe Menzer: Sure, he can win it. He's at his best in these restrictor-plate races, and he loves Daytona. But will he win it? I doubt it. Starting from the pole in the Daytona 500 usually means next to nothing, although it certainly is a feather in his AMP Energy cap to start the season and perhaps bodes of better times ahead.

David Caraviello: Absolutely. Dale Jr.'s struggles of recent years don't hide the fact that he's still one of the best restrictor-plate drivers of his generation. Remember that charge he made from back in the pack to finish second last year? If he can stay out of trouble -- no small feat -- of course he'll be a factor at the end. Of course he can win it.

Mark Aumann: Well, since he finished second and fourth at Daytona last season -- two of his three top-five finishes -- I think he's certainly one of the favorites. Having said that, the 500 has evolved into a Roulette wheel-like game of chance. And wow, Menzer. Starting with the gratuitous sponsor plugs right off the bat.

David Caraviello: In fairness, I will admit I don't think Dale Jr. is a big fan of this two-car drafting setup that's emerged right now, and it's hard to win something if you haven't completely embraced what it's all about. But inherently, absolutely he's good enough. And he and Jeff Gordon sweeping the front row makes you think that Hendrick may have gotten a handle on the speed issues that so hampered those cars last year -- at least as far as Daytona is concerned.

Joe Menzer: The other factor that could be in play here is karma. Jeff Gordon already has been commenting on it. It had been 10 years since Junior's legendary father passed away on that last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500. If the memory of that plays into this at all, it could go two ways for Dale Jr.: it could distract him, or it could provide him with a laser-like focus at precisely the right time. Or truthfully, this could be no factor at all.

Mark Aumann: And you can't discount the fact that Dale probably feels as much, if not more, pressure to win at Daytona, considering it's a place where he's had much of his greatest success -- and 10 years after his father's death there.

Joe Menzer: That's what I'm saying. That kind of pressure can be a double-edged sword.

To the back

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 pole but when the green falls he will be in the back of the pack due to a practice crash that forced him to his backup car.

David Caraviello: Hey, NASCAR does have a history of these strange coincidences playing out. No, we're not saying anything is preordained, of that Junior got the "special" restrictor plate, or any of the old canards that the cynics like to toss around in these cases. But it wouldn't be the first time that the victory would have extra-special meaning to the victor. And to see Dale Jr. win on the 10th anniversary of his dad's crash -- I don't think that possibility is lost on him. You'd have 150,000 people with lumps in their throats.

Mark Aumann: The thing that plays against Dale is just the fact that with common body styles, restrictor plates and this odd two-car tango drafting style, the fastest car and the best driver doesn't necessarily equate to winning. It's perhaps more of a crap shoot than ever before. Any one of about 20 cars is strong enough to win the race. It's all a matter of avoiding trouble until the final 25 miles, then getting the right push partner.

Joe Menzer: Just look at last July's Nationwide victory for Junior, which came in a car with one of his dad's old paint schemes. That was a real shot in the arm for not only JR Motorsports at the time, but for NASCAR as a whole. And it was pretty darn cool.

Mark Aumann: Just getting rid of the winless streak, whether that comes at Daytona, Phoenix, Las Vegas or anywhere, would be huge for Dale. He just needs to get back to enjoying himself in the race car.

David Caraviello: But goodness, think of the shot in the arm it would be for NASCAR, for Junior to win the 500, with the whole anniversary thing, at a time when the sport's TV ratings need a boost. That's the best-case scenario for the sport, although maybe 42 other guys would disagree. But you guys are right, that's a whole lot for one man to shoulder.

Mark Aumann: Unless your name is Atlas.

Joe Menzer: Don't forget that this pole isn't the first one Junior has "won" this Speedweeks, either. He randomly drew the top starting spot for the Bud Shootout as well, which is what got Gordon commenting on this karma deal. Of course you saw how that worked out for Junior during the actual race. He's obviously hoping for much better results Sunday -- and so, probably, is all of NASCAR.

David Caraviello: Exactly. But hey, having him and Jeff Gordon on the pole -- perhaps the two most popular drivers in NASCAR, both trying to snap long losing streaks -- surely helps generate interest even before the event begins. Daytona president Joie Chitwood III had to be elated after pole day, which certainly helped in his effort to sell tickets.

Mark Aumann: And don't forget Trevor Bayne and Paul Menard! (Although it's very cool to see the Wood Brothers car way up there.)

David Caraviello: I think there's only one thing that could possibly rival the emotion that would accompany Dale Jr. winning the Daytona 500 -- and that would be the Wood Brothers winning it. After all they've been through, and Bayne being such an unknown quantity in this kind of event, is that even possible? But goodness, the smile that be spread across Eddie Wood's face ...

Mark Aumann: Fifty years ago, they had Curtis Turner in the No. 21. Unfortunately, he finished 55th.

Joe Menzer: That would rival the emotion of a Dale Jr. win within NASCAR, but a win by Dale Jr. would resonate not only within NASCAR but outside of it as well. And that would be the much bigger boost NASCAR could use heading into this 2011 season. Both would be great stories to tell.

David Caraviello: Goodness. One third of the way through the first Track Smack of the year, and Joe 'Buzzkill' Menzer strikes again. Gonna be a long season.

Mark Aumann: Well, he is still looking for full-season sponsorship partners.

Joe Menzer: Just callin' 'em like I see 'em, fellas. Get used to it.

2. This past week brought something new at Daytona: the two-car draft. Will it enhance or detract from NASCAR's biggest race?

Mark Aumann: It was truly one of the oddest-looking races I've ever watched. Weird in a fascinating way. I assumed drivers would use a two-car draft near the end, but not during the entire Shootout. I guess a combination of cool weather and smooth track allowed them to stick like lovebugs the whole way.

Joe Menzer: I'm not sure, to be honest. Regardless of the many times they all broke into separate two-car drafts, there was some pretty good, hairy three-wide racing at times, too. The powers-that-be obviously were concerned about it, however, or they wouldn't have come back a day later with the rules changes they did to try to slow the cars down and perhaps break 'em outta those two-car drafts.

Smaller plates

In an attempt to slow the Cup cars down, NASCAR has reduced the size of the restrictor plate.

David Caraviello: The instant I saw it, I thought -- oh boy, fans are going to hate this. They want their 43-car monster packs, buzzing along like fleets of huge insects. This is a much more delicate, subtle way of racing, and I thought, at least on Saturday, it was interesting enough. Different does not mean bad. But people want what they want, and I don't think it's this, although in fairness those cars were traveling terribly fast under that setup.

Joe Menzer: At the same time, you have to admit that it was, in a strange way like Mark said, different and kind of intriguing. And that's good. But there is no question they were going too fast.

David Caraviello: It all just goes to show you how unpredictable aerodynamics can be. Clearly, you don't want another pothole situation, so you have to resurface the track. The fans and manufacturers want more brand identity, so the front ends are changed. And then you get to Daytona, and the way the air flows over there cars in a situation that's impossible to replicate in a wind tunnel is unlike anything we've ever seen.

Mark Aumann: I'm still trying to digest whether I liked it or not. It's just so different from anything we've ever seen that I'm having a hard time comprehending it. With a warmer day Sunday -- and a 500-mile race distance -- I'm guessing we'll see something more like a typical Daytona pack for the first two-thirds of the race. I would think drivers would save the two-car drafts for money time, when they need that burst of speed. When I think of the slingshot move, I think of Cale and LeeRoy, Richard and David or Cale and Donnie -- but not throughout the entire field. I think that's what made it so unusual, watching the 15th- and 16th-place cars drafting two-by-two.

David Caraviello: I love the fact that this really puts a premium on who you're drafting with, and it really accentuates the difference between who's good at this and who's not. I like that the slingshot effect seems to be back -- take away the yellow-line situation, and you have a hell of a finish in the Shootout. Heck, you did anyway.

Joe Menzer: Here's the other thing: there were only 24 cars on the track Saturday -- mostly the best drivers in the business (I know, I know, Kevin Conway was out there, too). They were for the most part being very careful about how they executed the two-car bump drafting -- and even then, one of the most talented and most experienced of them all, Mark Martin, dumped Kyle Busch. Think about what could happen with 43 cars and more not-so-experienced drivers trying to execute this delicate touch during a much longer race. Could be a couple of really big wrecks, for sure.

David Caraviello: And I had hoped that breaking the cars into pairs might lessen the chance of a big one, like we usually see when all the vehicles are in a pack. But then again, we had quite a few cars wadded up in the Earnhardt-Carl Edwards accident Saturday night, and this in a short-field event.

Mark Aumann: Well, that was one of the more surprising things, having a couple of two-car accidents involving veteran drivers. Mark Martin and Tony Stewart don't usually make mistakes like that.

Joe Menzer: The fact that we're sitting here only days away from the race, obviously anxious about how it's going to play out, is good in itself. No one is really sure how this is going to play out -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sitting on the pole next to Jeff Gordon on the front row, and there is lots of uncertainty and intrigue. I think those are ingredients for a great start to the season.

David Caraviello: No question, Joe. But guys going 206 mph certainly is not. I don't want to see anybody go airborne (again) during a plate race, and I'm glad that NASCAR is taking some steps to slow the cars down. We'll find out Thursday in the twin qualifiers if they're enough.

Mark Aumann: Perhaps the Duel will be more valuable this year than for quite some time, just to give drivers more of an idea what they might expect during race conditions. If they break into two-car drafts and stay that way all day, then the 500 is going to be a very odd race.

Joe Menzer: Agreed on that. They needed to do something to slow them down a little. Let's hope that will be accomplished, although not everyone may agree.

Mark Aumann: Well, they've gotten upside down at lesser speeds. I know 200 mph is this magic number but honestly I don't know what becomes excessive. I felt like the cars were more stable Saturday night -- probably because of the smoother track -- than they've been in a long time.

Joe Menzer: Mark is right. There is no known magic number. But I do believe we can correctly assume that until a magic number is found, going faster and getting upside down could be more catastrophic than going slower and getting upside down. So they needed to do something to slow them down.

3. Daytona marks the debut of NASCAR's revised points system, which will affect all three national series. Was it a change that was needed?

David Caraviello: I don't exactly recall an outcry for changing the points system. I know NASCAR said the simplification idea comes from their fan council, but the e-mails I receive from readers simply don't reflect that. At its essence, I believe this is a move to try and draw in non-NASCAR fans, by making the standings easy for anyone to grasp -- turn on the TV, see the running order, and know how everyone stands.

Mark Aumann: I'm still scratching my head on that one. The old points system had been in place for 35 years and I hadn't heard a peep from anyone about it until this offseason. For all the issues facing the sport right now, playing with numbers -- and not actually making any radical changes to the percentages -- seems like rearranging the deck chairs.


Bill Kimm and Mark Spoor debate which rule change will have the biggest positive impact on the sport.

Joe Menzer: The funny thing about this, to me, is that NASCAR tells us the fans were clamoring for this. I know they have their fan council and I think that's great. But I have to be honest here,.I don't know about you two, but of all the hundreds -- geez, thousands in the course of the season -- e-mails and comments I get from fans, I never once in the five years I've been on this staff can remember one about changing the points outside of the Chase. I've gotten some about tweaking points during the Chase, but not about something like this. Of course, I've also gotten many about doing away with the Chase -- which I don't agree with. But from what I understand, Brian France has some sort of pop-up spam blocker on those.

Mark Aumann: I will say that figuring the points for the final 10 races of 2010 under the new system was significantly easier to put into the spreadsheet for Power Rankings. And will it make it easier to determine where someone's running relative to another car? Yes. But I still don't see what it does, other than compress the point differential over the same span of time.

David Caraviello: Yes, the Chase is a whole different ballgame. There is no shortage of opinion from fans on what to do with that, although I find that the fans who attend races in person typically have fewer problems with it than those who stay at home. Curmudgeons don't travel well, I guess. But remaking the points system? The whole simplification argument? That came out of left field, and it's got to be to try and make NASCAR more accessible to the casual sports fan.

Joe Menzer: To answer Mark's question on what it does: it gives the illusion throughout the season that the standings are closer -- and it also penalizes drivers more than ever for poor finishes.

Mark Aumann: The system still does less to reward someone for a good finish than it penalizes someone for a bad one. That's the inherent flaw in Bob Latford's design. And the new points don't do anything to solve that.

Joe Menzer: No one asked me and no one is likely to ever ask me, but I thought they should have given more bonus points for wins -- at least five, if not 10. And you can call him crazy if you want, but Felix Sabates is onto something when it comes to throwing out some of your bad finishes. He said four, Jack Roush said two. I have always liked that idea. Of course, they would be pre-Chase races.

Mark Aumann: I do like the two Chase wildcards, as long as they kept the maximum number of Chase drivers at 12.

David Caraviello: Well, drivers and team owners will be the first to tell you that things should shake out pretty much the same, although there are worries about championship contenders being doomed by one poor finish in the Chase. Honestly, right now, I don't believe it's going to change that much at all. The guys who are going to be good are still going to be the guys who are good. And no, no, we are not throwing out bad finishes. Goodness, that only complicates the process. We're trying to make this easier, remember?

Needs adjusting

Get an inside look at how Joe Menzer spent his time on the Sprint Cup Media Tour in Charlotte.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, the old system and new system pretty much matched up in last year's Chase, although Jimmie Johnson would have won the title by 1 point over Kevin Harvick. And geez, I thought that media tour massage would have relaxed Menzer, but he's tense.

Joe Menzer: Easy, Mark. I like the wildcards, too. And since I'm a journalist, not a mathematician, I'm personally all for the easier way to count the points in a general sense. I'm just not sure it was necessary, I am sure no fans were clamoring for it from my end, and I thought it could have been done a little differently. I am tense, though. I need another massage. I don't know which I liked better -- the actual media tour massage or cutting in line in front of Aumann to get it.

Mark Aumann: I'm glad you're going to Daytona, David. You might need to get Menzer a five-point harness and a HANS device for his work chair.

David Caraviello: I understand where Felix is coming from, but once you open the Pandora's box of hypotheticals -- hey, let's do this! No, let's do this! -- you can never put the lid back on the thing. That's one thing about this sport, there are 500 different opinions about how to do any one thing, and you can so lose yourself in options that you forget the real issue at hand.

Joe Menzer: Um, David, NASCAR opened Pandora's box of hypotheticals a long time ago, didn't they? It's the nature of the sport -- lots of moving parts and pieces and always trying to get it right. Let's just say that now that they've changed all this stuff, I hope they pretty much let it be for the next two or three seasons instead of looking to change it all around again next time they perceive a problem.

Mark Aumann: Pandora's Box would be a great sponsor for pit road, by the way.

David Caraviello: The No. 62 Pandora's Box Impala really ran good today!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.