News & Media

Track Smack: Hamlin looks for edge as NASCAR strikes balance

March 31, 2011, ,

Debating the merits of competition, shorter races and Hamlin's ability to rebound

1. Five races, and five different winners for five different teams. Does that mean NASCAR has struck a competitive balance?

Mark Aumann: And none of those winners are Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin, which tells you that there's been a little bit of a power shift so far in 2011. Still, Johnson was one turn from winning last weekend, and Hamlin is nails at Martinsville, so I fully expect them to add their names to that list soon.

David Caraviello: I'm not sure if I'd go quite that far. I'm sure Daytona Beach is very happy that the wealth has been spread a little to this point, but in reality we have victories by the four best teams in the sport -- Roush, Hendrick, RCR and Gibbs -- and one shocker that's partly the result of restrictor-plate racing. The big powers are still the big powers. No, Johnson hasn't won yet, and no, none of the big boys has won repeatedly, but both of those are coming.

Dave Rodman: I hate to use the word luck because it's not always appropriate. Part of it is luck, but if you look at Kevin Harvick's stunning come-from-behind win at Auto Club last weekend, that was a lot of accrued wisdom and ability coming to the fore. Perfect timing all the way around. And since we're heading to Martinsville, it's pretty likely we'll be six-for-six after this weekend, and that's great any way you look at it.

Mark Aumann: The weirdest thing is that the best car hasn't necessarily been driven into Victory Lane. At Phoenix, Carl Edwards got wrecked early. Tony Stewart gave one away at Las Vegas. And Kyle Busch was the class of the field at Fontana. But you're right, David. We're still talking about the same four teams. Just different players.

David Caraviello: And perhaps the most consistent team to date hasn't won at all. Tony Stewart has had a chance to win two of the past three races, but circumstances conspired against him, and Ryan Newman is second in the points. Perhaps the only surprise is that Stewart-Haas hasn't won. But you still wonder how much of a major player they can become, given that they get so much of their equipment from somewhere else. Can a team that relies on another for support win a championship, regardless of how good the drivers on that team are?

Dave Rodman: But Mark, you called-out the key element: Different. I think it's gonna continue and if those five mega-organizations can be balanced, that's what -- nearly 20 teams? I don't think you can reasonably ask for more than that.

Mark Aumann: But is that really any different than having only one or two cars in the Petty/Woods/Bud Moore/Junior Johnson era? Yeah, there were a half-dozen teams that could win then. The only difference was not having half the field.

David Caraviello: Well, I don't know that every car for every one of those top four teams can win. The jury is still very much out on a few guys -- David Ragan, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, some others who have had uneven starts, or those like Paul Menard who's been very good but hasn't won before. Just because Roush is good -- and they are -- doesn't necessarily mean everybody at that organization is a world-beater. There are hierarchies even within the best teams.

Owner Standings

As of Fontana
Pos.No. OwnerPts.Behind
2.39T. Stewart 178-9
3.22W. Czarnecki177-10
4.18J. Gibbs176-11
5.48J. Gordon173-14
6.14M. Haas 170-17
7.27T. Pumpelly164-23
8.42C. Ganassi 161-26
9.29R. Childress157-30
10.17J. Henry 157-30

Mark Aumann: I think the argument comes back to the whole mega-team issue. Are we better off having 18 drivers for four teams that are basically equal? Or having more teams? Yeah, NASCAR has morphed from a handful of really strong single-car teams and the have-nots to a handful of really strong multi-car teams and the have-nots.

Dave Rodman: It's the state of the sport in this day and time. Anyone who's disgruntled or disappointed about it needs to get over it. And anyone from each of those organizations can win on a given day, it's just that Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon or Carl Edwards will have a lot more days to choose from than David Ragan, Joey Logano, Paul Menard or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

David Caraviello: Here's the interesting thing to me. Yes, you have four teams that are probably head and shoulders above everyone else. But then you have the likes of Penske, Ganassi, and Stewart-Haas, all which field cars that are capable. And you have a group of cars like those at RPM, Red Bull, Wood Brothers and elsewhere that can win a race at some point if things go right. So I think the middle class, if you will, is healthy. It just gets overshadowed by the top teams gunning for the title, something not everyone can do.

Dave Rodman: There's no question you have to play to your current strength -- and if that means four or five really strong owners with multiple teams apiece -- ride that horse. Just the way it is, and that's better by far than having three or four owners battling for a win with fifth place, six laps down.

Mark Aumann: But is the sport better off because of mega teams? It's different. And I don't know if I'll be able to answer that until we see how this all plays out. It's basically killed off independents. You'll never see another Kulwicki.

Dave Rodman: This is just like a year-by-year encyclopedia of the sport's history. No different, really, than ever -- just slightly different numbers. File and move on.

David Caraviello: Yeah the whole "are big teams better" Pandora's box was thrown open more than a decade ago. No longer a matter of whether it's better or worse -- it's simply reality. Way too late to turn back the clock on that one,

Dave Rodman: You could see another Kulwicki. But it would take an individual just as unique as Alan was, with the same stout bunch of bandits aligned with him -- but with 10 times the financing.

David Caraviello: Kimi Raikkonen and Foster Gillett! Here they come, baby, ready to rock it old-school style! OK, maybe not.

Dave Rodman: Raikkonen's certainly got the financing, if he's careful about the documents he signs his name to.

David Caraviello: And who he aligns himself with. But that's another issue for another Track Smack, perhaps in 2026 when that rumored deal finally gets off the ground.

2. Auto Club Speedway trimmed its race last weekend from 500 to 400 miles. Did the tactic work?

Mark Aumann: You know, a great finish always eclipses a mediocre race. Case in point, the 1976 Daytona 500. But it only masks the flaw that is racing at Fontana. Yeah, there's great action for the first lap after a restart but the cars immediately string out into long single-car trains. And yes, 400 miles was the right call. I can remember covering the night race there and walking out to the pit road at about Lap 125 and thinking, 'We're only halfway?'

Dave Rodman: That finish potentially would have happened with a 300-, 400-, 500- or even a 600-mile race. So race lengths are only relevant to a specific attempt at cause-and-effect. Whatever you say about California you can almost say about anywhere else. You wins some and you loses some everywhere we go.

David Caraviello: OK, as someone who was there, let me tell you -- abso-freaking-lutely. Night and day difference. Listen, as wide as it is and as fast as it is, Fontana is just the kind of place that lends itself to long green-flag runs. There's simply no getting around that unless you bulldoze the joint and start over. That said, cutting the mileage got everyone to what they wanted to see -- the fantastic finish -- quicker. A concise, three-hour event, a conclusion that had everyone buzzing -- everyone wins.

Out of nowhere

In a thrilling finish, Kevin Harvick passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap to win at Fontana.

Mark Aumann: You know, perhaps a 10-lap trophy dash with an inverted start on old tires would be the answer. But I don't know how you'd sell tickets.

David Caraviello: California in particular has been absolutely plagued by events that seem to drone on forever. They really needed to do something, and cutting the race distance was a great move. For a track that now hosts just one race a year, it gave them a tremendous selling point for 2012. You're going to see that finish used a lot in commercials for next year's event, I'm sure.

Dave Rodman: There you have it. If you want to make a potential three-hour window a parameter for having a race, NASCAR could do that. They can monkey around with as much stuff as they want to trying to find a successful formula.

Mark Aumann: And the crowd looked like it was up, because the speedway only had to sell one race. Supply and demand. I know losing a race isn't a good answer, but in the case of Fontana, one race is probably plenty.

David Caraviello: Yes, Dave, the days of these all-day events like NASCAR used to claim to want to have, are over. People don't have time for that anymore. Three hours is just right. And at Auto Club Speedway, everything worked out very well.

Mark Aumann: From a history perspective, the first races at Riverside were 500 miles -- on the road course! I think they were almost six hours long. I guess fans had less trouble sitting still back then. Although at Riverside, getting up and walking around the track was a given. And they weren't televised, which was probably a good thing.

Dave Rodman: But to what degree did the Fontana crowd look like it was "up" because the facility is relatively small to begin with, and their seating availability was cut by what? Did anyone ever either announce or determine how-many-thousand seats ACS Charlotted-over? Obviously I'm referring to them using that ancient Charlotte Motor Speedway trick -- covering empty seats with signage.

David Caraviello: The crowd was a vast improvement, something that surprised the track staff a little given that they were coming off another event in October. With only one race to sell, and with that finish to lean on from an advertising standpoint, the track might be able to get its mojo back a little bit. Or at least shake off all the critics, who have been riding that facility without much of a break since it added a second race and the attendance issues cropped up.

Dave Rodman: The only way we'd leave them alone is if we had real numbers, which isn't gonna happen. The crowd was probably marginally up, which is a step in the right direction. So let's let the process continue.

David Caraviello: Dave, the crowd was up. No question. They had a number of tarps covering seats on Friday morning, and they actually had to remove most of them before the race. At the start, I believe three tarps were still up. Listen, they didn't pack the joint with 200,000 people. But given where Auto Club Speedway has been, Sunday was unquestionably an improvement, and this coming from one of the track's biggest critics over the years.

Mark Aumann: It's just a product of today's entertain me now mindset. Three hours is an awful lot of time for people to focus on anything nowadays.

David Caraviello: Mark, I don't know if it's that, or people just have other things going on. NASCAR does not seem to be a sport for the fast-food mindset. But still three hours is plenty enough time. Anything more, and you're asking people to devote most of an entire Sunday, which not everyone wants to do. Gotta mow the lawn sometime! I'm still trying to get over the idea of six hours at Riverside. You must be kidding me. I thought the 500-milers at Rockingham were long!

Mark Aumann: Well, back then, you went to the race to watch the cars go around for the day. Now, some go to the race maybe because of the pre-race concert or the concessions or the midway. That's just how we roll in 2011.

David Caraviello: You honestly think NASCAR fans are going for pre-race concerts? I don't. I think they're going to see Jeff and Jimmie and Junior. But again, another issue for another Track Smack ....

Mark Aumann: Two words. Richard Marx.

3. Denny Hamlin's misery continued in Fontana. He's now 21st in points heading to Martinsville, where he's won three consecutive races. Is he still the favorite there?

Dave Rodman: He's definitely still the favorite. Now, all he needs to do is deliver.

David Caraviello: Absolutely he is. The guy had a great car at Fontana, and was able to mix it up with teammate Kyle Busch -- who dominated the race -- before his engine started giving him trouble. Engines shouldn't be an issue Sunday. His Martinsville record is impeccable. If there's ever a time for the guy to start to get well from a racing standpoint, this is it. Martinsville is home cookin'.

Mark Aumann: Of the past nine races there, he's won four (including the past three) and Jimmie Johnson's won the other five. So yeah, I'd still put him at the top of the list. And yeah, last week I pooh-poohed David's comments on the runner-up jinx. Now, I'm not so sure. But things have a tendency to even out eventually, and Hamlin's certainly had enough odd moments in 2011.

David Caraviello: It's amazing to me, that every race at Martinsville since late 2006 has been won by wither Johnson or Hamlin. Astounding how those two dudes just own that place. Everyone else must have a mental block just walking through the gates.

Mark Aumann: We talked a little about this last week, but the new Chase system that rewards two drivers with wild cards for wins really plays into Hamlin's hand this year. If he holds serve at Martinsville and Pocono, he doesn't really have to make up ground. Three wins is probably enough to gain one of those wild card spots -- if he stays in the top 20.

Dave Rodman: If they still have it, they probably need to drop back to a more conservative engine package. The team and driver are obviously dialed-in there, but they can't risk another catastrophe that's spared no one at JGR this year. If you throw a couple of Gibbs cars in with a couple of Hendrick cars and maybe a Roush car or two and a couple of RCR's -- that's a pretty mean show. Even at three-and-a-half or nearly four hours!

Mark Aumann: You mean I've got to sit there for four hours on Sunday? That's a lot of hot dogs.

David Caraviello: Oh gosh, I just got indigestion thinking about that. Throw in Jeff Gordon and you have three guys who between them have all but two of the wins there since 2003. That's a freaking eternity ago. Why does this one track lend itself to be dominated more so than others? Do the setup notes just not change there that much year to year? Is it short-track backgrounds on the part of drivers? I honestly do not know.

Mark Aumann: I really think the teams that run well at Martinsville come in with such confidence. They know they have the place figured out. And that just reinforces their mindset.

Dave Rodman: Whatever these drivers have, it meshes perfectly with what you need to succeed at the paperclip. Of course, the close quarters we all love so well mean someone can get a fender in there crossways and try to spoil your day, but as Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth proved last year, the proximity of the place leads to instant payback -- and a great show.

Mark Aumann: That's so last year, Dave. We're in the here and now.

David Caraviello: For all the talk about Denny, though, Johnson still owns the best average finish at this race track among active drivers -- 5.333. Hamlin and Gordon are the only other two active drivers who have average finishes there inside the top 10, which says something about how lopsided the place has been toward those three guys in recent years. No. 4? Try Joey Logano, with an average finish of 13th. That surprises me.

Mark Aumann: Small sample size. You would think this is a race where you have to start up front to run there, and yet Hamlin's won twice from mid-pack. Which tells you three things. You can pass, given the opportunity. You need a crew chief willing to make some gutsy calls to give you track position. And you need some luck. That's the one thing Hamlin doesn't seem to have so far in 2011.

Dave Rodman: With Logano's short-track background, it shouldn't be a surprise. And talk about needing a breakthrough? That would be a show -- and a story if Joey can score a win.

David Caraviello: Dale Jr. is well up that list as well, with an average finish of 13.8. Not to get the denizens of Junior Nation too excited about this week or anything.

Dave Rodman: Well, he likes Martinsville, and he's with a crew chief, Steve Letarte, who's not only had some success there but who's been in the middle of some of those scrums and gutsy calls. There's another breakthrough that would be pretty cool.

David Caraviello: Dave, you have the storylines all lined up. The promoter in you is coming out again, just like last week. Can't wait to see what you have in store for Texas!

Mark Aumann: Just wait until you see his new cowboy boots.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer