Thoughts on NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series in 140 words or less:
It would be normal to expect Virginian Denny Hamlin to be among the favorites at the Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night especially if you pay a lot of attention to the Loop Data statistics kept by NASCAR. There is no doubt Hamlin gets around the D-shaped short track very well. But his stats and smooth driving do not translate into victories. Hamlin has led 1,390 laps at Richmond in 17 starts and has but two wins to show for it.
The most efficient current driver at Richmond when it comes to victories will not be in the race. Hamlin's injured Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch has won four times while leading 931 laps in 20 starts. (Four other current drivers have three wins at Richmond Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.)
Hamlin, who has recovered from the neck and back spasms which sidelined him at Bristol, is one of the best at conserving his tires at Richmond, one reason why he has led so many laps. ("It's one of the biggest fall offs we have with tires from how it feels the first lap to the last lap," he said. "You have to sort of manage your tires, which you don't have to do a lot anymore these days and that makes it challenging and fun, especially if you get some green flag runs.")
Rarely has a kidney stone been an excuse for a motor racing loss, but that may well have been the case at Bristol last Sunday night. After Crew Chief Tony Gibson had to go to the hospital during the long rain delay due to a kidney stone, former crew chief Greg Zipadelli and engineer John Klausmeyer took over the stategy calls atop the pit wagon. From all indications, they blew it by bringing leader Kurt Busch into the pit with 26 laps to go during a caution to get four fresh tires. (On the other hand, it appeared Busch might have had a shot at catching new leader Matt Kenseth had he not been collected by Carl Edwards' crash.)
Jeff Gordon was surprised to see Busch pit at the finish although he acknowledged the leader in these situations is a sitting duck because those behind the leader tend to do the opposite of what he does. ("To me Kurt, on old tires or on newer tires, he had the dominant car," said Gordon afterward. "I was behind him a lot tonight, and I watched him do things that I didn't see anybody else do. I mean, I saw Jimmie pretty good on the bottom, Carl decent at times, but the 41 would drive by five cars in the middle of the racetrack to the bottom on restarts and then pull back up in line and go to work on the rest of them. He was incredibly fast. I don't know if he necessarily needed -- as it turns out, he didn't probably need to." )
Richard Childress Racing conducted a rather lengthy appeal of its penalties for illegally modifying tires on the Chevy entries of Ryan Newman. The points and fines were reduced to the minimum for a P3 level violation, but the suspensions of three team members stood. (Although a final appeal is still available, the real judge and jury in this situation is time. Will Newman bounce back to become a Chase contender? Or was he doing well because he had a performance advantage other teams did not have.)
There's an irony to this week's green theme, which is promoting NASCAR's commitment to environmental responsibility dubbed the Race to Green. Sprint Cup driver Austin Dillon and Xfinity Series driver Elliott Sadler will carry green colors on their cars to help promote efforts by NASCAR to reduce its carbon foot print. Until Darrell Waltrip and the DiGard Racing team "broke the color barrier" with their Gatorade Chevy entries in 1975, green was considered such bad luck for a race car that everybody avoided it. (The superstition began when Gaston Chevrolet and two riding mechanics died in a horrific and well publicized accident on the Beverley Hills board track in 1920. Chevrolet was behind the wheel of a green Frontenac.)
We've heard about Danica Patrick's records in terms of being the first female driver to record six Top 10 finishes, breaking a tie with Janet Guthrie. But so far not much about how many times she and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have finished in the Top 10 in the same race as happened at Bristol last week. (One concludes that few, if any, care about that stat. The key stat Stenhouse brought Roush Fenway Racing its best finish of a desultory season.)
It's a long way from Oildale the other side of the tracks in Bakersfield, California to the White House, but that's been the career path of 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, who was a guest of President Barack Obama this week. (Call me a cynic, but The NASCAR fans have been considered a large and important voting bloc ever since Jimmy Carter successfully launched his 1976 campaign on Labor Day at Darlington with a straightaway-side chat prior to the Southern 500.)
There is a youth movement afoot in NASCAR, symbolized by 18-year-old Erik Jones' first Sprint Cup drive at Bristol in relief of Denny Hamlin. Cup drivers Kyle Larson, who led 90 laps at Bristol for the Chip Ganassi team, Brett Moffitt, driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, and Matt Dibenedetto of BK Racing are 22. In the Xfinity series, the average age of the top five drivers in the points standings is 21.
One of those drivers is Chase Elliott, who will make his second Sprint Cup start at Richmond and will join the series full time with Hendrick Motorsports at age 20 next year. (This youthful bent should not be a surprise given the huge jump in purses once the new TV contracts were put into place in 2001. Suddenly, a career in NASCAR looked as lucrative as other major sports leagues for young, talented athletes and their families. It also results from NASCAR building a better ladder program of supporting race series that lead to its top touring series.