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Analyzing SpeedWeeks: and what's up with all those fast Fords?

   Things got just a little too hot for Kevin Harvick, one of Saturday night's many victims (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   The good news is the weather's great, 75 to 80 degrees, and bright Florida sun most of the time.
   The bad news is these drivers are crashing like crazy.
   Team owner Roger Penske, who only has two drivers, has already lost four Cup cars.
   And team owner Rick Hendrick lost all four Cup cars in the Shootout.
   This is shaping up as one of the most expensive SpeedWeeks in NASCAR history, especially when you add in the new engine expenses with fuel injection, which car owner Jack Roush pegs at an extra $1 million per team.

   Greg Biffle, who has speed here, and a front row starting spot, figures luck might be a big factor:
   "Let's face it -- when you saw big packs like that before, it was always a five or six-car wreck, minimum.
    "When you're bunched up like that and one guy wrecks, you're going to see six guys in it.
    "My jar that has my luck in it, hopefully I haven't used very much of it yet, because I missed some big wrecks.  Every wreck, I was right in the middle of it.
    "That wreck with Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, I saw Kyle wrecking on the bottom, and my spotter was telling me 'Get down, get down!  Nope, stay up, stay up!' He changed his mind three or four times, and so did I.
    "And I caught myself watching Kyle.  I thought he was going to come back across the track, so I've got the gas down and I'm on the brakes and I'm like 'I'm going to make it.'
    "Then I see Jeff' car is in the air…and I dang near ran right into it, because I was watching Kyle coming back up the track at me. 
    "It's just paying attention to what's going on, and hoping nobody is coming at you at that angle.  It's going to be the same way for the 150s and the 500."


   Ford's racing boss Jamie Allison (R), talking with Greg Biffle. Allison is in his second season at the helm, and Jack Roush points to his work as key in Ford's resurgence (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And just how did Kyle Busch win Saturday's Shootout? Rivals are checking out the tapes to see what they can learn.
    Roush, looking at the Tony Stewart-Busch breakaway in the final miles, says "It is true these cars are hard to push now (two together), and it's true they are loose (one reason for the crashing). But I believe it will be the case that the race will be decided -- much as it was for the Shootout --  with two cars that tag up and connect.
   "Not necessarily the best car is going to win the race, but the best two cars (together) will win the race.
    "But I don't think they'll spend much time doing it through the race…which was one of the criticisms I think fans had."
   Biffle predicts the rest of SpeedWeeks will feature more big crashes and probably blown engines.
   "The fans spoke out and wanted to see these cars back in a larger pack," Biffle says. "NASCAR wanted to see that as well.
   "The drivers were about half and half.
    "Lowering the back bumper really keeps the cars apart; I can have a run at that car in front of me, and I'm like I'm going to push him…and I get within two feet of him and it's like I start looking at the gauges to see if the engine is still running, because it just stops, and then that guy just takes off like he pushed the turbo button.
    "Carl and I tried it -- I pushed Carl to the lead…but it's hard to stay connected…and then it's going to overheat."

   Denny Hamlin (L) and teammate Kyle Busch. Hamlin hasn't gotten off to a fast start; Busch won the Shootout (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Among the SpeedWeeks surprises so far:

   -- Ford's continued surge.
   Trevor Bayne and Carl Edwards went 1-2 last February, and David Ragan won in July. Now Edwards and Greg Biffle are on the front row for this year's 500. And rivals have noticed the Ford power. This track for years belonged to Chevrolet. Now it's looking like Ford Country.
   With all four brands forced to use common template body designs, under an intricate and strict series of rules, the Ford edge seems almost certainly to be under the hood. That's where it was last year. And that's where it looks to be again this year.
   "We've had three or four tests (of fuel injection), and our system worked better than everybody else's every time we went out," Roush says. "So fuel injection has been a boon for us."
   But Roush points to another area too, computer simulation development: "Two years ago we had an issue with our simulations not doing what they might. You couldn't make a wedge change, a bar change and an air-pressure change at the same time. 
   "But our simulations work great right now. They are certainly cutting edge. And that's Ford's contribution."

   Ford's Jack Roush (L) is all smiles so far. SpeedWeeks is looking like another good week at Daytona for Ford men (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- No 200 mph Daytona 500 qualifying lap.
   The talk during the off season was about new rules to increase speeds and to break up the two-car packs. The tandem racing may be much more difficult this SpeedWeeks. And drivers are talking about the sensation of increased speed. Still, no 200. Maybe at Talladega….

   -- Too many drivers making just dumb moves in the Shootout, triggering big crashes. Even Jeff Gordon, who is considered one of the sport's smartest, made a dumb move in trying to spinout Kyle Busch.

   -- Denny Hamlin's struggles, in the Shootout and in 500 qualifying. Considering teammate Kyle Busch won the Shootout and teammate Joey Logano looked strong too, Hamlin's problems stand out. Is crew chief Darian Grubb still getting up to speed?

   -- Casey Mears looking strong so far. He's the newest addition to the Ford family, with Jack Roush cars and engines for crew chief Bootie Barker.

   -- Joey Logano, who showed very impressive savvy in the Shootout…until he got dumped by a rival.


   Crew chief Dave Rogers: builds tough cars for Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Sluggish performances so far by Richard Childress' drivers, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard.

   -- Rookie Ricky Stenhouse, who looks ready for full-time Cup, if Roush can find sponsorship.

   -- Trevor Bayne skipping the Shootout. But it certainly looks like a smart move in retrospect.

   -- NASCAR's decision not to allow Regan Smith to run in the Shootout. The field was to include the top-25 in last year's points, and Smith finished 26th; however two teams that finished ahead of Smith in the Sprint Cup standings are now defunct. NASCAR made a bad call in leaving the Darlington Southern 500 winner on the sidelines.

   -- NASCAR's inaction on the wheeling and dealing of car numbers, a game that doesn't put the sport in a good light. For example, Danica Patrick, who has never even run a Sprint Cup race, winds up with one of top-35 guaranteed starting sports, in a still nebulous financial deal, while Trevor Bayne, who won the Daytona 500, for goodness sakes, has no such guaranteed spot.
   Almost as ugly as that whole situation is the inaction on the part of the NASCAR media – such as it is these days – to even notice that, much less raise the issues of integrity involved.

   -- But perhaps to be fair to the media here, many key journalists have been forced into double-duty. This may be this sport's biggest event, but major newspapers have cut back even more radically on their coverage.
   Even the Orlando paper, a bedrock for this sport, and just an hour to the west, is down to a single reporter here. And North Carolina and Virginia newspapers, which long covered this sport and this event in depth, appear to be all but ignoring it. Shameful perhaps.
   But then consider the report that one local hotel here has had the temerity to charge $900 a night for its rooms.
   All that means that most news out of here has to come via TV and the numerous sports programs. And NASCAR TV has never been known for much skeptical journalism, more so for generally pom-pom coverage.


   Kyle Busch edging Tony Stewart at the finish line to win the crash-filled Shootout (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Greg Zipadelli's good call on repairing Tony Stewart's Shootout car after Friday's wreck, rather than going to a backup.

   -- Foot-dragging by Chevrolet, Toyota and Dodge on revealing details of the new 2013 NASCAR stocker. Ford debuted its 2013 last month on track at Charlotte.

   -- The controversy over General Lee, the old Dukes of Hazzard 1969 Dodge Charger. Pro golfer Bubba Watson just bought the General, and he wanted to wheel it around Phoenix International Raceway pre-race. Seemed pretty innocuous, and a neat touch, considering Hall of Famer and three-time champion Cale Yarborough once was featured in an episode. Maybe it was an unexpected no-win situation for NASCAR, but it could have been handled better. The anti-NASCAR backlash was quick and loud.

   Among the non-surprises so far:

   -- The incredible fawning by Fox and ESPN over Danica Patrick. She hasn't even run a Cup race yet TV put her on Saturday night as a color analyst.
  Actually she did quite well considering. And she certainly knows more about the technical aspects of NASCAR racing than most of the other TV guys, who generally come across as pompous, arrogant and over-the-hill.
   Thursday's 150, she says, "is going to be about getting some rapport with some of the drivers I haven't raced with yet, and getting a feel for how the pack running is going to go.
    "I'm not completely unfamiliar with the pack running; the first year here was some pack, and even last year in the first race of the year in Nationwide, we did pack running.
    "It was interesting to watch how you can be very organized in a single file line, you can pull away.
    "And it was interesting to see how the tandem will work. Trust me, I'll be studying that last pass at the end of the Shootout, with Tony and Kyle, to see when the perfect time is to do that."


   Jeff Gordon barrel rolls in Saturday's crash-marred race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Crew chief Chad Knaus caught with his hand in the cookie jar, during initial 500 inspection.
   If NASCAR hits him hard with penalties, as NASCAR president Mike Helton says are likely coming (Tuesday after the 500), then the sanctioning body may well be criticized for not dishing out similar penalty to Clint Bowyer for having his 500 car too low AFTER qualifying runs. Both violations could easily be considered 'catch-and-release' incidents.

   -- A negligible crowd for Daytona 500 qualifying Sunday.
   Somebody should tell NASCAR's marketers that single-lap qualifying like this is not only boring as hell but meaningless too, certainly not any crowd pleaser.
   Single-lap qualifying was designed for Monday morning newspaper headlines; but in sports today it's all about 'live.' NASCAR not only wasted a perfectly good sports Sunday (no NFL, no baseball, no great rival programming) with three hours of single-lap runs, when it should have run the twin 150s instead.
   Those 150s typically feature some of the best racing of the season, and the drama is all but lost by playing the two on Thursday afternoon…against soap operas?
   If this sport is about selling tickets and putting eyeballs on the tube, the 150s should be moved to Sunday.

   -- The remarkably inefficient schedule of on-track practice.
   There is a major issue of why Daytona International Speedway is idle Monday, Tuesday and much of Wednesday. Perhaps SpeedWeeks could be compressed into a better package, rather than the current bloated 12-day deal.
   But on a smaller level, considering weather and threats of rain, last Friday was a particular waste of good practice time for drivers and teams, who certainly need all the practice they can get, with the new rules package. Cup cars didn't even get on the track until 5 p.m. And rain (after crashes) did shorten the session. And Saturday was yet another meaningless exercise – several hours of single-car runs, all well spaced for clean air, when again drivers and teams certainly could have used that time to practice drafting techniques for the Shootout and the 500.


   Tough night under the Florida palms for some of NASCAR's finest (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




"Almost as ugly as that whole

"Almost as ugly as that whole situation is the inaction on the part of the NASCAR media – such as it is these days – to even notice that, much less raise the issues of integrity involved."
The print media has been massively depleted, and journalists such as yourself who are willing to tell it like it is and not give NASCAR hi-fives all the time are few and far between. Another thing in play is NASCAR's treatment of the media going back several years ago when they threatened to pull media credentials for many reporters. That left a bad taste in a lot of folk's mouths, and now with the cutbacks that newspapers have made these media outlets are not going to waste their time (in their minds) covering NASCAR races when they have been treated so poorly in the past. Lastly, NASCAR's "integrity" is an oxymoron in itself. To those of us who love stock car racing, we even know how bad their lack of integrity and consistency is with selective rules enforcement and special treatment for some drivers. To those on the outside who really don't love racing, they relate NASCAR's integrity equal to that of the WWE. They aren't far off at times, either. Anyone going to real surprised if Danica's car is lightning fast this week?
For the Kyle Busch haters, if they did not watch the Shootout and come away with a respect of his driving ability, then they will always choose to overlook it. The kid can wheel better than anyone on the track, and as good as any legend that's ever been in the sport.
Agree with you about the long drawn out qualifying. If they are going to do time trials for this race, why not let the cars make as many passes as they can get in within a certain timed period, similar to Indy's style? That would add some drama, with cars trying to get back out to improve their times. It would be much more fun to watch than that 3 hour lackluster show yesterday. I still like the Twin 150's on Thursday. It's become a tradition. With the addition of the touring series races on the 4/10 mile track on the backstretch, your schedule won't be as vacant on Monday and Tuesday, Mike.

small crowd for qualifing not

small crowd for qualifing not surprising.
And Bud shootout crowd not that grand. Racing at night in Feb., fans not that fond of sitting in the cold. Just look at the Truck race crowd as well.

Bud shootout and Pole qualifing used to be the same day - during the Day. You would have a much bigger crowd for that!

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