Give Carl Edwards an A-plus this spring. Atop the Sprint Cup standings, a threat to win nearly every week, and a great personality, who is doing more than his share to promote the sport of NASCAR racing. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
And, yes, I understand the amazing closing rate of a two-car pack coming up through the field...well, sort of. Were they really closing at 20 mph on the leaders? That's amazing.
But is there any real strategy here, or is it pretty much just luck?
How does a two-car pack -- say Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- time things just right?
How long does it take a two-car draft to catch up?
There are a lot of aspects to this two-car thing I simply don't understand.
Like, how to watch this race, who to keep an eye on, how to predict who's on the charge?
Well, we'd better start figuring some of this out, because we've got two more of these plate races this season, Daytona Saturday night July 2nd and Talladega again Sunday October 23rd.
While we're at it, I'd like to have a better freeze-frame of photo-finishes likes this, rather than some blurry TV shot.
And I'd like a little better explanation from NASCAR about Jimmie Johnson's move below the yellow line in that winning charge.
How well did Fox TV handle that Johnson move anyway? Replays? Asking questions to race officials?
Still, can't argue with the exciting finish. A little more room to the outside and Carl Edwards would have made it four-wide, two-deep at the line. Can't get much better than that.
In fact, that might have been one of the best finishes ever at Talladega.
NASCAR racing doesn't get much better than this: Sunday's Talladega 500 finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So where are we today, heading into the Easter break (The Nationwide tour will be playing in Nashville, an event that could be very important for the Dover track owners. Well, so it's not exactly Nashville, but rather rural Lebanon, 30 miles east.):
-- The warm-and-fuzzy feeling that upstart Trevor Bayne provided with that dramatic Daytona 500 victory may be fading. That Bayne-Jeff Gordon-Carl Edwards start to the season was great, but Kyle Busch's Bristol win, over Edwards, wasn't as thrilling as it should have been at that track. And things generally started slipping after that.
-- Carl Edwards leads the standings, five points -- five spots -- ahead of Johnson, and 19 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
-- Earnhardt, who is having a very good spring, albeit still winless, appears closer than ever to breaking that three-year drought. Can Earnhardt make a bid for the title?
-- Kevin Harvick, fourth in the standings, is atop the Richard Childress team standings.
-- Kurt Busch, in his sixth season with Roger Penske, is right there with Harvick, though he's had problems this spring.
Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready to challenge for the NASCAR championship this season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
All those guys get A's for their overall performances in the year's first eight events.
And so does Bayne, for overachieving, at just-turned-20, with the Woods. Only nine Cup races under his belt, the Tennessee racer came out of Talladega with a goodly ding: "That was one of the harder hits I've taken...because it was so much of a frontal impact -- across the track, off the apron, all the way to the wall."
Thank goodness for soft walls and safer race cars....and Bayne will have a couple extra weeks to recover, because the Woods are skipping Richmond, Darlington and Dover.
The rest of the field?
Kurt's brother Kyle Busch, on the other hand, has struggled this season, though not as much as teammates Denny Hamlin (remember him?) and Joey Logano. Is there something going on inside the Joe Gibbs camp? Engine problems appear to have slowed the teams a bit. And luck just hasn't been there.
Paul Menard, Childress' newest, is doing very well, with crew chief Slugger Labbe.
And teammate Clint Bowyer, though hit-and-miss, hasn't done poorly.
But Jeff Burton, well, there are questions -- a seventh at California (where teammate Harvick won) is Burton's best, and he ran 11th at Texas and 16th at Talladega...after a weak run of 36th (that engine problem at Daytona), 26th, 21st, 17th, 32nd and 12th. Only four times this spring has Burton finished on the lead lap. Nevertheless Childress just re-signed Burton and sponsor Caterpillar.
Juan Pablo Montoya has looked strong in several races, but too often he's in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Matt Kenseth, Jack Roush's 'stealth bomber,' has been on the comeback trail, and that romp at Texas was a stunner.
Teammate Greg Biffle, for all the speed he's had, just hasn't gotten over the hump yet. Not sure what the issue is here. Maybe better qualifying?
Jeff Gordon, after that Phoenix win (what great timing, and good PR follow up, as only Gordon can do), has been way too up-and-down. A good run at Talladega (3rd) and Martinsville (5th), but otherwise, blah. For the four-time champ, now with solid crew chief Alan Gustafson, that's only a C-plus performance.
Ryan Newman, meanwhile, has been upstaging boss/teammate Tony Stewart. Stewart himself has been far off the pace expected; he did have a runaway at Las Vegas (though losing in the final miles), but otherwise Stewart has been a no-show. Stewart's 17th at Talladega wasn't that pretty.
Kyle Busch, yes, he won at Bristol, but what's really going on at Joe Gibbs Racing. These guys don't look that tough this spring (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The rest of the guys have pretty much been negligible big-picture. In particular, Brad Keselowski, David Regan and Brian Vickers need to get in high gear when the tour returns to action next week at Richmond International Raceway.
The sport itself, overall, this spring?
After that hot start, Daytona-Phoenix-Las Vegas, things slowed (that missing Atlanta race March 13th cost NASCAR momentum).
And maybe NASCAR should consider tweaking the 2012 tour calendar, to take advantage of momentum. Talladega's hot finish....and then an off-Sunday?
But NASCAR executives have been running a wide-open PR campaign the past two months to pump up the sport.
Then there is the sport's new Charlotte Hall of Fame, and the question of why the sport's bosses continue to push the highly-debatable claim that only five men a year deserve to be inducted.
Brad Keselowski (R) talking with Penske teammate Kurt Busch. Not such a hot spring so far for Keselowski. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
This Hall of Fame, for all its cool historical stuff, and great location, has not only been dogged by attendance issues (much smaller than originally projected) but also by the controversy about the 'inductees.' NASCAR executives, for whatever reason (perhaps to try to keep out some of those it doesn't want in), have steadfastly ignored the sport's long-running Hall of Fame at Darlington Raceway, where the sport's journalists have been voting in Hall of Famers since 1965. More than 80 men have been inducted into the Darlington Hall.
But rather than simply put those 80-some into the new Hall and also adding men who are certainly deserving too, NASCAR officials are limiting each Charlotte 'class' to just five men. So currently the Charlotte Hall has only 10 members: for a sport that has been creating heroes and legends since 1949?
And check out the people voting on these Charlotte Hall of Famers too. Looks a little top-heavy with politically-correct company men.
On the other hand -- and we've made this point before (http://bit.ly/a9zfNf and http://bit.ly/d9hdwj and http://bit.ly/cBaAqV )-- the National Football League Hall of Fame, which was created in 1963, about the same time as NASCAR's Darlington Hall of Fame, now has some 250 Hall of Famers. (And the NFL really came into its own in that legendary 1958 championship game, December 28th, less than two months before that first Daytona 500, putting the two sports side by side.)
The 25 'official' NASCAR nominees for the third class: H. Clay Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter, Leonard Wood, Buck Baker, Red Byron, Richard Childress, Jerry Cook, Richie Evans, Tim Flock, Rick Hendrick, Jack Ingram, Dale Inman, Fred Lorenzen, Raymond Parks, Benny Parsons, Fireball Roberts, T. Wayne Robertson, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Darrell Waltrip, Joe Weatherly and Cale Yarborough.
This year's Charlotte inductees are Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore, David Pearson and Lee Petty.
NASCAR promoters are pulling out all the stops this season. Here 'Tire Guy' plays the game at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)