Danica's chances of winning, tire issues, more questions
You've got to appreciate the power of Twitter. Shortly after I solicited questions for the NASCAR mailbag on it earlier this week, Brad Keselowski re-tweeted my plea to his 380,000 followers. Within minutes, I was flooded with queries.
Keselowski, by the way, is off to a fast start in 2013. A week after finishing fourth at Daytona, he duplicated that run at Phoenix last Sunday. He's currently second in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson and looking very much like a driver who is capable of defending his 2012 Cup title.
Now onto your questions, which for the third straight week are Danica-dominated:
Patrick will be the first to tell you that she has a lot to learn in the Cup series -- and it showed last Sunday at Phoenix. After qualifying 40th out of 43, she puttered around in the back of the field before blowing out a right front tire and crashing hard into the wall. Then, after she bounced off the Safer Barrier, David Ragan plowed into her, shearing off part of her driver's side door. It was a scary-looking wreck, but Patrick was uninjured and finished 39th.
The lesson here is that a good day for Patrick on most tracks in 2013 will be staying on the lead lap (which she was at PIR at the time of her wreck) and finish in the top 20. But she will have a chance to contend for victories on the Superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, where the driving isn't as technical -- you don't really have to brake on the restrictor-plate tracks -- and the mid-race feedback a driver gives his crew chief isn't as vital. Plus, Patrick showed in the Daytona 500 that she's capable of running in the front of aerodynamic draft at these tracks. She was, after all, in third place heading into the final lap of the 500.
Do I think Patrick will win this year? I don't. But the next time she'll have a puncher's chance will be at Talladega on May 5.
When it comes to restrictor-plate racing, anything goes on the final lap. Yes, a driver would prefer to draft with a teammate or someone who is in the same make of car, but the most important quality he looks for at the end of the plate race is another fast car. Earnhardt left Patrick because he believed he had a better shot of winning by dropping back and drafting with Mark Martin, who was piloting a Toyota. And it almost worked: For the third time in four years, Earnhardt finished second in the 500.
In retrospect, Patrick probably should have paid closer attention to her rear-view mirror and what Earnhardt was doing. If she had dropped back with him, she could have stayed on his front bumper and then maintained her place ahead of him as Earnhardt and Martin made their charge. Chalk it up as a learning experience for Patrick.
At first blush this is a head-scratcher. Patrick earned $357,464 at Daytona while Stenhouse, who wound up four positions behind his girlfriend, was paid $373,399. Why did this happen? The short answer is that there are all manner of "bonus" payouts that go to drivers, such as leading the most laps or gaining the most track position. There's also a bonus program-- and this is where it gets REALLY confusing -- that awards finishers of a race based on how well they performed the previous season. (The idea here is provide incentive for the biggest stars to keep racing.) So given that Stenhouse has a more impressive body of work than Patrick at this time, he'll likely continue to earn more than her even if he finishes slightly behind her in a race, but it all the depends on the circumstances of their performances in a particular event.
Drivers complained loudly about this at Phoenix on Sunday. At one point Tony Stewart, after taking four tires during a pit stop, wasn't as fast on the track as other drivers that had taken two tires.
But both Daytona and PIR have recently been repaved, which means they are smoother than tracks that have older surfaces. The tires on newer tracks don't wear down like they do on older, bumpier surfaces. So at these freshly paved venues there is a greater emphasis on track position over fresh tires. The issue of tires should be more important this weekend at Las Vegas Speedway, which has an older track surface that should cause more tire wear.
Nearly every driver in the sport under the age of 40 plays driving video games. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been addicted to online racing for years and Joey Logano once told me that he really learned how to race by playing games on his computer. But these games are only one element of a driver's education. You're right: "the feel" that top drivers have for their cars comes from what they're sensing in their rear ends as they blaze around the tracks at 180 mph. So there's no substitute for spending time in the car and turning laps.
The driver in the Nationwide Series who is generating the most buzz right now is Austin Dillon. The grandson of Richard Childress, Dillon, 22, won two races in the Triple-A of NASCAR last season and finished third in the final standings. He finished sixth last weekend in the Nationwide race at Phoenix and he's currently ninth in points.
The plan is for Dillon to join RCR's Cup team full time next year. There's a strong sense in the garage that Dillon, if he continues to progress at his current rate, has a chance in the future to one day be the face of the sport.
Absolutely. These current cars, from what drivers have told me, have a similar amount of downforce as the ones from the early 2000s, which makes them grip the track far better than the model that was used last year.
Who does this benefit the most? Right now that answer is pretty obvious: Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose best year was in 2004 when the car had similar handling characteristics to what NASCAR is now using. For instance: In the Car of Tomorrow that debuted in 2007, Earnhardt had almost always struggled at PIR. In his last eight starts at the one-mile track, his average finish was 20.13. But on Sunday, driving the new "Gen-6" car, Earnhardt drove up through the field, led 47 laps, and finished fifth. So keep an eye on him this season, because he's as comfortable behind the wheel as he's been in years.