Monday, 30 November 2009

My NASCAR Driver Of The Year: Marcos Ambrose

As December nears it is natural to look back at the last twelve months and contemplate what has happened, and when you are a racing fan, that means thinking of the racing of the previous season.

Part of this is looking at the best, most surprising, and indeed worst drivers of a series, and for NASCAR’s premier the choice (or at least my choice) for at least one of the first two categories may be a little different from the norm.

‘Who is it?’ I hear you ask, presuming you haven’t read the big, bold title atop this post.

Could it be Jimmie Johnson – man of four titles – Mark Martin – who made a triumphant return to full time competition – or even Joey Logano or David Reutimann who both took maiden wins this year.


It’s Marcos Ambrose.

Of course, the fact I’m an Ambrose fan makes be biased, having followed him since V8 Supercars coverage landed in the UK (or at least my consciousness) just as the Tasmanian was on the upswing that would see him clinch back-to-back titles in the series. The fact that Ambrose’s debut in the Cup Series coincided with Dave Blaney’s fall from racer to embarrasing running joke (actually the fact he wasn’t running was the joke) made the switch all the easier.

2009 was Marcos’ rookie season in the Cup Series, though after making a handful of starts in 2008 he was ineligible for the rookie of the year award, though he still had the yellow ‘rookie stripe’ on his car, a sign that only seems to warn those around you of your presence, or that NASCAR will turn a blind eye if they help you into a wall (unless of course you’re Juan Montoya, in which case you will probably be told to pick on someone your own size).

But compared to those who were rookies according to the rules, and Marcos spent much of the season beating them, even with Logano’s fluke rain-win at Loudon in the summer. His tally of 3830 points put him 18th overall at season’s end, with four top-fives and seven top-tens, dwarfing many of the more established drivers running for the more established teams than the Michael Waltrip Racing outfit that was behind Ambrose’s no.47 Camry.

Not only is Ambrose excelling himself on the tours pair of road courses, venues you would expect him to perform well at given his racing pedigree. He finished second at Watkins Glen and third at Sonoma, a race he could easily have won had he not had a blown engine move him from a third place start to the back of the field.

But has started to show promise on ovals. His races in Bristol, Dover and the late season showings at Texas and Homestead illustrating that he has more than found his comfort level in oval races. It is starting to reach that crucial point in the minds of fans and commentators when it is no longer a surprise when he makes an appearance in the top ten.

As the only other non-American full time in the series, it is easy to make a comparison to make a comparison.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Both men landed in NASCAR in 2006, both running limited schedules (though Montoya’s was far more limited), Ambrose in the Truck Series, Montoya moving more-or-less straight into the Cup Series.

That perhaps is the big difference between the paths of the two, Montoya has often seemed to struggle to adapt in the Cup series, a handicap he is only now starting to overcome, while Ambrose has patiently made his way up the NASCAR series, from Trucks in 2006, the Nationwide series in 2007 and 2008.

That gradual acclimatisation may be what sees Ambrose pushing Montoya for the honour of being the first of the recent incomers to win on an oval, something you would have expected to be solely Montoya’s to chase before this season began.

And given Montoya’s position in the Chase, a rookie rivalling him for anything shows just how far Marcos Ambrose has come.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ryan Newman Was Right, NASCAR Was Wrong

After NASCAR driver Ryan Newman was released from the medical centre at Talladega Superspeedway he was set upon by the normal flock of microphone clutching journalists and race reporters.

However, the interview he gave was far from the normal NASCAR diatribe, but was still sadly familiar to any fan who has watched racing at either of NASCAR’s Restrictor Plate tracks.

“[The crash] is a product of this racing and what NASCAR’s put us into with this box with these Restrictor Plates, with these types of cars, with the yellow line, with the no bump drafting, no passing. Drivers used to be able to respect each other and race around each other,” he said. “I guess [NASCAR] don’t think much of us anymore.”

Most of Newman’s anger during the interview was aimed at the sanctioning body itself for implanting rule that banned the normal bump-drafting in the corners, or as Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it, “it’s like the NFL changing from tackle to two hand touch football”.

And even before you think of how that rule change affected the racing it is plain to see the way NASCAR put it into action was, and still is, moronic.

The announcement, made at the Sunday drivers’ meeting by NASCAR president Mike Helton, came on the morning of the race.

After all the practice sessions had been run, after the car had qualified with their race set-up (Talladega being an impound race).

NASCAR is known for its knee-jerk rulings and having a rule book that often appears to be written in the sand at low tide, but Talladega took their goal post moving to new levels.

They actually moved the goal posts while everyone was playing.

Denny Hamlin openly admitted that his car was set-up to run what he called the “two car hook up”, the tactic which dominated the race at track earlier in the year.

Then you have to question the motivation.

What made NASCAR ban bump-drafting in the corners? There was no big crash in practice, the only big crash in the Truck Series race was caused by bumping on the back straight. The headline grabbing crash in the Spring race was caused by Brad Keselowski obeying the yellow line rule, and both big crashes yesterday were started on the straights.

In fact, Newman’s accident may have been caused by NASCAR’s bump-drafting rule.

The TV pictures (and crucially audio) before the crash were on board with Mark Martin, who was drafting in the top lane some half dozen car ahead of Newman. And, as he enters the corner, you hear Martin lift to keep off the rear of Brad Keselowski’s car. On the face of it Martin lifted because of NASCAR’s bump-drafting, a lift that rippled back down the pack until Tony Stewart backed off, just enough to get tapped by Newman, who had lifted enough to get tagged by Marcos Ambrose.

Even before the crash, fans were critical of the single file racing that the race fell into several times. Personally I feel that was inevitable. With the new bump-drafting rules, and the smaller Restrictor Plate, the drivers were bound to spend some time finding out exactly what they could do. They did the exact same thing the first time the COT chassis was used at Talladega, plus you cannot expect drivers to spend 500 miles walking the tightrope of three and four wide racing, especially when 12 of them are racing for the title.

Now, let’s address Newman’s assertion that NASCAR don’t trust the drivers. Firstly, I believe Restrictor Plates (or anyway of slowing the cars down) are the best way of racing at the giant Superspeedways.

Otherwise the speeds the cars would be travelling would be incredibly dangerous. The lap record speed at Talladega is 212mph, with the advances in technology and the expertise of the teams the speeds possible now would make any crash, even a single car one a potential tragedy, remember it was Bobby Allison’s single car crash in 1987 that is credited with bringing the advent of Restrictor Plates. As trustworthy as teams and drivers may be the one area where they cannot be trusted is to limit their own speed, they need to have it limited for them.

NASCAR felt that even with the plates speeds were still too high, and further decreased the horsepower of the engines for Sunday’s race.

What they didn’t need to do was ban bump-drafting.

If, as we are always being told (no matter how wrongly), the 43 best drivers in the world race in NASCAR, then they should, like Newman says, be trusted to race safely.

The COT chassis gave drivers front and rear bumpers that are the same height – perfect for bump drafting. The car is also very safe, that element was once more give a fine advert on Sunday as two drivers survived rolls.

However, perhaps the worst indictment of NASCAR’s rule was that now, nearly 15 hours after the end of the race, exactly no penalties have been levied.

I may not have perfect 20/20 vision, but I’m sure I saw some bump-drafting in the corners, and even if I didn’t I certainly didn’t see daylight between cars, and all the public heard (or were told) was near endless and general warnings from NASCAR.

That makes it a hollow threat, and as any parenting book will tell you, a hollow threat is an easy way to lose respect.