Monday, February 9, 2009

Kudos to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

Though I've often been critical of Dale Earnhardt Inc., which is now part of the new Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team, I have to say one thing:  The company with the name 'Earnhardt' on the door certainly hasn't lost any of the old magic when it comes to making cars go around the track fast at Daytona International Speedway.

Martin Truex Jr. won only his second Cup pole on Sunday, turning out a lap at 188.01 mph.  Truex had the only car in the 188 mph range.  This accomplishment actually means that Martin will start on the pole twice, once in the first Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying race on Thursday, and of course the Daytona 500 itself on Sunday.  Whatever the outcome of the qualifying race on Thursday, Truex will start on the pole on Sunday, barring any major mechanical problems between Thursday and Sunday, or if they should have to go to a backup car for some reason.  Either way, Martin Truex Jr. is the pole winner for the Daytona 500.

Juan Pablo Montoya was 4th overall on the speed charts on Sunday, scoring an impressive 187.743 mph.  JP actually sounded a little disappointed after his qualifying attempt, feeling that he should have been able to get more out of the car.  Mr. Montoya, let me tell you, 4th out of an all star studded 56 car field at Daytona is not bad.  Not bad at all.

Making his first Daytona 500 Cup start ever is the 8 Chevrolet, driven this year by Aric Almirola. Aric turned a lap at 187.649 mph, which was good enough to put him 7th on the speed charts.  This is a great beginning at Daytona for Almirola.

Obviously, the EGR cars go very fast around the track on their own, but we have yet to see them under racing conditions.  None of the 3 EGR cars were in the Bud Shootout, and haven't as yet had a chance to do any drafting practice, which will come on Wednesday.  Many things can change under racing conditions, so the fact that the cars are fast doesn't mean it's easy to predict great finishes in the qualifying races or the 500 itself.  The important point though, is that the engine builders and the car builders have obviously done their jobs, and given the drivers some very fast cars.

The success of the EGR cars does not appear to be all engine though.  2 years ago, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing combined their engine programs into what is now called Earnhardt Childress Racing Technologies.  In other words, EGR and RCR use the same racing engines.  Whatever qualifying speed that the EGR cars found, apparently didn't carry over to the Childress cars.  Clint Bowyer was the fastest RCR car on Sunday, turning a lap at 186.726 mph, good enough for 22nd fastest overall.  Bud Shootout winner Kevin Harvick ran a lap at 183.602 mph.  It appeared that Kevin didn't have full power on his qualifying attempt, however.

I understand that there are many different philosophies regarding qualifying.  Some teams, and indeed some drivers place a much higher emphasis on qualifying than do others.  Richard Childress has in the past appeared to put much less emphasis on winning poles than do other teams.  I'm only guessing, but I'm thinking that to Childress, it makes sense not to stress the equipment in order to win a pole, because that equipment might not last the entire race.  Winning races is what pays the bills, not winning poles.

Many drivers do want to start on the pole.  That strategy makes sense as well, considering some of the carnage we saw during the Bud Shootout back in the pack, or as SPEED TV's John Roberts aptly termed "bar fight on wheels".  With some of the craziness we've already seen in the Bud Shootout and the ARCA race on Saturday, most of the drivers would rather be in the front of the field, not in the rear.  Hanging around the back of the field and trying to make a charge at the end can be a difficult task, though Kevin Harvick managed to accomplish just that when he won the Bud Shootout on Saturday.

Another team I am very impressed with is the new Stewart-Haas Racing entries of Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, who were 3rd and 10th fastest in qualifying, respectively.  It's beginning to look like there's going to some new numbers to watch on the track in 2009, and those numbers are the 14 and the 39.

It was encouraging to see Bill Elliot and Terry Labonte locked into the show on Sunday as well.  Bill has had a fast car, being quickest in both practices on Saturday.  I guess the Wood Brothers still have some of that go fast magic as well, but then they've got the driver who's set speed records at not just Daytona, but at Talladega as well.  Can you say 212 mph?  I know a lot of people hate restrictor plates, but seriously, just how fast can these cars go without taking off and flying over the fence into the stands?  Restrictor plates are a necessary evil, and they are here to stay.

I'd like to also give kudos to Bobby Labonte and Travis Kvapil, who drove the two of the other fastest Fords on Sunday.  Travis had to qualify on time, which he did, locking himself into the 500 by putting out a lap that was 8th fastest overall on Sunday.  Bobby did a great job as well, being 11th fastest.  Labonte seemed as excited as I've seen him in quite a while.  Bobby's 96 Ford is technically owned by Hall of Fame Racing, but it's very closely aligned this year with Yates Racing.  I find it impressive that the Wood Brothers and Yates Racing were faster than the Roush Fords on Sunday.  Of course, like I said before, that's just qualifying.  We all know the Roush guys will be in it to win it during the qualifying races and the 500.

Here's some breaking news for you:  Once again the Hendrick cars are all fast.  All 4 cars were in the top 12 on the speed chart, and Mark Martin will start on the outside pole next Sunday.  Not bad for a guy in his very first start in a Hendrick owned Cup car.

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