Vegas countdown: Danica showed improvement

Published Mar. 1, 2010 9:31 p.m. ET

5 things we learned this weekend

Still learning — A week after a disappointing run in Fontana, Danica Patrick showed dramatic improvement before getting wrecked out. Sure, she’s not running with the leaders yet, but once you temper the expectations to realistic levels for a rookie, you’ll see that she picked up the pace considerably (running in the mid-20s before her accident), got lessons from one of the sport’s best (Kevin Harvick) and dealt with adversity (problem with a lug nut on pit road) nicely in Las Vegas. “That right there is what I’ve seen at all the tests and I’m glad that she was able to express it,” crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said. “… California was a fluke and today she showed what she’s really made of.”

And while she’s going off the NASCAR radar until June while she goes back to her other job, it’s worth noting that her stock car education won’t cease. Eury said that while he doesn’t want to conflict with IZOD IndyCar Series obligations, he will try to schedule a few tests. He also plans to set her up with an iRacing simulator so she can practice with the aid of video games and he may even try to sneak up for an IRL race or two.

Forget the horseshoe — Want to know the secret to Jimmie Johnson’s success? Look no further than the top of the pit box. Last week in Fontana, a timely pit stop was the lucky break J.J. needed to drive to Victory Lane. This week in Vegas, it was the decision to go with four tires late instead of two that was the difference.

The common denominator? Chad Knaus was calling the strategy.

Rivals can moan and groan about all the timely breaks Team 48 seems to get -- particularly over the last two weeks -- but the strategy that led this group to four consecutive championships entering this season is the same one that resulted in its parking Johnson's car inside Victory Lane in Fontana and Las Vegas: Combine a great driver with a great crew chief, let them do their thing and watch as they put themselves in position to take advantage of all the racing luck available.

“If people are trying to find a way not to accept the quality of race team we have, that's cool,” Johnson said. “We'll just come back this week and take the trophy again (laughter).”

Competitors beware.

No one-year wonders — Remember how Michael Waltrip Racing (and its partner JTG Daugherty Racing) virtually came out of nowhere in 2009 and had two drivers battling for spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Yeah, it was no fluke. MWR’s David Reutimann earned his third straight top-15 finish to start the year Sunday and is ninth in the standings. Aside from engine problems the first few weeks, Martin Truex Jr. and Marcos Ambrose showed the potential to match Reutimann’s pace. MWR isn’t up to the elite level of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Roush Fenway Racing, but they are definitely closing the gap.

Things that make you go “hmm ...” — A week after his car got selected for random inspection by NASCAR, essentially getting confiscated for a week, Prism Motorsports’ Dave Blaney managed to complete the whole race instead of start-and-parking as expected. Coincidence?

No joking matter — From the stands to the garage and beyond, it is pretty easy to find people poking fun (no pun intended) at Kevin Conway’s sponsor ExtenZe — a male enhancement product. But it is worth pointing out that the company is doing more for the NASCAR community than providing fodder for jokes. Throughout the season, the company is honoring local heroes “who have gone to great lengths to make a difference.” In Vegas, the local hero was Brian Morace, who pulled a woman and her 6-year-old son out of a burning house. So yeah, get a rise (OK, pun intended on that one) out of your buddies with ExtenZe jokes, but also commend them for the good things they do as well.

4 Things you may have missed

NASCAR loses a legend — “Suitcase" Jake Elder, the crew chief that led David Pearson to two championships, Dale Earnhardt to his first Cup win, and was with Darrell Waltrip for his first and last Cup wins among other accomplishments, died this week. DW remembers his good friend.

When you’re hot ... — Sprint Cup Series championship leader Kevin Harvick proved he’s not a one-trick pony this weekend, overcoming pit road miscues on his way to a Nationwide Series win Saturday.

Golden feeling — NASCAR was a big winner on the track this weekend — and not only the one in Las Vegas. The USA four-man bobsled, which captured gold for the first time in 62 years, credited the efforts of former NASCAR driver Geoffrey Bodine for their success. "Without Geoff Bodine's support, we wouldn't be sitting here right now," said a member of the team. Bodine hosts racers from all forms of motorsport every year (Joey Logano and Boris Said were part of the NASCAR contingent this year) for a Bobsled Challenge which raises funds for the program.

Waiting game — Kasey Kahne is one of the key free agents on the market at the end of the year and his decision will likely trigger multiple other moves — but he’s not rushing any decisions.

3 on top

Jimmie Johnson — At Daytona, Johnson quipped that he worries every year that he’ll forget how to race during the offseason. If only the rest of the Sprint Cup field were that lucky …

Kevin Harvick — He proved once again he can hang with Jimmie all the way to the end — but can Happy find a way to beat the champ?

Jeff Gordon — Destiny sure has a funny way of showing people who’s the boss. On Sunday, Gordon was the most dominant driver on the track and led all but (you won’t believe this) 48 laps. Think the original “Four-time” will start having nightmares of the No. 48?

2 quotes around the garage


“Somebody once told me that, you know, if you're gonna get beat, make sure you're getting a piece of it. You know, that's one positive to take out of it.” Jeff Gordon on the success of teammate Jimmie Johnson, whose car he co-owns.

“I think that the No. 1 car was being driven by the clown from McDonalds and not McMurray … must be part of the new sponsorship.” Spanish Tweet from Juan Pablo Montoya’s wife, Connie, after he and teammate Jamie McMurray wrecked together Sunday.

1 last thing

The downturn in the economy hurt NASCAR, there’s no doubt about that. But this weekend in Las Vegas, we may have gotten a first glimpse that things are turning around.

The obvious clue was the grandstands during Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race, which were sold out. For a little less obvious, but perhaps more telling clue, look at the No. 29 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet.

Kevin Harvick drove a special paint scheme this weekend to commemorate the launch of Pennzoil's new motor oil, Ultra.

“NASCAR is clearly a very important part of the audience for us,” said Debbie Van Schalkwyk, Global Pennzoil Brand Manager, who also said the company is “absolutely” happy with their involvement in the sport, particularly as Richard Childress Racing uses Shell products on the racetrack (which helped Kevin Harvick win the Budweiser Shootout and finish second Sunday).

A product launch may not sound like much, but it reinforces the fact that global companies like Shell find value in the sport.

After some doom and gloom, things are starting to look up for NASCAR.


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