AP Photo/Will Lester
Camping World Truck Series: Are the new rules a new problem?
NASCAR implemented radical changes for 2009 to help Camping World Truck Series teams save money, most notably a new five-man over-the-wall crew limit on pit stops and, in turn, a rule prohibiting tire changes and refueling on the same stop.
Those changes may be costing the series its strongest attribute: good racing.
It's still early in the season, but Saturday's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., exposed a considerable flaw in the rules. When the San Bernardino County 200 went the final 53 laps without a caution, teams were left scrambling at the end for fresh tires and fuel.
You couldn't do both without giving up considerable track position, so many just opted for fuel to finish. This meant continuing with old tires that, at best, had no chance of running down trucks in the closing laps and, at worst, were dangerous.
"I don't think the fans got their money out of that race," said three-time series champion Ron Hornaday, who finished sixth in the No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet.
Hornaday's crew chief, Rick Ren, said the truck's right-front tire "had the cords hanging out of it when the race was over" and estimated that seven of the top 10 finishers likely had the same malady, having last changed tires during the race's first caution, in Laps 26-30.
Granted, Saturday's race wasn't going to be one for the highlight reel unless you're a fan of Kyle Busch or Billy Ballew Motorsports. Busch's winning No. 51 Toyota qualified on the pole nearly 1.5 mph ahead of the next-best truck and was untouchable in the race, leading 95 of 100 laps on the 2-mile oval and surrendering the lead only on pit stops.
The only true race was for the remaining spots in the top 10, and when a late caution never came, most teams had to make quick stops for gas just to make it to the end. Those who didn't, including Colin Braun (20th) and Tayler Malsam (24th), ran out and finished far worse than their trucks were capable of. Mike Skinner came in for gas with 14 laps remaining and then came back around for tires five laps later -- one of the few to do both in the latter stages of the race -- and was lucky to get back up to 11th.
Todd Bodine desperately wanted tires at the end, but his Germain Racing team overruled him and put gas in the No. 30 Toyota with 10 to go, allowing him to finish second but without any ammunition to chase down Busch.
"On the long run the tires got hot and I started pushing [through the center of the corner], and that's where he was beating us," said Bodine, a winner a week earlier at Daytona. "I had a little vibration and wasn't going to take the chance."
If that all sounds confusing -- various trucks coming in for green-flag stops at the end of the race for tires or fuel or both -- it was. NASCAR may call it "strategy," but to some it was a mess, and it didn't translate well on television.
"It just changes the way you race," Ren said. "You can't race like you always raced -- you have to think different. I just don't like leaving guys out there on tires that long and putting fuel in. I don't think it's safe.
"In my perspective, it ruined the racing as far as anybody being able to race for [positions] because nobody got to adjust their stuff. If I could have put on another set of tires, I was going to make a major chassis adjustment."
Instead it was gas-and-go for many teams and a cycling of pit stops instead of on-track racing.
"We don't want to make our race fans confused, but I think California was a hard race to judge it because that racetrack produces long green-flag runs and you had a leader that was five or six seconds over the second-place truck," said HT Motorsports' David Starr, who finished fourth. "It got confusing. But I don't think we'll see that at other races."
Next up for the series in two weeks is Atlanta, another track that can lend itself to long stretches of green (last year's two races at the 1.5-mile track had four cautions each). Then in late March is a visit to the Martinsville bullring, where pit road will be extraordinarily busy and the fuel/tire tango could be another prominent story.
"Oh my goodness," Ren said. "[NASCAR] softened the tire up so we will have to pit and take tires. If it doesn't stay green it really almost doesn't matter, except that you're on pit road twice as much, and they're all quickie yellows. It's real easy for people to get run into on pit road."
NHRA: Brown setting early pace in Top Fuel
Much of the offseason news in the NHRA's Top Fuel class centered on the changes among Tony Schumacher's and Larry Dixon's teams, but neither of those champions rode a roller coaster as Antron Brown did.
Brown, a two-time winner last year in his first Top Fuel season, faced uncertainty when David Powers Motorsports sold its operation after the 2008 season. Tuner Lee Beard left for Don Schumacher Racing and the rest of the Matco Tools operation ultimately changed hands two times, finally landing in mid-January with Mike Ashley Racing. Ashley, the former Funny Car driver and 2007 U.S. Nationals winner, gave the team renewed stability and new co-crew chiefs in Brian Corradi and 1984 FC champion Mark Oswald.
Through two races, the team looks like it has been together for years rather than weeks. Brown won Sunday at Phoenix and was runner-up to Doug Kalitta at the Pomona, Calif., opener, putting him on top of the early standings in Top Fuel.
"This offseason was crazy but once we came out here in testing [at Phoenix in late January], it was like it didn't need any glue or adhesive -- everybody was working well together," Brown said. "Brian and Mark definitely took our program to another level."
In the other nitro class at Phoenix, Ron Capps remained perfect on the season with a second Funny Car win. His final-round pass was a single run after John Force Racing's Mike Neff couldn't make a pass due to a broken clutch.
That was an abrupt end to an otherwise inspiring weekend for Neff, who drove and tuned his Ford Mustang while regular crew chief John Medlen was hospitalized in Indianapolis for a heart procedure. The 2008 Rookie of the Year was in constant communication with Medlen throughout the event, exchanging texts about the car's performance right up until the final round, when Neff missed out on a chance for a first win.
"It's one of those stories that you almost don't want to upset," Capps said. "You wouldn't have felt so bad losing the finals."
Medlen's status for the series' next event at Gainesville, Fla., has not been determined. His son Eric was killed at Gainesville two years ago in a testing accident.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Jayski Podcast: Up To Speed
Nationwide Series: Crew chief wins in return
Kyle Busch won eight times in 16 starts last year in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota. Watching him obliterate the field Saturday at Fontana, Calif., and nearly win at Daytona were it not for the maneuvering of two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, one gets the impression that the No. 18 is in for another huge season.
This season Jason Ratcliff plans on seeing all of it.
The crew chief returned last weekend from an 11-race suspension for manipulating a NASCAR engine test in August. He was on the pit box for five of the No. 18's wins a year ago (Denny Hamlin also won in the car), but missed another five.
"This was exactly what I dreamed of about six months ago, not knowing [the suspension] was going to be six months at the time," Ratcliff said. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time. Any win is special, to win this one after what happened at the end of last season was even more special."
Unlike last year, Busch will run the full schedule in the No. 18 in hopes of a championship. Though hope might not have anything to do with it when there are nights when you lead 143 of 150 laps in winning.
World of Outlaws: California date rained out
Perhaps no other racing series on the planet had as much weather trouble as the World of Outlaws last year, with some 25 rainouts. There's already one on the board for 2009.
The series' March 7 race at Ocean Speedway in Watsonville, Calif., has been postponed due to persistent February rains. Track officials are trying to reschedule for later in the year.
The sprint cars will return Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, then begin a four-race California swing at Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico on March 13.