Monday, March 8, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Still Buffering

There have been plenty of calendar shakeups. The 24 Hours of Le Mans will move to the end of August. The Portimão round of the FIA World Endurance Championship will move from Easter Sunday to the middle of June, filling the vacancy left when Le Mans moved, and Spa-Francorchamps will open the WEC season. IMSA countered and has moved Virginia International Raceway to October and Petit Le Mans back to November. Elsewhere, many Formula One teams revealed liveries. Gene Haas embarrassed him for a second-consecutive week. Sweeping was the theme in Sonoma. IndyCar had a media day. Jimmie Johnson had some food poisoning. Kyle Larson picked up his first Cup victory in his fourth start with Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Still Buffering
We know where we were a year ago. Looking at the calendar, we are reminded of our old lives, the plans and ambitions we had, completely lost and for 12 months we have been living without a roadmap. Our yearly highlights, landmarks to our lives, vanished. We weren't able to make another year worth of memories at the intended events or see the people we loved. Some of us lost more. In some cases, it was a job we loved. In others, it was loved ones. 

Back when this began, attempts were made to fill the void. Motorsports was shut down for two months. All sports were shut down. The world stood still. All our weekends were free but there was nothing we could do. Talk about being a hamster on a wheel, free to move as fast as we wanted and yet remaining in one place. 

The world of simulator racing got to shine and numerous iRacing events were put on. The big series all stepped up to fill the time. The drivers we were used to seeing slide behind the wheel of an automobile got behind a wheel in front of a computer monitor with much less fire-retardant clothing on. In some cases, we could see their bedrooms or offices in the background. Family otherwise off on the sidelines could be prominently in view during a competition.

It was fun, it was distracting and yet it could prove to be aggravating. 

Was this supposed to be a serious competition or an exhibition? Was it supposed to be a week-long exercise full of practices all hours of the day and night or a one-day fill-in? Were sponsors paying to be on these cars or was this free publicity for the races missed? 

We are still figuring it out and when competition returned the virtual events disappeared, but they were not buried. There was a future for these events, though hopefully in a lesser extent to what we saw during the pandemic. 

For the better part of six weeks, IndyCar and NASCAR had events televised while most of the other sports could not have their stars competing. The simulated world has allowed drivers to mimic their actual occupation, something we cannot see for basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer. It was a race, but in a different setting and yet the skillset transferred over. 

These events didn't change the world. The presence of IndyCar and NASCAR during the heart of the pandemic did not lead to record-breaking ratings for either series when either returned to actual competition. Millions didn't flock to see the Indianapolis 500 or the Southern 500. The masses were not left in awe of Scott Dixon's sixth championship. Even after six championships, Dixon remains a stranger. I don't think he minds.

I think we all realized this would never be a suitable full-time replacement, but it showed potential to be a complementary event. These events could continue without a lockdown shutting down the entire world. NASCAR announced its invitational series would return this year. The first five events have been announced, all on Wednesday nights on Fox Sports 1 and the final five events will be during the NBC portion of the schedule. 

The events are previews for the actual races coming up that weekend. There will be a Bristol dirt race days before the Bristol dirt race and the same will happen for Talladega, Darlington and NASCAR's inaugural visit to Circuit of the Americas. The fifth event is TBD on June 2. Perhaps a wild card event to mix it up. Sonoma is scheduled for that weekend.

While NASCAR announced a plan in late-January, IndyCar has not made a peep. There have been rumblings about a few events, but the season is growing closer. In fact, the IndyCar season opener was supposed to be yesterday. Last year, when IndyCar lost races, it filled those vacated race weekends with iRacing events. They held a Barber round when Barber was supposed to take place. They ran at Austin when Austin was supposed to be held. They ran additional events at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Motegi and had more television time spread over more weekends than if the season had gotten started on time. 

The series hinted at something happening during the winter and for all intents and purposes winter has passed. Spring doesn't begin for another two weeks but the offseason is effectively over. Testing has been going on across the country. Teams have been at Sebring, Barber and Laguna Seca. Drivers have been preparing for the physical race car. The season opener is still six weeks away, but the time is up for scheduling virtual events. 

This feels like a missed opportunity for IndyCar. It had all of November and December to make a plan for 2021. I am not saying it needed a six-week or an eight-week series, but it could have laid out a plan for an occasional event, something before the season to get back on the radar and have fun with it.

For a series that's frequent weakness is its offseason being too long, an iRacing series with two or three events before the first race of the season would be a great way for IndyCar to remind people it exists before the season began. The iRacing events could promote the drivers that have switched teams, joined the series and preview what is to come in the new season. It would be another chance to expose the drivers to the audience and perhaps create an unlikely fan favorite. 

Let's not forget that in the IndyCar iRacing events last year we got to see Robert Wickens return to competition and bring a smile to the face of everyone. We saw Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin both compete in what essentially turned into prologue for their switches to regular IndyCar competition. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch each were guest drivers for a race. Lando Norris ran two races, won one of them and was a major storyline in the other. These events exposed people who otherwise might not have considered watching an IndyCar-sanctioned event to the series and perhaps some continued watching in 2020 or will watch more in 2021 now that Johnson and McLaughlin will be dedicated to the series.

IndyCar already doesn't maximize the window it has given itself (American football offseason) for events. This is a chance to have more events without having to haggle over $1.5 million or $2 million for a sanctioning fee from a racetrack and it doesn't cost the teams anything in travel or crash damage. 

Even worse than not having a complementary plan for its drivers and teams is IndyCar hasn't made any progress growing its virtual reach. NASCAR has had a sanctioned iRacing series for the last few years. I know that costs some time and some money but that is an investment worth making for IndyCar to get some of the top simulator drivers interested and involved in IndyCar. It is another avenue for the teams and sponsors, and it is a boat IndyCar cannot afford to miss and it might have just left port.  

The last year has been a chance for growth and innovation during a difficult period in different areas. It has been a time to take chances a series otherwise would not have taken. Creating an iRacing series likely isn't free, but it couldn't have been too much of a hit on IndyCar's wallet and it could be something that pays for itself. It had a chance to engage with another audience and that opportunity to make a deeper connection is pretty much gone. 

After last year, I think we saw there is healthy balance for an iRacing component for every series. There is a space where the actual drivers and teams can compete and have fun while also having a serious competition that draws interests from the serious gamer. IndyCar engaged beyond its normal base with these events and welcomed in some other top names in the world of motorsports as guests. These events last year were a good thing for IndyCar, even if they provided some rather silly controversies. IndyCar had a chance to leave its impression on the simulator world and embrace it. It failed to do that, and it is a loss IndyCar chose to take.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Kyle Larson, but did you know...

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Daytona, his fifth Daytona victory, and it was his second victory of the season.

A.J. Allmendinger won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Las Vegas.

The #3 K-PAX Racing Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper swept the GT World Challenge America races from Sonoma. 

The #4 DXDT Racing Mercedes-AMG of George Kurtz swept the GT America races from Sonoma. The #47 NOLASport Porsche of Matt Travis and Jason Hart swept the GT4 America SprintX races.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR will be in Phoenix.
Supercross returns to competition with its first of three races in Arlington.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Greatest by Number: #89-80

We are onto round two of our Greatest by Number series and we move into the 80s. 

There are a few notable numbers in this group, but there are a few difficult and uncommon numbers to pick out. We go down every avenue of motorsports in this one, from the grandest stages to smallest dirt tracks, but we will include some of the best of all-time.

Our first number was a difficult toss-up.

#89: Johnny O'Connell
This is what the 1987 Formula Atlantic West championship gets you. 

O'Connell won four of 10 races that season driving for McNeil Motorsports and he even won the Formula Atlantic East season finale in St. Petersburg giving him five victories on the year. O'Connell won the Formula Atlantic West championship by 13 points over Dean Hall. 

From there, O'Connell became one of the best GT drivers, notably driving for the Corvette factory program and picking up seven class victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring and four class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He also won multiple championships between the American Le Mans Series and Pirelli World Challenge. 

Honorable Mentions:
Chris Windom (2020 USAC Midget National Champion and 2020 USAC National Drivers' Champion. I was between O'Connell and Windom, but I felt O'Connell has accomplished more in his career overall. Windom is still young and someday he could take this spot, especially if he succeeds in car #89).

Morgan Shepherd (Honestly, Shepherd has never really succeeded with this number, but he has used more than anyone else I can recall. That at least earns you a mention. He has made 32 NASCAR Cup Series starts with the number and 244 starts in NASCAR's second division in car #89. He has never finished in the top ten with the number).

#88: Jamie Whincup
You might not have seen this one coming for the #88, but Whincup has the most championships in Australian Supercars history with seven titles, including four-consecutive from 2011 to 2014. 

Four of Whincup's championships have come in car #1, but he has three championships in car #88. Of his all-time leading 122 victories, 45 of those have been in car #88. Whincup's victories in car #88 alone would rank him seventh all-time in Supercars victories. This is also a driver who has finished in the top five of the championship in every season since 2007. 

The amazing thing is despite all of Whincup's victories and championships and all the success he has had in car #88, none of his Bathurst 1000 victories have come with that number. Three of his victories were in car #888 and one was in car #1. Whincup announced he would walk away from full-time Supercars competition after the 2021 season. He will have one shot to correct that. 

Honorable Mentions:
Darrell Waltrip (Won 27 NASCAR Cup Series races with three top five championship finishes and six top ten championship finishes from 1975-1980).

Dale Jarrett (1999 NASCAR Cup Series champion and he won 28 races in the #88 car, including two Daytona 500s and two Brickyard 400s. Jarrett was in the top five of the championship for six consecutive seasons from 1996 to 2001, all in car #88).

Bobby Allison (Won eight NASCAR Cup Series races, all in 1982, including the Daytona 500).

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Won nine NASCAR Cup Series races from 2008-2015, including the 2014 Daytona 500).

#87: Buck Baker
The first back-to-back NASCAR Cup champion, Baker picked up 26 of his 46 victories in car #87 and he won the 1957 championship in car #87. 

He won the 1953 Southern 500 in the #87 Oldsmobile and he even won NASCAR's first visit to Watkins Glen in 1957 in the #87 Chevrolet. Baker's average finish in 1957 was 4.68 and he finished in the top ten of 38 of his 40 starts. From 1953 to 1960 his worst championship finishes was fifth.

Not only did Baker succeed on the Cup level, he also won the 1952 NASCAR Speedway Division championship including winning the inaugural race at Darlington in car #87.

Honorable Mentions:
Joe Nemechek (1992 NASCAR Grand National Series champion and Nemechek won 16 NASCAR Grand National Series races with car #87). 

Ron Fellows (Three victories in five NASCAR Grand National Series starts in car #87, all driving for Nemechek).

#86: Bob Wollek
Wollek might be one of the best drivers not to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall, but Wollek won all across the world in sports car racing. 

One number sporadically popped up in his career and that was the #86. 

It started in 1985 when he won at Sonoma driving for the #86 Porsche 962 for Bayside Disposal Racing and he would win the following year on the streets of Miami for the team with Paolo Barilla as his co-driver. 

Wollek wouldn't use the number again until 1994, when he drove for Larbre Compétition at the 24 Hours of Daytona and was second overall. Later that year, he won all three of his starts in the #86 Porsche for Larbre in the BPR Global GT Series at Circuit Paul Ricard, the Suzuka 1000km and Zhuhai.

Honorable Mention:
Mario Farnbacher (2019-20 IMSA GT Daytona class champion)

#85: Emanuel Zervakis
Zervakis is not only the driver last alphabetically to win in the NASCAR Cup Series, he is the only driver to win in car #85 in Cup series history. 

Both victories came in 1961, Zervakis' breakout season. He won at Greenville ahead of Richard Petty and he led 361 of 500 laps on his way to victory at Norwood Arena in Norwood, Massachusetts, the only Cup race ever held at that 1/4-mile oval. In 1961, Zervakis had two victories, 19 top five finishes and 28 top ten finishes and he finished third in the championship behind Ned Jarrett and Rex White. He had two top ten finishes in 1962 but never finished in the top five again.

Honorable Mention:
Bayside Disposal Racing (Off of Wollek's mention above, Bayside Disposal Racing deserves credit for being the one team to regularly use the #85 and #86. While Wollek had success in the #86 Porsche, a handful of drivers won races in the #85 Porsche as well, including Wollek, who won at Columbus in 1986 with Scott Pruett. The following year Jochen Mass and Klaus Ludwig each won races in the #85 Porsche, Ludwig at Laguna Seca and Mass won the 1987 Del Mar Finale. 

Mass and Bobby Rahal even won on their own in the #86 Porsche and as co-drivers. The #86 Porsche won the 12 Hours of Sebring in consecutive years, first with Mass and Rahal in 1987 and then in 1988 with Ludwig and Hans-Joachim Stuck).

Denny Hulme (The #85 has been used in only one Indianapolis 500. That was in 1971 with Denny Hulme. Hulme qualified fourth and went 137 laps before a valve failure knocked him out of the race and classified him in 17th. It was his final Indianapolis start).

#84: Maximilian Buhk
Buhk has quietly won many top honors in European GT3 racing and he has done a lot of it driving the #84 Mercedes-AMG for HTP Motorsport.

He won the 2013 Blancpain Endurance Series champions with victories in the 24 Hours fo Spa and the 1000 km Nürburgring. The following season he was second in the Blancpain Sprint Series championship to his co-driver Maximilian Götz because Buhk missed the Slovakia round due to a suspension. 

HTP Motorsport switched to Bentley in 2015 and Buhk won the Blancpain Sprint Series championship with Vincent Abril. In 2016, with HTP back running Mercedes-AMGs, Buhk won the overall Blancpain GT Championship with co-driver Dominik Baumann. He was third in the sprint championship the year after that with three victories.

Honorable Mentions:
Chip Robinson (Six IMSA victories from 1989-91, including two 500km Watkins Glen victories).

David Gilliland (2006 NASCAR Grand National Series Kentucky race winner. It was only one victory and he only drove car #84 in seven races, but it was an astonishing underdog winner at the time).

#83: Geoff Brabham
Brabham won four consecutive IMSA GTP championships from 1988 to 1991 driving for Nissan.

The highlights for Brabham were two victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1989 and 1991 and two consecutive victories in the 500 km of Watkins Glen in 1988 and 1989. He won 24 races over those four seasons, 21 of which came in car #83. 

The #83 stuck with Brabham even after he returned to racing in Australia. He won nine races in the Australian Super Touring Championship, which included two runner-up finishes in the championship. In 1997, Geoff Brabaham won the Bathurst 1000 with his brother David in the #83 BMW 320i. 

Honorable Mentions:
Matthew Brabham (2012 U.S. F2000 champion, 2013 Pro Mazda champion with a record 13 victories from 16 starts, two-time Stadium Super Trucks champion).

Charlie Kimball (2013 Mid-Ohio IndyCar race winner)

#82: Jim Clark
This is all for Clark's 1965 Indianapolis 500 victory. 

Clark qualified second for what was his third Indianapolis 500 attempt. After falling short to Parnelli Jones in 1963, and a suspension failure while leading early from pole position end his race in 1964, Clark whooped the field in 1965. He led 190 of 200 laps in his Lotus 38, including the final 125 circuits on his way to a historic victory in a historic season. 

His victory was the first for a non-American driver Gaston Chevrolet won the 1920 race. It was the first rear-engine car to win the Indianapolis 500. Later that season, Clark secured the World Drivers' Championship having won in his first six starts in the Formula One season. His 190 laps led are still tied for third-most laps led by an Indianapolis 500 winner. 

Clark gets this because he is Jim Clark, damn it! To make it even better, this Indianapolis 500 start was the only time Clark ever used car #82 in his career.

Honorable Mentions:
Tony Kanaan (Kanaan used the #82 in the 2011 IndyCar season when he was a late addition to the KV Racing stable, which Lotus sponsored that season. Why #82? Because of Clark. Kanaan didn't win a race that season, but he was fifth in the championship with three podium finishes and he was fourth at Indianapolis).

#81: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
There are not many notable drivers to use the #81 in motorsports history and when looking over the options, the best choice was the most notable name. 

Back when Earnhardt, Jr. was at the height of his NASCAR career and occasional dipped into NASCAR's second division, he would run different numbers than what we saw him drive in the Cup Series. He even ran one race in a car #83.

I remember Earnhardt, Jr. running the #81 and I was surprised to find out he only used it seven times in his career, but he did win one of those races, the 2004 summer race at Bristol. He led 125 of 256 laps in what was a dominant weekend for Earnhardt, Jr. The following night he would win the Cup race after leading 295 of 500 laps from 30th starting position. 

Besides his Bristol victory, he was second in the #81 at Talladega earlier in 2004 in a Chance2 Motorsports 1-2 finish with Martin Truex, Jr. and third at Daytona the following February behind Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick.

Also, I am giving Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this now in case some of you are disappointed down the road. Foreshadowing!

Honorable Mentions:
Bobby Hillin, Jr (Two NASCAR Grand National Series victories)

Len Sutton (Two IndyCar race victories, Trenton 1958 and Springfield 1959, the only IndyCar victories for car #81).

#80: Larry Dickson
Dickson was a three-time USAC sprint car champion and that third title in 1975 came driving the #80 car for Ensign Racing. He won five races that season with his victories coming at Reading, Winchester, Toledo, New Bremen and Eldora. 

When Dickson retired, his 45 sprint car victories were the most all-time in USAC. Tom Bigelow first surpassed Dickson's mark but Dickson remains fifth all-time. He also used the #80 in his Indianapolis 500 starts in 1978 and 1979. He qualified ninth in 1978, but oil pressure issues knocked him out just after halfway. He qualified and finished 24th in 1979, knocked out of the race when he lost a fuel pump. 

Honorable Mentions:
Patricio O'Ward (Won seven of 16 races in the 2016 Pro Mazda championship, but was runner-up in the championship to teammate Aaron Telitz).

Tony Stewart (Stewart raced car #80 once in his NASCAR career, the 2009 NASCAR Grand National Series season opener at Daytona driving for Hendrick Motorsports. He won the race and it was his second of four consecutive victories in the February Daytona race and the fourth time he had won the race in a five-year span. He would win that race seven times in a nine-year period from 2005 to 2013).

Joe Ruttman (Won five races in the 1997 NASCAR Truck Series season, the second-most victories, but he finished third in the championship. Don't feel so bad about Ruttman. Ron Hornaday, Jr. won seven races that season and was fifth in the championship).

To recap, through two rounds, here is how our series representation looks:

NASCAR Cup champions: 3

Indianapolis 500 winners: 2

Grand Prix motorcycle champions: 2

Australian Supercars champions: 2

IMSA champions: 2

Indy Lights/Atlantics champions: 2

Motocross/Supercross champions: 1

Dirt oval champions: 1

GT3 champions: 1

And then we got a long-forgotten NASCAR Cup Series race winner, Bob Wollek, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dan Gurney. The list is coming along. 

Twenty down, 80 to go.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Greatest By Number: #99-90

Over this unusual offseason, my mind got to wandering about possible subjects to tackle during this time. I thought it was best to prepare for delays and weekends with fewer events taking place than scheduled or no events at all. Something would have to fill the space. 

One subject was the "All-Time, One-Time Starter Grid," and that required a lot of time to go over the notes and history books and compile the best list. Another subject was this: Who is the best motorsports competitor for each number? 

There are a lot of competitions and a lot of famous numbers, but who is the greatest of them all for each number? It is a completely subjective exercise, but each competitor has a case. 

Some numbers are six or seven competitors deep when it comes to the all-time best and those will likely make somebody mad. Others had one clear option. And then there was the #53. We will get to the #53 in due time. 

A few things to know before we get started.

1. Only numbers zero through 99. 

That means no #01 or #09 or #02 or #199. Apologies off the bat to Scott Pruett (and his family at home), Brad Keselowski, Justin Wilson and Travis Pastrana. We're doing 100 numbers here and #09 and #02 are just the numbers nine and two, but with a zero in front of them. And #00 isn't in there either. Don't think you are going to see Buckshot Jones on this list either. 

2. We have to take into consideration what each competitor did with that number, but it is open to take a driver who used a number as a one-off. Trust me on this one. Some numbers are not frequently used, and it was difficult to come up with one competitor. 

3. As important as full-time use of a number is, we will take notable one-offs. We will take into consideration historic race cars, the ones that stand out in motorsports history. It might be a number only used once or twice, but if it was used in a historic race and everyone can picture that driver with that number, we will use it. 

4. There are some special considerations. Numbers have become more of an identifier over the last 40 years. They have become a mark of a driver. Something that has meaning for generations. 

But we have an entire crop of drivers who raced at a time when the number constantly changed: Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill. 

All those drivers raced when their numbers changed between races. It was dependent on local organizers. Their numbers were all over the map. There are a few legacy picks I made.

5. No limit to how many times a driver can be chosen, but I did my best to spread it out and try to get drivers for many different championships around the globe. There could be a few drivers that have been awarded multiple numbers. That's ok, because these drivers are some of the best all time. 

6. This is a ten-part series and I am starting with the highest numbers. There will be more discussion and anger with the lower numbers. I am going to make you wait for those because the higher numbers are harder to assign, and I think those are more enjoyable to think about. 

7. Each entry will include the number, who is recognized as the greatest for that number, why that person is recognized, and I will finish with some notable drivers that came short. 

8. Reminder: This is for fun. Don't take it too seriously. 

Today, we start with the 90s. 

#99: Jorge Lorzeno
Lorenzo won three MotoGP world championships using the #99 and from 2008 to 2016 he never finished worse than fourth in the championship. He did use the #48 throughout his career in the lower divisions and in his first MotoGP season, and he used the #1 after his first 250cc championship and first MotoGP title, but he used the #99 for 171 races and he won 39 times with that number. 

He burst onto the scene and immediately matched the pace as his Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi, effectively forcing Rossi to Ducati after the 2010 season. Lorenzo could stir the pot, but he was one of the top riders of the last decade. 

Honorable mentions: 
Greg Moore (CART 1996-1999 with five race victories and he also won the 1995 Indy Lights championship in car #99 with ten victories in 12 races.)

Tony Bettenhausen (1951 AAA Championship Car champion)

Alex Gurney/Jon Fogarty (Two-time Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes champions and winners of 16 races over seven seasons)

Juan Manuel Fangio II (1992-93 IMSA GTP champion with victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring each year)

Carl Edwards (23 NASCAR Cup Series victories and six NASCAR Truck Series victories)

Jeff Burton (17 NASCAR Cup Series victories and one NASCAR Grand National Series victory)

#98: Parnelli Jones
It does not get more famous than Parnelli Jones driving Ol' Calhoun for J.C. Agajanian. All six of Jones' IndyCar victories came in car #98, including his only Indianapolis 500 victory in 1963, but the number of victories does not tell the entire story. 

Jones never started worse than fifth in the Indianapolis 500 in car #98. He led 27 laps as a rookie and 120 laps as a sophomore, but a cut to his face and fading brakes halted his hopes for victory in his first two years. His third attempt saw him led 167 laps and overcome an oil leak to take victory. If it weren't for a pit fire the year after that Jones might have been a back-to-back winner. 

It might have been Agajanian's number, but that golden #98 shouts Parnelli Jones. 

Honorable Mentions:
Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2017 Watkins Glen winner)

LeeRoy Yarbrough (Ten NASCAR Cup Series victories including the 1969 Daytona 500, 1969 World 600 and a rain-shortened 1969 Southern 500)

#97: Shane van Gisbergen
We are heading to the Southern Hemisphere and the New Zealander van Gisbergen has made the #97 his ever since the 2013 Supercars season. He has won 39 Supercars races since adopting the #97 and he won the 2016 Supercars championship using the number. He and Alexandre Prémat also won the Endurance Cup that season, picking up three runner-up finishes and a victory between the four races at Sandown, Bathurst and Surfers Paradise. 

In 2020, van Gisbergen picked up his first Bathurst 1000 victory with Garth Tander. Van Gisbergen has never finished worse than fourth in the championship with car #97. 

Honorable Mention:
Kurt Busch (2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion. 14 Cup victories in Car #97).

#96: Dan Gurney
We are not leaving Dan Gurney out of something like this, and truth be told, there are not many standout competitors to use the #96. 

How does Dan Gurney get this honor? 

His victory in the inaugural Daytona Continental 3 Hours, which has since morphed into the 24 Hours of Daytona. Completing 82 laps in the 180-minute time frame, Gurney won in a Lotus 19 over a Ferrari 246 SP from North American Racing Team, which Phil Hill and Ricardo Rodríguez shared, and Jim Hall was third in the Chaparral 1. 

It might be one race, but it is Dan Gurney we are talking about it. Let him have it!

Honorable Mentions:
Al Unser (Unser's first IndyCar victory came in car #96 at the 1965 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. It is the only victory for car #96 in IndyCar history).

Ray Elder (Two NASCAR Cup victories, but here is where it gets interesting. Elder won the 1971 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, the only victory for car #96 in NASCAR, but he won the Golden State 400 at Riverside the following year in car #96W because Elder was a NASCAR West Series entry in the Cup race. Elder won 45 West Series races in car #96 and six championships... ok, maybe Elder deserves it more than Dan Gurney but Gurney is on another level, regional stock car success be damned).

Jon Fogarty (2004 Atlantics Champion with six victories, eight podium finishes and nine top five finishes in 12 starts).

#95: Jim Pace
This is all for Pace's 1994 IMSA GTU championship. Pace won three races at Road Atlanta, Indianapolis Raceway Park and Laguna Seca driving for Leitzinger Racing. 

Pace had to hold off Peruvian Eduardo Dibos to win the championship and a fourth-place finish in the Phoenix finale meant he won the championship by only four points over Dibos. Bill Auberlen won two races that season and through nine races there were six different winners with Pace and Auberlen the only drivers to win multiple times. 

Two years later, Pace would to win the 24 Hours of Daytona overall with Wayne Taylor and Scott Sharp, albeit not in car #95.

Honorable Mentions:
Darrell Waltrip (Used car #95 in the 1974 NASCAR Cup Series season, where he had seven top five finishes, 11 top ten finishes and a pole position from 16 starts).

Peter Revson (Won the second Indy 200 race in 1969, his only IndyCar victory, ahead of Mario Andretti. Revson inherited the lead after Gordon Johncock lost an engine with 13 laps to go).

#94: Ken Roczen
Roczen has been rocking the #94 since he started racing in Europe and his first notable triumph was taking the 2011 MX2 world championship. Since coming to America, Roczen had racked up a handful of championships. 

First, it was the 2013 250cc West Supercross title over Eli Tomac, Cole Seely and Jason Anderson. The following year he took his first of two AMA 450cc championships with the second coming in 2016. 

He has won 41 races in his American career between Motocross and Supercross. It has also been a career where injuries cost him two seasons and kept him from that elusive 450cc Supercross championship. His 18 overall Motocross victories has him ranked tied for seventh all-time. 

Honorable Mentions:
Pascal Wehrlein (2015 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion, 39 Formula One starts with six points scored and 17 Formula E starts with his best finish being second at Santiago in his second start).

Terry Labonte (58 NASCAR Cup Series starts, five top five finishes, 23 top ten finishes, one pole position, no victories).

Sterling Marlin (58 NASCAR Cup Series starts, nine top five finishes, 23 top ten finishes, no victories).

Bill Elliott (185 NASCAR Cup Series starts, 13 top five finishes, 45 top ten finishes, three pole positions, zero victories)

Bill Auberlen/Paul Dalla Lana (Seven victories in the Grand-AM GT class victories between 2011 and 2013). 

#93: Marc Márquez
Could you have possibly thought it was anybody but Márquez?

He has used the #93 for all 206 starts in his grand prix career, from 125cc to MotoGP. 

He has won 82 races, stood on 134 podiums, won 90 pole positions, set 73 fastest laps, scored 3,321 points and he has earned eight world championships, six of which have come in the top category. 

Márquez is the youngest premier class champion. He has the premier class record of 13 victories in a season and he matched the premier class record of ten consecutive victories, previously set by Giacomo Agostini and Mick Doohan. His 62 premier class pole positions is the all-time record. 

He has the most victories at Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he won at the Sachsenring in every year of the 2010s. 

Let's hope he recovers quickly from his arm injury because I don't think he is done re-writing the record books.

Honorable Mention
Dan Gurney (When Lotus came to the United States to attempt the 1963 Indianapolis 500, Gurney was entered in its #93 Lotus 34. Gurney was seventh at Indianapolis and second at Milwaukee later that season. At Trenton in September, he started second and led 97 laps before losing an oil line, the same issue that took his teammate out from the lead and which we will get to in a moment).

Dave Blaney (I honestly struggled coming up with another competitor to use the #93 that was worth mentioning, but I remember Blaney from when he had Amoco sponsorship in the Cup Series. He didn't do much memorable, but I remembered it, probably because of how rare it is to see the #93).

#92: Herb Thomas
Thomas was the first driver to win multiple NASCAR Cup Series championships, taking the top honors in 1951 and 1953. He also won 42 of his 48 Cup victories in car #92, including all three of his Southern 500 victories in 1951, 1954 and 1955. Thomas remains tied for fourth all-time in Southern 500 victories with only Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison winning more. 

He led the Cup Series in victories for three consecutive seasons from 1952-54 with 12 victories in each 1953 and 1954. From 1951 to 1956, he finished in the top five of the championship every season. His winning percentage of 21.05% is the highest in Cup Series history among drivers with at least 100 starts.

Honorable Mentions:
Bobby Unser (Unser won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb twice in car #92  when it counted toward the IndyCar championship. One of those victories was Unser's first IndyCar triumph. 

Rodger Ward (Before Unser, Ward won his first wo IndyCar races in car #92 at Springfield and the Michigan State Fairgrounds in 1953).

Jim Clark (Clark's first three IndyCar starts were in the #92 Lotus 34. He started fifth and finished second at Indianapolis behind the aforementioned Parnelli Jones. Two and a half months later, Clark started on pole position at Milwaukee and he led all 200 laps on his way to victory over A.J. Foyt. Clark started on pole position again at Trenton a month later and led the first 49 laps before an oil line broke, knocking him out of the race).

Jimmie Johnson (Johnson won the inaugural NASCAR Grand National Series at Chicagoland driving for Herzog Motorsports in car #92. It is Johnson's only victory in NASCAR's second division).

Michael Christensen/Kévin Estre (2018-19 World GT Endurance Drivers' champions including a class victory in the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans).

#91: Tim Flock
From the first multi-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, to the second multi-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. 

Though Flock won the 1955 championship using mostly car #300 for Carl Kiekhaefer, he won the 1952 championship in car #91. Between 1951 and 1953, he won 16 races in car #91 with eight of those victories coming in his 1952 championship season, level with Thomas on victories that year, but Flock had three more top five finishes, three more top ten finishes and started one more race. 

Honorable Mentions:
Buddy Lazier (1996 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2000 Indy Racing League championship, eight IndyCar victories).

Olivier Beretta (1999 and 2000 American Le Mans Series GTS champion)

#90: Paul Tracy
It was pretty difficult to find a driver for the #90, but who would have thought an Indy Lights season would save me?

Tracy won the then-American Racing Series championship, far from the biggest highlight of his career, but he won nine of 14 races in the #90 March-Buick for Landford Racing. He opened the season with three consecutive victories at Phoenix, Long Beach and Milwaukee and won four consecutive races later in the season at Portland, Cleveland, the Meadowlands and his home race of Toronto. His victory at Mid-Ohio clinched him the title with three races remaining. 

Honorable Mentions:
Jody Ridley (The only driver to win in car #90 in the NASCAR Cup Series and the only victory for long-time owner Junie Donlavey. It came at Dover in 1981. Neil Bonnett had a two-lap led on the field when he retired. Cale Yarborough had a five-lap lead over Ridley when his engine expired with 20 laps to go. Ridley led the final 20 laps and won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison)

Michael Valiante/Richard Westbrook (Three IMSA Prototype victories, including back-to-back 6 Hours of the Glen victories and runner-up in the 2015 championship by two points)

Let's recap the 90s, the first part of this series: 

We had two grand prix motorcycle world champions...

Two NASCAR Cup Series champions...

An Indianapolis 500 winner...

A multi-time motocross champion...

An Australian Supercars champion....

An IMSA GTU champion...

An American Racing Series champion...

And Dan Gurney.

That's just round one. We got 90 numbers to go.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: It's Too Early to Look at the Standings

February has ended and March is here. Ferrari will be returning to Le Mans in 2023. Supercars opened its season with a sprint event around Mount Panorama. Romain Grosjean got his first test in an IndyCar. Gene Haas opened his mouth and made himself look bad. Formula E had two solid races to open its 2021 season. Alex Lynn went airborne but is ok. The World Rally Championship made an early visit to Finland. NASCAR had two races in Homestead and this time rain did not disrupt the weekend. William Byron won the Cup race. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

It's Too Early to Look at the Standings
With an unlikely combination of winners and set of results in the first two races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, many marveled at how the standings looked after the Daytona road course last week. 

Christopher Bell was fourth after his victory on the Daytona road course. Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece were sixth and seventh after opening the season with consecutive top ten finishes. Cole Custer was 11th, despite not having a top ten finish. Bubba Wallace was 13th. Corey LaJoie and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top 16. 

Entering Homestead, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and William Byron were all outside of playoff spots. All were race winners in 2020. Aric Almirola was 21st. Matt DiBenedetto was 37th ahead of only David Ragan and Derrike Cope. All seven drivers were playoff drivers the year before. 

With a third race in the bag, McDowell is now fourth in the championship with three consecutive top ten finishes! The most top ten finishes he has had in a season was four last year. Bell is still in seventh. Austin Dillon and Preece are tied for 11th. Byron's victory lifted him up 16 positions to 13th. Bowman, Busch, Blaney, Almirola and DiBenedetto are all still on the outside. DiBenedetto is 34th in the championship, behind the likes of Jamie McMurray and Joey Gase, two drivers who had not run since the Daytona 500. 

However, we have only run three races. Thirty-three remain, 23 are left in the regular season portion. Every race contributes toward the championship, but the first three races are not setting in stone what is to come for the rest of the season. The standings are due for a shakeup and there are plenty of examples of drivers who started hot and faded into the middle of the pack. 

Through four races in the 2011 season, Paul Menard was fifth in the championship. He opened the season with a ninth at Daytona and a fifth at Bristol. The only drivers ahead of him in the championship were Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. Stewart and Edwards were tied for the championship at the end of 36 races. Stewart took the hardware on tiebreaker. Newman and Busch were 11th and 12th respectively. Though Menard won the Brickyard 400, he finished the championship in 17th.

In that same 2011 season, A.J. Allmendinger was ninth in the championship after three races. He ended up 15th with one top five finish the entire season. Allmendinger was also fifth in the championship after the third and fourth races of the 2015 season. He had top ten finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas. He ended up 22nd in the final championship with zero top five finishes and his only top ten finish after Las Vegas was a seventh in the second Pocono race. 

Remember Joey Logano's 2017 season? Logano was in the top five of the championship through the first ten races of the season, but he failed inspection after his victory at Richmond and his season unraveled from there. After having six top five finishes and eight top ten finishes from the first ten races, he had four top five finishes and eight top ten finishes for the rest of the season. He missed the playoffs and ended up 17th in the championship. 

At least one driver makes a notable fall. In 2018, Menard was ninth in the championship after three races, Ryan Newman was 14th and Bubba Wallace was 15th. None of those three made the playoffs. Menard dropped to 19th. Wallace dropped to 28th. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr was seventh after three races in 2019, with his best result being sixth at Las Vegas. He had two top ten finishes the rest of the season and was 23rd in the championship. Last year, Chris Buescher was 11th in the championship after three races. He ended up 21st

Jumping back to 2006, Casey Mears was fourth in the championship after three races with finishes of second, seventh and ninth. He had one top five finish and five top ten finishes in the final 33 races and ended up 14th in the championship. Clint Bowyer was seventh after three races that year and Elliott Sadler was eighth. Bowyer ended up 17th and Sadler was 22nd. 

For all the drivers who started strong and fell, there are drivers who have started slow and came out on top. Kevin Harvick was outside the top ten in the championship after 13 of the first 14 races in the 2014 season. Prior to the start of the playoffs, he was in the top five of the championship after only one races, the second race of the season. He went on to win the championship. 

Brad Keselowski didn't break into the top ten of the championship until after the 14th race in 2012. Keselowski didn't crack the top five until after the 22nd race and then he fell out after the 24th race. He was first or second in the championship after every race in the playoffs, ending up with the title after Homestead. Clint Bowyer was second in the championship that year. He didn't enter the top five of the championship until the Chase began. 

In 2009, Jimmie Johnson's best finish through four races was ninth. He was 13th in the championship. Remind me how that turned out for Johnson? Oh, yeah, a fourth consecutive championship. Johnson was also 13th in the championship after four races the year prior to that as well

We have to let a championship breathe and not take any of the results that seriously after two or three or even four races. We shouldn't start taking anything seriously until seven or eight races are complete and even at that point we could probably wait until the midway point of the regular season. 

I don't know how McDowell is having an otherworldly season now, 360 races, literally ten full NASCAR Cup seasons, into his career. I don't know if it is going to stick or if the momentum is going to run out after Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta and a Bristol dirt race. I can't say for certain Kyle Busch is going to turn it around, but he is going to finish better than tenth soon. Blaney doesn't have a top ten finish yet, but he isn't going to be shut out in that department. The Penske organization has a combined two top ten finishes from its three drivers in three races. That is going to change. 

The season is going to develop and 2021 is incomparable to other recent seasons. The season started with the Daytona 500 and a road course. You have to go 40 years to the last time Riverside opened the season to make such a comparison. We just had our first intermediate race and Homestead stands out on its own among the intermediate tracks. There is still a dirt race, a number of other short tracks and road courses to go until we will reach the point where we can start drawing conclusions from what the championship standings are telling us. 

Let these opening races happen and don't buy what the standings tell you now as gospel. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about William Byron, but did you know...

Nyck de Vries and Sam Bird split the Formula E races from Saudi Arabia.

Ott Tänak won Arctic Rally - Finland.

Shane van Gisbergen swept the two Supercars races from Bathurst.

Myatt Snider won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Homestead, his first career victory. 

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR will be in Las Vegas.
Supercross opens Daytona Bike Week.
GT World Challenge America opens its season at Sonoma.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Best of the Month: February 2021

We are at the end of February, the shortest month of the year, and now that we are approaching March's doorstep it feels like we have cleared the worst of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. We have made it. Whatever sloppy weather comes is surmountable. We have come this far and brighter days are upon us. We can already tell we are gaining daylight. 

In the motorsports world, there have been a handful of events and a handful of announcements. We continue to make it through these pandemic conditions and hope there are no further delays. Let's take into account what has happened over this month. 

Fixing the Qualifying Races: Ideas #1,092-#1,094
Let me start by saying I enjoyed the condensed festivities ahead of the Daytona 500. There was something each night leading up to the main event. It was a constant buildup. I hope it is here to stay. 

However, Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying races could use some work. 

With the charter system and 36 cars locked into the 40-car field, there is little excitement over four spots, especially when two of those spots are tied to the best remaining qualifying times from the open team. One spot is up for grabs in each race. This year we were lucky to have four drivers going for each spot, but there have been years when it has been three cars and one of them has not be overly competitive. 

I got three more ideas to add to the nearly countless ways to reinvent the qualifying races.

Idea #1,092: Split the field in half, top 20 qualifiers compete in race one to set the first ten rows; the remaining drivers compete in race two to set the final ten rows and who will be in the race

Advantages: Qualifying would matter. Drivers would have something to compete for in qualifying. An open team can still qualify into the race via qualifying times. 

Qualms: What happens if all the open teams qualify in the top 20? 

I would love NASCAR to make the Daytona 500 be the only race where anyone can fail to qualify, but that's not going to happen. 

For this format, my suggestion would be only the fastest two open teams in the top 20 would make it. In theory, if open teams qualified first, second and third, the third fastest car would have to start in the second race. I hate it too, but it is the stipulation NASCAR would put in. The first race would actually be at least the fastest 18 chartered teams with possibly two open cars, but no more than two. 

It would make the second race interesting. Let's say none of the open team make the first race. You would then have possibly eight cars going for four spots. There is wiggle room for some of these teams. It doesn't come down to one spot. But open teams could handle their business in qualifying and not have to worry about the qualifying race and could even be guaranteed a top 20 start. 

Idea #1,093: Race first and then qualify

Advantages: People are getting dumber. That was my takeaway after this year's Daytona 500 qualifying races. The viewers had no clue that the open car that made the race on time could race its way in, even though that has been the custom since NASCAR starting tooling around with the Daytona 500 format and locking teams in over the last 15 years. 

When Ryan Preece crossed the line the best open car in the first qualifying race, he raced in and kept his starting position as corresponded to his race finish, which meant the third-fastest open car from qualifying made the race. Austin Cindric was the lucky driver, but again, people are getting dumber, and did not know that despite it being that way for years, so many thought Tyler Dillon got the spot because Dillon was next-best open finisher behind Preece. 

To cater to the dumber people, let's just flip proceedings. We are already racing without qualifying or practicing, let's do the same thing with the Daytona 500 qualifying races. Race on Wednesday and qualify on Thursday. 

The race winners are guaranteed second row positions. The best open cars are guaranteed spots in the field. Then we have qualifying and qualifying sets the rest of the field and what other two open entries make the race.

Qualms: How do you set the grid for the qualifying races if qualifying hasn't happened?

I would just split the field in half via owner points. Odd-positioned finishing chartered teams in race one, even-positioned chartered team in race two and then you can split the open teams with the odd-positioned of the open teams in the first race and even-positioned open teams in the second race.

What happens when a handful of cars get into an accident?

This is a problem I am not sure I can adequately solve. 

How do you prevent the teams from having two cars, one for the qualifying race and one for qualifying? You could have a bunch of teams not mind it being a free-for-all because the backup car is better for qualifying. 

You cannot institute a rule barring teams from qualifying if they have an accident in the first race. You could, but then you take all the air out of qualifying. For the chartered teams it is fine, they would just start at the rear of the field, but for the open teams that is likely an automatic qualifying failure. You could have two open teams left standing who just have to complete a qualifying run and they would be in because everyone else is out, but what happens if no open teams can qualify? What do you do then? 

This idea has its flaws. But it is aimed for the dumb people. 

Idea #1,094: Shorten the races to 50 laps, fill the cars with fuel, no pit stops allowed, no new tires, no re-fueling. Go. 

Advantage: This is nothing procedural, but it is another way to spice up the races. The cars can't quite get 125 miles on a tank of fuel now, but what kind of race would we see if we made the teams stretch it? Would all the teams agree to run the first five or ten laps at slower speeds? Would some teams start slow to save early and go hard at the end? Would some teams speed away and hope to be able to coast to the finish? 

One caution and all of a sudden the teams can make it, but nobody can take tires and there is always a chance of a green-white-checkered finish, with means there is a chance teams could find themselves in trouble even if conserving.

Qualms: You know someone is going to bring up safety and say you can't have cars running out of fuel at Daytona. We had cars running out of fuel at the finish of the 2017 Daytona 500 and we all survived. 

Hildebrand Heads to the Mountain?
There is not a lot out about this story, but the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb entry list was released and one of the entrants was J.R. Hildebrand with a Dallara DW12 chassis.

Is an IndyCar returning to Pikes Peak?

I hope so.

I have been a proponent of IndyCar returning to Pikes Peak. When Michael Shank Racing was toying with bringing an LMP2 car to Pikes Peak, I thought it was a great opportunity to stand out and I wished an IndyCar team would do it. I actually think Pikes Peak should return to the IndyCar calendar. 

1. It would be an event unlike any other and it would force people to watch. An IndyCar climbing up over 4,700 feet on a 12-mile road? That will catch the attention of many. Let's face it, IndyCar racing at Mid-Ohio or Pocono or Gateway or on the street of Nashville isn't turning many heads. IndyCar racing at Pikes Peak with no guardrails and risking life and limb? That will get some eyeballs. 

2. Nobody knows what the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is. Pretty much every racetrack looks alike to the commoner. It is a paved road and some barriers. Unless it is Monaco with yacht and bikini-clad women lining the track, no one can tell the difference between Road America and Road Atlanta, Sonoma and Laguna Seca or Texas and Chicagoland. 

Pikes Peak is a mountain, absent of the sterilizing safety amenities, and an actual beast. None of the racetracks scare anybody, not even Indianapolis. They got SAFER Barriers and catchfences and the drivers walkaway. Like it or not, motorsports is a thrill sport and a staring contest with death is the greatest thrill of all, especially when it is setup to be a spectacular death. 

3. For part-time IndyCar teams or Indianapolis-only teams, I have always wondered why one wouldn't do an event like this for the exposure. A full-time season is expensive, but for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Juncos Racing, the now-defunct Lazier Racing Partners, why not go to Pikes Peak and draw out sponsors? Why not use that car for more than Indianapolis?

I know there are limits and those Honda and Chevrolet engines are not readily available for an effort like this, but you could put something else inside the DW12 chassis to get it up the mountain. 

We need more adventurous teams, teams that will take a chance doing something no one else is considering. Hopefully, Hildebrand does take an IndyCar to Pikes Peak and guns to shatter the record. It will be the event of year if it happens.

March Preview
Speaking of taking chances, NASCAR's dirt race at Bristol is the event of the month in March 2021.

We are still learning about the race, but here is what we know. On Saturday night before the race, there will be four 15-lap qualifying races. I am not sure how those are setting the field or how the field will be split for those races, but it is happening. The main event on Sunday will be 250-laps. There is still no word on if there will be live pit stops or how the race will be broken up. 

I am skeptical this will be a good race. Good is subjective, but we have to look at what this race is replacing, a regular Bristol race, which didn't need any improvement. 

I have already set a tier-one of possible winners: Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 

This could be Stenhouse, Jr.'s greatest day in NASCAR, which means he is going to blow it. 

Is it crazy to put a Rick Ware Racing car in tier two? Because I think Chris Windom could have a shot. Windom has been one of the best dirt racers over the last decade, but unlike contemporaries Larson and Bell, Windom has not been able to turn it into pavement opportunities, and he has not made the most of the pavement opportunities given to him. 

Windom kept tearing up Indy Lights cars with it ending in a heavy accident in the Freedom 100. He has made a handful fo Truck starts, including two Eldora races, but even at Eldora he was mediocre. He has done well in the ARCA dirt races at DuQuoin and Springfield. Most Cup drivers are nowhere near as close to the level of comfort Windom has on dirt. I am not going to pick Windom to win it, but no one should be surprised if he is in the top 15 on speed and possibly pushing the top ten. 

Other tier two drivers? Kyle Busch just because of talent, Alex Bowman because everyone has forgotten his dirt background, Ryan Newman because of his dirt background, but we have to acknowledge Newman has not been the same over the last year. 

Many drivers ran the Eldora Truck race. Bubba Wallace won it and was seventh in his other star. Austin Dillon won the inaugural race and was in the top ten of all three of his starts. There is a rumbling Stewart Friesen could be making his Cup debut at Bristol and Friesen won the last Eldora dirt race with three consecutive top five finishes in the race. Friesen is one of two drivers with at least three top five finishes at Eldora. The other driver is Grant Enfinger. 

And then there is a group of drivers who will be completely lost on the dirt: Michael McDowell, William Byron, Daniel Suárez, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, Quin Houff (but he is lost every week in the Cup Series, so Bristol is not going to be that different). Joey Logano will kind of be a fish out of water. Martin Truex, Jr. does not have a lot of dirt experience. 

This might not be the greatest NASCAR race ever, but it will be fascinating to say the least.

Other events of note in March:
Formula One season might start in Bahrain. 
MotoGP season might start in Qatar. 
There should be a 12 Hours of Sebring
Supercross returns with races in Daytona and Arlington, Texas. 
NASCAR will have three other races on paved racetracks.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

2021 Formula E Season Preview

Typically, in February we are reaching the quarter post of the Formula E season with a season that began before Christmas and spent the better part of winter traveling the Southern Hemisphere. After the events of the last 12 months, February is when this new Formula E season will begin. 

Twelve teams and 24 drivers are set for the 2021 championship in a year that will be turning point for the championship. 

The pandemic continues to play havoc on international series and Formula E is not immune. The original calendar has been tossed and we are living with a provisional schedule. We have part of it, but even that is subject to change. 

As of now, we know the season will start with a doubleheader in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia on February 26 and February 27 with both races taking place at night. The next round will not be until April 10, the day before Easter, in Rome. Two weeks later, Formula E will make its debut at Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia. The permanent track has played host to Formula E testing with the series using the perimeter configuration. 

Monaco is scheduled for a return on May 8 before heading to Marrakesh on May 22. Santiago is the final scheduled round for now with the Chilean capital set to host a doubleheader on June 5-6. 

Formula E hopes to have 15 races this season and there are six locations that were on the original schedule that could still host a race in 2021. Berlin's Tempelhof Airport will likely host a round. Last year, London was supposed to return to the calendar with a race at the ExCeL London convention center and fingers are crossed 2021 see that race take place. Regular North American stops Mexico City and Brooklyn are tentative hosts and Sanya and Seoul could each be Asian rounds of the 2021 championship. 

Paris is the only scheduled 2021 race that has been cancelled. 

DS Techeetah
António Félix da Costa: #13 DS E-TENSE FE20
What did he do last season: Da Costa won the championship with 158 points, clinching the championship with two races remaining. He had three victories, one at Marrakesh and a sweep of the first Berlin doubleheader, and three runner-up finishes with points scored in nine of 11 races. Outside of Formula E, he was third in the FIA World Endurance Championship's Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers with a runner-up finish in LMP2 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

What to expect this season: More of the same. Techeetah will be at the front and da Costa will put up an honorable title defense. He was fourth in testing. He should win two or three races. Though the six Berlin races were held on three different configurations, I am curious about how Techeetah will run in different environments. Da Costa was in good form before Germany and this was after the team had a slow start. I don't think he will have a slow start again. If he doesn't win the championship, he will be in the top five. 

Jean-Éric Vergne: #25 DS E-TENSE FE20
What did he do last season: Vergne was third in the championship, 72 points off his teammate. Vergne won the fourth Berlin race, his only victory of the season. He had two other podium finishes, a third in the third Berlin race and a third in Marrakesh. His only other top five finish was a fourth in Mexico City. 

What to expect in this season: Vergne will be there, as he has been in his four previous seasons with Techeetah. He will win a few races and pole positions. The two Techeetah drivers complement each other but are each other's biggest rivals. They will take points off of each other. They both should be in the top five of the championship, but they both could fall short of the championship because one doesn't have a clear upper hand. 

Team Notes:

Teechetah has won a race in each of the last four seasons. Last season was the first time both Techeetah drivers won a race in a season. 

Teechetah aims to joins Renault e.dams as the only teams to win three consecutive teams' championships. 

The team has never won one of the first three races in a season.

Nissan e.dams
Oliver Rowland: #22 Nissan IM02
What did he do last season: Rowland was fifth in the championship on 83 points, 75 points behind the champion da Costa. Rowland scored his first Formula E victory in the penultimate race of the 2019-20 season from pole position in Berlin. He scored points in eight of 11 races, but his victory was his only podium finish of the season. 

What to expect in this season: The biggest problem for Rowland is his teammate because when you are paired with one of the best drivers in Formula E history it is going to be tough to stand out. Rowland started on the right foot in testing, ending up seventh while Sébastien Buemi was 14th. Buemi has had a teammate beat him in the championship. I don't expect that to change, but I think 2021 will be a lot like last season and Rowland will not be far off Buemi. 

Sébastien Buemi: #23 Nissan IM02
What did he do last season:  Buemi was fourth in the championship on 84 points, but for the second time in three seasons he did not win a race. He did have four podium finishes, three of which came in the six Berlin races. After opening the season with no points from the first three events, he finished in the points in seven of the final eight races. In the World Endurance Championship, he was runner-up in the World Endurance Drivers' Championship with two victories and six runner-up finishes. 

What to expect in this season: Buemi is there every season. He will be there again in 2021. I think he will get off the snide and win two or three races. I think he will be a championship threat and push the Techeetah drivers. 

Teams Notes:

After winning 15 of the first 32 races, the Renault/Nissan e.dams team has won just two of the last 36 races. In the last two seasons, it has not won until the final race weekend of the season. 

Buemi has had at least four podium finishes in every Formula e season. 

The team has not put both cars on the podium since Mexico City 2016 when Buemi was second and Nicolas Prost was third. In fact, that is the only race e.dams has had both cars on the podium. 

Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team
Stoffel Vandoorne: #5 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: Vandoorne was vice-champion on 87 points and he ended his sophomore season with a victory in the Berlin finale from pole position. He opened the season with a pair of third-place finishes, and he scored points from seven of 11 races. 

What to expect in this season: Vandoorne was one of the most improved drivers of the 2019-20 season. Testing was a little underwhelming considering 2019-20 went. Vandoorne was 18th and the top Mercedes. I expect him to be in the top ten again and fighting for the top five. He should probably win another race or two. 

Nyck de Vries: #17 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: De Vries was 11th in the championship on 60 points. His best finish was second in the Berlin finale, giving Mercedes-Benz its first 1-2 finish. He scored points in five races, but never finished in the points in consecutive races. 

What to expect in this season: While Vandoorne was 18th, de Vries was 21st in testing. De Vries was streaky in 2019-20. It was top five or bust for him. He has to improve on that consistency. If he does, he will be up there with his teammate and perhaps Mercedes could make a push for a teams' championship. I am weary of that though, especially if Mercedes does not improve from its testing form. 

Team Notes:

Vandoorne's victory in the Berlin season finale was his first victory since October 30, 2016 when he won the Super Formula season finale at Suzuka with fellow Formula E driver André Lotterer finishing second that day. 

The season opener will be de Vries' 12th start. Only nine drivers in Formula E history have taken more than 12 starts to get a first victory, including Vandoorne, who took 24 races, tied for the fifth most. 

Mercedes-Benz's 1-2 finish in last season's Berlin finale was the fifth 1-2 finish in Formula E history. Techeetah and Audi each have done it twice. Techeetah did it at Santiago in 2018 and in the fourth Berlin race in 2020. Jean-Éric Vergne won each with André Lotterer second in Chile and António Félix da Costa second in Germany. Audi's first 1-2 was in Berlin in 2018 with Daniel Abt ahead of Lucas di Grassi. Later that season, di Grassi won the first Brooklyn race with Abt in second. 

Envision Virgin Racing
Robin Frijns: #4 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Frijns was 12th in the championship with 58 points and he had a pair of runner-up finishes. However, he only scored points in four races all season and missed the antepenultimate race of the season in Berlin. In the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, he was third in the championship with three victories, 11 podium finishes and 16 points finishes from 18 starts. He also won five pole positions in the DTM.

What to expect in this season: For all the promise Frijns has shown, his championship finishes in four seasons are 12th, 13th, fourth and 12th. He has won only two races and four of his seven podium finishes came in 2018-19 season. With Sam Bird gone, Frijns has to lead Virgin, but his streakiness will cost him. He can sneak into the top ten of the championship, but I don't see getting any higher than eighth. 

Nick Cassidy: #37 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Cassidy competed in Japan and he was eighth in the Super GT championship with a victory in the season opener from Fuji. He missed the final two Super GT races to focus on his Formula E commitments. In Super Formula, he was fourth in the championship with a victory at Sportsland SUGO and a third at Okayama. 

What to expect in this season: Cassidy has already admitted Formula E will force him to drive differently with more energy management and he isn't focused on results too much. It sounds like he is using this year to learn before attempting a better challenge in year two. He was 13th at the Valencia pre-season test. Virgin is a consistent team. I think he will score points and challenge for a podium finish in at least one race, but I think he will be second in this team and Virgin could be set for its worst finish in the teams' championship.

Team Notes:

Virgin Racing has finished in the top five of the teams' championship in every Formula E season.

Only two of the team's 11 victories have not come from Sam Bird. Both those came from Frijns at Paris and the second Brooklyn race in 2019. 

Bird had started all 69 races with Virgin Racing. 

Cassidy becomes the eighth driver in team history and only the second non-European driver joining José María López.

BMW i Andretti Autosport
Jake Dennis: #27 BMW IFE.21
What did he do last season: Dennis ran two races all of 2020. His first start was the Bathurst 12 Hour sharing an Aston Martin with Rick Kelly and Scott Dixon to a 16th-place finish. He ran in the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in the European Le Mans Series with Jota Sport and finished eighth. 

What to expect in this season: Dennis was 11th in testing and I am going to set the bar low because BMW's results have been scattered. The team wins one week and then doesn't score points in the next three or four races. The final championship finishes end up being average for BMW and that is where I expect Dennis to be. I think he will be outside the top ten in the championship. 

Maximilian Günther: #28 BMW IFE.21
What did he do last season: Günther scored two victories in his first year with the BWM i Andretti program at Santiago and the third Berlin race. However, his only other finish in the points was second at Marrakesh and he ended up ninth in the championship on 69 points. 

What to expect in this season: As has become accustom for Formula E testing, BMW led the way back in December in Valencia, however, despite all of BMW's preseason success, the results have fallen relatively flat once the season starts. The team won three races last year, two at the hands of Günther, but the team failed to score points on 14 of 22 occasions, including going scoreless in the final three races. I don't rate Günther highly and though he could win another race in 2021, I don't think he can string together the results to be a serious title contender. 

Team Notes:

BMW has announced this will be the manufacture's last season in Formula E. Andretti Autosport could continue but would need another partnership and likely another powertrain. 

Dennis is the team's 16th different driver. 

Only twice has the team had both cars finish in the top five: The inaugural Formula E race at Beijing in 2014 with Franck Montagny in second and Charles Pic in fourth, and the first Brooklyn race in 2019 when António Félix da Costa was third and Alexander Sims was fourth.

Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler
Lucas di Grassi: #11 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Di Grassi had his worst season of his Formula E career. He was sixth in the championship on 77 points, but he did not win a race for the first time in his career. He had two runner-up finishes and scored points from nine of 11 races. 

What to expect in this season: Last year was a down year and testing results were dismal. Di Grassi was the slowest in Valencia, albeit 0.761 seconds off the top time. The Audis were 20th and 24th though. Di Grassi will figure it out, but I am not sure he can make another championship push. He scored a lot of points last year, but rarely was one of the top drivers on track. It would not be a surprise if he won a race and had a few podium finishes, but for the first time in Formula E history I don't think he is a championship favorite at the start of a season. 

René Rast: #33 Audi e-Tron FE07
What did he do last season: Rast ran the final six races of the Formula E season in Berlin after Daniel Abt's unceremonious exit from the team. Rast scored 29 points from nine races and was third in the penultimate race of the season. In DTM, Rast won his third championship in four seasons with seven victories and 13 podium finishes from 18 races and his worst finish of the season was seventh. 

What to expect in this season: Rast showed promise in his Berlin stint last season and I think he is the teammate di Grassi lacked his entire Formula E career. I think both Audi drivers should be in the top ten of the championship. I don't think Audi is as slow as testing suggested. It might not be the best team, but it will produce. Rast is still re-adjusting to single-seater racing. He has not competed regularly in a single-seater since 2004 in Formula BMW ADAC. I think he will overcome that and be competitive, but I don't expect him to be a regular race winner. 

Team Notes:

This will be Audi's final season in Formula E.

After ending the 2017-18 season with seven consecutive podium finishes on the way to Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler making the teams' championship, di Grassi has only five podium finishes over the last 24 races.

di Grassi has started all 69 races with Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler. His teammate has always been a German driver, with Daniel Abt running 63 races and Rast taking the last six races.

Jaguar Racing
Sam Bird: #10 Jaguar I-Type 5
What did he do last season: Driving for Virgin Racing, Bird won the season opener, but he had only one other podium finish all season and he was tenth in the championship on 63 points, his worst Formula E championship finish. He scored points in six of 11 races. 

What to expect in this season: Bird might be the best Formula E driver not to win a championship, but too often does he start strong and then fade. He has won one of the first four races of a season in five of six seasons. However, in 2014-15, he won the second race and his only other podium finish was his victory in the season finale. He won the fourth race the year after that and didn't finish in the top five again. He won the third race in 2018-19 and didn't get on the podium again. He won the season opener last year and had one other podium finish. Jaguar produces respectable cars but has yet to have that breakthrough. I don't think it will happen this year.

Mitch Evans: #20 Jaguar I-Type 5
What did he do last season: Evans won at Mexico City, was third in Santiago and scored points from seven of 11 races on his way to seventh in the championship with 71 points. 

What to expect in this season: Evans was fifth in testing while Bird was 23rd. Evans has won a race each of the last two seasons and he has been in the top ten of the championship in the last three seasons. I expect more of the same. He will win a race, perhaps two and get on the podium three or four times, but he will be just off that championship level. 

Team Notes:

Bird becomes the sixth different teammate for Evans in five seasons. 

Evans has been the top Jaguar finisher in 35 of 48 Formula E races for the team. 

Jaguar has had both cars finish in the points in only eight of 48 races, including only once last season.

Tag Heuer Porsche Formula E Team
André Lotterer: #36 Porsche 99X Electric
What did he do last season: Lotterer picked up two runner-up finishes and a pole position. He scored points in seven of 11 races on his way to eighth in the championship on 71 points. 

What to expect in this season: Lotterer is uncertain about Porsche's second season seeing improvements because of how tight the Formula E is, but he should see an uptick in results. I think Porsche can win a race or two this season and I think Lotterer could get one. I am not sure the consistency can be there for a championship, but he should be at least eighth in the championship again. 

Pascal Wehrlein: #99 Porsche 99X Electric
What did he do last season: Wehrlein ran the first five races of the 2019-20 Formula E season with Mahindra Racing and his best finishes were fourth at Santiago and ninth at Mexico City. He stepped out of the car prior to the season resuming in Berlin. 

What to expect in this season: Last year, Lotterer scored 71 of Porsche's 78 points. Wehrlein was sixth in testing and I think we will see a greater balance between the two Porsche drivers. Each driver could win a race, but I am more concerned about Wehrlein than Lotterer. Wehrlein walked away from Mahindra in the middle of last year after decent results and a solid first season. He should be close to equal to his teammate, but I will give the slight edge to Lotterer. 

Team Notes:

Lotterer has the most points in Formula E history without a victory. Lotterer has scored 221 points. He is only one of four drivers with over 100 points in a career and no victories. The other are Nick Heidfeld with 214 points, Stéphane Sarrazin with 128 points and Loïc Duval with 112 points.

Lotterer has not won a race since May 27, 2017 when he won the first race of a Super Formula doubleheader at Okayama. 

Wehrlein has not won a race since August 29, 2015 when he won the first race of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters weekend at Moscow Raceway. He has not won a race in a single-seater since March 24, 2013 when he won the second race of the FIA Formula Three European championship season at Monza.

Mahindra Racing
Alexander Sims: #29 Mahindra M7Electro
What did he do last season: Sims started on pole position for the first two races of the season and won the second race in Saudi Arabia. That was his only podium finish of the season. He scored 49 points and ended up 13th in the championship with BMW i Andretti.
What to expect in this season: For all the pace Sims showed at BMW, the results are rather lackluster. He moves to Mahindra, a team coming off its worst championship finish and the two cars were 15th and 16th in testing with Sims leading. I don't see a big turnaround coming. Sims should score some points and he might have a top five finish. Sims scored the same number of points on his own as Mahindra did as a team last year. The team could see an uptick in points and gain a spot in the teams' championship, but I expect Sims to be between 13th and 18th in the championship. 

Alex Lynn: #94 Mahindra M7Electro
What did he do last season: Lynn ran the final six races in Berlin in place of Wehrlein. He ended the season with three consecutive points finishes with his best result being fifth. He ended up 17th on 16 points. 

What to expect in this season: I can't figure out Lynn. Once, he was a strong Formula One hopeful, then he was a sports car stud. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring with Wayne Taylor Racing and was in the Aston Martin factory program, but he is not as desired as I thought he would be. His Formula E results have never been great and he has driven for some good teams in Virgin and Jaguar. However, he ended 2020 on the right path. He scored points in three consecutive races. I think he could top Sims in the Mahindra battle, but he will likely finish in the same range as Sims, somewhere between 13th and 18th. 

Team Notes:

Last season was the first time since the inaugural Formula E season in 2014-15 that Mahindra did not pick up a podium finish. 

Mahindra's 49 points and ninth in the teams' championship in 2019-20 were both the team's worst results in each category. Mahindra had scored over 100 points in the previous four seasons. 

The team has not had a podium finish in its last 21 races, the longest drought in team history.

ROKiT Venturi Racing
Edoardo Mortara: #48 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: Mortara was in the points for seven of 11 races but he had only two top five finishes. He scored 41 points and ended up 14th in the championship for the second consecutive season. 

What to expect in this season: In three Formula E seasons, Mortara has finished 13th, 14th and 14th in the championship. I expect him to be 13th or 14th in the championship. He could see a slight improvement and get to tenth or 11th, but Venturi has never been a regular fighter at the front of the field. He could score points in half the races. 

Norman Nato: #71 Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrows 02
What did he do last season: Nato competed with Rebellion Racing in the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship. He won two races and had six consecutive podium finishes, including a runner-up result in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on his way to finishing third in the World Endurance Drivers' Championship. 

What to expect in this season: Nato was tenth in testing, two spots ahead of his teammate, but Venturi's inconsistency worries me. It will have the Mercedes-Benz powertrain for the second consecutive season, but that doesn't mean the team will be fighting for victories. I think Nato is in the same boat Mortara, trying to get tenth in the championship. 

Team Notes:

Venturi has never finished in the top five of the teams' championship. 

Venturi has only six podium finishes and 17 top five finishes in 69 races.

Nato has not run a single-seater since the 2017 Formula Two season. 

Dragon/Penske Autosport
Nico Müller: #6 Penske EV-5
What did he do last season: Müller scored no points in his rookie season in Formula E. His best finish was 12th in two races. He did pick up fastest lap in the final race of the season in Berlin. In DTM, Müller was second in the championship with six victories, 13 podium finishes and he finished in the points of all 18 races.

What to expect in this season: Dragon/Penske Autosport was the surprise of testing with its two cars ending up second and third, with Müller taking third. It is only testing and like any series we have seen fast cars disappear when the season begins and concerns about a driver's pace disappear once that driver starts succeeding in season. I am skeptical, mostly because Dragon/Penske's championship results have gotten worse in each Formula E and it still hasn't hit rock-bottom. It does have more room above it than below. Müller has a season under his belt and I think he will score points, but not be a serious contender for a top ten championship position.

Sérgio Sette Câmara: #7 Penske EV-5
What did he do last season: Câmara started the final six races in Berlin with his best finish being 15th in the penultimate round of the season. He also ran one Super Formula race at Sportsland SUGO and won pole position, but he retired from that lone start. 

What to expect in this season: Câmara could be the surprise of the season. Based on his Formula Two results and him winning pole position on his Super Formula debut after spending the first half of the year away from the team shows something is there. We have seen one-off winners in Formula E early in a season and then that team kind of craters. Câmara could see early glory and then struggle for results elsewhere but steal a spot eighth to tenth in the championship. I think he will lead this team in points scored.

Team Notes:

Dragon racing was second in the inaugural teams' championship with 171 points and fourth in the second season with 143 points. In the last four seasons, the team has scored 62 points combined. 

Only once has the team not made a driver change during the season and that was in 2015-16. The driver change has always occurred in the #6 Dragon Racing entry. 

The team's most recent victory was Mexico City 2016 and its most recent podium finish was Zürich 2018.

NIO 333 FE Team
Oliver Turvey: #8 NIO 333 001
What did he do last season: Turvey did not score a point in 2019-20 with an 11th in Santiago being his best showing. He finished outside the top 15 in the final seven races of the season. 

What to expect in this season: It has to get better for Turvey and NIO. The good news is he was ninth in testing. However, there was a big gap between him and his teammate. Turvey and NIO should get a few points, but I am talking five or six points. NIO can only go up but a marginal improvement still will not be earth-shattering in the Formula E world.

Tom Blomqvist: #88 NIO 333 001
What did he do last season: Blomqvist started the final Berlin doubleheader in place of James Calado at Jaguar and finished 12th and 17th in those races. He made his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the GTE-Am class with HubAuto Corsa and he won the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000km with Alessandro Pier Guidi and Côme Ledogar to close out the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup season. 
What to expect in this season: Blomqvist was 20th in testing, 11 spots off his teammate. Blomqvist has had a disjointed Formula E career. He got a crack with Andretti in 2017-18 before BMW's full commitment to the series and then he didn't race in the series for two years. It has been seven years since he regularly competed in a single-seater. Turvey is more likely to score points than Blomqvist and I would be surprised if Blomqvist finished in the points once or twice this season. 

Team Notes:

Since having Nelson Piquet, Jr. win the inaugural drivers' championship with two victories and four podium finishes, this team has one podium finish in the last 58 races. 

The team has not had double points scorers since Buenos Aires 2016 when Piquet, Jr. was fifth and Turvey was ninth. NIO has put both cars in the points five times but has never had both cars finish in the top five.

Turvey holds the Formula E record with 59 entries and 58 starts without a victory. 

Blomqvist will become NIO's tenth driver. Only four drivers have scored points for the team (Piquet, Jr., Turvey, Charles Pic, Luca Filippi). 

First practice of the Formula E season will take place at 10:15 a.m. ET on Thursday February 25. Friday practice is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. ET before qualifying at 8:00 a.m. ET. The first race of the Formula E season will be at noon ET on Friday February 26.

There will be a practice session at 5:45 a.m. ET on Saturday February 27 with qualifying at 8:00 a.m. ET and the second race scheduled for noon.