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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Red Bull team gets wings

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that life after Hendrick Motorsports can be good. Kyle Busch wore out his welcome there last year and soon signed on with Joe Gibbs Racing, whose future was uncertain amid a switch to Toyota. Anyone who’s watched NASCAR this year knows he’s the hottest thing on wheels right now, and he is no doubt thanking his lucky stars that he moved on from Hendrick.

But beneath the radar is another Hendrick castoff who’s shocking the racing world, and his name is Brian Vickers. Vickers won the 2003 Busch Series title in a Hendrick car, but couldn’t translate that magic into the top series at Hendrick. In 2006 at Talladega, he became the most unpopular man in motorsports by wrecking teammate Jimmie Johnson and taking the win. The problem was that the wreck not only took out Johnson, it also took out Dale Earnhardt Jr. After that, he was persona non grata at Hendrick, and Jr. fans cursed his name.

He started over in 2007 with the new Red Bull Racing team, and struggled mightily, only qualifying for 23 races. But during the offseason, the team must have found a magic potion, because Vickers is on fire this year. He is only 35 points out of the Chase, and finished fifth Sunday at Talladega. He ran up front for most of the day, and without the last-lap caution, he may have challenged for the win.

I don’t know if he can pull out a win this year, but don’t be surprised to see Vickers rack up top five and top ten finishes as the year goes on. He has a realistic shot at making the Chase, and if anyone had said that a year ago, they’d have been laughed at.

Was I the only one at the edge of my seat every time Denny Hamlin and other drivers were literally pushing a competitor around the track at 200+ miles per hour? I was amazed nobody ended up in the wall as a result of this effective tactic that was used throughout Sunday’s race. I’d be afraid to do that at 30 miles per hour. Maybe that’s why they’re on the track and I’m sitting at home watching.

Watch out drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya has a strong day at Talladega and ended up second at the checkered flag. And guess what … he’s in the top 12 and officially a Chase contender. I’m hoping he can make it, as Montoya is a very exciting driver who would definitely make the end of the year interesting if he was a title contender. He’s won in Indycar and Formula One and there’s no reason he can’t win a NASCAR title.

In other Ganassi team news, Dario Franchitti’s future in NASCAR could be in jeopardy after he injured himself in Saturday’s Nationwide series race. Former Ganassi driver David Stremme stepped in and did a great job all day at Talladega, even leading several times. Considering how much Franchitti has struggled this season, he had better start performing once he heals and returns to the car, or he may be on his way back to open-wheel at the end of the season or sooner.

The Nationwide race was a wreckfest, including a massive tangle triggered by Kevin Lepage, who felt it necessary to enter the track even though he was nowhere near up to speed. To be kind, it was one of the dumbest moves I’ve ever seen made in a race, and a veteran like Lepage should know not to do something like that. That wreck and others decimated the field so bad, there were only 14 cars on the lead lap at the end of the race. The only bright spot for me was that the carnage allowed Morgan Shepherd, an old-timer whose budget is about 50 cents a race and usually finishes around 40th, to get a 13th place finish in the race, his best finish and paycheck in years.

A quick look at the point standings after Talladega reveals a few surprises. The Yates cars are doing surprisingly well, with David Gilliland in 18th, less than 100 points out of the Chase, and Travis Kvapil a respectable 23rd. This team has been pretty much without a sponsor all season, and they deserve a hand for the job they’ve done. On the flip side, former champion Matt Kenseth has been snake-bit all year and sits 19th in points. Unless he develops some consistency soon, he may be on the outside of the Chase come this fall.


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