The verdict on this year's All-Star race? Coulda been better. Coulda done with more racing, less talk. Coulda done with a lot less Waltrip. But if you're a fan of relentlessly efficient racing of the kind that Carl Edwards exhibited, well, there was a lot to enjoy this past weekend. Here you go, four-plus hours compacted into 12 minutes:
The price of mainstream.
This isn't a sales projection, nor is it the validation of a business case. An Automobile Magazine review isn't the place for that. As automotive savants, we -- and presumably you, too -- are more interested in a car's merits as a car, independent of where it's built, how it's advertised, and what the dealer network looks like. We simply want to know how well machine pairs with man and mission.
Photo Gallery: 2012 Volkswagen Passat - First Drive - Automobile Magazine
Saturday night's Sprint All-Star race was billed as the season's ultimate showdown, a winner-take-all brawl where battling drivers could settle scores at 200 mph, an escalating series of duels capped by a shootout that would be the best 10 laps of the season.
Yeah, well ... it didn't quite work out that way.
Carl Edwards continued to build on what's shaping up to be the best season of his career by outrunning the best of the bestin the final 10-lapsegment. Kyle Busch took shots at him, but could never get close enough to really close the deal when it mattered. The rest of the field had little in the way of a challenge for Edwards: Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle ran up front briefly but drifted backward; Jeff Gordon couldn't overcome wretched restarts; and Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin were utter nonfactors.
And the yawn-inducing laps weren't limited to the main event. The Showdown, from which two drivers would jump to the All-Star race, was equally as routine, with David Ragan and Brad Keselowski checking out on the field with several laps left to go. In a decision that surprised exactly no one, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the fan vote to get into the big race. And SPEED padded the prerace festivities with so much blather and overblown driver/crew introductions that the race started more than 30 minutes after its scheduled green flag, and ran until well after 11 p.m. Eastern.
Still, none of this should take away from Edwards' exceptional run. It's not his fault that he lulled both viewers and competitors to sleep with some masterful handling of his car. In fact, his only misstep came when he tried to do a burnout in the infield grass, dug the front quarterpanel into the sod, and nearly flipped the car.
"I think some people would like to think that I'm smart enough and savvy enough, all of us are, to come up with some trick and destroy it like that and make it look like an accident," Edwards said when asked if he wrecked his car on purpose. "We're not that smart.I really did just tear up the race car."
Said Kyle Busch: "From my vantage point, it was kind of a tame race today. I think there was only one or two interruptions besides the normal cautions that we have in this race." Then he smiled. "Sorry, we didn't give you any scoop or drama."
Somehow, we think Edwards is just fine with that, even if nobody else is.
Just before the All-Star race festivities kicked off, USA Today's Nate Ryan spotted what he termed "the bravest fan at Charlotte Motor Speedway," a dude wearing a Day-Glo yellow t-shirt with the phrase JR SUX clearly visible.
Courageous fellow. No way he'd live to see the sundown, right?
Well, as Carl Edwards climbed into the stands to meet the adoring crowds, who was there to meet him but Mr. JR SUX himself? Taking no position whatsoever on the message of his shirt, I've got to say I'm impressed he managed to live through the whole race. Those Junior fans have a lot of free-floating aggression needing an outlet right about now.
It's looking like Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be with Hendrick Motorsports at least through 2015, and possibly much longer.
On Saturday night, Earnhardt confirmed shortly after the Sprint Showdown race that he has indeed been working with team owner Rick Hendrick on a new, multiyear extension, one which would take effect after his current one ends in 2012 and last three to five years.
"We've talking on the phone a little bit, seeing what we think, and I am excited to be where I am," Earnhardt said. "From my heart, it's an amazing organization and just great, great people. I've learned a lot being around there and it's made me a better person. We've still got a lot of things that we'd really like to accomplish on the race track. If I get the opportunity to stick around, I'm definitely excited about that. We've just been talking about it, hopefully, I don't think we'll have any trouble working things out."
That "lot of things" to accomplish on the race track would presumably include winning races, and the fact that Junior is now well past the century mark of races without a victory. That long barren streak has been enough to cause some rather out-of-touch types to propose that Hendrick should cut ties with Earnhardt.
That idea is, of course, ludicrous, simply because Earnhardt isn't a driver who can be judged by typical racing standards. He's an institution, a corporation unto himself in a way that no other driver can hope to match. His enduring popularity, his marketing cachet, his merchandising muscle when even the top teams are having trouble coming up with sponsorship for a full season, you do whatever you have to do to hold onto a guaranteed, year-in, year-out windfall. Yes, Junior may lay eggs on the track ... but they're golden ones.
More on this as it develops, but it's looking like the biggest free agent of 2012 won't get anywhere near the open market.
Junior, the sport's most popular driver nine times running, hoped to race his way into the event by finishing first or second in the Sprint Showdown. He started 13th and eventually restarted the final 20-lap segment in fourth after electing not to pit after the first segment.
However, Junior wasn't exactly fast in that first segment and quickly got eaten up by the drivers behind him who took tires. After a quick caution in the first segment, Junior got tires before a restart with 14 laps to go, but didn't have time to get to the front.
And honestly, it wasn't a horrible strategy by Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte. It was all but a guarantee that he was going to win the fan vote and while getting in via his finishing position would have been a nice bonus, the No. 88 team didn't have to race like Paul Menard or Joey Logano did, banging fenders on a late-race restart.
In the Sprint Showdown, the qualifying race to get into the All-Star race for drivers not automatically qualified, the top two finishers and the highest vote-getting driver qualify for the All-Star race. David Ragan and Brad Keselowski were the two drivers that transferred via their finishing position.
Boy, was that worth it.
Alex Tagliani capped off one heck of a Pole Day for next Sunday's Indianapolis 500 in quite the dramatic fashion when he drove his underdog Sam Schmidt Motorsports car to the pole.
Tags, as they call him in the IndyCar world, ripped off four laps at an average of 227.474 mph just enough to stop Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon from earning his second 500 pole. Oriol Servia completed the other surprising bookend of the front row in his Newman/Haas Racing No. 2 at 227.168 mph.
Tagliani's dramatic laps &mdash possibly the first attempt ever started at Indianapolis after 6 p.m. local time came in "The Fast Nine" session of Indy's Pole Day. Implemented last year, the program forces each of the fastest nine qualifiers at the end of the regular qualifying session to make one more go to secure the pole award.
This year, the early session was cut short by roughly 45 minutes when a rain shower hampered activity at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, for a time, looked like it would wash the end of the day out completely. But the skies soon cleared as the track dried quickly and IndyCar officials said each of the top nine teams would get one final shot at the pole.
The extra session produced some extremely rare mistakes on the part of Chip Ganassi Racing. Two laps into his qualifying run, last year's winner Dario Franchitti appeared good enough to make the front row. Then he ran out of fuel before completing his fourth lap.
Over the radio, a dejected and dumbfounded Franchitti simply repeated "How the [expletive] does that happen?"
The glaring mistake also seemed to impact his teammate Dixon. Following his run, Dixon reported running out of fuel along the final straightaway coming to the checkered flag. He missed the pole by .0915 seconds.
"I know Dario is probably a little more ticked off than I am, but to come so close is pretty aggravating," Dixon said.
Four drivers who have yet race so far in the 2010 IndyCar season were a part of the elite group at the end of qualifying, including Townsend Bell (4th), Dan Wheldon (6th), Buddy Rice (7th) and Ed Carpenter (8th).
Carpenter drew some of the biggest cheers of the day, likely due to his car being owned by fan-favorite and former driver Sarah Fisher.
Here is the how the first three rows will look for the May 29th race:
Row 1: Alex Tagliani, Scott Dixon, Oriol Servia
Row 2: Townsend Bell, Will Power, Dan Wheldon
Row 3: Buddy Rice, Ed Carpenter, Dario Franchitti
A brief but heavy rain shower crossed Indianapolis Motor Speedway about four hours into the initial five-hour qualifying session Saturday, effectively scuttling several teams' attempts to lock themselves in the field.
Rules put in place a year guaranteed that the best 24 qualifiers on the first day of time trials would be locked in to the 33-car field, and teams' efforts to reach that security blanket provided many of the most interesting moments.
Easily the most dramatic of those was the return of Simona De Silvestro. The Swiss driver suffered an incredible crash Thursday after a mechanical failure sent her car into the Turn 3 wall. From there, she flipped and caught on fire mdash; suffering 2nd-degree burns on one hand.
Saturday morning was her return to Indianapolis, bandaged and in a backup car, and after three desperate attempts, she locked herself in the field at 24th.
Surprisingly, the entirety of Andretti Autosport struggled all day while two of the three perennial-favorite Team Penske cars failed to place in the top-nine for a run at the pole.
Two-time winner Helio Castroneves registered 16th quick at 225.216 mph, while teammate Ryan Briscoe didn't make the top-24. Briscoe crashed hard in the morning practice and never could get his backup car to reach the same speed after limited practice.
On the Andretti front, a surprising John Andretti led the way in the effort co-partnered by Richard Petty. Andretti, on his third qualifying attempt of the day, put his No. 43 Petty blue machine 17th on the grid with a four-lap average of 224.981.
Meanwhile, Danica Patrick ran twice with a best of 223.837 mph and Marco Andretti ran a 223.389 mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway also struggled.
Sunday promises to have plenty of excitement as well, as the final qualifying day has nine spots open to 16 drivers.
Skinny-jeans looks, relaxed-fit personality.
You'd think automakers would realize by now that you can't make a cheap car appealing just by parking it in a cool place. Did anyone, for instance, ever go home from a Toronto Blue Jays game and decide to buy a Pontiac G5 just because GM had stuck one in the outfield wall? But as we crowd onto a sidewalk in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, we have to admit the Fiat 500 cabrio might just pull it off. Its teensy-cute Italian styling and cheap-chic pillared canvas top looks perfectly at home among the area's trendy, expensive art galleries (one of which Fiat is presently renting). It even comes standard with ironic hipster facial hair in the form of Fiat's classic "whiskers" grille openings. But is the 500C merely a European fashion accessory to be admired from afar, or is it a car we'd actually recommend owning in the US of A? That's what we're here to find out.
Photo Gallery: Fiat 500 Cabrio - First Drive - Automobile Magazine
After starting 31st, Raikkonen brushed the wall in Turns 3 and 4 on the second lap of the race. But he was able to stay out until the first caution came out and had the fender damage on pit road.
The race was marred by crashes — it had 10 cautions — and Raikkonen moved up to sixth early in the race thanks to not pitting under subsequent cautions. But since he stayed out, he was faced with pitting under green and was saved by his car owner, Kyle Busch (who predictably won the race) when he caused a caution by spinning in Turn 4.
From then, Raikkonen settled comfortably into the mid-teens. He scraped the wall at least once more and had numerous slides up the track as he tried to feel the truck's handling out with other vehicles on the track.
Back in 2006, Juan Pablo Montoya, perhaps Raikkonen's closest comparison given their backgrounds, started ninth and finished 11th in his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series at Memphis Motorsports Park, a short track.
Explorer isn't the radical reinvention Ford makes it out to be.
It's easy to get caught up in the details with this new Explorer, as there are many little annoyances that detract from the core functions of this car. Unfortunately, even when you look at the big picture, the Explorer feels like less than what was promised.
Photo Gallery: 2011 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD - Editors' Notebook - Automobile Magazine
There are only 24 hours left in the voting for the Sprint All-Star race, so now's the time to make with the clicky and get your favorite driver in. As it stands, the top 5 drivers are, in alphabetical order:
Now, you can probably guess how this competition is going to turn out, and you'd probably be exactly right. Still, this is an intriguing list, if only for who's not on it: Jeff Burton, for one. Not a good sign for fans of The Senator. If you're interested in voting, head right on over here and cast your vote. Remember, if you don't vote, you can't complain. Bear that in mind when they announce the winner.
I'm going to be honest with you here: this is a story that's tough to read and write, and there really isn't any kind of happy ending. At next weekend's Charlotte truck race, Kyle Busch will honor Zahra Baker with her image on his truck.
Zahra was a 10-year-old disabled girl from Hickory, N.C. who visited with Busch at a Speedway Children's Charities event last May. Shortly afterward, she went missing. Weeks later, her dismembered body was found. It gets even more gruesome than that; we won't go any further with the details here. This was the first I've heard of this case, and that's awful, because I'd hate to think that kind of cruelty just gets forgotten.
Zahra's name and photograph will be emblazoned above the passenger-side window for the North Carolina Education Lottery 200. The track will observe a moment of silence in her honor, and several of the children who were at last year's event will be present also. After the moment of silence, they and Busch will release balloons in Zahra's honor.
"The story of Zahra Baker's tragic murder really hit home with KBM and the Kyle Busch Foundation," said Busch. "We are honored to have Speedway Children's Charities and several of the kids that attended last year's event at the Speedway join us in paying remembrance to her. Zahra will never be forgotten. She will always be in our hearts."
Tip of the cap to Busch, Charlotte Motor Speedway and NASCAR for this one.
With the Busch/Harvick feud fading into the distance, it's time for another overblown NASCAR storyline to take center stage, and here's one: what if Danica Patrick were to jump to NASCAR fulltime?
It's a big leap to get there, of course, but let's just happily speculate away. For starters, she's actually not running all that terribly; she's got a top-5 finish and actually led a lap (yes, "a" lap; you gotta start somewhere) in her four races so far this year. So there's some measure of progress there.
Next, on Thursday she gave a perfect non-answer answer to the question of whether this marks her last Indy 500: "I suppose anything is possible," she said. "But I know for me I haven't made any of those decisions yet."
Later in the press conference, talk returned to the "crossroads of her career," with both NASCAR and open-wheel demanding her attention. She noted that she's learned a few things in her days of jumping series to series: "Hopefully I've gotten more savvy and wise with my personality, my tactics, my antics, as I've had some over the years," she said, laughing. "I guess I came to find out as I grew older that being really honest, emotional all the time, while it is me and I don't regret anything, it makes for work. It makes for work because people talk about it, people have opinions about it. As much as you don't care, they still affect you and you have to deal with the situation."
So, yes, perhaps this is the final Indy 500 of Danica Patrick's career. And perhaps not. NASCAR folks, we'll see her again in a few weeks ... where it all begins again.
He had a rough go in NASCAR, but Dario Franchitti has had little problem switching back to the open-wheel life. The defending Indy 500 champ and two-time defending IndyCar champ, Franchitti is the focus of a new profile on ESPN that delves into his Scottish (yes, Scottish) background and looks forward to next weekend's Big Race. Here's a taste, starring everyone's favorite Kentucky Wildcat-turned-Indy 500 fan, Ashley (Mrs. Franchitti) Judd:
The feature will run in the 11 p.m. Sunday SportsCenter.
That Daytona 500 win ... kind of a careful-what-you-wish-for thing, huh?
Trevor Bayne, whose Daytona 500 win was the first in a remarkable series of stories this year, remains sidelined by a still-unknown illness and will not participate in either the All-Star festivities this weekend or the Nationwide race in Iowa.
Bayne had done some testing on Wednesday, but doctors determined he was not yet sufficiently recovered from the illness, which caused both fatigue and blurred vision, to sign off on him racing. Bayne is now going on his fourth week of missed race time for the illness, for which he has been treated at the Mayo Clinic.
Wood Brothers, Bayne's owner, has disclosed no further details about Bayne's illness except to say that it is neither life- nor career-threatening. It was initially thought to be the result of an early-April spider bite, but subsequent tests at the Mayo Clinic have shown that the illness apparently did not stem from the bite. Mysterious, indeed.
The Wood Brothers Sprint Cup team is next scheduled to run the Coca-Cola 600 next weekend. Bayne's Nationwide team has fallen from fifth to 11th by not racing, and by skipping the race, he loses his guaranteed starting spot, meaning he'll have to qualify on speed.
Man, it's been a tough road for Bayne since Daytona. Here's hoping he straightens out his health problems very soon.