Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

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.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Smoke on the move?

As we head into Talladega this weekend, I should be talking about the race and what might happen. So let me get that out of the way quickly -- Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and maybe Kyle Busch will be up front all day and one of them will win the race.

Now that we’re done with that, let’s move on to my friend and yours , Mr. Stewart. Everyone’s favorite motorsports lightning rod shocked the NASCAR world this week by saying he will be exploring all options and may want out of Joe Gibbs Racing by the end of the year. Nothing has been finalized, but he said he has several options to consider and is discussing the matter with the Gibbs team, which currently has him under contract through the 2009 season.

Considering that he’s won two titles at Gibbs and is driving pretty solid equipment, at first I scratched my head. Then I realized something … this is Tony Stewart, so don’t attempt to apply logic. The theories are many. One is that he’s anti-Toyota and wants to go back to driving a Chevy somewhere. This may be a part of the equation, but I don't think it's a big one.

Another option is that he is interested in at least partial team ownership, something he has admitted is part of a couple deals he is considering. This is intriguing, and perhaps unwise in my opinion. One initial report has him becoming half-owner of the Haas CNC Racing team and driving either the 66 or 70 car. This is such a crazy idea I doubt Tony would go that route -- in part due to the fact that the team’s owner Gene Haas is currently in prison for tax evasion, never mind the fact that his cars are pretty terrible most weeks.

Where the other offers come from is anybody’s guess. Every NASCAR team would kill to have Stewart on their roster, but there aren’t too many with spots that appear open. For all we know, maybe he wants to go to Hendrick and complete the ultimate superhero-level team of Johnson, Gordon, Jr. and Tony -- kind of like NASCAR’s equivalent of the Justice League. Only Tony knows where he may end up if he does decide to leave (something he has not done yet, he clarified Thursday).

If this would have happened last year, I would have said Gibbs will fight to keep Stewart through next year. But with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin on the team, they’ll do well even without him. If Stewart does want to pursue team ownership, I would think they can come to an agreement and release him after 2008.

Wherever he goes, if he goes, I wish him luck. It’s hard to start over in NASCAR, especially if you go the ownership route (ask Robby Gordon).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ditch the plates

There are some questions to which I can never seem to find an answer. What exactly is in McDonalds’ chicken McNuggets, how do so many 80s hair metal bands somehow still have enough fans to keep on touring, and, most importantly, how is it possible that NASCAR can not find any better way than restrictor plates to slow down their cars at Daytona and Talladega?

Talladega is upon us, and once again we will play the dangerous dance of waiting for “The Big One”. The plates came to be in the late 1980s, after Bobby Allison had a scary wreck at Talladega. He blew a tire and flew into the catch fence, injuring spectators. After the accident, NASCAR began to use restrictor plates, devices installed at the intake of an engine to limit its power, so cars can’t go as fast.

Don’t get me wrong: The idea behind plate use is good. During a 2004 test without the plate, Rusty Wallace got his car up to 228 mph at Talladega. That is too fast for race conditions, and I understand the cars need to be slowed down, for the safety of drivers and fans.

What I don’t get is why they have to slow the cars down with a device that makes all the cars bunch up, creating massive and potentially high-flying accident (see Tony Stewart in 2001), and make it impossible to pass anyone without a partner behind you.
Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was hugely successful getting to victory lane on the plate tracks during his career, couldn’t stand how the plates bunched up the cars and held back his ability to pass. In typical Earnhardt style, he once said that if drivers couldn‘t handle speeds of the cars without the plates, “they should go home and tie a kerosene-soaked rag around their ankles so that the ants don't crawl up and bite their candy asses.”
He came up in the 1970s era I can only see on Speed Channel reruns … when the competitors could actually race side-by-side at these two great speedways without a gaggle of cars involved. It’s pretty thrilling to watch that stuff, and you almost forget it’s a Daytona race.

My main question is this: With a garage full of hundreds of first-class mechanics who can squeeze every little inch of horsepower out of a racing machine, not one of them can come up with a way that would slow down the cars and make the racing safer without bunching up the field and creating a race where no driver can pull away from the pack. Call me crazy, but I don’t believe that. I can’t offer you a detailed solution, as I’m not a mechanic. But I do know that a company as rich as NASCAR can afford to hire the best people in the world to find that better way, but apparently doesn’t believe it’s that important of an issue.

TV broadcasters often make the whole thing worse, always saying things like, “Is the big one coming?” as if they want people to wreck, not just put on a good race. It’s pretty disgusting sometimes.
Dale Jr. seems to actually like plate racing, but other than him I think most drivers get a little queasy when they go to Daytona and Talladega. So do many fans, who wonder whether their driver will make it through the weekend without getting hurt.
The time has come to ditch the plates and slow the cars in another manner, but I know that’s about as likely as a John Andretti win, so I’m not holding my breath.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The First Lady

She’s no longer just that girl who drives Indycars.

Fifty races into her career, Indy Racing League superstar Danica Patrick can finally call herself a winner, after playing a smart fuel mileage strategy into a victory in Japan.

Unfortunately, nobody saw it, as it was a rain-delayed event that was broadcast in the U.S. at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night on ESPN Classic -- Not exactly your best bet for good ratings.

But it doesn’t matter whether anyone saw it, it did happen and Patrick can now tell all the detractors who claimed she was just an overhyped pretty face and doubted her racing talent to quit their yapping.
Whether they want to admit it or not, she is talented, though the TV announcers do go way overboard in hyping her during race broadcasts. At times, you’d think she was the only driver on the track, the way they talk. Look for more of that at the Indy 500 this May. Now that she’s won, anytime she gains a position, they’ll spend five minutes talking about her.

I can’t really blame them, though. If open-wheel is going to gain the viewers it desperately needs, it needs to appeal to the masses, and stories about Danica and the dancing champion Helio are more likely to bring in new viewers than a feature on Dan Wheldon or Will Power, though his name is pretty cool.

The future may or may not bring more wins for Patrick, but no one can say she doesn’t have the ability to succeed. Patrick should be thanking her lucky stars that all the talk in 2006 of her moving to NASCAR never came to be. Considering the struggles of all the open-wheelers who jumped to NASCAR this year, she may have never seen victory lane had she made the switch.

Many wonder whether modern-day NASCAR will ever have a female contender in any of its top three series. Many have tried, but it never amounted to much. Unless you go back to the 1950s and Louise Smith, or Janet Guthrie in the 1970s, there really hasn’t been much to talk about. Patty Moise made a quick splash in the late 1980s, but didn’t last. The list of female drivers who weren’t able to become the next big thing includes Tammy Jo Kirk, Deborah Renshaw, Shawna Robinson and Erin Crocker (also known as Ray Evernham’s girlfriend).

The simple answer is there’s no way NASCAR can force that to happen. If a young female driver comes up and has the talent to compete, she will succeed. As Patrick has showed, sponsors will flock to a female driver who shows hints of talent, as they are guaranteed TV time. But if that doesn’t happen, we may never see a female victor in a victory lane in NASCAR’s top three series.

I could see the steam rising out of Boris Said’s afro after he was knocked out of the Nationwide Series race in Mexico City by Australian driver Marcos Ambrose. I’ll also give Said points for creativity, as he took the unusual step of going over to Ambrose’s crew chief to apologize for the car that he was going to wreck in the future.

It’s ridiculous how well Kyle Busch is doing this year -- in every series he decides to race in. Having watched him his whole career, I never pictured him as a driver who could always be a contender for the win, but obviously I was wrong. If someone were to tell me right now that Busch would win both the Cup and Nationwide titles this year, I’d find it hard to argue with them.

Unnecessary quote of the week: After Sunday’s race, Carl Edwards said that it was the most fun he’s ever had with his clothes on. Really Carl, I didn’t need to hear that.

Friday, April 18, 2008

South of the Border

While the Cup series takes a week off, the Nationwide drivers head down Mexico way this weekend to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez for a road course event.

I am very excited about this event for several reasons. First of all, unlike many NASCAR fans, I love road course racing. These events are always a joy to watch, as they are demonstrations of pure driving skill, not just strong cars. When you talk about the best drivers, you can’t include anyone in the discussion who doesn’t have some success at road courses, as that is one element of a complete driver.

Also, the Corona Mexico 200 is not your usually Cup Jr. race masquerading as a Nationwide event. Most of the usually Cup suspects are skipping this one, and the entry list is highlighted by exciting road course specialists such as Scott Pruett, Boris Said, Michael Jordain Jr. and Max Papis, among others. Lately, any time I can watch this series and actually be able to distinguish it from the Cup series without looking at the TV listings, I get excited.

And the action should be great. Last year, Juan Pablo Montoya knocked his own teammate, Pruett, out of the way to take his first victory in a NASCAR series. Who knows what this year will bring? I recommend you tune in Sunday to find out. Those who would write road course racing off as boring should give it another shot, and this is a good race to do that.

Open-wheel weekend:
Open-wheel has a double dose of events to feed your racing addiction this weekend. As part of the unification, organizers decided to leave one final Champ Car World Series event in, at the road course in Long Beach, and it happened to fall on the same weekend as an Indy Racing League event on an oval in Japan. So you can see more than the usual share of open-wheel action this weekend, should you get the urge. Though it won’t come close to competing in ratings with NASCAR anytime soon, the IRL offers some of the best racing you’ll see, with some great finishes and lots of passing for the lead. And while the only names most people know are Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves, there are lots of talented drivers in the series.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How the mighty have fallen

Of all the major sports in America, NASCAR is arguably the one that most cherishes its heroes and past greats. It is risky to your health to speak ill of legends like Dale Earnhardt while out at the track. Richard Petty and David Pearson’s legendary battles from 30-plus years ago are forever burned in the minds of longtime fans, and those who have seen the tapes replayed endlessly on cable television.

But while those memories will always remain, a sad truth has come to be a reality in the new, big business world of NASCAR. Great teams of the past -- such as Petty Enterprises, Wood Brothers Racing, and Yates Racing -- have long been passed by the superteams of Roush and Hendrick, and are struggling just to exist at this point. The day may come when one or more of these teams ceases to exist, and that would be a sad day for NASCAR, as these teams have all contributed much to the sport’s rich history.

Wood Brothers Racing has been in the sport since 1950, shortly after NASCAR was officially formed. The family-owned operation has had tremendous success. The team’s success level has been up and down, but they were usually contenders. The team has almost 100 victories and more than 100 poles. Legends such as Donnie Allison, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and of course David Pearson have driven for the team. The No. 21 is an icon in NASCAR, known mostly for its phenomenal success in the 1970s with Pearson at the wheel, when he and Petty waged one of the best rivalries NASCAR has ever seen. But times have changed. This year has seen the once-mighty team struggle to even qualify for races. Once they get in the show, the results can usually be predicted, and they’re not pretty. Seeing that No. 21 get lapped week in and week out is a sad sight.

As far as Petty Enterprises, I don’t even have to give you the numbers. From Lee Petty’s domination in the first decade of NASCAR to The King's never-to-be-beaten 200 wins record, this team was the face of NASCAR for most of its existence, until a guy named Earnhardt showed up to take some of the spotlight. Bobby Labonte’s doing an amazing job this year of finishing will with the equipment he’s being given, but I suspect he might bolt for RCR’s fourth team next season. His sponsor is already going there, so it makes sense. At that point, the Pettys are basically left for dead, lacking in both sponsors and talented drivers. Kyle, who lately can’t even qualify for races, probably will not be driving next year, and anyone they get to drive the cars is going to have an uphill battle, and that‘s being kind. The high standards set by the bigger teams have left Petty so far behind, it will take a miracle to get this historically great team back on the right track.

Yates Racing rose to fame on the success of a young Davey Allison, who thrilled NASCAR fans for several years before his tragic death in a helicopter crash at Talladega. After his death, the team continued to succeed with Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and others, even winning a championship with Jarrett. It’s gotten so bad this year that the cars are bare, with “” on the hood. It’s almost painful to see them beg like that, but that’s what it’s come to. While not as historically significant at the Woods or Pettys, Yates is a great organization that deserves more than its current situation.

Here’s hoping these legendary NASCAR teams can come out of the comas they are in and magically turn a corner somehow, whether it be through an investor or some other method, because at the current rate they could all be closing up shop in the next few years.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The old man still has it

Mark Martin is probably the greatest driver ever who has not won a championship in NASCAR’s top division. He has finished second in the point standings four times, and the most heartbreaking time was in 1990. That year, he lost to Dale Earnhardt by 26 points, but had been docked 46 points earlier in the season for using an illegal carburetor spacer. That part, which didn’t even help him improve his finish, cost him the title.

After all the frustration, Martin gave up his dream of a title after the 2006 season and decided to run a part-time Cup schedule last year with the Ginn Racing team, which was later acquired by DEI. This year, he has the same setup, and is sharing the No. 8 Army car with Aric Almirola.

On Saturday night at Phoenix, this veteran, whose hopes of a title went unrealized, came to life and put on a clinic for a lot of the younger drivers. Part-time does not have to mean backmarker, and that was Martin’s message at Phoenix. He finished fifth, led a ton of laps and was a legitimate contender for the win.

Anyone who watched Winston Cup racing in the 1990s and early 2000s knows how great Martin can be. He’s strong on many different kind of tracks, including road courses, and surely should have won a title. But the fates did not go his way.

Maybe there’s a new role for Martin, a role not seen for a long time in NASCAR. Back In the 1970s, many drivers -- including the “Silver Fox” David Pearson, who many think was better than Petty and Earnhardt -- often entered a limited number of races each year and managed to steal several wins from the full-timers. If he gets good enough cars under his belt, maybe this can be Martin’s role this year, and into the future.

Regardless of what happens, Martin is a class act and still a tremendous talent. He overcame personal demons and a failed attempt to enter Cup earlier in his career, and has earned the respect of all his colleagues.

So while he may be the Dan Marino of NASCAR, he has nothing to hang his head about.

-- Roush Racing’s David Ragan, who has a disastrous rookie season in 2007, has come alive this season. He made a strong run up through the field early in the race at Phoenix, and has also run well at several other tracks this year, with a best finish of 7th at Las Vegas. Those who second-guessed Roush’s judgment about who should fill Martin’s seat are being proven wrong.

-- Meanwhile, DEI’s Regan Smith, driver of the No. 01 car, will probably be out of a job soon. He has started and finished at the back of the pack all year, and that doesn’t usually go over well with team owners in NASCAR.

-- In case you didn’t notice, Jimmie Johnson is officially back. A brave fuel gamble helped him take the win and moved him up to fourth in points. Fans of competition better hope this isn’t a sign of a return to last year’s Hendrick domination, although you can already hear Dale. Jr. screaming in delight at the prospect at heading to his personal playground known as Talladega with his Hendrick car.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Heroin lies the rub

Most people under the influence of heroin would probably have trouble tying their shoelaces.
But somehow, amazingly, former Craftsman Truck Series driver Aaron Fike drove his truck to a top-five finish at Memphis last summer while he was high on heroin.

The only thing stopping this man, high on a powerful drug, from taking the checkered flag that day was a field full of former series champs like Mike Skinner, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Travis Kvapil. It’s hard to believe, but it happened in front of our eyes -- and no one had any clue to his state of mind.

Yes folks, drugs and drug testing are the talk of NASCAR this week after Fike came out of hiding to talk to ESPN about his amazing story. After a promising start to the Truck Series season in 2007, just one week after the Memphis race, Fike and his girlfriend were arrested and charged with possession of black tar heroin. Instantly, he was off his team and suspended by NASCAR.
Almost a year later, he is jumping back into racing via USAC, but his big-leagues career is basically over, as no NASCAR team on any level will want to take a chance on a recovering heroin addict.

Kevin Harvick, who once let Fike drive his Busch Series car, is leading a group of Cup drivers who want NASCAR to get serious about drug testing. The current approach is to test is a driver is acting suspicious.
This can work, as it did when promising young driver Shane Hmiel failed three drug tests over a period of years and was banned for life. His actions on and off the track prompted the tests initially.

But Fike’s ability to succeed despite being on a drug as powerful as heroin shows how well some people can hide their drug abuse. It’s similar to “functioning alcoholics” who are literally drunk 24 hours a day, but their families and friends have no clue because they pull it off so well. Aaron Fike was a “functioning heroin addict” who happened to drive a race car for a living.

That’s scary stuff, as he could have killed someone had he not been found passed out in a parking lot while possessing heroin a week after the Memphis race.
While they may cry about cost, NASCAR knows they can afford to randomly drug test their drivers and some crew members throughout the season, and sooner or later they will have to catch up to the rest of the major sports on this topic.

And unlike in some other sports (cough: baseball), most of the drivers would actually welcome the testing, as it would ensure their were more likely to survive the next several hundred laps each week.

The drivers are out West this weekend for a Saturday night shootout on an almost flat one-miler with an interesting dogleg. In my opinion, just having the racing under those Saturday night lights makes it all the more exciting.

Look for the Hendrick cars to pretty much dominate this race, as well as ex-Hendrick driver Kyle Busch. Jeff Gordon has perhaps the best history at Phoenix, but his team needs to prepare the car better a whole lot better than last week if he wants to get back to running up front. Past success means nothing if your car is junk.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tony Stewart is a loudmouth jerk … and NASCAR is better off for it

Remember back in grade school how there was always one kid -- maybe it was you -- who couldn’t follow directions as well as all the other kids. He always wanted to cut in line, talk out of turn and do everything that annoyed the authority figures in his life.

In NASCAR, that kid is Tony Stewart. Since leaving the Indy Racing League in the late 1990s and joining NASCAR, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota has been in the spotlight pretty much nonstop for his antics on and off the track. He has quite a temper, and is not afraid to speak his mind.

Through the past decade, he has been in NASCAR’s hot seat after incidents with reporters (let’s just say he doesn’t like the media very much … even I can understand that) and other drivers (He tried to climb into the late Kenny Irwin’s window during a caution after an incident in 1999, and also had a shoving match with Robby Gordon).

Several years ago, Stewart went so far as to see a psychologist to deal with anger management, and moved back to his hometown of Columbus, Indiana, in hopes of finding a more peaceful life.
And while he is milder than he once was, the old Stewart still slips out once in a while. After the Atlanta race earlier this season, when the tires provided by Goodyear were clearly not of acceptable quality, Stewart was brutally honest on the matter -- too honest, say his detractors.

After the race, he said: “That's the worst tire I've ever seen in my life in any professional form of racing. If you do your homework and look at when (Goodyear) exited Formula One and the IRL and CART and the World of Outlaws and USAC, you name it, all the other professional sports Goodyear's exited because they can't compete, they can't keep up. They don't have the technology, they don't have the people that are smart enough to build a tire. This was pathetic today, to race like we raced today.”
Later, he added, “The first thing I'm doing when I get home is dismount anything I've got that's got Goodyears on it. I'm putting Firestones or something else, so I feel a lot safer.”
You could hear the ears of Goodyear executives burning as he spoke.

His detractors can’t stand these brutally honest, yet often impolite, outbursts by Tony Stewart. They refer to him as an obnoxious crybaby, a whiner who doesn’t realize there are better ways to improve things that the type of name-calling he leveled at Goodyear. I say the truth hurts, and Goodyear needed to be called out, as these drivers’ lives are at stake each weekend.

What these detractors fail to realize is that Tony Stewart is exactly what NASCAR needs, outbursts and all. Anyone who’s watched the sport evolve over the years has seen how automated, boring and corporate the drivers have become recently. Colorful characters of the past like Tim Richmond have been replaced by robots like Jimmie Johnson, who simply reads his list of sponsors after a race and is afraid to criticize anything that has to do with NASCAR.

The drivers have almost all become company men. Of the 43 competitors each week, you can count on one hand the drivers who will even consider saying something controversial, for fear of what NASCAR might do to them, or sponsor repercussions.

So I say thank God for Tony Stewart. Without him, NASCAR would be a lot more boring. And while many will criticize his Goodyear rant, those same people must realize that such strong words will compel Goodyear to bring a better tire to Atlanta this fall.

Powerful change requires powerful words, and Stewart is the perfect person to provide them.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Carl Edwards -- hero or bully?

Carl Edwards has two faces.

One face belongs to a true American success story, a country boy with a true dedication and love for racing. There’s a famous story about how, when out of a ride in his younger days, he would hand out business cards that read "Carl Edwards, race car driver," and that he bought ads in racing trade magazines that said, "Put me in your race car this weekend, have helmet will travel". This Carl Edwards has immense talent, evidenced by the fact he won his third race of the season at Texas on Sunday and is clearly a contender to win the championship this year.

The other face belongs to the driver who disrespects his teammates and comes off like a high school bully. This face was exposed last year after the fall 2007 Martinsville race, when Edwards decided, for whatever reason, to take out some of his aggression on Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Kenseth was doing an interview in the pit lane and Edwards began pushing Kenseth and, before leaving the scene, pumped his fist backward and forward as if he was going to punch Kenseth. (Feel free to check it out on YouTube)

In the aftermath of the incident, it came out that Roush teammates Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are all really close friends, but none of them see any need to associate with Edwards. Other drivers called him “erratic” and expressed concerns about his actions both on and off the track, noting Edwards’ temper. By many accounts, he is very far from the Mayberry character he appears to be.
Roush Racing has healed since the incident. Kenseth and Edwards are both doing very well in the standings, as are Biffle and even David Ragan.

So why do I bring this up, some will ask. The Martinsville incident, and all the other alleged incidents, happened months or years ago.
It’s not to call his talent into doubt, of course. Edwards is clearly talented and will win many races, possibly a championship, in his NASCAR career.

I bring this up because high-school level intimidation is not something a professional race car driver does to his teammates, and actions like that clearly expose the true content of someone’s character. I think many Carl Edwards fans fail to realize that Edwards is far from your “mom and apple pie” driver who does cute flips after a race.

There is nothing wrong with being a jerk in NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt rubbed many people the wrong way while he was driving, but fans still loved him and Terry Labonte would still go hunting with him after the season ended, despite Earnhardt wrecking him at Bristol. Tony Stewart can be a colossal jerk, but I think he is actually good for the sport (more on that in a future column).
Edwards, and also Kyle Busch to some extent, are jerks of a different kind, in that there’s not the charm of Earnhardt or Stewart to offset their rudeness. They just come off as jerks, period.

Carl Edwards’ talent can’t be denied, but I’ll just put it this way: I don’t think many drivers want to go hunting with him once the season’s over.

It was painfully obvious from the start of the race that Jeff Gordon’s team had missed the setup in a bad way at Texas. He struggled to keep up with the rest of the field all day, and ended up dead last. The way things are shaking out at Hendrick is interesting. At the start of the year, everyone wondered whether three superstars could all get excellent equipment from the same team, and who would be the odd man out? So far this year, it’s looking like Gordon. If this keeps up, it will become obvious that he either needs better equipment or a new crew chief.

Michael McDowell is lucky to be alive after his scary-looking accident Friday at Texas. The young driver hit the wall going nearly 200 mph, then proceeded to tumble end-over-end at least a dozen times. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a wreck that bad, and the fact that he survived and had no serious injuries is a testament that NASCAR’s safety innovations, such as the Car of Tomorrow and soft walls, are doing what they are supposed to do -- save drivers’ lives. The only shame is that it took the death of the sport’s most popular driver ever to really make the effort needed to improve all aspects of driver safety. It would have been nice to see two generations of Earnhardts battle for much longer than they did.

According to my ears and the closed captions on my television, J.J. Yeley said, “I ran out of talent” when asked what caused his wreck today. Considering how strong the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car ran before his tenure there, and how well it’s running since he’s left the Gibbs organization, maybe he is on to something.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wide open weekend at Texas

Texas Motor Speedway is a rarity in modern-day NASCAR, in that there are no clear favorites to win at the track. In the 14 races held so far at the super-fast track, only one driver, Jeff Burton, has taken the checkered flag more than once. He won the inaugural race in 1997, and didn't get back to Victory Lane until last spring.

If history is any lesson, Roush Racing has won several races at the track, so look for his drivers Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and possibly Greg Biffle to be up front this Sunday. They're having strong seasons, and should continue that success at Texas. Another team to watch is Richard Childress Racing. Jeff Burton is leading the points and up front almost every week, and his teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer and also having good seasons, and momentum can be a huge indicator of success from week to week in NASCAR.

Whatever happens, it's sure to be a wild ride.

BAM racing, which recently switched to Toyota, withdrew their No. 49 car from the entry list this week. The team, already mired deep in the point standings, announced they will miss two races while they make the adjustments involved in the switch. "Switching manufacturers was a taller order than we initially realized," team co-owner Tony Morgenthau said.
While the switch may be beneficial to this struggling team in the long run, the rest of their 2008 season is going to be very difficult. The team will be well outside the top 35 in points and not have a guaranteed spot, so they will have to qualify for every race. This team has struggled since forming in 2001, and has never achieved any real success in the sport. I won't declare the team dead, but barring major improvements in equipment, the team will likely remain a backmarker for the year, and possibly into the future.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Don't count Hendrick out just yet

Over the last 15 years in NASCAR, one thing has been consistent: Hendrick Motorsports wins races and championships.

From the time Jeff Gordon joined NASCAR's top series with a silly mustache and a rainbow car to last year's dominating performance by Jimmie Johnson, this team has been very good, much to the chagrin of many fans. Between Gordon, Johnson and Terry Labonte, Hendrick has taken home seven titles since 1995.

This domination reached a new level in 2007, with the team taking home a full 50 percent of the race victories, led by Johnson's 10 victories, and the championship for the second straight year. Heading into 2008, most NASCAR fans were hoping for something different. They didn't want to see a repeat of 2007, when you knew that at the end of each race, chances are Johnson or Gordon would be on their way to victory. If I know who's going to win, why should I even tune in, many wondered.

Oddly enough, their wishes came true — for a few weeks in 2008, at least. Johnson and Gordon were lagging in the stands for the first month of the season. Part of the reason was cars being torn up on the track, and, in a shocker, Johnson even seemed to have a car that simply wasn't set up right on at least one occasion.

While Hendrick struggled, with the exception of new arrival Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the Toyotas proved they were contenders and teams like Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing took most of the headlines. The legion of anti-Hendrick fans had reason to rejoice.

But last week's race at Martinsville was the first sign that this temporary struggle is nothing to get excited about. All four Hendrick cars (Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt and Casey Mears) had very strong runs at the short track, and were running together in the top 10 for most of the race. As a result, Gordon and Johnson crept back into the top 10 in the standings.

Yes, folks, the Evil Empire is back. And while they will not repeat the dominance of last year -- mainly because the other teams have finally adjusted to the Car of Tomorrow, which Hendrick seemed to have figured out last year -- I would bet that Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt will all visit Victory Lane this year, probably multiple times.

Even if the team's drivers have another slump, the ultimate equalizer comes up in September, and that's called "The Chase". Prior to the implementation of this playoff-type system in 2004, a driver that fell behind early had little to no shot at the title. Now, the slate is wiped clean for the top dozen drivers with 10 races to go. You can be leading the standings by 400 points after Richmond, and the next week at New Hampshire, you're only up by a few points on second place.

And guess who runs great in the Chase seemingly every year . that's right, Jimmie Johnson. So, keep those party hats in the box. While millions of people would hope for Hendrick Motorsports to become an also-ran team that's out of the title hunt, it's not likely to happen anytime soon.

-- Among the breaking news heading into this weekend is that NASCAR veteran Kyle Petty -- sitting 40th in points and fresh off failing to qualify at Martinsville -- will let young driver Chad McCumbee attempt to qualify his No. 45 Dodge at Texas Motor Speedway. As of now, this is not supposed to be a permanent move, but it should be. Petty has been past his prime for a while, and he just can't give up the racing bug. But he should look at this from a business perspective, and realize that the longer he stays in the car just turning laps with almost no chance of doing well, the more he is hurting his family business, Petty Enterprises. Maybe 'The King' can talk some sense into him.

-- A couple young drivers are turning heads early in their careers. Michael Waltrip Racing's Michael McDowell had a strong run last week at Martinsville in his first Cup race ever, staying on the lead lap on the challenging track until a flat tire ruined his day. Also, Aric Almirola, who is sharing the No. 8 DEI ride vacated by Earnhardt with Mark Martin, had a strong 8th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, then qualified 3rd at Martinsville. Keep your eye on these two, as they could be stars of the future.