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.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Montoya on the move?

One of the most interesting rumors circulating in the garage area is that Juan Pablo Montoya, a driver who is used to winning and is clearly not happy with the performance of his current Ganassi ride, may been on his way to another team next year. Montoya let his boss know face-to-face this week that he is upset with the way the team is running, and is not happy with all the recent crew chief swaps that have been going on in the organization, which is having a pretty terrible season.

The most interesting part is that Joe Gibbs is rumored to be interested in Montoya should Tony Stewart somehow get out of his contract and go elsewhere next season. This would be an interesting combination, but I think it would work. Montoya is a clear talent, with wins in Formula 1, Indycar and NASCAR's top two series, he knows his way around a racetrack, and frankly I'm shocked it took him this long to realize Ganassi is not the best place for him to be. The 20 car is very strong, and putting a great driver like Montoya in the seat could mean a winning combination.

Gibbs also is used to dealing with hot-tempered and controversial drivers (Kyle Busch, Stewart), so he wouldn't have any problems keeping Montoya happy. I hate to see Tony leave the team that's been so good to him all these years, but if he does Montoya is the perfect replacement.

As the drivers hit the concrete this weekend at Dover, look for Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne to continue their recent string of strong runs. Biffle could take the win, but the odds-on favorite is Carl Edwards, who is a master of concrete. Look for either Biffle or Edwards to take the checkered flag.

Though I've said it before, I'll say it again. Don't miss the Nationwide race this week, as it's the debut of newly 18-year-old Joey Logano, aka the next big thing. Four years ago, Mark Martin said he was the future of racing, when the kid was 14 years old. I can't think of a better endorsement, and he's lived up to it in the years since with his performance in the lower series. It should be fun to see what he can do.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Odds and ends

Now that the hoopla of two weeks in Charlotte has ended, and NASCAR begins its summer grind leading up to the Chase, it seems like a good time to reflect on some of the smaller stories that have slipped through the cracks.

-- Tony Stewart and his girlfriend, Krista Dwyer, have give their pet patas monkey, named “Mojo,” to the Louisville Zoo. That’s right, Tony Stewart has long had a pet monkey, but he noticed it was maturing and becoming “aggressive,” and felt his primate friend needed a more suitable home. What? Tony Stewart’s monkey being aggressive? Who are his role models?

-- Bruton Smith wants to bring a Cup race to Kentucky Speedway, which he is in the process of purchasing, ASAP. But the powers that be are against it, saying there are already too many races in the Southeast and they want a more geographically diversified race calendar. Smith may take matters into his own hands, as he has done in the past, and just move a date from either Atlanta or New Hampshire to the Kentucky track (or purchase Dover and move one of that track's dates), but the almighty powers at NASCAR say nothing can happen until 2010. I’m pretty indifferent about the Kentucky track, but I’m a fan of anyone who has the guts to battle the NASCAR bigshots, who seem to think they can rule with an iron fist and no one will fight back.

In other good track news, rumor is that, through a swap deal, California Speedway will probably lose the Labor Day race next season, and it will end up at Atlanta. It’s not as good as a Darlington race that weekend, but I’ll take it.

-- Amid the hype over Kyle Busch, we’ve almost forgotten about last year’s unstoppable force, Jimmie Johnson. He’s having a terrible year, and another bad run this week could knock him out of the top 12 and the Chase. He even blew a motor at Charlote, which almost never happens to Hendrick cars. Whatever was clicking last year is gone, and while I can never count him out and he‘ll probably make the Chase, Johnson needs a consistent summer if he wants to enter the Chase with any confidence that he can contend.

-- Maybe I’m just reminiscing and his talent has evaporated, but I’m wondering why Ward Burton hasn’t been considered for any of the rides that have been opening up in the lower-level teams in NASCAR. The guy won a Daytona 500 and was a solid performer for years. I wonder if he’s not looking, or no one’s asking. If they’re not asking, I think they’re making a mistake.

-- Will Bobby Labonte stay or go? The Pettys want to offer him a lifetime contract, and he does feel loyalty to them. But the car is sporadic at best, and he hasn’t managed many great runs. For Bobby’s sake, I hope he can set aside that loyalty and jump at the opportunity of following his sponsor to the fourth RCR car next season, if that offer is extended. He’s a former champion with great talent and deserves better than the car he’s driving.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Return to form

Every year at Charlotte, the stars usually shine bright on one driver. This year, without a doubt, that driver is Kasey Kahne. He won the All-Star Race after being voted in by the fans, then took the checkered flag in the 600 after Tony Stewart had a tire issue with just two laps left in the race. He ended a 53-race losing streak, and jumped into the final spot in the Chase.

Once a regular contender for the win, Kahne has fallen off in the last couple years, but is he back? Only time will tell, but I think he’ll probably hold on to enough momentum to make the Chase. I doubt he’ll be a regular visitor to Victory Lane, but strong runs breed confidence and confidence breeds strong runs. Kahne should be able to put together a solid season from this point.

Doing surprisingly well Sunday night were Kahne’s teammate Elliot Sadler, who came home in 8th, and Sam Hornish Jr., who has a solid 13th-place finish. Unfortunately, Hornish just barely missed reaching the top 35 in owners points, and he will still have to qualify for next week’s race in Dover. Regardless, this is a high point of the season and confidence boost for him, as his transition from Indycar has not been easy so far. He’s an obvious talent, having won three titles in Indycar, and has the potential to do great things in NASCAR.

Brian Vickers provided the highlight of the day when he wrecked hard and a wheel from his car took an amazing ride and ended up in the campsite of some infield-camping race fans. Too bad NASCAR had to confiscate the wheel … that would have been an awesome souvenir.

Congrats to Scott Dixon for his Indy 500 win. The most humorous moment of the day came after Danica Patrick was wrecked by Ryan Briscoe. The pint-sized driver got out of her car, then stormed down pit lane like she was going to go fight Briscoe. The image of Brickyard security guards preventing her from going to confront him had me in stitches. Equally funny was her comment to a reporter after the race that, “It’s probably better I didn’t get down there.” I’m sure he would have been terrified, Danica.

Get ready for the next big thing, as the era of Joey Logano begins next week at Dover. This young talent will provide thrills for years to come, so tune in for the rest of the season to check out how he starts it all off. He’ll be in that nearly unstoppable Joe Gibbs #20 car, so look for him to make an impression right off the bat.

There was some pushing and shoving in the pits after Saturday’s Nationwide race, and shockingly it didn’t involve Kyle Busch. While he was busy winning the race (in a Braun Racing car no less, putting him in the odd position of ending his Cup owner’s six-race Nationwide win streak), the crews of Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski got physical after their drivers had some close encounters on the track. Hamlin said he was mad because Keselowski was racing him too close and not getting out of his way. Guess what Denny, that’s why the call it racing. Getting out of the way isn’t in most drivers’ vocabulary, and you should realize that and stop whining, especially considering you’re only making a guest appearance in the Nationwide series and Keselowski is going for a title.

This weekend has provided more great sports entertainment than I’ve seen in a long time. Outside of racing, we saw NBA conference finals matchups, a Stanley Cup Finals battle, and your usual baseball. Add in your Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, the exciting Charlotte Nationwide race, and a truck race in Ohio I totally forgot about (won by rookie Donny Lia, the first rookie to win in the Truck series since Carl Edwards in 2003), and you have a hard-to-beat list of options. Combine that with a weekend of great times with family and friends, which most of us are enjoying, and it’s hard to find much to complain about.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A race fan's dream weekend

Some people view Memorial Day weekend as a chance to relax for three days and eat BBQ ribs and hamburgers until you can’t fit anything else in your stomach.

I view it as a great weekend for racing, though I’m not opposed to eating BBQ ribs and hamburgers.

First, let me touch on the Indy 500. Many say this event has lost its luster over time, and they are right. The CART-IRL split made this event a shadow of its former self for years. But now, the tide is changing.
The two sides kissed and made up, so now all the best Indycar drivers will compete for the prestigious honor of kissing the bricks.

All eyes, of course, will be on Danica Patrick and whether she can win. Look for her name to be mentioned about 200 times during the broadcast, even if she’s running 18th all day. One spoiler this weekend could be young up-and-comer Graham Rahal, son of Indycar great Bobby Rahal, who is only 19 but already has an Indycar victory. He has a great future ahead of him, and could be this year’s surprise, similar to Marco Andretti a couple years ago.

As far as the win, look for the usual suspects (Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon) to battle all day for the win.

Now on to the nightcap, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. Kyle Busch took the pole, and will run up front for much of the race. The question is whether “rowdy” Busch can keep his cool and not run that motor into the ground. The 600 is a long race, and many cars don’t make it to the end because the parts under the hood can’t handle it. Busch can drive like a maniac, and you need to be a little more cautious to end up in victory lane at the 600.

Brian Vickers and David Ragan both qualified in the top 5, and have a shot at the win in they can stay up there. Both drivers are surprising the NASCAR world with their strong finishes this year, so keep an eye on them. Mark Martin is my longshot pick, and as always, the Hendrick cars can never be dismissed, as they know a thing or two about getting around Charlotte.

Barring a fuel mileage race (last year’s top five was the shocking list of Casey Mears, J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers), I say Busch pulls it off. The Gibbs team smartly went back to using Toyota engines this week, after experimenting with an in-house product for the All-Star Race. Busch may be smug and annoy most fans, but as long as his engine holds out I don’t see anyone beating him Sunday night.

Enjoy your weekend, and remember it’s about more than just food and fun. Don’t forget to give thanks to those who have sacrificed their lives so we can live in freedom.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hold on, Jr.

In a move that could prove quite distracting to Dale Earnhardt Jr., still trying to win his first race in over two years and achieve his first championship, he has alluded to the fact he is considering bringing his ownership of JR Motorsports up to the Cup Series from the Nationwide Series -- presumably with talented young driver Brad Keselowski -- as early as next season.

While I applaud his entrepreneurial ambition, I question the timing. He needs to concentrate right now on winning and racing up front for Hendrick Motorsports, not make his business a more time-consuming and distracting part of his life. Jr. says it’s almost as expensive to run in the Nationwide series as it is to run in Cup, but even if that’s true, managing a Cup team is more involved because much more money is on the line, so more attention must be paid.

This story also could potentially involve Tony Stewart, whose name has been thrown around as a possible partner/driver at JR Motorsports if the team does make the move to Cup. I know the Tony and Dale are friends, but this would be a silly move for both of them. The Cup team ownership bug seems to have bitten both of them, but Tony would like struggle mightily and be quite frustrated with a startup team like this, even if he is half-owner.

Jr. may be trying to follow in his dad’s team ownership footsteps, but Dale Sr. had won all seven of his championships before he created Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Jr. needs to get something accomplished in Cup before he takes that leap.

Pit stop:
It’s only a matter of time before we find out who will take over the new fourth Richard Childress Racing car next season. The front-runners appear to be Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman, who have struggled for consistency in their current rides at DEI and would love to join a team that’s grown accustomed to running up front over the last couple years. Scott Wimmer has an outside shot, but it won’t be some young, unproven talent, as sponsor General Mills will want instant results from an experienced driver. It’s a tossup, but I’d put my money on Truex finding his way out of his DEI deal and moving to RCR.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

All-Star Snoozer

Something very strange has happened.

It’s the day after NASCAR’s All-Star Race, a usually very exciting race that I still like to call “The Winston,” and I have very little to talk about. For a while, it looked like a good battle was shaping up between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, but Busch dropped out with mechanical problems and Edwards ended up falling back in the pack.

There were basically no cautions in a race that’s usually littered with them because drivers are jockeying hard for position and going for broke. Putting an even worse taste in my mouth was how it ended. Kasey Kahne, who was voted in by fans after the warm-up race and didn’t even earn his spot in the main event, took the lead on pit strategy and held off Greg Biffle for the win.

I have nothing against Kahne, as he was the first guy to the line. But the All-Star Race is supposed to be for people who have won recently, or ran well enough in the Showdown to transfer in. He did neither, yet now he is guaranteed a spot in the All-Star Race for 10 years because of this win, regardless of whether he ever wins a Cup race again. He should really send a Christmas card and a small check out to all his fans, as they just put a lot more money in his pocket.

In order to spice up the event for next year, some changes need to be made. The return of inverting the field would be a good start. That made the best guys have to race their way up front several times during the race, which creates lot of opportunity for good racing and possible fireworks.

A.J. Almendinger was on top of the world after winning the Showdown and transferring to the main event. This young driver still getting used to the transfer from Indycars is finally coming into his own. Of course, it may mean nothing. In my mind he’s no better than a 25th place driver any given Sunday, and there were 24 cars in the field in the main event. He can claim the title of best of the rest for the short-term, but we’ll soon see if he can ride this momentum to better finishes on Sunday.

Dale Jarrett is officially retired now after a 21st place finish in the All-Star Race Saturday night. While I must admit I did my share of booing Mr. Jarrett back when he was among the dominant cars in the late 1990s (I once saw him win a race at Michigan Speedway that was caution-free and had only five cars on the lead lap at the end … and was not so pleased with that show), I have to applaud him on a great career. His first Cup series win, at Michigan in 1991, is one of NASCAR’s great highlights, as he held off Davey Allison in an awesome photo-finish while driving for the Wood Brothers. He was among the few cars that could compete with Jeff Gordon during his dominant stretch, and took home a title in 1999. He is very respected in the garage area, and deserves a tip of the cap for a great career. Let’s hope he does a decent job as an announcer so I don’t have to start disliking him again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Separation anxiety for Kenseth

Many drivers are not doing as well as they would like this year, but the driver who is perhaps most disappointed with his results is Matt Kenseth, a former champion who is used to running up front and making the Chase.

This year, he has fallen to 20th place in the standings, 153 points out of the Chase. To put that in perspective, he is only about 110 points ahead of former teammate Mark Martin, who has only run 8 of the 11 races this season.

Many forget that Kenseth's untouchable consistency during the 2003 Winston Cup season, during which he seemed to always be running in the top 10 but didn't win much, led to the creation of the Chase. In more recent years, he has continued this trend of getting solid finishes.

But this year, something is off and Kenseth is definitely not contending, often struggling to get even a decent finish. While one thing can't explain it, it's clear Kenseth does not have the same chemistry with his new crew chief Chip Bolin that his did with longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser, who was promoted within the Roush organization after last season. The pair had been together since Kenseth's stint in the Busch Series in the late 1990s, and were perhaps the tightest driver-crew chief team in the sport (right up there with Tony and Zippy).

This separation is clearly having an effect on Kenseth, not to mention tire and other mechanical issues at Roush, and unless he starts a string of solid finishes soon, chances are he'll be on the outside looking in come Chase time.

PIT STOP: Humpy Wheeler has made his famous pick for the weekend's All-Star race, and he's going with Carl Edwards. I disagree, and think this go-for-broke race where only winning matters is tailor-made for Kyle Busch, who races like that during regular races. Don't be surprised if he takes the checkers this Saturday night. The "Showdown" preceding the event is always a blast, with every driver doing whatever they can to make the big show, and I'm going to pick David Ragan to continue his streak of good races and take the win in that event.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


The race may have ended late Saturday night, but the Darlington track workers no doubt are still painting over the nearly continuous streak of black paint lining the track’s walls, following a typically exciting race at the track no one can tame, except apparently Kyle Busch.

I realized during this race that Kyle Busch can at this point only be stopped by Kryptonite. He was penalized for a missing lugnut, smacked the wall pretty hard a few times and his car looked like it been to war, but he still made it to Victory Lane. I’d say the championship is pretty much his to lose at this point. His transformation from contender to the series’ most dominant driver was not predicted by many, and even his growing legion of detractors have to admit he’s fun to watch.

On the opposite end, Greg Biffle had to be bummed out after a heartbreaking mechanical failure moved him from dominant leader to the garage and 43rd place. Biffle is one driver who’s been snake-bitten this year at times. He’s a great driver, having won both Truck and Busch titles, and challenged for a cup title a few years ago. But he’s used to winning, and if the mechanical failures keep up, you may see him decide not to renew his contract with Roush. It would be hard for him to do that, as he’s been with Roush for a decade and no doubt has close ties to many people in the organization. He claims he wants to come back, but only time will tell if that comes true.

Most shocking to me Saturday was how durable this new car is. Almost no cars failed to finish the race, but almost all of them smacked the wall at Darlington at least once, some very hard. With the old car, a good dozen cars probably would not have finished after all that contact.

One thing I love is retro paint schemes, and Dale Jr.’s No. 88 Mountain Dew car with the old-school Darrell Waltrip look was a cool thing to see on the track.

Shocking number of the week is 12 -- which is David Ragan’s points position. Jack Roush must have had a crystal ball, because everyone else was calling for this guy to get canned, including me. Roush said the kid had talent, and we should wait and see. He was right, and now the driver of the No. 6 AAA Ford is playing with the big boys in Chase territory. If he can hang in there and make the Chase come September, that would be one of the biggest one-year improvements I’ve ever seen in NASCAR, considering he was basically out playing bumper cars most of the 2007 season.

Friday, May 9, 2008

No beginners allowed

It's time to separate the men from the boys as the circuit reaches its sole visit to the historic Darlington track, a place that up until recently was the home of the famous Southern 500 Labor Day weekend race, something that should have never been taken away.

The track is known as the Lady in Black, because the drivers have to learn to respect her. Newly repaved, this 1.366 mile track will be faster than in previous years, as evidenced by Greg Biffle's record pole speed, and no doubt a good dozen cars will pick up at least one "Darlington stripe," a long-used term for what the lady will give a driver who fails to respect her. Drivers like Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon will no doubt find their way up front.

Look for the veterans to rule and the kids to be playing catchup Saturday night, with the possible exception of Kyle Busch, who is so on fire he could probably run up front in a snowmobile. Hendrick Motorsports should be among the teams to beat, as Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr. all have solid records at the track. Don't be surprised if many a driver, particularly the younger ones, make their way to the garage early.

One possible sleeper is Denny Hamlin. He has a lot of momentum on his side after a dominating performance last week at Richmond that was ruined by a bad tire. The week before, he pushed everyone around the track at Talladega. The Gibbs cars can do well at Darlington, as evidenced by Tony Stewart's in Friday night's race (side note: Will that 20 car ever lose a Busch race?). Add that to the fact Hamlin has been solid recently at the track, and it translates to Hamlin contending.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Short-track tempers

Kyle Busch proved one thing to me Saturday night -- He’ll do anything to win, including wrecking the most popular driver in NASCAR when he is about to get his first win in two years.
To be honest, I’m surprised Busch didn’t end up a bloody stump after taking out Earnhardt at the end of the Richmond race, which allowed Clint Bowyer to sneak by and take the win. He must have had a great security team to protect him from the angry mobs of Junior Nation.
The reality is there was no other way for it to go down. Junior hadn’t won in two years, and was going to do everything possible to protect his position. And as we’ve seen over the past two years, Kyle Busch will do anything to win, including knock you out of the way. And well, Dale Jr. was in his way, so I doubt any true NASCAR fan was surprised at how that battle turned out.
The irony is that Dale Jr. fans often cheered on his dad after he pulled similar questionable moves. I’m not defending Busch, but it sure is different when the shoe’s on the other foot.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: At the end of Friday’s Nationwide race, there was an incident between Stephen Wallace and, guess who, Mr. Kyle Busch. After some prodding from an interviewer, Wallace broke out the insults, saying Busch wanted to “act like a little girl about it.” I’m going to have to side with Wallace on this. For someone who pushes so many people out of the way, Busch sure does complain a lot when someone does it to him. What’s that rule ... do unto others??

In other racing news this weekend, The young wunderkind everyone claims is the next big NASCAR superstar, Joey Logano, took the checkered flag Sunday in the ARCA race at the newly brought-back-to-life Rockingham Speedway.
What did I forget to mention? Oh yeah, it’s his first ARCA race ever.
What else? Oh yeah, he doesn’t turn 18 until the end of May.
The word around the garage is that this kid has done nothing but win since he strapped into a go-kart at age 4. He’ll get his first shot in a major series in the Nationwide race at Dover on May 31, driving for Joe Gibbs. If this next big thing is all he’s presented to be, and performs well in the Nationwide Series, don’t be surprised to see him in a Cup car full-time by 2010. The team owners like their drivers young these days, especially if they have talent.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Time to win, Jr.

My look ahead to Saturday night's race at Richmond will be short and sweet, just like the track itself. In plain English, Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to win a race ASAP, as it's been an unbelievable two full years since he last visited Victory Lane. Now that he is in a strong Hendrick car, he has no excuse if he can't pull out a win or two this year. Richmond has always been a great track for him, so it's up to him to make it happen.

He has the talent. He has the car. He has run up front all year and is doing very well in the standings.

But that's not enough in modern-day NASCAR, especially if your last name is Earnhardt.

He needs to start winning, because eventually even his extremely loyal fans may begin to place their allegiances elsewhere if he can't do that.