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.

Monday, June 30, 2008

You can't win if you don't gamble

First things first … Kurt Busch had a terrible car and had no business winning Sunday’s race at Loudon.

But guess what … that doesn’t matter. He was the one in Victory Lane holding the trophy, and the day’s dominant drivers only have themselves to blame for their disappointing finishes.

Often, you must take chances to win, and the drivers who stayed out figured the rain was coming quickly, and it wasn’t worth pitting. They turned out to be right and were rewarded with strong finishes. The ones who pitted didn’t want to risk running out of gas, and they hurt themselves in the process.

The worst offender was Stewart. I understand that if you’re on empty, you must stop for gas. But for some strange reason, despite knowing that weather was coming, either Stewart of his crew chief decided to take tires when he pitted, moving him from the top spot to the teens in the running order. His teammate Denny Hamlin was a little smarter, and ended up eighth after a gas-only stop.

These rain-decided finishes always make me chuckle, as the top five is just so ridiculous. Michael Waltrip, an afterthought all year, finished second for his first (and possibly last) top-10 all season. Afterward, he said he could have beaten Kurt Busch had the race restarted. Third place went to J.J. Yeley, who has been even worse than Waltrip all year, so don’t expect to see him get another top 5 anytime soon. And Martin Truex Jr., whose car turned to junk about halfway through the race, used strategy to grab the fourth position.

I kind of wish the race would have restarted. Watching Michael Waltrip and J.J. Yeley battle for a race win would be like entering the Twilight Zone.

The best moment of the race for me, and millions of others I’m sure, was when Juan Pablo Montoya put the chrome horn to Kyle Busch under caution to show his displeasure with how Busch had been racing him the last couple laps. I know it was unsportsmanlike behavior and could have wrecked innocent drivers‘ cars, but considering how disrespectful Busch has been to many of his competitors in all three series this season, I saw it as poetic justice. The best part of it all was that Montoya didn’t even try to hide it, freely admitting he did it on purpose. That kind of honesty is why I like Montoya.

I expected a typically boring Loudon race, but the on-track skirmishes, weather drama and crazy finishing order made it almost tolerable to watch.

It was fun to see Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon damn near wreck each other fighting for position, then Jimmie called Jeff a “spoiled brat“ over this radio. That’s pretty gutsy of Jimmie, considering Jeff is part owner of his team.

The points were jumbled once again. Kevin Harvick jumped back into the Chase, while Matt Kenseth is now 15 points out. Martin Truex’s strong finish put him only 71 points out of the Chase, and Ryan Newman and Brian Vickers are still lurking just over 100 points back. With the always looming “Big One” possible at Daytona this Saturday, don’t be surprised if there’s some pretty severe jumbling next week, too.

Even before his on-track incident, Kyle Busch showed the world his team is not indestructible, as his car was no better than mid-pack and never contended. If a few more races go like this for the 18 team, maybe we won’t have a runaway champion after all.

The Ganassi cars looked great all weekend, but mostly fizzled on race day. Montoya led both Saturday practices, but the car was pretty terrible all day Sunday. Franchitti, also great in practice, ended up laps down after wrecking. Only Reed Sorenson was able to get a decent finish for the struggling Ganassi team.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Hampshire lineup is deceiving

For those of you who looked at the lineup for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and thought we might get a surprise winner this week … think again.

A rain delay changed track conditions in the middle of qualifying, and that’s about the only scenario that would give Patrick Carpentier a pole position. Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Scott Riggs are in spots 2 through 4, but out of that group only Harvick has an outside shot.

If he can get his mind off what he’s doing next year (after fanning the flames further with a reference that he may be interested in the 5 car vacated by Casey Mears), Tony Stewart has the ability to contend at New Hampshire. But I have a feeling this is kind of a throwaway season for Tony. He has yet to win, and I don’t see him doing much better than a win or two before the season ends.

The most likely victor will be either Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Denny Hamlin, who all have great track records here. Put me down for a Johnson victory, as he’s bound to go on a hot streak at some point this season. Now is as good a time as any to start it.

My dark horse pick is Juan Pablo Montoya, who led both Saturday practices and was third fastest on Friday. If he can pull out a victory Sunday, he might lose that tag of “road-course specialist” only, and be viewed as more of a complete driver. Fun fact of the day: Robby Gordon’s only non-road course victory came at New Hampshire, so there is a precedent for this.

If I were Joe Gibbs, I’d tell Tony I was tired of his games, and that he should just make a decision already. First, it’s rumored that the Haas ownership deal is almost finalized. Then Tony say the 5 ride opening makes him think about things more. I think everyone will be happier once he just announces his decision.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Stewart should look to Kulwicki for inspiration

When Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup championship as an owner/driver, he stunned the NASCAR world. He was battling with Junior Johnson driver Bill Elliott and Robert Yates driver Davey Allison, yet somehow used his do-it-yourself, never-say-die attitude and extreme, sometimes fanatical, dedication to perfection to will himself to win that title, shortly before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1993. He started a team that no one thought would do much, and ended up on the top of the sport.

That is similar to the Herculean challenge facing Tony Stewart as soon as next year, when it’s rumored he will leave Joe Gibbs Racing and become 50 percent owner of Haas CNC Racing while also driving for the team. Rumors are Martin Truex Jr. or Ryan Newman will become his teammate at Haas, which is currently languishing way back in the standings with driver Scott Riggs in the 66 car and a rotating cast of drivers in the 70 car. The team would likely be renamed to include Stewart’s name.

Since Kulwicki won his title, multicar teams have dominated the Cup series and no owner/driver has sniffed a title, and I’m sure Stewart isn’t making this switch with the goal of running mid-pack. He’s tasting success as a World of Outlaws and USAC car owner and wants to do the same at the Cup level. Now that he has won two titles as a driver and he’s no longer the top dog at Gibbs thanks to Super-Kyle, he’s wanting to take the plunge and see how successful he can be as a Cup team owner.

I wish him luck, but Stewart has a tough road ahead of him for many reasons. First off, the Haas team is pretty terrible right now. The cars often miss races, and when they make it, they consistently wreck and have major mechanical failures. It’s easily one of the least competitive teams in the entire sport. There will probably be two new drivers, new crew chiefs, crews and team members, and a new co-owner -- basically making it a new team -- so he’s starting from scratch and has no idea if the team will achieve. They say you have to start at the bottom to succeed, and Stewart’s doing that in an extreme way.

Improving an unknown quantity like that is not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re competing against the likes of Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs. These three teams have won all the Cup titles except for one, and most of the races, since 1995. Smaller teams like Haas have to be firing on all cylinders to even keep up with the Big Three of NASCAR’s top series.

I’ll admit that anything is possible. Rumor is Office Depot and Old Spice will be coming over to sponsor the revamped team’s two cars. They’ll likely bring big-time money not seen in the Haas stable before, which always helps performance. Likewise, the improved driver talent will also help the team do better.

But considering the team’s cars usually finish in the 30s or worse, even great improvement might mean just a few top-10s next season. Tony Stewart is used to winning everywhere he’s ever competed, and we all know he has a bit of a temper. He may drive himself and his team crazy adjusting to his new role as team owner, especially if there’s a rocky first season. I can’t imagine Stewart will be too happy if he’s riding around as lapped traffic while getting passed by leader Joey Logano in his old No. 20 car.

If all the rumors turn out to be true, it will be fun to watch Tony’s efforts as a team owner. If he can achieve success and win races or a title with the team, it will be an accomplishment of Kulwickian proportions.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jr. may follow his dad's path to Cup team ownership

As rumors spread Monday about the future of the 5 car, one interesting possibility came about. It’s possible Mark Martin will split time in the car next year with Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, who currently drives for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide series.

This would be the natural lead-in to a full-time Cup ride at Hendrick in that 5 car for Keselowski for the 2010 season. It makes sense, as the Oakland County native has shown he has the goods to compete with the big boys, regularly finishing ahead of the many Cup ringers moonlighting in the Nationwide series and staying in contention for the Nationwide title.

What’s most interesting to me is the path this sets up for Jr., who is following a path very similar to the one his father took in bringing DEI to Cup. Dale Sr. drove for Richard Childress for many years, learning from Childress how to run a team. Then, later in his career, after winning all of his titles and owning cars in the lower series, he began running DEI at the Cup level while still driving for Childress. He had learned enough, and the success he achieved as DEI owner was the proof of that … On the day he died, his drivers finished one-two at Daytona.

Right now, Jr.'s focus in Cup needs to be on winning a title. He has enormous pressure on him to win it, and running a Cup team would take away his focus. If he is able to take home a Cup title in the next two or three years, I see him bringing his JR Motorsports to the Cup series, probably using his protégé Keselowski as his first driver, assuming Hendrick is OK with the almost in-house move.

Succeeding while driving for your own team has proven difficult in recent years, so I suspect Jr. will take another play from his dad’s book and spend many years driving for Hendrick, while operating his team on the side. And Jr.’s team would obviously get a lot of help from the Hendrick organization, so it would basically create a new superteam with as many as eight drivers who could help each other get better each week.

Maybe I’m wrong, and Jr. believes he has learned enough from Rick Hendrick to bring his team up to the Cup series as soon as next year. It may be tempting, as I’m sure plenty of sponsors would want to be part of a team owned by Jr., and he could make a good chunk of change.

But it’s hard to find a better teacher than Dale Earnhardt when it comes to achieving success in NASCAR, so I bet he follows his dad’s path and doesn’t make the move for a few years, until he’s had some time to focus on competing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

It’s Kyle Busch’s world … the other drivers just live there

Kyle Busch has been called a lot of things over the years … great road racer was never one of them.

Until Sunday that is.

NASCAR’s trip to wine country was not the usual battle between the typical favorites.
Jeff Gordon struggled all day, and lucked into a top-3 finish. Robby Gordon was a contender all race, until Kurt Busch pulled a bonehead move and wrecked him. Juan Pablo Montoya contended, but was also spun out and couldn’t get back up front. Tony Stewart started in back, got up front quickly, but his chances were ruined by another bonehead move -- this one by Kevin Harvick -- that also collected Jamie McMurray and Ron Fellows.

This race’s leaders were basically Jimmie Johnson early, and Kyle Busch after that. Either his mechanics are putting some magic elixir in that engine, or Kyle figured out some secret about driving race cars over the summer. He ran a perfect race on Sunday, dominating the field and never really facing a challenge for the lead once he took it over. In a nutshell, he has proven he has the car and the talent to win at any track, in any series, any week.

That’s scary.

He’s won five races in Cup this year, and it’s only June. If this momentum keeps up, he may win a dozen races or more, and run away with the title. Not to mention the four Nationwide and two Truck races he’s won. Between Kyle and the up-and-coming Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing will probably be seeing Victory Lane quite a bit over the next decade or so.

Even scarier, I thought I heard some cheers for Busch after the race … I’m guessing the cheering fans just had a little too much wine, though, and thought Dale Jr. had won.

The only hope for the legion of Kyle-haters is that he has a test planned in a Toyota Formula 1 car later this year. Pray he does tremendously well and is immediately offered boatloads of money to go overseas. It won’t happen, but you can always dream.

Rumor has it Casey Mears is gone from Hendrick Motorsports after this season. If so, there will one highly coveted seat available during the musical chairs exercise known as Silly Season. Here’s a scary thought for the competition … Suppose Rick Hendrick could convince Tony Stewart to come over and bring Home Depot with him. It’s not likely to happen, but imagine how loaded a team with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, and all their big-time sponsor money, would be. They might even be able to beat Kyle Busch.

Mark Martin might be out of a ride, too, come season’s end. Young Aric Almirola will drive the 8 car all next year, meaning DEI would have to come up with a new car for Martin -- who only wants to run a part-time schedule. My guess is he ends up somewhere else. Martin can’t give up the racing bug (his farewell tour was several years ago in Cup, after which he was supposed to switch over to full-time Truck racing … That plan somehow evolved into him becoming a permanent part-time Cup driver). He is a pure talent who came close to winning a title four times, so some other team should jump to give him a part-time ride if DEI doesn’t hold on to him. If not, maybe that Truck plan will actually happen after all.

Tony Stewart was his usually grumpy, yet amusing, self during an interview by TNT pit reporter Marty Snider after the race. Snider was trying to get Stewart to say something about the Harvick wreck, and Stewart replied: “You’re not in the car. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” In other words, shut up you damn fool. Angry Tony provides some of the most enjoyable post-race television you can find … someone should put together a highlight reel and sell it.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

R.I.P. Scott Kalitta

I have to take a moment to offer my condolences to the family, friends and fans of the latest member of the motorsports community to lose his life while doing his job.

Scott Kalitta, a veteran and two-time NHRA champion, died in a terrible, fiery wreck Saturday while driving his Funny Car during the final round of qualifying for the Lucas Oil NHRA SuperNationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. Series officials said Kalitta was extracted from his car and taken to Old Bridge Township Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Though I’ve never been much for drag racing, I’ve always respected what those drivers do. Going from 0 to 300 miles per hour in seconds is obviously a very dangerous profession.

The Kalitta family is huge in drag racing, and many people here in Michigan have some connection to them, as their Kalitta Motorsports drag racing operation has been based out of Michigan since Scott’s father -- Connie Kalitta, who grew up in Mount Clemens -- began it in 1959. Scott was originally from Mount Clemens, and was living with his wife and children in Florida.

While I never knew the man, or even followed his career, I mourn his death just like those who weren’t NASCAR fans mourned Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and others who have died in the line of duty.

Rest in peace, Scott.

And the winner is ... one of the Gordons

On a normal race weekend, if I told you Gordon was going to win, we'd all know I was talking about Jeff.

But this is not a normal weekend, it's a road course weekend. So this is one of two weeks each year when I can legitimately say that Robby is almost as likely to win as Jeff. True, his car may not be of Hendrick quality, but Robby is quite possibly the best road racer in the field. And he has extra incentive to win, as his car is sponsorless this week. A win might help fill that big empty black spot on his hood in future weeks.

One driver who usually contends on the road courses but has dug himself a hole by qualifying poorly is Tony Stewart, who is going to have to pass the entire field if he wants to taste victory Sunday. I have plenty of respect for Tony's talent, but I don't see him pulling off a miracle victory.

Part of the problem is there's too many great drivers he's going to have to pass. Marcos Ambrose qualified 7th in a Wood Brothers car, so he'll be a threat. Other road course vets like Juan Pablo Montoya, Boris Said, Ron Fellows and Scott Pruett should also contend if their cars agree with them.

Kasey Kahne won the pole, but color me unimpressed. The last time he even had a top 20 finish on a road course was in 2005 at Watkins Glen. He'll likely fade back and finish outside the top 10.

I foresee a battle of the Gordons shaping up. Jeff has not won so far this year, and history has shown that's not likely to stay true for long if your name is Jeff Gordon. He's the best bet to win.
But Robby could serve as a spoiler. He has the pure talent needed to win one of these races, but we'll see Sunday whether he has the car and proper strategy to make it happen.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doubters should give road course racing a chance

When the Cup series takes its annual treks to Sonoma and Watkins Glen, fans are usually divided into two distinct groups -- those who love to see the guys turning right, and those who absolutely hate it. The doubters find the racing at these tracks boring compared to the ovals, and hope for a day when their spots on the schedule will be replaced by oval tracks.

Count me in the other group. I look forward every year to these races, and hopefully I can convince some of the doubters to give it a chance.

-- Racing is about pure skill, and nothing shows off pure driving skill better than a road course. Anyone who’s ever watched a Formula 1 race has marveled at how those drivers can manage hairpin turns while still going more than 100 mph, yet not wreck. NASCAR’s road course speeds aren’t quite so fast, but much skill is needed to succeed at these tracks, and that’s what separates great drivers like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon from the rest of the field every time a road course race comes around. Watching ringers like Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett and Boris Said slice through the regular Cup competitors like they were standing still makes you appreciate just how difficult it is to be a strong road racer. And all of NASCAR’s greatest champions have shown at some point in their careers that they were strong on the road courses, otherwise they would never have been champions.

Anyone who’s a true fan of racing watches for more than just passing and five-wide action … they want to see truly skilled drivers showing off their abilities. The road course races are a great place to see those skills in action and marvel and what these guys can do.

-- There’s always lots of action at road course races -- whether it’s a Kevin Harvick vs. Juan Pablo Montoya confrontation like we got last year at Watkins Glen; or Jimmie Johnson’s scary-looking crash at the Glen in 2000 --- after which he thrilled fans by jumping out of his car and raised in arms in triumph; or the great battles waged between teammates Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon several years ago; or the Marcus Ambrose/Robby Gordon battle at Montreal last year.

It may not be 43 cars bunched up at Talladega or four-wide at Michigan, but there’s plenty of action to be found in these road course races.

-- Strategy is often an element of a great race, and the road course races offer plenty of it. Often, a race is won or lost depending on what lap the driver leading chooses to make his final pit stop. One wrong tactical move during the race, and the strongest car on the track can be dropped into the middle in the field. Then, viewers can marvel as they watch that driver try to pass his way back to the front.

Road racing is about more than just horsepower. It’s about driver skill and strategy, and I hope some of you who have traditionally not cared for these races give them a shot.

This week is very simple for fantasy owners. You have to use the drivers who are great on the road courses, and that list is small. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Robby Gordon, and any of the ringers like Pruett, Said and Fellows are almost guaranteed good finishes, barring mechanical problems or an on-track scuffle. Beyond that, the only people to consider would be A.J. Allmendinger, who had many road course wins in CART, and maybe Jamie McMurray, who has shown some ability at recent road course races.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

'Big Brother' NASCAR should let drivers speak their minds

Do you remember earlier this year when NASCAR let the fans know they were going to allow drivers to speak their minds more this season, and not police their words as much?

Well, that didn’t last very long.

‘Big Brother’ NASCAR is at it again, having called all the drivers to a special meeting last Friday morning at Michigan Speedway to tell them to stop criticizing the so-called ’Car of Tomorrow’ so much. They want drivers to focus on more positive thoughts, and not constantly bash the car.

To make the matter even more silly, NASCAR made up some lame cover story about how the meeting was really about telling the drivers that they need to do more to connect with the fans. As Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications, put it: “We want them to remember the fans and to remember why we're here, and that's to race.”

In other words, shut up and drive. Check your personality and opinions at the speedway entrance gate, and just do your job.

This is a terrible attitude for a sport to take. Part of the reason we love sports goes beyond what happens on the field or the track. Competitors with interesting personalities and opinions are part of the reason we are drawn to sports … Tony Stewart is a great example of this.

His response to this meeting was typical Tony. “Ask Mike Helton. I don’t know what we’re allowed to say and what we’re not,” was his comment after Sunday’s race.

Trust me when I tell you that no matter how many warnings the France empire wants to impose on its subjects, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and a lot of other drivers will not allow themselves to be censored. There may be some drivers who are willing to be drones, but the majority will continue to let the public know if they think the car they’re driving is a piece of junk.

I’m not driving the thing, so I can’t tell you if they’re on point with their criticisms. But as someone who believes free speech is as important as any right in America, the very idea of this ‘Shut up and be positive’ meeting pretty much makes me sick.

I thank God for drivers like Stewart, who refuse to let NASCAR suck all the personality out of the sport and continue to speak their mind.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Monkey off Jr.'s back

Don’t be surprised if you’re still hearing a chorus of screams every time you open your windows.
That’s just the echo of Jr. Nation celebrating their driver’s first win in a points race in more than two years, after a brilliant fuel management performance that literally took him to his last drop of fuel.

While many people like to discredit victories that come from fuel mileage, being able to save fuel definitely is a skill some drivers have more than others. With gas at $4 per gallon, I certainly wish I was better at doing it in my vehicle.

Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers were clearly the class of the field, with Jr. just running in the back of the top 10 most of the afternoon. But he was able to stay out, and all the stronger cars had to come in for fuel. So anyone who would give Jr. less credit because he didn’t win by virtue of passing his competitors is missing the point. If those other drivers had been able to conserve enough fuel, they’d have been in Victory Lane instead of Jr. He did the best job, so he won. Don’t blame him for the hand he was dealt.

Now that he’s got that elusive first points win at Hendrick Motorsports, you can bet Jr. will be focused on continuing the success he’s had all year, and he can do it without the endless pressure of the “When will you win again?” questions. He’s been the top performer at Hendrick all year, and this win cements that. He’s closing in on Kyle Busch’s points lead, still in third place in the standings, and should continue having solid runs leading up to the Chase.

The Earnhardt name is a double-edged sword. On the bright side, he automatically has millions of fans and is the most popular driver. On the other side, that comes with immense pressure and his late father casts an enormous shadow. No one expects him to win seven titles like his dad (that’s not realistic in today’s NASCAR). But if he doesn’t win even a single title, people will call him a failure who’s just coasting on his daddy’s name. (On a side note, I’m glad the TV guys didn’t get gimmicky and try to get an emotional answer out of Jr. by asking him what his dad would have thought about this win, it being Father’s Day and all … I have a feeling the Fox guys would have done that.)

Through the years, I think Jr. has walked that fine line very well. Even the people who hate Jr. have to admit he has extra pressure, and should give him credit when he deserves it. He deserves it today.


Don’t be surprised if you see Brian Vickers in Victory Lane in the very near future. That Red Bull team is on fire, and it’s beginning to look like more than a flash in the pan. Vickers, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan all gained some ground Sunday in their quest to reach the top 12 and be in the Chase.

Does any driver have worse luck than Greg Biffle? He’s had more late-race mechanical breakdowns and pit road penalties than other driver I can think of, including a penalty for running over his air hose at the very end of Sunday’s race that dropped him from a strong top 10 to a 20th place finish. Eventually, he’s got to catch a few breaks.

As a side note, my prediction that all five Roush cars would be top-10 finishers almost came true. Four of them did, and Biffle would have if he hadn’t gotten his penalty on the final pit stop.

During a pit stop Sunday, Kenseth was slowed from exiting his pit stall by a NASCAR official, and was saying on the radio that he should have been given a position on the race track since it wasn’t his fault that his exit was delayed. I’m not sure what the precedent is for this scenario, but he may have a point. The officials shouldn’t play a part in determining the order the cars are running.

Busch’s reign of terror continues; The Logano era begins

After watching the Truck Series race at MIS Saturday, I’ve come to one conclusion: Kyle Busch is doing this on purpose. I think he wants every driver in every series to hate him. That’s the only logical explanation for his childish actions this year in all three series.

In the first part of yet another triple-duty weekend (though this time at only two tracks, and with much less flying), Busch, running nowhere near the lead on the last lap of a race that should mean almost nothing to him, decided to run straight into the back of Trucks points leader Ron Hornaday, even though he had better tires and could have passed Hornaday without much trouble.

Busch almost got punched out for about the tenth time this season, as Hornaday was on a rampage after the race. Don’t let his age fool you, he’s a grizzled veteran who could probably put Busch in a full body cast if given the opportunity. Busch should thank God there’s NASCAR security looking out for him after every one of his stupid moves. Hornaday’s quote after the race, “I hope I don’t hurt him,” pretty much sums up the opinion of every driver who has competed against Busch this year.

This is not the first time he’s acted like a fool in a series where’s he’s supposed to be a guest. I’ll tell you one thing -- if a guest in my home behaved like he’s behaving in the Trucks and Nationwide series, I’d kick them out real quick, and not in a polite way. Busch needs to stick to Cup racing, and even there he’s got his problems. For Busch’s sake, I hope Kevin Harvick (Hornaday’s team owner in trucks) doesn’t get anywhere near him in today's Cup race or there could be some trouble.

On a happier note, the truck race provided some of the best side-by-side racing of the year so far and reminded me why I love the series so much. The series is perfect for a competitive, wide-open track like Michigan. Drivers were going four-wide and even five-wide on some restarts, the way racing should be. It was far from the parades that have become far too common these days.

And the photo-finish ending (a margin of victory of 0.005 seconds ... literally inches) is something you’ll rarely seen in the Cup series. With the race in Michigan, it was fitting that Erik Darnell’s Jack Roush-owned Ford beat the Toyota of Johnny Benson (though that would’ve been OK with me too, as Benson is a Michigan native).


Three races, two pole positions, one victory.
Age: 18 years and 21 days

That’s the stat line on Joey Logano, the young wunderkind who is going beyond living up to the massive pressure placed on him as he entered the Nationwide Series just after his 18th birthday as the anointed next big thing in racing.

History was made Saturday night in Kentucky with Logano’s first win, as he is the youngest winner ever in the Nationwide series. And it’s hard to think he’ll do anything but keep on winning, as he is clearly talented and that 20 car is the best ride in the series.

Logano delivered possibly the best Father’s Day gift ever to his dad, who first put him in a racecar at age 6. Since then, he has performed phenomenally at every level of racing he’s attempted. Joe Gibbs recognized his talent early, and his team should achieve success for many, many years with Logano. If Tony Stewart leaves Gibbs, either this year or next, it’s pretty much a given that Logano will fill that spot in the Cup series.

In what I’d like to think is a bit of karma for his ridiculous actions during the Truck race, Kyle Busch -- after driving through almost the entire field in a dominating car at Kentucky -- got loose all by himself and wrecked out of the race. I’d never wish him harm, but I can’t say I’m upset he didn’t finish well. The good news for all NASCAR fans (and Nationwide drivers) is he’s not going to take part in next week’s Nationwide race in Milwaukee.

And while we’re talking youth, the fact that four 18-year-old drivers (Logano, Bryan Clauson, Landon Cassill, James Buescher) finished in the top 14 at Kentucky astounds me. At that age, I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. These kids are already doing it, and very well.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Look for a Roush team in victory lane at MIS

Jack Roush’s name is big around these parts. The controversial team owner is from Livonia and his racing business started decades ago as an offshoot of his successful automotive engineering and road-racing equipment business, based in Livonia.

He won back-to-back Cup titles with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, and his drivers have taken more than 100 Cup victories over the years. Many people hate him, but no one can deny his success.

Of all the tracks in NASCAR, perhaps the one where Roush’s drivers are most dominant is Michigan International Speedway. Nestled in the Irish Hills in the village of Brooklyn, this 2-mile wide-open track is one place the Roush gang figured out years ago. Roush drivers have taken 6 of the last dozen races at the speedway, one each year to be exact. And it’s not just one driver -- Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have all proven they have the goods to win at the track, and young driver David Ragan shouldn’t be too far behind them this weekend, as his season is on the upswing. Even Jamie McMurray, whose season has been far from perfect, should get a boost this weekend. Don’t be surprised if all five of them finish in the top 10.

They’ll have some competition from the Hendrick drivers, but expect a Roush driver to take the crown Sunday.

If you can' make it out to Sunday's race, I recommend you consider taking a trip to the track on Friday or Saturday. The ARCA race can be very exciting, and the Truck Series is arguably the most exciting of the top three NASCAR series in terms of side-by-side racing. Beyond all that, it's just fun to enjoy the atmosphere at MIS, and stroll along the souvenir trailer lane to pick up some new gear to represent your favorite driver. I recommend showing up early, crossing the bridge and checking out the "unofficial" merchandise booths. They often have the best stuff.

Fantasy tip:
If you don’t start at least one Roush driver this weekend in your lineup, you’re making a big mistake.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are also good options, and Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers have strong momentum. It might be a good week to sit Kyle Busch … he might still have a hangover from his rough triple-header weekend.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Don’t stereotype all NASCAR fans as racist

The issue of racism has been lurking in the background for a long time in NASCAR.
The sport started in the South, a place that -- whether justified of not -- many people associate with racism to this day, and there have been a small number of minority drivers in its 60 years of existence.

When NASCAR’s greatest black driver, Wendell Scott, won a race in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1963, the sport was so afraid of the reaction that they told the crowd someone else had won, then days later issued a correction and gave the trophy to Scott. Back then, the (white) trophy girls in Victory Lane often gave the winning driver a kiss on the cheek. Considering the atmosphere of racism in America at that time, that probably wouldn’t have gone over too well with Scott in Victory Lane.

The other issue still prevalent today is the Confederate Flag, which some fans continue to fly at the track when they attend or camp out at races. They say its Southern pride, others say it’s racist and a reminder of slavery … and neither side is likely to change their opinion.

The newest reminder of racism in the sport came this week, when Mauricia Grant, a former inspector in the Nationwide series who is a black female, filed a lawsuit claiming that her coworkers called her degrading names like “nappy-headed Mo” and “Queen Sheba,” and told her she worked on “colored people time” if she was late. She also said one official made regular references to the Ku Klux Klan. Grant is suing NASCAR for $225 million, for racial and sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

While I think her $225 million figure is a bit inflated, NASCAR will probably have to dig at least a little bit into its bank account if these allegations are proven true. There is no place in sports for racist and sexist behavior, and she deserves some compensation if she was mistreated while working for NASCAR. And the co-workers who made those comments should be fired immediately, if the allegations are proven.

The most important point, in my mind, is that even if these allegations are true, that the public doesn’t automatically assume that everyone involved in NASCAR, and all of its fans, are a bunch of ignorant racists.

I have been to dozens of races, and have met thousands of fans over the years, and I would put the number of NASCAR fans who fit that description at less than 10 percent. Sure they exist, but if you surveyed the fans at a baseball, football, basketball or hockey game, you’d probably find an equivalent number of racists.

Many people believe NASCAR, and the South in general, is full of hateful people. But having traveled this country and been to sporting events across the board, I don’t see that. I hear as many or more racist people in Michigan any given week than I did the entire week I spent in Georgia. It’s easy to stereotype a region or sport, but that doesn’t mean what you’re saying is true.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Battle royale for Chase spots; Local boy Keselowski gets first win

First things first, Kasey Kahne did a masterful job or driving through the field after a pit road penalty to continue his hot streak and make another trip to Victory Lane. He’s on a roll, up to 9th in points, and has elevated himself back to where he was a couple years ago -- a legitimate title contender.

But the biggest story to come out of Sunday’s race, in my mind, was the bunching up of the points standings around the 12th-place cutoff point for the Chase. Tony Stewart finished a lap down and is 470 points behind points leader Kyle Busch. David Ragan and Ryan Newman are both within 10 points of Stewart. Matt Kenseth, who had an awful start to the year, is only 34 points out of the Chase, Martin Truex, Jr. is only 56 points back, and a hot Brian Vickers is only 112 points behind Stewart.

All of these drivers have a legitimate shot to make the top 12 and compete for the title. If anyone is going to jump into the Chase, my money would be on Kenseth, and possibly Vickers -- who finished second at Pocono and drives for a Red Bull team that appears to be improving every week.

For someone to jump in means someone must drop out. Drivers near the bottom of the top 12 -- including Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon -- must continue to perform well or they risk not being there come Richmond this September.

Saturday night’s race at Nashville was a treat for me, as it’s one of the few each year not dominated by Cup drivers. Only a handful of drivers did both races, so we really got a chance to see what the full-time Nationwide drivers have to offer. Not only did a Nationwide driver win the race (a rarity these days), but he’s a local guy. Brad Keselowski, an Oakland County native from Rochester Hills, comes from a great local racing family. His father Bob Keselowski won a Truck Series race in 1997, and now Brad is on the path to becoming a NASCAR star. If his performance so far this year drving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is any indicator, he’s going to go far in the sport, probably moving up to Cup within the next couple years.

We also got a glimpse into the immediate future at Nashville, as young Joey Logano and Keselowski were battling for the lead early in the race. Look for that to be a familiar scene the rest of this Nationwide season. Another strong performance came from another young up-and-comer, 18-year-old Landon Cassill.


The triple didn’t turn out so well for Kyle Busch. While he did finish 2nd in the Truck race, he could only manage 20th at Nashville, then was dead last at Pocono after driving into Jamie McMurray. Perhaps fatigue was a factor in this wreck. At least he apologized for wrecking McMurray -- maybe he’s not a total jerk after all.


Was it just me, or did Dale Jr. seem totally out of it in his post-race interview? That comment about the weather seemed very random. I’m thinking this not-winning thing is really starting to get to him, and he’s probably hoping to avoid even talking to reporters after the race until he can get that elusive win. I say cheer up Dale, you’ve got 10 top-10s and are third in points. Most drivers would love to be in your position.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Gibbs drivers will lead the pack at Pocono

Pocono has always been a mixed bag for me.

There have been some great races there, including the one in 2000 when Jeremy Mayfield knocked Dale Earnhardt out of the way to take the checkered flag, then used Earnhardt’s own line about “just wanting to rattle his cage” in the post-race interview. But too often, I have found myself eager to nap during the races at this big triangular track.

Pocono is a track that boasts the longest straightaway in all of NASCAR, so horsepower will play a big part in who does well on Sunday. Experience is another key factor, as most younger drivers take a few years before they really figure out this place.

One exception to that rule is Denny Hamlin, who won his first two races at Pocono in 2006 and finished in the top six in both races last year. Considering how powerful the Gibbs cars are this year, it’s hard to bet against him winning this weekend. Assuming he’s not completely drained from his cross-country trips, Kyle Busch will probably give him a run for his money, as there’s no sign of that train slowing down. My dark horse pick is Jeff Gordon, who’s been solid at Pocono throughout his career and has been improving his performance as of late. Should the Gibbs drivers have any trouble, look for him to step up and take the win.

It’s almost time for NASCAR’s first trip of the year to the rolling Irish Hills of the village of Brooklyn. Anyone who has not taken a trip to Michigan Speedway should really try to get out to one of the two races this year, or even just a support race or qualifying day. MIS provides good, wide-open racing and a great experience overall. Some of my best NASCAR memories have nothing to do with the track, and everything to do with camping at MIS for the weekend and enjoying some of the best times of my life. There are very few things in life more valuable to our sanity than taking a few days out of our hectic lifestyles every once in awhile to disconnect from the world and just relax and have fun. MIS is a great place to do that.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Stop complaining and give Toyota credit

One of the biggest stories in NASCAR this year has been the rise of Toyota from a manufacturer whose teams could barely qualify for races last year, to the likely make of the series champ this season.

This meteoric rise echoes Toyota’s success in the Craftsman Truck Series, where they are contenders for the win every week. The haters (including Jack Roush and Kevin Harvick) have already started to come out of the woodwork, saying Toyota has an unfair horsepower advantage and NASCAR should do something to even the playing field.

Last time I checked, NASCAR is a competitive sport. We don’t put lead weights in Lebron James’ shorts to slow him down, so there is no good reason to punish Toyota for simply doing their homework better in the offseason than Chevy, Ford and Dodge. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably just mad because Toyota is doing a better job than they are.

There is no evidence of cheating going on at Toyota, so any discussion of trying to inhibit their cars in any way goes against the competitive nature of the sport. Many people loyal to American brands want to stay angry at Toyota for its success in the sport, but they should refocus their energy on the American companies and urge them to produce better racecars.

Nobody likes a sore loser.

Kyle Busch is officially insane. This weekend, he plans to run Friday night’s Truck race in Texas … Then he’s going to run Saturday’s night Nationwide race in Nashville … Finally, he will compete in Sunday's Cup race in Pocono. He’s skipping qualifying and practice in the two lower series, but still will qualify and practice at Pocono. That’s a ton of flying and travel that seems pretty unnecessary. What does he have left to prove in the lower series? If he can pull off three wins this weekend, I may have to investigate whether he is of this planet.

The latest proof that trying to cheat is a bad idea is the predicament Haas-CNC Motorsports (Cars #66 and #70) finds itself in. Scott Riggs, once comfortably in the top 35, now has dropped out and does not have a guaranteed spot at Pocono.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Does anyone have any Kryptonite?

I predicted Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle would battle for the win and one of them would take the checkered flag at Dover. Three-quarters of the way into Sunday’s race, my prediction was holding up.

Then something happened. That something was … no surprise … Kyle Busch. A combination of fast pit stops and his crew fixing whatever was ailing his car vaulted him to the lead. Not only did he win, he smoked the competition by more than six seconds. He was also putting on dominating performances in the Truck and Nationwide races this weekend until problems ended his hopes for victory. Without that trouble, he could have easily won all three races this weekend.

It’s getting to the point where the other drivers just have to hope Kyle has mechanical problems or an accident, because otherwise they probably won’t beat him. He’s on pace for a season for the ages, like Jeff Gordon had in 1998 during his dominating championship run. If Kyle Busch was racing under the old points system Gordon had in 1998 (meaning no Chase to worry about), I’m guessing he’d win the Cup title by about 500 points this year. The only reason I won’t hand him the Cup just yet is that someone else might get hot by September and be ready to go toe-to-toe with for the final 10 races. The key word in that sentence is MIGHT.

The most bizarre point of the Dover race came during the multi-car wreck that happened early in the race when Elliot Sadler cut in front of David Gilliland and tore up almost a dozen racecars in the process. While everyone else slowed down and tried to minimize damage, Hamlin came in full blast, smashing into the pile hard. You would think Hamlin -- a.k.a. Mr. get out of my way Nationwide drivers, a Cup guy is coming through -- would know better.

While I probably won’t spring for the Pay-Per-View Wednesday night, I’m looking forward to the future cable broadcast of the Prelude to a Dream race at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway. Many of your favorite Cup drivers will compete in a dirt-track race at the track, with proceeds benefiting Kyle Petty’s Victory Junction Gang Camp, which was created in honor of his late son Adam Petty. Dirt-track racing is always fun to watch, with the cars so sideways you think they are going to wreck every turn, but it should be extra fun with all the big-time Cup stars competing.

Dover was the last race on Fox until next February’s Daytona 500, and TNT will take over for six weeks, starting next week at Pocono. While the Fox team has its good and bad points, I think we can all agree on one thing: If I never hear “boogity, boogity, boogity” again, it will be too soon. And let’s pray they drop the silly “let’s go racin’ boys” song playing at every commercial break, as it’s becoming unbearable. Every fan who‘s annoyed by Darrell Waltrip’s stupid little sayings should send the network an e-mail saying so, and maybe they’ll get the hint.

Joey Logano lived up the hype and finished sixth at Dover in his debut Nationwide race. Can’t say I’m surprised. I figured he’d get a top-ten finish, but he almost was able to pull off a top-five. Sky’s the limit with this kid.

There have been three straight first-time winners in the Truck series -- veteran Matt Crafton, rookie Donny Lia and rookie Scott Speed. Speed won in only his sixth career Truck series start, and don’t be surprised if you see the Red Bull team fast-track him to the Cup series. He is a former Formula 1 driver, so it makes sense he wouldn’t slum around in the Truck series for long. If Almendinger doesn’t start producing in his Cup ride, Speed would be the logical replacement.