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, September 28, 2008

Chase has been disaster for Gibbs teams

Associated Press photo
Tony Stewart gets off course during Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway.

Two things are crystal clear to me after today’s race at Kansas Speedway, after by some miracle I managed to stay awake until the end.

First, after seeing Carl Edwards wreck his car on purpose in an attempt to win the race with a move he said he learned from video games, I’m convinced there is very little he wouldn’t do to win the title, and that should make it interesting as the Chase comes to a conclusion. Today, he said he didn’t want to wreck Johnson. If he has the same choice at Homestead, his decision may be different.

Second, all the fans who were dreading the possibility that a Toyota team would win the title can celebrate, as now all three Gibbs cars are officially out of the running for the title. The magic that team had all season, particularly the 18 team, has officially been used up. The teams’s drivers are 10th, 11th and 12th in the Chase and are all at least 243 points back. Kyle Busch had mechanical issues for the third straight week, and at this point it looks like his prediction last week that he’ll finish 12th could easily come true.

It all goes to show how timing is everything in this sport. No one could have envisioned this much disappointment for the Gibbs teams, and the amount of bad luck all-around is bizarre. Stewart had to deal with all kinds of issues today, including a member of the #83 pit crew ending up on his hood at one point. Now that he’s out of contention, look for Tony to do a lot of gambling in these next seven races in an effort to get one last win with Gibbs before moving on to his own team next year.

Denny Hamlin has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he said two weeks before the Chase that he didn’t even belong there. That appears to be true, as his team has been snake-bit in the first few races and will not be a factor.

As far as Kyle goes, I can’t even imagine the disappointment he’s feeling. To have the kind of season he’s had and start the Chase like this is unheard of … I’ll liken it to the Detroit Red Wings losing to the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the NHL playoffs in the mid-1990s. It’s completely unexpected and knocks the wind right out of your sails. Kyle is out of the hunt, but still has to put on his best game face now and hope for a better finish next year. But deep down, he’s probably disgusted. It will be interesting to see if he can manage good finishes as the year comes to an end, or will throw in the towel and not give his all now.

Three-man battle for Cup solidified
In a result that’s likely going to be an indicator of the future (with the exception of Talladega), Johnson, Edwards and Greg Biffle finished 1-2-3. Not coincidentally, they’re also 1-2-3 in the points, only 30 points separating them. These three teams are at the top of their game at the right time, and should be the ones alive for the title battle come Homestead, assuming they don’t get caught in a Talladega wreck.

Kevin Harvick , Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer are running respectably, but that’s not enough to get them in the title hunt unless the top three have some problems.

Allmendinger has great audition
As his time at the Red Bull team comes to a close, A.J. Allmendinger scored a top-10 finish in what may end up being his final race with the team. A.J. has been a solid driver at times this year, but lacked consistency. He wanted a longer contract, but Red Bull would only give him a one-year deal so negotiations fell through. Look for Chip Ganassi to announce real soon that he's hired A.J. for the 41 car in a multi-year deal that could pay dividends for the struggling Ganassi team.

Formula 1 shines under the lights
Those of you who follow Formula 1 no doubt saw an amazing spectacle this weekend in Singapore, as the first-ever night Grand Prix was run. The 3 mile-plus street course was beautifully lit and watching Formula 1 cars race under the lights was an amazing thing to see. Between this milestone for Formula 1 and NASCAR dusting off its rain tires for the Montreal Nationwide race, it's been quite a year for racing firsts.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Enough with the cookie cutters: We don’t need a second race at Kansas City

Kansas Speedway is pushing hard to get another date at their track on future NASCAR schedules. This is the same track that is owned by the International Speedway Corporation, a “separate” entity from NASCAR, which coincidentally is also run by the France family. (Let’s see … they own tracks, and they also decide who gets races. Nothing fishy there. No sir, not at all.)

Though I know this will do no good whatsoever, I have three word of advice for the France clan: ENOUGH COOKIE CUTTERS

If anything, there should be less of the cookie-cutters, and more racing at tracks that provide exciting racing on a consistent basis.

Tracks like Dover, Richmond and Bristol offer some of the best racing all year. Why not build more tracks like them or find existing ones to go to? What is this fascination with the 1.5-mile clones?

I suppose there are scenarios I wouldn’t mind as much … like a second K.C. date replacing a Pocono race. But it still would be a wasted date that could be better spent elsewhere (I know of a track named Darlington that only has one date).

In the end, though, the reality for NASCAR is it’s all about the money, not the quality of the racing. ISC apparently loves Kansas City, as it is in a unique market without any other major tracks nearby, so they’ll get people to come regardless of how the racing is. And a Hard Rock hotel and casino is being built right outside the speedway, so racing fans can spend even more money than they already do during a race weekend.

The bottom line: Come 2011, a track somewhere in America will lose a date to Kansas City because NASCAR can make more money by having the race there. If that’s not proof that this sport stopped being about racing years ago, I don’t know what is.

Race predictions
I’m going to go with the logical pick this week. Biffle has won two straight races, won here last year and has been strong in practice. He should stay on a roll and take a third straight victory.

Possible spoilers are Carl Edwards, who is starting far enough back in the field that winning would be an amazing feat, and David Ragan, who has a strong car and I think is going to surprise everyone by grabbing a win before the year ends.

Montoya’s great run taken away
Juan Pablo Montoya had the pole Friday, for a little while at least. After inspection, an issue was found with the amount of pressure in the rear shocks. So instead of a triumphant day, the team now will start in the back of the pack and crew chief Brian Pattie may face some sort of fine and suspension. The Ganassi team needs good news, not more problems.

Montoya’s had some serious struggles this year, and seems to have a legitimately fast car this weekend. If he can make a strong run from the back to the front Sunday, that would do a lot to boost the team’s confidence in the wake of this setback.

Carpentier sticking with stock cars
Unlike Dario Franchitti, who gave up on stock cars after his disastrous year, it appears Patrick Carpentier is going to stick it out on the stock car side. Though he has made improvement this year, there is no room for him at GEM unless a miracle sponsor comes through at the last second -- and that’s not going to happen. He said there’s an opportunity for him to run full-time in Nationwide, and he will likely take it. This is a wise move if he wants longevity in the sport, because he can learn a lot in that series and perhaps catch the eye of another Cup team owner if he gets strong results.

Carpentier had a great quote, telling all open-wheelers looking to make the transition to stock cars: “You’d better park your ego at the entrance.”

Carpentier has always seemed like a good, honest person to me, and I like that kind of humility from a driver. I wish him luck.

Blast from the past
A face not seen in the garage area since 2000 showed up again this weekend, and that is Bobby Hillin Jr. For those unfamiliar with Hillin, he raced in several Cup races in 1982 while still a senior in high school … at the time when teenagers weren‘t a common sight in NASCAR‘s top divisions. Before Casey Atwood, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Landon Cassill, there was Bobby Hillin.

Driving most of his career for the now-defunct Stavola Brothers, his career high point was winning at Talladega in 1986, which at the time that made him the youngest Winston Cup race winner in the modern era of the sport. After that, he had little success, and quit racing in 2000 to run a business.

This week, he’s driving Randy McDonald’s Nationwide car. He probably won’t do too much of note, but it’s nice to see him back at the track.

Barrett to IRL
NASCAR owner/driver and former movie stuntman Stanton Barrett will have a whole new set of priorities 2009. He will drive full-time in the IndyCar Series (for Curb/Agajanian/Team 3G), run his own team in 10 Nationwide events and try out for the Daytona 500.

That kind of schedule is very unique, and I can’t remember anyone doing it since Tony Stewart in the late 1990s, and he was just doing it as a transition to full-time Cup driving.

I don’t blame Barrett, as it’s pretty much impossible to run your own team in any of the top 3 NASCAR series and run up front, as you have to beat all the multi-car teams that have far better resources. It will probably be nice to just be an employee in the IRL and focus on driving.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Analyzing Dale Jr.’s radio chatter misses the point … problems much deeper at #88 team

Associated Press photo
Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. during a test session Tuesday at Lowe‘s Motor Speedway

In the minds of many, this was supposed to be his year … the year he finally followed in his father’s big footsteps.

Joining the powerhouse that is Hendrick Motorsports was supposed to be the key that NASCAR's favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., needed to unlock his true potential and claim a championship.

He started off the year strong, and was the best Hendrick team for a while. But since mid-season, something has been off at the #88 team. Many blame his crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr., and have called for his removal.

Rick Hendrick said recently that Dale Jr. needs to better control his emotions as he chats with Eury during the races. But the head honcho is blinding himself to the real problem and focusing on something that doesn’t really mean that much.

Emotions are not what’s ailing the team. Missed setups, and not being able to fix them during the races, are what will likely leave Jr. without a title this year.

How often do we see the 88 car get off to a great start, run toward the front all day, then fade at the end and not finish strong? The car and track change, but his team doesn’t make the appropriate fixes to keep the car up front. Either Jr. isn’t effectively conveying to Eury what is going on with the car, or they’re not listening very well and making the wrong fixes. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

I suppose it’s possible that the team is just in a funk and Jr. will make a series of top-5 runs over the next month and get back in the title hunt. No one expected Greg Biffle to make the run he’s had over the past two weeks, and now he’s now a legitimate title contender

But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The consistency just hasn’t been there lately, and he would have to have strong runs for the remaining eight races to hope for any shot at the title.

If things continue as they are, Jr. will likely finish mid-pack in the Chase and further feed the viewpoint of many of his detractors that he’s just not championship material.

I don’t subscribe to that view, and believe he’ll claim a title during his career. But this year doesn’t seem to be his year. If the Chase plays out in the same frustrating manner much of the season has for Jr., it will be in Hendrick’s interest to make some adjustments on the personnel side of the #88 team … either crew chief, mechanics, pit crew or anything else it takes to make the team better … whether Jr. likes it or not.

Defending Kyle Busch
I never thought I’d do this, but I have to stand up for the man many call “vile Kyle” for a second. I saw some media members criticize Kyle Busch’s comments after the race, where he declared his title hopes officially dead.

These people believe these comments are proof of their assertion Busch would fold under the pressure of the Chase.

I have to say that’s a bit harsh, and even downright misleading. Busch made a kamikaze dive from on top of the world to without a title shot due to factors completely out of his control. Human error by a team member ruined his day at Loudon (and he did a great job all day driving a car that wanted to wreck every turn), then his engine gives out at Dover after Mark Cronquist and his people had given Kyle so many great ones all season.

Busch didn’t fold at all. He was the victim of some very terrible luck, and was just being honest about his chances in the Chase after his horrific start. It’s pretty hard to come out of a hole that deep when you’re competing against the 11 other best drivers out there. Pretty much all of them would have to screw up or have a lot of bad luck.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Keselowski a true talent, will leave his mark in Cup series

Mark my words. This kid is a winner.

I’m talking about Brad Keselowski the 24-year-old from Rochester Hills who grew up in a family that has long been one of the great mom-and-pop operations in NASCAR.

Brad (pictured at right in an Associated Press photo after winning at Nashville) grew up in that atmosphere, learning from his father Bob Keselowski, a Truck Series race winner, and uncle Ron Keselowski, who drove in the Cup series for several years in the 1970s.

Starting out at Oakland County’s Waterford Hills racetrack in quarter-midgets, Brad has worked his way through the ranks, often in family-owned vehicles, and his hard work led to results that caught the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Prior to the 2008 season, Jr. gave Brad a call and asked him if he wanted to drive the Nationwide car for JR Motorsports. At the time, it must have seemed like a dream come true, and little did Brad know just how key that move would be to his career.

In a Nationwide series that has become dominated by Cup drivers like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, Keselowski has been the biggest bright spot among Nationwide-only full-timers. His #88 Navy has raced up front with these heavy hitters from Cup all season, won two races, and up until a couple weeks ago he was within shouting distance of the points lead.

He has clearly shown he has the goods to compete against the best. … that’s pretty good for a kid from the Detroit suburbs.

And those Cup guys better remember his name, because it was just announced Monday that Brad will be attempting the Charlotte and Texas races this year in the #25 Cup car for Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski is the perfect prototype of a superstar in today’s NASCAR. He’s a young, marketable and talented driver. Any team would love to have him, but through his association with Jr. he’s pretty much linked with Hendrick, and they would be crazy to let him go.

Brad will run a full season in Nationwide in 2009, with sponsorship soon to be announced after the Navy deal came to an end, but he should also run the maximum seven Cup races to keep rookie status for 2010.

After that, you can bet he’ll be behind the wheel of a Cup car in 2010. The #24, #48 and #88 aren’t going anywhere, so that just leaves the #5 at Hendrick, as the four-car rule will be in place by then. If Hendrick sticks to the plan of having Mark Martin in that car part-time in 2010, look for then to lend Keselowski out to Stewart-Haas Racing for a year until Martin’s time in that car is done.

But I have a feeling it won’t come to that, and the #5 will be all Keselowski’s in 2010, and he’ll make his home state proud by following in the footsteps of other successful Michigan driving talents like Johnny Benson, Benny Parsons (a former Detroit cab driver) and Jack Sprague.

“About all I know is racing,“ Brad told me last week.
Based on his results on the track this year, I believe him.

And soon, everyone in the Cup garage will, too.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Biffle wins exciting 3-way battle as Kyle Busch’s title hopes go Kaboom! at Dover

Associated Press photo
Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth battle for the lead near the end of Sunday’s race at Dover. Biffle came out on top for his second straight win

Now that’s what I call a race.

All the naysayers who have claimed that the COT has ruined NASCAR don’t have much to say today after one of the most exciting races of the year went all the way down the wire at Dover.

Dover’s always an exciting track, but this race exceeded my expectations for intrigue
-- 2-way and 3-way battles for the lead for much of the day … check
-- Pit strategy spicing up part of the race … check
-- Car issues causing serious points implications for many Chase drivers … check

If you couldn’t find drama in this race, you must be comatose.

First off, I must give props to Greg Biffle for his brilliant start to the Chase, winning the first two races and letting the world know he will compete for the title. He had a strong start to the season, then cooled off considerably as the Chase neared. After not winning all year leading up the Chase, he’s taken the first two races as we head to Kansas City, where he won last year. Last year’s Chase wild card was Clint Bowyer, and this year’s appears to be Biffle. He’s chosen the perfect time to start showing his full potential. Many people forget Biffle finished second in the title hunt a few years ago.

It was clear Sunday that the Jack Roush cars had the rest of the field licked. Jamie McMurray was awesome early before getting in a wreck, and late in the race Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards put on one of the best battles for the lead I’ve seen all year. I bet Jack Roush was holding his breath during the whole thing, hoping they didn’t all wreck each other and destroy a bunch of good cars and their title hopes. Mark Martin, my pick to win and coincidentally a former Roush driver, was doing his best to catch the Roush trio as they battled, but had to settle for 4th place.

This kind of edge-of-your-seat racing is what makes the sport so popular, and I hope we see more of it as the Chase progresses.

The biggest story of the day, though, is that once-undefeatable Kyle Busch now has basically no chance of winning the Chase after his engine went kablooey on him. Yes, this is the same Kyle Busch who spanked the entire field all year en route to eight wins, 15 top-5 and 17 top-10s. Heading into the Chase, he was the clear favorite.

But just like any other sport’s playoff, you have to start strong or the regular season means nothing. A busted sway bar part and a blown engine to start the Chase will ruin anyone’s title’s chances, and Kyle’s going to have to perform at the top of his game for the next eight races to even get to mid-pack. It appears the party for Kyle-haters can begin, and those who were rooting for him need to get behind a new horse.

Another driver who can basically kiss his title hopes goodbye is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was basically out there making laps today in a junk car, and that’s not going to win you any titles. Something just isn’t working at the 88 team, and just two races into the Chase it’s painfully obvious they don’t have the goods to battle for a title. He’s only 129 points out, but the way they’re running I don’t see how anyone can realistically think he has a shot at the title.

Points update
Biffle’s back-to-back wins put him in a tie with Johnson for 2nd place, 10 points behind Carl Edwards. Right now, these three drivers appear to be the only ones with legitimate shots at the title.

Jeff Burton (82 back), Kevin Harvick (101), Clint Bowyer (106), Tony Stewart (113) and Jeff Gordon (118) could make runs, but they need to be quick about it. None of them have shown enough consistency this year for me to think they’re going to step it up now. Unless they make a move in the next few weeks that’s equivalent to what Biffle did in the first two Chase races, don’t expect them to win the Cup.

Pretty much out for the count are Jr., as I explained above, Matt Kenseth, who’s still 167 points back despite finishing 2nd today, and Denny Hamlin, who is floundering in 11th, 193 points out. Of course, Busch makes this group, too -- dead last with 210 points to make up.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jeff Gordon will return to form at Dover; Part-timer Martin will take the win

There’s one thing Jeff Gordon has always done well in his Cup career -- and that is win.

But 2008, to be kind, has been a difficult year for the four-time champion.

He and his crew chief, Steve LeTarte, have had serious trouble figuring out the COT, and the 2008 numbers for the winningest driver of the past 15 years are not kind.

He has zero wins and his average finish is 15th. For most drivers, that’s not bad. For Jeff Gordon, it’s downright terrible. He has always run up front on a regular basis, and that's just not happening this year. Often, his name is barely mentioned on Sunday.

Most stunning is how far off the team has been so many weeks this year. In the past, if Gordon wasn’t running up front it was usually because he had a mechanical issue or wrecked. This year, he’s just had a terrible car far too often, and been unable to get it right.

This week, don’t expect that to happen, as Dover is one place Gordon has figured out and should have an advantage. It’s a dangerous track, but it has been very kind to Gordon over the years -- as he's claimed four victories.

He sits on the pole, his first since Martinsville this spring. In Friday practice, he was also the top dog.

Young Guns like Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have had Gordon’s number all year, but this week he’ll show them he’s not dead yet. Few people believe that Gordon has a legitimate shot at a fifth title this year, considering all the issues he’s had with the new car. But the Chase has become the grand equalizer, and he’s only 99 points out of the lead. If he pulled out a win this week, which is very possible, and the leaders faltered, he’d be right up in the mix. Greg Biffle’s six-spot jump in the standings after last week’s win shows how volatile the standings are early in the Chase.

I’m not expecting miracles from Gordon this season, and don’t think he’ll finish better than mid-pack in the Chase, but he will have a solid run on Sunday. Look for a top-5 from the former top dog at Hendrick Motorsports.

In his vicinity will be Kyle Busch, who should contend for the win after a terrible weekend last week at Loudon. Two straight off-weeks hasn’t been something this team has seen all season, and it’s not likely to happen now. Co-points leaders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson will have strong runs once again, and look for Biffle to stay on the point leaders’ heels with another solid finish.
Further back in the pack, keep your eyes on Travis Kvapil. He’s been pretty solid this year at Yates Racing, and has shown plenty of speed at Dover. He may be good enough for a top-10 finish on Sunday.

So who’s going to win? None of the above. It’s going to be another old guy … Mark Martin. Longtime fans will have flashbacks to 1998 as Gordon and Martin spend much of the day swapping the lead. Martin is running part-time this year, but has looked like the man to beat on a couple occasions. His part-time status doesn’t make him unable to win, as he’s notched finishes of 8th or better the last three times he’s raced. I say Martin gets DEI the checkered flag as a parting gift, with his departure to Hendrick for a “final” full season coming at the end of this year.

Drivers on the move?
One major seat remains open in NASCAR next season. The #41 has a sponsor (Target), but as of now no driver. Rumor is A.J. Allmendinger may be headed here, as he hasn’t yet heard of Red Bull’s plans for 2009. It’s looking more like Scott Speed may be getting the #84 next year.

Also on the move may be Paul Menard, who has acknowledged he will be deciding soon whether to stay at DEI or move over to Yates Racing. If he’s smart he’ll make the move to Yates. He’s currently the third best car at a DEI team that’s weak overall. There’s no reason to stick around, not to mention Yates is performing pretty well lately and could use the sponsorship he’d bring with him. The move won’t make him a world-beater, but he might do better than 27th in points. If this move happens, David Gilliland will likely be seeking a job for 2009.

Stop with the ‘Big One’ references
While watching coverage of Friday’s practice, the announcers were showing past clips of Dover wrecks and indicating the a “Big One“ can happen at any time at this track. This annoys me to no end. I understand that the TV people are all about the wrecks and want to hype the “Big One” at Daytona and Talladega. I’ve come to accept that is going to happen. But when they start saying it might happen at Dover, it’s getting silly. Note to TV people: Six or seven cars wrecking at Dover is not a “Big One” … it’s just an accident.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A look at the Chase ... through Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon'

I’ve been a fan of the group Pink Floyd for longer than I’ve followed NASCAR. As a tribute to Pink Floyd’s keyboardist Richard Wright (pictured with Pink Floyd in this Associated Press photo from 1967, at far right), who lost his life to cancer yesterday at age 65, I‘m going to offer a glimpse of what you can expect from the Chase, and what drivers need to do to win it, via the song titles from Pink Floyd‘s “Dark Side of the Moon“ album.

R.I.P. Richard.


Speak To Me: Communication between driver and crew chief is one of the keys to success in NASCAR. As the race goes on and track conditions change, the car often starts to have issues. In these cases, the driver needs to let his crew chief know what’s going on, and the crew chief needs to make the proper adjustments so the problem is fixed. The best crew chief/driver tandem is by far Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, who work so well together it’s no surprise he’s won two titles and is a favorite to win his third straight. On the flip side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have had crew chief issues all season, and have no shot at the title if these issues continue into the Chase.

Breathe: This is my advice to Kyle Busch. Breathe, take it easy. He has to be hot under the collar after his rough weekend at New Hampshire. But he isn’t that far behind the leader and shouldn‘t panic. If he calms down and gets back to the form he showed all season, he should be alive in the title hunt when they get to Homestead.

On the Run: All Chase drivers will be on the run, from each other. You can bet the spotters and crew chiefs will keep good track of how other Chase competitors are running in comparison to each other. If someone’s a few points ahead of their driver in the standings, they’ll make sure the driver knows it’s especially important to make this particular pass. The title can be decided by just a few points, so every position counts.

Time: It’s not something that can be taken for granted. Bad runs in the next couple weeks will leave a driver in a hole they’re unlikely to come out of (Matt Kenseth is almost there after just one week). You can’t count on a comeback with a few races left, so consistency early in the Chase will be the key, and anyone who lacks it can kiss the title goodbye.

The Great Gig in the Sky: Lessons from drivers who have passed on will no doubt be put into play during the Chase. You can bet Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and everyone else for that matter) learned something about racing from his father, and will put those lessons to use during the remaining nine races.

Money: There’s a lot of bucks on the line here. Over the past two seasons, champion Johnson has averaged more than $8 million dollars in earnings once all bonuses were collected … and is on pace for similar numbers if he takes another title this year. Whoever takes the crown will have some very fat pockets come season’s end, and that’s plenty of motivation beyond the simple drive to win.

Us and Them: There are chasers and there are non-chasers, and the non-chasers far outnumber the chasers. All the other guys are racing for 13th place at best, and don’t be surprised if one of them gets sideways one weekend and ruins the Chase hopes of a title contender. The law of averages would indicate this is pretty much a guarantee.

Any Colour You Like: The black-and-white checkered flag will be the color of choice for all the Chase drivers. Winning races to earn maximum points is the best way to make your move in the standings and contend for the title. Just ask Greg Biffle, who make a huge jump to 3rd place in the standings with his win at New Hampshire. A win or two is essential if a driver wants to take home the title.

Brain Damage: Something as stressful as the Chase can drive a team crazy, but true champions don’t get flustered. The true way to judge a competitor is to see how they react in times of crisis. The ones who remain calm, react to the situation and come out ahead are the ones who are worthy of championships.

Eclipse: Come Homestead, one driver will have eclipsed all the others and claimed the trophy as his own. It will be a fierce battle, and probably a tight one points-wise, but in the end only one will stand. All signs point to Johnson, who’s peaking at the right time, but strange things have happened in the past. No one expected Kurt Busch to take the first Chase.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Broken part makes Kyle Busch just another Chase contender

Associated Press photo
Kyle Busch spins out Sunday during the Sylvania 300 in New Hampshire

If sports teaches us anything, it’s that no matter how mighty and successful somebody is, they’re always on the brink of failure.

Think about the New England Patriots heading into the Super Bowl last year. Nobody thought they’d lose … but they sure did. And this year, the Patriots have fallen on even harder times with the loss of Tom Brady to injury.

Think about the University of Michigan heading into last year’s season opener vs. I-AA team Appalachian State. There was NO WAY they would lose … but they sure did.

All season long and heading into this Chase, based on his dominant performance all year, I have said the Cup title is Kyle Busch’s to lose. He was destroying the competition on a regular basis, so it seemed silly to bet against him.

But there are several factors that come into play once the Chase kicks in. First, the points get real tight real quickly, and you have to continue that dominance to retain a points lead. Second, you can’t screw up and make any mistakes as a driver, or your title shot may be over. Third, and totally out of the driver’s control, is the car has to be as strong as the driver. If something breaks, you might have just kissed your title hopes goodbye.

That’s what happened to Busch Sunday at New Hampshire, as early in the race he realized he had a terribly loose car due to a failed hind joint, which connects the left side sway bar to the lower control arm.
While Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson were battling for the win, he was riding around as far back as possible just trying not to wreck. He managed a 34th place finish, but that was only due to several other drivers wrecking. If they hadn’t, he would have been 42nd.

To make things even more bizarre, Joe Gibbs said he has never in the 17-year history of his team had this kind of part failure. And on top of the mechanical issues, Busch got a 1-lap penalty for passing cars under yellow to get to pit road.

In a nutshell, the stars were not aligned for Kyle Busch today. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

After building a lead all year, Busch is now mired deep in the top-12 and has to fight his way back to the top if he hopes to hoist the title trophy. It’s not impossible, as Jimmie Johnson came back strong to win one of his two titles, but it’s definitely not easy. The bad news is there are now seven guys in front of Busch, and he’s out of the points lead for the first time in 18 weeks. The good news is he’s only 74 points out of first, and that’s a number that can be made up in one race.

Busch ducked the media after the event, and I don’t blame him. I’d probably want to go into a room and throw some things against the wall after such a disappointing day.

The bottom line is that Kyle has used up his mulligan. Another race like this next week at Dover, and he could be almost 200 points out of first and virtually eliminated from contention. I don’t expect that to happen, as he should come back with a vengeance the next few weeks in an effort to regain the points lead. And he won at Dover this spring, so don’t expect him to be a backmarker.

People who don’t like Kyle Busch are no doubt celebrating this week, but they might want to wait to pop that champagne. He might be just another mid-pack Chase driver right now, but depending how things shake out in the next couple weeks, he could jump right back where he came from.

Johnson looking like the favorite
After winning the two races leading into the Chase, and almost winning today, it’s pretty clear that Jimmie Johnson is the man to beat this year once again. He’s very good at peaking at the right time, and look for him to be up front pretty much every week from here until the season ends. Barring mechanical problems like Busch had today, it’s pretty clear Johnson will be among those with a shot at the title come Homestead this November.

Biffle makes his presence known
Greg Biffle, who had yet to win this season, stole the show Sunday with an awesome pass of Jimmie Johnson for the lead with few laps left in the race. Biffle has always been a talent, winning titles in Trucks and Busch and almost winning a Cup title a few years ago. Before Sunday, he was not on many people’s radar … but you can bet he is now. If he pulled off the upset and beat his more high-profile competitors for the crown, he would become the only driver to win a title in all three of the top NASCAR series.

Standings update
Johnson and Carl Edwards are tied for the series points lead, with Biffle rocketing up six spots to third, 30 points out, on the heels of his surprising win. The biggest points loser this week is obviously Busch, who drops from 1st to 8th. Matt Kenseth may be out of it already, as he had a terrible day and is now 177 points back. That’s going to be pretty much impossible to make up. Other movers were Clint Bowyer (down four spots to 9th) and Jeff Burton (up two spots to 5th). Look for major position swapping in the first several weeks of the Chase due to the resetting of the points. It’s no different than what we see at the start of the season.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

New Hampshire Truck Series race turns into fight night

For those of you who missed the Truck Series race today, you missed not only a race, but a post-race rumble. After some on-track bumping left Todd Bodine in the fence courtesy of David Starr (who dumped quite a few trucks during the race), Bodine gave him a little shove after the race, and then the crews of the two teams went at it on pit road at a level I haven’t seen in a while in NASCAR.

Bodine wasn't directly involved in the fight, but Starr got some shots in. This one was so heated between the crews -- with many fists flying, a lot of four-letter words, crew members jumping on top of trucks to get a better swing in, and multiple officials jumping in to try to stop the battle -- that the police were seen going in to speak with the NASCAR oficials after the melee.

Ron Hornaday won the race, but the brawl is what everyone will be talking about. Expect heavy fines and suspension for everyone involved on both teams. This isn’t 1979 anymore, and NASCAR doesn’t want to encourage lawlessness, rightfully so.

For the fans though, it shows just how much these teams really do care about the sport and doing well, and these Truck Series crew members felt they needed to express themselves. I don't condone this kind of violence, and they'll have to deal with the consequences, but I don't blame the Bodine crew for being upset. Starr was pretty reckless all through the race.

On top of all the fighting, the race was pretty good too, with the usual side-by-side action that you see in the Trucks series, especially on shorter tracks.

That was a good warmup for the weekend.
Now let's hope we get an exciting Cup race at New Hampshire for a change.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Logano’s career will go the route of Jeff Gordon, not Casey Atwood

The meteoric rise of Joey Logano to the Cup series, delayed one week by the weather, should get under way at New Hampshire on Sunday.

Logano will be driving the #96 car, so don’t expect him to finish in the top 10 like he did in his Nationwide debut. That car, even with a great driver, isn’t going to do much better than a top-20, barring a fuel mileage finish.

But as the Chase begins, many eyes will be on young Joey. There are fans out there (mostly Gibbs and Toyota haters) who are already anti-Logano, already all over the Internet calling him spoiled and undeserving of the ride, and predicting his failure as a Cup driver. They recall the story of Casey Atwood, the last young up-and-coming driver who was supposed to become the next Jeff Gordon, but instead got dropped by Ray Evernham (unfairly, I must say) and never got another chance in Cup.

These people must be living in some alternate universe, where he hasn’t been tearing up tracks around the country in his Nationwide car, and where he hasn’t dominated in every series he’s joined up to this point.

The seven races Joey takes part in this year will not be a true test, as he won’t be in his official ride for most of them, and the #96 is hardly spectacular machinery. But what great drivers do is take bad equipment and do better than they should in that equipment. (For F1 fans, think of how drivers like Fernando Alonso have became noticed by performing well with backmarker teams like Minardi). Don’t expect miracles, but I can bet the average finish for the 96 car over the races where Joey is driving will be at least 10 spots higher than its season average to this point.

Next year, when he jumps in the Home Depot car for Gibbs, look for a season reminiscent of Tony Stewart’s rookie year, with strong runs most of the year and probably a couple wins.

When history looks back on the career of Joey Logano, it will be more like Jeff Gordon’s that Casey Atwood’s, and you can take that to the bank. I’m not saying he’s going to win four championships, but years from now Joey will be running up front every week in Cup, not struggling to find a Nationwide ride.

Stewart: Media overplayed spat
Tony Stewart said this week that he’s not sure why the media, including myself, put so much stock in his heated exchange with crew chief Greg Zipadelli after last week’s race. “That’s two guys that were talking on the radio that are competitive,” Stewart said. I understand that. It’s a free country, and I would never go so far as to try to tell any driver what they can and can’t say. But I stand by my belief that throwing the blame on your team in such a public manner is very unprofessional and behavior like that should be criticized by the media and fans.

Hard work pays off for Ragan, as he gets UPS deal
Remember that kid who crashed in almost every race in 2007 and nobody expected to even return to Roush this season. His name is David Ragan, and this year he damn near made the Chase. His amazing turnaround story has hit another high note this week, as it was announced he will be sponsored by UPS starting next year, one of the top sponsors in the garage. This is the best turnaround story I’ve seen in years, and proof that a driver who’s terrible today might be awesome next year. I’ll call it right now … Ragan will win at least one race next year and make the Chase, as he is on the way up still.

Open-wheel alert: Mad Max making the jump
Max Papis has announced he will try out for abut half of the Cup races in 09 with a new team fielded by Truck Series contenders Germain Motorsports. The car will be sponsored by Geico, which must leave the Nationwide Series after next year because it’s a competing insurance company. Papis has only made road course starts in the past, but seems genuinely excited about becoming a NASCAR driver. It will be interesting to see if he can do better that the open-wheel drivers who have struggled so much this season.

The big loser is Mike Wallace, whose longtime Nationwide sponsor Geico bolting leaves him searching for sponsorship.

A.J. going bye-bye?
A.J. Allmendinger has yet to hear from Red Bull about next season, and may be on way out. He was not sounding so hopeful this week when we wrote in a column that his chances of returning were “50/50 at best”. He is a talented driver, but lately it seems like he’s either 12th or 40th … with few results in the middle. I’m guessing the bosses in Europe don’t like that and want Scott Speed to jump in that ride. If he does get let go, he should have options. A Cup team would be wise to grab him, as he is young and talented and could do well at the right team. Or, he could go back to Indycar, where he was pretty awesome.

Weekend predictions
So it’s the first weekend of the Chase, and everyone is wondering what’s going to happen. I think Kyle Busch will try to make a statement, but will be upstaged by Jimmie Johnson, who is great at New Hampshire and flat tracks in general. Johnson should lead the most laps and win the race, and come close to catching Busch in the points after race 1 of the Chase.
Look for a strong performance from Denny Hamlin, too.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Stewart shows he's a sore loser by throwing his team under the bus

There are certain things you don’t do in sports … period.
One of those things is be a bad loser and insult your teammates after a tough loss. On the contrary, you work together to fix whatever cost you the win and hopefully come out on top next time.

Apparently Tony Stewart didn’t get that memo.

After a tough battle with Jimmie Johnson, Stewart had to settle for second place at Richmond this weekend, and he was just inches away from making the pass to take his first win of the season.

The reason he had to try to make the pass was that Johnson passed him in the pits by just a hair, and apparently Stewart wasn’t very happy with his crew about it, and showed a very bad side of his character by attacking them harshly after the race. Here’s his exchange with crew chief Greg Zipadelli after the race ended, shortly after he threw a temper tantrum in the car.

TONY: “Good job, guys. We gave another one away today. Great job”

ZIPPY: “Great attitude there, Smoke. We stalled it a couple times on pit road and gave up a spot. Remember, we win and lose as a team. It was a great effort, OK. That’s enough of that crap.

TONY: “The difference is I got mine back”

Based on that kind of communication, I get the feeling that the sooner Tony Stewart is gone from Joe Gibbs Racing, the happier the members of the team will be. I applaud Zippy for not taking Tony’s insults and shoving it right back at him. These guys are like brothers, they’ve been working together so long, so they’ve probably already made up. But it can not have been easy to work so closely with someone as volatile as Tony for a decade. Zippy no doubt is looking forward to a more subdued relationship with Joey Logano when he jumps into the car. And you can bet Joey will have the respect not to insult his crew just because he didn’t get the win.

The worst part is that the crew made no huge, obvious screwup. Johnson just beat him off pit road. So it's not like Stewart could point out something they did terribly wrong to justify his anger.

I defend Tony a lot, and respect his absolute desire to win every time he gets behind the wheel. But these kind of outbursts are immature and insulting to the hard work that team puts in each week. Apparently, this kind of attitude is contagious at the Gibbs organization, as Denny Hamlin threw his team under the bus a few weeks ago after a bad finish, saying they didn’t “deserve” to be in the Chase.

This kind of trashing of teammates is unwelcome in any sport, and NASCAR is no exception. I understand Tony was frustrated, but maybe he needs to go back to those anger management classes that helped him calm down a few years ago. He’s still got a whole Chase to get through, and that team needs to be working together if they hope to contend for anything.

Since he’ll be a part owner next year, Tony won’t have anyone to get mad at except himself if his equipment is bad or his team screws up. Maybe he can scream into a mirror when that happens.

Watch NASCAR on the go
I recently had the opportunity to test out a Verizon cell phone equipped with VCAST, which allows you to watch live television on your phone. This is of particular interest to NASCAR fans, who often can’t be at home in front of the tube when the race is on.

The ESPN networks are among the channels you are able to view on VCAST, so this time of year all the races, and most qualifying and practice sessions, can be seen on your phone, should you happen to be on the run. The phone I used had a screen large enough to clearly see what was going on. I only had signal issues a couple times, during extreme weather. The rest of the time, pulling out the antenna will clear up any issues.

As a side note, there's also some other pretty cool NASCAR-related material available for purchase, including a downloadable NASCAR video game that's pretty fun to play.

If you are a NASCAR addict like myself and want to be able to see what‘s going on in NASCAR at all times, wherever you are, it’s definitely something to look into.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Stewart has win within his sights, but Johnson shuts the door

There’s a reason Richmond is among the favorite tracks of both NASCAR drivers and fans. The three-quarter-mile track is designed to create exciting racing around the track all night (or day if a hurricane shows up) long whenever the Cup guys pay a visit.

Let’s just contrast today’s race with last week, when Jimmie Johnson pretty much led every lap and there was no competition for the lead whatsoever. Today, the number of leaders was in double-digits, and (shocker!) there was competitive passing for the lead. That’s how racing is supposed to be, and if NASCAR/ISC decides to build any new tracks, they should build them more like Richmond and less like California. Go with what works.

Johnson came out on top today, also. But it was much more exciting, as he held off a hard-charging Tony Stewart in fierce battle that lasted about a dozen laps. Stewart would seem to get the advantage going into the turns, but once they emerged Johnson had enough position to keep the lead every time. This kind of nail-biting action isn’t something you see every week, and it’s why I love Richmond so much.

Speaking of Stewart, I could almost see the smoke coming from Tony’s ears as he was throwing things around his car after the race. Winning is what matters most to Stewart. When he comes that close and can’t finish the job, I wouldn’t want to go within 100 feet of him. I didn’t see a post-race interview with Smoke, and that’s probably good for the ESPN reporters. Somebody would of ended up with an earful of enraged Tony Stewart, and possibly some physical repercussions if they asked the wrong question.

After taking his second straight win heading into the Chase, Jimmie Johnson is echoing last year, when he did the same thing and went on to win four straight races in the Chase and the championship. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and possibly a couple other guys will have something to say about that, but anyone counting Jimmie out is ignoring reality.

The loudest cheer of the day had to come when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was battling Kyle Busch about halfway through the race and Busch ended up sideways and a lap down. Busch officially became NASCAR’s villain this year this spring at Richmond when he crashed Jr. to win the race. So you know Jr.’s fans were beaming with pride when Jr. returned the favor, regardless of whether it was intentional on the part of Jr.. (It looked to me like Busch initiated the contact, but I could see the other side). Speaking of Jr., he had his best finish since Michigan in June and has to be more positive heading into the Chase than he was before today.

No Chase for Ragan, Kahne
David Ragan and Kasey Kahne did their best to get into the Chase, but it was not to be. It was a valiant effort on Ragan’s end, but he was bit by bad luck on all sides. He was blocked on pit lane early by Bill Elliott, then got into oil and spun on the track, and was shuffled back later in the race in another incident. (I liked his comment after Elliott blocked him: “It’s OK. He’ll be a lap down soon.”) Despite missing the Chase, Ragan has no reason to hang his head. He’s by far the most-improved driver in the garage this season, and he should be a good shot to make the Chase next season. Now he can just work on getting that first win in the last 10 races of this year.

Kahne also had a tough day, as his car was just not very strong. The GEM cars, and Dodge teams overall, have had a terrible year with the exception of the Penske 1-2 finish at Daytona. Dodge has no cars in the Chase, and word came this week that Dodge would no longer be financially supporting teams in the Truck series, essentially removing them from that series complete. If this keeps up, There could come a day when the only car makes in Nationwide and Cup are Chevy, Ford and Toyota.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dale Jr. needs to get his mojo back at Richmond, before Chase starts

Paging Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Please report to the Richmond garage with the championship form you were showing a few months ago.

After starting the season strong with consistently good finishes that culminated with his fuel mileage win at Michigan in June, Jr.’s season has been the definition of mediocre -- a word not often associated with Hendrick Motorsports and one that does not indicate that a title is on the horizon.

His finishes from Sears Point through California are as follows: 12th, 24th, 8th, 16th, 12th, 12th, 22nd, 23rd, 18th, 11th. That’s only one top-10 finish. Some people are blaming crew chief Tony Eury Jr. for the struggles, but it’s much more than that. In addition to a couple bad calls from Eury, there have been plenty of issues with the car, too.

Because Jr. shot out of the gate so strong in the first half of the season, he remains in fourth place in the points. But anyone who’s watched a race in the past two months probably noticed that 90 percent of the time Jr.’s name was mentioned, he was complaining about the car.

With one race to go before the Chase, it’s important for the #88 team and Jr. to get back on track this week. He’s going to be at least 70 points behind Kyle Busch at the start of the Chase, and a bunch of top-12s isn’t going to cut in when you’re trying to catch up in the points to a guy as hot as Busch is right now.

In his career, Jr. has 3 wins, 7 top-5s and 9 top-10s at Richmond. If his team can snap out of the funk it’s been in and get him to Victory Lane, or at least the top 5, it would send a message to the rest of the garage that Little E is not dead yet.

The time for Jr. to make a move is now. He can’t wait until the Chase is half over to catch fire. If he wants to compete for the championship, he has to make a statement this weekend.

Doubleheader Sunday
Weather worries related to Hurricane Hanna have made this a very abbreviated weekend at Richmond. After minimal practice time, the track was shut down until Sunday, when the Cup guys will go at 1 p.m. and the Nationwide contenders battle at 6:30 p.m.

The big loser this weekend is Joey Logano, who was scheduled to make his Cup debut in the sharp-looking #02 Home Depot car, but didn’t get a chance to qualify (he was top-10 in practice). I wouldn’t be surprised if Gibbs tried to swing a deal with the #96, a Gibbs satellite team, to get him into that seat for the race. Ken Schrader has done plenty of racing in his career, and Joey’s itching to go. I bet something can be worked out to make that happen, but even if it doesn’t Logano is scheduled to drive the #96 next week at New Hampshire. So we’ll see him soon enough, either way.

Sparks could fly early
With the field set by points, all the drivers battling to get in the Chase will be all together when the race starts, and this is an exciting short track race we’re talking about. The possibility is there that major fireworks could fly early between some of these guys and Chase positions could be shuffled or decided early in the race. Get the popcorn ready, and wait and see.

Robby being sued
Gillette Evernham Motorsports is suing Robby Gordon, saying he violated terms of an agreement that would have sold his team to GEM at the end of the season, for $23.5 million. They say he agreed to a deal in January that prohibited him from talking to other teams about mergers, and has not honored the deal. They’re also upset he made complaints about the engines he was getting from GEM last month at Watkins Glen.

This is very interesting, and a reminder of the often self-destructive tendencies of Robby Gordon. His team is on shaky ground, and this deal would have given him a home for several years without the responsibilities and concerns of ownership. But being Robby, he may have spoiled the deal. When he was at Richard Childress Racing, he often acted up, too.

I'm usually a Robby defender, but it’s pretty much a bad move for him if he really did foul up this deal. I think he likes to be in charge, and realized as the season went on that he didn’t want to work for GEM. If the deal falls through (Robby insists it wasn‘t broken and he wants to go ahead with the deal), it’s Robby’s own fault. But Robby’s like a cat with nine lives. Just when you think he’s dead in Cup, he shows up again. He’ll figure something out.

Gibbs drivers off probation
NASCAR gave a break to Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Tony Stewart and Joey Logano, removing them from probation that was assigned in the wake of “magnet-gate“ at MIS. While I know that the drivers didn’t take part in the cheating, I don’t agree with taking away the punishment. It was extreme, but it had to be to give teams another incentive not to cheat. JGR did not deserve anything but the full hammer of the law on this one, and revoking any of the punishments is a mistake.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Franchitti returning to Ganassi in 2009 ... in Indycar

Another one bites the dust.

It looks like the massive open-wheel influx into NASCAR spurred by Juan Pablo Montoya has officially crashed and burned.

Dario Franchitti had a tough year, to be kind, driving for Chip Ganassi (and the often-forgotten Felix Sabates) in the #40 Cup ride until lack of funds caused that team to shut down. Since then, he’s done well in a few Nationwide races, but didn’t have any Cup plans lined up for 2009.

So, he went back to what he knows best … driving Indycars. Franchitti, who won the Indy 500 and Indycar title in 2007 for Andretti-Green Racing, will now return to the series, this time replacing Dan Wheldon on Ganassi’s open-wheel team as a teammate to Scott Dixon.

Though I’m sure the NASCAR world will miss seeing Franchitti’s lovely wife Ashley Judd at the track, this is obviously the best move for him. He is a GOOD stock car driver, but without big sponsorship money in this sport GOOD won’t get you far. On the other hand, he is a GREAT Indycar driver, as evidenced by his decade--plus of success in CART and the IRL. As I said when he first lost his Cup ride, some people are stock car drivers and others aren’t … you can’t force it.

Open-wheelers Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier are also on the outside looking in for 2009, and Montoya is struggling himself in the sport. Villeneuve can’t find sponsorship for a ride, and Carpentier has been pushed out for Mr. Mediocre Reed Sorenson.

It just goes to show that all those uppity open-wheel fans who look down on NASCAR as a bunch of no-talent hacks driving taxicabs and only turning left have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Making it in NASCAR is just as hard, maybe even harder, than success in Indycar or Formula 1, and anyone who denies that is pretty much ignoring reality.

Anyone who thinks like that should talk to Franchitti, Villeneuve, and Carpentier … they’ll set you straight.

Losing Frye would hurt Red Bull; Stewart a good poacher
For fans wondering why Red Bull Racing has made such massive improvements this year, a big part of the answer is Jay Frye. The team’s general manager, he oversees the daily operations of the team while the owner is in Austria watching over their global brand. Without Frye’s leadership, Brian Vickers would not have contended for the Chase this year.

Now, Stewart-Haas Racing has offered him a management deal, and he’s considering a departure. If he does go, that will be a big coup, as Stewart will make 2009 much more difficult for the Red Bull team and make his own team’s transition to success much more likely.

So far, it appears Stewart is pretty good at poaching good talent from other teams. Darien Grubb of Hendrick Motorsports will likely be his crew chief next season, and now he may snag Frye. The teams around the garage have to be wondering how many good mechanics, crew members, etc. they may be losing to Stewart before next season starts. One thing is for sure. … If Stewart gets enough good people into that organization, he could turn it around quicker than I or anyone else expected. These people are showing a lot of faith in Stewart, and that says a lot about their respect for him.

Stremme signed
As I predicted a while ago, David Stremme will drive the #12 car next year for Roger Penske. Stremme was a mid-pack driver when he was with Ganassi in his first time around in Cup, but showed signs he could be better than that. He is doing pretty good this year in Nationwide for Rusty Wallace’s team, and there really aren’t too many other options out there to consider now that the best free agents pretty much all have rides for next year. Penske’s team has been in a major funk this year, so Stremme will face a challenge in 2009. But if he and Kurt Busch begin to work together and Penske provides them the resources they need, this team could go back to contending the way it did during the Rusty Wallace era.

Drug policy may be expanded
NASCAR may soon announce an expansion of its drug-testing policy. Right now, they just test for “reasonable suspicion”. So, does this mean random testing? If so, it’s fine by me. Safety is the most important thing in a sport where drivers achieve speeds of more than 200 mph.