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, November 30, 2008

Like watching paint dry: Liven up awards banquet or don’t even show it

Rumor has it this is the week is when NASCAR’s top-10 drivers of 2008 head to New York’s famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel to put on their monkey suits and give their speeches about the year.

Pardon me if I don’t cancel my dinner plans to watch it, but anyone who’s seen this endless commercial in the past probably isn’t jumping to the TV to set it to record.

Why, you ask? Because this banquet is boring as sin … picture an hour-long victory lane speech with details about every sponsor and all they‘ve done for the team this year, followed by presentations of checks for more money than any one of us will ever make in our lifetime.

You know how Michael Waltrip and Kevin Harvick will make you sick by listing about 50 sponsors in every single interview they do ... Imagine that without a cutoff point, where drivers can go on and on and on and on and on. I'm falling asleep just thinking about it.

Oh, and I almost forgot, there will be a bunch of terrible jokes by the drivers and hosts, with countless camera shots panning over to champion Jimmie Johnson and his wife to see how they react. At times, I think there’s an old-school “applause” sign flashing just so it's not as quiet as a funeral in the building.

In the entire time I’ve been watching NASCAR, I can recall a few funny moments -- such as Ken Schrader appearing to be a little bit tipsy during a speech sometime in the late 1990s, and Kyle Busch forgetting his girlfriend’s name, but 98 percent of the show is so uninteresting, most male viewers will probably spend most of their time trying to figure out which driver has the hottest wife (years ago, I would have said Kim Burton, but I haven’t been keeping track lately). The female viewers can fill their time by debating who has the best dress, or whether Jimmie is cute.

While NASCAR attempts to inject a little humor into the event sometimes (Jay Mohr has performed a few routines recently), the highlights are few and far between.

I’m not opposed to them having the event … they could sit around for days and pat each other on the back for all I care.

But the current format of boring speech after boring speech needs to be altered if the TV folks want anybody to watch this charade. It’s hardly worth Tivoing in its current format.

The big problem is the event takes itself too seriously. There’s needs to be something fun for the fans to care, whether it be a bunch of musical acts or some skits involving the drivers …. anything other than the same recycled clips of the races and a truckload of boring speeches.

It’s the end of the year and these guys have been driving hard for the past 10 months. The drivers who were good enough to make the top 10 should be allowed to let loose, have fun and enjoy themselves. They shouldn’t have to get all decked out just to sit there and listen to their colleagues repeat the same sponsor-driven babble they’ve heard all year.

If that’s all it’s going to be, they might as well stay home and wait for those big checks to come in the mail.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

On this day, we give thanks ….

All year, I write about what happens in the world of NASCAR, and in the process I do a bit of complaining.

Admittedly, that’s not the best quality to have, but it’s a hazard of my job … it’s what I have to do.

But on this great day, when we all sit down each year to stuff our faces with turkey, stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes and whatever other concoctions our families have cooked up, complaining is officially banished.

Today is about giving thanks, and in this space I will do just that, as I am thankful for many things both in and out of the NASCAR world.

So here goes:

I am thankful to auto racing, including NASCAR, for bringing so much joy (and pain) and simply awesome times to my life over the last dozen or so years. When I grow old and remember all of my favorite memories from my life, a large percentage of those memories will involve racing in one form or another.

I am thankful that NASCAR’s drivers, who take part in one of the most dangerous professions on Earth, have been relatively safe over the past seven years -- since Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death was the final straw that spurred the sport into action. For a little while there, it looked like the sport was cursed, but now safety has won out and drivers can be more confident they will survive should a dangerous wreck come their way.

I am thankful that the sport is slowly, but surely, outgrowing the outdated perception by the masses that its sole audience is a bunch of uneducated rednecks who just like to stare at cars going in circles and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon. The massive boom of the sport has showed people of all categories how exciting it can be, and I notice that firsthand when I see so many people of all ages, races, education levels and economic backgrounds getting into the sport. And for the record, I’m not against drinking a few PBRs, though I prefer a beer with a less metallic taste.

I am thankful I have a family and friends who are in good health and help me enjoy life as much as I do. Too many people have lost their loved ones, whether it be through war, illness or just broken relationships, and cannot say this. It may be a cliché, but the old saying that a peaceful and happy home is worth its weight in gold will always be true.

I am thankful to the Big 3 U.S. automakers, who deserve our support for all they’ve done for this country over the past 100+ years. Not only do they play a great role in making NASCAR the great show it is, they have helped support millions of American families in Michigan and every other state. These companies may be in big trouble now, but all Americans who care about the future of this country should pray that they survive and flourish.

I am thankful for the members of the military who dedicate a part of their lives to making sure the rest of us in America can sleep easier at night. As I’ve always told friends of mine who have served, they are better people than I, as I do not know if I could do what they have done. It takes a special person to put their life on the line, and they all deserve our eternal thanks.

I am thankful for drivers like Tony Stewart, who refuse to let NASCAR censor them and will spout off about Goodyear's tires or whatever else is getting on their nerves that week. It is a corporate era with many robotic drivers, but as long as people like Tony exist who will say whatever they want and not bow to any pressure from the main office, the sport will remain interesting. NASCAR is mostly about people, not cars, and outspoken drivers like Tony are a big part of why so many of you watch every week.

I am thankful for everyone who takes time every once in a while to read the scribblings I throw together for this blog, and those who let me know what they think about what I've written. The most rewarding part of my profession is knowing that people are reading my work and reacting to it, whether that reaction be positive and negative. It’s all any writer can hope for.

Happy Thanksgiving to all,

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Robby Gordon is one of the greatest drivers ever, except in NASCAR

Despite his lack of success in the #7 car (above) in the Cup series, Robby Gordon has overall racing credentials that are hard to match in the Cup garage.

Those who only follow NASCAR probably don’t know this, but Robby Gordon is one of the greatest racecar drivers ever.

That #7 car you see getting lapped every week in the Cup series is being driven by a man with more racing accomplishments than almost all of his competitors, with the exception of Tony Stewart and perhaps a couple others.

A true racer who is truly dedicated to racing and winning, and always hates to give up a spot (just ask any Cup star who has tried to lap him lately), Gordon hurried off to race off-road in the Baja 1000 immediately after the Homestead race ended last week. If he could race every weekend, he would. It’s what he does and he does it very well.

Robby, usually known in NASCAR circles as the “other Gordon,” is the only Gordon most people in the worldwide racing community usually mention when compiling a list of great overall driver talents. For those of you who already think I’m crazy because of Robby’s lack of success in Cup, here are some career stats for you that might change your mind:
-- 6 SCORE International (off-road) championships
-- 3 Baja 1000 wins
-- 3 Dakar Rally stage wins
-- 4 class wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona
-- 3 class wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring
-- 3 Sprint Cup wins
-- 1 Daytona Twin-125 win
-- 1 Nationwide win
-- 2 CART wins

No one can look at this list and say that Robby is anything but an ace in front of the steering wheel. He’s won in almost every area of motorsport all over the world. But you’ll notice a theme among his accomplishments … they usually involve right turns.

Since making his debut in NASCAR’s top series at the 1991 Daytona 500, Gordon has been in and out of the sport a few times, driving for many different teams (including filling in at Robert Yates Racing immediately after the death of Davey Allison). His most successful period came in the early part of the 2000s, when he drive for Richard Childress Racing and earned three victories.

One was the Thanksgiving week race in New Hampshire which had been postponed after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, and came after he bumped the other Gordon, who was still NASCAR's dominant driver at the time, out of the way to win. The other two came on more familiar territory, road courses, but Gordon seemed to have found a home at Childress and be on the road to stability at the Cup level.

But like any truly great racer, Robby is thickheaded and has certainly pissed off more than a few people in his career. Many feel he races overaggressively on the track, and one of his wins came after he raced then-teammate Kevin Harvick a little harder than teammates usually race these days. It’s safe to say the two of them weren’t exactly pals after that incident. Gordon has had run-ins with other drivers, too, including Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle, and was once parked for a Cup race after refusing to take a black flag thrown by NASCAR during a Nationwide race because he disagreed with the ruling.

In short, Robby is a hothead. That, my friends, is much of the reason he will never be as successful in NASCAR as his talent should take him. Being his boss is a chore, and that’s part of the reason he never stuck with one team for too long. From what I can tell, he's probably the only person he'll let tell him what to do.

Though I’m sure part of him wants to be a team owner, he also has to do that because he’s not a model employee and most teams don‘t want to take him on. Top teams like Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs don’t want someone like Robby around, because he’d likely upset their well-maintained apple cart.

In his current situation, owning his own team, Robby will never have any great success at the Cup level. It’s close to impossible in this new era of the superteam, a hard lesson Tony Stewart will learn in the 2009 season when he kicks off his first year as an owner/driver.

But I’d love to see Robby get a shot for one year in a truly great ride and see what he could do.

As far as pure racing talent, I’ll put him up against anyone in that garage -- including Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards -- and it would be interesting to see what he could do in equipment equal to what they drive.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Nationwide Series has become a joke, needs massive changes

When I think back to the time I really got into NASCAR, some of my best memories involve the Busch (now Nationwide) Series.

I can distinctly remember the awesome battles between then up-and-coming talented drivers Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The two would run neck-and-neck week after week, and Jr. ended up edging out Kenseth two straight years for two titles. Along the way, they often faced strong competition from series regulars like Jeff Green and a young Tony Stewart, who was still getting used to stock cars.

A few years later, we got the chance to see a young Brian Vickers fend off veteran David Green, another series regular, by just 14 points for the title. We also got to see Martin Truex, Jr. win two straight titles for car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. as his career took off.

Those of you new to the Nationwide Series are probably in shock, as there’s no mention of any of the following things:
-- Cup drivers winning 90 percent of the races
-- Cup drivers running the full season and winning meaningless titles (it’s akin to the Detroit Pistons winning a title in the NBA’s development league … completely obscene and wrong)

It used to be that NASCAR’s AAA series was a breeding ground for new talent, and to a certain extent it still is -- as young drivers such as Joey Logano, Landon Cassill and Marc Davis have been gaining experience in the series. The problem is that instead of running for race wins and titles, these young talents are running to see who can finish closest behind Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer or some or some other idiot from Cup who has come down to steal their thunder.

In 2008, only 12 drivers ran all 35 Nationwide races, and four of them (Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, David Reutimann) were Cup drivers all year, too. That leaves only 8 full-time series regulars for the season (Brad Keselowski, Mike Bliss, Mike Wallace, Jason Leffler, Marcos Ambrose, Jason Keller, Kelly Bires, Steve Wallace), plus a few others like Kenny Wallace and David Stremme who just missed a race or two.

The field is filled out by endless Cup drivers and a bunch of random low-level teams that can only qualify about 50 percent of the time and usually can’t finish the race. Admittedly, some (like Morgan Shepherd) really put a lot of effort into the series, but it appears many are just field-fillers there for a paycheck.

Kyle Busch skipped five races and finished 6th in the points standings. While it’s a testament to Kyle’s driving ability and the quality of the Gibbs cars, it’s also a sad statement about this series.

It’s not that Cup drivers never would enter or win Busch Series races … they did that regularly, of course. But there were not 20 of them in every race and drivers never ran the whole schedule and competed for the title. This massive Cup overload in the series could get worse next year as an unwanted side effect of the testing ban, as the big Cup teams will want as many laps on the track each week as possible.

Point blank: This series has no identity right now and is losing the interest of all NASCAR fans. Most weeks, I can Tivo the Nationwide race and watch it in 15 minutes in fast-forward. A bunch of Cup guys are going to start up front, then one of them (most likely Carl Edwards of Kyle Busch) will dominate the race, and you’re lucky if you find a series regular who finished in the top 10. The rare exceptions are the weeks where Cup guys can’t physically do both races barring major travel headaches, and that’s when guys like Brad Keselowski come out on top, as it should be. In my mind, Keselowski was the champ this year.

The sad fact is that if you took the decals off the Nationwide cars and just listed the running order during most races, you couldn’t tell it wasn’t a Cup race until you got to 15th place or worse.

The series has no identity and has become Cup Lite -- most of the same drivers, and even less drama. I recognize NASCAR wants the big names to run on Saturdays so people show up, and that’s fine. But something major has to happen to make this series watchable.

Some options I would suggest to NASCAR to spice up the series include:
-- Allowing full-time Cup drivers who race in the series to only win money, and not giving them points in the standings. That way, the young talent of the series could compete for the championship and not a bunch of Cup interlopers.
-- Completely reinventing the series by putting the drivers in a totally different kind of car -- sports cars, modifieds, anything. If I have to watch the same drivers both days, at least let me see them in a different discipline.
-- Doing everything possible to help more full-time Nationwide-only teams succeed. The Cup overload has to stop.

Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I believe that one day the series will recapture the glory days it once ahead. But it’s going to take some effort from NASCAR, and I really don’t think they give a damn as long as they’re making fistloads of cash from it.

Whether the fans are getting an exciting series is secondary in their minds.

Kahne the barbarian?
Details are emerging about an incident at Homestead that I find hilarious. Kasey Kahne apparently was on a cart with his brother when he was stopped at a security gate Sunday morning at Homestead because he didn’t have his pass for the driver motor home lot. The reason he didn’t have his pass? -- he was in his firesuit and had just been out practicing on the track, and was going to the motor home to change his clothes.

Kahne was apparently insistent and tried to both drive and walk past the guards, and after a guard put his hands on Kahne, he allegedly pushed back. Police were called and he was briefly handcuffed before being released prior to Sunday’s Cup race. He is now being sued by the guard.

The suit will likely not amount to much, but there is one thing NASCAR can learn from this: NASCAR tracks probably should hire people who know what the drivers look like. I can kind of understand why Kahne was pissed off, and imagine him screaming: "Don't you know who I am? I'm the guy who does all those ridiculous Allstate commercials that every male NASCAR fan hates."

Evernham retiring
He led Jeff Gordon to some titles, ran his own team for a while, and now Ray Evernham is getting out of NASCAR and will become owning a dirt track, East Lincoln Speedway in North Carolina. With the current way the economy is affecting NASCAR, I really don’t blame him. He’s made his money and will probably have a lot less stressful career from here on out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Testing ban great idea to help cut costs in bad economy, level playing field

If you don’t believe NASCAR’s decision to ban testing at sanctioned tracks in 2009, just look at who its biggest opponents are: Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick.

Almost everyone else in the garage, including Jack Roush, is in favor of the decision to cut out testing in a move to help teams save money. With layoffs coming around the garage area and sponsorship hard to find, saving money is key right now. Starting Jan. 1, teams will not be allowed to test at any track hosting sanctioned events in the Cup, Nationwide, Truck or Camping World series.

When the only people who think it’s a bad idea are the 3-time reigning champion and his car owner -- the people who no doubt have benefited most from testing over the years -- you can bet it’s a good thing for the sport as a whole. Powerhouse teams like Hendrick now won’t be able to send five cars to a track and get a ton of info that will help them perform better on race weekends.

Now it’s back to the good old-fashioned way of racing. Everybody shows up, does a bunch of practice sessions that weekend (more time will likely be allotted for practice, especially for the rookies), and then they race. Gone are the useless weeks of preseason testing at Daytona, which has always been a complete waste of time as teams were mostly sandbagging anyway.

Drivers and other team members will have more free time to spend with their families, so I bet they’re all very happy (with the exception of Johnson).

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin put it perfectly, saying: “We get a lot of practice. We get almost three hours of practice every weekend. That’s a lot. If we can’t learn it by then, we shouldn’t be in the sport.”

Compare that to Johnson, who said: “I think it’s a mistake. I think the teams need a chance to work on their cars to improve their programs, to put on a better show.”

What he really means is that it’s a bonus for the smaller teams who can’t afford to test as much as the Hendricks of the world, and will level the playing field more, lessening the likelihood of a Hendrick dynasty continuing.

That’s good news in my book , and anyone who wants a more competitive Cup series should also be happy with this decision.

The key will be for NASCAR to keep an eye on any way teams may try to skirt the rule and do a bunch of testing on nonsanctioned tracks. This would violate the spirit of the law, and I hope teams don't do this. Roush has called for a total ban on all testing at all tracks, and said that while he has no intention of skirting the rule, he would have to follow other teams’ lead if they failed to avoid going “to the skid pads … to Canada … to Pikes Peak or any of the places they're checking on.”

I’m with Roush on this one. If NASCAR wants to be serious about this ban, they should flat out ban testing. Let the drivers show up, practice and race without 50 pages of data to analyze. It would be a throwback to a simpler era before teams grew so large they could afford to spend $100,000 a day on testing.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why is Johnson a 3-time champ? He shows up when it counts

Associated Press photo
Jimmie Johnson hoists his third straight championship trophy Sunday at Homestead.

I can just picture the other teams’ discussions after Jimmie Johnson held on to his points lead and came out of an unspectacular final race of the season at Homestead with a top-15 finish and his third straight title.

“How the hell does he do it? He never has mechanical problems, never wrecks … how can you catch up to that?”

Well, if things continue for Johnson next year the way they did this year, they may not catch up for a while and we could see Johnson go beyond tying records and start to create his own page in the history books.

Point blank: He wins and finishes strong when it matters. Early in the season he struggled, and many said his reign was over. But sure enough, just like the sun coming up in the morning, Johnson was light years beyond the other drivers when it came to consistency in the Chase.

There are several factors behind that. For starters, he has top-of-the-line equipment from Hendrick Motorsports. But that’s not it, because Roush gives Carl Edwards great cars, too. Also, he has a great knack for avoiding bad luck. If a wreck happens in front of him, he always seems to find a way around him. I don’t know if I could count on one hand the amount of times Jimmie Johnson even got into a wreck this year.

Don’t forget his seemingly unstoppable crew chief Chad Knaus, who makes brilliant call after brilliant call and helps get Jimmie back to the front even on days when the car is not at its best.

But beyond all of this, it’s pretty simple: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t make mistakes. And that’s a pretty good recipe for being a champion. If you look back, this Chase was really decided at Talladega, when Carl Edwards, who was awesome for the rest of the Chase, screwed up big-time and ruined his own day and the day of his teammate and title contender Greg Biffle. If that wreck had not happened and the rest of the races played out like they did, Edwards might have had a realistic shot at the title going into Homestead.

But while Edwards made his mistake, Johnson did not put himself in a bad spot at any point. If you look at pure driving ability, many would argue Johnson is not at the top of the list. Others, such as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, often are regarded as better pure drivers.

But even if he is not an excellent driver, Johnson is at least very good. Combine that with a top-notch crew, good machinery, and an ability to avoid and not cause trouble, and you have a good shot at the title before a single green flag is even dropped.

Going into 2009, everyone else will still be chasing Jimmie Johnson. If he struggles early, don’t get too excited. It probably won’t last and that fourth straight title may be in his future.

That’s why they run the races, and I can’t wait to do it all over again in 2009.

Regan Smith wins Rookie of the Year, but class was weak
Regan Smith, who will likely be out of the Cup series in 2009 with his #01 DEI team shutting down, took the rookie crown this year, but it’s nothing to cheer about. Smith -- who was invisible all year other than his crossing the finish line first at Talladega, only to have it taken away due to an “illegal pass” -- finished 34th in series points and did not score a single top-10 finish. If that’s our Rookie of the Year, I want a rebate. Nothing against Smith, as I’m sure he’s got some talent. But look at who he beat -- Sam Hornish Jr., who finished 35th in points and didn’t even qualify for Homestead; Michael McDowell, who showed promise early, then was a complete failure for Michael Waltrip Racing; Dario Franchitti, whose team shut down after half the year; and Patrick Carpentier, who also lost his ride before the year ended.

Next year, look for Joey Logano to actually achieve something and get the rookie award by a mile. If he can gel with his team as the year goes on, he could have a rookie season of greatness a la Tony Stewart or Davey Allison in 2009.

No rest for the wicked
The season may be over, but I’m still around, and will be writing about everything NASCAR through the off-season -- from the new testing policy to the likely slew of layoffs in the garage, and much more.

So stay tuned.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Now that’s what I call a finale! Benson uses pit strategy to take Truck Series title

For the final 50 laps of Friday night’s Truck Series race, race fans were treated to nonstop, edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding, three- and four-wide racing action that culminated in one of the tightest championship wins in NASCAR history and a race that can be considered an instant classic.

While I could probably count on one hand how many times that happened this year in the Cup series, it happens about every other week in Trucks, and the season finale was no exception. Hats off to Michigan native Johnny Benson, who struggled early in the race and seemed destined to lose the title to the stronger-running Hornaday until a pair of caution flags helped turn the tide in his favor.

Coming into the race only 3 points ahead of Hornaday, basically whoever finished in front of the other was going to win the championship. On a night where those in attendance at Homestead definitely got their money’s worth, Benson managed to finish one spot ahead of Hornaday and claim the title by 7 points, even closer than the mythical Alan Kulwicki Cup title win in 1992.

By taking only two tires with 43 laps remaining, Benson was definitely taking a risk, as he would clearly be at a disadvantage compared to the other trucks. But it was the final race and potentially the final pit stop. Benson needed to get up front to have a shot at the title, so the two-tire call was his best chance.

The next fateful decision came with only 10 laps left, when a caution came out and the two contenders had to decide whether to pit. Hornaday was having radio trouble and couldn’t communicate clearly with his crew (perfect timing, right). He came in for tires, but Benson did not despite speculation that he might. At the time, Benson thought he had made a mistake.

But that’s not how it worked out. As the race came to a close, Hornaday and his fresher tires started passed drivers and getting closer to Benson. But even with a green-white-checkered finish, he didn’t have enough time to catch and pass Benson, who held on his first series title and denied Hornaday his fourth series title. Benson joins Greg Biffle as the only drivers to win titles in both the Busch (Nationwide) Series and the Craftsman Truck Series.

And while it looked like he was a welcome guest in the pits Friday, you can bet KHI team owner Kevin Harvick and Hornaday are more than a little pissed off right now at Ryan Newman, who was driving a KHI truck a couple weeks ago at Atlanta and pulled a kamikaze move to pass Hornaday, his teammate and a title contender, for the win. That little stunt cost Hornaday 15 points, and apparently the title. I don’t fault Newman for being a racer and wanting to win, but I wonder if he would change that move if he knew the impact it would later have on the team.

At the time, Harvick said there’s no such thing as team orders on his team. Maybe after seeing how that policy played a role in him losing the championship, he’ll revise it next year.

Edwards will win, but it won’t be enough
So far this weekend, Carl Edwards has shown he is the class of the field. He’ll win Sunday's race, and lead the most laps, but don’t get too excited. There’s no way Jimmie Johnson is going to finish worse that 36th unless one of the Roushketeers decides to play dirty and crash Jimmie out of the race on Lap 1 (Or perhaps they can draft David Gilliland from the Yates affiliate … He‘s shown he‘s crazy enough to wreck someone for no reason and has nothing to lose).

Yes, we have to accept an ugly truth. Jimmie Johnson will win a third straight title this year, and perhaps a fourth straight and a fifth straight unless the rest of the field steps up its game. The #48 team is not going to get any worse, and we just have to hope Kyle Busch and Edwards, or someone else, can avoid enough bad luck to be legitimately in the hunt when Homestead rolls around in 2009. Until then, everyone’s favorite criminal Rick Hendrick will be hoisting up his umpteenth championship trophy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What would Dale Sr. say? DEI to merge with Ganassi, form four-car team

Dale Earnhardt Inc. used to be a winning program in Cup.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. regularly made it Victory Lane, Michael Waltrip won several races and Steve Park even grabbed a couple checkered flags.

In the same vein, Chip Ganassi is used to winning races. He wins titles and races on a regular basis in Indycar, and the Cup team he runs with Felix Sabates was a title contender not too long ago with Sterling Marlin.

But both teams have been struggling mightily, and after a season with 500 rumors about teams merging, one of them actually came to pass. In this era of Hendrick and Roush dominance, any team without a squadron of four to compare information is automatically at a disadvantage, and merging is more doable that expanding your own team with the credit markets currently frozen.

DEI is officially dead. So is Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Now, we have Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Dale Sr. had in mind when he started the company. In fact, his name is gone completely. It makes sense though, as people have been calling the team TEI for a while now, so getting rid of Dale’s name is just lining things up with reality.

I have chronicled the miscues of Teresa Earnhardt in the past, so I will not rehash myself. Let me sum it up by saying she basically screwed the pooch on this one. Since the defection of their cash cow Dale Jr., for which she can take the brunt of the blame, the team has been shedding drivers and sponsors quicker than anyone could have imagined.

This new team will consist of Martin Truex Jr. in the #1, Juan Pablo Montoya in the #42, Aric Almirola in the #8, and a yet-to-be-named driver in the #41 car.

There’s a problem, though, that this merger does nothing to solve. There are four cars, but only two-and-a-half cars worth of sponsorship -- a full year from Bass Pro Shops coming from DEI, a full year from Target coming from Ganassi, and a half season from Juicy Fruit from Ganassi.

This move also shuts down the #01 team, freeing up Richard Childress to buy the points from that team for Clint Bowyer in his new fourth team for 2009 (as if we didn‘t know that was going to happen). And, of course, Regan Smith is now officially job hunting, though I don‘t expect him to be anywhere in Cup next year.

Beyond what he could have done on the track, Dale Sr.’s passing also robbed us of seeing what he could do with his company, which was on a track for greatness on that day in 2001 after the 1-2 Daytona finish. We can only wonder what he would have done differently, and whether he could have gotten closer than Teresa did to taking on the Hendrick and Roush juggernauts.

One thing is for sure. If he was still around, Jr. was be right there with him and not at Hendrick, and the team would likely be performing well enough that it wouldn't need this merger.

I do not think this merger will work miracles for either team unless the sponsorship money comes through and they get top talent in the garage and on the pit box. But I’m not going to fault Ganassi or Teresa for doing what they can to try to save their companies.

Ganassi’s never been able to get that Indycar magic over to the stock car side, so this is just his latest attempt to do that. But in Teresa’s case, people angry over this merger should realize that the downfall of DEI began with her.

I’m sure the number is still kicking around in her head. All Jr. wanted was 51 percent.

Don’t forget the Big 3

I read a scary article today, which said that many politicians in Washington are willing to let the Big 3 U.S. automakers fail, rather than do something to bail them out in the near future, such as extending billions of dollars of loans to them until sales pick up.

Forget about how GM, Ford and Chrysler failing would affect NASCAR, the situation would mean a bloodbath of hundreds of thousands of job cuts that would further destroy an already weak U.S. economy.

I’m not one for big government by any means, as evidenced by how terribly they are screwing up what to do with the recently passed $700 billion bailout bill for the banks. But I fail to understand how any lawmaker with common sense would want the U.S.’s automakers to go by the wayside. These people have no understanding of how devastating that would be for America. It would cost us far more than the amount of a loan.

America may be the greatest country in the world in many people’s eyes, but our government sure has their priorities screwed up. If they fail to ensure that the Big 3 succeed, while at the same time propping up banks in every way possible, their logic meter is clearly failing.

If there are no cars to buy, there’s going to a lot less people going to the bank to get loans.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What the #*#&$$? Did they really just put Funniest Home Videos on instead of NASCAR?

As the season comes to an end, I’ve decided to be even more blunt than usual and pull no punches, so here goes.

First off, Sunday’s race at Phoenix was probably the least interesting NASCAR race I’ve seen all year, and that’s a bold statement considering there’s been at least a handful of really bad ones. I would have gotten more enjoyment staring blankly at a ceiling. It was so bad, the announcers were trying to invent nonexistent drama when Jimmie Johnson (gasp!) was delayed a couple seconds on pit road and lost one whole spot, which of course he promptly regained.

Second, I would tell you what I thought about the end of the race, but I can’t because ABC flipped a big middle finger Sunday night to all NASCAR fans who either don’t have cable or had recorded the race.

I’m sure it’s quite enjoyable to watch a full hour of dads getting hit in the testicles by their chiildren, but don’t you think you could have a waited an hour to do it?

The way the announcers put it, the network had "prior commitments," so the coverage of the end of the race had to switch over to ESPN2. Oddly enough, that doesn’t work for people who weren’t watching it live.

So for those of you who, like myself, who had things to take care of Sunday and couldn't watch live … sorry, no end of the race for you. But feel free to watch this funny cat run in the wall over and over. Ha ha, isn’t that funny?

Seriously, though, I have never seen a sport get as little respect from television stations making millions from it than NASCAR. Do you really think they would have cut to a bunch of crappy pet videos if the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins were heading to overtime?

It’s nothing new, it’s always been this way and probably always will. Yet I fail to understand their logic. Do the network powers that be not realize how many millions of people tune in to NASCAR and would not take kindly to missing the conclusion of the race? Do they not realize it’s the most popular spectator sport in America? It's not like they cut off a beach volleyball broadcast.

As I said above, the race was garbage and Johnson dominated and basically wrapped up the title unless he wrecks out early at Homestead and Edwards wins (not too likely, by the way). But that’s not the point. Even if it had been a great race, ABC still would have switched the coverage to ESPN2, leaving many fans unable to see the conclusion.

The point is that NASCAR fans don’t deserve to get dumped by the network so some hack can introduce nut-punching videos.

The season’s almost over, but I propose everyone does their best to make sure the network knows it screwed up. I, for one, will do my best to purposely avoid ABC shows as much as possible. If all NASCAR fans did this, and let the network know why they’re not watching, maybe next time they’ll leave the race on and wait an hour before flipping over to a video of some kid falling into a ditch.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Points battles tighten in Trucks, Nationwide after Phoenix races … is Cup next?

Associated Press photo

Carl Edwards has moved closer to Nationwide series points leader Clint Bowyer after winning Saturday at Phoenix, and hopes to catch up in a similar fashion to Jimmie Johnson in the Cup series after Sunday's race.

While not as hyped as many of the other tracks on the NASCAR schedule, Phoenix International Raceway (where the late Alan Kulwicki debuted his famous Polish Victory Lap in 1988) has shown over the past two decades that it can offer some of the better racing of the year.

So far this weekend, this challenging 1-mile track with a dogleg on the backstretch has lived up to that reputation, especially in an exciting Trucks series race Friday night that had more drama than anyone could have predicted. Johnny Benson came into this race only 6 points ahead of Ron Hornaday in the standings with two races left, so this weekend was important to both drivers.

Straight from the get-go, on lap 1, Hornaday tried to take the lead from Kyle Busch and it backfired, and he ended up with a severely demolished truck. (FYI: Though he tried to blame Busch for the crash after the race, this was clearly Hornaday’s fault, one of those rare times Busch was involved in a crash he did not bring about). So right from the beginning, it looked like Hornaday had given away the title, as Benson had caught only a small part of the wreck and escaped the wreck with minor damage.

But credit goes to Hornaday’s crew, who got the truck back on track only 30 laps later, allowing Hornaday to pass any trucks that would drop out of the race. As the night wore on, and some great racing took place from the front to the back of the field all night, many drivers found the wall as Hornaday was able to take home a 25th place finish.

Meanwhile, Benson found trouble himself at least three more times as the race wore on, and he ended up finishing 26th. So now, instead of a huge lead after Phoenix, he actually lost 3 points … leaving his lead at only 3 points heading into Homestead. That’s going to be a great battle and a great end to an already impressive Truck season. Benson will have extra incentive to win, as he’s just announced he will be leaving Bill Davis Racing after this season ends.

Another highlight of the race was Kyle Busch’s supersonic charge to second place (a la Jimmie Johnson a couple weeks ago in Cup) as the race came to a close because he took on new tires. Given a few more laps, he likely would have beaten winner Kevin Harvick. It’s amazing what some new Goodyears can do.

Kudos also go out to Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, who drove his own team’s truck to a sixth-place finish Friday night. In a field full of established team, it’s quite impressive for a truck from newly formed Brad Keselowki Racing to be competing up front all night. It’s a testament to both Keselowski’s driving skill and the effort he’s put into his truck team.

Overall, the Nationwide race was less exciting, but we still got to see some championship drama as Clint Bowyer continues to struggle as the season comes to an end. Once he held a seemingly insurmountable points lead, but Carl Edwards has been determined to change that. After winning at Phoenix Saturday, he is only 56 points behind Bowyer, who made contact with another car during a restart and suffered significant damage. To Bowyer's credit, it could have been much worse, as he charged all the way up to 4th after repairing his damage. If he hadn’t, the points lead might have disappeared completely.

The most annoying thing in the Nationwide race is it appears many drivers have forgotten how to do a restart without crashing into the guy ahead of them. On two consecutive restarts, a bunch of cars got banged up for no apparent reason. You would think they’ve figured out how to do it by this point in their racing careers.

That brings us to the Cup series, where Jimmie Johnson was stinking up the points race for a while, until Edwards made it a little closer over the past couple weeks. I don’t see it happening, but it would be great for the fans and the sport in general if Johnson were to slip on Sunday. This way, we might actually have something to be excited about come Homestead.

Phoenix has already shown it can cause some damage if a driver makes a mistake, so we’ll see if Jimmie Johnson will be the next victim and create a third competitive points race when we get to South Florida.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Barack Obama, Lewis Hamilton break race barriers in politics, motorsports in historic week

Associated Press photos
Lewis Hamilton (above) is the first black Formula 1 champion. Barack Obama (right) is the first black person to be elected U.S. president.

More than 40 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and expressed the wish that everyone in the world could judge people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin.

At the time he spoke these words, the race divide was so violently deep it ended many lives, including King’s when he was assassinated. At a time of separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, he was one of few brave enough to fight for equality.

Now it’s 2008, and there’s no doubt King is looking down on the world with a big smile on his face after two historic firsts happened this week.

First, as everyone who isn’t under a rock knows, Barack Obama has been chosen to be the next president of the United States. On January 20, he will take the oath on a podium that was originally built by slaves more than 100 years ago. Regardless of where you stand politically, this vote of confidence for a black man from the masses in America is proof that King’s dream can come true. People didn’t see a black man, they saw a candidate and decided they wanted him to lead the country. The fact that Obama could even be elected (when even recently many people doubted a black man could be elected, and that perhaps white voters couldn’t go through with it) is perhaps the most significant advancement in race relations since the changes brought about by King and other civil rights fighters decades ago.

Of significance is that Obama is leading a close battle in North Carolina -- a part of NASCAR country, which many want to stereotype as racist -- and will likely win the state, something nobody could have predicted when he started his campaign. Let's hope that's the ultimate proof to kill the stereotype that NASCAR fans are a bunch of redneck racists.

On the motorsports front, just two days before Obama’s election, Lewis Hamilton, the British wunderkind who took Formula 1 by storm in 2007 when he joined the McLaren team, became the first black driver ever to win a Formula 1 title in dramatic fashion.

On the last corner of the last lap of the Grand Prix of Brazil, while driving in the rain, he was able to overtake Timo Glock and finish fifth in the race, exactly where he needed to be to win the championship by a single point.

He is the first driver of Afro-Caribbean origin to ever race in Formula 1 in its long history, a fact that’s astonishing. Even more amazing is that in his rookie season, at age 22, he was on the brink of the title before mechanical issues cost him the title. This year, in one of the most exciting finishes to a Formula 1 season ever, he was able to take the prize in his sophomore year.

Hamilton is of mixed race, like Obama, but that was not on McLaren’s mind when they chose him for their young driver program at age 13. The past decade has been full of success, and the only color McLaren saw was green, as they knew Hamilton would bring them more money than they could imagine with his tremendous talent.

That doesn’t mean the race issue is completely gone, or that King’s goal has been completely realized. Earlier this year during time trials in Spain, Hamilton was taunted by fans wearing black face paint and afro wigs. Incidents like this are an ugly reminder that racism does still exist all over the world, and fore every successful story like Obama or Hamilton, there are others still being victimized by racism.

But this week is one to celebrate the incredible advancements that have been made in an ugly area of history in this world. Congratulations to both Obama and Hamilton, and let’s hope their success is a sign racism will soon be a thing of the past in most people’s minds.

Johnson should rebound at Phoenix
Though it’s not what Carl Edwards wants to hear, look for Jimmie Johnson to get back on his game this weekend at Phoenix. Of all drivers, he has the best average finish at the 1-mile track and isn’t likely to struggle for a third straight week. I see him taking the checkered flag and being able to coast to the title even with a weak Homestead performance.

Should Johnson happen upon a crash or mechanical trouble, look for his teammate Jeff Gordon to battle Edwards for the win.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

2009 could bring short fields as sponsorship woes hit NASCAR hard

It used to be that making the field in a Cup race was very difficult.
Every week, a half dozen teams would have to go home because of the large number of teams trying out for races on a regular basis.

But that was during better economic times. Today’s economy has left the garage decimated as far as sponsors go. Longtime sponsors like Kodak and Texaco/Havoline are giving up on the sport, and teams that are looking for sponsors aren’t having much luck. The exact number of teams all set on sponsorship for a full-season run in 2009 is well short of 43.

In addition, it’s pretty clear that some teams, such as the #01 DEI car, may either stop running entirely in 2009 or cut back their schedule due to lack of funds.

That brings up the realistic possibility that NASCAR may have to resort to a tactic they were using several years ago when a similar situation arose regarding car counts … essentially paying teams just to show up, run a few laps and park. It’s pretty lame, but without doing that they would have faced several races where they were a few cars short, and that would not have been good for their all-important image as the fastest growing sport in America.

This problem is even worse in the Nationwide Series, with plenty of start-and-park teams already competing on a regular basis, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2009 with longtime teams like the #25 (which Bobby Hamilton Jr. is funding out of his own pocket in the final 3 races of '08) not guaranteed to return.

Personally, I never though the number 43 was a magical number that had to be met. As far as I’m concerned, if 40 cars show up, that’s fine, as the other 3 you would get are likely garbage anyway.

But NASCAR will do everything it can to maintain its image, and even as the automakers are hitting record lows in sales and companies in all sectors are cutting jobs, they want to maintain the image that they're not struggling.

The reality is that when budgets get tight, sponsorship money is usually among the first thing to go. That’s a reality NASCAR is going to have to accept. The next year will likely continue to be rough economically, and don’t be surprised if there are some races with short fields.

The key for NASCAR is not to make a big deal out of it when it happens. The economy runs in cycles, and when things pick up in the future, there will soon be 50 cars out there every week trying to make the race once again.

NASCAR is full of pride about how successful it has become over the past decade or two, but they’re in for a rude awakening in 2009. Not only will many racetracks continue to have thousands of empty seats, it’s likely all the cars won’t even show up sometimes.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Daring fuel gamble by Edwards brings championship battle back to life

Things were looking pretty grim for Carl Edwards as the laps were winding down at Texas. Sure he’d led hundreds of laps and Jimmie Johnson was a lap down, but after several drivers took two tires to knock him back several spots in the running order, he looked to once again gain very little on Johnson despite a solid performance.

Then, his crew chief told him something that he never thought he’d here -- You’re good to go on fuel. Running an amazing 69 laps on fuel, Edwards was (probably) able to last until the end. He took the chance, and in the process creating the odd sight of the winner being passed by half the field in the final few laps of the race. Jeff Gordon also gambled on fuel, and came home in second place -- tying his best finish of the year.

So who’s the big winner today, beside Carl Edwards?

NASCAR fans, who will actually have some excitement to look forward to in the next couple weeks. If Johnson had gained points today, the title would have been his for sure. But with this points loss, he’s going to have to earn it, as he’s only 106 points ahead of Edwards -- who officially has the momentum and has been on a rampage lately. Barring that ignition problem a few weeks ago, he would be neck and neck with Johnson right now.

Things could have been even tighter after Texas. Initially, when he got trapped a lap down due to the rare occasion of an ill-handling #48 car, he was running around 30th position. By day’s end, as the #48 team always seems to do when they struggle, he had improved dramatically, finishing 15th. If Johnson ends up winning the title by a close margin, these past two weeks where he battle back after going a lap down early will have been the reason he is the champ.

As a side note, I found it hilarious to hear the normally calm Knaus cuss as Johnson almost got into a pit road incident. I also found it strange that ABC chose to replay the exchange, even though they knew he had sworn. It’s not that I was offended, as I’ve heard and said much worse, but the networks usually police themselves much better, and drivers have been penalized by NASCAR for swearing during interviews.

Other drivers who put on solid performances at Texas were David Reutimann and David Ragan, who are the two most improved drivers this year and should each get at least one win in 2009. Also, Jamie McMurray’s team has escaped the doldrums it was in all year and has run well in the past month, culminating in a third-place finish today. Look for him to be more competitive next year in what will likely be his final season at Roush.

Great debut for Keselowski
Driving a fifth Hendrick car, Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski finally made his Cup debut and did a fantastic job, finishing 19th, two laps down. He had some trouble early, scraping the wall, and could have tanked after that. But he fought back and stayed competitive all day in his first race in the COT, which is much different than the Nationwide car he drives each week.

A start like that is a sign of great things to come, and you can count on Keselowski to do great things when he makes the leap to Cup full-time, which will likely come in 2010 for Hendrick.

Kyle Busch shows heart
I’ve said many things about Kyle Busch this year that are not positive, but no one with a heart can have anything but praise for Busch this week, as he announced he will donate $100,000 to help the ailing Sam Ard, a two-time Busch Series champion who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and struggling financially.

After winning his 10th Nationwide race of the season to tie Ard’s record from 1983, Busch made the announcement in Victory Lane. Regardless of how they feel about Kyle on the racetrack, everyone should tip their cap to him for this generous donation, which is proof not only has heart, but also cares about the history of the sport and its past heroes.

Logano struggling
What’s up with Joey Logano?

I believe things will improve when he takes over the #20 car next year, but Logano was garbage at Texas in the #02 car.

I stand by my prediction that Logano will do great things, win races and win titles during a long Cup career, but it appears the transition to the top series may not be as smooth as Logano might like. The talent is obviously there if you watch him in Nationwide races, now let’s see how long it takes for him to sync with his Cup team and get up to snuff.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Gordon snags first Texas pole … now look for him to take first Texas win

Associated Press photo
Jeff Gordon makes his pole-winning run during qualifying Friday in Texas.

It’s been over a year since Jeff Gordon -- a winning machine for most of his career -- has seen Victory Lane. During the past year, he’s had some good races, but he’s also had some terrible ones.

Many have questioned his crew chief’s ability, and many more have begun talking about how Gordon is on the downside of his career and is no longer a serious contender.

Beyond all of that, the race this week is at Texas, one of only two places (along with Homestead) where Gordon has never won in his 17-year Cup career. That’s a pretty impressive stat, but don’t be surprised if he cuts that list down to one Sunday afternoon.

By taking the pole for Sunday’s race, his first ever at Texas, Gordon sent notice to the other drivers that he’s still a threat. There’s no doubt he’ll face serious competition from Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, but I get the feeling that this week we’ll see Gordon’s resurgence and return to Victory Lane.

Don’t get me wrong … I don’t believe he’s going to return to form consistently enough to compete with Johnson next year. He’s already said he’s only got a few years left before he retires at a young age (call him the anti-Mark Martin), and I do believe Gordon’s best days are behind him. The baton is officially passed to Johnson (whose car he partly owns), and a fifth title is a pipe dream at this point.

But that doesn’t mean the old, dominating Gordon won’t pop out from under his shell once in a while in those remaining years, and this weekend should be one of those times.

Keselowski will make Cup debut
Congratulations to Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, who will make his first career start this Sunday at Texas in the Cup series. A driver’s first race is almost always a learning experience, but with teammates like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get advice from, I bet Brad will have a decent showing.

Hamilton Jr. putting money where his heart is
When fans saw Bobby Hamilton Jr. at the track this weekend, many were probably puzzled. This second-generation driver was not expected to be at the track for the rest of the year, as the Nationwide team he drives for has run out of money and was about to shut down for the year.

Instead, Hamilton ponied up the money from his own pocket so the team would make it through the end of the year, in the hopes of running well enough to attract a sponsor. If that’s not dedicated, I don’t know what is. Hamilton’s dedication is a reminder of all the locals who put dollar after dollar into their car in the hopes of making the next step. This is an inspiring story, and I’m rooting for the team to get something in place so they can continue next year.

Truck race awesome as usual
The Trucks series kicked off a tripleheader weekend at Texas, and as usual it did not disappoint. Ron Hornaday is one of the most daring and exciting drivers to watch week in and week out, and Friday night he went three-wide, up high, down low and in the middle more times than I can count during his amazing run from a lap down (due to an untimely pit stop) to the lead, as he won the race and closed in on Johnny Benson’s points lead.

Now, just 6 points separate Hornaday from Benson, who fought hard for a third-place finish. It amazes me how the Trucks series always produces a great points battle, without any manufactured “Chase” excitement, yet the Cup battle is basically over already despite the Chase.