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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The leader is in sight … do you wreck him to win?

Anyone who watched this past weekend’s Nationwide race at Memphis saw the dilemma David Reutimann faced as the final laps wound down.

Passing was nearly impossible, and he was at Carl Edwards’ bumper. His only way to win was to knock Edwards out of the way … but he didn’t.

After the race, Reutimann said, “I should’ve moved him,“ but went on to say that’s not the way he races.

This brings up an interesting argument. On the one hand, you have to be respectful of other drivers, so they’ll respect you back. But when the win is on the line, for most drivers that goes out the window.

Some drivers, such as Jimmie Johnson, tend to follow Reutimann’s code … though for Johnson he’s usually the person in the lead so it doesn’t apply very often.

But most of the big names in NASCAR’s history -- from Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt to Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards -- have shown they have no problem moving people to get the win, and that’s probably a big part of the reason they have all reached the pinnacle of success in this sport. They want to win, period, and will do whatever is necessary to do that.

I’m not saying Reutimann’s wrong … he’s just being a little too nice in a sport where being nice doesn’t get you far. The purists would say a real racer will find a way to get around without wrecking the leader, but that’s not practical at some tracks (Memphis, for example, where passing was barely seen all day).

Reutimann is clearly a talented driver, and with the right team and crew chief, he could be a star someday. But if he ever wants to truly become an elite driver, he may have to adjust his code and be the bad guy once in awhile.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Edwards impressive in win, but Johnson steals show with amazing comeback

Associated Press photo Carl Edwards celebrates after winning Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The saying goes that when someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

In coming back from a lap down in the back of the pack to a 2nd-place finish Sunday at Atlanta, Jimmie Johnson went one further … he took those lemons and made a SoCo and lemonade mixed drink that he ended up sipping while on the beach in Cancun.

Upon finding out that Johnson had gotten a pit road speeding penalty early in the race, contenders Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton must have been elated. But their joy was short-lived, as Johnson did what he had to do and got in the proper position for the Lucky Dog pass, and found his way onto the lead lap when a caution came out.

For a while, Johnson struggled in the middle of the pack, but then (as if we didn’t expect it) his team made another brilliant strategy move with less then 10 laps left by coming in to get fresh tires while the leaders stayed out. The move, while risky, paid off as he drove from 10th place to 2nd place in a matter of five laps, rocketing by the competition and ending up the day with a bigger points lead than he had at the start of the day.

This amazing comeback by Johnson took some of the focus away from a brilliant weekend from Carl Edwards, who was the class of the field when it mattered most and won his second race of the weekend after his victory Saturday at Memphis in the Nationwide Series.

Edwards pulled off an impressive bump-and-run pass of Denny Hamlin to take the lead toward the end the race, and no one could catch him after that. It’s a shame Edwards had that ignition problem a couple weeks ago, as I really would have liked to see him and Johnson duke it out for the title.

Sadly, that’s not to be, as Johnson shows no signs of slowing down. Book his spot at the head table in New York, as he could skip a race and still likely keep the points lead. Not to mention he’s won at all three tracks where races are scheduled, so even if one of the so-called competitors wins all three races while leading the most laps, they’ll still likely make little more than a small dent in Johnson’s lead.

Another strong run for A.J.
For the second straight week, A.J. Allmendinger had a great run in the #10 Gillette-Evernham car, which had done very little all season up to this point. He finished 14th, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the GEM team tries to keep him around if it’s at all possible economically.

Ragan putting competition on notice for ’09
After barely missing the Chase, David Ragan is putting on a great string of runs in the season’s final races. Mark my words: He will make the Chase next year and potentially be a factor. His turnaround from pinball on the track to solid, consistent driver is one of the great stories of 2008.

NASCAR teams angry they got caught, not that their people were cheating

When teams get caught cheating in NASCAR, they give the standard response.

After a scapegoat is found, the team will issue a statement saying it was an isolated incident. They’ll fire or suspend some of the people involved (as long as they‘re not too important to the team) and act like they’re taking the high road. It happened this week at Red Bull Racing and earlier this year at Joe Gibbs Racing and other places.

But don’t let the theatrics fool you.
These teams aren’t mad their employees were cheating. They’re just mad they got caught.

Winning and running up front has become even more important with the current economic woes the country is facing, with sponsors so hard to find. It has always been the case that teams want their employees to do whatever is necessary to run up front, but that’s only part of the story. They also need to know how to do it without NASCAR finding out.

I’m not saying teams actively encourage cheating. That wouldn’t make much sense. But they no doubt encourage the team members to bend the rules as much as possible to gain an advantage on the competition. And if NASCAR catches you in that “bending” (I.e. dipping sheet metal in acid) and you get in deep trouble … the teams comes out and acts all innocent.

For example, take the Joe Gibbs Racing teams manipulating dyno tests earlier this year. Gibbs tried to make himself look like the victim and said he wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior on his team, but do you honestly think those crew chiefs will be gone from the Gibbs organization next year after his cars have dominated the Nationwide Series this year? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Also, take the case of Chad Knaus. No one questions that he and Jimmie Johnson are the best driver-crew chief duo in the sport at the moment, but he’s been suspended by NASCAR for rules violations two different times in the past three years, and I can guarantee you Rick Hendrick will never fire him as long as he‘s delivering championships to the organization. Knaus could be suspended 10 times and Hendrick wouldn’t care.

The bottom line: Team owners can pretend to take the high road when a cheating incident happens, but common sense dictates that their outrage is far from sincere.

They’re just mad it wasn’t done well enough to hide it from NASCAR.

First race, first win for Newman in Trucks
Saturday’s Truck Series race featured a great battle between Ryan Newman and Ron Hornaday, who were both driving trucks owned by Kevin Harvick. During the battle, Harvick looked very nervous … but both trucks escaped in one piece. It was the first win for Newman in the series, and also his first ever start in the series. He’s the fourth driver in the series’ history ever to do this, joining Mike Skinner (who won the first race ever run), Robert Pressley and Kasey Kahne.

When Newman took the checkered, that meant 15 less points for Hornaday, who is in a tight points battle with Johnny Benson. If he ends up losing by that amount, Harvick might look back and wonder whether he should have issued team orders (though there’s no guarantee Newman would have listened … he is a race car driver after all)

I also found very interesting Hornaday’s comment after the race that “that’s how the (#2 truck) should be running.” Sounds to me like he’s taking a shot at just-released teammate and longtime Truck Series rival Jack Sprague, who didn’t do a very good job driving the truck Newman drove Saturday for KHI.

Edwards still in hunt for Nationwide title after win
In what was mostly a snoozer at Memphis, winner Carl Edwards was one of only SIX cars on the lead lap and made a huge dent in the Clint Bowyer point lead in the Nationwide Series. It once looked out of reach, but Edwards is just over 100 points behind Bowyer now, so he realistically has a shot at the title with three races left. However it ends up, I’m underwhelmed. I don’t see the excitement in a Cup driver winning the Nationwide title yet again. It’s like the Tigers winning the AAA World Series … it’s a joke.

Kenny Wallace (3rd), Richard Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon (4th), and Chase Miller (6th) also had surprisingly solid finishes. Dillon, 18, was making just his second career start.

A close finish at the end had David Reutimann trying to pass Edwards for the win, but it was not to be. Then, there were some fireworks between Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Landon Cassill. Hamilton’s team is basically out of money and needed a solid finish as they are trying to establish sponsors. Cassill, only 18 with a sky-the-limit future, got an earful and a fistful from Hamilton after the race. I can’t blame Bobby for being mad, given his team’s situation, but I still was laughing when Cassill did his impression during a post-race interview of how Hamilton was yelling and shaking his head during the confrontation.

Also of note was the series debut of 18-year-old Marc Davis, a minority driver, in the #18 Joe Gibbs car. He had some troubles and ended up finishing 23rd in his first Nationwide Series race.

No. 1,000 for Waltrip
Michael Waltrip will make his 1,000th start between NASCAR’s three top series this weekend in the Cup race. He’s been far from impressive overall, barring his stretch with DEI when won a few races, but that kind of longevity is impressive. Only Richard Petty has more overall starts in the sport’s history.

Johnson, Edwards will battle for win
With yet another qualifying rainout putting Jimmie Johnson up front, he and Carl Edwards should have the cars to beat on Sunday. Edwards has been fastest all weekend and has a lot of motivation to do well, considering he’s got almost 200 points to make up on Johnson if he’s going to win the title. The good news for Carl is I believe he’ll win. The bad news for Carl is I believe Johnson will be right behind him, so any gain would be minimal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Economy has Ford struggling … but their commitment to Roush, NASCAR stands

Henry Ford drove this car to victory in a 10-lap race in 1901 at the Detroit Driving Club in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Anyone who has read the news lately knows that Ford Motor Company, as well as the rest of the automobile business, is not in the best shape right now.

Sales are down by record numbers, billionaire Kirk Kerkorian is considering selling off his millions of shares in Ford on fears it will not recover, and the company’s stock has been hanging around $2 per share.

But Ford fans got a dose of good news Wednesday when it was announced the company will extend its support of Roush’s NASCAR program in a deal that believed to be for five years.

This is a wise decision, as the effect of them pulling support from NASCAR would have only worsened their economic standing. Even in this day, the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” idea still holds true for a certain percentage of car buyers that also follow NASCAR. To put it simply, the better Roush does (and to a lesser degree, the better the Yates Racing cars do), the better news that is for Ford.

The move is not surprising, considering how deep the Ford racing connection runs. Henry Ford drove to a win in a 10-lap race at the Detroit Driving Club, a dirt oval in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in 1901 -- and based partly on that race win he was able to attract investors that would help him create Ford Motor Company two years later. Racing is not only part of Ford’s history, it helped create the company itself. (Oddly enough, that was the only race Henry Ford ever ran, so he has the greatest winning percentage in racing history. Allegedly, he was so scared by the experience that he said "once is enough")

Despite its current financial struggles, Ford appears to be in the best position of the U.S. Big 3 automakers (which could become two if the rumored GM takeover of Chrysler happens). Pulling its support of racing based on this rough spell would have been a bad decision, and I’m glad cooler heads prevailed. Roush cars may not measure up to Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson lately as far as winning titles, but they are always competitive and exciting to watch on the track, and that is good news for Ford. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan are great spokesmen for Ford and I’m glad they will continue to be.

Red Bull latest to get caught cheating
Dipping sheet metal in acid is the latest infraction to get a team busted. Kevin Hamlin, crew chief for the #83 Red Bull Racing entry, and the team’s car chief have been suspended indefinitely from NASCAR and points were taken away from driver Brian Vickers and the team.

This is a new one for me, but it just goes to show you how innovative these guys can be when trying to beat the system. I bet a lot more of these tricks go on than we know about, even in this highly regulated era. It just goes to show that dreams of catching up with the Jimmie Johnsons of the world will drive teams to extreme measures, even ones that crew chiefs know can get them indefinitely suspended from the sport.

One of the greatest moments of my life as a NASCAR fan was when I met legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick (R.I.P.) at the Brickyard about 10 years ago. I spoke to him a little about the days when he know every trick in the book, and could usually get it by without NASCAR knowing.

I guess these guys getting busted in the modern era should have studied up with Smokey, because it looks like they’re not as good as not getting caught.

Elliot retiring after 2008 …. maybe
Bill Elliot can’t give it up, apparently. He’s going to do a few more races in the #21 this year, but left open the door of possibly helping out the Wood Brothers in some races next year, also.

Once again, I don’t get it. I know he loves to drive, but at some point you have to give it up … especially when your only option to stay in the game is to be lapped traffic for half the NASCAR season driving for a team that, although legendary in NASCAR history, is barely staying afloat.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Johnson on pace to pass teammate Gordon in record books

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t know the meaning of the word parity.

NASCAR has done everything it can to try to make the sport as equal as possible between teams -- a place where as large a number as possible of drivers and teams are regularly competing for race wins and championships.

Jimmie Johnson and his #48 Hendrick Motorsports team has taken all those efforts and kicked them to the curb, all in the process of putting a beatdown on the other 42 cars at the time of year when it matters most -- in the Chase -- for the past three years.

They might has well have engraved his name on the grandfather clock prior to Sunday’s race at Martinsville. I predicted a dominating performance and win from Johnson, but he went even beyond my expectations, leading more than 300 laps and dicing his way through the field methodically whenever he got shuffled back by pit strategy. It didn’t help the competition that Johnson was awarded the pole by Mother Nature, giving him the point from Lap 1. But even if he had started 43rd, I have no doubt Johnson would have come to the front. He was the best car on the track by far, and this isn’t the first week that’s happened.

Those engravers might as well get some practice in with Johnson’s name, because the odds are now overwhelmingly likely that Johnson will hoist his third straight championship trophy at year’s end -- possibly even at Phoenix, a week before the Homestead finale, if his amazing Chase run continues at this pace. He’s 149 points ahead of his closest competitor, a gap that’s pretty much insurmountable with four races left.

But he could have an accident or mechanical failure, some will say. OK, let’s roll with that scenario. Let’s say Johnson finishes 35th in the next two races and opens a door for his competitors … do you really trust Jeff Burton or Greg Biffle (the only two drivers with even a remote shot at the title) to perform consistently strong enough to take the points lead. They couldn’t even manage to get top-10 finishes at Martinsville, and that doesn’t win you titles -- especially against the #48 team.

The bottom line is that all the efforts to create parity have been unable to stop the Johnson/Knaus/Hendrick juggernaut, and it’s unlikely that will change in the next few years. Rooting for Johnson has become like rooting for the Yankees in baseball … the sentiment of “They’ve won enough, let some other people have a chance” is what many fans feel. Here’s a positive thought for all these people: Be happy he isn’t about to win his fifth straight title, as the 2004 and 2005 titles were also within his grasp until the very end.

Early this season, Johnson’s detractors saw a glimmer of hope as the team struggled in the first two months of the year and was lagging in the standings. But Johnson's team's secret to success is they figure out the problems and get rid of them, which other teams can’t seem to do with as much consistency.

Nobody, even those who dislike Johnson, can deny the facts. He’s a great driver, especially when it matters most, and his crew chief appears to be the best in the business. That combination, plus great cars from the Hendrick stable, has brought them dividends every other driver in the garage no doubt envies, as they try in vain to catch up to the #48 team’s success.

I remember watching Jeff Gordon win all the time in the late 1990s and early 2000s and wondering when it was going to stop so I could enjoy watching racing again.

But what Johnson’s doing now is equally impressive, perhaps even moreso because of the artificial tightening of the points for the Chase. If this incredible run for Johnson keeps up, we could be seeing his name in the history books higher than Gordon’s in the list of all-time greats.

Someone give Allmendinger a ride already
After driving the #10 Gillette Evernham car to a top-15 Sunday, and a lot of strong runs in the #84 this year, someone needs to give A.J. Allmendinger a ride for next season. The obvious spot for his is in the #41 Ganassi car, which has a sponsor but no driver for 2009, and I honestly don’t know what Ganassi is waiting for. I don’t think he’s going to find anyone that’s better for that ride.

On a related note, slipping under the radar this week was the Cup debut of Scott Speed, who will drive the #84 next season. He finished 30th, which isn’t bad for a first race when it’s at a tough track like Martinsville.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Tough economy hitting DEI, many other NASCAR teams

Anyone who’s watched the news in the past few months knows the U.S. economy isn’t exactly in a good state. Layoffs are affecting thousands as the end result of a number of crises in the housing, credit and stock markets. Meanwhile, people are seeing all the money they’ve earned through investments over the years go down the toilet.

When it comes to teams of NASCAR, the effect of this economy is widespread and cannot be ignored. Teams can no longer take for granted that sponsorship will be out there, as firms are tightening their budgets to weather the economic storm.

A few of the many noticeable effects include:
-- Petty Enterprises driver Bobby Labonte still has no 2009 sponsor, and he’s a former champion.

-- Michael Waltrip Racing has returned the #44 to the Petty them, and will run only two cars in 2009, the #00 for David Reutimann and the #55 for Michael Waltrip. Michael McDowell is now officially out at the team.

-- Yates Racing has had to cobble together dozens of different sponsorship deals this year for its drivers Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland. They’ll get some guaranteed money next year when Paul Menard comes over with his dad’s sponsorship, but the other teams are still looking.

-- The Nationwide Series is full of cars that lack sponsors, and half of the ones that do have sponsors are driven by Cup drivers. The series has really become somewhat of a joke. Solid Nationwide drivers like Mike Wallace and Bobby Hamilton Jr. are severely lacking in sponsorship for next year.

-- There have been a ton of merger rumors this year … involving the GEM, Petty, DEI, Ganassi and Robby Gordon teams, among others. It’s getting pretty hard to make it on your own as a smaller organization. It’s inevitable that one of these mergers will happen, as it will become an economic necessity.

-- Even the big stars are having to split their seasons between sponsors because companies don’t want to commit the big bucks to a whole season during this economic downturn.

Perhaps the organization in the most trouble in NASCAR is DEI, which currently has four teams running, but little hope they can continue with that setup in 2009.

Martin Truex Jr. is their marquee driver, and has sponsorship for 2009, but has only a one-year deal and could bolt after 2009. The #8, #15 and #01 cars currently have no sponsorship set up for 2009. Regan Smith will be out of a ride unless some sponsorship comes through very quickly, and that team’s owner points will likely be sold to Clint Bowyer to be used for the fourth Richard Childress car. Aric Almirola has shown flashes of talent, but without sponsorship he may not be given a chance to show what he can do.

DEI‘s Max Siegel optimistically said: “Our intent is to run four cars again next year … but we are going to be fiscally responsible. … We’re wide-open as to how we can sustain a healthy race program. … Everyone is on pins and needles, trying to figure out what the future may bring.”

That’s code for the crap may hit the fan here very shortly. Rumors that 80 DEI employees may be cut are being denied by the team.

Siegel added: “We have no imminent plans to lay off any people or shut down any of our race teams.”

Imminent is the key word in this quote. That means he knows that while it’s not the plan now, lack of sponsorship may force at least one of the teams to shut down and people will have to be fired.

In the long run, it’s probably for the best. For a team that’s struggling as much as DEI, there’s no logic in running four teams. They need to get their ducks in row and get a couple teams running well, then expand up to a larger operation once they’re in a better spot competitively.

Regardless of what happens at DEI, it’s clear they’re far from the only team suffering from this economic crisis. If this keeps up, there may be a lot of blank cars making their way around the tracks next season.

Waste of our money
David Gilliland will have the government sponsoring his car three times before the year ends , as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will advertise the upcoming switch to digital TV, which takes place in February right around the time of the Daytona 500.

So let me get this straight … the government is more than $10 trillion in debt, and they decide to have the FCC spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure people can watch television next year? Beyond this, there are incessant TV commercials about this switchover that I’m sure we’re all paying for.

If there was a gold medal for wasting money, the clowns in D.C. would win it by a mile.

Johnson will continue hot streak
I have bad news for everyone battling Jimmie Johnson for the Cup. He’s going to win at Martinsville and expand his lead. If Jeff Burton or Greg Biffle can hang with him, they’ll be doing a great thing for their chances. But barring someone knocking Johnson into the wall, I don’t see how he’s going to be kept from another dominating performance at a track where he’s always run well, especially with the way his luck’s been lately.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NASCAR fans, prepare for the possibility of just one U.S. automaker

For those of you who haven’t heard, it appears GM and Chrysler are engaging in somewhat serious talks about some sort of merger or acquisition, depending on the details that they might come to an agreement on.

It’s no secret the entire auto industry is reeling due to the global economic downturn and sales numbers are way down, particularly in the U.S., and more and more people are being laid off every year.

With all of this economic turmoil, it may be inevitable that some of the U.S. Big 3 automakers end up merging, even if these current talks don’t lead to anything.

And if you follow that logic, it’s conceivable that if the economy stays down for a while, we could end up with one giant company (let’s call it U.S. Auto Corp.) that basically produces all American cars.

I know this is an extreme example and might not happen for a long time, if ever, but don’t discount it as impossible. And were it to come to pass, the effects on NASCAR could be massive.

Right now, one of the major reasons people root for a certain driver or car is their brand loyalty. They’re die-hard GM fans, or dedicated Ford or Dodge fans.

If one firm controlled all American car makes, the sense of being dedicated to one manufacturer wouldn’t make much sense anymore -- even if individual nameplates were kept on the road.

That’s fine by me, as I root for drivers and teams based on the personalities involved, and really could not care less what kind of car they are driving.

But when I imagine a NASCAR race with 20 U.S. Auto cars, 12 Toyotas and 11 Hondas/Nissans, I can also picture some fans not too happy with that situation. There are a lot of race fans who are very dedicated to a specific automaker, and this would be a big adjustment to how they watched the sport.

By no means do I want this doomsday scenario to happen, as the Detroit area and the U.S. in general would likely see massive layoffs if any mergers among the Big 3 happened -- and that’s the absolute last thing we need with the current state of the economy.

But after seeing these rumors of the GM-Chrysler merger, and also hearing that GM was originally talking to Ford about a merger, I’ve come to realize nothing is impossible if this economy doesn‘t start to look up. Coke could merge with Pepsi, the airlines could all become one, and U.S. Auto Corp. could be a reality somewhere down the line.

And NASCAR fans would have to adjust a whole new reality if that ever happened.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

No shortage of excitement in ARCA finale

A four-way battle for the championship … Beating and banging among the series’ top leaders. … Drivers duking it out for the win as the race comes to an end.

Now that’s what I call a great final race of the season … and it was great to see, because it’s nothing we’re likely to see in a Cup season finale anytime soon.

For those of you who missed it, Penske developmental driver Justin Allgaier won his sixth ARCA race of the season Sunday at Toledo Speedway and also claimed the series title, while driving for a team run by his family. It was an amazing story, but his win and championship weren’t even the most exciting news to come out of the race.

Entering the race, Allgaier was in third, 110 points behind the leader, soon-to-be Red Bull Cup driver Scott Speed. Roush developmental driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was close behind in second place. Going into Sunday, the smart money was on one of these two drivers taking the championship.

But shortly after the race started, Stenhouse and Speed were doing some furious racing against each other and Stenhouse apparently felt he had waited long enough to pass Speed, giving him the chrome horn and sending him up into the wall, ruining Speed’s car.

So the title is Stenhouse’s, right? Wrong.

Speed decided that if he couldn’t win, Stenhouse wouldn’t either. Limping his wounded car back on the track, he drove straight into Stenhouse and send him hard into the wall. Right after the wreck, Speed freely admitted it, saying “He wasn’t going to win the championship that way.”

So after all the smoke had cleared, Allgaier -- who also made an impressive run in his Nationwide Series debut this weekend in Charlotte and will run at least 10 races for Penske Racing in the series in 2009 -- was in the points lead. Assuming he stayed out of trouble, and there was a lot of trouble on Sunday, the title was his. He avoided all the wrecks, and even stayed racy and battled for the lead with a few laps to go even though a wreck could have cost him the title.

That kind of attitude and dedication to winning is what could make him a NASCAR star one day, though hopefully by the time he makes it to Cup the equipment at Penske is a little more reliable.

Allgaier ended up beating nine-time series champ Frank Kimmel by 50 points in the final standings, and Speed and Stenhouse dropped to third and fifth in the standings, respectively.

Though I hope I’m wrong, I doubt the Homestead weekend will be anywhere near as exciting, as I fear Jimmie Johnson will have the Cup title sewn up before the drivers even arrive in South Florida. I find it strange that in series like ARCA, the competition can be so tight, but NASCAR can’t make Cup racing more competitive despite the implementation of the Chase, which is supposed to keep things closer toward the end. I suppose it's possible Johnson's team is just that much better than everyone else.

Regardless, it’s OK.

After watching this ARCA finale, at least I can say I saw an exciting final battle for a stock car racing title this year.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

No tires, no problem … Burton wins, boosts title hopes; Edwards likely out of picture

Associated Press photo
Jeff Burton takes the checkered flag Saturday in Charlotte.

Every race counts in the Chase, and no one knows that better than Jimmie Johnson.

Every year when the playoffs start, the man appears to be made of stone, and nothing can budge him from his weekly top-5 and top-10 runs. When wrecks happen in front of him, he always manages to dodge them. And mechanical failures never seem to happen to the #48 team when solid finishes matter most. Most importantly, his car is always strong and running up front.

The same can’t be said for Carl Edwards, who had ignition problems early in Saturday’s race at Charlotte and is now 168 points behind Johnson and likely out of contention for the title. In order to win the title, Edwards would have to outscore Johnson by an average of 34 points per race over the last five races, which include some of Johnson’s best tracks. Good luck with that Carl, you’re going to need it.

It’s really a shame, as I would have loved to see a great knock-down-drag-out battle between Edwards and Johnson down to the wire at Homestead. But unless Johnson has a bad race or two in the next few weeks, Edwards likely has no shot at the title.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Burton, who has rocketed his way into title contention after taking the win Saturday night at Charlotte. Known as Mr. Consistent for his regular top-10 finishes, Burton recognized going into Saturday’s race that he had to win some races down the stretch if he wanted to have a legitimate shot at the title.

He did just that at Charlotte, strategically making his way to the front with a gutsy call by his team to take fuel only on its final pit stop while everyone else took at least two tires. Normally that’s not a call that‘s going to help you, but it worked this time as he was able to hold off everyone, including a hard-charging Kasey Kahne, for about 40 laps and take the checkered flag for the second time this year.

Burton has flown under the radar for much of the year … and this would be the perfect time for him to step up his game. If he can manage to pull off another win or two in the final five races, he may be able to battle the hard-to-beat Johnson for that title trophy.

And then there were three …
Burton (-69) and Greg Biffle (-86) are the only legitimate title contenders at this point, besides points leader Johnson. Edwards (-169) and Clint Bowyer (-185) are hanging around, but that’s just too much to make up in five races.

Everyone else is at least 200 points back, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has had a horrific chase and is 354 points back.

Win No. 20 for Kyle
Don’t let his terrible Chase start fool you … Kyle Busch is still a great driver, and if you didn’t believe it he just pulled off his 20th win of the season in the top three series on Friday night in Charlotte.

For those of you keeping score, that’s nine Nationwide wins, eight Cup wins and three Truck wins.

Not too shabby.

This level of success across the series is unprecedented and is unlikely to be repeated by anyone anytime soon, even Kyle himself. Despite his blown shot at the Cup title, Kyle Busch has no reason to hang his head when looking back at 2008. His great run this year will always be remembered in the annals of NASCAR history.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

NASCAR too quick to cancel qualifying, should be more flexible with schedule

The qualifying session for Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 was going to be an interesting one.

Three drivers -- Scott Speed, Brad Keselowski and Bryan Clauson -- were going to attempt to make their first ever start in a Cup race. Also, where would the Chase contenders line up on Saturday night?

But Mother Nature stepped in, and tonight’s qualifying session was rained out.

I’m fully aware NASCAR can’t control the weather, but they miss the ball when these situations occur by immediately setting the field by points.

I see no logic in NASCAR’s mindset that qualifying can only be done at one time, and can never be postponed to the next morning. The schedule must be more flexible, as the teams that come to qualify have put a lot of time and money into their cars, and effort should be made to give them the chance to qualify. These cancellations are especially hard on the smaller, less-funded teams.

After the 2000 season, NASCAR struck a blow to these smaller teams by getting rid of second-round qualifying. Under the old format, the top 25 drivers were locked in after the first qualifying session. Then, the following day, teams were given the option to make another attempt at qualifying, and by posting an improved time they could bump out drivers who had made it on the first day.

Now, in what comes off to me as kicking the little guy when he’s down, NASCAR in recent years has completely abandoned the thought that maybe they could squeeze in qualifying the next day when rain hits. This is especially troubling when it happens at tracks where a lot of part-timers try out such as Watkins Glen, when proven talents like Boris Said are often left out of the race because their part-time status leaves them out of the lineup due to a rainout. Doing so robs the viewer of a race featuring the best and most talented drivers, and is the wrong thing to do.

Also, situations like today, where a lot of young talent is trying to make the race, are also completely ruined by NASCAR’s inflexibility with its weekend schedule. Adding insult to injury, a revised track schedule announced late Thursday gives the Nationwide drivers an early practice session Friday. That would have been a perfect time for Cup qualifying.

NASCAR has no justification for simply refusing to fudge its schedule a little bit in these situations. They owe it to the drivers, teams and fans to do everything they can to allow qualifying to happen … and it’s clear they really don’t care whether qualifying happens, which is a shame.

Drivers don't forget
Drivers often try to pass off that after a wreck, they forget about who caused it and move on. Apparently Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards don't subscribe to that theory. According to reports, Edwards left a note on Harvick's airplane "thanking" Harvick for the disparaging comments he made about Edwards' driving at Talledega, which caused a wreck that collected Harvick. According to published reports, the note sarcastically read, "I was really trying to screw up everyone's day. Love, Carl."

Once the teams arrived at the Charlotte garage, Edwards apparently went to talk to Harvick, and things got a bit heated. According to reports, Harvick tried to walk away and Edwards grabbed him and spun him around. Then, Harvick shoved Edwards. Crew members got involved to separate them and Edwards ended up in a headlock.

Considering Harvick was right about the way Edwards drove at Talladega, he really had no right to start trouble about the comments. Harvick called it like it is, and apparently Edwards doesn't like it when people speak the truth. Between this silly incident, which was clearly instigated by Edwards, and pretending he was going to hit his own teammate Matt Kenseth after an argument last year, it's no wonder Edwards doesn't appear to have too many friends in the garage area.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Parts are in place, now Stewart’s team faces steep challenge in 2009

The parts are coming together perfectly, just like a jigsaw puzzle, for Stewart-Haas Racing.

-- Drivers? Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who I would qualify as great and solid drivers, respectively.
-- Sponsor money? Plenty of that, too, with Old Spice and Office Depot backing Stewart and Army soon to be announced as Newman’s sponsor.
-- Crew chiefs? Darien Grubb will come over from Hendrick Motorsports to be Stewart’s crew chief, and is a solid choice. No word on Newman’s crew chief yet, but I’ll assume a proven talent will be chosen.

Those are all the positives heading into 2009 for the Stewart-Haas team, and are good reason for Stewart to have hope his team will see success next year.

But before anyone starts predicting the team will make Victory Lane and compete for titles right off the bat, a harsh reality needs to be examined.

This is essentially a brand new team, which always presents challenges, regardless of the quality of the people involved. Haas-CNC Racing has been a complete joke this season, with its owner in prison and both of its cars at or below the top 35 in points for most of the year. It is essentially a field-filler team, with the exception of a couple good runs by Scott Riggs this year (Speaking of Riggs, remember when he was in the 10 car and an up-and-coming star who people said would win races? He seems to have regressed since then).

Stewart will likely dump most of the current team members and bring a ton of new guys into the shop, who will have to build more competitive cars to replace the current stable of garbage cars the team has been running in 2008. Then, he’s going to have to develop a relationship with his new crew chief after having an extremely tight one with Greg Zipadelli for the past decade.

Bottom line: Unless things magically align from the very start, which is highly unlikely, we may have seen Stewart’s last win for a while, unless he can pull another one out before leaving Joe Gibbs Racing.

If I know one thing about Stewart, it’s that he’s dedicated to winning. Add to that the fact he’s possibly the most talented driver on the track and I can pretty much guarantee you his team will eventually become a competitor and a winner.

But I don’t expect it to happen right off the bat, and the 2009 season may be very frustrating for Stewart, who is used to winning and may not be able to do so for a while.

And as part-owner, he won’t have the option of laying the blame anywhere but at his own feet if things don‘t go well.

Busy weekend for Brad Keselowski
Rochester Hills native is preparing for a busy weekend in Charlotte, where he will race in Friday’s Nationwide race and attempt to make his first Cup race in a Hendrick Motorsports car. Keselowski actually got some practice laps in last weekend at Talladega and was on standby to fill in for Casey Mears, whose girlfriend was on the verge of giving birth. But this will be his first official weekend running in Cup, and I have no doubt Brad is pumped up and ready to give his best effort.

Meanwhile, Keselowski fans back home can get a glimpse this weekend of an ARCA car from the Brad Keselowski Racing stable, when the team makes an appearance at the Northwood University International Auto Show in Midland, Michigan. Robb Brent, who drivers for Keselowski in Trucks and ARCA and is also a Northwood student, will be on hand at the show this weekend to sign autographs and talk to fans.

“I think this is an awesome opportunity to have a presence in the community where Robb attends college,” Keselowski said.

The auto show features more than 450 different vehicles and a classic car show, and runs Friday through Sunday on the campus of Northwood University.

A.J. now a super sub
After failing to come to terms with Red Bull Racing, A.J. Allmendinger is now the most requested man in the garage to fill a seat. He’ll drive this weekend in the #00 for Michael Waltrip Racing (which looks more and more like it’s going to dump Michael McDowell soon), then finish out the year in the #10 car for the GEM team, which dumped Patrick Carpentier after he failed to qualify at Talladega.

It’s clear Allmendinger has talent and is in demand, and the contract length dispute is the only reason he’s out at Red Bull. Look for him to announce his plans for next year very soon, and I hope it’s a decent ride so he actually gets a chance to use his talent and not just be lapped traffic.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rule gives Stewart the win, but that doesn’t mean the rule is fair

Associated Press photo

Regan Smith leads Tony Stewart Sunday at the finish of the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. Smith passed Stewart below the yellow line and was penalized by NASCAR.

It was another classic Talladega finish ... Tony Stewart and Regan Smith (that’s not a typo) battling side-by-side for the win on the last lap in the last corner. And the winner was ... Smith, with his first career NASCAR victory, proof that anyone can win at a plate track, no matter how horrible they usually run.

But wait a second. The drama thickens.
Looks like Smith passed Stewart below the yellow line, which is illegal. Or is it? The announcers and even some drivers seemed convinced that the rule was suspended if the pass took place during the final lap of the race. Apparently, they were misinformed, as the win was quickly given to Tony Stewart, who had yet to reach Victory Lane in his final year with Joe Gibbs’ team.

Are you confused? So am I.

And while I’m very happy for Smoke that he got his first win in more than a year, the victory party should have belonged to Smith, who had the run of his career and did what any red-blooded racer would have done by going for the gold on the last lap. Further complicating matters is that Stewart basically forced Smith down below the line. According to NASCAR’s rule, if that happens the driver forced under the line is not allowed to pass and must get back on track behind the driver who forced him below the line.

Does that sound fair to you?

Call me overly logical, but if the race is ending in the next turn, there’s no way NASCAR should be able to tell a driver who has been forced below the yellow line to get back in line. It’s now or never, and that gives an unfair advantage to the leader. All the leader has to do is force the second-place driver down below the line and the race win is guaranteed to go to him.

Simple solution for the future: Leave this rule in place, EXCEPT for the last lap. When that time comes, anything goes.

Smith is a driver who has no sponsor for 2008 and is likely out of a ride after Homestead. A win at Talladega would have been a nice resume booster and could have helped attract sponsorship, but because of these nonsensical rules that will be denied and he gets pushed back to 18th in the finishing order because of the penalty he received.

Tire trouble
In other news from this weekend, Goodyear is on the hot seat again after a lot of guys were blowing tires this weekend. It started Friday with Dale Jr.’s spectacular blowout, and continued Sunday with a long line of cars having unexpected failures, including one that sent Denny Hamlin to the hospital. It’s been a tough year for Goodyear so far, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to these newest concerns. Until I hear a report on what the problem was, I’ll reserve judgment.

Lots of leaders
In case you weren’t aware how much parity Talladega brings about, a record 28 different drivers led a lap Sunday. That’s 65 percent of the drivers who started the race. This is why you should believe it when you hear people say anyone can win at a plate track. It’s true.

Johnson lucky to avoid wrecks, extends points lead
While a lot of the Chase guys got caught up in the big wreck late in the race, Jimmie Johnson just got by and as a result has solidified himself as the favorite for the title. Others who were not so lucky include Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who would have been up front at the end fighting for the win if he hadn’t gotten caught in the big wreck. Carl Edwards took the blame for the wreck, and Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth did not appear to be too happy with Edwards.
So how did it affect the points lead? Oddly enough, 1-2-3 are the same, but 2 and 3 are a lot farther behind now. Edwards is 72 points back, Biffle 77. Jeff Burton sneaks into the championship picture, 99 points back after a solid run. Stewart jumped several spots to 7th in the standings, but is still 203 points back, a hill he’s unlikely to climb.
At this point it’s looking like a four-man race, though I won’t consider Burton a serious threat unless he stays solid for another week or two. And with the wild card of Talladega done, the other drivers are just going to have to beat Johnson each week as the Chase winds down ... and history has shown that’s not a very easy thing to do.

DEI shows up big
Considering their performance so far this year and their uncertain future, the DEI team must be ecstatic about how their weekend went. All four of its drivers qualified in the top 10, and Smith, Menard and Almirola were running in positions 2, 3 and 4 toward the end of the race. Menard will get credit for a 2nd-place finish, and Almirola fell back to 13th. Smith should have won, but history will say he finished 18th. The good news is is one of the best weekends DEI has seen all year. The bad news is the plate tracks are done for the year, and you need to have strong cars to win at Charlotte next week.

Great show from the Trucks
The Truck Series race Saturday was also a great watch, with a great bump-and-run pulled off by Todd Bodine on leader Kyle Busch, allowing him to take the victory. When you take an exciting series like Trucks, and bring it to a track like Talladega, it’s pretty much a guarantee that fans will see some edge-of-their-seat action.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dega is best chance for Dale Jr. to make a points move

This is Dale Jr.’s track.

Talladega has been very kind to Dale Jr. since he started in NASCAR’s top division. He has five wins, seven top-5s and 10 top-10s in 17 starts at the track, and has led a total of 616 laps.

He picked up right where his dad left off. Most fans remember Sr.’s breathtaking drive in fall of 2000 when he passed 16 cars in four laps to take his final career win. Soon after that, his son took over as the track’s best driver. He was a beneficiary of the knowledge of the “RAD” group -- where Richard Childress, Dale Earnhardt and Andy Petree’s teams shared aerodynamic information between the three teams. (In fact, it was Petree’s driver Kenny Wallace who pushed Sr. to the win in 2000)

Now it’s a new era. Dale Jr. is at Hendrick Motorsports, who have taken over as the best team on restrictor plate tracks. So if you combine the best team on these tracks with Jr., one of the best plate track drivers, it’s a no-brainer he’s a contender to win.

On the downside, he will be in a backup after a violent tire blowout in practice ruined his primary car as well as several other cars in the process. But this is still Talladega, which might as well be called Earnhardt Speedway, so it’s not too much of a concern that he’s in a backup car. Practice is pretty much worthless at these tracks anyway, as it’s basically just drafting practice, something Jr. doesn't really need.

As far back in the points as Jr. is, his best bet to get in title contention is to win Sunday, and hope that some of the drivers ahead of him in the points standings have trouble. There are a lot of people ahead of him and it‘s unlikely, but this is Talladega and anything can happen.

They say that at plate tracks, the best way to avoid the big wreck is to be out front. Based on his history, that shouldn’t be a problem for Jr.

He needs to make a move this week, or you can stick that fork all the way into his title hopes.

Helio handcuffed … say it ain’t so
With his infectious smile, great attitude and tremendous racing talent, it’s hard not to like Indycar driver and Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. But he may have done something very stupid that could land him behind bars … defraud Uncle Sam.

This week, he had to undergo the embarrassing spectacle of being escorted into a Miami court in handcuffs and leg irons, where he pleaded not guilty to charges he used a shell corporation in Panama to hide more than $5 million in income from his racing career and endorsements. His sister and lawyer also face charges.

I hope it’s not true and he is acquitted, but it if is true it will be yet another manifestation of what happens when people become too greedy or arrogant about their wealth. Helio has lived a wonderful life that we would all love to have … doing what he loves to do and making tons of money in the process.

If he’s convicted, he’ll join the ranks of other famous people like Wesley Snipes and "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch, who just weren’t happy enough with their wealth and wanted to push it and see how much they could keep from Uncle Sam, regardless of legality. It’s not worth it, as I’m sure Helio realized when he was sitting there shackled in court.

Tough lesson for Logano
After a career full of instant success in almost every series he’s entered, young Joey Logano is seeing his first serious struggles after running two Cup races in the #96 Hall of Fame Racing car. Everyone knew going in that it was a backmarker car, but it’s just been downright terrible and Logano has yet to get even a top-30 finish.

As a result, Joe Gibbs has pulled him from running in the #96 in more races this year, and Ken Schrader will likely finish out the year in that car. Logano will likely attempt at least one race this season in a Joe Gibbs-prepared #02 car. This is the best move for Logano, as they shouldn’t shake his confidence by putting him in a car that’s going to be one of the first ones lapped, regardless of who’s driving.

But there is a big lesson Logano and the Gibbs organization need to learn from this experience. In order for him to be a Cup winner and champion, he’s going to have to get better at communicating to his crew chief about what’s going wrong with the car so they can fix it during the course of a race. I have a feeling he hasn’t had to do this much, and has focused solely on driving. But a true champion is full-time driver and part-time mechanic, and can let his team know what to fix so they can get to Victory Lane.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Does anyone retire anymore? … Rusty talking comeback; Petty may go elsewhere if forced out

The hottest new rumor, brought to the masses by his own brother Kenny, is that Rusty Wallace -- inspired by the success of fellow sports elders Mark Martin and Brett Favre in their recent comebacks -- may be back in the Cup series next season, probably with DEI.

Rusty apparently believes he can outrun at least half the drivers currently racing, and he’s probably right. He’s a legend who still likely has a lot in the tank.

The problem isn’t that Rusty wants to come back, but where it might happen. DEI is the rumored landing spot for Rusty, and frankly that’s not the best place in the garage right now.

Looking ahead to 2009, here’s the situation at DEI.
--Martin Truex is the top dog there, and he’s had a hit-or-miss season so far with a lot of mechanical concerns. After 2009, he may be leaving, as his recently signed deal is only for a year.

--Paul Menard just announced this week that he is leaving for Yates next year, and taking his dad’s sponsorship money with him.

-- That leaves Aric Almirola and Regan Smith, who don’t have sponsors yet for next year.

-- On top of that, uncertainty abounds as there have long been rumors of an investor being sought or Teresa Earnhardt wanting to completely sell the team.

To sum it up … not exactly a winning location in its current setup.

Martin’s doing well at DEI in the #8 car this year, but there’s no guarantee Rusty will do the same next year, even if he brings a sponsor and some money to help build good cars. What I always liked about Rusty is he went out on top. If he makes this move, he risks the Michael Jordan scenario … where a proven champion kept coming back and finished his career playing terribly for a terrible team.

In other Cup veteran news, according to a report in the Winston-Salem Journal, Kyle Petty has been forced out of the family team and won‘t race anymore for Petty Enterprises, effective immediately. At least that’s the word from his wife, Patti Petty, who said, “They haven’t wanted Kyle in the car the last three years. They want a young driver.” She went on to say, “They told him at Watkins Glen -- right when he was standing there in his driver’s suit -- that they didn’t want him in the car”

That’s damn harsh, especially when “they” were a family-run operation until this year, when a private equity firm took over majority ownership.

In a way it’s sad, because Kyle has been around his family’s team since he was a child and it’s a huge part of NASCAR history, but the reality is this move has been a long time coming, and Kyle should have made the choice himself a couple years ago. As I wrote not too long ago, Petty’s been showing signs for a while that his heart’s not fully in racing anymore and he’s ready to hang up the helmet.

But according to the newspaper report, Petty has a sponsor, Wells Fargo, that is willing to with him to another team for a part-time schedule in 2009.

Call me crazy, but what ever happened to just retiring?

I thought Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte were done years ago, but they’re still on the track every other weekend. Martin is the most indecisive, going back and forth so many times I can’t remember. Allegedly, 2009 is his “final” full season. Time will tell on that one, as I bet he keeps going if 2009 is successful for him.

I understand that all these guys know is racing, and that’s all they want to do. But especially in Petty’s case, he really needs to look at the big picture. First of all, he’s pretty terrible out there most weeks, and I don’t see how it’s even remotely enjoyable to run that badly.

Kyle’s got a lot going for him in his life and has brought so much to the sport off the track -- particularly his dedication to charity and the Victory Junction Gang Camp that was started in honor of his late son Adam. I fail to understand why Kyle would rather ride around in 41st place for half the season, when he could be out in the world helping people and brightening their lives. I’m sure it’s much more rewarding.

Petty has never lived up to his father’s reputation (who could?), but he had a solid career and won some races. He’s earned the respect of his peers over that time, but if he keeps getting in their way on Sundays, he might start to lose some of it.

In Rusty’s case, I question DEI as the destination, but I can understand him wanting to come back. He’s a great driver who can contend for wins even after a few years out of the car.

But Petty continuing is basically pointless. Maybe he just wants to prove to those who wanted him out of the 45 car that he can still get the job done.

But at some point in everyone’s career, they just need to call it quits. That time has come for Petty.