Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Earnhardt Sr. promotion at Vegas was ridiculous

Dale Earnhardt has been dead for eight years, but you wouldn’t know it by the way his image continues to be milked by somebody (NASCAR? Teresa?) in silly promotions.

When I turned on my TV Friday to watch a practice session and saw a bunch of showgirls and silly men known as the "Flying Elvises" singing in front of a car painted up with the images of Elvis and Earnhardt, I was a little annoyed.

Apparently, this was the third in a series of cars with paint schemes designed by artist Sam Bass, who previously paired Earnhardt with Johnny Cash and John Wayne. While I don’t deny Bass is a talented artist and the paint schemes might look cool, it still annoys me that so many people are throwing his image around all these years later just to make a buck.

The whole point of creating the cars was to sell diecasts, something that was made abundantly clear on TV immediately after the car was unveiled. I felt like I was watching an infomercial and Billy Mays was going to show up and start screaming at me. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen on NASCAR TV this year, with the exception of “Digger”.

I have a news flash for all these hucksters who want to use Earnhardt’s name and image whenever they can to make money: The man is long dead. Respect what he did on the track and move on to the future, instead of continuing to try to get rich off his name.

Rough day for Roush
16, 24, 35, 38 and 40.

Considering how dominant Roush Racing has been at Las Vegas over the years, those aren't the starting positions you would expect for Roush drivers at the track.

But that's how it shook out Friday, with only Carl Edwards making the top 20 in qualifying. Greg Biffle was 24th, David Ragan 35th and Jamie McMurray 38th.
Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth, going for his third straight win to start the season, will start 40th. He's hardly a great qualifier, but that's pretty bad and doesn't bode well for him making history.

Kurt Busch back from the dead

Last year, if I told you a driver named Busch had done well on Sunday, you knew who I was talking about.
In 2009, you may have to ask which brother I’m talking about.

Kurt Busch, the driver who was booed by NASCAR fans long before his younger brother Kyle, is a former Cup champion who had fallen back into mediocrity in the past few years. During his time at Roush Racing, the elder Busch was a force to be reckoned with on the track, but since he moved to Penske Racing the highlights have been less common.

In 2008, his only real highlight after a second-place Daytona 500 finish was a win in a rain-shortened New Hampshire race.

But that was then, and this is now. Going into 2009, everyone wondered whether the Dodges would be able to battle their way back to respectability and earn at least one Chase spot this season. So far, it looks like Busch is the best bet for that to happen. Both the Penske and Petty cars are doing better than many people predicted, but Penske is using the new Dodge engine while Petty is not. It appears to be doing something to help, as Kurt is tied with Tony Stewart for third in the point standings after two races.

With his second-place qualifying effort at Las Vegas, Kurt served notice that he’s not looking to repeat his disappearing act of 2008, and actually stick around to fight for something this year. The elder Busch, who is perhaps most famous for once getting punched in the face by Jimmy Spencer at Michigan Speedway, is looking to inflict some damage of his own on the competition.

So while Kyle, with his endless winning in all three major series and discussions of future Formula 1 competition, will still be the most talked-about Busch brother this year and beyond, don’t forget about big brother. The man who in 2004 beat Jimmie Johnson by 8 points for the championship appears to have gotten his groove back in 2009.

Thrills for some, heartbreak for others after qualifying
With 51 cars on the entry list, a lot of driver were going to go home disappointed on Friday. And on the flip side, some new faces were likely to appear in 2009.

Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski qualified for the race in a #25 Hendrick Motorsports car, his first Cup start of the season. Todd Bodine qualified the #64 Gunselman Motorsports car for the first time this year, by only 8 thousandths of a second. And part-timer and road course specialist Max Papis had an impressive run to make his first start of the year.

Meanwhile, several teams that had been success stories through two races ran into a wall Friday in Vegas. Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Scott Riggs never found any speed. Jeremy Mayfield barely made it out in time to qualify, and was slow when he finally made his attempt. Dave Blaney failed to qualify the #66, and an already struggling #28 Yates Racing team took a hit when Travis Kvapil lost the final spot to Bodine by the .008 seconds margin.

With so many smaller teams trying out in 2009, look for this kind of excitement on pole day throughout the year. As today proved, thousandths of a second count.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kyle Busch would be perfect driver for new American F1 team

There are certain attributes anyone stepping into a new Formula 1 car must have in order to succeed.

They must be young, brash and bold.
They must be a solid performer in road racing.
They must be a pure talent who was born to race.

Of all the names being thrown around for the newly created American Formula 1 team that will be based in Charlotte and will begin competing in 2010, only one of them seems to me to be a perfect fit -- Kyle Busch.

Of course, I realize it’s not likely to become a reality.
After his name was mentioned at the new F1 team’s press conference, Busch said he wouldn’t rule out F1 racing “at some point”. But Busch is doing so well in NASCAR that it would take a miracle to get him to ditch a primo ride in stock cars for a fledgling F1 team that may not even be able to achieve success. Not to mention that he’s under contract until 2010, and Joe Gibbs will likely want to wrap him up in a much longer contract at some point very soon.

But just for fun, I’d like to imagine a world where Kyle Busch spends his weekends trying to pass Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso instead of Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. I think it would make Formula 1 much more exciting to watch.

Of all the drivers in NASCAR, he is by far the best fit. The name of A.J. Allmendinger has also come up, and he certainly fits the bill, but I don’t see his talent being at the same level of Busch at this point in time. Beyond that, you really don’t have many options in NASCAR, and other names being floated include Indycar’s Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, though Marco is much more likely than Danica.

I find it interesting that both Scott Speed and Juan Pablo Montoya, the two former F1 drivers now in NASCAR, both have said they’re not interested in taking the new ride and returning to their former series. I’m guessing that’s more of a reaction to the team being so new and unknown. If the team puts on a solid performance in 2010, I could see them both rethinking that logic and considering a return to the glitz of F1 if they were offered a ride.

While the racing may not always be as exciting as NASCAR, the Formula 1 drivers are the best in the world, and a true competitor will always want to compete with the best.

Kyle Busch definitely has that competitive edge, but unfortunately he’s doing so well in NASCAR he’ll never risk such a crazy career move at this point.

But if it ever did happen, you can bet it would be a blast to watch.

Terrible week for RCR
California is a place Richard Childress probably wishes he never came to in 2009. All four of his cars finished off the lead lap, and Kevin Harvick crashed hard and ended a very long streak where he was running at the end of every race.

On a related note, I'm going to predict right now that Casey Mears will disappoint once again in 2009, and be replaced in 2010 by a hot free agent in the fourth RCR car ... possibly Martin Truex, Jr.

And while I'm predicting driver moves, let me just say that Juan Pablo Montoya could jump to a fourth Joe Gibbs car if the Earnhardt-Ganassi experiment does not work out well.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Welcome to bizarro world: Michael Waltrip in Chase territory, Dale Jr. on top-35 bubble

I was all set to write something about how Matt Kenseth is back with a vengeance, winning the first two races of 2009 after a winless 2008. But then I saw the point standings after California, and my head spun in circles like the girl in “The Exorcist”

I’m aware it’s very early in the year and the standings need some time to settle before they mean anything.

But with only three races to go before the top 35 guaranteed spots are given out based on 2009 points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among the drivers flirting with dropping out of the top 35. After a rough Daytona and engine trouble in California, he’s down in the territory occupied by drivers like Robby Gordon and Jeremy Mayfield. Some more bad luck and the unthinkable could come true for Jr. … we could see him without a guaranteed spot and forced to qualify on time. The same goes for Ryan Newman, who has so much bad luck on the track he must be cursed.

Meanwhile, up atop the standings, there are some equally surprising stories. Michael Waltrip, who said he’ll retire if he isn’t competitive in 2009, has had two solid runs and sits 7th in points. I doubt that trend will continue, but it’s still a shocker. His teammate David Reutimann is also sitting in the top 12 after two races.

Tony Stewart, with his new owner/driver hat on, is off to a great start, sitting third in points. I don’t expect that torrid pace to continue, but it’s looking like Smoke may exceed the expectations I and others had for him this season in his new venture.

Mid-pack, there are plenty of stories to watch for also. The big shots who had rough Daytona finishes, like Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, are climbing fast and will be in the top 12 very shortly.

Bobby Labonte is doing a respectable job in the Hall of Fame/Yates Racing car, but does he have the goods to put that car into Chase contention?

Can the Richard Petty cars of A.J. Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson continue to rank unexpectedly high, ahead of expected team leader Kasey Kahne, or will natural order be restored with Kahne rising to the top before long?

Will either rookie -- Joey Logano or Scott Speed -- go on a roll this year, or will they battle each other for 35th position in every race this year? It appears the learning curve will be much harder for them than I thought.

Now is the time of year when everything is out of whack and nothing seems natural. Most of the anomalies will correct themselves in the coming weeks … but you never know when one of them might stick. Maybe this is the year Kurt Busch makes a triumphant return to competitive driving. Stranger things have happened.

Let me just say this, though. If Michael Waltrip makes the Chase this year, I don’t think my head will ever stop spinning.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Speed demon Kyle Busch could easily get another 20 wins this season

He’s baaaaaack!

When the dust settled on the 2008, Kyle Busch’s stat line was mind-boggling. Eight Cup wins, 10 Nationwide wins and three Truck wins. That’s a lot of trophies for one year, and every time the younger Busch took to the track, it seemed he was up front.

Heading into this year, coming off a bad Chase that left him low in the final standings, some people seemed to be questioning whether Busch had lost the edge he had so often in 2008, and wondered whether he would struggle to regain that winning form.

First, he let us know at Daytona that he was back, leading a ton of laps before being caught up in the infamous Jr.-Vickers wreck. If not for that accident, he may have won last week.

Now, after his dominant double dip at California Saturday, winning the Truck and Nationwide races in a matter of hours while leading nearly every lap, you can get that silly idea out of your head. In fact, I’d be surprised if Kyle Busch won LESS THAN 20 races this year between the three series.

He may be arrogant and obnoxious at times and he may get under the skin of many fans, but when you combine his pure talent with the great equipment he drives, wins are a given. If he wins the Cup race this week, he’ll become the first driver ever to win races in all three top series in the same weekend.

Word is that Busch will run the entire Nationwide season, so you can pretty much engrave his name on that trophy right now. He’ll leave the competition in the dust, a la Jeff Green in 2000.

Cup Championships are a whole different deal, and Busch will need more consistency in the Chase if he’s going to hoist that particular trophy anytime soon. But in the meantime, KB fans and haters alike will go through this season with their jaws on the floor, wondering what kind of magic is making Busch run so much better than the competition every week in whatever he is driving.

In Sunday’s Cup race, I envision a top-5 finish for Busch. Luckily, there are more cars at the Cup level who can keep up with Busch than there are in the lower series. Jack Roush’s cars should control the action at California and look for Jamie McMurray to get a surprise victory as he attempts to bolster his resume and avoid being the team axed from Roush at the end of the season.

But there’s no denying that this ever-controversial kid from Vegas is something special and will be a force to be reckoned for many years to come in NASCAR.

Like it or not, Kyle Busch is here to stay … in every series. For those of you who hate him with a passion and can‘t stand to see him up front, I recommend getting a new hobby. Because any time you turn on NASCAR, chances are he’ll be at or near the front.

Friday, February 20, 2009

NASCAR should have been consistent, penalized Dale Jr. for rough driving

By now, all NASCAR fans have had countless discussions with their friends and family about the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Brian Vickers wreck that changed the complexion of the Daytona 500 and wrecked a bunch of race cars.

To be kind, Jr. had a rough day at Daytona on Sunday. Between his pit miscues and the Vickers incident, he didn’t get off to a very good start to the season. He was frustrated, and when Vickers made the decision to protect his position (which he had every right to do), Jr. ran into the back of him unnecessarily.

Most people agree that, at best, Dale Jr. was impatient and should have been more careful to avoid pushing Vickers into a field full of cars. But something that’s missing from many discussions is a harsh reality that should have happened, but didn’t -- Dale Jr. should have been penalized for rough driving just like Jason Leffler was punished Saturday in the Nationwide race.

Restrictor plate racing bunches up all the drivers, which raises a whole different set of safety issues and makes less things acceptable as far as rough driving. In Saturday’s race, Leffler ran into Steven Wallace and was penalized for five laps. On Sunday, Jr. ran into Vickers and was not penalized at all.

Was it because his name is Earnhardt? Many would argue just that. Others are saying it was just a racing deal and no penalty was required.

Maybe they’re right and it was just a racing deal. But NASCAR has to make up their mind. Either moves like this at restrictor plate tracks will be equally punished regardless of who the driver is, or neither driver should have been punished. But they can’t have it both ways.

I think a more reasonable penalty for both drivers would have been one lap. And while I’m not a conspiracy theorist regarding Dale Jr. and NASCAR, it’s hard to argue with the people who believe he got special treatment and Leffler did not this past weekend.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Now we’ll find out who’s really good

Speedweeks and Daytona are like that really good appetizer that you eat so much of, you forget that you actually came for the main course.

The restrictor plate action, while scary at times, is fast and furious, and barring a weather snafu, fans come out of Speedweeks with a smile on their face.

What’s easy to forget is this -- Daytona means absolutely nothing as far as who will be successful in 2009. Remember last year, when the Penske cars of Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman ran 1-2 at Daytona? Now, remember how the rest of their year went?


This year, that meaninglessness is exaggerated by the weather ending the race early. Not only is there the usual situation of restrictor plate racing not telling us anything about who will be good at California, Vegas and beyond, but the finishing order is so jumbled up because of the weather that it’s possible nobody who is currently in the top 12 will be around come Chase time. The points are going to be scrambled so much over the next month or so it’s going to be dizzying.

The flashy kickoff is over, and now it’s time for the stories that drive this sport to play out.
Tony Stewart was great as usual at Daytona, but can his new cars compete on the non-plate tracks, or will he struggle? Will Mark Martin really be able to compete with the young stars at age 50? Is Joey Logano up to the task of Cup racing?

When looking for answers to those questions, throw away your Daytona notes, as those questions will begin to be answered this week.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Earnhardt’s greatest legacy might be safety innovations his death inspired

Next time you see your favorite driver take an extremely hard hit on the track and escape with little to no injury, look to the sky and thank Dale Earnhardt.

Though it seems like only yesterday, eight years ago NASCAR’s man in black took that ill-fated trip into the wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500, and set up the most sweeping set of technological changes to benefit driver safety in the sport’s history.

The deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in 2000 were not enough. Their names were not big enough for the sport to care.

But in February 2001, when Earnhardt -- their superstar who had made the sport a phenomenon -- died, it was clear to NASCAR’s bigwigs that something had to be done. The HANS device was required for drivers, to stabilize neck movement during wrecks and prevent basilar skull fractures like the one that killed Earnhardt and others. The journey toward soft walls, which have no doubt saved some lives, was almost immediately begun. Finally, NASCAR began the project that would end up becoming today’s “Car of Tomorrow,” which focuses more on keeping the driver safe than the old car.

The name Earnhardt still inspires many debates to this day, such as whether he was too aggressive and a bully or just a great driver, but there‘s one thing that can‘t be argued about the Intimidator -- Today’s drivers can feel much safer doing their jobs every week because of the changes that have been made in the sport because of how he died.

It should have been enough when Petty, Irwin and Roper died, and maybe Earnhardt would be alive if the changes in safety had come sooner. But that’s all in the past now, and we can’t change what happened.

On this day, I look back with fondness on the great memories I have of seeing Earnhardt compete, and think about how much different this sport is on so many levels because he was a part of it. But in addition to all the great moves he pulled on Sundays, Earnhardt’s safety legacy is at least equally important.

There’s no way to calculate how many drivers are still alive because of the innovations directly inspired by his death.

Field back to normal size for California
The gaggle of cars that made it way to Daytona has been whittled down to a respectable 48 for the California race. That number includes many teams (such as the #71 driven by David Gilliland, the #73 of Mike Garvey, the #37 of Tony Raines, the #51 of David Starr and the #64 of Todd Bodine) who likely won’t run the full season. That’s good news for newly formed teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing and the Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek self-owned teams. With fields like this, they should be able to run the full season without too many worries on qualifying day.

Special section Thursday
For those of you in Southeast Michigan, The Oakland Press will be publishing a special NASCAR section in Thursday’s edition of the newspaper. It will feature driver capsules, features stories, columns, a full season schedule and more. Look for it on your newsstands Thursday.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Daytona 500 ending a damp shame

Consider me underwhelmed.

After an amazing Speedweeks that was full of excitement, we end on this -- an announcer saying “The Daytona 500 is over” while everyone stands around in the rain.

That’s weak with a capital W.

Part of me is happy for Matt Kenseth, who’s long been one of my favorite drivers. I’ve watched him put on some awesome races since his Busch Series days in the late 1990s battling Dale Earnhardt Jr. for titles. I don’t fault Matt for being in the front when the rain fell. He drove up there from the very back and earned the win fair and square.

But I hate races that end that way. It’s unfair to the fans. I’d rather see it end at 1 a.m. than see an ending like that. The only people happy about rain wins are the drivers who finish in the very front, and even they would probably be prouder of the win if they could race for it.

And the worst part is this was all preventable. Why the hell did this race start at 3:30 p.m.? From what I can remember, the Daytona 500 has always seen the green flag by no later than 2 p.m. The TV networks’ obsession with every single race ending under the lights robbed the fans of a decent finish today, and they should bump up the start to 1 p.m. next year. That way, we could have more time to wait out the rain if it comes.

The true fans will wait. I once saw a race live that ended at 1 a.m. at Atlanta Motor Speedway after many rain delays. I was there all day and loved every second. Don’t call the race just to please the complainers who don’t want to sit through a rain delay, or to avoid interrupting a television schedule.

The racing was decent while it lasted, except for a bunch of boneheaded moves by Dale Jr., who didn’t have his head screwed on straight Sunday. He caused a big wreck and made several pit miscues. He better hope the rest of the year doesn’t play out like that.

Thumbs up to A.J. Allmendinger for a third-place run after racing in to the 500 on Thursday. Someone needs to get him a full-year sponsorship. On the flip side, rookie Joey Logano wrecked early and finished 43rd.

This may be the first year ever that the California race is better than Daytona … that’s how weak Sunday was. Congratulations to Kenseth, but deep down in my mind I’m going to pretend this waste of a race never happened.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Angry Tony Stewart vs. Goodyear continues to provide entertainment

I’m not much for superstition, but I’m pretty sure Ryan Newman is cursed. I first started to notice it last year, when every time I picked him on my Fantasy Racing team, he would have mechanical problems or crash. I chalked it up to a struggling Penske team.

Now before the Daytona 500 has even begun, he’s already wrecked a couple cars and blown an engine in his new ride with Tony Stewart’s team. The guy has loads of talent, but the racing Gods are not being kind to him lately. To be safe, I’ll recommend you all stay away from him in Fantasy Racing this year.

This brings me back to the most entertaining topic of the day. Newman’s latest wreck came when a Goodyear tire blew and he was then run into by his own teammate (and boss) -- Stewart.

Stewart, understandably, is mad at Goodyear, which has recalled several bad tires already this week, and claims it’s the tire company’s fault Newman wrecked and both he and his teammate will use backups on Sunday and start from the back. For the record, Goodyear insists the tire may have been punctured.

A reporter facing Tony at a press conference when something like this happens better wear body armor, since this time he’s double pissed.

Here are some of Tony’s verbal gems from today that reinforce just why I like the guy so much.

-- “It’s just frustrating because the gold and blue down there are the cause of another deal. I’m just so tired of talking about Goodyear it’s ridiculous. I’m just over it.”
-- “Ah, it’s just a Goodyear right rear tire. So, same thing everybody has been talking about all week. Same stuff that we always talk about every year is the failures that Goodyear has. I think that’s part of their marketing campaign. The more we talk about it, the more press they get. I think they forget that it’s supposed to be in a good way, not a bad way.”
-- “Us talking about them right now isn’t going to change anything because it falls on deaf ears and that won’t change.”
-- “Don’t get (Goodyear) anywhere near me. Don’t bring them anywhere close; don’t let them come close. I don’t want anything to do with them.”
-- “We’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m ticked right now. I’m not happy, I’m not cordial, I’m not nice, I’m not anything right now, and I shouldn’t be. If it was because two guys wrecked and it was a driver’s mistake, that’s one thing. But a manufacturer that has the sole deal here, they don’t have any competition and they can’t give us something to keep us from having problems like this. So I don’t know. I’m just amazed at how much everybody kisses their butts right now.”

And my favorite Stewart reply of the day, when some really unwise reporter asked him how the wreck affected his chances of winning the 500: “I don’t know, rocket scientist. I’m sitting here with a back-up car, what do you think?”

Welcome back, Angry Tony. Anyone looking for an autograph, I suggest waiting until next week at California. Also, Goodyear officials, I suggest you don’t try to go iron things out with Stewart. I wouldn’t put him past clocking you square in the jaw.

When it comes down to it, you can call Stewart anything you want, but he’s as honest as it gets in this sport, and I’m glad being a team owner hasn’t changed him in that regard. Also, he is showing that he truly cares about this race team and succeeding, something that is a huge factor in whether that success will actually come.

Stay mad Tony, and put that energy into getting the backup strong and doing well Sunday.

But cheer up a little: You did win the Nationwide race!

And your 500 winner is ...
The Hendrick cars have this place figured out, and one of them should come out on top. Your Daytona 500 winner is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will hold off Mark Martin at the line. I would have thrown Stewart in as a wild card possibility, but the backup makes that unlikely.

Keselowskis end up mid-pack
It ended up as an average day in the Nationwide Series for both of the Michigan-born Keselowski brothers, but could have been worse because both had incidents. Brad ran in the lead pack most of the day, then smacked the wall late and ended up 22nd. Brian held his own all day, despite getting spun early in the race, and ended up 25th. Even better news was there appeared to be a sponsor on his hood. Even a one-race deal is good news for the K-Automotive team.

Remembering Rodney
It's easy to forget him because he never actually made a Cup race, but Rodney Orr died fifteen years ago at Daytona. The 34-year-old had won the 1993 Goody's Dash championship and was looking to go Cup racing in 1994. On a mock qualifying run during practice, his car lifted and the roof of his car smashed at 175+ mph into the wall and the catchfence. The horrific accident was particularly brutal on Orr, and his autopsy photos were later released publicly, something that Dale Earnhardt's family thankfully avoided.

R.I.P. Rodney.

Edwards will knock off Johnson, take the Sprint Cup this season

I know I’m hardly original, but I don’t see how I can go against what I have been thinking all offseason -- that Roush driver Carl Edwards will the valiant warrior who in 2009 restores competitiveness to NASCAR by taking the trophy that seems to have been attached indefinitely to the #48 team of Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports.

So why not Johnson again? Simple -- four in a row is really, really hard to do. And the way Carl charged at the end of 2008, you can tell he wants that tire more than ever. He was consistent all year, even moreso than Johnson, won nine races, and if not for a boneheaded move at Talladega he could have taken the title last year.

Johnson will no doubt be a force once again, I just see him being outlasted this year by Edwards. Another contender is Kyle Busch, who has freakish racing talent, but he’s too erratic to be counted on for the consistency needed in the Chase. He’ll win a title at some point, but not in 2009.

No, Edwards and his AFLAC duck will be gracing our screens so much this year we’ll be quacking in our sleep. Carl has been called a lot of things, but a quitter is not on that list. His kamikaze move to try to pass Johnson during a race last year was a perfect example of just how dedicated Edwards is to reaching the pinnacle of his sport.

Jimmie Johnson has been the thorn in Edwards’ side since he rose to prominence, and we can look forward to another great duel between the two of them this year.

The difference will be the victor.

Keselowski qualifies
A solid top-20 qualifying effort put Oakland County’s Brian Keselowski into today’s Nationwide, only a handful of positions behind his own brother on the grid. With the exception of Brad’s failure to qualify for the 500, it’s safe to say the Keselowski family is so far very happy with how things are going at Speedweeks.

Truck race excellent as usual
As usual, the unrestricted Trucks put on one of the best shows of the week at Daytona with an awesome race that featured both awesome racing and some scary wrecks. A driver named Brent Raymer had a wreck that was so scary it looked like something out of a Stephen King movie. His car, mangled and deformed from an initial hard impact with the wall, had its throttle stick and smashed straight back into the wall a second time. Luckily he was OK, but wrecks like this and the one Geoff Bodine had at Daytona in a truck years ago show that some serious sparks can fly in this race.

Meanwhile, back up front, something strange happened. Kyle Busch didn’t win. It looked for a while like he was going to get around Todd Bodine and take the win, but it wasn’t to be. The final five laps were nail biting, as a hard-charging J.R. Fitzpatrick passed nearly a dozen cars after taking new tires, testing the yellow-line rule along the way. The young former Canadian Series champ could only get up to fourth, though. Amazingly, Bodine won his fourth-straight Daytona/Talladega race in the Truck Series. The odds against that are phenomenal, especially since Bodine doesn't even have a sponsor this year.

No matter what they do to this series, including adding the silly new “tires OR fuel” pit stop rule, I don’t think they could make it boring.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Do-it-yourselfers like Brian Keselowski are worth rooting for

To the casual NASCAR fan, the name Brian Keselowski probably isn’t even on their radar. They know the big names in the sport’s minor leagues, including Brian’s younger brother Brad, but most of the rest of the field is nameless to them.

But do-it-yourselfers like Brian are a flashback to the older days of NASCAR, when drivers literally drove to the track and drove home in the same car they raced, and are worth rooting for.

He has no sponsor, and the only people who came down to Daytona with him were his dad Bob, his uncle Ron and a few people who work for the team. Assuming Brian, a Rochester Hills resident, can qualify today for Saturday’s race, he’ll likely have to assemble a pit crew down in Daytona who will take care of his stops.

To say the team is on a tight budget would be an understatement, but Keselowski’s current plan is to attempt to qualify the #26 car for the entire season, and hopefully attract some sponsorship along the way.

Brian’s goal is very simple: He just wants to race. That’s his life and what he’s always known. He’s not some big shot who’s full of himself like some of the big stars have shown they can be. He’s just a guy who wants to succeed at the sport he’s dedicated his life to, and is willing to put his own money and his own sweat into the team.

He doesn’t have outlandish dreams, and doesn’t expect he’ll be competing with the likes of Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards for wins anytime soon. At the same time, he’s not willing to sit out the sport just because the road is difficult. If the breaks don’t come to him, he’s decided to try and make his own.

In an era of NASCAR where the big teams dominate so much and cup interlopers like Busch and Edwards will likely steal most of the headlines this year, it’s hard not to root for a guy like Brian to succeed in the Nationwide Series. He was 32nd out of 50 drivers on the speed charts in practice, so there’s a good chance he’ll be in the show.

If Keselowki can make the race at Daytona, that would a great start toward his goal of making a full-season run, and would be a great win for the little guy. The 43rd place car in the 2008 Nationwide race at Daytona took home more than $42,000, which would mean infinitely more to Brian than the big teams.

Riggs, Mayfield, Stewart, Allmendinger are all great stories on Duels day

One world can describe the outcome of Thursday’s qualifying Duels at Daytona -- Redemption.

While part of the headlines today is that Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch won the two races, that means very little. Both had guaranteed starting spots in the race and your position on the starting grid means almost nothing at Daytona.

The truly great stories that emerged were the four drivers who raced their way into the 500, all of whom had a big hill to climb when they unloaded their cars at Daytona.

Both Mayfield and Riggs, dumped from their Cup rides in 2008, share the same story of instant achievement that I am still amazed can happen in this sport. One month ago, neither of the teams they drive for (Tommy Baldwin Racing, and Mayfield’s self-owned team) existed. Baldwin tapped Riggs to drive for him and the team went into hyperdrive to get ready for Daytona, even without a sponsor. Mayfield did the same, and somehow managed to pull in a sponsor in this grim economy.

You could see the emotion in Mayfield’s face after the race, something that you don’t see too often in the increasingly corporate, sponsor-listing Victory Lane ceremonies. You could tell he did absolutely everything he could to make this race, and was still amazed he had done it.

Both cars were longshots to make the 500 just because the teams were so new. But sure enough, they both were able to get in the old-fashioned way: Racing their way in. It’s doubtful they’ll have the goods to fight with drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon for the win, but Riggs and Mayfield looked very strong in the draft at times and could get a solid finish if they keep their cars off the wall.

Another great story is A.J. Allmendinger, who was forced to qualify on time due to some last-minute points wrangling. Despite that unfair situation, A.J. kept his cool and raced his way in. And it‘s a good thing he did, because that's the only way he was going to be in the 500. For a guy who’s caught a lot of tough breaks over the past two years, it’s nice to see Allmendinger finally achieving some success and stability in NASCAR.

Finally, despite his big name in the sport, even Tony Stewart racing his way in is a good story. He left a prime ride at Gibbs to strike out as an owner/driver, and everyone said he was crazy. And even though his new team is affiliated with Hendrick, it’s still a new team and it’s pretty impressive that he almost won his Duel and ran up front all day. He had a guaranteed spot due to being a past champion, but running so well had to be a great confidence booster for the team.

Among the drivers who wasn’t able to race his way into the 500 was Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, but he will attempt many more Cup races this year and beyond, so it’s not the end of the world for him. He tried to stay out when everyone else pitted to gain an advantage, but that ended up being a mistake.

Overall, the racing was impressive Thursday, and it’s hard to take issue with the guys who were able to qualify. All made a statement that they have the goods to compete in this sport's top level.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

2009 Chase lineup will include Vickers, Ragan and Martin; But no Stewart

As the season approaches, I’ve consulted my crystal ball (and also my brain full of useless NASCAR facts), and here is my vision of who will make the Chase for the Cup come this autumn. Listed in no particular order, here are the drivers who will be battling for the championship in 2009.

-- Jimmie Johnson: Nothing to say here other than he and Chad Knaus are the greatest dynamic duo in NASCAR since Gordon and Evernham. An annual title contender.

-- David Ragan: After nearly sneaking into the Chase in 2008 and shocking the NASCAR world, Ragan is on track to actually make the field this time. He’s matured so much since his shaky debut season in Cup, and now can match up to the rest of Jack Roush’s talented stable. His star will continue to shine in 2009.

-- Jeff Gordon: I was tempted to say he’d slip out of the Chase in 2009, as he has once before. But then I realized this is Jeff Gordon, the man who sits atop nearly every record among current drivers. I don’t think he’ll be a championship contender, but he’ll race his way into the Chase.

-- Kevin Harvick: Last year, it was uncanny how Harvick would always seem to finish 6th or 7th, no matter where he started and where he was running all day. Look for more of that kind of consistency. But unless he starts to win races, he won’t be a title contender.

-- Carl Edwards: Everyone is saying he’s the best bet for the title, and based on his amazing year in 2008 I can understand why. He and Johnson should be among the last dogs in the fight in 2009.

-- Brian Vickers: The surprise entry this year in the Chase will be Vickers, the up-and-coming Red Bull driver who put on a great run in 2008, but didn’t reach the top 12. The Red Bull team will only grow stronger in 2009, and Vickers has the talent to make the Chase. If he does, he’s as much a contender as anyone else.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.: His second year at Hendrick means Jr. will be more comfortable, and could make a serious run at the title. He’ll have to get past his teammates to win it, though.

-- Mark Martin: The fourth Hendrick driver, the respected Martin has finished second four times in the point standings. This year, he’ll do all he humanly can to make it to that No. 1 spot.

-- Greg Biffle: Finished 2008 on a tear, briefly emerging as a Chase presence. This year, he’ll try to make that last all through the Chase.

-- Matt Kenseth: Some call him vanilla and unexciting, but Kenseth knows how to finish consistently and always seems to find a way into the Chase, even if he hits a rough patch during the year.

-- Kyle Busch: Point blank, Busch can drive anything on four wheels and do it well. He’s kind of crazy at times, but that’s part of why he’s a special racer. Kyle will be back and win a lot more races. The question is can he maintain the consistency needed to fight for a championship.

-- Jeff Burton: Mr. Reliable. You can always count on Jeff to be running up front at the end of the day, even if you barely saw him all race. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t win a ton of races, but you’ll see him in the Chase once again.

Tony Stewart will threaten to make the Chase, but adjusting to a new crew chief, a new team and a new role as co-owner will cause him just enough trouble to leave him out of the hunt for the Cup. He’ll be back soon enough, but 2009 will not be his year to shine. He’ll be the best of the rest and finish 13th in points.

Also putting in a good run this year will be Joey Logano, the guy who replaced Tony at Joe Gibbs Racing. Unfortunately, there are so many great drivers with much more experience than Logano and it will be extremely difficult for him to compete for a Chase spot. He is going to make some rookie mistakes, and that will cost him a spot in the top 12. He’ll compete for titles in the future, but not this year. Also, his cohort at Gibbs, Denny Hamlin, will not have the goods to remain among the Chase contenders.

With four cars at Richard Childress Racing, there’s no way all of them make the Chase. I see both Clint Bowyer and Casey Mears missing in 2009.

Jamie McMurray will improve, but all four of his teammates will outrun him once again this season and he’ll miss the Chase.

Finally, Kasey Kahne will try his best, but still won’t be able to make the Chase. Once again, no Dodges will be among the top 12.

I see Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer missing out on the Chase this season, to be replaced by David Ragan, Brian Vickers and Mark Martin.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Front row sitters Truex, Martin both have something to prove in 2009

Entering 2009, Martin Truex Jr.’s career is at an important crossroads.

Once viewed as a rising star after winning two Busch Series championships, he broke out in 2007 -- racking up one win, seven top-5s and 14 top-10s, and making the Chase. Unfortunately, 2008 did not work out so well for Truex, as amid the turmoil at DEI he could only muster three top-5s, none of which were a win, and did not make the Chase.

He enters 2009 with the newly merged Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, and by taking the pole at Daytona Truex is trying to send a very clear message -- He intends to climb back in ‘09, not continue to slide into mediocrity.

Mark Martin also has a lot on his mind these days. He’s back full-time, for the last time he says, at what is arguably the best team in NASCAR -- Hendrick Motorsports. After several false starts at retirement, the four-time bridesmaid in the points standings decided he couldn’t resist taking one more stab at the Cup.

In a way, Martin has pressure from both sides. On one hand, many who believe he still has the ability to win a title have put high expectations on Martin for 2009. On the other hand, he has his detractors (including one NASCAR writer who says he's the most overrated of all time) who say he’s overhyped and he will likely fail once again this year to achieve his dream. So he has to live up the hype of his supporters, and prove his detractors wrong.

These two men will lead the field to the green flag in the Daytona 500 in a week, and they will be among the most determined in the field to take that checkered flag.

For Truex, it’s about getting the respect of the garage and showing him that he can run strong for the new EGR team. In a way he’s in a job audition all year, because he only is signed through 2009. Depending how things work out with EGR this year, a season full of solid performances and maybe some wins would likely make some higher-profile teams put Truex on their radar and try to court him for 2010 and beyond.

For Martin, it’s about one thing: Winning races and, hopefully, the Cup. There’s a reason Martin has become the Brett Favre / Michael Jordan of the Cup series by bluffing so many times on retirement: He REALLY wants to win the championship and loves to win races. I bet Martin still kicks himself when he looks back to 1990, the year a 46-point penalty for an illegal carburetor spacer cost him the title (Dale Earnhardt won it by 26 points.) If Mark had won that title, you wouldn’t see him on the track this year.

Nobody doubts Truex is talented, but last year’s dip in performance lowered his stock a little in the sport. This is the year he needs to bring it back up before signing a new deal … wherever he ends up. So Truex’s drive to succeed should be on overdrive, as it needs to be.

A truly talented racer (don‘t believe that writer; If anything, Mark is underrated), Mark has the respect of every person in the garage. He will run up front regularly, but to him it’s about proving he still has the goods to go for the title. The monkey on his back is enormous and he wants to throw it off before riding off into the sunset.

When they drive past the flag stand for the first time in the 500 next week, these two front row sitters will begin their missions. Time will tell whether those missions are achieved.

Did he really win that race? Harvick is last man standing at end of wild Shootout

Racing at Daytona means many things.

Exciting three-wide and four-wide racing? I expected that, and got it.
Cars bouncing all over the place like pinballs, leading me to scream “Oh S---” and expect a wreck every lap? Once again, check.
Lots of different leaders? Check.

I’m going to add one thing to that list: Kevin Harvick surprise victories.
Of the 28 drivers on the track, Harvick was among the most quiet all night. His name was barely mentioned, as everyone else went for the lead but him. He hung around the middle of the pack most of the night, never making himself appear to be a contender.

So how did he win this race? Easy -- he was there when it counted, just like he was in 2007 when he literally nosed past Mark Martin for the Daytona 500 victory. Literally a few seconds before the final big wreck on Saturday night, Harvick passed Jamie McMurray and took over the lead … just in time once again.

You have to give Harvick credit, as he could have easily been caught up in some of the many wrecks that plagued the 75-lap Shootout. When the dust cleared, the race had more different leaders than ever before, and only 13 drivers finished the race after more caution flags were thrown than ever before. That’s action of both the good and bad kind, so regardless of why you watch, you didn’t go away from this race disappointed.

For a while there, it looked like Jamie McMurray might bring his Roush Ford to Victory Lane. He was leading with just a couple turns to go, but as happens so often that doesn‘t mean you are going to win. I predicted in the offseason that McMurray would see great improvement as he tries to impress Roush enough to keep his ride, as Roush must trim to four teams for 2010. It appears that resurgence is already starting, but unless Roush dumps David Ragan (not likely), McMurray is still likely to move to Yates (a Roush affiliate) or elsewhere in 2010.

Another driver who, like Harvick, was bobbing and weaving his way through the endless wrecks was Jeff Gordon, who I saw make two or three evasive moves during one of the early wrecks and ended up fourth. He may not be what he once was, but Gordon still has the talent to compete and stay alive.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart showed off his Daytona prowess in his new ride, finishing third.

Still in search of full-year sponsorship, A.J. Allmendinger very quietly put on a great run in the Shootout, finishing fifth, right ahead of his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne. I’m amazed his teammate Reed Sorenson has the full season covered, but A.J. still does not. It’s obvious by now he’s a much more solid talent.

After a surge of success last year for the Red Bull team, it appears Brian Vickers is not going away. He was racing up front with the usual Daytona leader suspects (Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., etc.) like he belonged there. A pit strategy move didn’t work out for him, and he ended up 11th. I fully expect him to grab at least one race victory this season and anyone counting him out of the Chase is making a mistake, as he very well could make it.

My hope for the 500 is that we can keep the kind of exciting racing I saw up front all night Saturday without all of the wrecks. Based on how the cars are behaving on the track, I know this is not a likely scenario and wrecks are likely, but I’d rather not see 20 cars finish the Daytona 500.

Daytona odds and ends

-- Most disturbing visual of the day: Jimmie Johnson is apparently trying to do his best impression of Tony Stewart’s facial hair. I’m sorry, Jimmie, but there can be only one master of the perpetual 9 o'clock shadow, and that’s Tony. You’ll have to develop a new setup for that fuzz or create a new look. Maybe you can bring back that 1993-era Jeff Gordon mustache.

-- Bill Elliott led both Saturday practices for the Daytona 500. Yes, that Bill Elliott. Either it’s 1992 again or the Wood Brothers, who are running a limited schedule this year, may actually have a decent car. It’s only Daytona, but I can’t remember the last time the team was that high on the speed charts.

-- I didn’t catch the race, but it sounds like the ARCA event Saturday at Daytona was the usual wreckfest and pretty brutal on the drivers, as three of them ended up in the hospital, including one (Larry Hollenbeck of Kalamazoo, Michigan) who had to be extricated from his car. In a way, you could even blame Joey Logano’s Shootout wreck on the ARCA race, too. After finishing second in the ARCA race, Logano had to start in the back of the Shootout field after missing the Shootout drivers’ meeting because he was busy racing his ARCA car at the time. Just a few laps into the Shootout, he ended up caught up in someone else’s wreck.

-- After running no laps due to mechanical issues, there will be no Daytona 500 attempt for 74-year-old James Hylton, leaving 56 drivers seeking 43 spots (or more accurately, 21 drivers seeking the eight remaining spots).. It’s not surprising, but I would have liked to see him try to make it, as Hylton is a great story.

-- It's been a rough start to the season for Scott Speed: Two wrecks in two days.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Welcome to Daytona, Joey! First practice sessions are a wild ride for Logano

The car just wasn’t working for him.

Was it Joey not liking a setup likely based on data from Tony Stewart’s days in the car? Was it longtime #20 crew chief Greg Zipadelli not yet knowing what the kid likes in his race car? Or was it just first-day jitters for a teenager about to make his first Daytona start in a Cup car?

Whatever it was, Friday was a day of adjustment for Joey Logano and the #20 team, as well as the rest of the Shootout field, as the teams got to hit the track for the first time in 2009. Logano and others looked were very sideways at times as the teams tried to figure out what kind of car they had unloaded and how to fix it.

The only real highlights of the negative kind came when Paul Menard cut a tire and ended up wrecking Scott Speed. There was minor contact between Reed Sorenson and a few cars, but nobody got real hurt. Also, Kyle Busch got a little shove and some damage in the back (somehow I don’t think that’s the last time someone will hit him in 2009!).

So while it was quiet on the accident front, one thing was common -- very loose racecars. Logano, who normally doesn’t mind a loose car, was among those who struggled the most and never seemed comfortable in the car. The #20 team is a top-notch organization and will no doubt talk to Joey and figure out what’s going on, just how loose they can stay and still have him feel comfortable. This year will be an endless series of tests and learning experiences for Logano, especially when he goes to tracks where he has never driven a Cup car, which is pretty much all of them.

And some days, regardless of how good a driver he is, Logano is going to look like a nervous teenager when he’s out on the track. It’s hard to never be nervous when you’re age 18 and racing against the best in the sport on a weekly basis. This is a whole different ball of wax than the Nationwide Series, where he was immediately a big fish. In Cup, he’s a small fish until he does something to prove that he isn’t.

Friday’s practices were a microcosm of what this year will be for Logano. He’ll be presented with new situation after new situation, and how well he adjusts will determine how successful his rookie year will be. With so much pressure being placed on him to continue the #20 team’s winning history, it will be a true test of both ability and character.

Channeling A.J. Foyt
Tony Stewart’s longtime hero, A.J. Foyt, will be in attendance at the Daytona 500, in Stewart’s pit after accepting Tony’s invitation. But based on how he was driving in Friday’s practice sessions, it looks like Stewart won’t need any help going fast. As expected, a change of car didn’t change the fact that Tony is one of the best drivers at Daytona. As I’ve said in the past, the restrictor plate is the ultimate equalizer, and it makes it possible for cars that might not be up to snuff at regular tracks to compete for wins. (see: Regan Smith at Talladega in 2008)

I still think Tony and his new team will struggle some once the team goes to California and other nonplate tracks, but it’s clear he is still a contender at Daytona, and former 500 winner Foyt might be back in Victory Lane to congratulate the man who once idolized him as he came up through the racing ranks.

The other A.J. is fast, and he’ll need to be Thursday
You don’t want to put too much stock in Daytona practice speeds, but still it was nice to see A.J. Allmendinger running strongly in the top-5 during the first couple practices of the season. His #44 will have to race into the 500, and Richard Petty is apparently not happen that is the case. Petty claims NASCAR told him during the offseason that the #44 car would be guaranteed a spot, then all the point swapping began and their word proved false. My guess is this is more PR than anything … he’s been around NASCAR longer than anyone in the garage, and should know very well that what the bigwigs tell you one day might not be true the next. The NASCAR rulebook has long been written in erasable ink.

Yet another 500 entry
Just when you thought the list of entries was set, Mike Garvey has entered the #73 JaniKing Dodge and will attempt to qualify for the 500. That makes 57 total entries, meaning 14 drivers will be out of the lineup when the Duels are done on Thursday. If a few of these random entries gets lucky in the Duels, some of the more well-known teams may be left on the sidelines.

Cool CAT
Of all the drivers who changed sponsors, my vote for best-looking new car goes to Jeff Burton. His Caterpillar-sponsored car looked sharp, and had me seeing flashbacks to his brother Ward‘s days with the CAT sponsorship. Also sharp is the new UPS-sponsored car of David Ragan, which is an improvement over previous UPS car designs.

Harvick crew members can’t say no to drugs
Though they apparently knew the tests were coming, two pit crew members for Kevin Harvick Inc.’s truck team have been relieved of their duties after failing their recently mandated preseason drug test. So far, they’re the only announced failures, but we could see more as random testing will be done each week, including at least two drivers from each series. It was somewhat ironic that this team saw the first failed tests, as Harvick has led the fight for harsher drug testing in the sport.

This was all brought on by former Truck Series driver Aaron Fike (who once drove for KHI) saying he once raced under the influence of heroin, a mighty scary thought. I don’t foresee another driver doing something as stupid as Fike did, but it’s likely some crew members will take their chances during the year and end up fired as a result. There are many situations outside of the sport where I might argue against the need for drug testing, but when it comes to NASCAR this is the right approach. Lives are on the line every week, and anybody who is impaired and might make an error in judgment should not be in the garage.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Keselowski will have to race his way into Daytona 500

In a move I did not expect, NASCAR has blocked the transfer of owner points from the #41 Earnhardt-Ganassi car to the #09 Phoenix Racing machine which will be piloted by Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski at Daytona. Instead, Marcos Ambrose will be locked into the top 35 and have a guaranteed spot in the first five races.

As much as I want Keselowski to succeed, I am on record as being against NASCAR allowing teams to work out deals to buy their way into the top 35 and glad this deal didn‘t go through. The basis for the denial is that Brad will not be running the full Cup schedule this year, and would have been considered a part-time rookie driver in a fifth car at EGR. NASCAR has decided that does not meet their criteria for an allowable transfer, and I have to give them a little credit.

We’re past the point where this points swapping has turned into silliness, and it needs to be cut off ASAP.

I’m still confident Brad can make the show, despite the large number of cars trying out. He put on great performances at both of the 2008 Nationwide races at Daytona, and the Phoenix Racing cars are usually stout at Daytona. If he stays out of the wall in next week’s Duels, you should see him racing in the 500.

NASCAR fans have plenty to be excited about as the 2009 season kicks off

I love the smell of burning rubber in the morning.

Each year, around the end of January, the heart of every NASCAR fan starts to beat a little faster as they await the return of the sport we all know and love to our television sets and local racetracks. We know that once the cars hit the track at Daytona, we’ll have our fix for the next ten months.

Call me crazy if you want, but this year I’m sensing even more excitement among race fans as the season is set to kick off this weekend with the Bud Shootout.

Maybe it’s all the team mergers and alliances formed in the offseason that have fans wondering who’s going to succeed at these new teams in 2009, and who’s going to fade into the background and be forgotten.

Maybe it’s the hope of so many fans that someone will finally dethrone the dynamic duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, who have claimed three straight titles.

Maybe it’s the economic uncertainty in this country that has everyone a little down and even more in the mood for some good old-fashioned entertainment of the 200 mph variety.

Maybe it’s the curiosity about whether drivers who made big gambles by switching teams, most notably Tony Stewart, can live up to the hype and high expectations surrounding their new endeavors.

Maybe it’s the fans wondering whether a driver fresh out of high school can really make an impact in a series that historically has never been kind to drivers still fighting acne. Is he really as good as "sliced bread"?

Whatever it is, I’m on pins and needles as we wait to see what happens in 2009. The world of the Cup series is a lot different than it was just months ago, and I don’t know what is going to happen. Outside of confidently saying Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch will each win several races, there’s very little that is guaranteed.

Will a driver nobody is talking about step up out of nowhere and snag a couple wins?
Can the Dodges get back in the Chase?
After the 55+ teams try out at Daytona, how many will show up every week? Will the fields ever be short or contain several start-and-parks?
Will the testing ban allow smaller teams to have a better shot at competing with the big boys, or will it hurt those smaller teams?

Only time will tell us the answers to these questions and so many more.

Whatever happens, I’ll put my money on one thing: It’ll be entertaining to watch it all unfold.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stealing spots: Teams once again scheming their way into top 35 in points

It’s been done before, and will be done again in the future, but that doesn’t mean it bothers me any less or is in the spirit of fair competition.

In order to guarantee his driver Sam Hornish Jr. a starting position in the first five races of 2009, Roger Penske has bought the #22 car and the owner points from that team will transfer to Penske’s team. Of course, he’ll switch them to the #77 and Hornish can breathe easier on qualifying day for the first five weeks of the year.

Penske is not the only team owner doing this, as it appears there are deals in the works to transfer owner points from teams that are no longer running to the fourth Richard Childress car (driven by Clint Bowyer) and the #09 Phoenix Racing car (being driven by Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski at Daytona).

While I don’t deny that these last-minute points adjustments will be done within the rules of NASCAR (whatever that‘s worth), I find it very dishonest and think it goes against the very idea of the sport.

I’m not a fan of the top 35 rule in the first place, and think the fastest cars should start each week, with an allotted number of provisionals to each team for the year. But the likelihood of that rule changing is close to zero, so I won’t waste my time explaining how ridiculous it is.

The bigger issue is that now that this top 35 rule is in place, it has created a system where each year teams who are not in the top 35 pull every shady-looking move they can think of to get their teams into the top 35 so they can have a guarantee starting spot for the first five races.

In addition to teams buying other teams with no intention of ever running that extra car (Do you really think Penske will run a fourth car this year? I don ‘t.), there are also swaps within teams, such as the one Penske did last year to give Hornish the points from Kurt Busch’s car, because Busch had a past champion’s provisional to fall back on. It’s somewhat ironic that even after that move, Hornish found himself once again in need a back-door deal to get a guaranteed spot this year.

The big losers in all this dealing are the teams left out of a rightful guaranteed starting spot because of the deals. This year, it appears Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger will now have to race their way into the Daytona 500. Instead of sliding up the points chart into the top 35 when a few cars stopped running, they will likely be back on the outside looking in.

Meanwhile, through one of these deals, John Andretti and the back marker #34 car will have a guaranteed starting spot at Daytona … while Ambrose and Allmendinger will probably have to make it through the qualifying races. Make any sense to you?

It shouldn’t, but it’s the kind of thing that happens when NASCAR goes against the spirit of competition by letting teams use business deals instead of fast cars to get their cars into the races.

Instead of ‘Go fast or go home’, it has become ‘Buy points or go home’.

Expectations too high?
In watching recent media coverage of the upcoming NASCAR season, I’ve noticed a couple opinions I’m hearing over and over that seem a bit out of whack.

Almost every commentator I hear is saying Tony Stewart WILL make the Chase. I don’t doubt he CAN, as Tony is tremendously talented. But to say with complete confidence that he WILL before his brand new car with a brand new team hits a track seems a bit premature. There are several strong Hendrick cars, several strong Gibbs cars, several strong RCR cars and several strong Roush cars that might not want to let Tony into that exclusive club of 12 drivers fighting for the title.

Also, everyone seems absolutely confident that Mark Martin WILL make the Chase and perhaps even compete for the title. I’m a big fan of Mark and believe he is probably the best driver never to win a title in the modern era, so he definitely has a shot at the Chase. But he will have to beat the same laundry list of drivers as Tony. And while he is at an elite team, he is the fourth car at Hendrick, and no matter how much they say all four cars are equal, it’s hard to believe Mark will be treated the same as three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.