Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

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

Monday, August 31, 2009

Qualifying, racing in rain exposes the truly talented drivers

As the saying goes, it all comes out in the wash.

In the NASCAR version of that adage, the rain at Montreal – and NASCAR’s increasing willingness to allow drivers to race on rain tires – has been a solid indicator of which drivers are truly up to facing tough obstacles like a wet racetrack.

This is not a revelation to fans of Formula 1 racing, who have seen over the years how the best drivers in that series --such as Michael Schumacher -- always seemed to end up in front when the rains came.

And sure enough, the front of the pack at Montreal represented the class of the field in terms of driving talent. Cup ringers Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, both highly talented drivers, were able to stay up front on the rain tires after the rain began to fall with less than 20 laps to go in the race. Even after getting caught up in a wreck late in the race, Busch was able to pass several cars and earn a top-10.

Then there was Edwards, who was on a mission to redeem himself after crashing out of the Grand-Am race Saturday while on the parade lap. (Find the video online. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen). He most certainly did redeem himself by doing the unthinkable … passing Marcos Ambrose on the last turn and winning the race.

Then there is Ambrose, a driver who has proven himself to be a real contender on ovals this year, and who has always been a threat to win on road courses. He was brilliant Saturday during qualifying, which was also in the rain, when he took the pole by running a full second faster than everyone else. Then on Sunday, he was brilliant and a lock to win the race … until the final turn, that is. In the three years the race has been run at Montreal, Ambrose has led more than 60 percent of the total laps run. But he has yet to win. I’m already putting my money on him to win next year.

Also up front all day was local favorite and former Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve.

In contrast to the solid driving up front, the rest of the field was engaged in bumper cars for much of the race, and it only got worse once the rain came. Antonio Perez, who is a decent road course driver, decided it would be good idea to spend the end of his race knocking Steven Wallace all over the track, and I’m amazed NASCAR didn’t penalize him for rough driving. Many of the other mid-pack drivers were clearly hanging on for dear life once the rains came, and hoping just to make it to the finish.

I’m sure there will still be a handful of fans who will continue to claim that racing in the rain is a bad idea, but I’m glad it’s been happening more and more lately … because it’s one of the purest tests of who is truly a talented driver and who still has a lot to learn.

One more thing: Note to self, send letter to Mike Helton and the France family … “That was a great weekend at Montreal. How about we get some rain tires for the Cup cars? I’d sure like to see the big boys do that at the Glen.”

Great run for Ranger
22-year-old Quebec native Andrew Ranger finished 3rd for a career-best day in the Nationwide series, and was even a threat to win the race. Add that to his 8 wins and 19 top-5s in the Canadian Tire series in only 34 career starts, and I’d say we have a good candidate for heading down to the U.S. and getting a shot full-time in the Nationwide series. If I was a team owner, he’d definitely be on my radar. Don’t be surprised if you see him in that #11 car, or another car, in the near future.

Nationwide COT will debut in 2010
It was announced this week that the Nationwide version of the Car of Tomorrow will be run in four races next season, starting with the July race at Daytona.

On one hand, this is good news, as the teams won’t be forced to create a stable of COTs and run them in every race next season. But still, I envision that with these tough economic times, it’s going to be hard for a lot of teams to come up with the money to build these extra cars for those few events where it’s required. It will be especially hard on smaller teams, so I expect the fields might come up short those weekends if enough people decide to stay home.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Kyle Busch closer to Chase, but must run perfectly next two races

Sitting 15th in points heading into Saturday night’s race at Bristol, Busch needed a solid run if he was going to have a shot at the Chase. He did that, winning to complete a Bristol sweep this season. He is now less than 40 points out of the Chase, with Brian Vickers close on his heels, as the two of them try to knock out the bubble drivers … including Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle.

Busch should be thankful he didn’t end up in the wall, as almost any other driver would have done to him if they had been as close as Mark Martin was on the last few laps of the race. If you look back at Bristol history, the situation at the end of the race -- with Martin right on Busch’s bumper, then underneath him in the turns – has almost always ended with at least one torn-up racecar and some flared tempers (Terry Labonte vs. Dale Earnhardt on several occasions, for example).

Busch is very lucky he was racing against perhaps the only driver in the field who wouldn’t wreck him in that situation. Mark Martin is a class act and doesn’t want to win that way, by knocking a guy out of the way. But if it had been anyone else … even Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon … chances are Busch would’ve gotten a not-so-friendly nudge with a few turns to go.

Due to Martin’s kind gesture, Busch remains a genuine Chase threat, but he can’t assume he will make it. It will take solid runs like he had at Bristol, at the very least a pair of top-10 finishes, for Busch to make the Chase field and compete for a title.

Ambrose shocks with top-3
I knew Marcos Ambrose would run well at Bristol, based on his solid top-10 finish in the spring. But I don’t think anyone predicted a top-3 finish. That’s what he got, and it should be clear to everyone who was still doubting that he is much more than a road course specialist. Look for big results from Marcos in the future as he adapts to the ovals more.

Start-and-parks dangerous up front
Somehow, the start-and-park team featuring once-competitive driver Dave Blaney qualified fourth for the Bristol race. When I saw this, I knew it was trouble, as that team always stops racing after a handful of laps. When you’re running up front at Bristol, that’s hard to do because so many drivers are bunched up in the front.

Sure enough, Blaney was slow from the get-go, and in the process of backing up caused a wreck that ruined Joey Logano’s day … and almost caused a bunch more wrecks. If they were just going to quit right away, Blaney’s team should have told NASCAR they didn’t plan to race and voluntarily gone to the back of the longest line. There’s no need to ruin other drivers’ days just because you managed to run a fast lap in qualifying and will just be in the other drivers' way. It doesn’t really matter to the team … they’re gong to finish 43rd regardless.

Good run for #71 team
In other start-and-park news, it was nice to see a sponsored #71 car attempting to complete a race and doing pretty solid, with David Gilliland running in the top-15 much of the race before being involved in an accident. It shows that team can do well if it ever gets some money behind it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hendrick blew it by letting Keselowski go to Penske

You can call it a Michigan marriage – Rochester Hills-raised Brad Keselowski will be replacing David Stremme and driving the #12 car in 2010 for billionaire Detroit businessman Roger Penske, according to several sources.

You can also call it Rick Hendrick screwing up big time, something he rarely does, by not making sure there was a Hendrick-affiliated seat open for Keselowski in 2010. By doing this, he has thrown away a guy who could have become the organization’s next superstar.

When this is all confirmed (something that should happen very soon), the Hendrick team will say there was nothing they could do. They’ll say Mark Martin’s comeback filled up the last seat and ruined Brad’s chances at making the main team, and they were not able to find him a place at a satellite team.

But that will be a bunch of baloney. Rick Hendrick is so ridiculously rich and has so many sponsors connected to his teams, he has the pull necessary to throw together a deal if it is really needed … as was the case here. Considering how well Brad has done for the Hendrick organization and its affiliates – winning and consistently running up front in both Cup and the Nationwide series – he should have used that pull to help a deal come together at Stewart-Haas Racing for a third car, or even at the #09 James Finch-owned team, for whom Brad won the Cup race at Talladega earlier this year. Worst-case scenario, he should have created a new affiliation with another team, and placed Keselowski there until Martin’s #5 seat opened up.

By not making something happen so he could keep Brad, Hendrick forced Keselowski to do something he did not want to do … go outside the Hendrick organization. Brad turned down an offer from Penske last season to drive the #12 car, thinking he was going to get a Hendrick Cup ride in 2010. Even after Martin said he was coming back in 2010, Brad held out hope for a Hendrick-affiliated ride (with SHR, Jr. Motorsports moving up, Finch’s team, a new affiliate), but it never came to be.
So it appears he did what he had to do, abandoning the team with which he rose to fame in the process. And the team has itself to blame.

Brad was loyal as long as he could be, but it’s clear he belongs in Cup, not Nationwide, next year, and apparently Hendrick just didn’t care enough about keeping him to make that happen.

The #12 car has been pretty weak this year, but that’s likely due in large part to the lackluster driver behind the wheel. While Penske is nowhere near Hendrick as far as overall team strength, Kurt Busch’s success shows the team can produce quality race cars, and a quality driver like Brad is the other piece of the puzzle that will earn a team wins and championships.

The only saving grace for Hendrick is that I could see a scenario where Brad struggles at Penske due to equipment issues, then goes back to Hendrick after Martin retires in a few years. So in the end, Hendrick may get Keselowski back after all. But that’s a tough risk to take, as Brad might take off in that Penske car and get used to his new team, and not want to go back. Also, I have a feeling Penske won’t want to give him up.

The bottom line: I say good for Brad, as he has to think of his future … and I’m glad to see him land at a team that potentially could give him winning cars. He’s a strong driver, and can win if given the right equipment, as he has shown so far in his short career.

And if the #12 car passes a Hendrick car for a victory sometime in 2010, Mr. Hendrick will no doubt be wondering what the hell he was thinking by letting Keselowski go.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Language problems in contract clear up quickly after Vickers win

The cover story is always a funny thing, especially when it’s not even necessary.

Months after allegedly agreeing verbally to a long-term contract, Brian Vickers officially signed Tuesday to stay on at Red Bull Racing for several more years. This comes, of course, just two days after he earned the team its first win in NASCAR’s top series.

It was already assumed he was coming back, but the win solidified the decision, right? Wrong, if you believe the story being spun. Apparently the contract was sent overseas to Austria, where the team is based, and when it came back some language has changed. Lawyers got involved, and Vickers and Red Bull were just adjusting that language before everyone signed on the dotted line.

Oddly enough, after two months of not being able to clear up these language issues, they magically were figured out within hours of his victory.

Funny how that works.

No one will ever know why it really took so long to get this deal done, when it was clear Vickers was coming back. I’m guessing there were a few issues being argued about, but by winning Vickers finally convinced the team to let him have his way on the issues.

Regardless of the details about what happened, it’s silly to spin a story that the timing of the deal is just a coincidence, and has nothing to do with the race win, as logic dictates that the win certainly played a part in getting the deal done ASAP.

What does Keselowski’s future hold?
The drama of where Brad Keselowski where end up next year, as far as a full-time Cup ride, continues to grow.

First, there was a report he was speaking to Roger Penske, possibly about the #12 ride, at length earlier this week.
Then, there was another report that there is another option, known only to Keselowski, that would allow him to stay affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports. This would not be the #09 Phoenix Racing team, which despite winning with Brad earlier this year has basically become a start-and-park team and couldn’t build decent enough cars to attract Keselowski as a full-time driver.

Tony Stewart has already said he is unlikely to expand to three team at Stewart-Haas Racing, so that means the unknown option is a brand new Hendrick affiliation. Speculation is on Richard Petty Motorsports, which may leave Dodge and go to either Toyota or Chevy, or other smaller teams like Furniture Row Racing.

Whatever it is, I suggest Hendrick work it out quickly. If all this drama and confusion drags on too long without a final decision, Keselowski might be left with no option other than leaving the organization at least temporarily until there’s an open spot for him, perhaps coming back into the fold in 2011 after a year abroad.

I don’t think that will happen, as he’s stated many times he wants to stay in the Hendrick organization, but the Hendrick people need to seal the deal so Brad isn’t tempted to jump ship … especially since many other teams, including Penske, would love to woo him to their side.

-- I wonder if when they decided to include Jeremy Mayfield’s former stepmom as a witness against him, NASCAR knew she was a crazy woman. After her incident his week of allegedly trespassing on Mayfield’s property, banging on his doors, assaulting his employees and threatening to kill him, I don’t think she’ll be taking the witness stand next year when this circus goes to trial. Mayfield’s lawyers have a lot of ammo now that one of NASCAR’s witnesses is acting out and showing her lack of credibility.

-- Instead of racing suits, last year’s Chase contenders, plus a few other former champs, will put on their monkey suits and visit with President Obama today. I find these events kind of funny for a couple reasons: One, it’s clear most of the drivers hate to get dressed up. And two, it’s also clear the president usually has no idea who these people are or how to pronounce their names. Can’t wait to see the awkward highlights.

-- Ryan Newman will run the Modified race, the Truck race, the Nationwide race and the Cup race this week at Bristol. That’s two races Wednesday, one Friday and one Saturday, not to mention practice and qualifying for all these races. That’s a lot of track time. It’ll be interesting to see how well he can do with such a hectic schedule. Since he is a bubble driver, I hope for his sake he doesn’t burn out before Saturday and have a bad finish.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Michigan Speedway smart to lower ticket prices

While the crowd of about 100,000 on hand this past Sunday to see the Cup race at Michigan International Speedway was impressive considering the economic woes in Michigan, it’s only logical that the track wants to return to the days where there they were constantly selling out and a ticket was a hard thing to find.

In order to move toward that goal, the track announced this weekend that it will lower the price of all tickets it sells during the renewal and deposit period for every grandstand seat in the 2010 season. Some of the cuts are drastic.

For example, a general admission seat drops almost in half, to $25. Reserved seat will start at $35. Wristband pricing for the track's infield camping guests will drop from $100 to $60 during renewals.

"It is important for us to show our appreciation to all fans, whether this year was their first visit to MIS or they have been coming for 40 years," track President Roger Curtis said. "That is why we lowered prices on all seats -- even the seats that renew at 100 percent. Additionally, we hope these new prices will help fans who were not able to make it this year because of the economy to be able to come back in 2010."

Beyond the simple price drops, the track is also introducing other programs that might help convince area NASCAR fans to come to the track. Youth pricing allows tickets for kids 17-and-younger to be sold for half price in any grandstand seat, making it easier to bring the family. Also, the track will offer payment plans to help fans afford the tickets.

Months ago, I argued for this type of thinking if tracks wanted to fill seats, and I’m glad to see MIS coming through with such a bold initiative. I know it’s never easy for a business to lower its prices, but it can work out in the long run if enough of a boost in fans is generated due to the good publicity such a move creates.

I hope this works out for the speedway, and they get something approaching a sellout at next year’s races.

And if it works for them, maybe the rest of the NASCAR tracks will get in line and realize people don’t have the disposable income they once had.
Whether prices will go back up in 2011 remains to be seen, but the track deserves applause for doing its part in making summer entertainment a little more affordable during a tough time for the state.

Ticket renewal packets will be sent to all current customers in the next few weeks. Fans not renewing can leave a goodwill deposit for 2010 to ensuring they have guaranteed best pricing, by calling (800)354-1010 or logging onto

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bad strategy call by Mark Martin’s team could cost him Chase berth

If Mark Martin misses the Chase, his team's unnecessary gambling on fuel at Michigan will be something he can look to as a major contributing factor.

It’s one thing for Jimmie Johnson, guaranteed a Chase spot, to attempt to run 51 laps on a single tank of gas at MIS. But for Martin to do it is just plain crazy. He was already on the edge of the Chase standings, and by running out of gas on the last lap and finishing 31st, he is only a dozen points ahead of a resurgent Brian Vickers. He didn't have the breathing room to gamble, but the team did it anyway. It defies logic.

Despite his four wins on the season, it’s quite possible Martin will not be around to compete for a title. That would be a shame, but bad decisions like the one his team made Sunday at MIS will have been a major factor in his failure to qualify for the Chase.

The most amazing part: If Martin can sneak into the Chase, he will be the points leader, as he leads the series in wins and will have more bonus points than any other driver (at this point, at least). But if he’s even one point out of 12th place, he doesn’t get a shot at the championship.

So either he’s the top dog after Richmond, or he’s out in the cold … amazing. If this happens, I bet NASCAR will consider tweaking the Chase rules to allow drivers who have won several races to automatically qualify for the Chase, even if it means expanding the field.

Jr. has best finish since May
Fresh off his comments criticizing the COT and the quality of racing in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a great run Sunday, running up front late in the race and even leading at one point.

He finished third, earning his first top-10 finish since Talladega, all the way back in May – 14 races ago. If Vickers and Jeff Gordon hadn’t achieved their fuel mileage numbers, we may have even seen him in Victory Lane on Sunday.

As disastrous as this season has been, it’s important for the #88 team to take advantage of this momentum and put together a string of races with decent finishes. Though he can’t make the Chase, there’s no reason this season has to be a total waste. If he can put together a win or two before the season ends and build a good relationship with new crew chief Lance McGrew, he will have a good chance to start the 2010 season on a good note and put the train wreck of 2009 behind him.

House of Hendrick?
In recent years, Michigan International Speedway has become known to as the House of Roush, as he had one at least one race three for seven straight years prior to 2009. This year, that string was broken, and it may be time to call it the House of Hendrick. Jimmie Johnson has dominated the past two races. Dale Jr. has run well there the past two years, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were very impressive in both races this year. Even Brad Keselowski seems to have a good grasp of the place.

Meanwhile, of the Roush camp, only Carl Edwards has won in the past four races, and he was the only Roush driver who really looked great on Sunday, and only three Roush drivers finished in the top-20.

Watch out, Chase bubble drivers … Brian Vickers is ready to knock you out

To call this weekend a success for Red Bull Racing’s Brian Vickers would be the understatement of the century.
-- On Friday, he was fastest in practice, then won the pole for the Cup race.
-- On Saturday, he won the pole for the Nationwide race, then came within a half-lap of taking the checkered flag in the Nationwide race.
-- On Sunday, he took a fuel mileage gamble with 51 laps to go, then went on to Victory Lane for the second time in his career after Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas with a few laps to go.

It’s pretty clear that something about MIS agrees with Vickers, and he has even more to celebrate than all his accolades this weekend … he is only 12 points out of the Chase, after six straight weeks of finishing 11th or better. Six weeks ago, he was 197 points out. If he can make up that huge margin in six weeks, I see no reason he won’t break into the Chase standings as soon as Bristol, the only X factor being whether someone knocks him into a wall at Bristol.

The question now becomes: If Vickers keeps up his momentum and makes the Chase, who falls out? It could be Martin, but his Hendrick equipment should keep him in unless he has bad luck. That leaves three likely options: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman. All three have been shaky lately, and my money would be on one of the Roush drivers.

Getting back to this weekend, it was big for a few reasons. Not only did Vickers get a win for the first time in almost three years, Red Bull Racing got its first Sprint Cup win, and Toyota earned its first win at Michigan International Speedway – which is near the headquarters for the Big 3 automakers.

With so much focus in America on supporting our U.S. automakers, and hearing what many people in Michigan have to say on a regular basis about foreign cars, I’m guessing Vickers’ win won’t go down in history as one of the most popular at the track, especially after the comments he made after winning the pole (Vickers basically said he didn’t even know where the headquarters for the Big 3 were anymore, as 2 of them were now owned by the government … Ouch!)

No one is saying that Brian Vickers is going to start winning races on a regular basis right away, but it’s clear this Red Bull team has turned a corner, and better get off their butts and sign Vickers to a new contract before he decides to leave. If he is their lead driver into the future, look for the team to continue growing its ability to compete with the Hendrick juggernaut that currently rules the sport.

And look for Vickers to battle those same Hendrick cars this fall when he qualifies for the Chase.

Other notes …
-- Kasey Kahne needs to stop hitting people and causing wrecks by overdriving his car. In the past three races, he’s hit Montoya twice, and hit Hornish to cause the big wreck at Watkins Glen. Calm down, Kasey, or everyone is going to have a grudge against you.
-- Kyle Busch is in rough shape. At 70 points out of the Chase with three races to go, he has to be picture-perfect at Bristol and finish toward the front, or the Chase might be out of his grasp. What would be amazing is if Mark Martin and Kyle Busch, with a combined 7 wins, both missed the Chase. It easily could happen.
-- Vickers is the 13th winner of a Cup race this season. It’s good to see so many drivers coming out on top, rather than the same four of five drivers as it happens so often.
-- Schedule reminder: Truck race is Wednesday night from Bristol, with Nationwide Friday night and Cup Saturday night … one of the best weeks of the year in the minds of most fans, including myself.

Keselowski’s win at home a great story; Kyle Busch’s whining reaches new low

It was a great story, the kind a driver dreams about.

Racing at his home track, Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski ran third, watching the two guys who led all day – Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers – battle hard for the lead in the closing laps.

Then, on the last lap, Vickers got real loose, pulled back in front of Busch, then blocked Busch all the way down to the bottom of the track, slowing them both down enough that Keselowski was able to fly up to the top and pass both of them, lead the final lap and win the race.

Truly a great finish by anyone’s definition … except Kyle Busch of course. The clown prince of NASCAR has apparently developed a dislike for anyone who won’t just let him pass.

First, regarding Vickers, he said: “Unfortunately, you race with idiots.” He has the right to say this, but Vickers did nothing wrong. He was just trying to win, so he did what he had to do. There are no rules on the last lap.

Then, Busch showed his true colors when he said: “He (Keselowski) didn’t deserve to win.” Sorry Kyle, I didn’t know you were appointed the decider of who merits a victory and who doesn’t. By staying close to the top-2 and making a great move to take the win at the end, he most certainly deserved to win.

So suck it up Kyle, you’re a big boy. You’re not going to win them all. Stop being such a baby and be happy for the success you’ve had. You’re going to win the championship you wanted in Nationwide, now please shut up with your sense of entitlement when it comes to winning these Nationwide races.

At least in his interview he admitted he was a whiner and a crybaby. Admitting your problem is the first step to recovery, as they say.

Keselowski’s success is perhaps the lone good story in a weak Nationwide series this season, as he is not a full-time Cup driver, and I will celebrate the day Busch decides he doesn’t need to run this series anymore. Maybe then, he’ll have less to complain about.

Brian Vickers put the whole thing in perspective with his comments, saying: “I forgot it was the Kyle Busch show. I thought we were racing for a win.”

He went on to say that Busch was “crying like a little baby,” then was classy enough to say congratulations to the 88 team. Busch could learn from this way of reacting

There was the makings of an actual fistfight, with Busch lifting Vickers’ visor, but it was stopped by their crews. I would have love to see an actual fight between the two, though, as Busch would have like

Lost in all the hoopla is that Keselowski prevented Toyota from getting their first win at MIS, in the shadow of GM, Ford and Chrysler, which would have been assured if Busch or Vickers had won.

Who will win today?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say Jimmie Johnson gets his first win at Michigan Speedway today. He hasn’t made much noise this weekend, but he often doesn’t make any noise until he is taking the lead with 20 laps to go and getting the checkered flag.

Montoya on chasing the Chase, and ‘tacky’ Graceland

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Juan Pablo Montoya, a star in both Indycar and Formula 1 racing prior to his arrival in the NASCAR scene a couple years ago, has always been known as a hard-charging driver who does whatever it takes to get to the front each week..

But NASCAR’s playoff system has created a whole new mindset for some drivers as the regular season comes to an end in NASCAR in a few weeks, and the Chase looms. Montoya is less than 200 points away from falling out of the Chase, so he knows he must be careful. This has led him to employ a more conservative, points-racing approach.

“If finishing 10th at Atlanta would mean I make the chase, we’ll do everything in our power to finish 10th or 8th,” Montoya said this weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “We are not going to do anything stupid and finish 25th and go Richmond and maybe blow up a motor and miss the Chase.”

On a lighter note, Montoya talked about his recent trip to the home of Elvis, Graceland, and had an interesting comment on the place.

“It was a really, really tacky house, but it was cool. It was. I know for the time, where he was and everything, that was cool but … like the yellow room and this and that, it was different.”

Despite his claim that the 42 car “really sucks” at Michigan, Montoya was able to qualify for the third position today, so maybe he will be able to shed that lackluster history.

Who’s up, down in 2009?
My vote for most-improved driver of the year: Kurt Busch. He is fourth in points, and was 18th last year at this point of the season. Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya also deserve credit for stepping up their game.

On the flip side, my biggest disappointments of the year are: Kevin Harvick, David Ragan and, of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. All three should be doing so much better and half to get back on track in 2010. This rest of this season is merely preparation for next year for them.

Speaking of Jr., this is start #350
I still remember when it was announced in 1998 that Dale Jr. would be running a handful of races in 1999 in the Cup series, and I’m amazed at how quickly time flies, as this is his 350th career start. In that time he has finished as high as third in points. That is not the case this year, when he is supposed to be in the best equipment at Hendrick Motorsports, but sits 25th in points, behind such drivers as A.J. Allmendinger and Casey Mears.

After his comments this weekend about the COT needing some work and NASCAR needing to put on better shows, I suggest he stop trying to lobby for changes that aren’t going to happen. Mike Helton even pulled a rare move by NASCAR and gave Jr. a little dig – saying the reason Jr. is complaining is because he’s 25th in the points and frustrated. Ouch!

The cure for all this – go out and win, Jr. Go out today and win the race, preferably not on fuel mileage, then go out and win a couple more times this season, and everyone in Jr. Nation can breathe a sigh of relief that you are still capable of competing for and taking home wins in the Cup series.

If you’re winning, you won’t find much need to complain.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vickers wins third straight MIS pole; now it’s time to win

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Brian Vickers has this pole thing down.
On Friday at MIS, he became the third driver ever to win three or more straight poles at the track, joining Bill Elliott and David Pearson.

Now how about some race wins.

That’s probably what it will take for Vickers to make up his 96-point deficit and make the Chase.
He is aware of this fact.

“It’s pretty cool to get three poles in a row here. We’re proud as a team. I’d probably give up every one of them for a win.”
It was 2006 when a 22-year-old Vickers famously knocked his teammate Jimmie Johnson out of the way while at Hendrick Motorsports to win his lone career victory in Cup.

He has six poles this season, but hasn’t finished better than 5th place. He’s on the right track, having finsihed 11th or better in the past five races to get him within earshot of the Chase.

But even a stream of top-10s at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond might not be enough when you consider he is battling people like Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth for that final Chase spot.

If he hadn’t gotten into so much trouble so early in the season (it started right off the bat with the Dale Jr. wreck at Daytona), he may have been able to sneak in the Chase without a win. But it’s not going to happen now.

The Red Bull team has greatly improved since first arriving in NASCAR, and now it’s time for their lead driver to take the reins and pull them to the promised land of Victory Lane.
Poles are nice, but mean little in the long run.

Wins are all that people remember, and Vickers has to make some wins happen if he’s going to be regarded as a successful driver in the long run.

Get off my back, an angry Jeff Gordon says

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jeff Gordon has heard almost everything from the media in two decades he has been involved in NASCAR’s top levels, and probably knows what questions are coming before he even hears them each week.
So he knew they would ask how his aching back felt after that scary wreck at Watkins Glen Monday.
Initially, he answered the question, which came right out the gate once his interview began.

“It’s alright. Couple rough days, but feeling pretty good. It was a hard hit. I took a shot and worked through it the next couple of days and am ready to go.”

And that was enough for most of the reporters. But when some of them offered more specific questions about his injury, he wasn’t having it.

“Man, let’s stop talking about my back. I’m here. I’m fine,” he said, clearly agitated.
It’s good to see Gordon, usually pretty sedate, show a little emotion. It shows he still cares about winning and wants to talk about relevant issues, not nitpicky health details.

Gordon said he is almost a lock for the Chase, so he is focused solely on winning races, unlike some other drivers who are on the bubble or just inside the Chase.

Look for him to be racy on Sunday.

No complaints from Brad Keselowski
Earlier this year, it seemed like a full-time ride in Cup in 2010 was a lock for Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, especially after he won a race while driving part-time in Cup.

But now that it appears unlikely that Stewart-Haas Racing will expand to three cars, that is no guarantee. Brad wants to stay in the Hendrick fold, so the only remaining chance for it to happen would be if he took the Hendrick-affiliated #09 car full-time next year.

But don’t worry about Brad ... he’s doing just fine. He said Friday at MIS that he is very happy in his current situation, and has nothing to complain about, considering the very real problems people in America are facing.

“It’s more than myself that’s in a tough spot. The whole series and the economy, everyone is in a tough spot,” Brad said. “The key thing to remember is that even though I may not have a full-time Cup deal now and it hasn’t sorted itself out for next, I’m still in a good spot.

“I have a ride in the Nationwide Series. I have a job, and there’s a lot of people out there that can’t say that. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and say ‘Stop whining. Things aren’t that bad.’
“I don’t have any complaints.”

That doesn’t mean Keselowski doesn’t want to get into Cup full-time, but he said he’s willing to wait.
“It’s very tough to be patient, but it’s served me well to date,” he said. “It’s because I spent a seocnd year in the Nationwide series, without running full-time in Cup, that I have been able to garner the attention that I have and have the results that I have.

Hendrick dynasty will continue, Johnson boldly predicts

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jimmie Johnson may be mild-mannered, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t confident.

The three-time defending champ said Friday at Michigan Speedway that the team he drives for, Hendrick Motorsports, which has eight Cup championships in the past 14 years, will continue to be the best team in NASCAR for years to come.

“I don’t know if anyone can beat Hendrick Motorsports over a long period of time, the way Rick has built this organization and the way people are united. Over time, they will succeed more than anyone else, I believe,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the other teams. Roush one year had all five cars in the Chase. There are points other teams can hit. Over time, Rick’s way, the system, the people, what he’s built is going to consistently keep Hendrick Motorsports at the top.
“I wouldn’t want to race against him.”

That doesn’t mean he’s taking for granted that he will win a fourth straight title. That’s in large part to the awesome success of Tony Stewart this year. Stewart has put on a clinic, racking up top-5 after top-5, and Johnson knows that level of performance is what it will take to win the title.

“We’ve just got to outrun (Tony). We have to score more points. You can’t count on anyone having bad luck,” Johnson said. “Tony is very smart. He knows how to win races and win championships. So it really comes down to outperforming Tony or whoever that guy may be. It certainly looks like Tony is the guy to beat, but there’s a lot of racing between now and then.”

Big field trying out for Nationwide race
A total of 51 cars will attempt to qualify Saturday afternoon for the Nationwide race at MIS. There are plenty of field-fillers for sure, but it’s still refreshing to see so many cars trying to make the race with the economy being the way it is.
Even a champion like Tony Stewart understands that the start-and-park teams are a “necessary evil” with the economy’s current condition.
“The unfortunate part is the start-and-park guys can’t afford to buy all the tires and buy a new engine every two weeks. It’s a necessary evil for those people. It’s not the most advantageous for the series, I would rather see 43 start the race that only have 34 or 36 teams. You can’t hold it against them.”

Can Roush teams step up at MIS?
This week offers a great chance for Roush Racing to step up and reclaim the track where they once dominated. Carl Edwards has won here before and is long overdue for a win. Greg Biffle also has a great history in the Irish Hills, as does Matt Kenseth. Roush, a Livonia native and a player in the auto industry, is especially proud of his wins here and would love another one.
Though Edwards hasn’t won this year, he has solidly placed himself in the Chase and has been a threat many times. On Friday at MIS, he said his focus is on making the Chase, and winning wasn’t his main concern right now, but anyone who knows Edwards knows that his desire to win is intense ... so look for him to contend on Sunday.

Keselowski adjusts to new role outside of the racecar

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Brian Keselowski is a man of his word.

Earlier this year, the Rochester Hills native said that if it would help his race team, he would step out of the driver’s seat.

Now, #26 team owner Keselowski has done just that, putting Michael McDowell in the K Automotive car for the past few weeks, with solid results.

This week is a homecoming for the older brother of Brad Keselowski, and his small, underfunded team has come to MIS with three cars attempting to qualify. McDowell will drive the #26, Dennis Setzer will drive the #96, and Willie Allen will drive the #92, though the #92 and #96 will likely fall in the start-and-park category, as they help pay the bills for the #26 car.
“We’re definitely a small team, but we’re really busy,” Brian said Friday at MIS.

He said that at Michigan, his home track, he has no shortage of help.
“I have a lot of people come and volunteer, especially in the Michigan area. I’m going to end up having a hundred people here,” he half-joked.

He said he’d love to be in the #26 car, but is content to serve as crew chief for the time being. The goal, he said is a better race team.

“I wish I could be in the car right now, it just wasn’t in the cards to do it. I’m trying to get our stuff better before I get back in the race car. We found some things we like and Michael has been a great help,” he said.

There are much bigger concerns than a bruised ego for a small team like K Automotive, where every penny counts.
“If you wreck the car this week, you may not race next week,” Brian said.

That’s why the move to put McDowell in the car came.
“Why don’t we try something different?” Brian said, explaining his thought process. “Let me get out and put someone of Michael’s caliber in the car and maybe we can find something we’re missing. It was really, really tough putting myself out of the racecar. But I need the car in thes hwo or it doesn’t matter at all.”

The goals of making all the races and staying in the top-30 all year have not been fully met, but Keselowski said the team is “75 percent” there.

“It’s a tough situation. You have to worry about money, equpment, driving. I think if we continue on the way we’ve been running, we’ll be fine. Then all I’ve got to really worry about is racing one car and qualifying another.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tony Stewart was right, and we were all wrong

We are all fools.

When I say “we,” I mean all the fans and media members, including myself, who had the following thoughts prior to the season starting, such as:
-- “Tony Stewart can’t make the Chase this year … he’ll be adjusting to his new role as owner-driver.”
-- “Tony Stewart may win a race this year, but he won’t be a title contender.”
-- “What is he thinking leaving a great ride at Gibbs for an uncertain future as a team owner?”

Looking back, I still don’t doubt the logic we used. But now, more than halfway through the season, Stewart has shown just how big of an impact having a great driver and team members can have on a team’s success, even if that team is essentially brand new. I recognize that he gets help from Hendrick Motorsports … but he’s even outperforming that superteam’s drivers.

Looking at the point standings, the numbers are staggering. Stewart sits an amazing 260 points ahead of second-place Jimmie Johnson, 342 points ahead of third-place Jeff Gordon, and 481 points ahead of fourth-place Kurt Busch.

In 22 races, he has 18 top-10s and 13 top-5s. Those numbers are not just good, they’re flat-out ridiculous.
Add to this success the endless piles of money he is making both as driver and team owner, it’s pretty clear that Tony Stewart could very easily wag his finger at the world and say, “I told you so!” about his newfound success.

He’s not doing that however, instead just going out and performing each week like a true champion. Lesser drivers might get a big head after what he’s done with this new venture into team ownership, but Stewart is smart and recognizes that no matter how well he’s doing now, that doesn’t mean he has a smooth ride to the championship.

He knows that once the Chase hits in about a month, his massive lead will shrivel up in an instant. Regular season champ does not win a Cup title … the Chase winner does.

He knows he will have to be on top of his game all the way through Homestead, especially since Chase specialist Jimmie Johnson always seems to be at his best in the final 10 races every year.

And only then, after he completes this dominating season and shocks the world, will he point his finger at us and say, “I told you so!”

Was that Talladega or the Glen? Violent wrecks mar race

Having battled back pain all year, the last thing Jeff Gordon needed was a head-on crash into a barrier at Watkins Glen.

But that’s exactly what he got, and his wreck was just one of many this weekend that showed how dangerous this track can be.

A quick look back at history, via YouTube, will show you that the Glen has always been a pretty scary place as far as wrecks are concerned. Whether it be in Grand Am Racing, IMSA, Cup, Nationwide, Busch North or other series, a lot of scary wrecks have happened at this very fast road course … include two fatal wrecks. The inner loop was added after the tragic death of J.D. McDuffie during a cup race in 1991, in an effort to slow the cars down.

Still, the track can fool you. It’s a road course, so in a driver’s mind he might think he’s going slower than at the oval tracks. But the Glen is far from slow, and makes for some pretty amazing accidents.

Last year, a wreck involving about nine cars sent David Gilliland hard into the wall, and led to hard hits for other drivers including Sam Hornish Jr. and Bobby Labonte.

This past weekend, Jason Leffler took a flying spin after a hard hit in Nationwide practice, and Joey Logano was left with a fiery pile of rubble for a car after Robby Gordon was done with him.

In Monday’s Cup race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his brakes and got a head-on ride into a tire barrier, eerily similar to the one Jimmie Johnson took about a decade ago during a Nationwide race. Then, Kasey Kahne got into Hornish, who spun into traffic and collected Jeff Gordon in that big wreck.

When drivers talk about tracks that can be tough on a driver as far as wrecks, names like Bristol, Talladega and Daytona come to mind first.

But after watching the past few races at Watkins Glen, I think they need to add another name to that list.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rain, rain, don’t go away … just give us rain tires, Goodyear

We can put a man on the moon.
We can shoot lasers into people’s eyes and prevent them from going blind.
We can put satellites in space that are so advanced and detailed, they can take a picture of my car.

But we still can’t race a Cup event in the rain, even if it's on a road course.


For the second straight week, the race will be on Monday, this time from Watkins Glen. The only thing I have to say to that is , “Why?”

This region of the country is known for rain at this time of year. Qualifying for the Glen is often rained out. So how is it possible that NASCAR and Goodyear have yet to come up with a tire that the teams can use at the Glen or Sears Point in the case of a rainy Sunday?

I recognize the dangers of using rain tires on oval tracks, and am not advocating that. But after seeing a pretty successful event at Montreal last year in the Nationwide Series in the rain, Goodyear should have jumped at the opportunity to design a tire that would work on the Cup cars.

Barring a torrential downpour, there is no reason a proper tire can’t be created so the race can be run on Sunday.

For their part, Goodyear agrees that it could be done.
"We certainly think so," Goodyear spokesman Greg Stucker said. "There's not that big a difference between the two cars and if you go back years ago, we did run them in Japan on the Cup cars. We're confident we could have a package that would be suitable, if that's what they chose to do."

Of course, there are always the critics, who have various reasons for not wanting this to happen.

Some people say it would be terrible for the fans who show up to have to sit in a rainstorm and watch the race. That’s a bunch of hooey, because those fans in Montreal last year were loving what they say, and any true race fan will endure a lot to see the sport they love. Besides, many have endured rain delays that were longer than an actual race might take.

Some also say the race would be boring, as the drivers won’t be able to go as fast due to the rain. The key thing in a race, though, is competition … not speed. And some of the more competitive races I’ve seen over the years in motorsports have been in the rain. This is because racing in the rain brings the truly talented drivers to the front and exposes the drivers who aren’t in that top tier. (For example, Michael Schumacher usually ended up on top in a wet Formula 1 race)

Those who say the Car of Tomorrow just isn't built to run in the rain, that it's too heavy, or some other excuse are living in the past. As I noted at the beginning of this post, science and technology can do pretty much what we want them to do nowadays, and have solved problems much bigger than anything NASCAR could present.

It might be just lip service, but I’m glad to see NASCAR and Goodyear speaking as if there is a legitimate chance that at some point in the future, rain tires in Cup may be an option.

I see no reason to wait until Monday to race at a road course, when the technology is there to develop a tire that can be raced on Sunday. I’m not holding my breath, but I hope I can see it happen in my lifetime.

If the rain ever stops, Ambrose will earn first Cup win at the Glen

Some drivers are from down South … but Marcos Ambrose has them all beat.

He’s from waaaay down South, Tasmania to be exact, and was viewed mostly as a curiosity when arriving on the NASCAR scene a couple years ago … good on road courses, as that was his background, but nobody expected him to be a true competitor in the Cup series anytime soon.

But the numbers don’t lie. This year, his first full year in the Cup series, he has 2 top-5 finishes and 5 top-10 finishes. He sits 18th in points, only 60 points behind veteran Jeff Burton and ahead of other long-established drivers such as Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Most significant is that he is doing so well while driving for JTG Daugherty Racing. This is a smaller team that is affiliated with Michael Waltrip Racing, but is nowhere near the level of Hendrick Motorsports or Richard Childress Racing.

But having a talented driver like Ambrose can take a team a long way, and this year has proved Ambrose is more than just a road couse specialist. In the spring, he went to Bristol for the first time and pulled out a 10th place finish. Most people don’t do quite so well on their first visit to Thunder Valley. He also has top 10s at both of the restrictor plate tracks, something that is hard to do for veteran NASCAR drivers.

This week, if they ever get a race in at the Glen, there is no doubt in my mind that Ambrose is the favorite to win. He showed Saturday in a dominating performance that nobody, not even Kyle Busch, could prevent him from taking the checkered flag in the Nationwide race. A brilliant move took Busch by surprise after he had battled Ambrose for many laps, and he was forced to give up the spot when he couldn’t make the turn at the Glen’s inner loop.

That kind of attitude should be on display Monday in the Cup race, where Ambrose qualified fourth and should be up front before long. No disrespect to polesitter Jimmie Johnson, who is a great driver on all tracks, but tracks like the Glen are the playground of people like Ambrose who have spent most of their careers on road courses. Johnson will put up a fight, but Ambrose should pass him for the lead within 15 laps. From there, pit strategy will determine whether Ambrose can stay up front and claim his first Cup win.

Robby being Robby
He’s been quiet lately, but we got a glimpse Saturday of why so many people love, and hate, Robby Gordon when he ran Joey Logano off the track after a spirited battle on the track got a little too close for comfort. Never one to shy away from controversy, Gordon stuck by his story that the wreck, which ended with Logano hurrying out of a fiery #20 car, was started from a block by Logano.

Logano had another view, saying after the wreck: “You can’t fix stupid. It’s forever. You put that in your memory bank”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Busch will wisely drop full-time Nationwide schedule in 2010

Being 13th in the Cup standings with 5 races to go until the Chase will sure knock some sense into a driver.

In the case of Kyle Busch, he has finally come to realize that running in all of the Nationwide races may have been a distraction from his main job, driving the #18 car for Joe Gibbs in the Cup series.

Earlier this week, he told some members of the media that this full-time double-dipping will not be done again in 2010: “We won six races this year. It's been good and maybe it's taken a little bit away from the Cup effort. I don't think it has, but were already talking about next year and cutting it back and getting our Cup efforts back up to where they need to be. Hopefully we can get it down to about 22 or 24 Nationwide Series races, just companion stuff not flying all over the place."

As to why he bothered to do the full Nationwide slate this year, it was all about a title, something that appears likely to happen, considering he finishes in the top-2 each week.
" We thought about it and how our cars are really good and Joe and J.D. (Gibbs) said man wouldn't it be cool to have a Nationwide championship … so I said I want to do it. I want to win a Nationwide championship.”

While I won’t question a man’s desire to be a champion, it amazes me that Busch would want to step down a level to win one. He has the talent to be a champion at the Cup level if he truly applies himself, and in my eyes there is something unprofessional about him (and Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick in the past) dropping down to the minor leagues to earn a title. I’m glad to see it won’t happen again in 2010, at least not with Busch.

Beyond that issue, it’s clear that Busch’s performance in Cup is lacking this year, and there’s no way you can convince me that the nonstop traveling he has done this year to race in all three series hasn’t had some influence in his dropping from the Chase standings.

It’s pretty clear: If Kyle Busch is going to win a Cup title, that needs to be the only title he is concerned about winning. Anything else is a distraction.

Now that Kyle has given me this bit of good news, my next hope is that Carl Edwards, who is also having a subdued year in Cup, will announce he is done with full-time Nationwide racing after this year.

That way, we can have a true race for the Nationwide title between a bunch of young drivers who are future Cup stars – future being the key word in that sentence.

Almost a Villeneuve visit
After Reed Sorenson inhaled carbon monoxide at Pocono (scary stuff, it ended the career of Rick Mast) there was a minute it looked like Jacques Villeneuve was going to take over that ride for Watkins Glen. Thankfully for Sorenson, he has recovered and will drive the #43 car at the Glen, though Villeneuve is still willing to help out if needed.

While I’m happy Reed is OK, I kind of wish we could have gotten a chance to see Jacques out there on the track. I often wonder what could have been if he had made the Daytona 500 the year he planned to compete and had a decent finish. Villeneuve is a solid driver, having beaten Michael Schumacher to win a Formula 1 title, but his NASCAR dreams never materialized. I hope he keeps trying, as I’d sure like to see him around the NASCAR garage and doing well on the track.

Top-5 for Hornish
Easily overlooked due to the postponed race that nobody saw was the fact that Sam Hornish Jr. took advantage of some good debris-spotting by his team, pitted with Juan Pablo Montoya and leapfrogged many cars when the caution flag flew. That smart move let Hornish finish fourth and get his first top-5 finish ever. It may have been a bit lucky, but that team really is starting to come around.

Bad luck for Reutimann
That little love tap from race winner Denny Hamlin may cost David Reutimann big time. He now must climb back into the Chase with only a handful of races left. Let’s just say I won’t be surprised if the #99 car has a close encounter with the #11 this weekend or whenever they are next near each other on the track.

Monday, August 3, 2009

After career full of setbacks, Steve Park returns to Victory Lane

Steve Park won a race this weekend at Adirondack International Speedway, in the Camping World East series, and I would bet this win means more to him than we can imagine.

It may have been a lower series than the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series he has won at in the past … But after the long, tough road he has traveled, this win had to be special.

While his name may not mean much to newer NASCAR fans, Park’s story is a rarity in the sport we love.

He suffered a major head injury, and came back to be a successful racer again. Other than Ricky Craven and Ernie Irvan, who came back from their injuries to win Cup races, I can think of anyone who has done it. Jerry Nadeau and many others have been sidelined by their injuries and unable to return to racing glory.

For those who don’t know Park’s story, it’s one worth retelling.
A New Yorker who drove modifieds as a youth, he caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Sr. after taking the pole in a Truck race at Watkins Glen, while subbing for Joe Nemechek. Park has told the story many times of how he ignored Earnhardt’s first phone message for him, thinking his friends were pulling a prank. Thankfully, he caught on that it was really after Dale called back.

Seeing talent in Park, Dale Sr. mentored him and put him into the #3 car in the Busch Series, where Park would go on to win 3 races in 1997 and be named Rookie of the Year. He was a rising star and, wasting no time, Park was moved up to Cup by DEI in 1998. He was DEI’s first driver in the Cup series.

Almost immediately, he saw his first bit of adversity, breaking bones and being sidelined after a brutal wreck at Atlanta his rookie year. He came back though, and began his learning curve in Cup, peaking in 2000 with his first career win at Watkins Glen (DEI’s first-ever Cup win), along with five other top-5 finishes.

2001 was a terrible year on many fronts for Park. First, he lost his mentor when Dale Sr. died at Daytona that year, though he got the chance to express his thanks in a tearful Victory Lane when he took the checkered flag at Rockingham the very next race in a DEI car.

Then, the freak moment came that changed Park’s career. Under caution, he was adjusting his steering wheel and veered to the left, just as a speeding Larry Foyt was coming up the inside to take his position for the restart. He crashed into the driver’s side of Park’s car, and Park suffered a concussion and bruised his brain, then missed the rest of that season and part of 2002.

Upon his return, it was Park was not his old, sharp, competitive self. He was involved in an increased number of wrecks, and there were noticeable speech effects from the accident. By the end of 2003, he was done in Cup due to lackluster results. He bounced around Truck and Nationwide for the next few years, winning a Truck race along the way.

But by 2006, he was pretty much off the radar. Though he claimed to be fully recovered from his brain injuries, he was still damaged goods in the eyes of many team owners, who were still looking for the next hot young driver, not an old guy with war wounds like Park.

The Camping World East series is where Park decided to try and prove his doubters wrong, and build his way back to being a player in the racing world. He has run strongly in that series in 2008 and 2009, and has made a statement with this weekend’s win – Steve Park ain’t dead yet.

What would have happened to Park if he hadn’t had the freak accident at Darlington? We’ll never know. He was definitely a young talent on the rise, but we can never really know how bright his star would have signed if things had gone differently.

What I do know is that Steve Park is still a talented racecar driver. And he is determined now, more than ever, to prove to people that he still has the racing chops to compete in the top three NASCAR series, even after all these years.

I doubt he’ll ever see a Cup ride again, but I’ll be rooting for him to land a spot at least in Trucks or Nationwide again. After all he’s been through, and the results he’s achieved despite his problems, he deserves to catch a break.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bring Cup race to Iowa; Hornaday on record-breaking roll

Overall, I was very impressed with the Iowa Speedway. It’s not exactly a high-profile location, but the racing I saw on this short track was better than most of the Nationwide racing I’ve seen all year. I can think of a good half-dozen Cup tracks I would remove a date from to add one at Iowa.

The reality is that probably won’t happen anytime soon, but I can envision a lot of great side-by-side battles if the Cup cars ever made a stop here.

Hornaday achieves drive for five
The Truck race from Nashville wasn’t quite as exciting as the Iowa Nationwide race, but it did have historic significance. Ron Hornaday won his fifth race in a row, something that hasn’t been done in Trucks ever, and hasn’t been done in Cup since 1971, when Richard Petty and Bobby Allison both won five straight races. The most amazing record of all though is Petty’s run in 1967, when he won 10 Cup races in a row. Let’s all see now if Hornaday can win six more in a row and break that record.

Also Saturday, Hornaday's crew chief Rick Ren became the winningest crew chief ever in that series.

Way to go Morgan
Congrats to Morgan Shepherd, who earned a 19th place finish at Iowa by surviving the carnage created by all the other drivers. He also finished 17th last week at IRP. Even though he hasn’t made all the races this year, Morgan can point to finishes like this as proof he still has the ability to compete at age 67.

Watch out … you’re next to Townley
Note to all the other drivers: If you’re next to John Wes Townley on the track, be very, very careful. I recognize he is only 19 years old and has a lot to learn, but it still amazes me that every time I see him on the track, whether it be in Nationwide or Trucks, he is either spinning or hitting the wall. Occasionally it’s the car’s fault, but usually it’s his fault.

Maybe he’ll blossom into a great driver, but right now it’s a wise move to be anywhere on the track but near John Wes Townley. You never know whether he’ll be turning left, right, or into you.

Tell it like it is, Randy
My favorite quote from the Iowa race broadcast came from Randy Lajoie, who said “Is start-and-park like NASCAR’s version of ‘Cash for Clunkers’?” … Of course, his co-hosts quickly moved on to another topic.

I know NASCAR doesn’t really want anyone to talk about the start-and-park issue in a negative way, even though it accounts for at least a half dozen cars in all three of its major series. I just love the fact that Lajoie has the guts to say something like that, knowing his bosses aren’t going to be too happy with him about it. Normally, the announcers are NASCAR suckups, so it’s refreshing to hear someone actually express an opinion they might not like.

Brad Keselowski slays the dragon, a.k.a. Kyle Busch

Bob Keselowski celebrated his 58th birthday Saturday in one of the best ways possible, watching his son Brad beat Kyle Busch head-to-head in Iowa and take his second Nationwide series win of the year.

All year, Brad – a Rochester Hills native – has been solid, racking up top-5 finishes on a regular basis. But he almost always had the same thing to say after each run: “I wish we could catch up to those Gibbs cars”

Well, he finally caught up … and then he passed them.

The first time Brad took the lead from Kyle Busch during the inaugural running of a Nationwide race at the Iowa track, the 60,000+ crowd roared their approval. I doubt all of them were Brad Keselowski fans, but they were cheering for the realization of something that we’ve been waiting for all year … a Nationwide regular taking the top position from Busch, who has been stinking up the entire season in Nationwide by double-dipping every weekend in a series he has no real reason to run, and dominating races.

Every week, it has been all about Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, when this week was a showcase of what this series could be. The early part of this race – when young drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Eric Darnell, Brad Coleman, Justin Allgaier and others were putting on a great show – is what this series should offer.

It used to be that way, back when Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were on the rise in this sport, battling each other for titles BEFORE they got to Cup. Kyle Busch, along with Edwards and others who have done it in the past, have it backwards. After establishing himself as a Cup driver, he decided to go win a Nationwide title.

Quite frankly, it shouldn’t be allowed. I say let the Cup guys race for money, but no points. Brad Keselowski should be this year’s Nationwide title winner, but he will most definitely finish behind Edwards and Busch.

I know of no other sport that allows players to compete for a title in both the minor league and major league at the same time on a full-time basis. NASCAR should be no different.

But back to Brad, this background info highlights why his win at Iowa is so big. Despite the fact he is out of the title hunt barring extremely crazy circumstances, he still represents hope for this series … hope that the interlopers like Busch can be defeated.

He represents the hope that someday, this series could one day return to being a proving ground for young talent on its way up to Cup, a place Brad will most certainly be full-time next year.

So Bob Keselowski, I hope you enjoyed your birthday and congratulations on your son’s victory. He’s one of the few reasons left to watch the Nationwide races.

Family team does well, too
The K Automotive team entry, usually driven by Brian Keselowski, got an assist from driver Michael McDowell this weekend, as he drove their unsponsored #26 car to an 8th place finish, boosting the team back to the top-30 in owner points. McDowell will also fill in as driver of the #26 car at Watkins Glen. This is the best finish of the year for the #26 team.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sorenson on the hot seat, whether team admits it or not

One rumor shot down by a team this week was that Reed Sorenson is on his way out at Richard Petty Motorsports and the team will field three cars next year, or even make the move before this season ends.

The team said no downsizing is planned, and they are committed to Sorenson. But I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on that. Outside of Kasey Kahne and maybe A.J. Allmendinger, that team is full of underachievers. Elliott Sadler was dumped by the team early this year, only to be brought back because he had a contract that they couldn’t break. Sorenson has never done much of note in the Cup series, having earned 0 wins, 5 top-5s and 14 top-10s in 129 career starts. Translation of those numbers is he hasn’t proven he can win, or even compete for wins.

Some of that may be related to the equipment he has been driving, and the fact he started so young – doing his first Cup race at age 19. But even with young guys, you need to see some potential for greatness (for example, like Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and others have shown) to stay on a team’s good side. Sorensen has not shown that, and seems to running in circles on the same mid-pack. He seems on a path to be another case of hype, with lots of promise as he came up through the ranks, but not much payoff at the Cup level. Youth can only take you so far … results are what owners want to see.

I respect that the Petty team must say they are committed to Sorenson. But when logic is applied, in addition to the likelihood that the team won’t have full-year sponsorship for four cars heading into next year, don’t be surprised if Sorenson is cast off by RPM and lands either at a smaller team or in Nationwide next year.

The only way I see that changing is if Sorenson has a breakout second half of the season, and I definitely would bet my lunch money that is not going to happen.

Brotherly advice
Kurt Busch apparently is the more logical of the Busch brothers, having said this week that his younger, more highly traveled brother Kyle should probably stick to focusing on his day job as a Cup driver, instead of criss-crossing the nation every week to racing in Nationwide and Trucks, if he wants to make the Chase.

"For him just to get back to square one, I think if he could focus more on the 18 Cup car, rather than on the Truck and the Nationwide deal, that would help him in the long run,” Kurt said.

Take that advice Kyle. Your brother is a Cup champion, he knows what he’s talking about. A win at Iowa or Memphis or Nashville is a minor accomplishment for you, and only distracts from the dream you really should be focusing on – winning a Cup title.

Grand Prix won’t return to Detroit in 2010
In yet another shot to the local economy, the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix – already off the 2009 Indycar schedule – will also be “postponed” for the 2010 season. The goal is to bring it back in 2011.

“We had hoped that the economic environment would allow the Grand Prix to return to Belle Isle in 2010,” said Bud Denker, Event Chairman of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. “Unfortunately, this continues to be a challenging time to secure sponsorship to produce a world-class sporting event. We remain committed to the future of the race and we are hopeful that the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix will return in the summer of 2011.”

Once again, the problem is money. The sponsorship and support for the race just isn’t there amid all the economic woes facing the Midwest and Michigan in particular.
An event like a Grand Prix, with crowds of more than 100,000 in both 2007 and 2008, is the kind of that helps bring in tourist, earn money for the city and state, and push us back toward a positive economic environment.
According to joint studies conducted by the event and the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Grand Prix generated nearly $53 million in economic impact for metropolitan Detroit in 2007 and over $55.2 million in 2008.

Just as in NASCAR, with so many sponsorships going away (i.e. … Lowe’s is likely to leave as title sponsor of Charlotte Motor Speedway after more than a decade), the racing business is in a tough place right now.

Here’s hoping the Grand Prix can return in 2011, so Detroit-area fans can enjoy a good race and the event can help the local economy.

Come to a race, Obama
Making his third trip to the White House on Monday will be Jimmie Johnson, who will meet President Obama for the first time as the president honors NASCAR’s champion.
I know he’s a busy guy with a lot to deal with, but this would be a great time to invite Obama out to a race.

President Reagan’s grand entrance at Daytona in 1984 is still remembered. Perhaps Obama can show up at the Daytona 500 next year, and do the “Gentleman, start your engines” command.

Massa vows to race again
After many thought his career was over, Formula 1’s Felipe Massa said he is feeling fine in his left eye and wants to race again as soon as possible. So it appears Michael Schumacher’s time in the car as a replacement driver may be short, or not happen at all.

That’s pretty amazing, considering he was near death after his scary accident happened last weekend. In my perfect world, though, we’ll get to see Schumacher out there at least for a race or two, and then Massa can come back. It’ll be fun to see how Schumi can do after three-year break.

Mayfield’s harsh attacks invited stepmother’s lawsuit

Earlier this week, it appeared the Jeremy Mayfield saga, with its accusations of drug use, murder and who knows what else, might be going away for a while. The trial in the lawsuit Mayfield has filed against NASCAR now has a date, and it is pretty far off, as a trial jury begins Sept. 13, 2010.

There was a little bit more dirt added to the pile of accusations surrounding the case this week, as NASCAR said it has more witnesses that will say they saw Mayfield use methamphetamine.

But then the news came that Lisa Mayfield, the famous Wicked Stepmother whom Mayfield has vilified in the media since she publicly said she has seen him do the drug dozens of times since 1998, is fighting back, too. After she was named in court documents as a witness for NASCAR, Mayfield famously told the media: "She's basically a whore. She shot and killed my dad."

My advice to Jeremy Mayfield if anyone else comes out as a witness for NASCAR: Keep your mouth shut.

I recognize that he believes he is innocent and does not agree with what his former stepmom and others are saying, but there’s also a thing called common sense. Calling someone a whore and implicating them in a murder without any evidence isn’t the wisest move. The day these interviews were done, Jeremy was clearly very upset … and he should have been advised by his lawyers not to talk to the media at all.

The amount of money being sought by Lisa Mayfield is not excessive, but the last thing Jeremy needs right now is another distraction from his fight to clear his name, and perhaps one day get back in a racecar.

At this point, he is defeated in the first battle. His suspension was reinstated, he sold what was left of his race team (which has become the #08 car and oddly enough is being driven by “I thought he was retired” Terry Labonte), and now is focusing on the longer war – trying to prove his innocence in the drug test and embarrass NASCAR by exposing their drug testing policy as fundamentally flawed. That is a tall task, and one he will most likely fail to achieve, but he definitely does not need any distractions like extra lawsuits against him.

If he has any common sense, he will keep his mouth shut even when he’s angry, so he doesn’t create any more extra legal battles for himself.
Based on his past, though, I doubt he will keep quiet as things develop.

Where are the entries?
43 cars tried out at Pocono … for 43 spots. It’s been 5 years since this happened.
This got me thinking. What would happen if only 40 cars showed up one week? Would Brian France send a few extra mechanics down to Derrick Cope’s garage to get his car up to code? Maybe NASCAR would call up BAM racing and see if they wanted to return to Cup, offering a little help?

All kidding aside, it’s a sign of the times that we can barely fill fields some weeks. Some economists say the recession is at its bottom, and I hope they are right. Small teams don’t have money to build cars and that’s due to lack of sponsorship, which is due to the tough economy. Not only does a lack of cars make qualifying a bore (I love the whole, “Who’s gonna make it” aspect), but it makes the sport look bad when so few cars show up.

Big ratings
After watching an Indy race that was a parade led by Juan Pablo Montoya for most of the day, I was stunned to see that the race was the second highest rated of all races ever aired on ESPN … with 6.5 million viewers. I’ll credit that to a relentless marketing campaign by ESPN, because with the exception of the last 20 laps, that race was a stinkbomb.