Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The legacy of the 2000s … improved driver safety in NASCAR

Right now, it’s easy to think the decade that is about to end was all about Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports, as the four straight titles by Johnson are fresh on our mind. Johnson will certainly have his place in history among the greats, and it was a great decade for Hendrick’s team as a whole.

But when you look at this decade … it’s all about a driver that’s long gone, and the great strides that have been made in NASCAR since he tragically passed.

Ten years ago, there was no Car of Tomorrow, with its safer cocoon for the driver.
Ten years ago, there was no such thing as soft walls, to absorb hard hits.
Ten years ago, drivers did not wear the HANS device to restrict their neck movement in crashes.
and so on …

All of these safety changes that were made in the wake of the deaths of Dale Earnhardt, Kenny Irwin Jr., Adam Petty and Tony Roper will be forever remembered as the essential changes necessary to protect the drivers in this dangerous sport we love.

Since Earnhardt’s death, which jolted a lagging NASCAR into action suddenly, no driver has been killed in the major three series – Cup, Nationwide or Trucks. There have been plenty of spectacular wrecks along the way, including Carl Edwards’ amazing trip into the Talladega fence, but every time the driver has walked away.

When I look back at the 2000s decade, this is what I will remember long into the future. I no longer had to wonder whether my driver was going to emerge alive from a wreck, thanks to these safety innovations. It’s still possible a driver will be killed, but much less likely.

Many people have complained about the COT, saying it has made the racing worse. They may have some valid points, but safety comes first. Now that the drivers are safer, NASCAR can take a look at tweaking the COT to make for better racing. I’d rather have safe drivers and average racing than dead drivers and great racing. My entertainment isn’t worth that price. Over time, I’m confident a good balance can be worked out, but so far I’d give the COT a grade of C. Let’s hope it evolves into an A over the next few years as changes are made.

Happy New Year
I wish you all a happy New Year’s Eve celebration Thursday night and hope you will all celebrate safely.
If you’re going to drink, get a cab or a designated driver. It’s not worth it to drive, as far too many bad thing could happen to you and others.

See you in 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Being a team owner should mature Kyle Busch

Note to readers: Before I get going on racing, I have to interject a serious note and say that I almost had to fill a newspaper the day after Christmas with news that some psycho had blown up a plane full of people right down the road from me here in the Detroit area. For whatever reason, whether you want to give credit to a higher power or just call the attempted terrorist a complete idiot who didn’t know how to properly work his bomb contraption, everyone was OK and went home safely that Christmas Day. The lesson: Let’s all be thankful for what we have and the fact that we can enjoy our lives and time with our families this holiday season and year-round, because there are plenty of crazies out there who don’t want us to have that ability.

Will Kyle Busch become more mature as a team owner?
He talked like it wasn’t going to happen, but we all knew better. Kyle Busch will be a team owner in the Truck series in 2010, fielding at least two cars (one for himself/Brian Ickler, one for Tayler Malsam, and possibly a third truck for Johnny Benson if sponsorship is found.)

Perhaps the biggest coup in all of this is that Busch has snagged Rick Ren, the winningest crew chief in Truck series history, away from Kevin Harvick Inc. to oversee the operation. Kevin Harvick can’t be too happen about that.

With this new venture will come a lot of responsibility for young Mr. Busch, and I have a bold prediction to make: It may make him finally act his age and stop whining so much.

We all remember Kyle’s outbursts in the past – from calling his crew members names when they screwed up to literally walking out of the track in disgust when he didn’t win. This came, in part, because the racer Kyle Busch wanted to win and nothing else, and didn’t think about the whole picture of why things happen and what they mean.

Now, as a team owner in Trucks, he will see a different side of racing. He’ll still want to win just as much. But he’ll understand the whole process of what’s happening on all aspects of the team, and will have a better understanding of why things might go wrong and he won’t win every week. As the owner, he can’t cry about what other people are doing … he has to take charge, stand up and say “I’m the owner. I have to fix this and make it right.”

Tony Stewart is a good role model in this aspect. Like Kyle, he used to cry a lot. Now that he is co-owner of a Cup team, he understands that screaming or pouting every time you don’t get your way is not going to help the situation. He’s doing well as a team owner, and has matured emotionally as a result. The old, whiny Tony is mostly gone since he became an owner.

I hope the same will happen to the whiny Kyle Busch once he sees what truly goes on behind the scenes at his own team.

Another road course in Nationwide
I have to give kudos to the Nationwide Series for adding a third road race to the schedule. Montreal and Watkins Glen are joined by Wisconsin’s Road America, which will host a race the weekend that had initially been scheduled for a visit to the Milwaukee Mile.

While many NASCAR fans don’t like the road course races, I love them and believe they expose who are the truly skilled drivers. And this is one of the most famous road courses in America. Now, the Nationwide series had more road racing than Cup, which is kind of cool if you ask me.

In fact, I would love to see Cup add a race in Montreal or Road America, but it will never happen.

Swine flu hits NASCAR
Someone who sadly did not survive this holiday season was Richard Childress Racing crew member Donald "D.J." Richardson, Jr., who passed away on Christmas Day due to complications from the H1N1 virus, also known as the swine flu, at the young age of 37. My condolences go out to his family members on their loss, and to everyone at the RCR organization who knew him.

Bud Shootout changes yet again
So it turns out last year’s Bud Shootout changes didn’t quite last. The whole “top 6 cars of each make doesn’t work when only one team is running Dodges. So they have tweaked the rules yet again, and I actually like it.

For one, the number of people competing is bigger, which I like. It makes for excitement and likelihood of passing and competitive racing. Second, they have configured it now to include everyone who has been competitive in the past at Daytona, either now or way back. You have all previous winners of races at Daytona, all past winners of the Shootout. Then, to spice things up we throw in the reigning Rookie of the Year (Joey Logano this year), all past Cup champions, and all 12 drivers who make the Chase.

Due to the limited number of Dodges, NASCAR had to make a change, and I think this will be fun. It’s two-thirds of the way to a full race a week before the 500, and everyone will be going for the win. Sounds like a recipe for success to me.

Smell like a race car driver?
So amid all the other hoopla, Danica Patrick is releasing a perfume.

While taking a break from my initial reaction, which is to fight the urge to omit, I had a flashback to simpler times, before Jeremy Mayfield was allegedly hooked on meth, and he asked a young lady in a commercial, “Is that Octane 93 you’re wearing?”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Johnson’s AP honor shows NASCAR has been accepted by mainstream

I am stunned.

As I looked up at the words on the TV screen Monday morning, I thought it was a typo: “Jimmie Johnson named AP male athlete of the year.”

Knowing sports editors like I do, I never thought that in my lifetime I would ever see a racecar driver win this award. It just wasn’t possible.

I don’t doubt that Johnson is the most dominant athlete in any sport right now and does deserve the honor … but in my experience most sports editors don’t view NASCAR as a sport on an even level with baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis or track and field. They tend to the view it as more of a competition, and less of a “sport”.

Their views are often in line with much of the public, whose Web comments after the announcement included:
“Jimmie Johnson is athlete of the year? All he did was sit there.”
“Jimmie Johnson is athlete of the year?! He's not an athlete. He's a driver. He sits there and steers.”
“In honor of Jimmie Johnson winning athlete of the year, I’m nominating my mailman for 2010 since he drives a motor vehicle for a living too”

As NASCAR fans, we know it’s not quite that easy. But the fact remains that this is how a lot of people think about motorsports. To them, it’s all motor and no sport. (I’d love to see these people try to do a lap at Talladega in a Cup car … they’d probably either wet themselves or hit the wall very quickly and painfully).

So that’s why I am stunned, and amazed, at Monday’s turn of events. Topping tennis’s Roger Federer, golf’s Tiger Woods, baseball’s Albert Pujols, track’s Usain Bolt, and basketball’s Kobe Bryant, Johnson won in commanding fashion, impressing the voters with his unprecedented fourth straight Cup title.

So getting back to the debate … is Jimmie Johnson the “athlete” of the year? It depends how you look at the word. Of course, in the purest sense of the word, it’s common sense that someone like Usain Bolt is faster and stronger than Jimmie Johnson, but that’s not the only credential for this award. It’s not about who has the biggest muscles … it’s about who’s the best at their sport. Bolt and the others had great years, but Johnson is on a historic four-year run that none of his competitors can match.

I can see the other side’s argument … it’s the car that wins the race, they’ll argue, and in a way they are right. A driver can’t dominate without a solid team effort and a strong vehicle. But the opposite side of the coin is also true, and the fastest car will never win with a bad driver. In fact, it won’t even finish the race.

Getting back to the “athlete” argument, the physical toll a long race takes on a driver requires them to be athletes. Just look at Mark Martin, who is over 50 and still works out harder than probably most of the stick-and-ball athletes. Jimmie accurately called out all the chubby, out-of-shape baseball and football players who are far less of “athletes” than he is.

With the exception of Tony Stewart, I can’t name any overly chubby drivers who are winning races. The days of drivers who look like Jimmy Spencer are long gone. Teams are employing personal trainers in an effort to keep their drives in tip-top shape so they’ll be able to race more effectively. Despite what the haters say, it’s a lot more than turning a wheel left.

I don’t root for Jimmie Johnson, and am in the crowd that thinks his dominance is generally bad for the sport, but this AP honor is the kind of thing I can cheer on regardless of how I think of Jimmie during the racing season. He is an ambassador of the sport, and this honor shows he has earned the respect of the sports media, which means NASCAR has earned the respect of the sports media.

Considering that not too many years ago ago, much of the sports media thought NASCAR was just a hive of dumb rednecks racing cars down South, a NASCAR driver taking this honor is quite an accomplishment.

And despite what some people may say, Jimmie deserves it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gibbs may regret letting Addington leave

I have to give credit to Steve Addington. He’s willing to take on the tough assignments.

After being the crew chief for arguably the most obnoxious, tirade-prone driver on the track, Kyle Busch, Addington is used to listening to an angry driver and not taking it personal. Despite guiding Kyle to 12 wins over two years, Addington was dropped from his position as Kyle Busch’s pit boss after Busch missed the Chase in 2009.

That may end up being a mistake for Gibbs, as Addington has found his way over to the Penske organization, where he will be crew chief for yet another ornery Busch – older brother Kurt. Kurt is also very prickly, but that should be no concern for Addington … he’s worked with the other one and knows how to deal with the Busch type.

If Kurt has an even better year in 2010 than his solid fourth-place run in 2009, and Kyle struggles again with new crew chief Dave Rogers, Gibbs may be left scratching his head. I understand that Kyle missed the Chase, but 12 wins in two years doesn’t usually lead to a breakup in this sport … for good reason. Those kind of results mean that something is working,

Penske said last week that "By adding Steve to the winning Miller Lite team and working closely with Kurt, we believe we have the combination in place to compete for a championship as we head into the 2010 season."

Are Joe Gibbs and Kyle Busch that confident about their chances?

Least surprising stat of 2009
David Stremme had the most crashes. No shock there. I could’ve told you that without doing all the math.

When will Danica start Nationwide ride?
The discussion is under way about where Danica will make her Nationwide debut, and Daytona is still being considered as an option. I think I’m not in the minority when I say that would be a terrible idea. With zero experience in NASCAR, racing her first Nationwide race at Daytona could be disastrous … and scary for the other drivers.

It’s already going to be crazy enough with her doing the ARCA race there, as that series is prone to crashes already even without the presence of a true stock car rookie like Danica. We don’t need to make the situation any more dangerous by putting her in the Nationwide race too. Get some experience at the other tracks and don’t debut at a plate race. Trust me, it’s the best thing for everyone.

And while we’re talking about Danica, there was an amazing total of 10 women – Danica Patrick, Leilani Munter, Alli Owens, Milka Duno, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Michelle Thoriault, Jill George, Alison MacLoud and Amber and Angela Cope -- testing ARCA cars at Daytona. Will any of them make it to Cup? That’s a tough road that few actually take, but Danica obviously has the best shot, with all her attached sponsorship. But if none of them can run well in ARCA or Trucks or Nationwide, there is no chance they’ll get a shot at the highest level (except Danica maybe, just because she’s Danica)

Big news for elder Keselowski
After a 2009 that saw Brian Keselowski step out of the driver’s seat of his K Automotive racecar and hand the keys over to other drivers while he stayed behind the scenes, it appears big plans are in order for the Michigan-based team in the Nationwide Series.

It was announced this week that Brian, the older brother of Cup driver Brad Keselowski, will return to driving the car in 2010 for the K Automotive team, which will move its shop from Michigan down to Statesville, North Carolina. His crew chief will be Dave Fuge. If the team can secure sponsorship and run all year as they plan, it looks like Brian and his team might be on the verge of moving from survival mode to being a team to watch. Part of the reason for the move is the hope of getting more employees with the experience needed to compete at a higher level, which is an important step on the road to improvement. There is talk of a getting a veteran Cup driver to run some Cup races for K Automotive, which would be a good sign.

There is definitely room in the Nationwide series for some smaller teams to step up and compete, and I hope K Automotive will be one of the nice surprises in the 2010 season.

Bad news for CJM Racing
After a solid 2009 that saw them finish well many weeks, with a variety of drivers, it appears the #11 CJM Racing car won’t compete anymore in Nationwide.
Their 2009 driers included Trevor Bayne, Kelly Bires, Mike Bliss, Denny Hamlin, Scott Lagasse, Jr., Justin Lofton, Andrew Ranger and Brian Scott.

The team had some solid finishes amid the Cup visitors each week, and it’s a shame to see it go. Yet another victim of the economy, it seems.

TV alert
Kyle Petty is also quick to tell you his opinion, and he’ll share it tonight about a variety of topics on an interesting panel show, “With All Due Respect,” at 10 p.m. on CNN Headline News. Petty will appear along with fellow athletes Charles Barkley and Dennis Eckersley. This may be slow or boring at times, as most panel shows are, but I bet that overall it will be a pretty lively and interesting discussion. Kyle has made some pretty bold remarks lately, including a pretty harsh diss on Danica Patrick, so don’t be surprised if he says exactly what is on his mind regarding the topics of that show.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Where are the 2010 Cup rookies?

And your 2010 Rookie of the Year will be …. No one, at this point at least.

I’m sure some team will come forward at some point and qualify for the honor, but it will likely be a backmarker or even a start-and-park.

This is a weak situation, and the direct result of the Cup guys invading the Nationwide series is larger amounts each year. In short, fewer young drivers get a chance to develop anymore, because their seats are occupied by Cup drivers most of the time.

For example, perhaps instead of running Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton in the #29 car most of the year, a young driver could have been given a shot to succeed in the quality ride, as a springboard to being a future Cup racer. I’m not picking on RCR, as that’s just one example of the all-too-common setup teams use, which leaves them not knowing who might be the next good driver at the Cup level.

Most of the successful NASCAR names of today … Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Treux Jr., Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Labonte for example … got full-time experience driving in Nationwide on their way up to the top level, often earning championships in the process.

Nowadays, NASCAR is so worried about the big names from Cup drawing people to the stands on Saturday that they are failing to pay any attention to this issue of this lack of driver development. Simply put, if you only can squeeze in a young driver about 5 times a year, the weeks when the usual Cup driver can’t make it to the Nationwide track, it’s going to be very hard to develop talent. They need to run the whole year to truly get ready for the big time.

So congratulations, NASCAR! I’ll pulling for a guy like Dexter Bean to come up with enough money to run the season and earn the Rookie of the Year honor with a string of 38th place finishes, just to help reinforce how young talent is being left on the sideline in exchange for Cup drives in the developmental series.

France’s secrets will be heard
The France family tries to keep its dirty laundry from being aired, and is highly protective of its reputation.

So they couldn’t have been too happy Friday when the judge presiding over the divorce case of NASCAR chairman Brian France decided court files and hearings will be public, not sealed like France had replied.

District Judge Jena Culler won’t release files until next week sometime in the child molestor case ... but you can bet there are some things in there that France won’t be happy to see up for public view. Hell, if you released the files on any of our lives, we’d probably be at least a little embarrassed.

Meanwhile, lurking in the near future is the court battle with Jeremy Mayfield, and if anything comes out that could bring into doubt Brian France’s judgment and ability to make decisions, this divorce case could spill over and be referenced in the Mayfield case.

Why bother, Milka?
Here’s another one, and it’s comical.
Venezuelan driver Milka Duno, who usually struggles to stay on the lead lap in Indycar races, will be testing nan ARCA car for Braun Racing in January. Yes, that’s the same test Danica Patrick will be part of, so maybe we’ll get another fight, complete with towel throwing.

Honestly, though, I don’t see how Duno coming to NASCAR is remotely serious. Anyone who has seen Duno race knows that she is pretty terrible in Indycar, so it’s a pipe dream to think she could make a jump to NASCAR right now. Don’t expect much out of this.

It’s strange to me that after so many years of looking down on NASCAR in a condescending way, drivers from Formula 1, Indycar are wanting to be in NASCAR. Funny how things change.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

By what standard should we judge Danica?

The great Danica Patrick experiment has begun.

For better or for worse, she and Jr. Motorsports are joined in a union for 2010, when she will drive the #7 Chevrolet in a part-time Nationwide Series schedule.

After years of rumors that it would happen, the seldom-winning but still extremely famous Patrick has decided that NASCAR is where the real money is at, and is testing the waters to see if she wants to make a permanent switch to NASCAR from Indycar in the near future.

The media frenzy will be at a fever pitch the whole time, as Patrick aims to become the long elusive “successful female driver” in modern-day NASCAR.

One thing is for sure, and that is the whole sporting world will be watching Patrick’s progress, wondering if she can hang with the boys in NASCAR. If she does succeed, she would bring a whole new legion of fans to the sport, and the France family will be rooting for her more than anyone because of this potential windfall.

But for those of us who have watched this sport for so many years, what will be the standard Patrick will have to achieve to prove she belongs?

She has a tough road ahead of her … just ask the string of failed Indycar transfers, including Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier.

Then, there is the bright side, as Juan Pablo Montoya competed for the championship this year and, despite his pension for spinning, Sam Hornish Jr. can run a pretty decent race.

So where will Patrick end up in this discussion? Overall, the prospects aren’t great. She has nowhere near the success in open wheel as any of the others who attempted to transfer, and will be completely green to stock cars.

If it took a champion like Juan Montoya until his third full season to truly do well, how long will it take Danica, who has only won once and never been a legitimate title contender?

The one advantage Danica has is she has landed at a team that wins races, and is supported by Rick Hendrick. While she may not have the talent of the others who tried and failed in NASCAR, she has better equipment. Perhaps Danica in a well-funded Jr. Motorsports car is better than Dario Franchitti in an underfunded Chip Ganassi car.

Only time will tell.

As far as the answer the question I posed earlier about judging Danica, I don’t expect much out of Danica, so if she can just finish the races she runs in 2010, keep out of the wall and rack up a couple top-10s, I will consider the first leg of her NASCAR experiment a success and a building block for the future.

I have to say, though, that I don’t think it will go that smoothly, and she will have to make a hard decision after 2010 about whether she really wants to continue down this road in NASCAR.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ford happy to have Kahne, but how long will it last

It was reported this week that Richard Petty Motorsports is officially a Ford operation, and the long-planned merger betweeen RPM and Yates Racing has been signed.

The team will run the #9, #19, #43 and #98 cars of Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, A.J. Allmendinger and Paul Menard.

While hardly the most impressive lineup of drivers, there are a couple bright spots. Allmendinger has the potential to develop into a winning driver, and then of course there is Kahne.

While he’s hardly lit up the track in recent years, that's largely due to equipment issues and Kahne is an undeniable racing talent. When he gets the right equipment, he can drive away from the competition. At only 29 years old, he is someone who any team would be smart to sign for the long term.

But it’s not up to RPM. It’s up to Kahne, whose contract expires at the end of 2010.
He has made it clear that he wants to be with a team that has the potential to win races and championships. Up until now, the young RPM team hasn’t shown that ability.

Ford officials are gushing over what a coup it has been for them to gain the services of Kasey Kahne, who finished 10th in the points in 2009, but that joy may be short-lived.

If big improvements aren’t made that allow Kahne to feel confident about the future, don’t expect him to be at RPM beyond this year. Plenty of higher-caliber teams will be courting Kahne, especially with the possibility of a potential third team at Stewart-Haas Racing or a fourth team at Joe Gibbs starting in 2011.

With no shortage of suitors, Kahne will have to enjoy a magical year driving Fords for RPM to want to stick around. He’s the perfect example of a star who needs to be at a better team, and the writing is already on the wall.

While nothing is impossible, I would put the chancez of Kahne being behind the wheel of a RPM car in 2011 somewhere between slim and none.

With the marketing potential of Kahne, it’s pretty much a sure bet that a bigger, faster, stronger team will come snatch Kahne away from the Ford ranks.

They better enjoy 2010, because the excitement from Ford and RPM about having Kahne isn’t likely to last.

Earnhardt shows signs his focus will be on winning in 2010

As the drivers who did well in 2009 celebrated this weekend in Vegas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was nowhere to be found in that list of top drivers.

But based on news that came out this week regarding the Danica Patrick situation, I get the impression that Jr. has the right mindset as he looks forward to 2010.

Asked about the Patrick situation, he told reporters that his sister Kelley is handling those negotiations with Patrick, and he is not involved in any way with the talks. Also, he announced this week that Kelley and his cousin Tony Eury Jr. have been given ownership stakes in his Nationwide team, which is already co-owned by Rick Hendrick.

So reading between the lines, what does all this mean? It gives me the impression that Jr. is ready to put aside all distractions and focus on improving his finishes in his Cup ride. By letting Kelley handle all of the Danica nonsense, which would be an unnecessary distraction for Jr., and giving his sister and his cousin/former crew chief more power to run the show at JR Motorsports, the distractions start to fall away from Jr.’s life and he can focus on gelling with his team, getting ready to compete for wins in 2010 and avoiding a repeat of his disastrous 2009.

Sure, he’ll still have to do sponsor appearances and commercials -- it goes with the territory of being Dale Jr. Beyond that, though, he needs to devote his time to doing whatever it takes to get back to the level he was at 5 years ago, when he was contending for races and winning them on a regular basis.

His comments this week give me the impression that he is willing to make the changes necessary for that to happen.

What banquet?
I have to admit, I completely forgot about the Cup banquet in Vegas Friday night. I’ll catch up via the Internet, but I’m pretty sure that I missed nothing but a three-hour suck-up festival where everyone talked about how great Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick are for NASCAR.
If I had watched, I’m pretty sure I would have needed a vomit bag to get through it all.

I heard all year how great Johnson is, and even wrote those words myself many times. I’m not sure why I would want to hear it again for three hours. No thanks, I’ll settle for a highlight reel of the event … and I’m pretty sure the highlight will be to see what Connie Montoya is wearing.