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.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Banning blocking would go against the basic concept of racing

Out of all the talk that has surfaced since Carl Edwards’ scary wreck at Talladega, one thing has been very disturbing to me.

There is talk of a punishing drivers for blocking, a ridiculous move that fundamentally goes against what racing stands for … competition.

I recognize that Edwards’ move to the bottom to try to block Keselowski, which came a second too late, led to his crazy ride.

But at the same time, if he hadn’t made that move, I don’t know how he could look himself in the mirror and call himself a racer.

Winning races is not just about having the fastest car. It’s also about knowing how to handle your car and deal with people trying to pass you. If NASCAR mandated that cars were not allowed to block and had to let faster cars pass them, then what the hell is the point of racing?

If that’s the case, let’s just do a wind tunnel test, see who’s fastest, and hand out finishing positions based on the results of the test.

I want to see cars race. I want to see cars swoop down low to block the inside lane and protect their position. Then, if the car behind them tries to go high, I want them to go high and try to protect their position.

It’s exciting, and it’s a big part of what racing is all about. Just because the car in 2nd place is faster doesn’t mean it will always win, and that’s one of the greatest things about racing.

I don’t think it will come to a blocking ban, like many open-wheel series have, but if it ever happens fans should be disgusted.

Banning blocking is not what racing is about, and I hope NASCAR won’t let this one wreck inspire a rule that would kill the quality of racing in the sport.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Kurt Busch quietly takes points lead

Silent but deadly would be a good way to describe Kurt Busch’s year so far.

He has one dominant win at Atlanta, but the rest of the year he has quietly rattled off six top-10 finishes in 9 races. His other finishes are 11th, 18th and 23rd.

Now, thanks to a solid Talladega run, while his main title competitors all were victimized by the “big ones”, he is your championship leader by 5 points over Jeff Gordon.

Though he is a past champion, it’s been a few years since we’ve been able to call Busch a legitimate title contender in the Cup series. The Penske team had a pretty rough time last season, and Busch was relegated to 18th in the standings.

Despite his recent struggles, Busch has some solid career statistics. He’s won at least one race every year since 2002, and has 19 career victories. He’s shown this year that he’s likely to add to that total before the season is over.

The question now is: Can he keep it up? So much has been written about the Hendrick duo of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, and others like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. These drivers are the true title contenders, conventional wisdom says.

But someone like Kurt Busch is looking to buck that conventional wisdom. Most impressive about his return to contention is that he is driving a Dodge. Last season, not one Dodge made the Chase, now Busch is hoping to win the title in a Dodge. With the make’s parent company Chrysler literally struggling for survival right now, it’s very impressive that Busch has been able to do what he’s done so far.

In a way, this is reminiscent of 2004, when Kurt Busch took the title in the first year the Chase was implemented. That year, he wasn’t dominant, winning 3 times and earning 10 top-5 finishes. But he did well when it counted most, in the Chase, and got very lucky in the final race and was able to claim the crown by the slimmest of margins.

While the Hendrick cars are always the favorite for the title, simply because they usually end up winning it, I’m glad there’s a potential spoiler like Busch in the mix, waiting to pounce and take the title if the main contenders have troubles in the Chase.

He may not be a headline grabber, but don’t count Busch out. He’s been a champion and no doubt wants to feel that way again. And unlike last year, he has the equipment to make a legitimate run at the Cup.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

It’s all fun and games until somebody gets killed

Just a day ago, after Matt Kenseth’s wreck, I wrote that NASCAR was unlikely to do anything about the dangers posed by restrictor racing, because the racing is so exciting they wouldn’t want to mess with it.

After Sunday’s race, which ended with a terrifying Carl Edwards wreck into the catch fence that also injured eight fans, as well as several other wrecks that left more than half the field with damaged or destroyed racecars, it’s gone beyond being exciting. For every great exciting finish like we saw Saturday in the Nationwide race, there seems to be a horrific and scary finish like we saw Sunday in the Cup race.

At what point is it too much?

Carl Edwards was to the point, and accurate, when he said after the race: "I guess we'll do this until somebody gets killed and then we'll change it, but that's the way it is.”

NASCAR certainly didn’t help prevent this situation by being so absolute on its “no passing below the yellow line” rule. Prior to this race, they told the drivers there would be no exceptions to this rule, even on the last lap to avoid a wreck.

The situation at the end of Sunday’s race was the exact same as last year, except Keselowski had no option but to wreck Edwards. If he had gone below the line, he would have been penalized and awarded a 23rd place finish. That was a hard lesson learned by Smith last year, and Keselowski wasn’t about to be victimized by the same ridiculous rule.

What NASCAR is saying with the yellow line rule is plain and simple: They’d rather see drivers wreck on the last lap than race each other for the win. It’s a shameful policy and needs to be changed before the next restrictor plate race. The rule needs to be suspended if the pass happens in the last lap of the race, and anyone who disagrees is supporting a policy that could someday have fatal consequences.

But moving beyond the individual rule, let’s get back to the overall situation with plate racing. As I’ve said, it’s very exciting at times, and that’s why fans like it. But I felt sick watching that wreck on lap 8 on Sunday. That wasn’t exciting, it was a disgrace that took out a lot of cars that could have competed for the win.

If a bit of minor contact between Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon can cause a wreck that destroys or damages more than a dozen racecars, something isn’t right.

Beyond the track turning into a junkyard far too often at these races, this kind of racing has now led to fan injuries, as the result of debris from when Edwards went airborne. None were life-threatening, but one spectator may have a broken jaw.

Edwards’ wreck at the end was scarily similar to Bobby Allison’s 1987 wreck, which led to the introduction of restrictor plate racing as a way to slow the cars down. Well, guess what NASCAR, these kind of wrecks are still happening, even with the plates. Do you still think plates and large-pack racing are the answer.

Imagine if the catch fence hadn’t held back Edwards’ car. I would probably be writing about a bloodbath similar to the one that happened during the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes, traveling at around 150 mph, somersaulted over the safety barrier, caught fire and broke into pieces, which flew into the crowd. More than 80 people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

If Edwards’ car had reached the stands, it would have been the blackest day in NASCAR history, and I’ll be happy if I never see another Cup car go into the fence like that and I never see another 20-car pileup brought on by incidental contact between two drivers.

What disturbed me most Sunday was Fox commentators telling us, after all the carnage, that Sunday’s Talladega race was the “best race” of the season, and the “best race in a long time.” While it was exciting at times, I wouldn’t call a race where all but a dozen cars were involved in wrecks and eight fans were injured by debris the “best race” of any time period.

It was a demolition derby … and I get tired of the Fox network promoting that fact. There were more scary wrecks this weekend than I care to see on any weekend in the future, and even the fans got a taste of the downside of restrictor plate racing this week.

The most important thing is that Edwards, and all the other drivers who took hard hits Sunday, are still in one piece. And NASCAR should be thankful so few fans were injured.

Bottom line: NASCAR needs to allow a last-lap exception on the yellow-line rule, and do something else to limit speed that doesn’t require the dangerous pack racing we are seeing at Daytona and Talladega.

I want to see exciting racing, but I also don’t want to see anybody die.

Jr. gets a solid finish, but his battle has just begun

Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed a big boost this week after some tough runs in recent weeks. He got it, with a 2nd-place run at Talledega, his best track, finishing right behind his protégé and Nationwide series driver Brad Keselowski. He is now 15th in points, just 45 points out of the Chase.

Now comes the hard part … continuing to finish well enough to make the Chase. For whatever reason, Jr. hasn’t been able to consistently finish as well as his teammates this year. Some have blamed the crew chief, some have blamed the driver. Bottom line, he can’t afford many more screwups. He has good Hendrick equipment, and now he must run consistently in the top 10 between next week’s Richmond race and the fall Richmond race if he hopes to battle for the title.

It’s not a case of him having to win a whole bunch of races, though a win or two would certainly help his confidence. He just can’t afford the embarrassing early-season stumbles he’s had so far … from the countless pit-road screwups to scraping the wall … to return.

If they do, he won’t be in the Chase. It’s that simple.

Stellar day for rookies at Talladega
A look at the top-10 rundown at Talladega is a bit eye-opening.
Joey Logano, who had a nightmare week at Daytona, finished 9th for his first career Cup top-10 finish. Scott Speed, whose season has been largely a nightmare, finished 5th. Keselowski, who isn’t even an official Rookie of the Year contender because he isn’t running enough races, took the checkered flag 1st. Also, Marcos Ambrose, who almost just missed qualifying for ROTY battle because he ran a few too many races in 2008, finished in 4th.

This is likely the only time, other than another plate race, when you’ll see so many inexperienced Cup drivers in the top 10.

It certainly helps when the neverending “Big Ones” collect so many drivers who would normally be contenders. But you can’t deny the skill these young drivers are showing in their ability to dodge these big wrecks and race up front with the veterans.

Michigan's own Brad Keselowski stuns NASCAR with win at Talladega


That’s all I can say after watching Oakland County’s own Brad Keselowski pull off a stunning upset victory by passing Carl Edwards in dramatic fashion to win a Cup race in only his fifth-ever start.

Because he had to follow NASCAR’s rule of not going below the yellow line, Keselowski sent Carl Edwards flying when Edwards tried too late to block his pass for the lead on the last lap of the race at Talladega.

And as Edwards crashed into the catch fence (and luckily made it out without serious injury) the Rochester Hills native made his way to the checkered flag at the biggest, scariest place to drive in NASCAR.

Prior to the race, the thought occurred to me that Brad might have a good day. The #09 car, fielded by car owner James Finch, is always good at restrictor plate races, and has come close to wins at Daytona a couple times. Add to that a solid driver like Brad, and I figured he might get a top-10 finish if the cards fell right.

After all, this was supposed to be the year he just got his feet wet in Cup. No one expected him to win a race during his part-time schedule.

But by winning this race, he has made this year into something special. Not only is he finally running up front every week in the Nationwide series, he’s making Sundays mean something, too.

If he’s not in Cup full-time next season, something is seriously messed up. It’s difficult, with the spots all claimed at Hendrick Motorsports if Mark Martin sticks around.

It’s possible Keselowski could spend a year over at Stewart-Haas Racing in a third car, since that’s basically Hendrick version 2.0, and then move to the #5 once Mark Martin retires at the end of 2010. However it works out, even if he stays in the #09 car for all of next year, I don’t see how Keselowski can be kept out of Cup at this point. He’s a truly talented driver who can be both aggressive (as he was on the last lap) or patient (as he was most of the race), depending on the situation.

Don’t forget that this was a great weekend overall for the family, as Brad’s brother Brian Keselowski posted a 14th-place finish in the Nationwide race and locked himself in the top-30 for a guaranteed spot with family-run team. The Keselowski family, going back to their father Bob and uncle Ron, has a long history in NASCAR and is very respected. The emerging careers of Brad and Brian should continue that legacy.

It goes to show it doesn’t matter if you’re from Michigan or North Carolina (or Australia for that matter), you can make a name for yourself in NASCAR … and that’s one of the things that’s so great about the sport.

Congratulations, Brad. It may not have been a pretty win, but everyone in Michigan was cheering you on and is happy to see you achieve success at the sport’s top level.

Scary wrecks and four-wide racing … yep, we’re at Talladega

There are two events in Saturday’s Nationwide race that will be remembered for a long time. … and they represent the two things you will always see when NASCAR heads to Talladega.

The first was the scariest wreck I’ve seen all year, when Matt Kenseth was bumped by teammate David Ragan and ended up on a wild ride that involved several flips, a fire and a long slide on the hood of his car down the track. Luckily, he ended up on the wheels and was able to climb out of the car.

Waiting for that wreck to end, and seeing the fear in his wife’s eyes as the camera caught her racing to see if he was OK, was a stark reminder of how dangerous restrictor plate racing can be. This track and Daytona have produced some of the most spectacular wrecks in NASCAR history. And while it almost always turns out that the drive is safe in these wild wrecks, they are a reminder that it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to find a way to get these cars a little less bunched up. With all the great mechanics in NASCAR, there has to be a better way to control the speeds than restrictor plates.

But then, there’s the other side of the coin, the side that explains why NASCAR doesn’t really want to find another way to slow them down -- The racing is really exciting for fans.

If anyone watching the last few laps of Saturday’s race wasn’t on their feet screaming at the TV, they’ll never be excited by a race. In a matter of 15 seconds, all of the following things happened:
-- 3rd place Tony Raines got into Brad Keselowski, and they both bobbled
-- 4th place David Ragan, taking advantage, jumped to the outside and moved to 2nd.
-- With the finish line approaching, Ragan bumped leader Ryan Newman slightly, slowing Newman enough that Ragan was able to inch out the victory

It’s thrilling, yet dangerous, which is the strange dichotomy of plate racing. Take Dale Earnhardt Sr. for example. His life was lost in a restrictor plate race (in a crash much less spectacular than Kenseth‘s, by the way). Yet his final career victory came at Talladega, and provided us with the amazing image of Sr. chopping through traffic and making up about 20 positions in less than four laps to win race No. 76. He hated plate racing, but he loved winning plate races and was the best at it.

Often, the cruel twist of plate racing is that it’s a recipe for unfairness. Take Saturday’s race, for example.
Joey Logano ran into and wrecked Michael Waltrip, then he went on to finish third in the race. Ragan was the one who sent Kenseth on that scary ride, and he ends the day with his first career Nationwide victory.

But that’s how it goes at Talladega, and probably will for a long time to come. Fans watching the race have a dilemma as a result … do you cheer on the crazy four-wide action, knowing it could result in a wreck like Kenseth had.

In the end, we have no choice. The drivers choose to strap in, knowing the possible consequences. And they put on such a great show at Talladega and Daytona that’s it’s hard not to enjoy it, despite the dangers that lurk at these tracks.

Brian Keselowski locked in at Richmond
Rochester Hills native Brian Keselowski is once again locked into the top 30 in Nationwide owner points, after a great 14th-place run at Talladega. The restrictor plate tracks always offer a wonderful opportunity for the smaller teams to compete with the big boys, and Brian has capitalized. Now he can concentrate on race setup for Richmond, knowing he won’t have to make the race on time.

Michael Waltrip fights back
After being called out once again by Clint Bowyer for a wreck (even though it was Logano‘s fault, not Michael‘s), Mr. Waltrip decided he had heard enough. In the first interview with Michael I can recall where he’s somewhat angry, he indicated he’s ready to talk back if Bowyer wants to keep taking shots at him (we all remember the classic “Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR, period.” from last year).
Though I agree with Bowyer that it’s time Michael hung up his helmet, I’m glad Michael is finally standing up for himself, especially since every time Bowyer critizes him the wreck isn’t his fault.

I did chuckle, though, when Michael used the word “butt” twice in his coments when you know he wanted to say something a little less rated-PG. When I’m as mad as he clearly was, I certainly can’t hold my tongue like that.

Congrats to Montoya
In spite of all the turmoil at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing this year, Juan Pablo Montoya has emerged as a bright spot. By taking the pole at Talladega Saturday, he added another achievement to his long resume, and took another step toward proving he’s more than just the Formula 1 guy who can win on ovals. Unfortunately for Montoya, pole at Dega means nothing and he might not even lead a lap.
Still, it’s nice to see him running well. He’s obviously got talent, and it’s finally starting to look like that will translate to NASCAR.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Kahne puts Petty team on notice ... improve or he might be gone

Is Kasey Kahne looking ahead to his next ride?

That’s the question surrounding Kahne, the most high profile driver at Richard Petty Motorsports, as rumors swirl that he might be interesting in going elsewhere … either after 2010, when his contract expires, or even sooner if possible.

Kahne tried to dispel those rumors last week at Phoenix, but he didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement of his team.

He started out with the politically correct answer, saying he’d honor his contract, which expires after the 2010 season.
"I'm definitely not exploring other options," he said. "I have another year with Richard Petty Motorsports. The Gilletts have been good to me since I came here. I made a commitment to them to race through 2010, so I'll do that for sure."

Then it gets dicey, as he added this little caveat.
"I've told them from the start that if we can get our cars to where they're right and we're competitive with the best teams out here then I don't know why I'd ever want to move from that company," Kahne said. "For me to leave, I wouldn't want to, but at the same time I want to get a chance in some really good equipment too. We're working on that. If we get there, I'll stay with RPM for a long time."

So let’s just read between the lines and examine what Kahne really wanted to say. You don’t say, “I want to get a chance in some really good equipment,” if you’re happy where you are. While I believe Kahne is a man of his word as far as honoring the contract, it’s clear that he’s not happy.

The Petty team has been put on notice by its biggest star. He straight-up said that if his cars aren’t up to snuff with the Hendricks and Roushes of the world by the time his contract is up, he won’t be around.

The RPM team has had its ups and downs this year, and Kahne is right to want the best equipment. But it’s pretty rare to see a driver call his team out in this manner in today’s NASCAR. I give Kahne credit for speaking his mind, as most drivers probably wouldn’t have said what he said, even if they were equally frustrated.

Kahne went on to say he hopes the team can improve the quality of its equipment and he won’t have to make a switch, but I believe that he knows the #9 car probably won't be at the level of the #48 car by the end of 2010.

Where would Kahne go if he left? That would be very interesting. Kahne is a talented driver who has shown in the past he can win a lot of races if he has the proper equipment. But there is a limited number of spots at the top teams.

The Hendrick stable seems pretty well set for a while, and lately the Richard Childress cars are far from top contenders. Perhaps he could bump out a Roush driver, or be a fourth Joe Gibbs driver?

Things can change fast in the Cup series, so I’m sure all this will be explored all next season as Kahne ponders his decision. He will be a highly courted free agent, and unless RPM can step up its game immensely, it will likely lose Kahne as a driver.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dave Marcis, an independent legend, still speaks out for the little guy

In the history of NASCAR, one driver who stands out as a champion of the small, independent team is Wisconsin native Dave Marcis, who ran in the Cup series from 1968 to 2002.

While he hasn’t raced in seven years, Marcis remains a voice for these smaller teams. When I spoke to him this week, he expressed his concern with the rules NASCAR has imposed since his retirement, which seem to help the bigger teams and punish small ones.

“The top-35 rule, that’s a bunch of baloney. The racing fan pays to see the fastest race cars that come to that event. He gets cheated out of that when they lock in the top 35,” Marcis said. “I’ve seen where they sent cars home who were 3-4 mph faster. That is not what racing is about. They want the elite group and don’t really invite outside competition. It’s not right.”

In retirement, Marcis hasn’t quite settled into a rocking chair yet. He keeps busy by helping his son-in-law run a street rod business (, and has a restaurant/hotel he runs in Wisconsin called Camp 28 (

“My race car shop is now building street rods for people. My son-in-law is interested in that and I’m letting him use my shop,” Marcis said. “Also, I bought a bar, restaurant and hotel in Wisconsin. It used to be a logging camp in the 1800s.”

In between taking care of his businesses, “I’ve been doing some hunting and fishing.”

Fans who watched Marcis race in the 1980s and 1990s saw him struggle for the most part, as bigger teams took over the sport. But during his 883 starts in the Cup series (third all-time behind Richard Petty’s 1184 and Ricky Rudd's 906), Marcis was able to take five wins and finish in the top 10 in points eight times, including 2nd place in 1975.

Occasionally driving for others, he spent most of his career as an owner/driver. With many teams like that emerging this year, including Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek, Marcis can certainly relate to what they’re having to battle. He said these teams have to be careful about how they treat their equipment.

“It’s a difficult thing. and I probably raced too hard sometimes for what I had. I ran a lot of used equipment and ran it too hard sometimes,” he said. “It’s all about finishing.”

Marcis said he is not a big fan of the Car of Tomorrow, which allows mechanics less room to tinker and make changes to the car.
“My take is, what do you need it for? Why do they have to control that? Just continue building chassis and cars like we always have,” he said. “They’ve taken away the incentive to re-engineer and do new things”

Speaking of re-engineering, Marcis was friends with the late Smokey Yunick, one of the most notorious NASCAR legends when it came to making cars run better in ways that weren’t always within the rules. He shared a story of how Yunick offered him some help back in his early days.

“When I went to my first race in Daytona, I went and talked to Smokey about how to fix the problems I was having. He gave me a set of special push rods to put in the engine and said I should order some more,” Marcis said. “He gave me a part number, and when I called the company, they said there is no such thing. Yet I had a set in my hand that Smokey gave me.”

Marcis, who raced in 32 consecutive Daytona 500s before failing to qualify in 2000, said he always measured himself against the greats, Petty and Pearson, when he was at his peak competing in Cup.

“Cale Yarborough raced hard every lap, like Kyle Busch does now,” Marcis said. “But Petty and Pearson finished the best on a weekly basis. My goal was to run with those two cars.”

Getting back to the present, Marcis told me that not only does he disagree with the top-35 rule, he’s not a big fan of provisionals.

“The fastest 43 cars should be in the race, with maybe one provisional for last year’s champ or the Daytona 500 winner. One day at Michigan, Bill France Jr. told Jimmy Means and me that provisionals were for guys like Jimmy and me,” Marcis said. “And that’s a bunch of B.S. That’s for the big guys like Jack Roush so they wouldn’t miss races. Truth be known, Roush is probably one of the guys who pushed the top-35 rule so he can tell the sponsors they’ll be in the race.”

Marcis stopped racing at age 61, and he had kind words for Mark Martin, who won last week at the age of 50.

“Mark’s got the talent and is in good physical condition. If he’s got the equipment, there’s no reason he can’t win,” Marcis said. “He’s as capable as winning as any 18-year old, maybe even more capable because he knows how to take car of his equipment.”

Marcis has a strong connection to Dale Earnhardt Sr., as Earnhardt’s first full-time ride was in a car that became available after Marcis quit over a dispute with the owner after his crew chief was fired. Later in life, Marcis would test Earnhardt’s famous #3, and they were good friends who hunted and fished together.

He told me the media puts an unfair amount of pressure on Dale Earnhardt Jr. because of his last name.

“That’s not Sr., that’s Jr. Just like Kyle is not Richard. It’s not right,” he said. “Kyle went through the same deal. You can’t compare him to his father.”

When other NASCAR legends raced at Bristol, Marcis wasn’t involved … but that wasn’t by choice.
“I would’ve loved to have been in that race. They said it was for previous winners at Bristol. I won a race there, but I was driving relief for Bobby Allison and Bobby gets credit for the win,” Marcis said. “He can’t drive anymore, so they should’ve had me in there, representing Bobby. I’d have loved it, but they never called.”

Marcis, who said he now tapes NASCAR races but can’t watch them live because “there’s too many commercials,” stuck around the sport longer than most drivers, but the reason was very simple: That was his job.
“The reason I continued on is it’s what I done to make a living. It was a job,” he said. “I wasn’t old enough to draw Social Security, so I continued to make a living. And that meant racing. It’s that simple.”

He said the cost of racing is so high now, it’s harder to get by as an independent team than it was during his racing days.
“I was trying to be competitive, which was difficult. I think the good old days were better racing. Fans could afford to go racing. It was easier for a small guy to get in the game,” he said. “Today, it’s damn tough. You’ve got to have a pile of money. The entry fees are up. Inspection fees, licenses. It’s tough for a little guy to get his foot in the door.”

So what does Marcis want his legacy to be?

“From my standpoint, I always raced hard and tried to give the fans a show. I done it my way. I raced hard and never gave up. I would like fans to say that even though his equipment wasn’t always the best, he raced it hard. I’ve always been a hard worker and don’t regret it one bit.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

So much for favoritism … NASCAR puts Jr. on probation

After Dale Earnhardt Jr. played bumper cars with Casey Mears following the Phoenix race, there was discussion about whether NASCAR would penalize either driver.

The verdict came down Tuesday, and it looks like NASCAR isn’t afraid to put its most famous name on notice they’re not happy with his antics.

Both Jr. and Mears are now on probation for the next six races, and must be on their best behavior.

Before the penalty was announced, many had speculated no punishment would be handed out, in part because Jr. was one of the participants. But it appears NASCAR is not happy with drivers taking their aggressions out on each other after the race, and will punish anyone who does it … even Jr.

From my angle, I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. Unless the post-race activity puts other drivers at risk, I don’t see the need for probation. Though it may be childish, it’s just a way of letting someone know you’re not happy with what happened during the race.

I can understand imposing this kind of penalty or worse for actions during a race. For example, when David Gilliland purposely put Juan Montoya into the wall at Texas in a retaliatory move, when they were both going almost 200 mph, he deserved the penalty he received and a lot more, as he put Montoya’s life at risk with his actions.

But a little chrome horn after a race doesn’t bother me a bit. Whether it was Jr. vs. Mears or any of the other drivers on the track, I don’t think it merited a probation period. On the contrary, stuff like that is the kind of thing fans want to see. It shows their drivers care about what they’re doing.

But still, I understand what NASCAR is doing. They don’t want to start a slippery slope by allowing this type of behavior to happen. If they do, what other line will drivers try to cross?

The biggest news, though, is that all the “favoritism” claims are pretty much invalid at this point.

Jr. got the same treatment any other driver would have gotten in this situation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Talladega offers Stewart great chance for first win with new team

Watch out for Tony Stewart this weekend.

Though he started the year as a big question mark, the two-time champ has shown his new team, which might as well be owned by Rick Hendrick it’s so connected, is a competitor for race wins and the title this year.

What was the terrible Haas-CNC Racing last year is now the formidable Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart has finished 8th or better in 6 of 8 races in 2009, and sits just 104 points behind points leader Jeff Gordon. Even Ryan Newman, after a tough start to the year, is doing a lot better lately.

And where are we going next week? … Talladega, a track where Stewart has 1 win and 9 top-5 finishes in 20 starts. Though he isn’t always the victor, you can count on Stewart being up front at Dega every time the circuit goes there.

With the hot streak he has going right now, the recipe is perfect for Stewart to break into the win column with his new team, despite the many odds that he faced at the start of the season.

But looking back, it appears all the doubters, including myself, got it wrong. History said that owner-drivers can’t really contend for titles, and I predicted he might struggle at first.

What I failed to realize was that Stewart’s situation is different.

Unlike someone like Robby Gordon, or Alan Kulwicki in the past, Stewart was basically offered a free ownership stake in the struggling Haas-CNC team. Upon his arrival, top talent like ex-Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Darien Grubb came over to the new Stewart-Haas team. Throw in the use of Hendrick engines and bodies, plus sharing of information from Hendrick’s organization, and we have something that has evolved far beyond a satellite team. Hendrick and Stewart-Haas are basically joined at the hip.

So while Stewart didn’t officially move to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, he kind of did it anyway.

Tony Stewart is not your classic Cup series owner-driver in any way. He’s not like Joe Nemechek, worrying about every part used and hoping it doesn’t bust his tiny budget. When he gets behind the wheel, he is strictly a driver, and that’s not the case for a true owner-driver.

This may be essentially a brand new team, but it’s one that is so connected to Hendrick it was destined to succeed from the start -- especially with a driver as talented as Stewart behind the wheel of its lead car.

And barring a “big one” knocking him out of the race, you can bet that Tony Stewart will be in the lead pack battling for the top spot as the laps wind down at Talladega.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

With new contenders, Formula 1 a whole new ballgame this year

For years, it’s been the same story: Ferrari and McLaren.

From 1998 to 2008, all but two Formula 1 championships (won by Fernando Alonso at Renault) were won by a driver from one of these two teams.

2009 is a different story. After three races, the new Brawn Racing team has stormed the gates and sits 1-2 in points with Jenson Button and Rubens Barichello, both drivers many people thought were past their prime in F1. Prior to 2009, Barichello was the longtime second fiddle to Michael Schumacher, and Button had yet to materialize as the star he was once predicted to be.

Behind the Brawn duo in points are the following drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Timo Glock, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso.

Sightings of a McLaren driver are not seen until 9th and 10th positions, where defending champ Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen are tied with 4 points each. Both Ferrari drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, has failed to score a single point this year.

In a sport that’s been so predictable for much of the past decade, this is a welcome change. There was a time when the only thing you wondered was how far Michael Schumacher would finish ahead of the competition, not whether he would win. While that was great for the Ferrari fans, it stunk for everyone else.

Now, it’s truly a joy to watch F1 racing because you don’t know what will happen. The Red Bull team, with Vettel and Webber, might dominate as they did this weekend in China. Or the Brawn team might have another strong weekend like they did the first two race weekends this year. But there’s no guarantee who will win the pole or race up front.

Of course, you can never count out Ferrari or McLaren from figuring out what’s wrong with them and getting back into competiveness. If that happens we could have a handful of teams legitimately competing for wins each week. I can’t remember the last time that was even a remote possibility in F1.

As a NASCAR fan, I’ve always looked at F1 as a sport where the drivers may be more skilled (seriously, the rain was so bad in China you couldn’t even see, but many of them got through the day without going off track), but the racing was always less exciting and more predictable.

That is not the case this year. The Brawn team is clearly the best right now, but I can’t guarantee they will claim the championship, and that’s not something I would have said in past years. For the first time in a while, it’s not an exclusively McLaren-Ferrari show (in fact, they’re not even players right now), and that’s something to cheer about.

After NASCAR failure, Franchitti returns to success in Indycar

After coming over to NASCAR last year, with his lovely wife Ashley Judd to add to the scenery, Dario Franchitti quickly saw the harsh reality that can happen in NASCAR if you’re not instantly successful.

He couldn’t secure enough sponsorship and his Cup ride with Chip Ganassi was shut down. Just as soon as it had started, Franchitti’s NASCAR career went the way so many crossover attempts have gone – it flatlined.

On Sunday at Long Beach, back at his natural habitat in Indycar, Franchitti was able to return to Victory Lane. After a year of wondering whether her husband would finish on the lead lap or even make the race, Judd was able to scream in joy as he crossed the start-finish line first.

Some people just aren’t cut out for stock car racing, and it appears Franchitti is on that list. But he seemed like a genuinely nice guy, so I’m glad to see the former Indycar champ back doing what he does best, and doing it well.

Helio breathes sigh of relief
Also having a great week was Indycar star Helio Castroneves, who was acquitted Friday on tax evasion charges. Also acquitted were his sister and Birmingham, Mich.-based attorney Alan Miller, who also represents NASCAR stars including Jimmie Johnson.

Fresh out of court, he hurried off to Long Beach to qualify and compete in this weekend’s Indycar race and ended up finishing 7th. Not too bad for a guy who just spent several months worrying whether he would go to prison. Though I suppose racing must have seemed relaxing after facing that kind of stress for so long.

While I’m not a tax lawyer and can’t comment on whether the verdict was the right call, I’m glad to see Helio back on the track. He’s a great personality and Indycar needs all the stars it can get, so it doesn’t become only the Danica show.

Speaking of Danica, the announcers actually had a legitimate reason to talk about her as she ran in the top-5 most of the day and was a legitimate threat to win the race.

Is Jr. becoming the “fourth team” at Hendrick Motorsports?

When Mark Martin was struggling early in the season, I questioned whether the Hendrick team was providing Martin with adequate equipment to be competitive with his superstar teammates and the other heavy hitters in the series.

I questioned whether the “fourth team” #5 was receiving the same consideration as Jeff Gordon’s #24, Jimmie Johnson’s #48 and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s #88.

I was wrong. Martin is no longer the fourth team -- the #88 car has now taken that honor.

Before Jr. Nation starts accusing me of bashing their driver, recognize that I’m not saying Jr. is a terrible driver. I’m also not saying he’s just getting by on his name, and I’m not saying that his crew chief is terrible.

What I am saying is that he’s not keeping up with his teammates, and not living up to what he should be doing in a car put together by an organization as top-notch as Hendrick. Whether it’s fair or not, you have to be judged in comparison to the best. Right now, the best includes all three of his teammates – who are all likely to be in the Chase competing for the title.

Even among Jr. Nation right now, I don’t think anyone is overly confident he will be there competing with them. Whether it’s pit road problems, hitting the wall or just ill-handling racecars in general, Jr. is not running a Chase-quality season right now.

In essence, he has become the “fourth team,” the one that doesn’t measure up to his teammates.

Talladega, a track where Jr. has 5 of his 18 career wins, would be a good place to turn his season around, because so far it hasn’t been pretty. He’s 19th in points and going in reverse.

For those who would say I’m being too harsh on Jr., I say look at the numbers and facts. Jr.’s teammates are all winning this year, and he isn’t. They’re getting solid finishes, and he isn’t most weeks. Two top-10 finishes in eight weeks aren’t the statistics you see from someone who will be competing for a title.

I have nothing against Jr., and think it would be great for the sport if he could become a Cup champion. But the way things are going, the chances of it happening this year are slim to none.

Don’t call him old-timer -- Martin now a true title contender

It’s not too often that somebody wins a race and everyone at the track is happy, even that driver’s competitors.

But it happened Saturday night at Phoenix.

Mark Martin, who came back on a mission this year in his return to full-time racing, earned his first win since 2005 and his 400th career top-10 finish.

After the race, the scene was reminiscent of (though smaller in scale than) the massive outpour of congratulations after Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the Daytona 500 in 1998. Martin’s former car owner Jack Roush came by to give thanks, as did an endless parade of the drivers he competes against each week.

People are making a big deal of Martin’s age, and that he’s just the fourth driver above that milestone to win a race, but Dale Earnhardt Sr. was about to turn 50 when he died, and he was still racing competitively for wins. The drivers who are truly talented can still keep up that level of success, and Martin is truly talented.

He is now 13th in points, just 9 points behind 12th-place Matt Kenseth. This is amazing, considering that a month ago, before Bristol, we were discussing whether Martin would still be in the top-35 in owner points after that Bristol race. Since then, he’s been the hottest driver in Cup -- his last four finishes are 6th, 7th, 6th and 1st – and shows no signs of stopping. If he can avoid the “big one” at Talladega, a track where he has won twice in the past, look for him to reach the top-12 next weekend.

The Cup championship has always eluded Martin, who has been the bridesmaid four times, and he has done an amazing job to overcome his terrible start to the season and get into Chase contention.

If he can manage to win the Cup, he is so respected by everyone in racing that it would likely be the most popular championship ever.

And one more thing … After great runs like he’s had this past month, I’m guessing Mark will give Rick Hendrick a big yes in response to the question of whether he’ll be back full-time next year. If Hendrick’s plans still are to move up Brad Keselowski, I can see Brad driving a third Stewart-Haas car for the short-term until Martin retires.

Best line of the week
This comes courtesy of Robby Gordon, who was having a rare solid run when he became the latest victim of Michael Waltrip. When asked what happened in the wreck, Robby said: “I’m looking forward to having a good driver in the 55 car next year.”

Comedy gold, I say. It ranks right up there with Clint Bowyer’s gem last year: “Michael Waltrip is the worst driver in NASCAR. Period.”

Most curious was the lack of reaction to that line from the booth. Why didn’t DW defend his brother? Could it be even he recognizes that it’s time for Michael to step aside and let someone else get in that car?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

First the #28, now the #8. It’s been a bad year for famous numbers in NASCAR

First the #28 stopped running due to lack of sponsorship, now the #8 won’t be on the track for the same reason.

If anyone didn’t already know that this economy has turned the NASCAR world for a loop, the fact that these cars aren’t on the track is all the proof they need.

Let’s take the #8 car first.

Not too long ago, there was a bitter battle over the number between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his favorite nemesis, stepmom Teresa Earnhardt, about whether he could take the number with him to Hendrick Motorsports.

Stepmom won that battle, refusing to let Jr. keep the car number he had used since his entry into the Cup series, a number his grandfather has used and the number his father used in his Cup debut.

Less than two years later, it’s amazing how much has changed. First, DEI shut down two of its teams (#15 and #01), then merged with Ganassi Racing. Now, only the #1 car is still running, and all that fighting over the #8 seems pretty pointless because it’s not even on the track anymore.

This comes on the heels of the #28 team ceasing operation despite the best efforts of Yates Racing. Davey Allison, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever despite a career shortened by a tragic death, rocketed the Yates team to stardom in his short time in Cup.

The #28 has a storied history in NASCAR. Though Davey’s success is most remembered, Ernie Irvan had some great runs in the car (and almost died while driving it after a terrible crash at Michigan Speedway).
Others who have driven the car are Ricky Rudd and the late Kenny Irwin Jr. Prior to Davey‘s turn in the car, Cale Yarborough had a stint driving the #28 Hardee‘s car.

Last year, Yates put together what seemed like two dozen different sponsorship deals and was able to keep the team running all year. This year, that was not to be … and the team became another casualty of the economy.

So Travis Kvapil and Aric Almirola are on the sidelines for now, many team members are out of a job, and two numbers with a lot of history are not on the track.

Some would say they’re just numbers, and I almost agree with them.
But for some reason, it just seems strange to me not seeing the #28 and #8 cars on the track.

In this economy, though, history means nothing.

If the money’s not there, the team’s not there.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Economy could slow Rusty's goal of moving team to Cup in 2010

This weekend in Nashville, Rusty Wallace announced that “ideally,” he’d like his Rusty Wallace Racing team – which currently features Brendan Gaughan and his son Stephen Wallace as drivers – to move up from Nationwide to the Cup level in 2010.

“Ideally, if all the moons lined up, I’d start in 2010,” Wallace said. “Two cars. I’d want Stephen and Brendan to go right in.”

Wallace said a partnership with another Chevrolet team, ideally Richard Childress Racing, would have to be worked out ahead of time in order for him to make the move to Cup. Without a partnership, it would be hard for him to maintain an adequate number of cars and engines, he said.

But even if this partnership comes through, that’s no guarantee the move will be possible. Just like everything else this year, it all boils down to one thing: The Economy.

Getting enough sponsorship dollars to run two teams full-time in Cup is easier said than done these days, even in the economy starts to pick up by the end of the year. The cost of racing at the Cup level prohibit most people from competing … and may ultimately be what stops Rusty from making the leap in 2010.

Eventually, I’m sure we’ll see him in Cup. Long a fan favorite, it will be nice to have him around in an ownership capacity in the Cup series. But I don’t know if 2010 is going to be the year we see it happen.

If it doesn’t, that’s probably not a bad thing. His son Stephen has been known for wrecking a lot, and only this year has begun to run consistently well in the Nationwide series. Perhaps another full-year run in Nationwide would help prepare him better for the more rigorous and difficult Cup competition.

Despite the tough road ahead, Wallace says he’s pumped up for the move and wants it to happen as soon as possible.
“I think it’s time, instead of getting stalled out in one series, to move up and do something different. I don’t care if people agree with you or don’t,” he said.

I wish him luck, and will be very impressed if he can pull off everything – the RCR partnership, the sponsorships, etc. – he’ll have accomplished a minor miracle, considering the state of our nation’s economy.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nationwide regulars refuse to back down to Cup visitors at Nashville

If I told you the #33 car from Kevin Harvick Incorporated got a top-5 finish at Nashville, and you hadn’t seen the entry list, you’d probably assume Harvick had put in his usual solid Nationwide guest performance.

But that’s not what happened. Up-and-coming driver Kelly Bires, who doesn’t even have a full-time ride in 2009 in the Nationwide series, accomplished this feat in the same equipment normally driven by a Cup star. Bires’ great run was capped off by a pass of Carl Edwards in the final laps.

This was just one example of something that I’ve been advocating for a long time: Letting the young, talented drivers of NASCAR have the spotlight in the Nationwide series. Bires’ run – and others, including Steven Leicht’s solid run in the #29 RCR car on Sunday -- is just one of many examples that show that given good equipment, these young drivers can run with the Cup guys and compete for wins.

My favorite moment of the race involved Nationwide full-timer Michael McDowell, who put on a great show toward the end of the race by holding off Kyle Busch for several laps, then engaging Kyle with a little contact when Busch first tried to pass him for the lead. It’s nice to see the regulars not laying down for the Cup guys, even if they know they’ll eventually lose the battle most times.

Nationwide regular Jason Leffler had a solid day, finishing 6th and continuing a long string of solid finishes. He is the best of the Nationwide-only drivers in the standings, just ahead of Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski. In a perfect world, where Cup drivers didn’t drive full Nationwide schedules, the two of them would be battling for the title, along with Justin Allgaier, Brendan Gaughan, Jason Keller and Mike Bliss, among others.

Instead, we get the Kyle and Carl show when you look at the points chart.

The Keselowskis both can be happy
It was a great day for Brad Keselowski, who finished third but was weak on restarts and didn’t have enough car to compete with the Gibbs team, who are threatening another dominating season in 2009 (minus the magnets, of course)

Brad Keselowski is now up to 5th in points, but now it gets tough. He’s within shouting distance of 4th place Jason Leffler and 3rd place David Ragan, but the odds of him catching up to Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards – the duo who will most certainly battle for the crown – are pretty slim. It’s still early in the season, but the only scenario I see where he can have a shot at the title involves Busch and Edwards wrecking a lot, and that doesn’t seem likely considering how talented they both are.

His brother Brian Keselowski finished 41st Saturday, but don’t let that fool you. This was a solid weekend for the K Automotive team. Both the #26 and #96 cars qualified for the race, with Brian in the #96 and Dennis Setzer in the #26. Then in the race, Setzer put on a great performance and finished 20th, the first car one lap down. That’s a big boost in the owner points for the team, which is still battling to reach the top 30 and a guaranteed spot. I’m sure Brian would have preferred to finish better, but he’s doing everything right in his efforts to keep up his simple goal of running every weekend.

Stenhouse has solid debut
The Roush team debuted Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the #16, and the results were pretty impressive. While he ended up wrecking and finishing 23rd, he had put on a great effort up until that point. If I were Jack Roush, I’d let Stenhouse finish out the year in that car, but unfortunately it will probably be filled by the likes of Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray most weeks in 2009. The more time Stenhouse gets in a car, the better he will get. And he’ll gain a lot more from driving that car than the Cup guys could.

Can Carl catch up?
On Saturday, the Gibbs team showed it still dominates the Nationwide series. From early on, it was clear the race was going to belong to either Logano or Busch. Recognizing how strong the Gibbs cars are running, Edwards has asked Roush for more resources to be dedicated to improving the Roush cars to the Gibbs cars’ level of quality. Roush said he’ll do his best, but considering how strongly the #18 and #20 have run in the past couple years, it’s going to take a very special effort by the Roush team and Edwards to stop Kyle Busch from claiming the crown this year.

Here’s the difference. Carl is very solid every week, and usually finishes in the top 5. But he often has to struggle to get there. Meanwhile, Kyle starts up front and runs up front every week, without much apparent effort.

Upside-down Joe
I have to give props to Joe Nemechek, who despite being flipped upside-down in the Stenhouse wreck, almost was able to finish the race. In an amazing incident, his car went on the roof, then landed back on its wheels. He barely scraped the wall, and was able to drive to his pit stall. The only thing stopping him from being allowed by NASCAR to finish the race was that his roof flaps were not functioning properly. Pretty impressive, Joe, I must say.

Shepherd survives
Morgan Shepherd once again did what he had to do -- by staying out of trouble all day. With all the attrition, he ended up 31st, and jumped several spots to 21st in the driver point standings. He also remains in the top 30 in owner points, so he’s guaranteed a start at Phoenix next week.

If he can continue to keep his car in one piece and complete the races -- considering how much attrition there is each week in the series and the high number of part-time drivers – there’s no reason he can’t continue to climb the standings and achieve his goal of reaching the top-15.

Nationwide win an important confidence booster for Logano

18-year-old Joey Logano shot into the spotlight like a rocket less than one year ago, debuting in the Nationwide series and winning in only his third start. He ran solidly in Nationwide most of 2008, then was tapped by Joe Gibbs to run Cup in 2009 and replace the departing Tony Stewart.

2009 has been a different story. It’s been a tough year for Logano, the first real bobble in his rocket to stardom that started when he was just a young teenager. His Cup season has been unimpressive, to be kind. And he hadn’t been to Victory Lane since his lone Nationwide win last spring.

By picking up the win at Nashville, Logano may have indirectly helped his Cup aspirations, as this win could give Logano the confidence he needs to get his Cup career headed in the right direction. I recognize the competition is much stronger in Cup, but confidence can take you a long way in sports – and NASCAR is no exception.

I think everyone in Nashville became a Joey Logano fan at the end of Saturday’s race. Even though he was in another Gibbs car and was also a Cup driver, he had one big thing going for him: He wasn’t Kyle Busch.

I’m pretty sure most of the race fans out there, even those who root for Kyle Busch, don’t like it when one guy wins all the time, and would have rooted for any driver racing against Busch.

Often, winning breeds winning. Though a Cup win is still a pipe dream, Logano could get energized in the Nationwide series and slow down the Kyle Busch express on a regular basis. And down the line, the effect could be that he starts to get solid top-20 finishes or better in Cup, and improves from there.

It’s no guarantee, as they are two completely different cars and series, but all I’m saying is that a Joey Logano who is winning in the Nationwide series is much more likely to be a Joey Logano who finishes respectably in the Cup series.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sponsored through fall, Allmendinger can focus on run for Chase

It took long enough, but finally A.J. Allmendinger can breathe a little easier. The efforts of the Richard Petty Motorsports team to get sponsorship for A.J.’s #44 team landed the interest of Hunt Brothers Pizza, who will help the team stay on the track through September.

And if Allmendinger continues driving as well as he has all season, finding sponsorship for the Chase races shouldn’t be hard … especially if he’s in that Chase competing for a title.

It's very possible when you consider what he’s done so far this year. After seven races, A.J. is 20th in points, only 104 points out of 12th spot and the Chase. A week earlier he was only a few spots out, knocking on the door.

He’s the second best driver on the RPM team, ahead of teammates Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler. If the Petty team was smart, they would wrap A.J. up in a multiyear deal while they still have the option, as I predict several teams will be courting Allmendinger hard if they don’t.

The open-wheel star has had his share of struggles in NASCAR, even being pulled from his ride at Red Bull for several races during a particularly rough period, but he has matured very rapidly.

At the end of 2008, A.J. resurrected the dying #10 after the car struggled all year with driver Patrick Carpentier. He had some great runs that no one thought that car was capable of having. This year, he has picked up where he left off.

Now that the sponsorship issue is not hanging over his head, A.J. can concentrate fully on the racing. It’s a longshot, but if he continues to perform solidly and get top 15 finishes most weeks, Allmendinger could be competing for the title this fall.

It would be an amazing success story, and it’s far from a lock, but the fact that it’s even a possibility is a testament to the huge turnaround this car has made since the arrival of Allmendinger.

Root for Nationwide drivers this weekend
The good news this weekend is that only a handful of full-time Cup drivers are competing in the Nationwide race at Nashville Saturday – Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, Michael Waltrip and Joey Logano. The rest of the field will be Nationwide regulars, and I hope one of them can finally pull of a win in their own series.

My money is on young Justin Allgaier, the Penske driver who is on the fast track to Cup. He’s very fast and has been very strong so far this year in the series, running up front and threatening to win. If they can escape the invaders (mainly Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards), I give the edge to Allgaier to capture the win. If he can’t, I hope Brad Keselowski or another Nationwide driver wins.

Also of note: Roush Racing will give up-and-coming driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. his first drive in the Nationwide Series. File his name away, as you’ll probably be hearing it a lot in the future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Sliced bread" Logano looking stale, but don't panic

Just a few months ago, we were calling him “sliced bread”.

Now, we’re calling him “that guy who hits the wall every week”.

Joey Logano is literally on the edge of dropping from the top 35. If David Gilliland outperforms Logano this weekend, there’s a good chance he’ll overtake Logano for the final guaranteed spot in the owners points.

But for all the people talking about how Logano might lose his ride and will never live up to the hype that surrounded him when he made his Nationwide debut last May, I have this message: CALM DOWN.

I, like anyone with a pair of eyes, fully recognize now that the move to Cup was made too soon for Logano … but it’s too late to turn back. Joe Gibbs knows this kid is talented and it will show up in the future.

There won’t be a bunch of early career wins like Tony Stewart had for Gibbs when he jumped into the #20 car a decade ago. But Joey is not Tony, and he’s on his own timetable. Gibbs recognizes this and will be patient, and he’ll reap the rewards once Logano does blossom.

Remember, he’s only 18, and turns 19 next month. Sure he was hyped by the media, including me, but no one said he was going to fight for the title.

The talk of him losing his ride is silly. His goal in 2009 should be to improve as the year goes on, and do better at tracks he is returning to for a second race in Cup. Most important, he needs to get out of that danger zone and start inching up the points chart. It‘s no fun having to worry about whether you‘ll qualify each week. Just ask Logano‘s rookie of the year competitor Scott Speed, who failed to qualify for Texas and is now in a hole he will find hard to escape.

Logano must make every race this year and learn as much as possible. During this time, he must build a relationship with crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the team so he can be more effective at improving his car during races.

If they do this, next year he will be better. Give him a couple years and he should start showing the brilliance he has shown in every other series where he‘s raced.

With so much praise thrown his way, the expectations for a rookie like Logano are so much higher than any other rookie has ever had to face. It’s clear this has overwhelmed him a bit and he would have been better off doing another full year in Nationwide in 2009.

But that ship has sailed. He is in Cup, and he’ll have to get better while driving there, even if he may be out of his league at times.

So the next time that Home Depot car scrapes the wall, don’t be cursing Logano and wishing he were fired.

It may not look like it now, but Logano will be very good … it’s just going to take a little longer than a lot of impatient fans want.

R.I.P. #8
Remember when the #8 was out front, with that Budweiser sponsorship and a pretty popular driver, winning races and competing on a regular basis?

That car is now parked until a sponsor shows up, leaving Aric Almirola out of a ride and leaving Earnhardt Ganassi racing with only the #1 of Martin Truex Jr. and the #42 of Juan Pablo Montoya. Both these drivers are talented, and Montoya is nearly in the Chase after a strong start to the season. But in today’s NASCAR, a two-car team isn’t going to be able to compete with the Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs operations.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Gordon’s drive for five titles is very alive

It seems like just last season, many fans were ready to send Jeff Gordon to the retirement home. He had lost his touch, needed a new crew chief, and just didn’t have the goods to compete for titles anymore.

After Gordon’s start this year, capped by his first win since 2007 on Sunday at Texas, I’m guessing no one is saying that today.

The second fiddle at Hendrick to Jimmie Johnson for the past few years (ironic, since he is part owner of that team), Gordon is making a statement this year: He ain’t dead yet.

It’s been eight years since he won his last title, and gaps like that between championships are rare (though Terry Labonte did wait 12 years to win his second title), but it’s clear that Gordon has the stuff to win this year. That’s no guarantee it’s going to happen, as the Chase will make things interesting, but Gordon has been up front all year and doesn’t appear to have any intention of slowing down.

Why the resurgence? A lot of it is due to the fact that he’s finally figured out how to drive the COT, which he strugged with early. Also, he appears to have finally forged a true symbiosis with his crew chief, a la Johnson and Chad Knaus, and the results are showing on the track.

Yes folks, it appears Hendrick’s original young superstar is back to compete in his old age (all things being relative). Kyle Busch may be in the headlines more than Gordon, but there’s only one guy leading the points – and that’s Gordon.

It may not be like his dominating seasons in the late 1990s, but anyone with common sense has to recognize that it will be no surprise if Jeff Gordon hoists a fifth championship trophy this fall.

Wait a second .. Jimmie Johnson finished second?

He did it again.

Looking at the stat line, you’ll see Jimmie Johnson finished second. If you hadn’t watched the race, that’s pretty normal. But those who did watch saw Johnson pull another classic sneak-up-from-behind move after not being a factor the entire day.

He ran mid-pack for much of the day. But while the announcers focused on everybody but him, he was steadily improving his position. If the race had been a bit longer, he may have won it.

The way this team can improve its cars as the race progresses is its ace in the hole, and a large part of the reason Jimmie is the 3-time defending champion.

After a charmed 2008, Ragan is snakebitten in 2009

As 2008 came to a close, David Ragan rose from the ashes like a Phoenix, nearly making the Chase after a horrific 2007 debut. He nearly made the Chase after amassing a dozen top-10 finishes, and rarely finished lower than 20th. It appeared he had stepped up the ladder, and would be able to take that next step and reach the Chase in 2009.

Seven races into this new season, I’ll be kind and say things haven’t gone exactly as planned. Other than a top-10 finish at Daytona, Ragan’s season has been the pits.

Some weeks he’s run into mechanical trouble, and other weeks the car just hasn’t run good at all. His finishes -- 17, 42, 19, 27, 27 and 37 – have dropped him in the points standings down into Sam Hornish Jr. and Reed Sorenson territory.

Ragan is better than these results show. He was running solidly in the top-10 on Sunday before another mechanical problem put him out of the race. Something hasn’t been right on many of the Roush teams so far this year, and Ragan’s results are indicative of this.

Another interesting sidebar is that either Ragan of Jamie McMurray, who is running only a little better than Ragan, will have to be off the Roush team after 2009. Ragan’s youth will probably keep him there, but if he continues to run in 30th McMurray might get a second thought from the Cat in the Hat.

I’m a firm believer that Ragan will rebound before the year ends and keep his ride, but at this point he’ll have to have an incredible run to contend for the Chase. He has to be extremely disappointed in how this year has started.

What’s with all the pit road mistakes this year?
While I’m not expecting perfection, it continues to amaze me how many errors are being made on pit road this season. Though it didn’t affect his finish much, it was still strange to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. completely miss his pit stall because his team didn’t have his pit board displayed prominently enough. Also, Carl Edwards’ crew had a slow pit stop that dropped him from 1st to 11th on the final round of stops, costing him a shot at the win. While he didn’t tee off on the crew like Kyle Busch would, you could tell Edwards was steamed.

Between slow stops, missing lugnuts, pitting out of the box, running over hoses, chasing after tires and countless speeding penalties, it seems that lately more races are being decided because of what happens on pit road.

I have a feeling a lot of pit crews are going to be doing some extra practice this week, particularly Edwards’ team.

Mark Martin speeding up the points standings, could make Chase

As the little girl in “Poltergeist” once said, “He’s baaaaack!”

I’m speaking of course of Mark Martin, who was on the verge of falling out of the top-35 in points after the Atlanta race. He had terrible to luck to start the season, and his goal of competing for a title in 2009 seemed dead on arrival.

At that time, I wrote that unless Martin caught fire immediately, his hopes of a Chase berth were done. Guess what … that’s exactly what he did.

Finishes of 6th, 7th, and 6th have catapulted him to 18th in points. He jumped NINE positions this week after his Texas finish, and is only 93 points behind the 12th place driver, Jeff Burton.

Not only is it possible at this point that Martin will make the Chase, it’s pretty likely if he continues to race at this level. Of all the drivers on the track each week, Martin has perhaps the most thirst for a championship, having coming in second four times. Starting out the way he did had to be disheartening, especially since he was driving for a team as capable of winning as Hendrick Motorsports.

But his team appears to have gotten the mechanical bugs worked out, and Martin is finally getting the results he wants. There’s a long way to go still, and things could turn bad again, but it appears this team has its ducks in a row and is ready to compete.

If he can manage to pull off a Chase spot and contend for that elusive title, he will be the sentimental favorite among fans and everyone involved in the sport.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Truex departure from Earnhardt Ganassi inevitable

The news today was that unless the #8 team can be resurrected with sponsorship, Martin Truex is now within his rights to leave the team, because his contract stipulates that he must have two teammates. Word is he might be headed next year or sooner to a fourth Joe Gibbs team. Gibbs has plans to expand in the near future, so if Truex becomes available, it‘s a distinct possibility.

So far, the Earnhardt Ganassi team has not worked out as hoped. The #8 is probably done after this weekend, Truex is mired far down in the points, and Montoya has been the only bright spot. I was shocked Truex agreed to come back in 2009, and at this point it’s pretty much assured he will be moving somewhere, whether it’s Gibbs or elsewhere, either after or during the 2009 season.

Truex has been a middle-of-the-pack driver for a while now, with occasional flashes of greatness, and I wonder what he could do if he were in top-notch equipment.

It’s possible we’ll find out very soon.

Speed not racing Sunday
The battle for rookie of the race at Texas has already been won by Joey Logano … as Scott Speed could not qualify. The Red Bull team has returned to the struggles of the past couple years with their second car, leaving Brian Vickers as its only positive news. Speed is struggling this year, to be kind, and things aren’t getting better, as this DNF proves. He denied interest in returning to F1, but if he continues not to qualify his attitude could change.

Petty running a car at Indy
I learned an astonishing fact this week. Prior to 2007, Richard Petty had never attended an Indy 500.
Now, two years later, he will enter a car in the race. John Andretti, who earned the last win for Petty Enterprises, will race for Petty in this May’s edition of the race.

Another Nationwide snoozer
When I heard before the season that Kyle Busch was running all the Nationwide races, I said the engravers could start putting his name on the trophy. After Saturday’s snoozer at Texas in the series, with Busch once again making everyone else look like an amateur, it looks like I was right.

On one hand, I recognize and am amazed by the kid’s talent, but I’m really sick of him making the races in this series as exciting as watching paint dry. I like competition for wins, and that doesn’t happen much lately.

Morgan Shepherd still earns respect four decades into career

42 years in an impressive length for anyone’s career.
But it’s especially impressive if you’re a racecar driver.

When he started racing in 1967, most of the drivers Morgan Shepherd competes against in the Nationwide Series every weekend weren’t even born. But he still soldiers on, thanks to the help he is receiving from Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, and has no plans to retire.

I’ve always had respect for Shepherd as a driver, but after speaking with him last week I’m rooting even harder for him to succeed. Speaking to Morgan is like speaking to a history book, and reminded me of the conversation I had with the late Smokey Yunick many years ago. Both men had seen it all in their careers, and had some great stories to tell.

When I asked Morgan if he ever had any run-ins with the late Dale Earnhardt, who was known for showing competitors the chrome horn, his response was simple: “One time”

“I was at Darlington in Bud Moore’s car, and he put me in the wall. I made it clear that if he ever touched me again, I’d hang him on the wall every time I saw him,” he said. “He never did it again. He understood what I meant and we never had no trouble. We had an understanding.”

Shepherd said that Earnhardt did make the mistake of trying to tangle with Shepherd one other time, in 1995 at Talladega, but the move didn’t work out for the Intimidator.

“I was running third and he was trying to gain a position. He tried squeezing on me and spun around. I finished 3rd , his car number, and he finished 21st , my car number.”

For the record, Morgan said David Pearson is the “smartest” driver he’s ever competed against, while also reserving high compliments for the King Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.

“Cale would wait for the right time to go, didn’t try to lead every lap. He wouldn’t show his hand,” Shepherd said.

Regarding Harry Gant, he recalled: “Gant was one guy you could run side-by-side all day and he never would intentionally hit you to gain a spot. He was the fairest driver.”

Nowadays, with his tiny operation and barely-there staff at Faith Motorsports, Shepherd is a long way from top-5 finishes at Talladega, but it’s clear he’s still as happy as he’s ever been and grateful for all the help he is receiving. This is mainly due to his strong religious beliefs.

“God has blessed us with good friends,” he said.

Shepherd sees his race team as a sort of ministry, and said his message of Christianity is being heard.
“I’ve had fan mail from all over the world. When they pay attention, they see what we’re about,” he said. “There’s no better way of straightening your life out, whether you’re on drugs or doing wrong, than to come to know Jesus Christ.”

Many people would be reluctant to share their beliefs as openly as Morgan does, but he’s always been a straight shooter and says what he means. He also has no plans to quit racing, as long as he’s able to do the job, saying: “I’ve learned that man’s plans don’t work, only God’s plans.”

There’s a reason Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick are helping Morgan … It’s the same reason Carl Edwards made a $25,000 donation to Morgan’s charity last year. They respect him.

When they see this man, at age 67, still out there doing what he loves and even getting an occasional top 20 finish, he’s an inspiration to them. He’s won hundreds of races in his career, but still wants to race and try to win more.

He’s a racer, plain and simple. When asked about the Cup drivers coming in and dominated Nationwide races, he doesn’t complain, saying: “I am very competitive and always look forward to them coming in and us trying to beat them,” despite his obvious disadvantage when going against those bigger teams.

To fathom how long Shepherd has been in the business, think of it like this:
He related to me that in 1970, a Chevy engine cost $735. Today, used engines are $30000, while new ones are more than double that price.

His best memory of his long career was his second career Cup win, in 1986 at Atlanta.

“At the time, I was 47 and thought I was out of racing. Jack Beebe wasn’t going to finish the season. We go to Atlanta and test, then qualified third and ran up front all day,” Shepherd said.

“In the final laps, tears come in my eyes. I had thought I was done racing and I might win this race. I couldn’t hardly see the corners. That was the highlight of my career, and I’ve won several hundred races.”

But even if he had never won a single Cup race, Shepherd would still command respect from the young drivers he competes with because he represents the history of the sport.

I believe drivers like Stewart and Harvick help Stewart because they respect that history and want to keep it alive … and besides all that, if the Intimidator himself knew to respect Morgan Shepherd, they probably should do the same.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kyle Busch vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr: Who would you hire?

In the blue corner: A young upstart driver who wins a ton of races and has enough talent to shatter plenty of NASCAR records. Unfortunately, he is also the biggest crybaby in the garage area when something doesn’t go his way, and is very quick to throw his team under the bus in a very public manner if they do anything wrong, while rarely admitting to his own mistakes.

In the red corner: A veteran driver who has one of the biggest collection of fans in all of sports, but has failed to lived up to his last name or potential in the past decade. He is a cash cow, guaranteed to make your organization much richer, but probably won’t take you to Victory Lane very often. He also comes packaged with a controversial cousin/crew chief who many people believe isn‘t up to the job.

This rivalry was set up when Dale Earnhardt Jr. replaced Kyle Busch at Hendrick Motorsports. It was rekindled a couple weeks ago when Busch made some comments about how the media always focuses on one guy who doesn’t seem to win a lot (hmmm … I wonder who that could be).

When looking at the stat line, the initial answer to the “who would you hire?” question comes quickly: Kyle Busch is the better option because he wins so much, and that’s what matters most. But as always, there’s a subtext to every debate. You have to take into account the driver as a person, as you’ll have to deal with him on a daily basis.

Over the past month, Kyle Busch has shown on several occasions that despite being the greatest winning machine in NASCAR since Jeff Gordon in the 1990s, he is the textbook definition of a sore loser.
First, he literally told his pit crew “Y’all suck!!” after they botched a pit stop that cost him a Nationwide series win. Then, in the Truck series race on Monday, after another legitimate penalty (of his own doing) cost him the race, he slammed his gear into the Truck, ran down the entire length of pit road, ran across the track and over a wall. I’m guessing someone picked him up in the parking lot.

No one doubts his talent, but episodes like these make him appear like a little child. Little Kyle cries when he doesn’t get his way and fails to win every single race in all three series. Last fall, when he got a terrible start to the Chase due to a team error, he basically threw his team under the bus for their mistakes and gave up. In Kyle Busch’s world, there is an “I” in the word “team”.

But then again, he does win a large portion of the races he enters, so despite all his character flaws I would most definitely want the young tantrum-thrower on my team, despite all the trouble it might cause and how many egos might be bruised.

Meanwhile, there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., a man 10 years into his Cup career who has yet to see the success many anticipated. He has the name, but with the exception of a few years at DEI, he has never been in the top level of championship-caliber drivers.

Still, many say the doubters are wrong and Jr. will emerge as a champion soon enough and prove the haters wrong. They argue that once Jr. settles in at the powerhouse Hendrick team, within the next couple years, he will start running up front with his teammates Gordon and Johnson each week. Waiting on this to happen is much wiser than forcing yourself to deal with the emotional roller coaster that is Kyle Busch, they say. And to some extent, they are right.

Then of course there’s the name, and all the money that comes with it. I fully believe that if Jr. were running 43rd every week, he’d still have plenty of sponsors and more fans than any other driver on the track each week. His name is so big that having him on your team is like having a constantly refilling pot of gold in the garage stall. In these tough economic times, it would be very hard for a car owner to turn down that kind of financial opportunity.

While many would argue Jr. is behind Busch in the talent department, it’s also true that the kind of money Jr. rakes in for a team can buy a lot of really good cars and employees, which can make up some of that talent gap if you figure out something the other teams don’t know about how to run faster.

Of all the car owners in NASCAR, Rick Hendrick is the most likely to be very patient with Jr. He has won so many championships that his record won’t be tarnished if Jr. never claims a title or a bunch more wins. I actually believe Hendrick is not regretting his decision to replace Kyle with Dale Jr., as they seem to have a really good relationship (something that probably wasn’t as true with him and Kyle).

But deep down, Hendrick has to be thinking about what could have been if Kyle had stayed and let his talent blossom at Hendrick. Between Johnson, Gordon and Busch all at their best, the team would have been nearly unbeatable each week.