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.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mayfield details emerging

As was to be expected, more details are emerging on the Jeremy Mayfield drug test situation as court dates begin.

This week, one of Mayfield’s attorneys said he took Claritin-D, an allergy drug, and Adderall, a prescription medication that treats attention deficit disorder. The attorney said that according to NASCAR, Mayfield had tested positive for amphetamines. Perhaps not coincidentally, Adderall is an amphetamine.

Since NASCAR is continuing to be secretive about what substances are banned for use by drivers, it is not clear whether Adderall is a banned substance. Mayfield is requesting an injunction, which may be ruled on Wednesday, which would allow him to return to racing while this matter is being resolved in court.

If the Adderall is what triggered the failed drug test, Mayfield has a legitimate beef and could end up winning this battle and knocking NASCAR down a peg from its high horse. If he can prove he was prescribed Adderall to deal with Attention Deficit Disorder, NASCAR should not have the right to suspend him for the test. A person with ADD uses Adderall to concentrate, and would in fact be more dangerous on track if they did not take the medicine.

Though NASCAR would love for it to go away, this soap opera is not going away anytime soon, and I have a feeling NASCAR and its drug policy are going to have a big pile of egg on their face once all the dust settles.

Give Carl Long a break
After hearing the whole story on Carl Long’s “illegal” engine, I really hope NASCAR cuts him a break this week. Otherwise, the guy will never drive in any major series again, and it would all be because of a minuscule variation from a spec, which he may not have even known about. A war of words has emerged between Long and Ernie Elliott, the engine builder, about who is to blame for the engine not meeting proper NASCAR specifications.

The bottom line is that Long couldn’t afford the fine if it is held up, and he would be forced to stop racing because he can’t pay it. It would be a shame for someone’s racing career, however sporadic it may be, to end like this. The guy just wants to race once in a while, and gained nothing from the so-called cheating. If the NASCAR bigwigs have any semblance of a heart, they’ll look at the situation, recognize this was not a deliberate attempt to cheat and that nothing was gained by it, and give Carl a pass.
Deep down though, I have a feeling they are going to act like Tin Men and rule by the letter of the law, killing a man’s dreams of racing -- all over a measly 0.17 cubic inches.

That’s weak, and is a not-so-subtle way for NASCAR to tell the little guys trying to get into the sport to not even bother, cause they’ll just run you out for the most ludicrous reasons.

Keselowski clan has a great weekend

It was a great weekend for Michigan’s own Keselowski family, with the exception of Brad missing the Cup race. In Saturday night’s Nationwide race, Brad was able to sneak out the win after Joey Logano made contact with leader Kyle Busch on the last restart.

The race was dominated by Busch, and he was the clear favorite to win. But when Busch got off to a slow restart, Logano got into him and left the door open for Keselowski to take the lead and grab the checkered flag.

It’s his first victory of the year in the Nationwide series for the Rochester Hills native, and he can add that cool “Dover Monster” trophy to the case where he’s keeping his Cup trophy from Talladega. It was his third career Nationwide win.

As Brad said after the race, he had to be up front in the right position to take advantage of something like the Busch-Logano incident, so his crew also deserves a big thumbs-up. Brad is consistently finishing in the top 10, something he needs to do every week if he has any hopes of catching Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in the points.

In addition to Brad’s big win, his brother Brian finished 16th, the last car on the lead lap (one spot ahead of Kyle Busch). Brian’s team operates on a shoestring budget, so a top 20 finish at a tough track like Dover is a great accomplishment. For the second straight week, the unsponsored #26 family-owned car had the Detroit Red Wing logo on the hood, fittingly on a night the Wings took a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals. In a way, finishes like these are like wins for Brian, as his equipment doesn’t come close to stacking up to the Gibbs and Hendrick teams. If he could only get a sponsor, who knows how well he could do?

Student hits teacher

After the race, as Kyle Busch skulked around like an angry 4-year-old once again, Joey Logano had a stunned look on his face, like a kid who had been caught stealing money from his parents’ pockets. He had just wrecked the guy who has been teaching him all year how to race in the Cup series.

As he talked about how the wreck was his fault, Logano almost sounded like he was going to cry. It’s ironic that he’s the one who pushed Kyle out of the way, because he is probably the only guy in the garage who would feel bad about wrecking Kyle.

The kind of luck Busch is having lately is crazy … between getting bumped by his teammate, blowing a tire in the Truck race at Dover, and losing twice because of rain last week at Charlotte.

Every one of those races should have been his to win, and some sort of intervention always prevented it. He’ll be hungry today in the Cup race, out to finally get a win after all this recent disappointment.

Tire woes
I can’t see the future, but I know one thing you will see in today’s Cup race at Dover: Lots of pit stops and lots of tire changes.

As I watched the Nationwide and Truck races, the tires just were not lasting. With the same kind of tire compound being used today, don’t expect drivers to want to stay out more than 30 or 40 laps, especially if the tires start blowing on a bunch of cars that do stay out.

Considering this is a 400-mile race, that could create a serious case of stop-and-go racing. And it also could create a situation where a driver that takes a risk by staying out on tires longer than others and survives it could steal a win from a stronger car, as happened in the Truck race, which saw a first-time winner in Brian Scott.

Another Earnhardt just misses the show
Amid all the talk about the most famous living Earnhardt, his nephew was out on the track trying to qualify for the Nationwide race at Dover. Kerry’s son Jeffrey Earnhardt just barely missed qualifying for the race, and had to pack up and leave.

He’ll be back, though, hopefully with a better car, and will start making shows. Later, many years down the road, if his career advances to a competitive Cup ride, he’ll no doubt be put through the same media and fan scrutiny Dale Jr. is enduring right now.

It just comes with the name. You get the fame, but you also have to meet high expectations.

Kyle's attacks on Jr. likely motivated by jealousy

No one denies that Kyle Busch is seeing more success on the track than Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s been almost unstoppable in all three series these past couple years.

This is, of course, in the aftermath of Jr. essentially replacing Busch at Hendrick Motorsports after the 2007 season.

But after yet another low blow attack on Jr. by Kyle this weekend, it’s becoming more and more obvious that Kyle is still pissed off about the way his time at Hendrick came to an end.

I just have this to say to him: Get over it.
He is winning much more than he did back then, so why does he feel the need to take shots at Jr.? I know Jr. has been terrible for much of the year, and have called him out on that many times, but it’s general etiquette among drivers not to call another driver out on their driving ability, unless it’s in the heat of the moment after a wreck during a race.

So when Kyle says things like, “It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief," he’s just simply being an ass, in my humble opinion. Seriously, why does he care what’s going on at Hendrick. He’s been gone for almost two years. Why does he need to cut into another driver like that?

Busch went on: "And if Junior doesn't run well, then he [new crew chief Lance McGrew] is going to be the 'problem' again."

I don’t deny there is some validity to his statements. Of course much of the blame lies with Jr., and Dale has even agreed on that point during many interviews. But there’s a way to say things respectfully, and it’s clear Kyle does not have any respect for Jr.

As always, Jr. was more respectful when asked to respond to Busch, saying: “That doesn’t really surprise me what Kyle says. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder for me. I expect anytime he gets an opportunity to throw a jab in there he’s going to do it. That’s just his personality. We’re working toward trying to figure out how we can make our deal work and that has nothing to do with Kyle (Busch). We’ll see how this weekend goes and then move forward next week.”

Notice he didn’t call him an ass. He’s smart enough to know that writers like myself will do the name-calling for him, and he can focus on working with his new crew chief to get the team in order.

So what is the Kyle Busch dislike of Jr. all about? I’m going to say jealousy. Busch is clearly the better driver, yet Earnhardt is more popular and gets all the headlines because of his name and who he is. Busch probably doesn’t see that as fair.

Regardless of the reason, these low-blow attacks on people and all his pouting after losing races is highly unprofessional, so it’s really not a shocker why 80 percent of the fans boo when he gets knocked out of the way.

As a side note, it was kind of ironic to see Jr. in Victory Lane when Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide race in the car he co-owns … though I suppose it could open up Busch for some more jabs (i.e. … that’s the only time he’s going to be in Victory Lane). I also liked hearing Jr. say “It’s too bad for the Gibbs guys,” because you knew deep down he was smiling at the fact Kyle lost and his car won.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

With Eury out, all eyes are now on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Though he probably knew it was inevitable after the terrible Charlotte showing for the #88 team, it still had to be a shock when Tony Eury Jr. was told by Rick Hendrick that he would no longer be on the pit box for his cousin Dale Earnhardt Jr.

On Thursday, Hendrick said Dale Jr.’s rough year isn’t all his crew chief’s fault, but a change had to be made. Brian Whitsell will crew chief at Dover, then starting at Pocono Lance McGrew will be the interim crew chief, the guy Jr. Nation will be counting on to get their guy back into equipment in which he can win.

On top of that, Hendrick made it clear everyone in his organization will be involved in trying to fix the mystery of why the team has been performing so poorly.

"We're going to put our full resources toward improving the situation and winning races," he said. "It's going to be a collective effort that includes all of our drivers, all of our crew chiefs and all of our engineers. Everyone in our company will be involved on some level."

You don’t say something like that unless you really mean it. And you can bet Hendrick will throw every wrench he can into getting the car in decent shape.

There is a risk this will take away from the performance of the other three teams, which have all won this year, but it’s one Hendrick has to take. You can’t have the biggest name in the sport driving for the best team in the sport and finishing almost dead last at Charlotte. It’s just embarrassing.

So assuming they get the car in order, that leaves only guy who can make the success happen: His name is Dale.

The whipping boy is gone. No longer can angry Jr. fans go online and complain about what terrible calls their driver’s crew chief made.

I have to believe a companywide effort will get the car into contending shape. At that point, Jr. will have to learn how to adapt to the setups, even if it’s not the kind of car he’s used to driving.

It’s pretty clear that when the car is set up in a way that he feels most comfortable, it’s nowhere near a contender. So he may have to learn how to drive a loose car more effectively, if that’s what it takes to get the team headed in the right direction and up to par with his successful teammates.

The key thing now is to be patient, no matter what happens at first.
If Jr. continues to struggle in the next few weeks, don’t call this a failure immediately. It’s very possible things will get better, but it will be a season-long rebuild and he’ll come back strong in 2010.

At the same time, if Jr. knocks out a string of top-5 finishes, don’t call Lance McGrew a genius and claim everything has been cured. Remember that the season is very long and rough patches are very likely.

Time will tell if this intense, all-hands-on-deck effort to boost the #88 team is a success. For the sake of NASCAR and Dale Jr., I really hope so.

There’s something just not right about watching the biggest star in the sport limp around mid-pack or worse, and I hope Jr. and the Hendrick team can make it work.

At this point in his career, it’s looking like Jr. won’t win multiple championships like his dad, but he should at least be running up front and competing for a title, especially considering that he drives for the best team in NASCAR.

One year since “Sliced Bread” debuted
A year ago this weekend, the most heralded young driver in the sport made his big league NASCAR debut in the Nationwide race at Dover. In the year since, the driver many say will be the next great superstar has taken a couple Nationwide wins, and come up with some good Cup runs lately after a pretty rough start to his career in the top series. You can’t always make predictions based on what an athlete does their rookie year, but overall this year should be viewed as a success for Joey Logano.

The key for him is to continue his progress, and in a few years we may be talking about him the way we’re talking about Kyle Busch right now, when he begins his assault on the NASCAR record books.

Where’s Truex going?
A recent rumor had Martin Truex Jr. in discussions with Michael Waltrip Racing about a ride. This would either be to replace Mikey in the #55, or add an additional team. While it’s not the worst move he could make, as this is a team on the rise, it wouldn’t be my first choice if I were Truex.

If he’s going to leave the Earnhardt Ganassi organization (and I bet he will), I would suggest he does everything he can to get in as a fourth Gibbs car.

Wheels have fallen off at Richard Childress Racing

Last year, Richard Childress Racing took two wins and saw all three of its drivers make the Chase. They weren’t a championship contender, but it was a solid year nonetheless. In the offseason, a fourth team was added and Childress hoped that would help his chances of breaking the Hendrick stronghold on the title.

To be kind, things haven’t worked out as planned.

This year, the team is gasping for air as it drowns in a sea of mediocrity or worse.
Their lone Mr. Consistent, Jeff Burton, is hanging around in Chase territory, but it’s from Burton’s usual way of just being around the front most weeks. He is rarely a threat to win a race.

The rest of the team hasn’t been able to compete with the big dogs this year, and their position in the standings is the evidence. The biggest fall from grace has been by Kevin Harvick, who is winless in the Cup series since his famous win in the 2007 Daytona 500.

Harvick sits 23rd in the points, and was 7th at this time last year. To put Harvick’s year in perspective, he sits one spot behind new teammate Casey Mears in the points, and Mears has made a career in NASCAR out of being mediocre.

Harvick’s woes have continued even after a complete swap between the crews of the Mears and Harvick teams. So even radical solutions don’t seem to be curing what is ailing the #29 team.

Clint Bowyer got off to a great start this year, but has been struggling mightily of late. In the six races since Martinsville, he has no top-10 finishes, and only one top-20 finish, dropping him all the way to 17th in the points.

So what is ailing the team that won six Cup titles with Dale Earnhardt Sr.? My first thought is they rushed too quickly to add the fourth team. By expanding their operations and trying to run four teams that are all capable of making the Chase, they may have handicapped several of them in the process. While four cars can provide more data, it’s also easier to manage three teams.

Deep down though, it’s got to be a mechanical issue. It’s clear from the results so far this year that some aspect of the Childress operation, whether it be engines or just finding the proper setup for the COT, is not measuring up to the Hendrick measuring bar.

Unless the team can figure out what’s wrong, and soon, it’s likely three, or even four, of its drivers will be on the outside looking in when the Chase begins.

RPM stuck in slow motion
While I’m on the topic of teams in a funk, Richard Petty Motorsports began the year strongly with a great showing at Daytona, but has since fallen off a cliff. A.J. Allmendinger had some great runs, but has tumbled now to 29th in points. Elliott Sadler is just ahead of him in 28th, and Reed Sorenson is stuck down in 24th . Kasey Kahne, in 15th, is the only shot the team has at making the Chase, and with results like this it’s increasing likely Kahne will look to jump ship as soon as he can. It's hardly an All-Star driving squad (Sadler would have been fired before the season if not for his lawsuit), but Allmendinger's dropoff of late indicates that mechanical issues are also a major factor is the struggles.

In fact, 3rd-place Kurt Busch’s solid year is the only really bright spot this year for Dodge, which did not have a single car in the Chase last season.

All hail Billy Bad Butt

I couldn’t let the week end without mentioning one of the highlights of the terrible rain-soaked weekend at Charlotte – that being Tony Stewart’s description of his interaction with a David Reutimann crew member that had jumped into a discussion the two drivers were having. “Then he's got a bald crew guy down there who wants to jump up there and be Billy Bad Butt.”

Tony has long been the best source of comedy (and drama) in the garage, and this was no exception. Other than the general ridiculousness of the saying “Billy Bad Butt,” I was cracking up at the fact Stewart even bothered to censor himself from saying Billy Badass, because if you read the Rolling Stone article on him that was published last year, you’ll know he’s not afraid to throw around a cuss word.

So once again, I must thank Tony for making the race weekend a little more fun and supplying what is so far the quote of the year.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Banning Confederate flags from NASCAR tracks would violate freedom of speech

“If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”
Noam Chomsky

The occasional push to ban Confederate flags from NASCAR events has been brought back to life by the NAACP this week, as the Miami-Dade branch of the organization want the Stars and Bars banned from the Homestead-Miami Motor Speedway, and are concerned about the flag’s presence at Veterans Day events in South Florida. The group will meet Thursday to decide whether to boycott the NASCAR race at Homestead in November.

NAACP members may also get in touch with some of NASCAR's sponsors if nothing is done about the flags.

While I understand why many people are turned off by the flag, and the injustices of slavery that it represents to those who view it as a symbol of hate, they are forgetting one key point in the discussion: This is America and we have freedom of speech.

Unless a symbol directly threatens violence (such as a burning cross), neither NASCAR nor any level of government should be in the business of legislating what symbols should be allowed in a particular venue. The reason freedom of speech was introduced by our Founding Fathers was not to protect the most popular ideas. It was put in place to protect unpopular ideas.

The American Civil Liberties Union has made a career out of defending these unpopular ideas and the right of people to voice them. They have represented the most vile groups (for example defending the right of the KKK to hold marches), but even the worst parts of society have the right to free speech. As Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

But this flag issue is nowhere near the level of a KKK march. For many in the South, the Confederate flag is a reminder of their ancestors who died in the Civil War. History has shown the South was on the wrong side of that war, but there is no reason the people of the South shouldn’t have the right to honor their ancestors.

To the NAACP and many Americans, the flag is a symbol of hatred, slavery and injustice. But many Americans don’t view it that way, and they have the right to fly it if they want.

Beyond all the political correctness issues, it all comes down to one thing: The First Amendment, which I view as the most important part of the Bill of Rights. We can’t ban every symbol that bothers a large group of people, as it goes against the very nature of the freedoms we were granted.

The bottom line is there’s not much NASCAR could or should do about what flags fans wave at the track. NASCAR prohibits displays of the Confederate flag on its cars, uniforms, licensed merchandise or in advertisements. That’s fine, as it’s self-policing. But going beyond that scope is not necessary, nor legal. Also, technically, NASCAR doesn’t own Homestead speedway, so they don’t have the authority to do anything.

NASCAR’s CEO and President Brian France said it best in a 2005 interview: “I can’t tell people what flag to fly.” I’m glad he is up on his Constitutional law, because any attempt to regulate the expression of fans would be an assault on free speech.

While I don’t deny that some people who fly the Confederate flag are racist, the NAACP has no way to see what’s in the head of everyone who flies it. I do not disagree that many great wrongs were done under that flag, and fully recognize why so many people dislike it, but that does not mean it should not be allowed to be seen. The very idea is against what America stands for.

My advice to those who would protest NASCAR for not banning the flags would be to spend their time educating people so the level of racism can continue to decline in America. Boycotting a NASCAR race or some Veteran’s Day parade because a few of these flags are flying will not accomplish much.

The issue is bigger than a symbol. I agree there is still a racial divide in America, but going after a symbol won’t change that. As new generations come around and are properly educated on how to treat other people regardless of race, then the problem of racism will begin to disappear.

I’m sure the NAACP means well, but chasing after a symbol they hate, but represents history to others, won’t do much good for anybody.

The marriage has gone bad … Dale Jr., Eury Jr. need to break up

The stat line isn’t pretty.

12 races, 1 top-5, 3 top-10s, 90 laps led, 23.1 average start, 21.3 average finish, 19th in points.

Did I mention these are the numbers for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular and well-paid driver in the sport who is driving for a Hendrick team that is the best in NASCAR, and all his teammates have won this year and are in the top 12 in points?

I’m sure the Jr. Elite will call me just another hater, but the situation has reached critical status at the #88 team. The 40th place finish at Charlotte, in a car that was junk from the start, was a low I didn’t think Jr. would reach this soon.

Even Rick Hendrick himself sounded more open to change on Tuesday, and it’s more likely that Tony Eury Jr. could be on the way out as Earnhardt’s crew chief.

So what is wrong with this team?

We all know the Hendrick equipment is solid by the way his teammates are running up front every week. So that leaves two options: Either his crew chief isn’t setting the car up properly, or the driver isn’t up to snuff.

At this point, I’m going to lean toward the first option. Dale Jr. used to win races, and DEI was far from the best team in the garage. He has talent and has shown it through his career. Through the first half of 2008, Jr. was the best driver in the Hendrick stable.

But in the year since then, something just isn’t clicking. It appears he and his cousin are in a situation similar to a marriage that has gone bad. They’ve stuck together so long and things have fizzled … they’re just going through the motions and can’t get the magic back. Just as you would in that marriage situation, there’s only one best solution: BREAK UP.

He’ll still see Eury at family functions and they’ll still be friends who go fishing together, but there’s no need for them to work together anymore – It’s not working.
Whether it’s Jr.’s fault of Eury’s fault, or both, the time to move on has come.

Continuing with the current setup could lead to the most disastrous season of Jr.’s career, at a time he is supposed to be competing for a title. Knowing how much Rick Hendrick wants to win, I don’t think he’s going to let that happen.

Brian Keselowski says Go Wings!
After watching Kyle Busch dominate the Nationwide race Saturday, then seeing Mike Bliss win because of rain, I was underwhelmed. Honestly, it was among the worst races I’ve ever seen.

Bliss and Brendan Gaughan, two Nationwide-only drivers, were 1-2, but they had to rely on Mother Nature to get that done. Otherwise, Busch would have wiped the floor with everybody. Busch’s dominating double-dipping is seriously taking all the suspense out of this series. You can pencil him in for a win almost every weekend before the cars even arrive at the track.

The only good thing to come out of the night was Brian Keselowski’s car, which was sporting a Detroit Red Wings logo. The Rochester Hills native was showing his support for his home team as they march toward the Stanley Cup.

Was there a race this weekend?
I have yet to comment on this weekend’s Cup race, for a very good reason. There really wasn’t a race this weekend. Sure, they got past halfway, and congratulations to David Reutimann for picking up the trophy (I’m sure he would have won one eventually in a competitive manner, anyway).

Events like this weekends, though -- four or five short segments of racing split up by rain -- don’t qualify as a race to me. Having attended races where weather forced extreme delays, I can assure you the fans were extremely annoyed. Unfortunately Mother Nature did not cooperate and no one can influence her.

NASCAR did the best they could under the circumstances, but overall the weekend was a disaster if you were hoping to watch good racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Drivers, teams talk to NASCAR … will they listen?

Something happened Tuesday at NASCAR’s research and development center in Concord, North Carolina, that is very rare for the dictator-like system that is NASCAR.

They held a meeting with some drivers and team owners and fielded questions and concerns about the state of the sport. Topics included the controversial drug testing policy and concerns with the Car of Tomorrow.

Afterward, everyone seemed all pleased with what had transpired inside, but something felt forced about it.

For example, Mark Martin spoke after the meeting and said he now understands NASCAR’s drug policy more clearly.
“I'm very comfortable now," Martin said. "I'm also comfortable with the way they're handling the list [of substances that will be tested for], or no list. I understand why. I'm more comfortable right now than I was, believing that ... if you have something that you're taking as prescribed, I don't think you're going to lose your career. I feel much better now than I did before the meeting."
What I get from that statement is NASCAR told the drivers they will continue to be secretive about the drugs list and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that … so deal with it.
It brings me to a point that I’m pretty confident about: NASCAR probably has no ideas of actually addressing any of the concerns drivers raised during the group meeting.

Just one year ago, NASCAR held a mandatory meeting at Michigan Speedway telling drivers to basically shut up and stop complaining about the Car of Tomorrow. Now, all of a sudden, they want to listen to what drivers have to say?

Call me jaded if you want, but this whole meeting seems to me to be nothing but a public relations move by NASCAR, which is reeling from the negative reactions many fans have had to how they are handling situations like the Jeremy Mayfield drug test.

By “listening” to the drivers and team owners, they appear to be letting off from their normal dictatorial style, but it’s doubtful they plan on changing anything.

Perhaps the session may have done some good, and some good ideas were thrown out that can be used to better the sport in the future.

But don’t hail NASCAR for holding the meeting, as it probably will lead to little or no change in the sport.

Kid Rock headed to MIS
Kid Rock, one of Michigan’s biggest national success stories in music, has been announced as the grand marshal of June’s race at MIS. He will headline pre-race activities, and command the drivers to start their engines, plus ride in the pace car just before the checkered flag.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It’s hard not to feel good for Helio after Indy 500 win

The Associated Press
Helio Castroneves reacts after winning the Indianapolis 500.

It’s a success story straight out of a movie.

A little over a month ago, Indycar superstar Helio Castroneves was in court on tax evasion charges staring at a judge, awaiting a decision on where he would be spending his future … behind bars, or behind the wheel of a racecar.

After a lengthy trial, Helio, along with his sister and lawyer Alan Miller (who also represents several NASCAR bigwigs, including Jimmie Johnson) were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Tearful after his acquittal, he rushed to get into the Indycar seat Roger Penske had held for him, and had decent runs in his first two races back. Then it was off to Indy, and since then everything has gone Helio’s way.

He won the pole, has been fast all month and took the checkered flag Sunday in the only Sunday race that was remotely interesting (The Grand Prix of Monaco was a snoozer, and the Coke 600 was postponed until Monday due to heavy rains).

When the tears kept flowing from Helio after the race, many racing outsiders may have thought it was a bit much, perhaps even insincere. But when you consider how quickly he has come back from the possible end of his career, I’m surprised he was able to suppress those emotions long enough to say anything.

Just weeks ago, he couldn’t even conjure the thought that he might win at Indy, let alone race there, and was just hoping for his freedom. It doesn’t matter who you are … a famous athlete or an average Joe … that situation would scare the crap out of anyone.

A month ago he was just happy to have his freedom, now he has won the biggest auto in Indycar for the third time in his career. Even more amazing, he has a shot at the title despite missing the first race of the season, as he is only a handful of points out of 1st.

Anyone who has followed open-wheel racing for a while knows that Helio is a genuinely likable guy who also has a ton of talent. If that judge had sent Helio to prison (which was a very strong possibility, since the Feds don’t usually charge people they don’t think they can convict), it’s possible he would have never raced again, and that would have been a shame for the Indycar series, which needs talented and marketable drivers like Castroneves.

What could have been another story of yet another athlete doing wrong has turned into one of the greatest turnaround stories in recent sports history.

I have a feeling that Helio Castroneves won’t stop celebrating for weeks, and he deserves it after fighting the battles he has fought over the past year.

Danica has a big day
Danica Patrick is starting to back up her celebrity with a series of solid runs. She finished third at Indy on sunday, and sits sixth in the points standings, just 13 points behind points leader Dario Franchitti. She is a legitimate title contender for the first time in her career, assuming she can keep up the pace she has set so far.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

NASCAR’s $200,000 fine for Carl Long’s tiny team is extreme

On Saturday night, Carl Long finished 35th in the Sprint Showdown, after his Dodge blew its motor just three laps into the 40-lap event. For his efforts, he won a grand total of $5,000.

But that was the best news he had all week. The real bad news came when NASCAR found that an engine of Long’s that had blown during the weekend “exceeded the maximum engine size of 358.000 cubic inch displacement”.

When the penalties were announced, it wasn’t pretty.

Long’s crew chief Charles Swing was fined $200,000, the largest penalty in the ENTIRE HISTORY of the sport. The previous record was $150,000 against Robby Gordon's crew chief, Frank Kerr, in March 2008, for an illegal part.

The team claims there were no illegal parts in the engine, but the combination of parts did not meet NASCAR specs. It will appeal the penalties.

This is a sport where we have seen elements of jet fuel and nitrous oxide used to boost speed. We have seem cheating on dynamometer tests by a major team, and plenty of other blatant cheating by big-money NASCAR teams (including three-time champ Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, and other past Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs), yet not once in history has anyone been fined as much as NASCAR just fined Long’s crew chief.

The kind of fine levied here would be pennies to a guy like Rick Hendrick, but will essentially end the possibility of Carl Long ever racing again in NASCAR.
And something about the escalation of the penalty just stinks to me and appears way over the top.

There were other penalties, but they don’t mean much. Long has been suspended for the next 12 Sprint Cup races, but he hasn’t been in a points-paying Cup race since 2006. Long also was docked 200 points, yet another record. Several drivers and owners have been docked 100 points in recent years, so this is another insane escalation of penalty. It’s quite humorous when you realize he doesn’t have any points. He is now the first driver in NASCAR history to have "negative 200" points.

I recognize that, whether intentional or not, Long broke the rules. I’m all for NASCAR punishing him. But the whole thing just seems so extreme.

I’m not their accountant, but it’s entire possible that if you added up the savings accounts of Mr. Long’s family and Mr. Swing’s family, they might not even contain $200,000 combined.

I don’t expect a free pass for Long’s team, but to treat him more harshly than the established teams that have been busted in the past, especially considering he’s almost never at the track and has an extremely tiny budget, makes NASCAR look absolutely ridiculous and bully-like. You have to wonder if a Hendrick car would have gotten the same treatment.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Defiant Mayfield is either innocent or crazy

Either he’s innocent, or he’s crazy.

That’s my take after seeing the developments this week in the Jeremy Mayfield drug test saga.

Speaking publicly about the incident this weekend, when he boldly showed up at the speedway, attending the race as a spectator atop the National Guard hospitality hauler in the infield, despite his ban, Mayfield was insistent that his test was positive due to a combination of two Claritin D 24-hour pills and a prescription medication.

He went on to say he would not enter any sort of NASCAR-mandated rehabilitation program that is required to pave the way for his return to competition, because he does not have any drug problem.

"Why would I?" Mayfield said plainly, who also made sure to note: "Yeah, I'm denying it. Illegal drugs? Yeah, definitely."

Assuming Mayfield still wants to drive, that leaves one way to get back: Legal action.
He made it clear this weekend that is an avenue he is willing to pursue to clear his name.

There is even a battle going on already about what Mayfield has been told.

Mayfield has said he was never told what drug caused the positive test or received a copy of the results. This is contradictory to what the administrator of NASCAR's drug-testing program, Dr. David Black, is saying. He told the Associated Press Monday that he personally told Jeremy Mayfield what banned substance was found in his positive test.

"I spoke with him about his positive test result on the day he was suspended, and I spoke to him directly about the test result," Black said. "Yes, by name of what he tested positive for."

Mayfield’s actions are very unique when compared to other drivers who have been busted for failed drug tests in the recent past.

It’s clear he does not believe he did anything wrong, and will shout it out from the rooftops and even in court if necessary. This does not fit with the pattern of drivers, such as Shane Hmiel, who accepted the penalties and followed programs back to reinstatement (though Hmiel eventually relapsed and received a lifetime ban).

So this opens up a very real possibility that not many oeople thought possible when the news of the suspension first came out: Mayfield may actually be innocent, and NASCAR may just be so embarrassed by their ruling they don’t want to backpedal even if they’re wrong.

If this is the case, I wish Jeremy the best of luck, as he’s going to need it to beat the bigwig lawyers NASCAR will bring to the fight against his likely less formidable legal team.

The other option is that Mayfield actually took some illegal substance and still continues to raise the level of fuss he has so far.

If this is the case, he’s pretty much lost his mind, because there’s nothing more crazy in this sport than to take on the NASCAR bigwigs when you know they’re right and you are wrong. If this is the case, don’t count on him ever driving in the sport again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Million-dollar Tony: Stewart lets others wreck, then claims All-Star win

We all said he was crazy to want to be a co-owner of a NASCAR team and leave his top-notch ride at Joe Gibbs, where he had won a couple championships.

Who’s crazy now?

On a night where the all-star action was highly unexciting until the final two segments (no green flag passes for the lead until the race was 80 percent complete), it was an intelligent “hang toward the front and let the others wreck” strategy that let Stewart get the win in the all-star event.

In what’s becoming a common thing, the story of the race was Stewart-Haas racing. Stewart’s teammate Ryan Newman had suspension issues early in the race, but Jimmie Johnson showed the rare gift of racing kindness by letting Newman back on the lead lap when he could have put him two laps down.

Once he got his mechanical issues worked out, Newman quickly made his way up front and almost wins the race, until some 3-wide action with Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon went bad and ruined his chances.

Watching all this through his windshield was one of Newman’s bosses: Mr. Tony Stewart. As he often does at tracks where wrecks are common, he never really pushed too hard and hung around the top 5 and top 10 all day. But somehow, you know he had more to give when it mattered.

Then, as he often does at places like Talladega, the big wreck happened up front, and you-know-who was in the perfect spot to grab the race win, passing Matt Kenseth with just a couple laps to go. He’s been awesome all year in the #14 car at his new team, with results that have far exceeded what most fans expected him to do this year, and this is the million-dollar topper that is his best result yet.

It’s strange to see him celebrating in anything other than Home Depot orange, but we better get used to it. This team is on a roll, and Tony picked one of the biggest nights of the year to have his coming-out party. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does what Kasey Kahne did last year and takes this momentum into a win in the 600.

Busch can’t seal the deal
I had a feeling, heading into this weekend, that Kyle Busch was the man to beat. I was right, but a simple matter of science (too many cars in too little space) banged his car up sufficiently that he was no longer a factor. He will win one of these things eventually, though, as this race offers his type of racing – all-out, three-wide, win at all costs and don’t worry about the points. Ironically, the move Ryan Newman took to create the three-wide situation was right out of Busch’s own playbook.

Not the race it used to be
I remember when “The Winston” was an awesome all-star event with plenty of excitement guaranteed. With the leader running off for the first two segments Saturday night, I was on the verge of falling asleep. Sure, there was some action in the middle and back of the pack, but mostly it was a snoozeworthy event.

Vote-in driver a surprise
The fans voted for Joey Logano to get into the big race, which was somewhat surprising to me. The teenage driver has yet to accomplish much in the sport, though his future will no doubt be very bright. His great finish last week at Darlington probably boosted his profile, but I was expecting someone else, perhaps Michael Waltrip, to win what was essentially a popularity contest. Logano backed up his right to be there with a great run to finish 8th. Not too shabby for a rookie.

Penske power
Amid rumors that Chrysler might pull some of its NASCAR support very soon, the Dodges of Roger Penske’s team seem to be turning a corner. All three Penske drivers were strong in Saturday night’s events. Sam Hornish Jr. won the Showdown to transfer to the big show, while teammate David Stremme led most of the Showdown and might have transferred if not for Jamie McMurray’s awesome run up to second place. Last but not least, top Penske driver Kurt Busch was near the front all night battling with some very solid drivers. This team may be turning a corner, and the 600 next week will be a good test.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bankruptcy for Chrysler, and probably GM, is bad news for NASCAR teams

Despite all the talk about how NASCAR’s Dodge teams still have the commitment of Chrysler, despite the company having filed for bankruptcy, there’s a dirty little secret lingering behind it all.

It’s really not up to them. And if GM files for bankruptcy, the same thing applies to them.

When a company gets into bad enough shape that it must file for bankruptcy, that means they basically hand over power to the banks (and the government in this case) when it comes to financial decisions. And if you know anything about bankers, you know that all that matters to them is the bottom line.

So here’s the scoop, plain and simple: When these companies are going through bankruptcy, the goal will be to focus spending on areas that make them money and stop spending in areas that lose them money.

If the bankers decide that the money spent supporting NASCAR teams does not bring in enough of a return, they won’t do it anymore.

Roger Penske, whose team fields Dodges for Kurt Busch, David Stremme and Sam Hornish Jr., has denied a report that Chrysler will pull its support from NASCAR after this season.
"Chrysler guys contacted us and said they were going to continue to support NASCAR," said Penske, also the owner of Chrysler dealerships. "Hopefully, they can do that based on what the government allows them to do. We're cautiously optimistic right now.'"

“Cautiously optimistic” is the right word to use, because it’s not simply a matter of whether they want to keep their word to the teams. Chrysler executive Mike Accavitti has said the manufacturer plans to be in NASCAR for the foreseeable future, but it’s really not his call anymore.

According to Automotive News, Chrysler wanted to spend $134 million in advertising over the nine weeks it is expected to be in bankruptcy, but the U.S. Treasury's auto industry task force gave it half that. “So if General Motors, which is wrestling with the possibility of a Chapter 11 filing itself, is wondering how much influence the task force will have over marketing, the answer is plenty,” the publication said.

Penske is hopeful for the future, saying: "Really, quite honestly, if they get the capital and have a smaller company they're going to be more viable than before. Hopefully, motorsports turns into a marketing opportunity."

I hope he’s right, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

What will happen with GM is still up in the air, though bankruptcy looks to be the most likely next step.
But on the Chrysler end of things, both Penske’s team and the Richard Petty Motorsports team might be in for a world of hurt when the season ends, and maybe a manufacturer switch too, if the banks and the federal government decides to force Chrysler to slow or stop the flow of support dollars to their NASCAR teams.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

NASCAR shouldn't be secretive about Mayfield's drug test

There have been calls from many people in the past few days for NASCAR to tell the public what drug causes Jeremy Mayfield to fail his drug test, but as usual NASCAR is being secretive.

If you’re going to suspend a driver, the least you can do is tell everyone why you’re doing it. That will silence the critics who would accuse NASCAR of making up the accusation. After all, these critics do have a reason to be suspicious, based on how NASCAR treated Tim Richmond two decades ago (Long story short: NASCAR claimed Richmond, who had AIDS, had failed a drug test, when all he had taken was an over-the-counter cold medication. He never raced again.)

Most of all, the competitors in the garage need to know what Mayfield was using, because they have to compete against him at speeds of over 200 mph.

On a side note, the first place I saw that Mayfield had failed his drug test was on the Front Page of CNN. Chances are that’s the only NASCAR headline that will make it on CNN’s front all year. The point is that there is massive interest in this story, far beyond NASCAR fans, and people need to know what is going on in the wake so many drug scandals in baseball and other sports. People who don't even watch NASCAR are asking me: Why does a NASCAR driver need to take drugs? What drug was he on?

NASCAR has nothing to gain by keeping it a secret. All that does is lead to endless speculation and accusations that are most likely inaccurate. For the record, Mayfield claims he took Claritin D, an over-the-counter allergy drug that contains pseudoephedrine, a substance banned by most sports.

Not only won’t NASCAR say what Mayfield used, they won’t even say what substances are banned. That is just plain stupid.

Spill the beans and get it overwith. Otherwise, you’ll just look silly – and the whole sports world is watching.

Adam Petty died young, but he left a legacy

The years 2000 and 2001 were brutal for NASCAR fans.
In the span of less than a year, four drivers (Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt Sr.) lost their lives on the track.

I can still remember clear as day the feeling of shock I had nine years ago today, when I first saw the news that Petty had died in a practice crash at New Hampshire. I barely knew of the fourth-generation driver … he was one month shy of his 20th birthday and had made just one career Cup start. I had seen him race in Nationwide, but hadn’t really followed his career much.

But for whatever reason, perhaps just because he was so young, it hit me hard. I couldn’t believe what I had heard, and stood there stunned. My thoughts turned to Kyle at Pattie Petty, who were now in a lifetime of pain after losing their son at such a young age. Perhaps more than any other sport’s fans, NASCAR fans really consider the drivers as a sort of extended family, and the loss of one has a deep impact.

I then phoned a friend to break him the news, and his silence echoed my sentiments. A couple months later, I received a similar call from that same friend, telling me of Irwin’s death, eerily at the same track.

It shouldn’t have happened, and Adam should have had a chance to carry on the Petty legacy in NASCAR. I don’t know how successful he would have been, but his death was a big loss for the sport.

Despite being only a teenager when he died, Adam’s legacy lives on and helps thousands of kids each year through the Victory Junction Gang Camp, an idea he had to start a camp for terminally ill and other sick children. If he had that kind of vision to help people at such a young age, who knows how much good he could have done if he was still around?

His death also had implications that couldn’t have been predicted. The Allison and Petty families, longtime bitter rivals since their days battling each other on the track decades earlier, buried the hatchet when the Allisons showed up at Adam’s funeral. They had experienced a double dose of tragedy with the deaths of their sons Davey and Clifford in the 1990s, and Adam’s death gave them a common bond.

Thankfully, safety innovations have kept the sport free of driver deaths since Earnhardt’s death in 2001. It’s just too bad those innovations weren’t around in 2000, as NASCAR would’ve been a better place with Adam and his bright smile around.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ignore the hype: Danica Patrick isn't coming to NASCAR

Here we go again.

Every couple of years, when her contract comes up, the talk of Indycar sensation Danica Patrick ("that girl who drives Indycars" to the non-racing fan) looking to come over to NASCAR from Indycar racing is brought up. Her deal expires at the end of the 2009 season, so the talk has returned.

The major racing media eats it up and hypes it … It’s a match made in heaven to them – the most famous female driver in the world in the most popular racing series in America.

And Patrick stokes the fires, saying things like this:
"I'm very flattered everyone is curious," Patrick was quoted as saying in a New York Times story. "It's interesting to me as well. Do I stay where I am? Do I try to change? It's all about evaluating options, and I think that's something any good business person does. One of the things I think of is the exposure level that you get in NASCAR with the ratings and viewership. Their numbers are so much larger than ours and with that comes a bigger following, comes more popularity, comes more demand for you to endorse other products. So I think it would be an exponential sort of growth."

But there’s one big problem: It’s not going to happen.

While I’m sure NASCAR would welcome Patrick, and all the publicity she would bring, with open arms, it doesn’t really work out to her advantage.

For starters, where would she race? Someone of her status in racing wouldn’t come to NASCAR to drive for some small-time team.

But what’s available?
--The Hendrick cars are so overbooked they don’t even have a slot for Brad Keselowski.
--The Roush team will have to drop a team after this year to achieve the four-team limit.
--I suppose Joe Gibbs could add her as a fourth car, but he’d probably be smarter to sign a NASCAR free agent like Martin Truex or Jamie McMurray.
--Stewart-Haas is emerging as a strong team and has Hendrick support, but I don’t know if Stewart would want to take a chance hiring someone who has never driven stock cars.

And since she’s never driven stock cars, she would have to drive a year in the Nationwide series to hone her skills. Somehow, I don’t think she’d appreciate being sent back to the minor leagues.

But let’s say I’m wrong and she can squeeze in at one of the top teams. Still, it doesn’t work, because she has no reason to switch.

In Indycar, she is the top dog. With Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and others are taking all the victories and championships, Danica steals all the headlines, despite having won only one race in just over four seasons. She probably makes more money from sponsorships than all the other Indycar drivers combined, and that will continue even if she never wins another race in her entire Indycar career because is basically the only star in the entire series.

Let’s say she moved to NASCAR. She would no longer be the face of the sport. She would be one star among many, including the big dog himself Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But still, it has to be tempting. If you read her quote, any move to NASCAR would be made for one reason ... big piles of $$$$$$$$$. But she probably has some smart business advisers who will tell her that if she comes to NASCAR and finishes in the back of the pack every week, that money might not be there in the end.

That brings us to the biggest reason of all it won’t work: She doesn’t race stock cars and it would be a disaster if she tried to do it. For comparison, let’s look at Sam Hornish Jr. He won several Indycar championships before coming to NASCAR, showing much more talent than Danica in the process. Yet he is still struggling for the most part in Cup. He’s had some good runs recently, but his spin per race ratio is probably higher than 1.

If a three-time Indycar champ like Hornish has yet to achieve significant success in NASCAR, how well do you think someone like Patrick, with her one fuel mileage win, will do if she’s racing a car she’s completely foreign to against guys like Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. I’m pretty sure they’d leave her in their dust.

Until a contract is signed somewhere, the media will speak all year of “What’s Danica going to do?” … But it’s pretty clear to me that she’s going to stay in Indycar, doing what she does best, most likely at the same team.

Mayfield's career hangs in balance after failed drug test

When I first read the news, I thought it was a typo.

There’s no way a NASCAR driver, especially one whose small team is struggling to survive, would risk being busted in a drug test.

But it was no joke: Jeremy Mayfield was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR on Saturday after failing a random drug test at Richmond.

Just a few months ago, the racing world was celebrating Mayfield, who came to Daytona with a team formed just weeks earlier and qualified for the Daytona 500. It was a triumphant story for a guy who had never been able to hang onto a top ride in the Cup series despite being a talented driver. Since Daytona, Mayfield has struggled and failed to qualify for several races, including Darlington this week.

NASCAR has not yet identified the banned substance that was found, but reports indicate it was not alcohol.

Mayfield insists this is a misunderstanding, releasing a statement that: “I believe that the combination of a prescribed medicine and an over the counter medicine reacted together and resulted in a positive drug test. My doctor and I are working with both Dr. Black and NASCAR to resolve this matter. Mayfield Motorsports remains committed to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series … “

I hope he is telling the truth, as it would be a shame for Mayfield’s career to end on this note. He once was an up-and-coming talent, and famously pulled off a bump-and-run pass of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Pocono. But his stints at the Penske and Evernham teams, which they include successes, both ended with public spats and he never settled in anywhere.

He was never going to be the next Jeff Gordon, but he could have been a solid driver who contended for wins if he had found a steady ride.

Now, the results of this investigation will likely determine whether he is done in NASCAR, or will continue on as an owner-driver.

If he is not guilty of using banned substances, I’ll root for his team to achieve success, as it’s important for smaller teams to exist. I don’t automatically believe what NASCAR says about drug tests (see: Tim Richmond).

But if NASCAR does not clear him, you can bet his tiny team will have an impossible time attracting or keeping sponsorship, which will likely mean the end of the line for them.

And if that were to happen, the blame would fall squarely on Mayfield’s shoulders.

Darlington run proves Logano is not all hype

Does anyone still think he’s not for real?

When the season started so terribly for the #20 team, many fans jumped to the conclusion that 18-year-old Joey Logano had made the jump to NASCAR too soon. Joe Gibbs had made a mistake, the doubters claimed, and Logano needed more training before he could be successful in the sport’s top series.

They had some basis for their beliefs, as Logano hit the wall more in the first month than anyone in the series, with the possible exception of Scott Speed and Sam Hornish Jr. Those of us with more patience, though, realized Joey needed time to get in sync with the team and get used to the COT, and would soon see the success that has made him such a sensation at every level where he has raced in the past.

While I don’t deny that Logano probably should have spent another year in the lower series to tune his talents, his masterful performance Saturday night in Darlington should silence all the doubters thinking he was going to fail to live up to all the expectations being placed on him.

When history looks back on the career of Logano, Darlington will be viewed as his big breakthrough, the first in a very long list of great days at the track. It’s arguably the toughest track on the schedule, and most rookies do horrendous at the track, but Logano almost won the Southern 500 at age 18. He finished 9th once all the pit strategy played out.

As I said one year ago when his Nationwide debut was looming, believe the hype. If Logano can almost tame Darlington at age 18, imagine what he’ll be capable of when he’s Kyle Busch’s age.

Keselowski is the real deal
On a similar note, those who thought Brad Keselowski’s Cup win at Talladega was just a fluke, think again. He was another rookie putting on a great show at Darlington, and ran in the top 10 for much of the night, finishing 7th. That takes talent, which was made clear by the fact that half the field smashed into the walls at Darlington on Saturday night.
Survival was the game at Darlington (even Clint Bowyer’s 83-race streak of no DNFs ended), and Keselowski kept his nose clean all night and was able to run with the best drivers out there. This is all coming from a guy who isn’t even in a full-time Cup ride yet.

I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you that you can look forward to many Keselowski vs. Logano battles in the decades to come in Cup racing.

Martin to teammates: Let the old man show you how it’s done

Experience won out, fittingly, in the 60th running of the Southern 500 at Darlington.

Winning his second race of the season puts Mark Martin on track to be a very strong contender for the title. The 50-year-old Martin is rejuvenated this year, and let the NASCAR world know Saturday that he is not going to be satisfied with just winning one race. He wants to win them all and take home the title.

To take the second win, he had to fight off a bunch of drivers … who all happened to be his teammates. Staying out when others pitted, Martin inherited the lead and had to hold off Jimmie Johnson, who had a great run despite crashing during qualifying and going to a backup car. He also had to hold off a very strong Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

But Martin did it like the true professional he is. No matter how hard Johnson dug in to try and pass Martin, he just kept going in his line smoothly and pulling ahead each time. Looking back at the last month, Martin has put on some amazing performances, and it’s easy to see why he announced he’s coming back for a full season in 2010. If you hadn’t stuck around to watch the Victory Lane interview, you would never know the driver of the #5 was a 50-year-old, as Martin is clearly as talented as any of the young guys out there driving.

Johnson may have won the last three titles, but Martin showed him Saturday that he’s going to have some stiff competition if he wants a fourth straight trophy.

As a side note, I’d like to point out that the one Hendrick car not running up front was the #88, who was busy wrecking and having pit miscues. I’m not bashing Jr. or saying everything that happened Saturday night was his fault. I’m just looking at the numbers, and numbers don’t lie. Something is not up to speed with that team, as compared to his teammates. He’s still hanging around the bubble and could make the Chase, but unless his performance picks up he’ll just bring up the bottom of the top 12 even if he makes the Chase.

Why is there only one race at Darlington?
I know money rules the world, especially in NASCAR, but I still find it to be a great injustice that Darlington Raceway only has one date on the Cup schedule. Saturday’s race provided some of the most competitive and exciting racing I’ve seen all year.

I recall that the second Darlington date was taken away several years back because of weak ticket sales and a glut of races in the South, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. Somehow, we have two races at Pocono, the best substitute for sleep medication I’ve ever seen, but Darlington goes without a Cup race each fall.

I recognize that it’s the way things work in NASCAR, that ticket sales are more important than the quality of racing, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I hope the fans in the Darlington area will come out and support the track in larger numbers, so hopefully one day it can return to having two dates. I know it’s a pipe dream, but I love this track and the racing it provides, and it’s a tragedy the Cup drivers only get one crack at it each year.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lady in Black rains on Kyle Busch’s parade

I love Darlington.

Just when you think you’re watching a race where you know exactly what’s going to happen, it pulls a trick out from its sleeve.

The victim Friday night was Kyle Busch, who dominated the Nationwide race and was just a couple laps away from victory. Then, a sequence of events occurred that was pure Darlington.

Scott Speed got into the back of Joe Nemechek and Scott Lagasse, Jr., spewing debris all over the track and setting up a green-white-checkered run to the finish. As the pace car led the car around the track, Busch ran over some of the debris, cutting down one of his tires.

As you would expect, the crowd roared with approval, and Busch ended up 16th. After the race, he stormed off quickly, most likely to go swear profusely and punch things in his trailer once the camera was off him. Kyle doesn’t like finishing 2nd, let alone 16th, when he has the dominant car.

I was half hoping an ESPN reporter would try to get an interview with Busch, just to see his reaction … if they had, chances are they would have received a healthy shove a la Tony Stewart in his angrier days.

(On a side note, was I the only one who noticed that Jack Roush seemed to be yelling at one of the female pit reporters after she kept trying to interview him while he was talking to Matt Kenseth? Note to ESPN: If they’re talking into their headset, they can’t talk to you at the same time)

So on this late Friday night, I have these words of advice for Kyle Busch.

Forget about what happened Friday night. I know you want to win every week, but things happen in racing … especially at Darlington.

If you go out Saturday night with a chip on your shoulder and let what happened get into your psyche, the Lady in Black may have another lesson to teach you.

Leffler now best of Nationwide only drivers
If Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch have a few off weekends, there is another Nationwide-only driver who is emerging as a threat for the title: Jason Leffler. He’s only 153 points out of the lead, in third place, and is quietly doing well each week. He, along with Brad Keselowski, are the real title competitors in my mind, and I’ll be rooting for both of them to take out the Busch-Edwards tandem in the points, however unlikely that may be.

Pearson interview a treat
So far this weekend, the best thing I've seen was the nearly hour-long interview with legendary driver David Pearson, one of the best ever at Darlington, that was aired on Speed when the Nationwide qualifying session was rained out.

The Silver Fox, sporting a T-shirt with Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford that read "You big dummy", had some really cool things to say as he reflected on his storied career with former competitor Darrell Waltrip and others. Between all the jokes and reminiscing, he has some great advice for NASCAR: Get rid of the endless regulations and let people work on their cars in different ways.

Bad ending for Shepherd
Morgan Shepherd, making his 250th career start in what is now the Nationwide Series, brought out the caution after he was wrecked when the final green flag was thrown for the green-white-checkered. It’s too bad, as Morgan doesn’t have a lot of equipment to be damaging, especially considering the timing of the wreck.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

NASCAR’s worst-kept secret is official: Martin’s back in 2010

It was written all over his face. He didn’t have to say a word.

The worst-kept secret in NASCAR was revealed Wednesday when Mark Martin announced he will be back full-time in 2010 in the #5, instead of part-time as was originally announced last year.

It had never been spoken, but just one look at the grin Martin has been sporting all year was all anyone needed to see to know what Mark’s plans were for 2010.

Anyone who was surprised today is missing a few screws up top, because after his big win at Phoenix and his solid runs all year, wild horses couldn’t drag Mark Martin away from Cup racing next year.

Martin is invigorated, and wants to win races and contend for titles. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, he’ll have that opportunity both this year and in 2010.
"It means a lot to drive the #5 Chevy for Rick and for Hendrick Motorsports," he said.

The feeling is mutual.
"Week in and week out, Mark continues to be one of the best race car drivers in the world," Hendrick said. "He's already made an incredible contribution to Hendrick Motorsports, and our entire company is excited about running another full season and winning races with him in 2010."

Martin has a whopping 401 top-10 finishes in his career, and will add plenty to that total in the next year and a half.
Depending how next year goes, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants to still race in 2011 and beyond, though at that point he may have to go elsewhere to clear up room for Brad Keselowski, a talent Hendrick no doubt wants on his Cup team in the near future.

When it comes to going back and forth on retirement, Martin is the NASCAR equivalent of Brett Favre. But this year is exposing one big difference between Favre and Martin: Martin can still compete for big wins and titles, while Favre can’t.

Most people don’t realize how being in good shape can help a driver in NASCAR, even if he’s just “sitting in his car for four hours,” as many non-NASCAR fans might say. The races are very grueling, and drivers who look like Jimmy Spencer don’t win very often.

He may be 50, but Martin is in better shape than most of the young drivers on the Cup circuit. That’s played a big part in his continued success later in life.
"I'm in the best condition of my life, I'm recharged, and I'm motivated,“ he said. “Going to the racetrack every weekend is still really fun, and that's the key. There's more gas in my tank.”

I’ve been hard on Mark at times over the retirement waffling, as I tend to find that an annoying trait among athletes. It’s not that I’m annoyed they want to come back, it’s just seems silly how they make such a big deal about quitting, but don’t actually do it.

But now that he’s ended the waffling and announced he’s back for a little while, I’m behind Martin as much as anyone else. He’s one of the most respected people in the garage for a reason: He’ll respect your space if you respect his, but at the same time is no pushover on the track. He’ll purposely drop back if he knows you’re faster and it’s early in the race, but he’s going to come up hard and pass you once he gets his car adjusted properly.

If he can pull out a championship this year or in 2010, I can say without a doubt it will be the most popular championship in the modern era, as no one deserves it more than Martin.

R.I.P. Kevin Grubb

Back when I first began following racing in the 1990s, one of the many brother combinations I would see in the Busch Series races were the Grubbs -- Kevin and Wayne.

In eight seasons in the Nationwide series, Kevin Grubb ran 174 races, earned 10 top-5 finishes and had 32 top-10 runs, and earned 1 pole position. He was by no means a standout, but was a capable racecar driver living his dream in NASCAR, learning a living doing what he loved.

Then, sadly, drugs took over and had consequences on his career. He failed a substance abuse test in 2004 and was suspended by NASCAR. In 2006, back racing once again, he refused to take a drug test after a wreck at Richmond. That was the last time he raced.

Kevin Grubb was found dead Wednesday at the age of 31, in a motel near Richmond, Va. On Thursday, police said the investigation and autopsy showed Grubb had died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Police said there were no indications of any drug use found inside the room. A toxicology test has been done, with results not likely for weeks.

While I never knew Kevin, things like this are a good lesson and a good example of how fickle life can be. You can be a NASCAR driver racing for thousands of fans one moment, and someone with a deadly habit the next. The effects of those addictions can be deadly even if use has stopped, as people try to deal with their lives in the aftermath of their addictions. The tragic suicide of Grubb is just the latest example of this.

It's never easy to lose a family member or friend, and suicide is one of the most painful ways for it to happen. My thoughts are with the Grubb family, who are no doubt struggling to deal with the loss of Kevin at such a young age.

Rest in peace, Kevin.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Busch-Addington becoming solid driver-crew chief combo

After yet another weekend were Kyle Busch won a bunch of races (Nationwide, Cup AND a charity event put on by Denny Hamlin), plus celebrated his 24th birthday by winning his 50th career race across the top three NASCAR series (yeah, I think this kid’s gonna be big someday) … it’s easy to focus on how talented a driver he is.

But one element of his success if often forgotten -- his crew chief and team.

I had a sneaking suspicion all night that Kyle would creep up when the time came to claim the checkered flag, despite other drivers being out front most of the night. But what impressed me most was the work by his crew chief Steve Addington to make the right calls on pit road, both with tire strategy and adjusting the car, that allowed Busch to take the win.

Busch’s car was not perfect all night. It was all over the board, and Kyle spent much of the night explaining to Addington how the car was acting and what needed to be improved. The proper corrections were made, and Busch rode off into the sunset and celebrated his birthday with a burnout.

"I hope the team enjoys this as much as I do," Busch said in Victory Lane. "It's just amazing, man. It's so cool. Steve made the right call on when to pit and when to take four tires versus two tires or no tires or whatever, and it really paid off for us there at the end to be able to have that long run like that and not to have to deal with the 14 and the 31. I knew they were coming.”

This is significant, because Busch’s team was partly responsible for his rough start to the Chase last year, and that doomed his chance at a title. But Addington and the entire #18 team have come back strong, put that in the past, and are clearly one of the favorites to win the Cup this year.

Just as Jimmie Johnson (who had a rare terrible day at Richmond) and his crew chief Chad Knaus are a great team, Busch and Addington are growing into a force to be reckoned with.

Busch’s talent can take him far, but if he’s not on the same page with his crew chief he’ll never win a title. Luckily for him, it appears they are a great combination.

Newman, Stewart-Haas on a tear
Just when I thought comeback of the year was a lock for Mark Martin, here comes Ryan Newman with an amazing return to success after starting the season horrendously.

With a top-5 finish at Richmond, Newman was able to jump into the Chase and sits in 10th place in the points. Just like Martin, it wasn’t long ago when everyone was wondering what was wrong with this team as it stood on the verge of falling out of the top-35 in the standings.

But it appears the Newman of old, the one who used to win races a lot, might be on his way back. The Stewart-Haas team has been the biggest surprise of the season for me, and it’s clear their relationship with Rick Hendrick’s team is paying dividends immediately. Stewart also finished in the top-5 at Richmond, and both he and Newman had cars capable of winning the race.

In just a short time frame to start this season, the question has been changed from “Will a Stewart-Haas driver make the Chase?” to “Will they have a shot at the title?” Everyone knows how great a driver Stewart is, so his success is not a shock. But seeing how poorly Newman did in recent years with Penske, and comparing that to his solid performance now, it’s clear his struggles were team-related and his career has been revitalized by this union with Tony Stewart.

Win puts pressure on Hendrick to keep Keselowski for 2010, beyond

Prior to his big win last week, Hendrick Motorsports knew how important it was to hold on to Brad Keselowski for 2010 and the years ahead.

After his win, they really know it, and will probably do whatever it takes to keep him.

The wrinkle, or course, is that Mark Martin will likely return for one more year of full-time racing, leaving no room for Keselowski at Hendrick in 2010, even though he is clearly ready to run full-time in the Cup series. Now, negotiations have begun to keep Keselowski in the Hendrick camp.

On Friday at Richmond, here is what Keselowski had to say on the matter.
"I know that to make that next step, I need to run full time. I need to have a full-time ride at the Cup level to be a guy who can run for the Chase or take wins. So it's a matter of making that line up,” he said. “Opportunities or situations to make that work? I don't think you guys have time to hear them all. I've put some thought into it, but not a lot. The basics of it are that we still have a few months to work some other things out. Specifically I'm working with Hendrick Motorsports and owe it to them to see what they can work out.”

He’s probably exaggerating a bit when says there’s not enough time to list them all, but it’s clear there is much interest in the young man and Hendrick will be willing to employ whatever plots and schemes are necessary to prevent this young driver with a bright future from leaving his organization and joining with a rival.

Keselowski hinted that whatever happens, the Hendrick team will be involved in some way.
“I think the key part about this whole situation of where I'm at with contracts and next year is that you stick with what got you to where you're at. Having competitive cars and having support from HMS and being able to look at their data and talk to their drivers is what got me into victory lane on Sunday. It's hard to run from that, you know. But at the same time, at this point and at this time, there isn't a clear opportunity there. So we'll have to see how that plays out," Keselowski said Friday.

The options, as far as I can see, are pretty limited if Hendrick is involved.

Mark Martin could decide to let Keselowski have the #5 ride. It’s not likely, but you never know with Martin. Another unlikely, but interesting, scenario is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. could bring his Nationwide team up to Cup and Brad could race for him. Under this scenario, Hendrick would likely have to sell his 50 percent ownership in JR Motorsports to stay in the four-car limit that begins in 2010.

But the third option I see, which is the most likely situation if Martin returns to the #5 car, is Keselowski spending a year over at Stewart-Haas racing, a team that gets its cars and engines from the Hendrick organization and talks regularly with Hendrick about performance at the track. It’s like a part of the Hendrick team, even though the name is different.

By joining this team for a year, then moving to Hendrick, everybody wins. Hendrick doesn’t lose Keselowski. Brad gets a full-time ride in good equipment, and knows there’s a spot reserved for him at the main Hendrick team.

At the end of last year, Keselowski could have jumped over to the Penske team and been in a full-time Cup ride in 2009. He chose not to take that leap, and instead wait things out over at Hendrick.

Considering that Chrysler has declared bankruptcy and reportedly might be out of NASCAR soon (I’ll have more on that soon), he made a wise decision. There was no need for him to jump so quickly into Cup, especially with a team with a pretty shaky future. He will now have another full year of Nationwide racing under his belt, which can only help him do better wherever he lands in 2010.

While it’s clear he is talented, as evidenced by the Talladega win and his outstanding Nationwide results running against all the Cup guys each weekend, Keselowski is by no means a guaranteed star. Jamie McMurray won in the second Cup race of his career, but has been mediocre for most of his career since then.

But I don’t think Brad fits the McMurray mold, and neither does Rick Hendrick. If he’s a smart man, and all those championships tell me he is, he’ll work out whatever deal is necessary to keep Keselowski around, either directly or indirectly.

It’s the only option he really has. If he lets him go, someone like Joe Gibbs could snatch up Keselowski and he would become a dangerous opponent instead of an ally, and that’s not what Hendrick wants to see happen.

Keselowski defends yellow line rule, Talladega racing

Brad Keselowski wants to make something clear.

While many people thought his comments after winning the Cup race last weekend indicated he was angry with NASCAR about the yellow-line rule and the racing conditions at Talladega, that’s just not the case.

“I’m a supporter of the yellow line rule, to be honest. I should probably clear that up,” he told me Thursday after arriving in Richmond. “I don’t blame NASCAR and the rules. They didn’t force me to try to pass Carl or force him to block. If there wasn’t a rule, he would’ve probably blocked me down to the grass. We as drivers take it to the limit, whether it’s the wall, the grass or yellow line. You can’t blame the limit.”

Keseloski’s main concern was for the race fans in the stands who were injured.
“The problem I see is that fans in the stands got hurt. Everything else is just a product of the racing and the mind games we play as drivers. If you don’t have the action, what’s the point of racing?” he said. “Even if I was in Carl’s shoes, I’d be for it. Carl was fine. The cars are safe enough. We need to work on the fans being injured, but other than that I don’t really see a problem.”

Beyond the yellow line rule, Keselowski also defended the restrictor plate racing conditions that make big wrecks happen so often at Daytona and Talladega.

He said the sport is for the fans, not the drivers, and their interests should come first.

“The basics of it are we’re all looking at it to be self-serving. None of us like it when we wreck or run bad. We all like it when we win. But what it comes down to is what it takes to put fans in the stands,” Keselowski said. “They love the racing at Daytona and Talladega. If no one’s watching, it’s just cars going in circles. We need to make it safe for them.”

Newfound respect?
Keselowski said he’s looking forward to the possibility that the win will mean other Cup drivers are willing to draft with him when he returns to the plate tracks later this year.
“I hope to get some help now at Talladega. I didn’t get any help (last week),” he said. “If I hadn’t pushed Carl to the front, we would have never made it. I had to grab the bull by the horns and do it myself.”

He said that this win came as a surprise, and surpassed his expectations for his Cup efforts in 2009.
“I felt I could be competitive coming in to the year, but I didn’t have any expectations. As far as being able to win, I didn’t even think that far,” he said. “I kind of leap-frogged the checklist. Usually you want a top-5, then try to win a race.”