Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

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

Monday, June 29, 2009

Key week for Mayfield, who claims he’s broke and needs to race

This is a critical week for Jeremy Mayfield, who hasn’t raced since May due to the failed drug test that led to his suspension.

Mayfield will be in court July 1 to argue for a temporary injunction that would allow him to go racing as soon as this weekend at Daytona. He denies using drugs and claims a combination of Claritin D and the prescription drug Adderrall created a false positive for methamphetamines. The court date comes just as news has broken that a second laboratory has confirmed the positive test originally reported to NASCAR.

According to published reports, the court papers tell of a dire story in Mayfield’s personal life. He and his wife, Shana, claim to have borrowed money and sold belongings to keep up with living expenses.

"I do not understand how or why this is happening to me or my family," Mayfield says in the affidavit. "I have always anticipated that I would be able to race for another 10 years, but I believe my career will be effectively over if I am forced to sit out the rest of this season. I am afraid that I will have to sell my race team, and I know of no other way to make a living except as a professional race car driver."

It may sound dramatic, but it’s probably not far from the truth. When you race cars your whole life and can no longer compete in the sport, what do you do? Unless he can pull a Hail Mary pass and win in court on July 1, Mayfield will be looking at a very tough road ahead.

I do have to wonder one thing: What exactly did Mayfield do with all the millions he made when he was racing full-time for Roger Penske and Ray Evernham? You would think he’d still have at least some of it.

Since he entered the Cup series in 1993, Jeremy Mayfield has earned more than $33 million from racing alone, not to mention his endorsement deals (anyone else remember the classic, “Is that Octane 93 you’re wearing?” commercial),

After racing for 16 years and making millions, if he doesn’t have a dime in the bank and needs to borrow from his family, then he’s just plain stupid when it comes to managing money.

Kyle apologizes … but he didn’t need to
Kyle Busch has apologized for the wreck triggered when he hit Martin Truex Jr. on a restart late in the race at New Hampshire.

“I have to apologize to all those guys,” Busch said. “We got bottled up there in turn one – especially Martin and Jeff Burton and those guys. I meant nothing of that. The 88 (Earnhardt) spun his tires on the restart, I went to choose a lane, went to the middle, and the 42 (Montoya) and I got together a little bit. That pinched me with the 1 (Truex, Jr.) and I spun the 1 out and it was just mayhem from there. I hate it for all those guys because I know they’ve got ‘Chase’ contentions too. We were just battling for every spot out there today. Restarts are hectic, man.”

The thing is, Busch has it right with that last sentence … Restarts are hectic. So when someone spins their tires and everyone checks up, people are going to get hit. I’ve watched the replay and Kyle didn’t really do anything wrong there.

It’s ironic, because whenever Kyle has run people over for no reason, often when he is guesting in the Nationwide or Truck series, he never seems to apologize. But in this case, when the wreck was not all his doing, he does apologize.

It’s quite puzzling … but we are talking about Kyle Busch.

Sponsor woes all over
It looks like Matt Kenseth may be seeking new colors for the hood of the #17 car next season, as Dewalt doesn’t appear to be coming back for 2010. Similar situations exist for Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears over at Richard Childress Racing.

This rough economy, it seems, does not care how big your team is, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more teams announce they are on the hunt for a sponsor before the year is out.

Strange stat of the day
Brad Keselowski has run 5 races in Cup this year. He has 1 win, 1 top-5 finish and 3 top-10s.

His boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has run 17 races in Cup this year. He has 0 wins, 1 top-5 finish and 3 top-10s.

Those numbers just don’t look right, but they are no lie.

Yes, that was Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing up front

At one point during the race at New Hamphire Sunday, I thought I was having a flashback. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on a tear and battling for positions in the top 3. Instead of running mid-pack, he was up front with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch.

As I watched this, I realized that it was hard for me to remember the last time that happened at a non-restrictor plate track. Let’s just say it’s been a while.

He ended up in 13th place, and while that isn’t exactly a reason to throw a party, what is important is that Jr. is running strongly and gaining confidence. He is sharing information with his crew chief, rather than arguing with him, and Lance McGrew is using that information to make sure the car stays strong or gets better through the race.

At this point, he is not going to make the Chase and contend for the title in 2009. But if Jr. wants to do that in 2010, he has to continue to build his confidence and build his relationship with his new crew chief. When you look at all the great drivers who have won a lot of races and titles, there is always a great driver-crew chief relationship (Johnson-Knaus, Gordon-Evernham, Stewart-Zipadelli, etc.)

Jr. needs to develop this type of relationship with McGrew if he wants to be a success on the level of his championship-winning teammates.

So far, it looks like he’s off to a good start, but there’s still plenty of work to do. What Jr. needs to keep in mind is that he used to win when he was at DEI, and there’s no reason he can’t start to win again, considering he is driving for the best team in NASCAR.

Another silly Danica rumor
The latest silly Danica rumor has her going to Hendrick Motorsports … in a Cup ride!! It’s so silly I can’t believe someone actually wrote it, but it’s out there so I must react. The rumor was Danica getting a ride at Hendrick, with JR Motorsports moving up to Cup so Dale Jr. could move there for 2010.

This is just madness. With all the work Hendrick has enlisted from his entire organization to get Jr.’s team back into shape this season, do you honestly thing Hendrick will let Jr. go off and be part of a satellite team, a la Stewart-Haas? Danica might bring money with her if she came to NASCAR, but she’s still not Dale Jr.

Beyond all that, the sponsorship agreement Jr. has with Hendrick probably make it a bit difficult to just shuffle him over to a satellite team.

And the idea that Danica Patrick could just jump into a Cup car without any stock car training in Nationwide or Trucks is just ludicrous. Hendrick would look like a fool when she took everybody out at Daytona on the first lap of the 500.

Unfortunately, these rumors will continue to be presented for months, because Patrick plans to finish her Indycar season before announcing her decision about next year, when she will likely say she’s moving to Chip Ganassi’s operation and staying in Indycar.

Bass Pro staying at Earnhardt-Ganassi
Some unexpected good news came out of the EGR team this week, when they said sponsor Bass Pro Shops would stay on the #1 car when Martin Truex Jr. likely leaves for Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season. That means they will have an open ride that is funded, and can be on the lookout for the best free agent to fill that seat and be a teammate to Juan Pablo Montoya.

The bad news is that this year is pretty weak for free agents. Unless they can work a deal to get someone out of a contract early, the best they can really hope for is to get someone like Jamie McMurray, who might want to move on rather than shifting to a Yates Racing team when Roush has to trim his squadron to four cars.

Red Bull teammates at odds
After being wrecked by Scott Speed on the final lap of the Nationwide race at New Hampshire (which, big shock, was won by Kyle Busch), Brian Vickers did something rarely done in NASCAR – he called out his own Cup teammate, blasting him for the accident and joking that Speed might have done it because he was so frustrated at “how bad he runs” in the Cup series.

I’m not sure how these two get along normally, but that kind of attack between teammates is never good for a team. And for the record, they were both bad on Sunday, finishing 35th and 36th after separate accidents.

A bad race at Richmond?
My Tivo didn’t catch the Indycar race at Richmond, but apparently it was the worst race ever, with essentially no passing and 20 cars just following each other around for a couple of hours. It was so bad, the guy who won the race, Scott Dixon, called it “a bit of a procession, unfortunately,” and runner-up Dario Franchitti was more blunt, calling it an “awful, awful race”.

I didn’t think it was possible to have a boring race at Richmond, but apparently the IRL found a way to make it happen.

Logano makes history at New Hampshire … and he’ll do it many more times

Don’t call it a fluke.

Don’t say he didn’t deserve to win.

Don’t say he’s all hype.

Because if you do any of those things when referring to Joey Logano and his win at New Hamphire Sunday, you are lying to yourself.

I recognize that Joey was running in the 20s all day, and twice had to rely on the Lucky Dog free pass to get back on the lead lap, but that does not change the fact that his team played the strategy better than anyone else.

If anyone else on the lead lap had recognized that rain was coming and saved enough fuel to stay out a little longer, they would have won instead of Logano. All these other great teams were unable to do so, and the Gibbs team was smart enough to see what was coming and capitalized on that.

So I ask … how does that make the win less legitimate?

Since his arrival in Nationwide a little over a year ago, Logano has had his detractors, who claimed he is all hype and wouldn’t be able to make it in Cup. I have a feeling the people who would discredit Logano’s win are in this camp. They were likely pointing out their prediction when Logano found the wall countless times in the first two months of the season.

But the fact remains that a young man who just last month turned 19 years old can even run with the great drivers in the Cup series, often doing quite well (he has three top-10s in addition to this win) is a testament to the fact that this guy can drive a racecar. The first couple months were rough, but he has clearly learned from his mistakes and will continue to improve.

So while this first win can be credited to Greg Zipadelli and the Joe Gibbs Racing team, you can bet that in the future Joey Logano will break a lot more records. I’m quite confident that very soon you’ll see him racing for the lead, not inheriting it due to pit stops.

Logano is already the youngest driver to win a Cup race, beating teammate Kyle Busch by a year. He has already exceeded expectations for his rookie season by winning, and shown signs that he will be a winner for many years to come. I foresee many more records falling as Logano's career progresses.

Anyone who still thinks Logano is going to fail must be living in a dream world.

Double-file restarts spice up race
Normally I can take a couple naps during the New Hampshire races and not miss much, but you can credit the double-file restart rule for making that not be the case this weekend. There was great action on every restart between frontrunners Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and others.

I’m also glad to hear the rule is going to be implemented in the Nationwide series starting next weekend at Daytona. Those races are becoming so predictable, I’ll take anything to spice them up.

Better without Weber
Bill Weber was suspended for the New Hampshire race after having some sort of altercation at his hotel. I’ve never been a fan of Weber as a NASCAR host, and the fact that the commentary this race was better than usual proves my point. If he never came back, I don’t think many people would be upset.

Surprise runs
Credit must be given after great runs for Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr., who finished 8th but ran as high as fourth for a while, and Front Row Motorosports’ John Andretti, who came home 16th. Also, Juan Montoya had a top-12 run and was able to maintain his spot in Chase territory, 1 point ahead of 13th-place Kasey Kahne.

Stewart continues to be the man
And while I’m talking numbers, the seasonlong numbers are amazing for Tony Stewart. He has 13 top-10 finishes and 9 top-5s in 17 races. That means he is almost always up front by the time the race ends. And this is with the new team, making the feat more impressive. It’s no doubt the best first half of the year he’s ever had, and he’s known as a second-half driver. The competition better watch out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Earnhardt-Ganassi team can’t leave Montoya all alone in 2010

At first glance, it may seem that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, formed last year out of necessity so two once-great teams could survive, is doing well considering the circumstances.

To a certain extent, that is true. The team’s top driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, just entered 12th place after a strong Sonoma finish and is now an official contender to make the Chase.

That is great news for a team that some doubted would last long. But storms are on the horizon. Montoya’s teammate Martin Truex Jr., who sits 22nd in points, is on his way out the door, most likely to Michael Waltrip Racing, leaving only one man … Montoya.

In today’s NASCAR, where multicar teams dominate and win almost every race, that’s not going to cut it. So it’s crunch time at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

There is no exact recipe, but whatever they do this offseason must involve one thing: Getting some kind of teammate support for Montoya.

This could come in several forms. If the team wants to continue with this year’s model, they will have to find a sponsor for the #1 car, and find a driver who can do a decent job in 2010. Given the current economy, that could be a tough thing to do.

But there’s one idea being kicked around that I think would work even better, and that is the team switching to Toyota and the formation of a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing starting next year.

The Toyota move makes sense, as Ganassi has had many dealings with them in open-wheel racing. And the Gibbs alliance, kind of like what Marcos Ambrose and the JTG Daugherty team have with Michael Waltrip Racing, would essentially make the EGR team a fourth Joe Gibbs car. With all those cars to share information, Montoya would be in a good position to once again battle for the Chase.

But if neither of these things happen, and EGR shows up in 2010 with just one car, Montoya, and no teammate or information-sharing arrangement with another team, look for the team to struggle next year.

There’s no such thing as a one-car team that is going to be able to compete with the massive superteams, so EGR has a lot of work to do in the next six months.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Welcome back, King ... It's great to see Richard Petty back in Victory Lane

10 years.

That’s how long it’s been since Richard Petty has been able to walk into Victory Lane after a driver at his team has taken the checkered flag. To give you an idea of how long ago it was, John Andretti was the winner of that race.

I recognize it’s not Petty Enterprises, which ceased to exist after the end of 2008. I know the Gillette team is running the show over there, and Petty is mostly around as a public face, someone to help bring in sponsorship money and keep the team running.

But the fact remains that the team is still called Richard Petty Motorsports, and the record will show a Richard Petty-owned car, driven by Kasey Kahne, won the race at Sonoma this weekend.

And that is good for the sport of NASCAR.

People forget about history too quickly. It’s always about the next best thing. Which 15-year-old can they sign to a development deal so he’ll race in Cup at age 20? What team is the next one that’s going to get hot?

But there are a few faces that should never be forgotten in the sport, and Petty is one of them. When you consider the accomplishments he, his father and his son had on the track (250+ wins), it’s arguable that the Petty name is the most important name in the sport’s history.

He is The King, winner of 200 races, and his presence is so big that he is revered to this day, even though his team Petty Enterprises was pretty terrible for its final decade of existence and hadn’t competed for a title since the early 1980s.

The naysayers will say it’s all image, that Kahne is a Gillette driver, not a Petty driver, and this doesn’t really boost the Petty legacy.

But I would disagree with those naysayers. The simple fact that the Petty name has been able to survive so long in this superteam era is a miracle in and of itself. And to see a team with Petty’s name attached in Victory Lane in 2009 is quite an accomplishment.

And if you have any doubt the Petty name still holds some sway in NASCAR, ask what people you know thought about the race. I bet more people were excited to see Richard Petty in Victory Lane than they were to see Kahne there.

You can count me in that group, too.

RPM solid all around
Other than Reed Sorenson, who finished 40th, RPM had their best day as a team since Daytona. Kahne won, A.J. Allmendinger was 7th and Elliott Sadler was 10th.

Random thought
While I’m on the Petty topic, did anyone else notice that announcer Kyle Petty didn’t seem to eager to congratulate his father’s team on its success Sunday. He did so when prompted by the other announcers, but it seemed a bit forced. I’m guessing the ugly divorce he had from the organization during the merger, in which he was completely shut out, probably left a bad taste in his mouth.

Hendrick will make sure Keselowski races in Cup in 2010

What everyone already figured is now official: Rick Hendrick is in discussions with Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski about the 2010 Cup season, and he has plenty of options.

One thing is sure, Hendrick said. Keselowski will be in Cup at least part-time in 2010, maybe full-time.

Options include a full-year run in the James Finch #09 (the car he drove to a win at Talladega), a ride with a third Stewart-Haas Racing team, or a ride with Dale Jr’s JR Motorsports team if it moves up to Cup.

I stick by my prediction that he’ll drive for Stewart, but any of these options will be fine for Brad, who is just needing a stopgap ride until he can take over the #5 Hendrick car in 2011.

Whatever seat he fills, one thing is almost certain based on how well he’s running in the Nationwide series this year and the results of his short Cup career: He’ll be fast and has a sky’s-the-limit future in NASCAR.

Great run for Ambrose
Tasmanian import Marcos Ambrose had to start in the back, but he did a great job and finished third anyway. If he had started up front, he might have been in Victory Lane.

Ambrose has quietly put together a solid season, and has jumped to 18th in points, ahead of bigger-name drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick.

Said plays bumper cars
I was surprised to see Boris Said hitting everyone in sight at Sonoma. He’s a solid road racer, but he was involved in so many wrecks I wonder what was going on with his car on Sunday. It’s not like him to act that way on the track.

Montoya in Chase, Kahne knocking on the door
As I predicted, Juan Pablo Montoya used a solid finish at Sonoma to catapult himself into the top-12 in points, making him Chase-eligible at the moment. Now he needs solid runs through Richmond to stay there. Kahne’s win puts him only 3 points back of Montoya in 13th.

The Big loser is Jeff Burton, who tumbles three spots to 15th. He better hope for great New Hampshire and Daytona runs if wants to make the Chase. Richmond will be here before we know it, and you can’t afford to start slipping at this point of the year.

One last important note to all … Happy Father’s Day to all.

Keselowski perfect choice if Stewart decides to expand Cup team

The writing is on the wall.

After coming into this year saying he has no plans to go beyond two cars anytime soon, Tony Stewart has apparently changed his mind due to his outstanding performance to start the year. He said this week that if the proper sponsorship can line up, he would consider making Stewart-Haas Racing a three-car operation in 2010.

So let’s look at the facts.
-- Stewart may add a third Cup team.
-- Brad Keselowski deserves to be a Cup driver in 2010, but no spot is available at Hendrick Motorsports.
-- Both Stewart and Brad are very connected to Hendrick, so they have a common bond.

Add all that up, and you’ll see that if sponsorship can be acquired, Brad Keselowski will be calling Tony Stewart boss in 2010.

It’s the perfect storm, really. On Brad’s end, he gets a ride for one year, and can switch over to Hendrick for the 2011 season if Mark Martin actually retires, leaving the #5 seat open. Stewart has gotten so much help from Hendrick, I’m sure he would be willing to let Brad make that switch, out of respect for Hendrick.

On Stewart’s end, he gets a driver who has proven he can win on the Cup level after only a handful of starts. There are no real big name drivers coming into free agency that he could sign who would be much better than Brad (Jamie McMurray is the only real name that jumps to my mind, and he’s pretty average). With this deal, the third seat is filled for a year, then in 2011 he can go after a bigger name free agent like Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch for a long-term deal.

Assuming the sponsorship comes through, look for this news to come out before the year is over, as it makes too much sense not to happen.

Nice to see Busch challenged
After seeing the predictable effortless Kyle Busch run to the front at Milwaukee, as if he were shooting ducks in a barrel, It was nice to see Roush driver Erik Darnell pass Busch toward the end of the race, then keep the superstar behind him for a good dozen laps, before ultimately losing P2 to Busch. It’s nice every once in a while to see a guy who you’d expect Busch to blow past stand up and defend his position against the Cup series interloper. (Fun fact I had forgotten: Darnell, along with David Ragan, was discovered on Jack Roush’s “Driver X” reality show that aired a few years back on the Discovery Channel.)

The past three weekends were supposed to be a chance for the Nationwide guys to win … so much for that idea, with the wins going to Busch, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards. But we have seen a glimpse of what the series might be like without the interference of guys like Busch and Edwards. Brad Keselowski would be the champion most likely, fending off guys like Brad Coleman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Scott Lagasse Jr., Stephen Leicht and Jason Leffler every week.

What a concept! A series with different drivers than we see every Sunday. I seem to remember something like that. It was called the Busch series, and it was a lot more fun that what we normally have to watch on a weekend where 20 Cup guys try out for both races.

Good day for Hornaday
Pulling double-duty for Kevin Harvick’s team, Ron Hornaday won the Truck race in the afternoon and came back at night to earn a top-10 in the team’s Nationwide car. Not too bad for a guy who turned 51 on Saturday.

Formula one split would create chaos, take focus off racing

Imagine if Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and all but a couple of the teams in Sprint Cup put out a press release that they were upset with how the France family was changing the rules of the series for 2010, and they were going to start a brand new stock car series instead of racing for the current NASCAR regime.

That’s exactly what is happening now in Formula 1 racing, which has always been a hotbed for political infighting, but has never seen anything like this. The battle is about new rules the FIA, Formula 1’s governing body, and its leader Max Mosley want to implement on the teams … with the most contentious item being a cap of $65 million on the teams’ budgets.

In response to these efforts to change the dynamic of the series, the Formula One Teams Association has effectively declared war, saying they will go on their own and create a series to compete with their former employer in 2010.
Time is ticking away quickly on a resolution to this schism, which would rip in two the most popular racing series in the world.

McLaren team chief Martin Whitmarsh said Saturday that any deal to avoid disaster would have to be reached by the end of July, to prevent the eight teams in FOTA(Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, BMW Sauber, Toyota, Brawn GP, Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso) from forming the rival series. It appears Mosley thinks an agreement can be worked out in that timetable, but the truth is there is no guarantee it will happen.

Legends like Sir Jackie Stewart have called Mosley "totalitarian" and "dictatorial" when referring to how he runs the sport. “It had to come to a head sooner or later,” Stewart said Friday, who added there needs to be a “change in the governance of the sport.”

I am not here to assign blame to anyone. I’m not a Formula 1 insider, and am not in a position to know what went on behind closed doors.

But I am a fan, and my question now is this: What would happen to the world of Formula 1 racing if this split happened? The answer is simple – complete chaos and an endless web of lawsuits that would take all the emphasis off racing and put it on politics. Look into Tony George and the painful and counterproductive CART/IRL split for how things would likely turn out. Sure, the IRL won out, but the status of open-wheel racing tumbled during the decade-long battle.

Already, the FIA has said it plans to sue all eight breakaway teams for "serious violations of law" if they go through with their plans to start a rival series. But it would go beyond the drivers. For example, many circuits -- including the legendary one in Monaco – are on record as saying they won’t host a race that doesn’t feature Ferrari. With so much money at stake in Formula 1, it would be a nasty battle between F1 and the rival series for every venue.

The FIA could threaten different racetracks, or even drivers with various sanctions if they continue to be defiant. It could get very ugly very quickly,

On the surface, it looks like the new series would win a war: It would have all the best teams and the best drivers, which the old F1 would have a bunch of new teams and nobody drivers behind the wheel. But I’m pretty sure Mosley and the FIA could throw so many legal roadblocks in the way that the new series doesn’t get off the ground as quickly as it wants to.

The McLaren boss said the mutiny-threatening drivers are already in contact with different tracks and are operating under the assumption this new series is going to happen, while recognizing that a unified F1 series is still preferable.
The simplest solution is to have someone other than Mosley lead the FIA. With him gone, it’s much more likely that a deal can be worked out.

The reality is Mosley should have been gone last year, when a video came out of him cavorting with several prostitutes, acting out Nazi-themed role-playing activities. Amazingly, he survived that scandal and kept his post.

This is a game of chicken, and the question is who’s going to flinch first. The scary thing is that neither side might give up, leading to a big, fiery wreck.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More foreign carmakers coming to NASCAR? Stranger things have happened

This week, as news predictably broke about General Motors reducing its financial support of the Cup series, including top teams like Hendrick and Stewart-Haas, another little item slipped through the cracks.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France said that NASCAR has been speaking with foreign carmakers that build their vehicles in the U.S about competing in NASCAR in the future.

For those NASCAR fans who hate the fact Toyota is in the sport, smoke is already rising from their ears upon the mention of this announcement. But the harsh reality of the auto industry will dictate what happens, not angry fans.

Anyone with eyes has seen GM and Chrysler going through a hellish couple of years, while the Japanese automakers have held up a little better during this recession.

Even before this recession, Toyota was gaining on GM for a long, long time in terms of market share, and they have expanded their global presence, including here in America.

A fresh wound was inflicted when it came out this week that Hendrick, Stewart-Haas, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing are all going to be getting less support from GM, and who knows how deep the knife will go later. Richard Petty Motorsports has laid off some employees and said Dodge is slow with the checks lately. Ford is in the best shape, but it’s not guaranteed a bright future.

Hendrick insists GM is committed to racing, but there remains a doomsday scenario lurking in the shadows: What if one or all three U.S. carmakers decided to pull completely out the sport, and not help any team with anything? GM is owned by the government now, so it might not even be their choice whether they stick around in NASCAR in any meaningful capacity.

In this doomsday scenario, the teams would need to switch to some other make … and that means a company like Honda, or perhaps a German automaker like Volkswagen, would have an opportunity to step up and transition into the series.

Will it come to that? I don’t think so. It’s very difficult to enter a series like NASCAR, just look at the Dodge re-entry as an example. Tony Stewart has said teams will have to be a bit more frugal for now, and hope the economic conditions improve so GM can resume helping out more.

A lot of what NASCAR officials say is b.s., but don’t shove this one aside yet. There’s a lot of money to be made in NASCAR, so it would be foolish to think other carmakers don’t want a piece of the action.
If a catastrophe happens, they might be right there to take advantage.

Less horsepower?
Voices are growing in support of NASCAR cutting the horsepower in Cup cars, which some people claim will lead to more side-by-side racing, and better shows overall. I’m no mechanical expert, so I’m not going to back the idea or bash it, but I do know this: If it really will give the fans a better show and create closer racing, the feasibility of implementing this idea should at least be studied.

Another idea that was tossed out is to put restrictor plates on the cars at Michigan and California, which I find just plain silly. This year’s Talladega race showed us how dangerous that style of racing can be, and we should be working to get rid of plates, not add more races where they are used.

ARCA honoring Tim Richmond this weekend
The Tim Richmond Memorial ARCA-RE/MAX 200 will be run this weekend in Mansfield, Ohio. Richmond, unknown to many new fans because of NASCAR’s hush-hush attitude about him. (They don’t ever want to bring up the guy who died of AIDS, the same guy they railroaded with a fake failed drug test. During his illness, Richmond was suspended indefinitely for testing positive for banned substances, and NASCAR later admitted Sudafed and Advil were the only drugs he had in his system. Real class move there.).

It’s too bad they never mention his name and pretend he never existed. Richmond had some fierce battles with Dale Earnhardt, and would’ve been one of the all-time greats and a likely champion if his love of the fast lane and “pit lizards” hadn’t gotten the best of him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ignore the haters … Road courses are true test of what drivers are great

Twice each year, the haters come out of the woodwork.

These are the people who are afraid of right turns, and blast the races at Sears Point and Watkins Glen as terrible wastes of time. They would rather see even more oval races added to the schedule, in place of these two weekends.

They don’t like the slower racing and constant turning of the road courses, and long for another trip to a superspeedway.

What these fans don’t realize is that every track can’t be Talladega and the road courses are a true test of talent … the places where they will see the men separated from the boys. The cars may not be four-wide, but it’s still a good show most of the time.

A road course is the ultimate test of a driver, and completes the resume of the greatest drivers of all time. Don’t believe me? Look at the list of road course winners of the past: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt and so on.

And watching ringers like Boris Said and Ron Fellows come up through the field at these events, storming by Cup drivers who normally are the ones marching to the front, you see just how hard it is to achieve success on a road course.

I would go even further and say that a road course should be included in the Chase. If a driver is going to be champ, he should be able to handle a few right turns. I recognize this is unlikely, but it makes a ton of sense to me.

So those of you who hate the road courses can make some other plans for Sunday, while I and the other true race fans find out which Cup drivers are the complete deal as racers.

I repeat: Danica is not coming to NASCAR
I see a new story every day about Danica Patrick possibly coming to NASCAR, I repeat: Don’t believe the hype. As I said weeks ago, Danica is the queen of hype (and terrible commercials), and all this talk of “I’m exploring all options” is just a way to get more money from her new Indycar deal that she'll sign in the fall. She’s not a stock car driver and never will be a stock car driver. Those who promote it as possible are falling for her hype machine's nonsense.

Good and bad news about Indy
The good news: Goodyear’s tire at Indy should be good to go, after endless tire tests, so everyone is celebrating. Goodyear officials are “100 percent” sure that we won’t have to talk about a race where the drivers had to pit every 9 laps.

The bad news: It’s still Indy, a track that has never done well for stock car racing, and the race will still likely be boring … but at least we’ll be able to call it a race, unlike last year.

Benson out of hospital
Grand Rapids native Johnny Benson has been released from the hospital after he was admitted following a scary wreck this weekend at a local track in Michigan. Johnny’s a good guy and didn’t deserve to lose his ride, so I wish him well in his recovery and expect to see him in a race car or truck very soon.

Bad week for Mayfield so far
Things aren’t going so well for Jeremy Mayfield this week. First, he’s being sued for more than $80,000 for parts and chassis work. Considering he’s not working right now, that’s a lot of money to owe someone.

Also, NASCAR is claiming that an expert for his side as he fights his suspension for the allegedly failed drug test does not have the medical credentials he claims to have.

From the looks of things, even if he can work a miracle and get the right to drive again, Mayfield’s team might be too broke for him to do it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

NASCAR should punish racism as hard as it punishes drug abuse

The issue of racism has reared its ugly head in NASCAR again, as I feared it would when young Marc Davis, an African-American, started to make his way into the top NASCAR series.

After an accident involving Davis and Brendan Gaughan in the Nationwide series, Gaughan’s crew chief Bryan Berry is accused of confronting Davis, and using a racial slur. He has been suspended indefinitely, and rightfully so.

Freedom of speech is very important to me, and I have defended a lot of things in this space, including the right of NASCAR fans to wave the Confederate flag.

But racist comments from employees of NASCAR should not be tolerated and should be dealt with in a swift and harsh manner. A message needs to be sent that anyone caught speaking about minorities in that manner has no place in NASCAR. And unlike the flag issue, NASCAR actually has some authority here because they have the right to regulate their employees' conduct.

Gone are the bad old days, such as when African-American driver Wendell Scott won a race in Florida in 1963, but was not announced as the winner of a race because of fears about how the crowd would react.

This is a new era, and racism should be treated like the plague. It should be treated with the same harshness that NASCAR has had toward anyone found to be using drugs.

What’s worse for NASCAR? A driver using performance enhancers or a driver making comments that will send the sport’s image among the general public back into the toilet. I say they’re both equally terrible.

Racism is not generally accepted in society anymore. If NASCAR gives any indication it is not doing everything it can to silence the backward thinkers who promote such views, the public will rightfully assume the sport as a whole is willing to let racism be a part of the sport.

For his part, Rusty Wallace, Gaughan’s team owner, has put all his employees on notice … If I hear you say anything like that, you’re gone, is his message.
In Berry’s case, there is some dispute about whether he used a racial slur, and he insists he did not. But others say they heard it, so it’s not an open-and-shut case.

In Berry’s case, NASCAR will have to decide what is true and what is not true. But as a general rule, when drivers or crew members decide to use racial slurs, the punishment should be harsh, and involve long suspensions plus some kind of training on how to treat people with respect and move beyond racist attitudes of the past.

The sport has come too far in the past few decades for NASCAR to let these kinds of ignorant outbursts turn back the clock.

Hard-luck Martin finally catching some breaks this year

In the past, Mark Martin was always the guy with a constant case of bad luck, a sort of black cloud hanging over his racing career.

He won a bunch of races, but on four occasions he came in second in the points, never winning a title. One of those times, he would have won if not for a small points penalty he had incurred early in the year.

As he prepared to scale back his schedule and eventually retire, Martin was resigned to the fact that he would end his racing career without a title.

That’s all in the past now. 2009 has provided Martin a shot at the ultimate prize once again. He was in the right place at the right time at MIS, was smart enough to start conserving fuel early in the race, and was able to claim his third victory of the year, tying him with Kyle Busch for most wins this season. This is the most wins Martin has scored in one season since his 7-win season in 1998. And the season is only half over, so who knows what the final number will be.

One thing is for certain … Martin has the experience and the talent to be a title threat, which he proved this weekend by outsmarting teammate Jimmie Johnson and taking the trophy. Johnson may have the past three Cup titles, but Martin has a long career’s worth of experience that makes him one of the few drivers on the track with a legitimate shot at taking the title away from Johnson this year.

And finally, after all these years, some good luck seems to have caught up with Martin. He had a terrible start to the season, and could have been buried, but that was not to be … as he was able to climb his way out of that hole into Chase territory at record speed. He started 32nd at Michigan, yet was able to persevere, take advantage of the misfortune of others and take the checkered flag. (Martin is a great road course racer, so don’t count him out at Sonoma next week, either.)

Martin is not your typical NASCAR star. He’s not bold and brash like Kyle Busch, he’s not a huge name like Dale Jr. He’s not a pretty face to pull in the female viewers like Kasey Kahne.

Martin is simply a racer, someone who has spent his life behind the wheel winning races. Between his talent and the luck that has started to come his way, one would be a fool to say he can’t take the Cup championship at age 50.

Montoya could jump into Chase next week
Check out his strange stat: Juan Pablo Montoya has more top-10 finishes (6) than Kyle Busch (5) in 2009, despite the fact that Busch has won 3 times and Montoya has not won a single race.

Keep an eye on Montoya, who could easily jump into the Chase next week if he can get a top-5 or a win at Sonoma. It’s a road course, meaning many of the top-12 drivers could have pretty terrible finishes, and 14th place Montoya will certainly do well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Roush sends extra help to slumping Ragan team

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Something is clearly off at the #6 Roush Fenway team, and the boss is finally deciding to do something about it.

After seeing David Ragan, a driver who threatened to make the Chase last year after a great summer stretch full of strong finishes, 2009 has been a disaster. Ragan sits 31st in points, and has only one top 10 finish -- and that came at Daytona in February. Beyond that, he has just three finishes in the top-20, and has been mid-pack or back of the pack everywhere else.

To help cure this curious situation, top Roush engineer Chris Andrews will work with the #6 team for the next several weeks to try to get the ship righted. The move does not change the role of Ragan crew chief Jimmy Fennig.

Ragan downplayed the significance of the move, and said he is looking forward to the extra help, saying “Chris is just kind of bridging the gap between myself and Jimmy, and everyone else in the Roush Fenway organization. A little bit of help is always needed when you’re struggling and in a small slump. I think Chris can just bring a little extra to the table and give me some things to think about. We haven’t been s fast as we’d like, but at the end of the day, we’re all working together for a common goal and that’s to get the UPS Ford back up front.”

I know his role is to be positive, but even Ragan has to recognize that he is in more than a “small slump”. That would be like saying Kevin Harvick is in a small slump this year.

The positive news out of this shakeup is that it appears the #6 team is higher on Roush’s radar than the #26 team, meaning Jamie McMurray is likely the odd man out when Roush must trim down to four teams at the end of the 2009 season. If Roush wants to keep McMurray in the fold, he could be shipped to Roush-affiliated Yates Racing. But if he has worn out his welcome, he could become a free agent and go elsewhere in the garage.

Roush is taking a good approach to this, trying to improve the car so Ragan can run better. As strongly as he drove last year, there is no way his 2009 woes are all due to driver error. But if they get the car running well again, he better be ready to take advantage of that opportunity and move up the point standings, because Roush is not an owner that will remain happy with 31st place forever, regardless of how bright your future might be.

Benson survives scare at local track
West Michigan native Johnny Benson probably didn’t have this in mind when he went to his hometown track at Berlin Raceway. A wreck left his Supermodified car in flames, and he was sent to a Grand Rapids hospital. His condition is improving, and the hospital says he is “expected to be fine,” but it just goes to show that even at a local level, racing is a dangerous sport.

Braun wins for Roush at MIS
Looks like Jack Roush has found another winner in 20-year-old Colin Braun, who won an exciting Truck series race at MIS Saturday afternoon. With three- and four-wide racing all day, it was a battle throughout the field all race, and I hope the Cup race will be equally exciting.

Previous Roush winners in the Truck series include Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, who all have done pretty well for themselves in Cup. The young Braun could indeed mature into a Roush superstar if his future follows a similar path.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Engine change puts Gordon in the back

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- If Jeff Gordon wants to reach Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway for third time in his career, he’s going to have to pass everyone else to do it.

After changing engines before he even qualified, Gordon will start in the back Sunday at MIS. He recognizes it will be a challenge, but is hopeful for a solid finish

“It’s gonna be a tough day for us. We know we’re going to start in the back,” Gordon said. “If there’s any track you can start in the back and make your way up, it’s Michigan. It’s wide, plenty of room to race out there.”

In situations like this, Gordon says, there’s no point in playing the blame game.

“There’s always pressure on everyone on this team to do their part and step up,” he said. “You have to support everyone on the team, go out there and do your best. Slowly but surely, you work your way back to the front.”

So what’s more important when you are trying to win a race? A talented driver or a strong car.

Gordon says that it “depends on the racetrack.”

“Every track is different. I’ve never been one to say that a driver makes all the difference. At a track like (Michigan), in qualifying the car means a lot, but the driver’s got to push it hard. It’s a big fast race track, so aerodynamics and mechanical grip and attitude and horsepower are key. But once you get into the race, the driver plays a role.” Gordon said. “If you go to Martinsville or Sonoma, it’s probably more involving the driver.
If you come here, or Daytona or Talladega, the car is more important.”

On the economic front, Gordon, a longtime driver of Chevys, said he understands why GM has decided to pull back their support in the Nationwide and Truck series.

“We all have been watching and waiting to see the reaction and it’s no surprise there’s going to be big cutbacks. It’s unfortunate for those in the Nationwide series, but those guys have to make decisions and we’re going to stand by them.”

Papis recognizes his challenge
No stranger to Michigan, having raced up front here for many years in CART open-wheel machines, Max Papis is thrilled just to be able to race in the Irish Hills of Michigan this weekend, as he didn’t even recognize the track after so many years.

“When I took my first lap out there I say ‘Man, this is not the track,’ ” said Papis after making the field for Sunday’s race. “Every single track I go to is new.”

He also knows the competition is steep in NASCAR and he has to be at the top of his game. “What makes it difficult is that every guy out there is awesome.

Speedway news
Some news this weekend involved MIS itself, including one that is good news for the wallet size of race fans attending the events this weekend. Concession prices have been lowered, a smart move in the wake of the economy’s current depressed state. Some items cost as much as 25 percent less than last year. Considering how expensive most sports venue prices are, that can translate to a significant savings on food and drinks. Ticket prices have also been cut, part of an effort to get more fans out to the track.

Also being unveiled this weekend at MIS is a “hospitality club” called Acceleration, which the speedway says “combines the thrill and speed of NASCAR with the comfort, fun and food of a sports bar.”
Fans attending Sunday’s race should note that on Sunday morning, Acceleration will host fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Robby Gordon and Michigan’s own Kid Rock, among others.

With so many out of work in Michigan, the speedway might be able to employ some of those people with their new $17 million plan to rebuild the track’s media center and pit terrace suites on its infield. The current building will be bulldozed after the August race at MIS (oddly enough, by Jeff Burton) and the new building should be up by next year’s June race. One unique aspect of the project is it will tap into solar power and be among the most “green” venues in sports.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jr. takes issue with Kyle Busch calling his fans ‘crazy’

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Once again, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are at odds over a comment by NASCAR’s troublemaker in chief.

Busch’s outrageous quote of the week is “I’ve got no issues with Junior -- it’s his fans that are crazy, but that’s all right.”

It was given in response to a question about how fans reacted to Busch smashing the guitar after his win at Nashville, and Busch, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, explained that all the Jr. fans were the ones with the biggest concern.

Jr., though, does not see how Busch’s comments are anything but hype.
“I think the guy is just trying to direct a lot of people to his Web site or to his column and generate ad revenue for said Web site I suppose. I really don’t see how that argument is relevant to anything and I don’t even know really what kind of problem he has or what kind of solution he wants. I don’t really get into it.”

He continued, “My fans will handle themselves. They’re good people. We’ve got a lot of great fans that follow this sport and they’re very loyal to us and we need them more now than ever right now so I think anyone who would be calling them out and stirring them up is causing problems not only for himself but everyone else in this sport.”

All this back-and-forth may pump up fans of either driver, but it makes me wish they were both running up front every week. It would make the war of words an actual, legitimately exciting rivalry … think Petty-Pearson, Petty-Allison, etc.

It’s been many years since we’ve seen a rivalry like that, as all the frontrunner drivers seem too chummy now.

Vickers’ Toyota on pole at MIS
Speaking of quotes, this one by polesitter Brian Vickers might ruffle a few feathers among supports of the U.S. automakers. Asked whether it’s special for Toyota to win the pole in the back yard of the Big 3, he said his pole win “probably bothers the Big 3 more than Toyota really cares.”

I doubt he meant insult with the comment, but in these times when auto sales are so competitive and many Americans are anti-foreign automakers, I can see some fans having an unfavorable reaction to it.

Other qualifying notes
A.J. Allmendinger surprised with a sixth-place qualifying effort, and Robby Gordon was 13th.
Disappointments include Carl Edwards in 29th, but good drivers can always find a way to pass on the wide track at MIS. Dale Jr. will start 30th, and we’ll see if he can work with his new crew chief and make his way up front.

Edwards ready for return to 2008 form

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- In the final 10 races of 2008, Carl Edwards finished lower than 4th place on two occasions. He ended up with nine total wins last year.

The first 11 races this season, he was been a far cry from those numbers with only four top-10s and no wins so far.

Fortunately for Edwards, he has gotten his mojo back over the past few weeks, with finishes of 4th, 7th and 2nd. The pick by many to take the championship this year is finally looking like he can actually contend for that honor.

And it doesn’t hurt that he’s racing this weekend at a track where he won last August.

MIS sits in Ford Motor Co.’s back yard, so team owner Jack Roush is especially proud of his many wins here. Edwards said he was proud that Ford has been able to avoid bankruptcy and stay alive without government help.

“I couldn’t be more proud to be aligned with Ford Motor company,” he said. “I’m not an economist, but what I do know is Ford can stand on its own feet. They make good decisions, and the cars they make are the best cars on the road, they’re fun to drive. Hopefully that’s what allows Ford to be the No. 1 auto manufacturer in the world in the future.”

The Roush team drivers took a trip Thursday to see the newest vehicles Ford is offering, as is hoping to put a big smile on the faces of his team owner and Ford employees.
“We stopped up there at Ford yesterday. We got to drive all the new vehicles. We abused some of them terribly. We had a great time,” Edwards said. “It would be great to be here. Wins here are very special. You see Jack Roush’s face light up. All the folks from Ford, all the pride they have to run well here.”

Edwards, who is very capable of delivering that win this weekend, recognizes that just because he’s won before, that doesn’t mean he’ll win again.
“This is not easy. Your past success does not guarantee you anything in the future.”

So can Edwards regain that magic he found at the end of last year that almost led him to a title? He certainly hopes so.
“At the end of last season, I felt like every track we went to we could win. We haven’t had as much speed this year, but we’re kind of creeping up on it,” said Edwards, who also noted his pit crew is performing better recently. “If we can kind of peak at the right time, with 10 races to go, it’ll be good.”

Edwards says if he doesn’t start to win, it’s not for a lack of effort.
“You guys look at the stats, but the fact is I get in that race car and I drive my ass off. I do it every week. If I win the race, that’s great. If I finish 20th, I drove just as hard,” he said.

Anyone who saw his kamikaze attempt to win at Kansas last year should know he’s telling the truth. And with that kind of ambition, I’d bet he’ll soon return to being a regular fixture in Victory Lane.

Edwards: Don’t rush to judgment on Mayfield
Edwards also weighed in on the situation involving Jeremy Mayfield, who is accused by NASCAR of violating the sport’s drug policy, expressing concern with some of the media reports on the situation.

“We don’t know all the details. We don’t know what happened,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right to run a guy through the wringer in the media speculating a bunch of stuff based off some source. I don’t think it’s right at all.”

Biffle on Roush, auto industry woes
Edwards’ teammate Greg Biffle said the Roush-Fenway race team hasn’t gotten worse this year, they just haven’t gotten better, and he believes the team can reach the competitive level of teams like Hendrick Motorsports.

“The 48 (Jimmie Johnson) continues to be the best car in the field right now. I think the Roush Fenway team is off just a tick this year, not much, but it seems like we’re not quite as competitive as we were last year just ever so slightly,” Biffle said. “I don’t think we’ve slid down the slope any, it’s that the other guys have gotten a few steps up the slope and gotten a little better.”

He also weighed in on the issue of how much support the automakers will be able to provide teams in the future, and didn’t seem too worried.

“Certainly there is always going to be auto manufacturers, but we’re gonna be racing race cars with or without them,” he said today at MIS. “The amount of support they provide us is important, but we can continue to race without their support. It just means the amount of cutback on technology or testing or whatever else.”

NASCAR's visit to Motor City comes at tough time for auto industry

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Out at Michigan International Speedway, there has been a tradition of the track announcer asking the fans what kind of car make they want to win the race, and the fans screaming their responses.

But lately, who wins a NASCAR race has seemed insignificant in the wake of the tremendous struggles of GM and Chrysler, who both had to resort to bankruptcy just to stay alive as a company. Ford has been the most stable, but that’s only because they borrowed enough money when that money was still available. Otherwise, they would have been in the same boat.

Chrysler has a glimmer of hope for the future now that its deal with Fiat has been approved (which you could argue makes it something other than a U.S. automaker, but that’s a whole different topic). But there’s no guarantee the demand for automobiles is going to pick up in the immediate future.

Meanwhile, Richard Petty Motorsports laid off several employees this week, and GM is pulling its support from the Nationwide and Truck Series teams.

Kyle Busch said today that he is noticing the effect of this lack of support by the U.S. automakers in the lower series, especially Trucks.

“The truck series is a struggle. At Texas, they had 33 trucks there and only about 21 real decent trucks … The Nationwide Series though, support falling out of that series is going to make that series tough, too. Especially with NASCAR wanting to go to the new car there,” Busch said. “I don’t know how that is going to work out.”

Beyond the lower series, it’s pretty likely there will less ability to financially support Cup teams for all of the Detroit Three.

NASCAR will always be around in some form, and there are plenty of cars to fill the fields. But how good will they be without support? I have a suspicion the Truck race Saturday will be a repeat of Texas, and the rest of the season will be very similar.

Teams are going to have to be more cost-effective and find ways to improve their cars without as much support.

While the overall level of competition may be suffering, NASCAR is still around and providing racing fans their fix. But this weekend, as they race near the Motor City, it’s clear things are a whole lot different than they were a year ago.

Busy Kyle Busch wanted to help Benson
Kyle Busch, who is running both the Truck and Cup race at MIS, plus the Nationwide race at Kentucky, AND will be spotter for Brian Ickler in the ARCA race tonight, said today that he wanted to give up his seat in the Truck race to Michigan native Johnny Benson, the defending series champion who lost his ride due to lack of sponsorship. Unfortunately, Busch said, it “didn’t quite work out,” but Benson may take over the #51 truck for the Milwaukee race.

As much as Kyle annoys people, he can be nice when he wants to be, and that’s often forgotten.

Of course, there’s always the old Kyle. When asked about reaction to his guitar smashing, he said, “A lot of people hated it and I guess those are the ones with 88 tattooed on their arm. … I’ve got no issues with Junior -- it’s his fans that are crazy, but that’s all right.”

While tongue-in-cheek, I’m guessing that won’t go over well with Jr. Nation, who love to hate their current Enemy #1.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

If Mayfield was racing on meth, his career is over


According to sources who spoke to ESPN this week, that's the answer to the question everyone has had for NASCAR since Jeremy Mayfield's suspension in May. They claim that last month at Richmond, Jeremy Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamine, more commonly known as crystal meth.

Anyone who has seen people who habitually use this drug know it can ruin lives and make people wither away. No one has suggested that Mayfield is using the drug on this level, but there is talk the drug could have been used as a performance enhancer, so Mayfield could be more focused while out on the track. Most importantly, anyone using a drug as strong as meth should not be behind the wheel of any car, especially one going 200 mph.

This is the first time talk of this kind of drug use has been around NASCAR since ex-Truck series driver Aaron Fike admitted to racing while under the influence of heroin a couple years ago.

Though he has not commented since the name of the drug was leaked, Mayfield has long insisted that the test is a false positive, caused by a combination of Claritin D (which contains pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in methamphetamine) and the prescription drug Adderall (which contains amphetamine), the two drugs he says he took just before taking the drug test. Experts on drug screening have said there is a chance that the combination of these drugs could create a false positive.

If Mayfield wants to clear his name, he must prove the failed test was the result of a false positive. Otherwise, he has no future in NASCAR racing. History has shown that drivers who thumb their nose at NASCAR's drug policies (example: Shane Hmiel) and fail to seek treatment will no longer be racing.

In addition to the guys in charge, Mayfield will have lost the respect of all his competitors if it's accepted around the garage that he is a drug user. These guys put their lives in the hands of 42 other drivers each weekend, and they will not want to race with someone who is known in that light.

While I don't think NASCAR is cooking up charges against people, I have to give Mayfield a chance here, because it's very possible he is telling the truth and the drug combination caused a false positive. It's important that we don't convict him until this battle has completely run its course and the result is absolutely confirmed.

Maybe I'm just being too logical, but it seems to me that if Mayfield really was using an illegal substance prior to racing, it doesn't make sense that he would be so defiant and pursue this extremely risky public attack on NASCAR's credibility.

On the other hand, it could be true. Mayfield may have been using some form of methamphetamine either recreationally or as a performance enhancer. If that is true, I have no problem with Mayfield being banned for the rest of the season and being forced to meet NASCAR's drug program requirements in order to return.

But based on the ugliness of the lawsuits between Mayfield and NASCAR so far, I have a feeling those requirements might be a bit harsher than they have been in the past. It's clear now they don't like the guy, and don't want him racing anymore -- ever.

And if it comes out in the end that this test was not a false positive, and Mayfield did use a dangerous illegal drug prior to racing, they may get their wish.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Layoffs at Petty team won’t be the last in garage

Anyone telling you bankruptcy is going to be a positive thing for GM and Chrysler in the long run is trying to put lipstick on a pig.

There are really bad, human consequences of these proceedings, such as factory closings and shutdowns, dealers losing their careers, and thousands of layoffs that only make the country’s terrible unemployment numbers worse.

On a much smaller and less important level, the trickle down effect has reached NASCAR.

Richard Petty Motorsports, the Associated Press reports, has laid off nine employees, as well as reduced salaries throughout the organization. Richard Petty has said that the money is coming more slowly from Dodge as Chrysler awaits word on its future with Fiat and works to emerge from bankruptcy. The RPM team also recognizes that it’s likely cuts are coming in the future, and the layoffs are being made in preparation for these upcoming setbacks, sources tell the AP.

Meanwhile, Roger Penske is keeping his head up.
The billionaire businessman said he has not seen the problems with funding that Petty spoke about, and plans to honor his team’s contract with Dodge, which runs for another three years.

Penske is an honorable man, and I trust what he says, but the problem is that after the company emerges from bankruptcy, there might not be a marketing budget period.

Regardless of which side is more accurate about what the future holds for the Dodge teams, the layoffs at RPM are a sign of what might soon come when GM is going through its bankruptcy, which is scheduled to take 60 to 90 days, but could take longer.

As much as we all love racing and recognize how it can work as a marketing tool, the people running the budget meetings once GM reorganizes (also known as the government) will see how much money is being spent on NASCAR and demand a drastic cut in spending, or perhaps go even further and chop that part of the budget completely.

I remember a story I heard long ago that very much applies here. Back about a decade ago, when Ford still owned Jaguar, a Ford executive was looking into employee salaries, and saw that a man named Eddie Irvine (Formula 1 driver) was making about $10 million per year. The executive, confused, asked something along the lines of: Who is this Eddie Irvine, and why is he our highest paid employee?

That’s exactly the kind of thing will happen when President Obama’s handpicked people start telling GM what to do. (Whether they should is a whole different topic … they do own the majority of the company, but it just doesn’t seem right at the same time. But like it or not, it’s the reality of what’s going to happen.)

The board of directors will draw a big red X through much of the auto racing budget as it tries to guide the newly trimmed down companies to profitability. Regardless of whether NASCAR may be able to help the company sell cars, the money just isn’t there to hand out to all these Chevy teams.

GM teams around the garage will likely have to make some layoffs, whether they like it or not, because of the lack of incoming funds from Detroit.

Saturns in NASCAR?
Back on the Chrysler front, Penske has an ace in the hole. He has just bought the Saturn brand from GM, which will continue to make the cars for him for two years, saving 13,000 jobs in this country at a time that some good news is desperately needed. As a Saturn owner, I am very glad he did this, as the brand has a solid reputation and should not disappear.
But beyond the roads we drive, Saturn could play a role in NASCAR in the future. So far, Penske has said he has no plans to adapt a Saturn to Cup racing, but may look into using the car in the Grand-Am series.

But if Dodge stops supporting his team, he may be forced to fall back on this and have his NASCAR drivers behind the wheel of Saturn vehicles. I’m not saying it will happen, as there is a ton of work that would have to be done to introduce the new model into the series, and couldn’t be done overnight. But having the Saturn brand up his sleeve is a good backup to have, considering how uncertain the future is for Dodge and Chrysler.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

It’s Kyle’s guitar; he can do what he wants with it

I’m not against criticizing Kyle Busch, and have done it countless times in this very space … usually about his many childish acts off the track.

But I have to call into question the steady stream of outrage NASCAR fans have been expressing about Kyle Busch’s Pete Townsend impression after winning yet another Nationwide race, this time at Nashville on Saturday night.

After getting the fancy Sam Bass designed guitar trophy, Busch summoned his inner rock star and tried (pretty weakly I must say) to smash it into pieces so he could get some of it to all his crew members.

People are outraged, saying it was a “travesty,” that he showed a “lack of respect” for the trophy, and of course calling him plenty of words I won’t repeat here to keep things family-friendly.

Guess what people … despite what you may think of young Mr. Busch, he won that guitar and he can do whatever he wants with it.
He could cut it up with a chainsaw. He could throw it in a wood chipper.

And by getting all up in arms about a silly stunt, you’re feeding into exactly the ever-hated Busch wants … controversy. Do you think he did that stunt so no one would talk about it?

To be honest, I am more offended that Busch has decided to run the full Nationwide schedule, likely robbing Nationwide regulars like Brad Keselowsi a shot at the title. The #18 Gibbs car with a Cup series star like Busch in it is far better than any of his competitors, and everyone is basically fighting for 2nd in points.

I don’t care that he smashed a guitar.
I do care that he’s ruining any chance for the Nationwide title hunt to be exciting.

The real Carl Edwards is starting to show up
The biggest winner in the points after Pocono is Carl Edwards, who held on for a 2nd-place finish and moved up to 6th in points (the opposite of Denny Hamlin, who plunged 5 spots to 12th). Edwards is beginning to get his mojo back, and could be a threat for the title if this keeps up.

If you remember last year, he got hottest during the Chase, winning several races at the end of the season. If he can build momentum and peak in those final 10 races, he may be able to battle with Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and others for the biggest trophy of them all.

Debut for Dexter
Dexter Bean made his Cup debut this weekend at Pocono, and I have to give kudos to the small-team driver for sticking around on track for the entire race, at a time when so many teams on limited budgets are pulling in early to save money. He even got a mention on the broadcast, unfortunately it was for taking out the commitment cone. But just by finishing the race (in 36th, 4 laps down), Bean probably was the happiest guy in the garage.

Younger Truex wins
Ryan Truex, in his fifth start driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, won the Camping World East race at Watkins Glen this weekend. Results like this, as well as david Reutimann’s solid results in Cup lately, make it all the more likely older brother Martin Truex Jr. will be headed to MWR next year, potentially as a replacement for the team owner himself in the #55 car.

Robby wins Baja 500
Robby Gordon may be an average Cup driver on a good day, but he’s awesome at driving almost every other kind of vehicle. He took the first half of the weekend off and went down to Mexico, where he won the Baja 500 in a Trophy Truck. So don’t feel too bad for Robby when he comes home 30th every week. He’s got plenty of trophies in everything else.

Stewart’s Cinderella story complete with first points race win as owner

It had to happen eventually, but who would have thought it would come via fuel mileage?

Yes, after another 500 (un)scintillating miles at Pocono, Tony Stewart won driving for the team he co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing.
(Side note: I vote that the big box of copier paper on top of the car in Victory Lane was perhaps the silliest product placement in the history of NASCAR)

If you wondered why Gene Haas basically gave half the team to Tony, this is why. In less than a year, the team has doubled in valued (now worth about $80 million) and the sky’s the limit for the future. Just by being Tony Stewart, he brought in so much money that he didn’t need to buy in. His name was the buy-in.

In case everyone’s not up to speed, here’s the amazing facts. Tony Stewart is leading the points, and a super-hot Ryan Newman has moved up to 4th in points, after being in the 30s after a rough start to the season. Looking back to 2008, this team was Haas CNC Racing, which fielded the #66 and #70 cars last year. Neither of which was even in the top 35 for most of 2008.

Now, the renumbered and completely rebuilt teams are 1st and 4th in points and will likely make the Chase. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports car, and Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing cars are on track to miss the Chase.

Even Stewart is amazed by the team’s rapid development, saying he was not confident success of this level would come so soon. Tony deserves credit for building a strong relationship with Hendrick, making sure the teams were getting adequate equipment, getting the proper sponsorship needed to compete, hiring the best available crew chiefs and shop personnel, and turning an also-ran team into a championship contender.

I, along with the rest of the media and most fans, doubted his ability to do such a quick turnaround in 2009. We were wrong, and there’s nothing to do but give Tony props for proving us wrong. Now that he’s gotten into Victory Lane, look for him and teammate Newman to return there several times before the season ends. They’ve found the magic recipe for success, and will no doubt be eating a healthy bowl of it for the rest of the season.

Whether they can maintain this momentum through the Chase is still a question, but if Tony can win a title in his first year as an owner-driver, it would be a feat almost (but not quite) as amazing as Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 title run.

Pocono, the sleep-inducing triangle
All the end-of-race drama about fuel mileage masked the fact that, as usual, the Pocono race was overly long and boring as sin. Amazingly, it could have been worse, but the double-file restarts rule spiced it up a little, helping to create the rare moments of interesting action up front during the race.

It’s pretty bad when the highlight of your race is waiting to see who will run out of gas. Now tell me again why this race has to be 500 miles.
It should be a 400-mile race once each year, and NASCAR move a second race to Darlington or another track that doesn’t produce these snoozefests.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

NASCAR is officially at war with Mayfield

You mess with the bull, you get the horns.

That's the message that NASCAR is sending to Jeremy Mayfield, as it has countersued him for a variety of allegations, including violation of the substance abuse policy, breach of contract and defrauding competitors of earnings. (The last one makes me chuckle ... considering how Mayfield has run this year, I don't think he defrauded anyone of anything.)

Anyhow, the jist of this countersuit, which is motivated by nothing but spite, is that they are saying Mayfield knowingly violated the substance abuse policy by racing while under the influence of drugs he knew violated that policy (a policy that all the other drivers recently admitted they weren't too sure about up until the recent powwow with NASCAR's bigwigs.)

Reading between the lines, it's becoming apparent that Mayfield is probably telling the truth about the cause of his failed test ... his use of the prescription drug Adderrall, which is a stimulant used to treat attention deficit disorder.

NASCAR is taking issue with the fact he did not inform them that he was using the drug, something they state in their countersuit is a violation of NASCAR policy.

OK. I'll give them that. Mayfield failed to inform them of a prescription he was using. So if that's the case and they know he failed due to this prescription drug, why the hell would they suspend him and expect him to undergo a drug rehabilitation program? If that's the case, he has no drug problem to cure. If I'm reading the situation correctly, there is no reason to even suspend him in the first place.

The countersuit reaches an even bigger point of silliness when it mentions that Mayfield has crashed in a few of the races he ran this year, and they accuse him of crashing because he was on this drug (which is not named, but is likely the Adderrall Mayfield has said he is prescribed).

Talk about a reach!! How do they know he didn't crash because his car was a piece of junk? And on top of that, Adderrall helps people with ADD concentrate, not lose focus.

What this all comes down to is NASCAR doesn't like it when you try to call them out on their often-ridiculous rules. He may not be leading laps, but Mayfield just wants to race, and that's why he's suing. He insists he did nothing but take prescribed medication, and is trying to clear his name so he can get back to his job.

This countersuit is petty and shows the dictatorial nature of NASCAR. They are not happy when anyone challenges their rules, and are officially at war with Mayfield now.

If it comes out that Mayfield was on some dangerous illegal drug and putting his competitors' lives at risk, I'll condemn him with everyone else. But if things continue as they are, and it comes out that Mayfield was suspended just because he failed to report a prescription drug he was taking, NASCAR is going to come out of this looking pretty silly.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Goodyear, NASCAR deserve kudos for efforts to improve Brickyard race

Anyone who watched NASCAR’s annual trip to the Brickyard last summer probably wishes they hadn’t. Tires were blowing so often the drivers had to pit every 10 laps or so, and it was something I wouldn’t even call a race. A combination of tire issues and the state of the track led to a sad state of affairs at the famed track in Indianapolis.

So I was very pleased to hear how extensive NASCAR and Goodyear have been working since last summer to improve how long the cars can run at Indy. This past week, the sixth tire test at the track was held, and a seventh test is planned before this year’s edition of the Brickyard 400. Even the guy who has cursed Goodyear’s name so many times in the past, Tony Stewart, was asked to take some laps during the latest test. … That’s a testament to how serious they were about getting it right.

As I spend much of my time in this space criticizing the actions of NASCAR, I felt the folks in charge, along with Goodyear, needed to be applauded for this level of dedication to this important race.

The positive results of this dedication are coming, too, as many drivers in the most recent test have reported that they are able to run 30 or more laps, about the length of a full run at Indy.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Brickyard 400, as I don’t think the racing is all that great most of the time, even when tires are performing well, but I recognize the importance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the history of racing.

Any motorsports fans who have not attended a race at this track really should make it a point to do so at one point in their life, as it’s such a massive place and so full of history that just being there is awesome before a single car hits the track. While the track may not have been built for NASCAR cars, it’s logical that the biggest racing series in America should make a stop at the most famous track in America.

That’s why it was such a travesty when last year’s debacle happened at Indy. More than 200,000 people showed up and paid good money to see a race, and they didn’t get to do that. A sport with as much money behind it as NASCAR should never put on a show that bad.

Thankfully, it appears the sport and Goodyear were determined not to repeat their past mistakes and we’ll actually be able to see a race this year at Indy. I’m sure all the testing was pretty costly, but the damage that would have been done by another non-race at Indy would have been far more costly.

#300 for Harvick
It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since he took over for the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, but Kevin Harvick will be making his 300th career start at Pocono. With 11 wins, including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, plus an All-Star race and Bud Shootout win, his career has been solid and should be for a long while. He’s not usually a championship contender, but not everyone can be Jimmie Johnson. This year has been a bust, but Harvick took on a job few people would have wanted … taking over for the Intimidator … and has done a good job carrying on the legacy of quality racing at RCR. Few records in the NASCAR history books will bear Kevin Harvick’s name, but between his Cup career and Nationwide and Truck series ownership success, he has plenty of good things to look back on over the past 9 years.

Dumb joke, Danica
Danica Patrick made headlines recently by joking that she’d take performance-enhancing drugs if it would help her win races and she knew she wouldn’t get caught.
“Well then it’s not cheating, is it? If nobody finds out?” she said to ESPN’s Dan Patrick.
Asked again about it, she said: “Yeah, it would be like finding a grey area. In motorsports we work in the grey areas a lot. You’re trying to find where the holes are in the rule book.”

Without getting into the debate about whether performance enhancing drugs would even help in NASCAR, let’s just say it’s not exactly a good time for any athlete to say stupid stuff like this.

Whether it’s Barry Bonds or NASCAR’s own Jeremy Mayfield saga, people’s careers and legacies are being ruined because sports leagues are cracking down on cheaters.
It’s not really something to joke about at this point.

NASCAR’s refusal to cut Carl Long a break is sinful

Carl Long was hopeful this week as he headed into the appeal of penalty for an illegal engine, for which his team had received a 12-race suspension, 200-point penalty and $200,000 fine – by the way, all NASCAR records.

He had reason to be positive, as there had been public explanation all week about how he got the engine, and how there was no intent to break any rules. He could have gone home after the engine blew in practice, but decided to replace it and keep racing with a backup engine. If he was really a cheater, he wouldn’t have stuck around.

But instead of emerging successful – perhaps with a shorter 4-race suspension and a fine much smaller than 200K, everything was upheld. Making things worse is that Carl can’t even do his day job for the next few months, as he works full-time for the #34 Cup team and can’t be involved in Cup at all during his suspension.

NASCAR threw Carl a bone, saying he didn’t have to pay the fine, which was assessed to his crew chief Charles Swing, if the crew chief couldn’t pay it. Unfortunately for Swing (who was reportedly hospitalized with heart trouble after hearing of the fine), that means he can never work in the NASCAR garage again, not that he’d want to after this fiasco.

My question is simple: Why so harsh? Why give Carl a harsher deal than any big star has ever received in the history of the sport. For starters, he didn’t even know the engine is illegal. Bigger teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing have been busted for some pretty serious cheating that was obviously done on purpose, but never received such harsh punishments.

So why give Carl Long, a guy who just shows up to race a couple times of year because he loves the sport, the biggest fine EVER, then fail to reduce it one penny upon appeal.

That’s not just heartless, it’s just plain sinful. If the old adage of “do unto others as you would have done to you “ is true, the people handing out penalties in NASCAR are going to get screwed over real bad in the very near future in some aspect of their lives.

I’m not denying that the engine was illegal, but when examining the facts of this case, then looking back at past penalties that have been handed out, there’s no logical explanation for the ridiculous way NASCAR handled this situation.

After the ruling was handed down, Long was clearly disgusted, and rightfully so, as he spoke many truths about the way the sport treats the little guy.
"These guys don't care. They don't have any heart. … They just want to make a dollar. I truly have a sour taste of the management in our sport. They've forgotten the roots of how this sport was created, and who are the people buying the tickets, sitting in the stands. The people in the stands are me."

Very true, Carl.
Sadly, the people up top can’t hear you from their luxury skyboxes.

Big bucks in NASCAR
In case you were wondering whether NASCAR was a big-time sport, Forbes magazine has released a list of the sport’s most valuable teams.

Top Dog Rick Hendrick weighs in at No. 1 with a value of about 350 million big ones, and is projected to earn about 195 million in revenue in 2009. The biggest splash on the list is Stewart-Haas Racing, which has basically doubled in value since Tony Stewart came on as a co-owner. The team is now worth 80 million bucks, and will earn about 53 million this year. The average value of the top 10 teams is 148 million bucks, and the average revenue for the year will be 96 million dollars.

Now I have a better understanding of why Tony wanted to be a team owner when he could already win races at Gibbs … you can make a crapload of money as a team owner if your drivers are performing well on the track. (As a side note, I’m pretty sure Carl Long’s team isn’t even worth the 200K it was just fined).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

#71 team owner: 2009 about survival, getting ready to compete in 2010

David Gilliland competes in the #71 TRG Motorsports car earlier this season

The issue of what detractors call “start and park” teams has been around NASCAR for the past few years, as some fans get angry when they see a car pull in shortly after a race has begun. The reason for the controversy is these fans feel these teams are just collecting a paycheck and don’t want to compete, which is the whole point of racing.

But don’t count the #71 team in that group, says Kevin Buckler, owner of TRG Motorsports, who says his team is in a unique situation this year and will soon be competing toward the front again, as it did earlier this season at California and Vegas.

Buckler – a successful sports car team owner and driver for many years who just recently make the leap to NASCAR -- said his team, which has proven it can run well, is different from most of the “go-or-go-home” teams battling to fill out the grid every Friday, as he has a plan for the future.

“There’s a difference between us and the other teams. I don’t want to be negative, but some of these guys don’t have two nickels to run together. Ours is a group of savvy sophisticated business people who are surviving for next year,” he said.
"Our plan this year is we’re going to run 8 or 10 races completely, come in early in 8 or 10 other races, and build for next year.”

The reason is money. Running the whole race will use up a motor worth as much as $80,000. Being without a sponsor, which is the situation for TRG and many other smaller teams, the prize money that would be won doesn’t cover costs that high.

“If you only run 100 miles, you can use the engine several times,” Buckler said.

It’s not his first choice, but he’s confident the TRG team can regroup for 2010 and be fully competitive by next year, when the team had originally planned to make its Cup debut. “I don’t think anyone wants to do this. But we’re miles ahead of the other guys. I need to survive this season and look to next season,” Buckler said.

For example, Buckler said that last week at Dover, the #71 car was fast and could have competed. Unfortunately, the math just didn’t work out.

“It pained us to come in. But there are places where we’ll race the whole way – Michigan, Sears Point, Texas, Indy and Watkins Glen, about 8 to 10 of the biggest races.”

Buckler, who first opened up a race shop out of his garage in 1992, currently owns a total of 6 cars between the Rolex and KONI sports car series. He said his sports car team is the “Hendrick of the sports car world,” having won the biggest races in that side of racing and, “We’re trying to carry our sports car success over to NASCAR.”

As a driver, Buckler has won major sports car events such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona, 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Porsche Cup.
“We run 4 cars in the Rolex series, 2 cars in the KONI series,” he said. “We went to the Daytona 24-hour race this year and I ran 6 cars, which is nuts. We ended up finishing 1-2, the third time we’ve won that race.”

About 2 years ago, Buckler decided to start a NASCAR team, and was able to get a group of investors together because of his sports car success.
“The goal was to go to Sprint Cup racing in 2010, but the way things went with the testing ban and other rule changes, we got together after Daytona testing and decided to give it a shot in 2009,” he said.

The fact that Buckler’s team is even on the track at this point in the season is a surprise to him, because, “we only thought we were going to do the first three or four races.”

So what would it take to be competitive all year? That’s simple: Sponsorship.
For example, if a sponsor came through with $5 million, Buckler said: “We could do about a half-season. We don’t have a lot of employees or high costs.”

Buckler, who has built a business himself, said there needs to be a new business model emerging that makes it easier for a smaller team to survive in today’s Cup series.
“NASCAR needs a new paradigm. They need a new business model,” Buckler said. “They need a small team that leads the charge in a recession, and that is going to be us.”

To the fans who might be ticked off when they see a car retire early, Buckler had this to say: “They have to understand that sponsorship is tough. We want to be here to entertain the fans. We’re doing our part the best we can. There are 10-15 guys back here who are struggling to compete, and we want to be a competitive full-time team next year.”