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, February 28, 2010

Just reserve a seat for Hendrick team in Victory Lane each week

Due to unforeseen duties, I had the Las Vegas race on in the background Sunday, figuring I would turn around when it sounded like something interesting was happening.

I didn’t turn around much.

If you’re not a huge Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports fan, it’s not a fun time to be watching NASCAR most weekends. Little happens, and the fans are being bored to tears. There is hardly any passing, let alone exciting battles for position or the lead.

It goes beyond Johnson, as the Hendrick team has shown that it is head and shoulders above the competition, with the only other team even close right now being Richard Childress Racing. Even their great start isn’t anywhere near what Hendrick is doing, and I hope no one bought that fake concern from Hendrick about how his axles were breaking.

Anyone who has watched the last two weeks knows one thing: The Hendrick teams are the best on the track (even Dale Earnhardt Jr. did decent Sunday), and one of them is most likely going to hoist a championship title come November.

Another track embarrassed
Faulty caution lights? Seriously? Millions of dollars are on the line each race and you didn’t call an electrician beforehand?
Between the Daytona pothole and this, I don’t even know what to say. It’s simply embarrassing.

NASCAR’s eagle eye on start and parkers

Dave Blaney actually got to enjoy a weekend of real racing, as the Prism Motorsports team raced the whole distance at Vegas. He finished 29th, a few laps down, but I hope that run encourages the team to try to do this more often.

Even if they don’t want to do it, they might have to. NASCAR is watching the start-and-park teams more closely, it was reported this week. NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston announced Sunday that the first team to pull off the track each week without any involvement in an accident will have its motor inspected. To avoid this, teams will likely run more laps, because nobody wants NASCAR poking around their motors.

It’s promising to see NASCAR finally exert some of the might it has to ensure teams run as much of the race as possible. I love giving the little guy a hand, but at the same time this is a competition and we need to limit the start-and-park before it gets out of hand.

Speak your mind, Juan
In the worst example I’ve seen in a while of teammates working together, Jamie McMurray wrecked his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya and in the process took out both Earnhardt Ganassi cars. As always Montoya was great in his interview after the wreck.

"[McMurray] runs straight into my ass," Montoya said. "He nearly ran me into the fence in [Turn] 2 as well. I don't know. I'm sure [McMurray] is going to say, 'Oh, I didn't mean that. "Every time I'm around him, he wants to run the s--t out of me. I don't know if it's OK to say that but I just did [laughing]. On the restart I was inside of him, I think he got tight and never lifted. I didn't hit the [Turn 2] fence because -- it was a miracle.”

I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the kumbaya reunion powwow at EGR this coming week. McMurray doesn’t need his teammate mad at him, and will no doubt be apologizing on a level not seen since Jimmy Swaggart back in the 1980s.

Danica adoration needs to be kept in check by media

First off, let me just that I have absolutely no idea how well Danica Patrick will do in the long run with her NASCAR career, and neither do any of the so-called experts who might claim to have a crystal ball on this matter.

The facts are simple. She has done three races. In two of them, she has been taken out in wrecks not of her creation and in the other she was just slow and unable to do much of note. Not until this year and probably beyond will we really see if she is making the progress necessary to become a Cup driver in the future.

With that out of the way, I now focus on a topic that no doubt has frustrated many other fans besides me … and that is the media’s endless adoration of Danica that is at times on the wrong side of professional reporting.

I’m not mad at ESPN for hyping Danica, as that was expected. She is a huge star, and drew record ratings for them, so I was not concerned by the constant presence of Danica every third sentence of every race broadcast she was involved with. I fully expected it.

My concern comes with how some reporters handled it, tossing aside their journalistic hats and jumping so hard onto the Danica bandwagon that it was dragging on the ground. At one point Saturday, the rain delay allowed Dr. Jerry Punch to sit down at length with Danica and talk about her experience so far. Punch, a reporter with decades of experience and the respect of race fans including myself, did not function as interviewer here. He was a cheerleader, defending Danica against all criticism before she even had a chance to do it herself. At one point, while discussing her struggles in her first few Nationwide races, he ended the segment by telling Danica, “I’m proud of you,” like you would say to your child who has just fallen off their bike after attempting a difficult drive.

The problem is, Danica is not a child. She is a grown woman.
Folks, I can’t recall the last time any NASCAR reporter has told Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, or even a lesser-known male driver, that “I’m proud of you.” It was a point in the interview that really threw me off, as I wondered why that kind of talk is even considered on the very professional ESPN broadcasts.

Then it hit me. ESPN has to root for Danica. The reason they are “proud” is they will make a ton of money if Danica succeeds in NASCAR.

As I said at the start, she may succeed or she may not. Time will tell, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m just saying that I get a little annoyed when I see stuff like this. ESPN has every right to promote that Danica will be racing on their networks over the weekend as much as they want. But when they start openly pulling for her to do well, becoming basically fans of hers instead of broadcasters, I get discouraged as a journalist.

I’m just glad I won’t have to see it for another three months.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kudos to Kurt Busch for expanding horizons to drag racing

In these days of big-money racing, it’s a rare sight. But it’s definitely fun when it happens.

It became known this week that NASCAR star Kurt Busch has earned his NHRA Gas competition license by completing a drag racing school. He is hoping to race in the Gatornationals event this month in Gainesville, during a week away from Cup.

My initial thoughts?
First off all, I think it’s pretty cool to see a driver want to cross over like this. It’s almost unheard of in these days of drivers being focused on one series only.

Second, I’m amazed Roger Penske is letting him do it, and it’s a testament to the kind of guy Penske is. I don’t picture Rick Hendrick allowing Jimmie Johnson to go drag racing, but Penske has apparently given the OK. He understands this is what Busch wants to do and respects his racers' wishes.

When Busch hits 160 mph in his new vehicle, a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a Dodge Hemi engine, he will be the latest in a long tradition of crossover drivers.

Back in the day, before I was even born, it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to do just about everything. Guys like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and others have raced in basically every series out there, from NASCAR to Indycar to Formula 1 to sports cars and more.

There are plenty of people who cross between Indycar and NASCAR (I think someone named Danica does it), but the choice of drag racing makes Busch’s move more interesting than all those moves.

Driving a quarter-mile straight ahead in a few seconds is a lot different that driving 500 miles in a stock car race. It’s a lot shorter, but some would say it’s even more intense and stressful, because you only get one shot. There’s no “lucky dog” pass.

I’ve never gotten into drag racing that intensely, but I will be watching with interest when Kurt Busch takes this leap, even if it’s only a one-time deal. I applaud him for going outside the normal standard in today’s corporatized NASCAR world and taking a risk by trying a racing discipline that is outside of his comfort zone.

While he doesn’t have the resume of greats like Andretti and Foyt, Busch certainly has their spirit when it comes to embracing racing of all kinds.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Matt Kenseth saga proves drivers are as human as we are

I’ve been watching Matt Kenseth race for a long time.

Back in 1997, when I first got into NASCAR, when he was still struggling to succeed while driving for Robbie Reiser in a Kraft-sponsored car, I picked Kenseth as my driver while my buddy rooted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. We spent a couple fun years rooting for our drivers and seeing who would finish better.

I watched a young Kenseth knock a young Tony Stewart out of the way in 1998 at Rockingham to take his first Busch Series win. Then I watched Kenseth and Jr. wage some tight battles for the championship, with Jr. coming out on top both times.

I rooted Kenseth on as he had an awesome year in 2003, dominating the points race en route to a title … which created enough backlash that the Chase system was created to tighten the points up at the end of the season. Since then, he’s had some good years, but never came close to title glory again.

Last week, a truly bizarre story emerged about Kenseth, who changed crew chiefs after only one race … a race where he finished 8th.

My first reaction was simply: Huh?

An article in Sports Illustrated painted a portrait of Kenseth that surprised me.

He was described as morose and pessimistic, and apparently his attitude in tough times is much like a certain donkey that lives in the Hundred Acre Wood with a bear named Pooh.
“Kenseth's deadpan sarcasm can be hilarious at times, but when he's slumping it comes with a nitpicky criticism that has him earning the nickname Eeyore -- the morose donkey from Winnie The Pooh,” the article reads.

That’s a nice way of saying Kenseth is a real downer who doesn’t exactly rise to the occasion by leading and lifting the mood when times are tough.

Just one year ago, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and Kenseth were the dynamic duo, having won the first two races of the year. Unfortunately, the rest of the year went south in a hurry, and Kenseth ended up just barely missing the Chase (though based on the year, it’s unlikely he would have been a factor.)

So it appears all was not well with the Blicksenderfer-Kenseth relationship, and it’s worth noting that the departure of longtime crew chief Reiser probably has a lot to do with it. Those two had such a history together (former competitors who ended up working together all the way to a title) that it’s hard to replace that kind of relationship.

What I take out of this whole thing is that despite these drivers being millionaires and in our minds made of stone, sometimes the pressure gets to them, just as our jobs may get to us and throw us off our game.

Kenseth is a Cup champion, and has achieved many things in this life that others can only dream of. He has won the Daytona 500 and dozens of other races at the top levels of NASCAR over the past decades … plus he has a wife and family he cares about, and tons of adoring fans. That’s not a shabby resume.

Despite all this, just like any of us, he let last year’s struggles get to him, and this cloud of negativity influenced his year in a way that led to a lower level of success in 2009. Too often, I believe, fans look at these drivers as stars and neglect to realize they are people who might be going through the same crazy range of emotions we all experience.

Because of this melancholy mood he was setting, and the apparent mismatch with Blickensderfer, he wanted change, and it came very early in the year (and probably should have come last fall, it appears).

Here’s hoping that whatever 2010 brings, the mood brightens on the #17 team. Kenseth is still a talented driver capable of competing for titles, and has a long successful career ahead of him if he wants it.

With all he’s accomplished in his career and all the blessings he has in his life, he has no reason to be morose.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Johnson back in form; Jr. struggles again; Danica meets reality

Tell me if you’ve heard this script before. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a terrible finish while his three teammates all run up front all day. It may be 2010, but the same old script from the last two years is replaying itself again. No matter who is crew chief, there always seems to be some issue with the #88 car, and you know Rick Hendrick can’t be happy about that.

On the flip side, Jimmie Johnson apparently has a horseshoe stored somewhere on his body, because he caught a huge break when he just avoided being lapped while pitting, then went on to win yet another race (his 48th career win, actually). Remind me to hang out with Johnson next time I head to Vegas.

Another Busch win
Just as things returned to normal in Cup with the Jimmie Johnson win, Nationwide had a familiar feel this weekend, too. A bunch of Cup guys were up front all week, and Kyle Busch ended up winning yet another Nationwide race. At least the end was exciting, with Brad Keselowski making a late move that almost made it three-wide to the flag, but the rest was pretty blah.

Amid the boredom that was the Cup race at Fontana, probably the best move I saw all day was when the pit crew member from #1 team jumped over Kevin Harvick’s hood to avoid being run over as he tracked down a tire.

Reality sets in for Danica
The harsh reality that is NASCAR racing caught up with Danica Patrick this week in the Nationwide race. She struggled all weekend, ended up 31st in the race, and she’s quickly learning that finishing well in ARCA isn’t the same as finishing well in Nationwide. I’ll be curious to see if she can improve on that in Vegas, as the car she’s driving is plenty capable of a top-10 run, which Brad Keselowski proved over the past two years.

If she doesn’t do well even after getting some experience, there’s no blaming the equipment … it’ll be all on her.

Can Speed live up to his name?
Remember that guy who wrecked or spun out every week last year, named Scott Speed? Well, guess what … he’s doing pretty well in 2010. The ex-Formula 1 driver had his second solid finish of the year, finishing 10th at Fontana. He now sits 15th in points, which is worlds better than his rookie year, when he sat on the bubble of the top-35 all year, mostly on the outside of it.
Many people had written him off as a NASCAR failure, but maybe he’s not a lost cause after all. Time will tell whether this surge means anything, but the Red Bull team has to be happy with how he has started off in 2010.

Logano on right track
Another driver with a solid run was Joey Logano, who is on his way to becoming the superstar he most definitely will be in the future. He earned his first top-5 since he won last year, but look for a lot more top-5s from him this year and beyond.

Move California race to Iowa
Let me sum up Sunday’s race for everyone who didn’t see it. There were no fans in the stands, and the racing was mind-numbingly boring. I’m not quite sure why NASCAR insists on having two races a year at this track, but it’s an absolutely travesty that one of those dates isn’t given to a place like Iowa Speedway, which provides great racing every time the Trucks or Nationwide cars go there. Only one good thing came out of the California race … I was reminded that when the second race is run there, I should just set my Tivo and watch the entire race in 10 minutes.

#66 car confiscated
It appears NASCAR may finally be looking into the whole start-and-park situation and trying to do something about it. Dave Blaney’s #66 car, from Prism Motorsports, was confiscated when he went to “park” after starting an impressive 5th in the race and even leading a few laps during pit stops. The team may not get the car back in time to attempt to qualify at Las Vegas.

Prism had two cars in the race, and both parked quickly with “engine failures”. This may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as NASCAR probably isn’t thrilled with the idea of a multi-car team that doesn’t race and still collects paychecks. Whatever the reasoning, it’s interesting to see how this start-and-park discussion has evolved. Last year, they didn’t really want the teams to talk about “starting and parking,” as it might paint the sport in a bad light. Now that everyone knows it’s happening, it’s looking like NASCAR wants to stop these teams from doing too much noncompeting.

My suggestion: If NASCAR really wants every car that qualifies to go the distance, they will have to change the rules in ways that make it unprofitable to start-and-park. There’s nothing stopping them from doing this, as it’s their sport and they can change the rules however they see fit.

After strong start, can RCR hold on to Kevin Harvick?

At the end of last year, the long-successful Richard Childress Racing was at a low point.

All of its drivers had missed the Chase, and one of them (Kevin Harvick) appeared in a hurry to get away from the organization and move to greener pastures. Their experiment of a fourth car, driven by Casey Mears, had failed horribly, and they were watching the other teams battle for the title while they struggled to figure out what was wrong in their organization and constantly swapped crew members between teams.

Now, two races into the 2010 season, that’s ancient history. All three of the team’s drivers – Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton – are in the top-5 in points, with Harvick and Bowyer sitting 1st and 2nd. After the debacle of 2009, this is an amazing story. Childress deserves credit for getting his teams turned around in such quick fashion, as that isn’t an easy task in the super-competitive world of NASCAR.

Of course, it means little now, as the season just began. The team’s drivers could easily tank and miss the Chase again … but I wouldn’t bet on them being shut out again. The RCR guys are showing a renewed vigor on the track and I don’t see that going away from the front pack for a while.

The biggest question now is what happens to Harvick. After last year, everyone agreed he was gone after 2010. But what if he runs for a title this year? If RCR can be competitive again and have the kind of success it did when Dale Earnhardt was the face of the organization, will Harvick want to escape and start a new career path at Stewart-Haas Racing or elsewhere?

At this point, I don’t think anything is set in stone. I’m sure after last year, Harvick probably had his mind made up to go. But now, he has to be having some second thoughts. It’s only logical.

And if the next 34 races are similar to the first 2, and he wins several races along the way, it’s very possible he’ll be in that #29 car for longer than we had predicted.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Newsflash: America’s most famous speedway needs pothole repairs

Call it a case of a huge buildup, leading up to an extreme mess.

Heading into Sunday, I was pretty happy with Speedweeks as a whole.

The ARCA race was decent, inbetween wrecks, and we got our first glimpse of Danicamania, and she did a pretty impressive job. And in a bizarre twist, we even got some bonus Nationwide practice coverage on ESPN2 “featuring Danica Patrick” (which is strange, since I thought a practice “featured” everyone on the track, but maybe I’m wrong.)

The Twin 125s had a couple of thrilling finishes. The Trucks entertained as usual, and the Nationwide race was also mildly entertaining, once again between wrecks (this is why Danica might have been wise to skip this race … unless you’re up front, you’re in big trouble. At least she stayed on her wheels, unlike her car owner. Regardless, she got some experience I guess.)

But Sunday was just frustrating. I would comment on the winner and the end part of the race, but I can’t … because I didn’t see it.

I was catching a flight back home, so I caught the beginning of the race at the airport. It seemed decent enough, but nothing spectacular. I was confident that my extra hour of Tivo that I had set my recorder for at home would be adequate to catch the entire race so I could watch it when I get home.

So when my flight landed, and I went home to see how the race went, I saw that something completely ridiculous had happened that would prevent me from seeing the end of the race – there was a damn hole in the track.

I though they were driving on I-94 for a second, but no … this was Daytona International Speedway, the most revered track in NASCAR … and it had a big hole in it.

While I’m not an engineer and can’t argue with NASCAR about why this happened (they apparently are blaming weather), I’m going to put my opinion in basic terms that every can understand … the Daytona 500 shouldn’t take 6+ hours to run because of crumbling roads. It’s an embarrassment to the sport, and equivalent to the World Series being stopped because of quicksand on the pitcher’s mound.

I recognize that the race had to red-flagged to keep the drivers safe, but problems of this sort need to be discovered before the race starts, not during the race. It’s the race most non-NASCAR fans take a look at, and they were laughing at the sport today.

Also, putting aside my personal annoyance, which means very little, many thousands of fans missed the end of the biggest race of the year because they had prior commitments and had to record it. This shouldn’t happen, and there were be a ‘hole’ lot of explaining to do by NASCAR in the coming days (sorry, couldn’t resist at least one stupid hole joke).

On top of that, I’m sure FOX isn’t too happy they had to provide 7 hours of NASCAR coverage (I know the NASCAR contract is a big one with FOX, but the Daytona 500 isn’t on the level of the actual Super Bowl, no matter how much we like it.)

Too bad this couldn’t have happened next week. I really don’t care most of the time what happens at Fontana.

The moral of the story. If NASCAR wants to treated like a major sport, as it should be, embarrassments like this can’t be tolerated. It’s just a shame it had to happen during the biggest race of the year.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Alliance with Martin will only help Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Rick Hendrick doesn’t like to lose. And if he is losing, he usually corrects the problem very quickly.

Over the past few years, he’s done quite well in all levels of racing, with the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team. Heading into 2010, Hendrick has a plan to make sure Jr. does not repeat the horrendous year he had in 2009 and returns to competing for wins and making the Chase.

This plan is very simple: Dale Jr’s #88 and Mark Martin’s #5 team will work together, in every sense of the word (“two cars, one team,” as Hendrick puts it). They won’t just share notes once in a while, as that won’t cut it. They must work together whenever possible so the success that Martin achieved in 2009 can rub off on the struggling #88 team. Hendrick has even indicated that if he decides in the future to swap the crew chiefs of the #5 and #88 (Alan Gustafson and Lance McGrew), he wants the switch to be seamless.

While I’m not the biggest Rick Hendrick fan on a personal level (how quickly most forget his felonious past), his ability to run a race team is second to none, and once again he will likely hit a home run with this strategy to make the #88 team better.

In 2009, Dale Jr. seemed lost. He was in crew chief limbo for much of the year, and some weekends just seemed like he was riding around with no guidance. He would run strong early in the race some weeks, only to fall apart in every way possible.

Now, there will be not only stability, but also direct input from another team (which almost won the championship last year). Plus, Mark Martin is about as good a role model as Dale Jr. could ask for if he’s looking for someone to emulate. This is true on many levels, from Mark’s dedication to staying fit (something Jr. has said he is working on more this year) to his genuinely smart decision-making on the race track.

Bottom line: If Jr. can follow Mark’s lead, both personally and in the car, he will be on the path back to contention. The pressure is on, because if this doesn’t work, the doubters may be right when they say he doesn’t have what it takes to be an elite Cup driver who competes for championships.

Rick Hendrick doesn’t agree with that opinion, and is hoping this alliance with Martin will help Jr. improve and silence the doubters.

By the end of this season, we’ll know which side of the argument has it right.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

This Danica thing might end up working after all

She couldn’t have scripted it any better.

Danica Patrick, the focus of more media attention than any debuting stock car driver in a really long time, could have crashed and burned in her stock car debut.

She could have come to Daytona, and been one of the many cars that smashed the wall and flipped during the annual wreckfest known as the Daytona ARCA race. That was what tons of doubters who didn’t think she had what it takes to drive a stock car were predicting as she embarked on a switch to NASCAR racing.

But that didn’t happen Saturday … Instead, she proved a lot of people wrong.

She didn’t do anything crazy, trying her best to stay out of trouble, and even made a solid save when ex-Formula 1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. decided to run her into the grass. Instead of losing control of he car and wrecking, she stayed in control of the car and then proceeded to move up about 20 spots in the remaining 30 laps to finish in 6th place.

With the exception of pulling out a miracle win, it couldn’t have gone any better for Danica in her first career stock car race.

We shouldn’t get too excited and declare her a successful stock car driver. I recognize that she was racing in a low-level series, against competition much less impressive than she’ll face in the Nationwide series, and that she had arguably the best car in the field (her car was prepared by JR Motorsports, vs. mostly a bunch of mom-and-pop operations in ARCA).
Also, I recognize that this is restrictor plate racing, and lots of crazy results happen that don’t always indicate a driver’s true talent level (see the long list of 1-time race winners at plate tracks).

But despite those advantages, the fact remains that Danica Patrick had never competed in a stock car race in her life prior to Saturday, and was still learning how to drive these cars. Even before and during the race, she was still learning things about the car itself and how to operate it, and asking lots of questions about the rules of racing, pitting, etc. Even with a better car, the opportunity remained for her to royally screw up and prove all her detractors right.

But she didn’t.

My attitude toward Danica is that we shouldn’t dismiss her unless she gives us a reason to believe she can’t compete in NASCAR. Honestly, with the exception of an increase of annoying commercials, her success in NASCAR can only do good things for the sport because of all the positive attention it will bring from the mainstream sports media.

I’m hoping Danica will run the Nationwide race next week, as I’d like to see her compete against some better talent than she faced Saturday. More importantly, I can’t wait to see how she does at a non-plate track, as then we’ll start to truly see what she can do in a stock car.

She may still end up failing in NASCAR , but one thing is clear after her Saturday performance … Danica isn’t some slouch who’s going to go into turn 1 on the first lap and wreck the field, as some had predicted.

If you can survive the mess that is the ARCA race at Daytona, you’ve definitely got some level of talent as a racecar driver. Whether that success continues will be up to Danica … we know the equipment will be good, so the results will be all on her shoulders.

One thing’s for sure: It will be fun to watch.

Hendrick back in full force
Hendrick Motorsports is back at his old tricks, taking the top two spots in pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 with the Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. teams. In a way it means nothing, as positions change every 5 seconds during a plate race, but it also means a lot. Hendrick served notice that as the new season begins, he has no intentions of giving up his stranglehold on the championship.

On the other end of the scoring tower, Bill Elliot, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek qualified well enough to guarantee themselves a spot in the race, but about a dozen other guys will be racing for just a few transfer spots. I would explain it in detail, but the qualifying process at Daytona is so complicated that this blog entry would resemble “War and Peace” by the time I was done. Instead, I’ll just say that some big names, including Casey Mears, will probably end up missing the race.

Roush’s Colin Braun ready to make leap to Nationwide

Among the youth movement in NASCAR, Colin Braun’s name isn’t the most well-known among NASCAR fans.
Don’t expect that to last long, though, if he has anything to do with it.

After a successful couple years driving for Roush Fenway Racing in the Truck series, highlighted by a win in 2009 at Michigan International Speedway and a top-5 points finish, the 21-year-old Braun will be entering the Nationwide series in 2010 for a full-season run in the #16 Con-Way Freight Ford. In the past couple years, the car was split between several Roush drivers, but Braun will be a full-time competitor in the car this year.

As he begins the year, there is one main goal Braun has in his sights: to be the top rookie.
“My overall goal is to win Rookie of the Year. We did that in Truck series in 2008,” said Braun, who is originally from Texas. “That’s the goal for the 16 team this year. We’ve got fast enough cars to make it happen.” His competitors for the award should be Brian Scott, James Buescher and his Roush teammate Ricky Stenhouse, and possible others.

Looking back at 2009, Braun said he was glad that he was able to claim a victory at MIS, which is the hometrack of Roush, who is from Livonia, and his sponsor Con-Way Freight, which is based in Ann Arbor.
“It was a great first win at Michigan, in Jack Roush’s back yard and Con-Way Freight’s back yard,” he said. “I couldn’t have picked a better spot to get the first win.”

But that’s the past, and the future has arrived with the arrival of the 2010 season. As he enters the Nationwide series this year, Braun believes he can use some of what he learned in the Truck series to help him this year. But there will still be a learning curve.

“There’s quite a bit that translates. Learning how to race those guys, getting on pit road, etc., is going to carry over,” he said. “Cars are different than the trucks, though, and I’ll have to figure that out. It’s helpful I have an experienced crew chief in Eddie Pardue, who worked on the #16 team last year.”

Making this move at a young age is a sign that Roush has long-term interest in Braun as a potential Cup driver in the future, and he’s fine with that.

“Absolutely, I think it would be great to have a long-term home at Roush Fenway,” he said. “The relationship we’ve had with Jack giving me the opportunity to drive in NASCAR is awesome. It would be great to keep that relationship going. It’s a great organization.”

Braun is part a new, younger generation of drivers in NASCAR that is reaching the big leagues much faster than their predecessors. He said that despite younger drivers becoming more common, the amount of experience of the drivers on track has not been affected because young people start racing now at younger ages.

“I think the biggest things is people starting so much earlier,” Braun said. “Joey Logano and I have been driving since age 5 or 6. That’s 15 years. Before, drivers started at 15 or 16, when they got their driver’s license. If you do the math, the time frame is the same.”

Despite his young age, Braun had plenty of racing success already before even coming to NASCAR. He won as a teenager while driving sports cars during a July event at Daytona several year ago. He also is the youngest driver to stand on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing second one year while driving a Ferrari F430. Last week, he raced in the 24 hours of Daytona, and his team finished fourth.

“To be a young kid getting to go around the country and see things you only dream about, I had a lot of fun doing that,” he remarked.

He said the switch from open wheel to stock cars came through a Roush connection.

“When I was 16 and 17 and I was in the Rolex series and using Roush-Yates built engines, that opened up some doors,” he said. “I drove a couple ARCA races, and that led to this opportunity.”

Braun said that Jack Roush keeps close tabs on his drivers, doing whatever he can to help improve team performance.
“Jack is very involved. He’s hands-on,” Braun said. “He comes to the shops here in Mooresville and Concord every Tuesday after we race and describes what happened, what we can do better. He’s a great person to have on your side, and brings a lot to the table as an experienced team owner.”

Braun is looking forward to what he hopes will be a first year in Nationwide that is full of success, and a step to bigger and better things in the future.
“I think we’re going to have a good season, for sure,” he said. “The experience this No. 16 team has had over the past couple years will pay off for us. Driving a full season will help me learn a lot.”

If what I’ve seen from Braun is any indication of what’s to come, get used to his name … because you’ll be seeing it for a long time at the top levels of NASCAR.

Help name the fall Richmond race
Want to help name a NASCAR race? The fall race at Richmond, sponsored by Crown Royal, has featured the name of a fan in the race title for the past couple years.
This year, they want to honor a member of the U.S. military, and a list of the choices, with their biographies, can be found at

If you visit the site, you can vote on who you think deserves their name in the title of the race the most.

They include:
-- Heath Calhoun, Army (retired), Clarksville, Tenn.
-- Chris Dempsey, Army National Guard, Yuma, Ariz.
-- Rick Hudson, Navy, Gulfport, Miss.
-- Georgia Powell, Air National Guard, Harrisburg, Pa
-- Brian Speach, Army National Guard, Clifton Park, N.Y.

All the finalists were nominated by their family, friends or fellow soldiers for their ability to demonstrate the core values of the military in performing a selfless act that made them a hero.

Voting ends Wednesday, February 10. Media are invited to submit their individual votes to representatives of Crown Royal so they have their own voice in determining the winner. The winner will be announced from Daytona on Friday, February 12, with all the finalists and NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth in attendance.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Here they are ... the 2010 Chase predictions

Few things are certain when each new year begins in NASCAR.
It’s a safe bet everyone will be talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr., there are usually some rules changes that have taken place in the offseason, and, most importantly, we know that 12 drivers will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup come September.

The question, then, is which drivers will make up the group of title contenders when we get to the last 10 races in 2010.

Fear not, because I have consulted my third eye and come up with the list of who will be a winner and who will be on the outside looking in when the checkered flag drops at Richmond.

Jimmie Johnson
This is pretty obvious. This guy could be blindfolded and probably still get into the Chase with his crew chief Chad Knaus guiding him through the turns. The way I see it, if he can win 4 Sprint Cup titles in a row, why not 5? You can bet on this one, though it probably won’t pay very much.

Mark Martin
Don’t be confused by the “old man” look Mark Martin is sporting. He can still kick these young guys’ butts. After scoring 5 wins, 7 poles and 14 top-5 finishes in 2009, Martin proved he was just as impressive as he was the other times he almost won the championship. I look forward to seeing him try once again to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, and he may be the one who can do it.

Tony Stewart
One world describes Stewart’s 2009 season: Overachiever. With a new team, a role as co-owner and lots of focus on him from the media and fans, it would have been very easy for him to struggle. But he didn’t, instead getting both of his team’s cars into the Chase and winning a handful of races (including the All-Star race). I don’t see that changing in 2010. Look for Smoke to continue to run up front each week and contend for a third title. After that awesome first year with the new team, the sky’s the limit.

Kyle Busch
Remember this guy? He’s the one who won a ton of races last year across the top 3 NASCAR series, yet still missed the Chase somehow. It won’t happen, again. Kyle Busch is a pure racer, and can win in any series. If he doesn’t wreck every week or have his car fall apart all the time, he’ll qualify for the Chase and mount a legitimate battle for the championship.

Kurt Busch
Leading the lone Dodge team in Cup, Penske Racing, will be Kurt Busch, and he is ready after a great 2009 where he finished fourth, the best non-Hendrick finish last year. With the reputation of the brand on his shoulders, Penske will do what it takes to make sure his cars are good this year, and with info-gathering help from teammates Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish, Jr., Busch will be able to compete for wins on a regular basis, and will make the Chase.

Carl Edwards
Here’s another blast from the past. Remember the guy who won 9 races in 2008, then got a big gooseegg in 2009 (along with no poles and only 7 top-5 finishes). That’s Carl Edwards, and he will bounce back in 2010. He is too talented to not win races and fight for the big trophy. I see backflips in his future.

Juan Pablo Montoya
Last year’s breakthrough was no joke. Montoya will win again in 2010. The man has won in every series he has entered, and NASCAR is no exception. When you’re talented, you are talented, and it will shine through if you give it enough time. I see him getting better this year, and winning at least once.

Jeff Gordon
Gordon has four titles, and is now racing his superstar teammate Johnson for the right to say they have earned five. While Gordon still has the skills to race and should do well, I see Johnson doing it before Gordon. But the fact he can still make the Chase after almost 20 years in the sport is very impressive.

Joey Logano
After a very rough Speedweeks 2009, the phenom once dubbed “sliced bread” (as in greatest thing since …) went on to constant improvement in 2009, including a win. Joey Logano will finally live up to his nickname will live up to his nickname in 2010. He is a quick study, and won’t repeat the errors that plagued his early season of 2009. In year #2 in Cup, this teenager will crash the Chase party.

Ryan Newman
Some people questioned his decision to leave Penske Racing after 2008 and go drive for Stewart-Haas Racing. The joke’s on us, as he was able to adjust to the new team quickly and make the chase in 2009. He’ll do the same in 2010, probably finishing even higher than last year.

Denny Hamlin
Everyone wants to proclaim Hamlin the favorite to topple Johnson. I disagree with an endorsement that extreme, but he will be driven to succeed. One snag is his torn ACL, which could derail his hopes for a title.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I know he was horrible in 2009, to the point where he finished 25th in the points.
But things will change for Jr. in 2010.
Why? Because he has to finish better. If you don’t even race up front, while your teammates are 1-2-3 in points for the year, then you become a source of laughter.
This may be the year we finally find out what kind of driver Jr. really is.
Can he step up and make the Chase? I think so, and hope so, as Jr. making the Chase is a good thing for the sport.