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, May 31, 2010

Hamlin's right: Busch isn't mature enough to lead team

Ah … drama. It’s back, just in time for the TNT portion of the NASCAR schedule. (Side note: No more “boogity boogity boogity” silliness, a good reason to celebrate)

This is the last thing Joe Gibbs wanted to see, but it’s apparent that the Kyle Busch-Denny Hamlin spat from last week’s All-Star race is not over.

Busch, who was clearly in the wrong last week and had no reason to be upset, apparently recognized that and has no further comment on the issue, other than to say he’s over “the Denny Hamlin issue.” He knows, just like Hamlin and the rest of the world, that it was the All-Star race and Hamlin did nothing other than hold his line, and Busch basically wrecked himself.

Hamlin, though, was clearly still annoyed by Kyle’s outburst after the race last week, and teed off on his teammate to the media.
First; "Kyle brings this stuff on himself, and he gets mad at the media for asking him questions about his blowups. But he does it to himself. I don't want to be part of it. Any drama that he wants to create is on him. Anything he says on the radio is on him.”

Then: All I'm going to say, and I'm going to be done with it, is that each year I think Kyle's going to grow and he just doesn't. Until he puts it all together, that's when he'll become a champion, and right now he just doesn't have himself all together."

Finally, my favorite: "I didn't say that I was going to take over this team or be the leader of this team, but somebody's got to be the leader. And it ain't going to be Kyle.”

I’m guessing these two won’t be going fishing together anytime soon. And If Joe Gibbs is smart (and he most definitely is), he’ll call some kind of emergency summit soon to patch this up, as there’s much potential for the situation to deteriorate at JGR if these guys continue to be mad at each other.

In addition to his spat with Hamlin, Busch is continuing to alienate other drivers. This week, the usually diplomatic Jeff Burton took exception to a late move by Busch that helped lead to Burton cutting a tire and dropping back about 20 spots in the finishing order. The normally reserved Burton was livid on pit road and got in Busch’s face about the incident.

When you make people angry like that on a regular basis, it’s hard to focus on being any kind of team leader. And let’s be honest, Kyle Busch has always been about himself anyway. You could say that about all racers, but the label fits him especially. If he doesn’t win, he’s just mad at the world and really couldn’t care less how his teammates finished.

So Hamlin may have a point. I would say he is clearly the team leader. Kyle may rack up as many or more wins than Denny in 2010, but Hamlin appears to have a more mature head on his shoulders than Busch, which would make him the defacto leader at JGR.

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Indycar legends Ganassi, Penske steal show in Indy 500, Coke 600

Ganassi and Penske dominate the Indycar series on a weekly basis, and on Sunday, they dominated the NASCAR race too.

Kurt Busch, driving for Roger Penske, battled with Jamie McMurray, driving for Chip Ganassi, for the win in the Coke 600; This battle came just hours after the Ganassi-owned car driven by Dario Franchitti beat out the Penske entries and took the wreath and milk in Indianapolis.

It’s been an awesome year for Ganassi. He won the Daytona 500 with Jamie McMurray, who spent much of 2009 wondering if he’d have a ride in 2010. Then a Ganassi driver wins the Indy 500. And to top it all off, a Ganassi driver damn near won the Coke 600. For a guy who had to merge his NASCAR race team last year, that’s quite an accomplishment.

To put things in perspective and realize just how much things have turned around for Ganassi in NASCAR, think back a couple years to when Franchitti tried to make the move to NASCAR. It went horribly, sponsorship wasn’t there, and the effort had to be aborted. The experiment was a total failure for Ganassi, and he had to move Franchitti back over to the Indycar side of his operation.

In retrospect, that was a great decision, as Dario won a title his first year back, and now has won his second Indy 500. Meanwhile, the cars being built for Juan Pablo Montoya and McMurray are consistently good and the Earnhardt-Ganassi team is now a legitimate threat to make the Chase and win races.

A similar renaissance in NASCAR is occurring for Roger Penske, who won the Coke 600 with Kurt Busch on Sunday night. Busch is showing on a regular basis that he can compete for the title with drivers the caliber of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. His win in the 600 completes a Charlotte sweep, after his All-Star win last Saturday.

The turnaround for Penske isn’t as dramatic, as he was always pretty decent. But this year has been spectacular, and there’s one big reason for that: Steve Addington. Moving from one Busch brother to the other during the offseason, this was a key pickup and a huge part of the reason Kurt Busch and the rest of the Penske team has moved it up a notch in 2010.

Jimmie’s struggles continue
It was a very rare offday for the #48 team, which ended up wrecking pretty hard after they just couldn’t come up with a setup on the car that worked. For a team with that proverbial horseshow hidden you-know-where, it was very strange to see Knaus and crew make bad calls in setting up the car, which led to Jimmie wrecking. Being the perfectionist he is, I would bet you Chad Knaus won’t sleep all week as he tries to figure out what happened so it doesn’t get repeated.

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Danica, Ashley Judd, blocking penalties and more

Danica ends month in style
The year of Danica Patrick – full-time Indycar driver and part-time NASCAR driver -- had its first real highlight, as her tough month of May has ended on a high note: A 6th-place Indy 500 finish. You wouldn’t have predicted that at the beginning of the race, as she was running around 25th and seemed destined for another terrible day like she’s had all season in her Indycar ride.

But she slowly made it up through the field, and picked up several positions late due to others pitting for a splash of fuel, and ended up with a very solid run in the biggest race of the year. The trick now: Do it every week. That’s not an easy task, and her team has a lot of work cut out for it.

Ashley Judd vs. possible fatal wreck: Judd wins
I, like any red-blooded male, don’t mind the image of Ashley Judd running around Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrating a victory by her husband, Dario Franchitti. In fact, I almost expect to see it each year at the Indy 500.

But here’s a note to ABC: There are times you might want to deviate from your plan to show every moment of her celebration of her husband’s win.
For example, When a car has just flown into the fence and you don’t know if the driver inside is alive, I would advise ABC to perhaps move the camera away from Judd for just a few minutes to focus on the rescue efforts. Mike Conway took a hard hit, and thankfully survived mostly unscathed, but it would have been nice if the network acted like it cared.

I’ll put it to you this way, ABC: If Mike Conway had died and you were focusing on the happy wife, people might be a little annoyed with you. Don’t worry, Ashley will be back in another sundress in 2011.

Blocking penalty? Isn’t that the point?
I must air a grievance here, and say that I never understood the idea of a “blocking” penalty, like John Andretti got in the 500. Isn’t the point of racing to hold your position? If they’re fast enough, they’ll pass you eventually, no matter how much you “block”.

I can see some rare examples, like a car a dozen laps down purposely blocking the leader. But Andretti was just trying to avoid being passed, and if he can hold off the guy trying to pass I don’t see any harm. Racers do not like to give positions away, and it seems far too often that big-name drivers feel like they are entitled to get around someone without actually doing the work. They basically expect people to pull over, a concept I’ll never understand.

Teammate fights in Formula 1
Hooray for the new era of Formula 1 racing, where team orders seem to be disappearing. I remember back when Rubens Barichello would just pull over for Michael Schumacher, and it would drive me crazy as a fan, and that’s how it was with all the major teams for many years.

On Sunday in the Turkish Grand Prix, two sets of teammates made it clear they’re not going to let team affiliation stop them from racing their hardest at all times. For team Red Bull, it was disaster though, as Sebastian Vettel tried to aggressively pass teammate Mark Webber, but ended up knocking himself out of the race. He also knocked Webber out of the lead, and into third. The two Red Bull drivers are among the favorites for the title, and it appears they won’t be best friends this year. Webber was clearly not happy after the race.
Finishing 1-2 were McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, who also battled side-by-side for a while and nearly wrecked each other before Hamilton pulled ahead. It’s clear both these former champions want to win the title again.

The lesson of all this battling, which is very rare for Formula 1: At these teams, two of the top teams in the sport, there is no No. 1 driver, and that’s probably the case at many other teams. That’s good news for fans who want to watch good racing and not people pulling over to let teammates pass.

Formula 1 coming back to U.S.
On another Formula 1 note, the series will return to the U.S. in 2012, at a brand new track that will be built in Austin, Texas. I sure didn’t see that one coming.

I can’t picture Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, thought it would be hilarious to see. Seriously, though, I hope this plan goes off well and the race stays around for a long time. The biggest racing series in the world should make a stop here every year.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Danica has yet to master the art of criticizing your crew

She may be the face of Indycar racing to the masses, but Danica Patrick got a healthy dose of boos from the Indiana crowd during Indy 500 pole qualifying last weekend.
It came after her latest bad run, when she qualified horribly for Indycar’s biggest race.

According to reports, she was visibly shaken and holding back tears after the bad run, and then went off on her crew for how the car was performing.

"The car is just totally skating across the track, and there's no grip," she said. "My mechanics took tons of time to make sure it was fast and slick and no drag. It's there, it's just that the setup's not there. I feel bad for them because it's a good car. The GoDaddy car deserves to be higher up than this. It's better than this. It's just not set up right."

And even though her mechanics later agreed that the car wasn’t very well set up, the fans didn’t like the attitude she was copping, and the boos came.
Danica didn’t quite understand it, saying: "I say one confident thing out there, that it's not me, and everybody boos me. I don't know, maybe they were booing me before, but some of them were probably cheering for me before. I'm not a different driver than I was five years ago."

What Patrick did not realize, and may still need to learn, is that there is a right way to go about criticizing your team’s performance, and it’s not the way she did it.

In most situations, it should happen behind closed doors, where everything can be aired out and a meaningful discussion can be had in an effort to resolve any problems.
But if you must go about it in public, you can do like Jeff Burton did recently after a costly pit road mistake cost him a race win.

"We have to make a decision whether we want to be a championship team or do we just want to pretend to be one," Burton said. "I think we're a championship team. I think our guys will get it together and we'll be just fine."
That’s criticism that doubles as motivation, and not unnecessarily harsh criticism in front of the masses.

Danica’s remarks were closer to the words of Kyle Busch, who is known for outbursts about his team. At Bristol in 2009, after a pit road mishap, he said on his radio, “Y’all suck”. Needless to say, that’s not cool and won’t be much of a motivator.

Patrick’s comments weren’t as bad as Busch’s, but the fan reaction at Indy shows there is a line fans do not want drivers to cross when it comes to how they criticize their team.

And as a side note, she needs to learn to not get so emotionally affected by how she does on the track. She’s been around long enough that having a bad day shouldn’t get her so upset. If she’s going to make the transition to NASCAR, there are going to be a lot of bad days along the way that she’ll have to deal with.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Penske on top of the world after Indy 500 pole, NASCAR All-Star win

I thought my Saturday was a pretty good day, but it was nothing compared to Roger Penske’s day.

First, one of his Indycar drivers, Helio Castroneves, took the pole for next week’s Indy 500, putting him in a great position to win yet another edition of the crown jewel of Indycar racing.

Then, for a night cap, he jetted off to Charlotte to watch one of his NASCAR drivers, Kurt Busch, pull off a win in the All-Star race highlighted by several late-race wrecks.

It was a very good day to be the captain.

There was a lot of doubt about Penske’s team coming into this year, as his would be the lone Dodge team in the Cup division, battling fleets of Fords, Chevys and Toyotas.

But so far, so good.

Busch is in the top-12 in points and Brad Keselowski is starting to run consistently well after a rocky start to the year.

Busch’s performance was especially impressive when you consider just how beat-up hi s car was after several close encounters with the Charlotte Motor Speedway walls.
His team must have done a hell of a job during the 10-minute break to get it back in good enough shape to drive away like he did at the end. It was truly a team effort.

Things are looking up for the Penske team as a whole, and just like he has done in his business endeavors, it’s looking very likely that Penske will have a successful season in both sides of his motor sports empire in 2010, and there will be many more good Saturdays and Sundays before this season ends.

Kyle would have done the same thing
That sound you heard after the race was the fake outrage of Kyle Busch, who got mad at Denny Hamlin for doing exactly the same thing he would have done if he was leading.

This is an all-star race, meaning anything you need to do to win you will do. A million dollars and a lot of bragging rights are on the line. If Kyle had been leading and Denny Hamlin made a move up high to pass with just a couple laps to go,
I can guarantee you he would have blocked just as much as Denny did.

I can understand his desire to win … but it’s becoming far too common to see drivers become outraged when no wrong was done to them.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vickers and Mears both lucky, Mayfield not-so-lucky, and Greg Sacks is back

In a week full of strange news, it’s fitting the Jeremy Mayfield case would show up.
As most people expected, a federal judge has sided with NASCAR and dismissed the lawsuit filed by Mayfield against NASCAR after his suspension for failing a drug test.

All the drama and accusations that thrust NASCAR into the national sports spotlight last year is presumably over now. Hopefully that’s the last we hear of methamphetamine, drunken stepmoms, crazy tales of avoiding drug tests, and drug-fueled racing for a long time.

While there could still be an appeal, it’s pretty much pointless and Mayfield already owes lawyers so much money it would just make things worse for him.
He comes out the worst out of all this, having lost everything. A little over a year ago, his team making the Daytona 500 was a huge success story, then a few months later it all unraveled due to an unfortunate habit (which, to this day, Mayfield insists he didn’t have).

Where does Mayfield go from here? He’s pretty much done careerwise, and is most likely going to have to become a regular citizen at this point. He could write a book about this whole deal, but he’ll never make millions in a racecar again.
The lesson for NASCAR was a big eye-opener about its drug policy. Thankfully, since the Mayfield situation, they have become a little more open with drivers about the sport’s drug policy.

How will Mayfield be remembered? To most people, he’ll be the guy who got booted from NASCAR for being a meth addict. I’ll try to remember better days, though … like his victory at Pocono when he knocked Dale Earnhardt Sr. out of the way to win.

Mears lucks into ride; Vickers lucky to be alive

Some things are more important than racing, and for Brian Vickers health is the main concern right now. He will be undergoing treatment for blood clots for at least three months

Vickers is very lucky, as doctors have said this is a life-threatening condition, and he could have died if he hadn’t sought treatment. Missing a few races means very little compared to that.

Reports indicate that Vickers' symptoms are a sign of deep vein thrombosis with a pulmonary embolism, and that it’s very possible that he may never race again, depending how treatment goes.

So this leaves a spot open at the #83 team for at least a few months, possible longer.
While the circumstances aren’t what he wanted, this is the break that Casey Mears has been waiting for. Having already filled in for Vickers this week at Dover, he is the likely candidate to keep the seat warm until Vickers is cleared by doctors to
return to work.

There are few other options. There aren’t a ton of great drivers out there just waiting for rides. An older driver like Bobby Labonte might want to get out of his start and park situation, but he doesn’t exactly fit Red Bull’s young and hip image.

If Mears doesn’t get the job done early, they could go to a younger driver, perhaps an up-and-comer from the Nationwide series, so you can bet Mears will do his best to keep the team impressed. This will be an extended job audition for Mears, who will be hoping to land a permanent ride with either Red Bull or some other team for 2011 and beyond.

After the disappointing results in previous rides, he needs to show teams he has what it takes to compete.

Greg Sacks? Really?
This week, I felt like Obi-Wan Kenobi, who once famously said “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.”

This happened when I saw the news that Greg Sacks will driver for JR Motorsports in the July Nationwide race at Daytona.

Sacks has been out of the driver's seat for a long time, and wasn’t exactly lighting up the racetrack last time he competed in NASCAR. But as usual, it’s all about the money. Sacks’ arrival at JR Motorsports comes along with the announcement that Grand Touring Vodka will sponsor the #88 for 25 races in 2010 and 2011.

This just goes to show how the sponsorship situation in NASCAR has left everyone needing help, even Dale Earnhardt Jr..

New face at Roush

Brian Ickler, who is most known for his Truck series efforts, will join the stable at Roush Racing drivers in the Nationwide series. This could be bad news for the other young drivers at Roush, depending how Ickler does when he races for Roush. He’ll race at Charlotte in his first race with the team.
This quote from the Cat in the Hat should be good motivation for Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “We are keeping our options open for the future and are looking for the right fit for Roush Fenway Racing."

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If start and park is only option, Labonte should retire

There’s a time when you have to stop doing what you love, and that usually happens when the negatives outweigh the positives at your job.
After seeing him start-and-park last weekend at Dover, that time may have come for Bobby Labonte.

The TRG Motorsports team has only partial sponsorship for the season, and Dover was the first time this season they decided to go the start-and-park route.

"We're still looking for partners," team executive vice president Tortey Galida said prior to the race at Dover Sunday. "TaxSlayer has been a great partner for us this year but they're not on for the full season. We're getting to the point where we've got to be strategic with how we use our resources and continue to run as well as we can and attract more sponsorship. We've had tons of leads, lots of great meetings but just haven't been able to close [with] anybody. We think we're close on a couple of things. We're at a point now where we've got to start [getting sponsors] pretty quickly."

It’s one thing for a young guy like Michael McDowell to start-and-park as he waits for something better to come along.

But for a great driver like Bobby Labonte, who put on a championship performance in 1999 while driving for Joe Gibbs, it just doesn’t feel right.

In almost two decades in the Cup series, Labonte has racked up 21 wins, 114 top-5s, and 199 top-10s. After numbers like that, I don’t see how he can be content running part of a race then driving to the garage.

While I don’t like the idea of start-and-park teams, I don’t begrudge TRG for doing what it has to do to survive. I just don’t like the idea of someone of Labonte’s caliber being involved.

From my view, if the sponsorship woes continue, Labonte should either try to find a new ride with a team that will run the whole race each week … or just stop racing.

I know it’s hard for these guys to give up their sport … Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and others held on for far too long.

If the situation doesn’t improve at TRG, and no other ride is available, maybe it’s time Labonte avoid that same mistake and calls it a career.

His overall numbers are very impressive, and he’s one of the few who can call themselves a Cup champion, so there’s no need to tarnish his legacy by start-and-parking each week.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tables turned for aggressive Denny Hamlin at Dover

The mind of Denny Hamlin must be a very interesting place, with a very short-term memory.

For most of 2009, he was on a mission to let everyone know how he had been wronged so many times by the aggressive driving of a disrespectful Brad Keselowski, often getting mad over incidents that could easily be dismissed as pure accidents. His anger with Keselowski started a year ago at Dover.

Now, it’s 2010, and an interesting story played out at the Monster Mile that reversed the tables. After an earlier incident in which he got into the back of another car, Hamlin got into Clint Bowyer on a late restart and triggered a big wreck that took out several of the top cars.

Needless to say, the other drivers weren’t happy.
Kasey Kahne, whose car was collected in the Bowyer incident, called Hamlin out in an interview, saying: “He’s fast enough that he doesn’t need to be running into people”.

Then, Bowyer did more than talk. After his team patched the car up, he went back on the track and purposely shoved Hamlin up to the wall, kind of a “right back at you” move that ruined Hamlin’s chance to battle for the win.

As I watched, I felt it was a fitting reaction, and to his credit Hamlin admitted after the race that Bowyer had a legitimate reason to be upset.

But then he let out the most hilarious quote I’ve heard in a long time. In an interview with the ESPN crew after the incident, he actually said: “I try not to take these races too seriously.”

Those words actually came out of the mouth of the guy who, for half of last year, was foaming at the mouth with anger because of perceived wrongdoings at the hands of Keselowski.

It’s an example of the twisted logic people can use when defending their own bad habits. It’s wrong for everybody else to do it, but no big deal with they’re doing it.

To listen to Hamlin last year, he was clearly upset and gave the impression that Keselowski had a target aimed at Hamlin’s car every time they took the track. Often, he exacted revenge on Keselowski at times when it wasn’t really necessary. He took the Nationwide races very, very seriously, and still does, despite what he might claim in an interview.

I’m hoping Hamlin learned a valuable lesson Saturday: If you’re going to dole out justice for aggressive driving, be prepared to take it, too.

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Despite denial, it's clear Danica's NASCAR ventures are hampering IRL success

When someone denies something, there’s at least a 50 percent chance it’s at least a little bit true.
So when Danica Patrick said this week that her horrible start to the Indycar season has nothing to do with her dabbling in NASCAR, I didn’t exactly buy it.

For those NASCAR fans who haven’t followed the Indy car season (a number which I’m guessing is very high), the stats aren’t pretty. In the races so far this season, Patrick has finished 15th, 7th, 19th, 16th and 11th. This has led to her floundering in 16th in points after 5 races. To put this in perspective, only 24 cars start most IRL races.

Patrick is supposed to be next great hope for female drivers hoping to break through in NASCAR, and she can barely stay ahead of series laughingstock Milka Duno in the series where she actually has experience.

So what’s the deal?
In my eyes, it’s simple: Whether she admits it or not, Patrick has a lack of focus right now.

The dollar signs drew Patrick to try a bold experiment in 2010. Despite signing a multi-year deal to stay on full-time in the IRL, she would dabble in NASCAR by racing for Jr. Motorsports in the Nationwide series. A few races here, and a few races there, broken up by here IRL race. Presumably, if things went well, she would make the full-time switch in a couple years to NASCAR, where the big money can be made.

There’s one problem. Neither one of her campaigns is going very well.
I’m not going to make a final judgment on her NASCAR efforts yet. It’s far too soon for that, as she’s only run a few races, but the results have been less than stellar. She has shown promise of talent in a stock car, and this summer’s runs will provide more insight into her NASCAR ability, but any assessment would be premature.

But after the way her IRL season has started, it’s clear that something is wrong. She finished 2009 in the 5th position in the points, and ran decent most weeks. This year, she’s gone down the tubes in a hurry, and with the runs she’s had she probably wouldn’t even be mentioned by IRL announcers if her name wasn’t Danica Patrick.

Could it be that NASCAR is in the back of her mind and she is not fully focused? I highly doubt that the Andretti team is suddenly giving her junk cars, as opposed to the ones she ran so well in last year.

I understand that racers and teams have off-years. Just look at how horribly the Richard Childress team and all its drivers ran in 2009, as opposed to the great results in 2010. I suppose it’s possible that’s the situation with Patrick and her struggles in Indycar this year.

But the timing just smells rotten to me. I have a funny feeling that if this year ends with nothing but bad results in both NASCAR and Indycar for Patrick, next year’s plans might change and she will fully commit to one or the other.

I know we all can walk and chew gum at the same time, but the better analogy here would be talking and chewing gum at the same time. Chances are it’s not going to work out too well.

I understand Patrick wants to be able to fall back to Indycars if her NASCAR efforts fail, but I don’t see her truly succeeding in NASCAR unless she gives a full commitment. As her current struggles show, it’s hard to have your cake and eat it, too.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

After near divorce, Childress and Harvick now seem ‘Happy’

It’s amazing what a little success can do to turn a terrible situation into a positive one.

Just six months ago, we were all expecting Kevin Harvick to be in a new ride in 2011, and possibly sooner if he could get out of his contract, which he reportedly wanted to do at the end of last year when things were very bad for the #29 team.

"The contract goes through 2010. After that, maybe it's time to turn the page and start a new chapter for everybody," Harvick told ESPN in October 2009. "Sometimes when you get to the end of the book, you just shut the page and go, 'Man, that was really good. I really enjoyed what I did here. It was a good book to read and it was a lot of fun to experience those situations.' But sometimes, it's best for everybody to say, 'All right, I'm going to read another book.'"

At the time, Harvick was clearly frustrated and wanted a new direction. He wanted to return to contending for wins and be at a team with legitimate title hopes. I remember watching him do interviews where it was clear he didn’t even want to be in that #29 car. Even without words, his body language said it all: I want out.

Well, it turns out he doesn’t have to go anywhere. This year, Harvick has built an impressive points lead, just won his first points race since 2007 and is running up front every week. That relationship with RCR (the only Cup team where he has ever driven) has gone from extremely damaged to all roses.

Now, this rosy turnaround is almost full circle.
Childress is now saying that he expects to finalize contracts and sign Harvick to an extension within the next few weeks. All those rumors about where Harvick might go in 2011 (Stewart-Haas? Bringing his own team up to Cup?) can pretty much be considered dead. Harvick hasn’t confirmed this, but he isn’t hinting anymore that he wants to leave.

This situation turned out great for everyone involved. Richard Childress retains a top-level driver in Harvick, someone who is more determined and capable than ever in 2010 to achieving the big-time success he has long awaited in the top level of NASCAR. And Harvick wins, too, because he has found what he wanted when he made those comments about leaving late in 2009: The ability to win.

Childress deserves credit for turning the team performance around and putting together cars that make it possible for Harvick to compete consistently … which in turn made Harvick want to stay. If he hadn’t made that turnaround at a team level, there’s no doubt in my mind that Harvick would be leaving.

Stewart-Haas sponsor woes
Old Spice will not return next year, leaving Tony Stewart with a sponsorship gap. He’ll have to get someone else to pony up for those races, and that’s not exactly easy in these economic times.

It also makes things more difficult for Tony if he wants to extend the team to three cars and add Kasey Kahne for 2011. That would mean one-and-a-half cars to fill with sponsorship, quite a tall task.

I still think it will all happen though, especially with big names like Stewart, Kahne and Rick Hendrick involved.

Good run for Stremme, #26 team
Unnoticed among all the hoopla over Denny Hamlin’s win was an impressive run by David Stremme in the #26 car, an also-ran car from the Latitude 43 Motorsports team that took the number #26 over when Jack Roush went down from five to four teams.

Despite its limited budget, Stremme and the team took home a 24th place run, finishing just two laps down. For more teams, that’s disappointing day. For this brand new team, it’s their best run yet and gives them hope for the future.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Jeff Burton's fire to win, contend for title reignited in 2010

Around the middle of the 2009 season, it would have been easy to say that Jeff Burton’s chances to win a championship, nearly 20 years into his Cup career, were nothing but a pipe dream.

Long removed from his glory days of the late 1990s, when he regularly challenged series giant Jeff Gordon for race wins and contended for titles which driving for Jack Roush, his results for the past several years showed a situation that was not promising: A great run here and there, but no sign of any chance that he could regularly compete with the new Hendrick juggernaut being led by Jimmie Johnson.

That all changed at the end of 2009, when he rattled off 3 top-5 runs in the final four races after a crew chief change, and the results since then have been spectacular compared to recent years.

Saturday night at Darlington, Burton had taken the lead from eventual winner Denny Hamlin prior to the last caution, and would have had a good shot at the win if there hadn’t been a pit road miscue that forced him to the back of the lead lap when the restart came. This was not the first time this year Burton had a legitimate chance at winning a race. In fact, that’s been common, and he’s run up front so much that he’s on pace to lead more laps in 2010 than he’s led since 2000.

Burton’s resurgence is another example of one of the great things about NASCAR that you don’t find in most other sports: Great competitors getting a second life at an older age. You don’t often hear about some hitter in baseball suddenly becoming a home run king at age 40 (unless steroids are involved), or a quarterback suddenly winning a Superbowl 15 years into his career.

But in NASCAR, 50+ Mark Martin can come out of semi-retirement and win a half-dozen races, and 42-year-old Jeff Burton can run up front with Johnson, Hamlin and the other younger competitors in the Cup series.

An even better sign is the anger Burton expressed after the race, even calling out his crew for the pit road miscue. During the stretch where he didn’t contend regularly, you rarely saw Burton get too mad about anything. The fact he is showing some emotion about these situations shows that he is more driven than ever to get that title he has long sought.

It won’t be easy to become champion, and the odds are definitely against Burton, but if he doesn’t win it won’t be for lack of effort. From what I’ve seen so for both on and off the track, Burton has his eyes on the prize in 2010.

McMurray backs up pole win with great run
For everyone who though Jamie McMurray’s Daytona 500 win was a fluke, think again. McMurray is on a run this year that I don’t even think he expected.
He backed up his record-breaking pole at Darlington with a 2nd-place finish in the race, and is inching his way toward Chase contention. Not coincidentally, his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya also had a top-5 run and moved up in the standings.

For a team that was in such turmoil just a year ago, the success of the Earnhardt-Ganassi cars this year has been an amazing story.

New role for Brad Keselowski: Pitcher
Anyone heading to Comerica Park this Thursday, May 13, to see the Detroit Tigers take on the New York Yankees will get a little NASCAR bonus: Rochester Hills native and rising NASCAR star Brad Keselowski will throw out the first pitch.

All you Brad detractors can make a joke now about whether he will hit somebody with the pitch.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

New setting, new confidence, new success for Jamie McMurray

Success is all about the people you’re working with, and what kind of relationship you have with those people.

Take for example the case of Jamie McMurray, who is enjoying the best year of his career in 2010. After starting the year off with a Daytona 500 win and a Fontana pole, he won the pole at Darlington Friday in record-breaking fashion and has been running up front regularly in 2010.

This is the same Jamie McMurray who looked like a fish out of water for four seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, and had everyone wondering if his days of contending for race wins were over. The promise he showed early in his career was completely gone.

So what’s the difference this season? Easy. He now is somewhere where he feels like he belongs, enjoys the company of the people around him, and that is translating to success at the track.

This week he has been very candid about the fact that while at Roush, he never really seemed to fit in, and was like a fifth wheel (literally, too, as Roush had five cars entered each week).

McMurray said that during the four years he drove for Jack Roush, he only talked to the Cat in the Hat a handful of times. Contrast that with the current tight relationship he has with boss over at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Now in his second go-round driving for Ganassi, McMurray has come alive.

In less than a year, he has gone from “career dying” to “career surging”.
It’s a universal lesson that can be applied far beyond racing. In any industry, there are people who have goals of working for the biggest companies, but after spending some time at their new high-profile jobs, they realized they never fit in with the way things were done there. After they return to their roots, at less glamorous but more comfortable settings, they thrive in their profession.

This is the case of McMurray,and the night-day difference between 2009 and 2010. No longer is he an afterthought destined to finish mid-pack or worse. He is returning to prominence and hopes to bring Chip Ganassi back to the Chase in 2010.

Considering how tough the competition is in NASCAR and how difficult it is to beat superteams like Hendrick and Roush and Gibbs, that would be an amazing accomplishment and a testament to the power of simply feeling like you belong.

While the cars are obviously the biggest part of winning and running well , there’s no denying that this psychological boost has helped McMurray to some of his 2010 success.

Now as to whether that confidence can prevent a Darlington stripe? We’ll find out Saturday night.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Don’t cry for Jeff Gordon … he’s doing just fine

Jeff Gordon’s situation in 2010 is the classic “half full or half empty” scenario.

On one hand, it’s easy to understand why he might be frustrated with his season. Despite being dominant in several races, he has yet to take a checkered flag. He should have won at least once, possible several times, but it always goes wrong in the end.

Saturday night at Richmond, Kyle Busch spoiled the night by passing Gordon on the last restart. Things like this no doubt make a driver somewhat frustrated,

But at the same time, the glass is really half full for Jeff Gordon. The reason is simple: When you’re in the hunt like he is every week, eventually you will win races and possibly contend for the title.

It’s not all roses, as his crew chief Steve Letarte needs to make better decisions at the end of races when cautions come out, and he needs to get better at holding his position on restarts. He’s always the guy to beat, until the very end. Then, he becomes the bridesmaid instead of the bride.

But things are honestly looking up for Gordon this year. There is clearly lots of fire in him, and I hadn’t seen that in a while. You can tell he wants to win a fifth title before teammate Jimmie Johnson does.

That’s part of the reason why he’s been so animated lately. He wants to show he’s not washed-up and hasn’t been passed by the newest 4-time champ in terms of ability.

This is a new chapter for Jeff Gordon, who was the Jimmie Johnson of his day. For the first decade of his career, every week he was a threat to win, and every year he was a favorite for the title.

Now, that honor goes to Johnson. Gordon’s new role: The chaser, the underdog, the challenger. He needs to dethrone Johnson and get back on top. He is Muhammad Ali or George Foreman trying to retake the heavyweight crown at an older age.

And I have to say, it’s a lot easier to root for him as an underdog, so he might actually get some more fan support in this quest for a title. Back then, he was the Evil Empire. Now, he’s Luke Skywalker.
(This is somewhat misleading, as he still works for the Evil Empire at Hendrick Motorsports … but you get the point. He’s not as evil as Johnson)

After spending much of the last decade watching others lead the sport, Gordon has decided it’s time he became the champion again, and his recent string of excellent performances shows no signs of ending.

And he should see the glass as half full, because there is no question about that.

Great finishes all weekend
This was the best weekend of racing I’ve seen in a while.

Sunday was a great capper, as the Kansas Truck series race did not disappoint. The highlight was at the end, as veteran Ron Hornaday and up-and-comer Johnny Sauter waged an intense battle for the race lead, highlighted by a double spin that sent them both completely sideways. Amazingly, they both saved their trucks and continued on. Sauter ended up winning his second career Truck series race, but Hornaday had the car to beat up until that amazing near-wreck. Sauter’s hard racing led to the win, and he definitely earned it. He has found a home in truck series and should stay there unless he knows a solid Cup ride is available. In this series, he can flourish and compete for the title.

Friday’s Nationwide race got the weekend off to a great start, with Brad Keselowski pitting for four tires, then roaring past the leader on a G-W-C. He was the dominant car and deserved to win, and is well on the way to giving Roger Penske his first NASCAR title.

Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond was another nailbiter, as Jeff Gordon was leading and about to win when the thing happens that he hates most: A late caution. This has happened to Gordon at other times this year, and he has been the loser every time. Saturday was no exception, as he got passed by Kyle Busch and finished 2nd.

All in all, it was a great weekend for racing fans, between the two RIR races and the Kansas race. If every weekend was like this, no one would ever complain (well, a few probably would … some people just enjoy complaining.)

Kentucky Speedway should get race; lawsuit settled
With the endless litigation now resolved, Kentucky Speedway is likely to get a race date next year.
So the question becomes, which SMI track loses a date?
Atlanta? New Hampshire? I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing: The France family isn’t going to give up an ISC track’s date so Bruton Smith’s tracks can get an extra date. It’s going to have to come from within.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Watching Jr. drive #3 car will be exciting, eerie

It was a slightly bizarre scene this week as NASCAR Nation’s favorite son and his oh-so-hated stepmom appeared together at the unveiling of the car. But in the name of something nobody can disagree with – honoring Dale Earnhardt – Dale Jr. will get behind the wheel of a car that looks exactly like the one his father drove to championships in the 1980s.

The most bizarre, and I suppose appropriate, aspect to the story is that he will drive this car at the track where his father lost his life.

I was at Daytona in 2001 and still remember watching the #3 car making that final lap that now lives in infamy. (Still have my notepad with my scribblings saying “3 into wall, 15 wins”). I’ll be willing to bet that when Jr. drives his #3 this July, amid the cheering a few people will be fighting back a tear as they remember the man they cheered on for so many years.

Few people have had the impact on NASCAR that Dale Earnhardt made, and his name will probably never be used again, unless Dale Jr. decides to take it on fully one day in the future.

But for one night in July, NASCAR fans will be able to relive the glories of the #3 car’s past. Even if it’s not the man himself behind the wheel, it’s as close as you’re going to get. I can only imagine the emotions that will be going through Jr.’s head when he gets into that car. Some will say it’s just a number on a racecar, but we all know it means a lot more than that.

And if Jr. can manage to win the race in the #3 car, it will probably be the most popular win in NASCAR history.

Another great run for Keselowski
Usually when you turn into a Nationwide race, you watch Kyle Busch and Joey Logano dominate the race. This week was a slightly different story, as Brad Keselowski had the car to beat all night at Richmond, staying up front nearly the entire race. Even after pitting late in the race, he immediately burst back to the lead position and held off a surging Greg Biffle.

Brad seems determined to win Roger Penske his first championship, and two straight wins and a hold on the points lead are a good start toward that goal.

True hero is race’s namesake
Heath Calhoun’s name is all over the track at Richmond this weekend, as he is the namesake of Saturday’s “Crown Royal Presents the Heath Calhoun 400”.
I’m proud to have cast a vote for his name being on the race, as Calhoun is an example of the great things people in this country can accomplish.

Calhoun lost both of his legs in an explosion in Iraq, but didn’t let his life be ruined by that. He works with the Wounded Warrior Project in an effort to help others affected by the war, and recently competed on the US Paralympics Team at the 2010 Paralympics Winter Games, where he scored an 8th-place finish in the Super-G and a 10th-place finish in the Men’s Super Combined alpine skiing events.

His tale of success against tough odds is inspiring, and he deserves all the recognition he will get this weekend. (He’ll even deliver the trophy in Victory Lane.)

Talk to Gibbs drivers online
The M&M’s Most Colorful Fans Facebook Page will host a live video chat with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano on Monday, May 3 and noon Eastern time (9 a.m. Pacific). Fans will be able to submit questions for the drivers during the chat.
The page is located at

Guaranteed excitement?
Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, California, must be confident they’ll put on a good show this month, as they have kicked off May with a bold guarantee: If you don’t enjoy the racing, you get your money back.

The ticket must have been purchased for that evening’s event, and there is a 15-minute window to take the track up on this full ticket price refund. This offer is in effect for all five events from May 1 through May 29.

The action this week includes Club Late Models, the King Taco Super Trucks, the Southwest Tour Truck Series, the Ken Porter Auctions Classic Stocks, the Pick Your Part Outlaws Figure 8’s, and something called Auto Soccer, which is played with a 400-pound steel “soccer ball”.

For more details, check out

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