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.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard have the potential to be breakout performers of 2011

Heading into 2011, some things are certain.

Jimmie Johnson will contend once again for a title; Denny Hamlin should continue to be a threat. And unless the fourth car screws things up, RCR and Kevin Harvick should still run solid next year.

But every year, some things happen that aren’t expected. Looking back at 2010, it was the resurgence of Harvick, and the unexpected success of Jamie McMurray, who missed the Chase but still racked up some huge wins in the biggest races of the year.

So heading into 2011, who will be the surprise? Who will step up and perform better then we all expect?

I would say there are a few candidates, including NASCAR’s favorite son … Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Among the biggest off-season news was the shuffling of three crew chiefs at the Hendrick team, and the #88 team will now be housed in the same shop as the #48 team.

Any success by Jr., of course, hinges on Steve Letarte and Dale Jr. developing a good relationship, but if they do it’s possible that being around the championship-caliber #48 team on a regular basis will rub off. With the amount of crew chiefs Jr. has gone through, it’s time for him to show some results and stop running mid-pack or worse, like he’s done far too often since arriving at Hendrick.

I wouldn’t go placing bets quite yet that Jr. will make the Chase and contend for a title, but the changes made in the offseason make it much more likely.
If not Jr., who else?

I believe Brad Keselowski will make a big move in 2011. In 2010, his first full season in Cup, Brad didn’t make too much noise, mostly running toward the back. But now that he’s earned Roger Penske a tltle in the Nationwide series, the focus is all on Cup.

When he made the move to Penske, Keselowski knew the transition would not be easy, or achieve instant success. He started off slowly, never really took off, and only racked up a couple of top-10s at the end of the season.

But having learned from his mistakes in 2010, and knowing how much talent he possesses, I see Brad getting off to a much better start in 2011, and finishing much better than the 25th place in points he claimed in 2010.

A third option I see for breakout star, though I would consider it a longshot, is Paul Menard. He is getting in to a top-notch team at RCR, has shown flashes of his ability (especially in the Nationwide series) and is definitely on a mission to prove wrong all the doubters who say he just has a ride because of his family’s money.

While I recognize that he could fail miserably just like Casey Mears did in the fourth car at Childress a couple years ago, the team seems to have made a full turnaround and should be better equipped to handle a fourth driver. If Menard can apply his skills and gets the cars he needs to compete, he may end up surprising a lot of people in 2011.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Denny Hamlin shows holiday spirit; 2011 is decision time for Danica

NASCAR is already one of the most fan-friendly sports around, and the use of Twitter has made it even moreso. On Christmas Day, Denny Hamlin held a live contest on Twitter, asking a question and awarding the 11th person with the correct answer a trip for four anywhere in the U.S., complete with hotel, airfare and $2,000 in spending money. The contest began and ended in a couple minutes, which I thought was pretty cool.

I haven’t always been a fan of Hamlin’s on-track actions, but I have to say that this was very cool, and he is one of the best drivers when it comes to interacting with the fans online. One woman from Pennsylvania will definitely be rooting for #11 in 2011, as a simple answer on Twitter earned her family a nice vacation. (By the way, it was a trick question that got past a lot of people: “If you received every gift in the song "12 days of Christmas" how many presents would you have?” … think about it)

Which way will Danica go?
One of the biggest questions in racing will be answered in 2011: Which way will Danica go? Will she stick to where she started and give up her NASCAR dream? Or will she ditch the Indycar series and make the bold leap to stock cars permanent?

One thing is clear: She can’t continue to double-dip. Her results show that it’s essential to commit to one side. If she isn’t racing in NASCAR every week, she will never be a great NASCAR driver. That’s just common sense.

So where would I put the odds at right now? Based simply on business sensibility, something which Danica has plenty of, I would say the chances are very high – probably about 75 percent – that she will ditch Indycar and move to NASCAR full-time in 2012. The fact is there is so much money in NASCAR, as compared to Indycar, that she can become a lot richer in stock cars. So that means that the move will probably happen regardless of what’s happening on the track in 2011. Like most things in racing, money makes the decision.

Robby off to Dakar Rally
Some drivers are enjoying their short time away from the sport by vacationing or relaxing in other ways … and then there’s Robby Gordon, who’s preparing to head to South America to take part in the Dakar Rally, driving a truck nearly 6,000 miles over a period of just over two weeks through “grueling” conditions.

It’s not my idea of a fun holiday, but for guys like Robby this is the ultimate in fun. And unlike his Cup efforts, which have been extremely lackluster in recent years, he actually knows how to win in these rally races. So I can see the draw for him, and I wish him luck.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Skinner out of Truck ride?

One rumor making the rounds is that Mike Skinner has lost his ride at Randy Moss Motorsports after two years.

If this is true, I’m wondering if it’s got anything to do with the wackiness that is Randy Moss, who has been on so many NFL teams this year I’ve lost track, and allegedly made a call a radio station this week bashing his coach in Tennessee.

Whatever the cause, if he is out of a ride Skinner shouldn’t have trouble finding a new team – he’s been a contender ever since the Truck series started, and still has what it takes to win.

ASA radio show
For fans of ASA racing, announced that “This Week in ASA Racing” has been added to their lineup of radio shows for 2011. The broadcasts will feature discussion of the short track racing series and conversations with its drivers.

For those who don’t know, NASCAR champions Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace came out of the ASA series, and Mark Martin also ran there early in his career. Other drivers of note include Dick Trickle, Butch Miller and Johnny Benson. So there’s a good chance some of the names in that series will make their way to the big stage in the future.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Logano learned major lessons in 2010, should emerge as a star in 2011

When Joey Logano first came into NASCAR’s top divisions, he was a phenomenon expected to obliterate the record books. But he soon learned that just because people expect you to do great things, it doesn’t mean that will happen instantly – especially at the Sprint Cup level, where you are battling with the best in the business.

For much of 2010, Logano was hardly mentioned during the race broadcasts. He did little of note during many races. That changed late in the year. During the Chase, while he was not a top-12 driver, he earned more points over those 10 races than all but a handful of drivers. So if he had been in there, he’d probably have finished around 6th in points. He talled 7 finishes of 7th or better in the last 11 races.

But he wasn’t in the Chase due to his earlier struggles, so those great runs to end the year didn’t amount to anything, other than giving him some momentum heading into 2010 as he begins to click with crew chief Greg Zippadelli, who previously teamed wonderfully with Tony Stewart for a dozen years and is hoping to repeat that championship level of success with Logano.

In addition to struggling on the track, though, Logano had some incidents that hopefully have helped him grow as a person, which should help his on-track performance. First, there was the Kevin Harvick incident, after which he made the infamous comment that Harvick’s wife “wears the firesuit in the family”. This may seem childish to some, but I love it, as it showed the competition that just because he is young, that doesn’t mean Logano is willing to let people push him around. He was no longer some kid they could just push around.

The other incident came when Logano and Ryan Newman got into it later in the season, and Logano ended up whining about how Newman wouldn’t let him pass even though he was faster. He even called out other drivers’ names – including Tony Stewart – saying those drivers agreed that Newman was too rude on the track when faster cars were trying to get by.

In this incident, Logano came out looking like the idiot. First of all, you never complain that a driver didn’t let you pass. If you’re faster, go and pass him. The end.
Second, you don’t call out other drivers into the fight. Fight your own battles.

This incident, while it made Logano look bad at the time, hopefully taught him some lessons about how to interact with other drivers, both personally and through the media. I’m guessing that next year, you won’t hear him whining about other drivers like he did with Newman, you won’t hear him bringing other drivers into the mix for no reason. (and on a side not, his father – who Harvick and others rightfully called out for interfering in Logano’s business – was thankfully pretty quiet in the second half of the year.)

What you will see, I hope, is Logano continuing to stand up for himself, continuing to call out drivers who are disrespecting him on the track (though I doubt he can ever top that firesuit comment in terms of hilarity) and starting to rack up wins and finally making the Chase … something that should happen in 2011 if he can seize on that end-of-the-year momentum and start the year out strong.

Logano is still very young, and will be driving for another couple decades. I predict that his move toward becoming a star driver with championship potential is going to start in 2011.

Johnson almost repeats AP honor
Last year, Jimmie Johnson stunned the world when he won AP Male Athlete of the Year … I heard the cries instantly (“NASCAR’s not a sport” and the usual nonsense). Well, he almost did it again, with Drew Brees taking the honor and Johnson coming in second after the votes were tallied. Sorry, anti-NASCAR folks, but with five straight titles, those votes were deserved.

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Daytona resurfacing gets raves; best quote of the year, and more

With Daytona being repaved for the first time since 1978, there were questions about how drivers would like it after the job was done. With the first two-day test complete, it’s a hit so far.

‘The Mayor’ Jeff Burton summed it up, saying "Everybody is happy with the surface. The tire combination seems to be really good. "It's much smoother, has a tremendous amount more grip, but it's still Daytona. They didn't try to change the banking from the bottom to the top, do all that stuff. They just kept Daytona and put pavement on it. I'm glad that's what they did."

A wider pit road was a popular change for some drivers, including Jamie McMurray.
"It's really nice to get that little bit of extra room on pit road. Pit road speeds are really fast when you come to [restrictor] plate tracks. Typically we have the smallest brakes on the car that we run all year long, so pit road is also trouble. So the fact they widened that 10 or 12 feet is really nice."

And if you didn’t think NASCAR fans were dedicated, a bunch of them showed up just to watch the test. Now that’s a dedicated race fan if I’ve every seen one.
Drivers taking part in the test included Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. A notable absence was Mr. ‘Five-Time’ Jimmie Johnson, who was too busy juggling his championship trophies to worry about a Daytona test.

Quote of the year
I saw a list of the best quotes of the year, but really there are only two that i see contending for the best of the year. “Have at it, boys” and “His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do, so it's probably not his fault”… The first one defined the season, and the second one is the best smacktalk I’ve heard in a long time in NASCAR.

There are some other contenders, such as Mike Ford’s really bad decision to talk smack after Hamlin won Texas, and the whole “golden horseshoe” comment from Harvick, but those two take the cake in my book.

Hendrick ex-fiancee goes on ‘The Bachelor’
For all of his triumphs, Rick Hendrick has gone through his share of serious struggles, and the loss of his son has to be the hardest. Everyone remembers the tragedy of the Hendrick Motorsports crash in 2004, which claimed the life of Ricky Hendrick. And in a twist I either never knew, or had totally forgotten, apparently just days after Ricky’s death his girlfriend found out she was pregnant. So an incredibly sad day for the family got even sadder. Now, five years later, Emily Maynard – who now has a 5-year-old daughter named Josephine (and nicknamed ‘Ricki’) will compete on ‘The Bachelor’.

6.5 million bucks is peanuts to Red Bull team
Scott Speed said he was surprised by his dismissal from Red Bull and that his contract was through 2013. He denies the report from the team that he had be at a certain position in points for the contract to be valid, and seeking 6.5 million bucks in his lawsuit.
"They can't say 'We'll give you three more years' and then at the end of the season say 'Just kidding,'" Speed said this week. "They think they have a way of getting out of my contract. I think they're crazy."

So who’s telling the truth? I believe that Kasey Kahne’s arrival meant Speed was out the door whether it was allowed by his contract or not. And since they just won Formula 1 drivers and constructors title and have hundreds of millions of dollars coming from those accolades, I don’t think they really care if they have to pay Scott Speed a couple million dollars. That’s like us regular folks letting the cashier at the gas station keep your pennies instead of taking them as change.

Kenseth, Fennig together again
If recent years, Matt Kenseth has had more crew chiefs than Kim Kardashian has had boyfriends … (hint; she’s had a lot). Luckily for Matt, who made a great run in the Chase and ended up fifth in points, Jimmy Fennig will be returning as his crew chief in 2011 … his first sign of consistency since his glory days with Robbie Reiser. Roush is wise not to break up the duo after the Chase performance, but time will tell if it’s a longer-term union.

New NASCAR book
If you’re looking for a gift for the hardcore NASCAR fan in your family … especially those who love to learn the history of the sport … the new book, The Evolution of NASCAR: A Historical Collection, features photographs and artwork from the entire history of the sport.
From Red Byron and Lee Petty to the current crop of drivers, the entire history is discussed in a “scrapbook” format. The book begins with a forward from NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time champion Richard Petty and includes an afterword from former NASCAR vice president of communications, the late Jim Hunter.

The 144-page hardcover book is available for $49.95 in bookstores, or you can order at the NASCAR.COM Superstore or

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rick Hendrick buys 1st Volt for sale; gives $225K to Detroit schools

Not only is Rick Hendrick the top team owner in NASCAR, he's now also the owner of the first Chevy Volt ever sold to the public, after he won an online auction with a bid of $225,000.

The money will benefit the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, funding will benefit science, math, engineering, and technology education initiatives.

“This was an opportunity to own a piece of history while giving back to the community,” said Hendrick, an avid car collector. “I have been a Chevrolet dealer for more than 30 years, and the Volt is one of the most exciting and important new cars since we opened our first dealership in 1976. Hendrick Motorsports has been racing Chevys since 1984, and any success we’ve had is due to the quality of our people. The Detroit Public Schools will prepare the next generation of talented engineers and technicians who will help Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports compete at a high level on the racetrack every weekend.”

Detroit Public Schools Foundation President and CEO, Chacona W. Johnson, believes the donation will make a meaningful difference for many Detroit students:

“With Mr. Hendrick’s contribution, we have the opportunity to inspire thousands of children to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math,” said Johnson. “That inspiration will help make Detroit Public Schools students more successful in higher education, and better prepared for careers in the 21st century workforce.”

The Chevrolet Volt is an electric vehicle that can operate under a range of weather climates and driving conditions with little concern of being stranded by a depleted battery. The Volt has a total driving range of up to 379 miles, based on EPA estimates. For the first 35 miles, the Volt can drive gas- and tailpipe-emissions-free using a full charge of electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery. When the Volt’s battery runs low, a gas powered engine/generator seamlessly operates to extend the driving range another 344 miles on a full tank.

Chevrolet began shipping Volts from Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly this week. Hendrick will take delivery of his Volt later this month.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing have a lot to live up to in 2011

Heading into 2010, Kevin Harvick and the entire Richard Childress team were in a situation where the only way to go was up.

They had fallen on hard times in 2009, operating four teams and having none of them make the Chase. In perhaps the biggest comeback story of the 2010 season (Jamie McMurray being the other contender) a slimmed-down RCR squad made the Chase with all three teams in 2010, and very easily could have won the title with Harvick, who missed out by 41 points when the final checkered flag fell at Homestead.

RCR is a team with a history of winning, most notably with Dale Earnhardt Sr., who won 6 of his 7 titles driving for his buddy Childress. And with Harvick leading the points for most of the year, and threatening for the title, the pressure is now on to make sure RCR doesn’t return to hard times.

Adding to the pressure is the return of a fourth team. Last time, when the fourth team with Casey Mears was added, it didn’t work out for RCR; but they insist the arrival of Paul Menard as a fourth driver won’t cause a return to those struggles.

The team showed in 2010 that it can win; Harvick has his excellent year; Clint Bowyer won races; and Jeff Burton should have won several races, but was often snake-bit at the end of the day.

When the new season arrives, coming off the 2010 high, the most logical direction the team could go is down, and in this ultracompetitive sport it will take all the team’s efforts to maintain RCR as a title contender and one of the top teams in the sport.

Of all the RCR drivers, Harvick has been the one most often with a bit of a “no respect” mantra, claiming the media doesn’t recognize RCR as a true title contender.

If he wants the media to begin singing the praises of RCR, he and his teammates just need to do some basic things in 2011; win races and contend for the title like they did in 2010.

That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Dale Jr. “meltdown” car on eBay

If you’re a big Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan and want a piece of his racing history for your very own, the ALMS car he was driving in that caught on fire a few years back is up for sale on eBay … for just under $600,000.

The ad reads: “The car returned to the united states and was the Dale Earnhardt Jr. / Boris Said car, which was then painted yellow with a black side stripes and numbered 8. This is the same car Dale Jr wrecked at Infineon Raceway in 2004 and burst into flames, slightly injuring Dale Jr. This car is often referred to as the "meltdown car". The car was fully rebuilt and restored by Pratt & Miller and is new and race ready.”

I guess there’s nothing like a potentially deadly incident involving NASCAR’s most popular driver to help a car gain value.

For all the details, check out

Hope for Johnson’s competitors?
So Jimmie Johnson won the title again, but the numbers show he was not invincible.

In the 2010 Chase, Jimmie Johnson has the lower numbers in many categories when compared to his other title years. His Driver Rating of 108.5 was the lowest of the five.. He led fewer laps, 232, in 2010 than he did the previous four years.

What this means is that should someone step up and not make mistakes (Denny Hamlin not running into Greg Biffle at Homestead, for example), another person could be crowned champion. It very easily could have happened in 2010, too, but the experience of the #48 team in these title situations led them to the promised land once again. Hopefully for the fans, some other teams step up to that level in 2011 -- Like Hamlin and Harvick did in 2010 -- and there will be some intense competition for the Cup title once again. Who knows, Jimmie might even lose of these things eventually?

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Monday, December 6, 2010

As top drivers celebrate in Vegas, Scott Speed and Colin Braun lose their rides

The focus this week was on Jimmie Johnson and his fellow Chasers being honored in Vegas.

But not everyone had such a great year. In NASCAR, it’s all about what you’ve done lately. And if you haven’t done much, chances are that seat you are in will be refitted for someone else before the following season.

This is true despite any long-term connection you might have to you team, such as the relationship Scott Speed has had with Red Bull since he drove in Formula 1. They brought him to America, put him in the Truck series, moved him up to Cup (too early in my view), and the results have been lacking – and that’s being kind.

The nail in the coffin was the announcement that Kasey Kahne was headed to Red Bull for 2011 only, as he awaits the #5 seat at Hendrick in 2012.
Brian Vickers is coming back, too, and there was no plan by Red Bull to run 3 cars … you do the math.

I like Scott Speed and think he’s great for the sport, just because he’s different (If you don’t believe me, just look at his and Amanda Speed’s Twitter accounts).

Unfortunately, though, personality isn’t good enough to keep a ride. The Red Bull team – which has seen an amazing boom on the Formula 1 side in 2010, taking the title in dramatic fashion with Sebastian Vettel -- has been his home since he was 22 years old, but those ties mean little when you finish the year 30th in points, with just two top 10s. Now 27 years old, he is still young, but he doesn’t have a ride.
"We have exercised our rights to end the relationship at the end of 2010," the team said. "We wish Scott the best of luck in his career."

For whatever reason, Scott Speed never made a big impression in NASCAR, never put down a string of solid runs. He had one brief period where he showed promise, but the usual failures soon returned. I’m pretty confident that if he wants to keep up this NASCAR thing, he can find a ride, even if it’s in Nationwide or Trucks. That may in fact be the best medicine for Speed. He can do the Elliott Sadler plan for 2011, and run for a lower series title, win some races and get confidence back, and prep for a return to Cup later in a competitive car.

I wish Speed luck in his quest; as the sport needs drivers with personality; and it’s lacking them.

Braun out at Roush
Another driver on the hunt for work is young Colin Braun, who never quite fit in at Roush, had a string of really bad runs, some of his own fault and others just bad luck, and eventually got booted in favor of young superstar Trevor Bayne.

I have talked to Colin and he appears to be a really good guy. And from what I’ve seen on track, I know he is one of the young drivers with great potential.

But it’s been clear for a while that Braun … who won a Truck race at Michigan Speedway with Roush … wasn’t in the long-term plans at the Roush team. Once Bayne was signed by Roush, I knew his days were numbered.

There is a precedent for ex-Roush drivers to do well elsewhere … most notably, a teenage Kyle Busch got his first Truck starts driving for Roush while his brother Kurt was a Cup driver at Roush, and he’s done pretty well since.

Just like Speed’s departure, it’s all about results and lack thereof, and Braun seemed to have about the same amount of luck Jeff Burton had in Cup this year – not much. Seems like he was always getting caught up in a wreck, though to be fair that only happens when you’re driving mid-pack. The best way to avoid trouble is to be in front of it. That wasn’t the case for Braun, who had just 5 top-10s in 24 starts in 2010. With those numbers, he probably expected to be let go.

Recognized as a road racing talent and having shown flashes of oval capability, I hope to see Braun land a ride somewhere for 2011. While I don’t know where that will be, I’m willing to bet he’s gotten a few calls already. He’s shown he can win, now someone has to give him a car or truck that can do it, get a good driver-crew chief relationship going, and the next go-round for Braun could be a whole lot better.

Roush Nationwide lineup
With Braun out of the picture, Roush is still full-force in the Nationwide series. He plans to have Carl Edwards run full-time, even if he can’t win the points title, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne also should run full-time, if the funding can be found.

"Right now, we're still lacking sponsorship for two of our, hopefully, three programs next year," Roush said. "I am committed to start the year with Ricky and Trevor, assuming that we are going to be able to find the support, generate the interest in their future to make it a financially solvent program for both of them going forward. "And if it's not, I'm prepared to make an investment myself. So we'll see how far we get."

Martin dabbling again?
Mark Martin is (for now, until Kyle Busch passes him) the all-time wins leader in the Nationwide series. And rumor has it he will return to running some races there and in the Truck series in 2011, for Turner Motorsports. Martin has 48 career Nationwide wins, 5 more than Busch, and 7 career Truck series wins.

Keselowski gets new crew chief
In a smart move by the Roger Penske organization, Paul Wolfe -- who just took home the Nationwide title as the crew chief for Brad Keselowski, will join the Rochester Hills native as crew chief on the Cup side.

This is just common sense, as Keselowski did not make too many strides this season in Cup, and needs someone who he has established a strong relationship with to get him further along in his Cup career. Wolfe may be the guy who can help Brad truly progress as he begins 2011 driving the iconic #2 Miller Lite Dodge. Together, in 2010, they won 6 races, 5 poles and a record 26 top-5s.

Most amazingly, the team completed all but one lap of competition in 2010, a stat that will be hard to duplicate considered the amount of wrecks you see in the Nationwide series.

Layoffs at Roush
Due to a couple factors -- providing fewer cars to a leaner Richard Petty Motorsports, and the smaller Nationwide program in 2011, Roush Fenway Racing will lay off as many as 60 employees, according to published reports. It’s simple math – fewer cars equals fewer employees – but that doesn’t make the people getting laid off feel any better.

NASCAR is no different than the rest of the business world in this way, and I wish the laid off workers luck finding a job – either in the industry or doing something else if necessary. Other teams that have laid off employee's recently include RPM and Penske Racing, which still hasn’t found funding for Sam Hornish Jr’s ride.

Speaking of Penske, there’s a chance he will field a car for Sam Hornish Jr. in the Indy 500 in 2011. With no real plan for Hornish other than fielding him in the Daytona 500, there’s a good chance he’ll be free that day, so why not run him at Indy? It might set him down a path that would lead to him returning to that series, unless the sponsorship dollars for the #77 team being sought by Penske come to be a a reality.

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