Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is his own man, and he's smart to avoid running #3 car in future

It was a longtime dream of many fans: Dale Earnhardt Jr. spending some time later in his career driving a #3 car in honor of his late father, who they loved so much.
They’ll get their wish next Saturday at Daytona … where the car and Jr. are very capable of winning … but that’s probably going to be the last time, ever.

"I just want to go to the racetrack and run it once before I retire, and this will probably be it," he said. "After this, I'll probably never drive a car with a 3 on it again. I can pretty much say I'm 99% sure that will never happen again.”

"It's not [my number] to take and use whenever I feel like using it," Earnhardt continued. "You just don't grab the car keys off the counter and go run out the door and haul down the road with your dad's car. I didn't do it when he was alive, and I won't do it now. I'm borrowing it once, and then maybe sometime down the road some kid will come up, and he'll have a connection to the 3 -- whether it's through my father or whether it's what his number's been since he was playing teeball. Whatever, you know, that will be his. It will be someone else's."

This is a wise move by Dale Jr. He is his own man, and faces a good amount of struggles right now as he tries to get some more wins in his ride at Hendrick Motorsports. He is now the driver of the #88 car, and will be known that way for the rest of his career.

There is nothing for him to gain from running his dad’s number, even for a little while, in the future. Some fans might get a kick out of it, but it isn’t anything positive for Jr. All it would do is be a further reminder that he hasn’t achieved the results his father did on the track.

So I’m glad Jr. has cleared the air and say he’s 99 percent sure this coming weekend will be the only time he does the #3 thing for the rest of his career.

Some fans might be disappointed, but I’m sure if Jr. can string together some more good runs, make the Chase and contend for a championship, (and continue to do that in future years) which could be possible with his recently improved finishes, they’ll forget all about the lack of Jr. driving a #3 car in the future.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Danica needs to do her homework, or NASCAR experiment will fail

Just when you say something nice about Danica Patrick, she opens her mouth and the harsh reality kicks in.

Just a couple days ago, I wrote how she was smart to let everyone know that her goals are realistic, shooting for a top-15 or top-20 this weekend at New Hampshire, and that miracles aren’t going to happen during this part-time run at NASCAR in 2010.

I’m trying to give her time, as it’s only been four races, but the way Danica was talking on her radio Saturday during the race, you would think she had never even seen a stock car race in her life. She just doesn’t get stock car racing, and I’m not just talking about adjusting to the cars, which are a big change from her usual Indycar ride.

She doesn’t get basic concepts, like the fact that when you’re racing for 30th place, there’s a responsibility to leave a little room in case the other guy gets loose. That’s what happened when Morgan Shepherd and her had their incident, and if she had just been a little bit more clear of him, they both could have gone on with their days without spinning.

Then, after the incident, she said this:
“He totally took me out. Doesn’t he get some sort of penalty for that or something?”

Has she not seen the past few weeks of racing, when everybody on the track literally has hit or been hit about 20 times? Comments like that just fuel the people who think she is wasting her time with this NASCAR experiment. Contact is part of racing, and she should know that.

If Danica doesn’t start to grasp some very basic concepts, it’s going to be an extremely rough year for her. She needs to do her homework, figure out how to drive a stock car – whether it be through more testing or simulators – because at the current pace she might manage a top-10 finish by 2012. (She had her best career finish at New Hampshire, 30th, improving by one over her previous best of 31st … take out start-and-parkers, and she hasn’t finished ahead of anybody of note.)

In a car put together by JR Motorsports, which is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports and offers top-notch equipment, she was racing for positions against guys like Shepherd and Mark Green, whose teams have a budget that basically allows them to get to the next race and requires them to use old equipment passed down from other teams. To make a Cup analogy, it’s like a Hendrick car racing for position with Dave Blaney or Joe Nemechek, and struggling to take it.

When trying to pass a driver, she point-blank said: “I don’t know how to do it!” It’s astounding to me that a driver who has won an Indycar race, and almost did it again a few weeks ago, would have that little knowledge of stock car racing. By keeping her day job and doing this as a hobby, she is limiting the time she has to learn stock cars, and limiting how well she will do. Many prominent NASCAR drivers have said she needs to commit herself to stock cars if she’s going to do well, and showings like New Hampshire are what happens when that commitment isn’t there. They shine a spotlight on the many areas where she is … admittedly … lacking.

I find it very fitting that Shepherd was the other person involved, as he couldn’t be more opposite of Danica if he tried. He’s 68 years old, a proven talent who’s won dozens of races of the decades he has raced, and races on a shoestring budget because that’s what he loves to do and he’s good at it. He is cordial to his competitors and respected in the garage, as evidenced by all the help established Cup drivers have given him in the past with his race team.

Danica is a young woman with endless bucketloads of money behind her who has some racing talent. Money has allowed her to make this attempt to cross over to NASCAR, but at this point it’s clear that her racing talent isn’t translating to stock cars so far.

She seems to have a lack of respect for people, which has been shown many times in Indycar. After the New Hampshire race, she bumped Morgan Shepherd, a classless act against a man who had done her no wrong. If she hadn’t crowded him so much when he was faster than her, she wouldn’t have wrecked. In fact, if she were smart, Danica would seek racing advice from veteran drivers like Morgan Shepherd, not try to get on their bad sides.

To his credit, Shepherd was not upset by her actions, and simply said she was holding up cars, has a lot to learn and should give faster cars more room in the future, and even tried to find her to apologize … which a lot of people (Danica, for instance) probably wouldn’t even consider. He stated that he doesn’t run into people on purpose, something fans know if they watch the races, something I don’t think Danica has been doing much of lately, to her detriment.

So I’ll close on this: All in all, not the best weekend for Danica. Some will say her comments prove she doesn’t even belong in a racecar on the stock car side, especially with so many talented drivers out of rides or start-and-parking due to lack of funds. That may or may not be the case, but she is here to stay, at least for the short-term. So while she’s here, I just have this advice.

Do your homework, Danica. Watch the races and learn about the role contact plays in these races, figure out how to drive these cars and pass your competitors properly, run some more ARCA or late model races if necessary to get used to the contact and passing in stock cars. There’s no half-stepping it from here, because if there are many more repeats of this horrible day, the Danica-to-NASCAR experiment may have been doomed from the start.

Enough with the babying, ESPN
On the broadcasting end, I continue to be completely turned-off by the way ESPN and its broadcasters continue to baby Danica, like she deserves their sympathy and support constantly. Take the Lap 7 incident, for example. Some of the broadcasters instantly blamed Shepherd, until Dale Jarrett finally chimed in that the driver on the outside has a responsibility to leave some room for the inside car and not race so tight.

After the race, the interview with Danica was more like a pep talk … a “you go get ’em next time, girl” type of thing. They kept talking about how her times got better as the day went on. That’s true, and should be noted, but how about asking her a hard question for once, like you would with any other driver after a day like that?

Tweet of the day
From former NASCAR driver Bill Lester, who is currently in the GrandAm series (@BillLester7): "Danica is the most talked about 30th place finisher in the history of NASCAR. Where was all this when I finished 30th??"

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Danica’s not expecting miracles, and neither should her fans

It’s back.

Danica Patrick mania has returned to the NASCAR circuit this weekend at New Hampshire, and all her fans are hoping she can do a good job and impress the world with her stock car skills.

They’re hoping Danica will go out on the track, tear through the field and run up front with the big boys in the Nationwide series.

Thankfully, though, Danica herself has more realistic expectations. Speaking to the press early in the week, prior to her arrival at a New Hampshire track where she had never raced, Danica was very honest about her chances.

“I hope this weekend I finish in the top 20 or the top 15. And kind of build myself up,” she said. “I didn't really set any expectation levels in the first few races that I did. And I think it would have paid off to do that, even in qualifying, set some expectation levels. Like I've had a tough time because qualifying is so different in those cars, you never experience the amount of grip or the kind of car that you get in qualifying until you're really in qualifying. So that takes some learning. So to say, hey, look, qualifying in the top 20 and maybe finishing in the top 15, that would be great. And build myself up from there and then hopefully one day they'll be the same expectation levels that I have in IndyCar. But I think it's best for my confidence and my morale to set those kinds of expectation levels.”

I like to hear her talk like this, because it shows he understands her situation. She is a guest in this series, trying to prove she can make it in NASCAR. While she should remain confident, going out and saying she’s going to lead laps and contend for wins in this trial phase of her NASCAR career would be foolish and just annoy everyone in the NASCAR garage. She knows that only with time will she learn to finish better and through those finishes earn the respect of the competition.

For example, she was almost dead last in the first Nationwide practice session at New Hampshire. By final practice, she had risen to 24th out of the 40+ cars that were attempting the race. In that time, she figured something out about the car and the track that helped her improve, and you can bet that learning will continue to happen during the race Saturday. That is what she is doing here in NASCAR in 2010 – learning. If she learns enough, maybe it will lead to a more permanent home for her in the future.

If I were Danica’s Indy team, I’d be a little concerned. During the interview she hinted that when she envisions her future in racing, NASCAR racing is what she envisions.
“We first have to go through this process and run Nationwide and see how it goes and see what kind of things are in the future for me,” she said, then added: “If you had the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick and NASCAR, then that's a fantastic opportunity that anyone should take. And maybe I'll be lucky enough one day. But I think we have a lot to go through to get to that point.”

Danica has had some ups and downs this season, a rough start followed by a string of three top-10 in Indy car and a near win. Despite this roller coaster, she says she tries to keep her head up.
“You're going, going, going sometimes it's a little easy to get a little negative and it's important to look at the good things. And I'm really fortunate that I get to do all of this and race this many races. So I feel lucky, and I'm going to keep that attitude and keep on going,” she said.

Staying in a driver’s seat, whether it’s NASCAR or Indycar, is the key, she said, to continued improvement in her finishes in both series.
“I don't see how racing cars can make you a worse race car driver. So I put every ounce of effort into everything that I do. I think it's good for any race car driver to be in the seat a lot, and that's definitely what I'm doing.”
Despite her recognition that she likely won’t top the scoring charts this weekend, Patrick is still hopeful for the future.
“As one of my friends told me, you're one good race -- you're one weekend away from turning it around, because it just takes one. It could be any one. It could be a NASCAR race. It could be an IndyCar race. It just so happens I've had a couple of good runs in the last few weeks. And I'm sure that helps my confidence a little bit. But it's still a whole new weekend with expectation levels and people to impress and me not wanting to let myself down on what I think is possible.”

This combination of accepting her situation, but still seeking to do the very best she can, is the best-case scenario for Patrick. No one can accuse her of being overconfident, and her fans would be wise to accept this realistic look at the situation.

If they expect miracles to happen, they will be disappointed.

Logano returns to site of first win

Earlier this week, Joey Logano talked to the media about his return to the site of his first and only Cup win. While he hasn’t won in the past year, Logano is still turning heads, and making headlines as he continues his rise to the elite level of NASCAR drivers and works to make the Chase this season.
He said he is proud of how his teams’ performance has improved this year.

“I think as a driver I've changed a lot from that moment. I think as a person I don't think I've changed much at all. I'm still the same Joey that's been growing up my whole life. So nothing's changed there. But as a driver, I'm night and day different. And I feel like that's a good thing,” he said. “We've got a long ways to go to get to where I need to be, but definitely making big strides every day when we get on the racetrack. So that's a good thing. Gotta keep working hard and try to get better.”

And does that little spat with Kevin Harvick still weigh on his mind? Not a chance, Logano said.
“I put it all behind me,” he said. “I have not talked to him. But that's all in the past and we're looking ahead and trying to get this Home Depot car into The Chase. We're close. All that's in the past. I just look ahead.”

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lajoie wise to accept punishment; Labonte's situation unfortunate

I could use this space to rail on about how stupid Randy Lajoie was to smoke pot just a few days before a drug test was to be issued to him by NASCAR. But that has been done by so many people in the last day and a half that I wouldn’t be saying anything new. Let’s just say I agree it was stupid.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this situation. The whole situation is just strange to me. Lajoie, a TV commentator, decided to become a spotter for a Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide team, years after retiring from the series – in which he won 2 championships in the late 1990s.

As a commentator on ESPN who does a fairly good job, especially when describing the technical side of racing, he knows all about the rules for people involved in the sport, and that a drug test was coming.

I will give Lajoie credit, though: He’s owning up to his mistake and will accept all punishment NASCAR has to give him. He will complete whatever rehab they order and submit to all drug testing required. Unlike Jeremy Mayfield, who acted like a fool and ran NASCAR around town while trying to avoid taking his ordered drug tests, Lajoie is taking his medicine – however bitter it may be.

He has a family whom he no doubt feels he has let down, and is wise enough to do whatever NASCAR wants him to because it will get him back on TV and possibly into an on-track job as soon as possible.

"I plan to follow the recommendations of the substance abuse counselor and suggestions of NASCAR and hope that someday I can prove to NASCAR and all the people with whom I associate that I have taken such steps to see that instances such as this do not reoccur,” he said in an interview Tuesday, in which he sounded very emotional about the whole situation.

There is one bone I have to pick: I understand that Lajoie should be barred from on-track duties like spotting, which could endanger drivers’ lives if he was impaired. But why should ESPN suspend the guy? All Lajoie admitted to doing was smoking one joint after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in late May, and he insists that he is not a habitual user. If they believe what he says, is smoking one joint really a reason to ban him from talking on a NASCAR TV show about how the race went on Sunday? I don’t think anyone’s life is in danger there.

So while NASCAR’s response is appropriate, I don’t see what ESPN’s rationale is. Can they honestly say that none of the people who speak on their channel have ever smoked pot? I seriously doubt it. If his performance on air had suffered due to drug use, a suspension would be justified. But as a viewer, I hadn’t noticed any change in how he’s performed on air.

To wrap things up, this unique case of this pretty big name in NASCAR getting busted is a good test of the new NASCAR drug policies and whether they will work to discourage reoffending (as Shane Hmiel did twice to earn a lifetime ban). Whether or not that instance in May was the only time he used the drug (which is pretty doubtful, but I suppose possible), I’m pretty sure this little brush with the NASCAR rules will get the green stuff out of Lajoie’s diet for a very long time.

Labonte’s situation a shame
It’s been a busy week in Bobby Labonte news. He has parted ways with the #71 TRG team; he will race this weekend in Robby Gordon’s #7 car (allegedly without start-and-parking), then race the next two races for the James Finch #09 team at Daytona and Chicago.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Gordon may have a car for him for the Brickyard.

As someone who has respect for Labonte and watched him dominate races for many years and win the Winston Cup in 2000, I have to say that this is getting silly.

On one hand, I will give him credit. He left the TRG team, which had high hopes of competing that were derailed by a lack of sponsorship, because he couldn’t do the start-and-park thing. That’s good news, because it’s a shame he did it in the first place.

The alternative, though, isn’t much better in my eyes. Bouncing from team to team just to keep racing is a bit of a sad situation, and I wish it wasn’t happening. I know Labonte wants to race, and don’t fault him for that, but I think it’s beneath a champion like him to be ride-hopping like this. When does it end? Will he jump from ride to ride all season?

If he can’t find a full-time ride that doesn’t involve start-and-parking, I say Labonte should take some races off until he can get a full-season deal somewhere with sponsorship and settle in somewhere. I remember him in his prime, and he was a great champion. But as I said when he first began to start-and-park, if he can’t land a ride that will allow him to race full-time, he should step away for a little while. He’s had a great career and no one would think any less of him for taking a break due to lack of sponsorship or a ride. If something comes around that allows him to race, he would be welcomed back.

Far too many people remember the floundering years of past champions like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, who raced far too long past their prime, and I hope Bobby Labonte doesn’t follow in their footsteps and endlessly hop from ride to ride.

New crew chief for Kenseth
Amid the endless news flowing Tuesday was the announcement that Matt Kenseth once again has a new crew chief. Jimmy Fennig has stepped in and Todd Parrott is out.

Whatever the reason, all I know is this -- Kenseth is doing decent, but not contending for wins as much as he used to in the past. If he ever wants to return to that level, he needs to find a crew chief that works well him and stay with that person for a while. It seems like he changes crew chiefs more often than some people change their socks.

Going “rogue”
I saw an interesting note in the release that stated the Front Row Motorsports penalties had been upheld that caught my eye. The team blamed the illegal parts that cost them so heavily on “rogue elements” within the team.

There are two ways to read that. One is sabotage, but I doubt that’s the case.
So the other option is that some crew members on the team decided to use the illegal parts and not tell anyone, hoping they wouldn’t get caught. If that’s the case, they are quite stupid for doing so, because the NASCAR tech inspection process is so airtight now you can’t get away with that kind of crap.

This isn’t 1960 and you’re not Smokey Yunick. Times are different, and you won’t get away with it like he did.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ambrose’s blunder is one for the ages; Johnson pulls out golden horseshoe

It was finally his time to shine.

Marcos Ambrose, who has threatened in the past to win a road course race in the Cup series, was just 7 laps from certain victory as he cruised away from Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field. Then, as was to be expected in a race that was a bit of a demolition derby, another caution came out when Brad Keselowski spilled fluid on the track.

No problem, Ambrose just had to win the next restart and drive away from Jimmie Johnson like he had a couple times already.

But alas, the bizarre finish began to unfold. For reasons only he and his team knows, Ambrose pulled a Bill Buckner-esque move and shut down his engine briefly in an attempt to save fuel, even though fuel wasn’t really an issue.

And disaster struck. He couldn’t get it started back up when he first tried, and ended up briefly stopping on track and losing six spots in the process. That’s the rule, so I don’t think NASCAR did anything wrong. That was all Ambrose, and he blew it big time. (It’s pretty bad, but still doesn’t beat the time Mark Martin when he pulled into the pits a lap early while leading a Busch race at Bristol.)

The beneficiary of this screwup was -- big surprise -- Jimmie Johnson, who amazingly had never won a road course race despite winning four straight titles. This is how the #48 team operates. They are always there ready to pounce, even on weeks they don’t dominate.

When Ambrose made his massive blunder, JJ set sail and blew the competition away easily with his best competitor mired back in traffic.

That “golden horseshoe” that Harvick alluded to Johnson having in a special place apparently never went away, despite all the people screaming about how the #48 team was in a “slump” since the spoiler was introduced.

The truth is Johnson never went away, and he is now all the way up to 2nd in the points. History has shown us that this team is never out of the hunt, and anyone who counts them out of the game is a fool.

Marcos Ambrose’s day will come; he is so good on these road courses, maybe the best out of all the drivers, and logic dictates that eventually he’ll end up in Victory Lane.

But today, as usual, Jimmie Johnson is the one getting all the accolades. It’s a reminder that while the competition has its moments throughout the year, Johnson and the #48 team are simply renting out their place in the spotlight. Talk all you want about everyone else, but the reality is this is Jimmie’s world and it’s his title to lose, regardless of who else might be on a hot streak.

It’s not what the competitors want to hear, but if they want to end that kind of talk, they are going to have to step up their game and take the title away from him. To do so, they’ll need both the skill and the luck that Johnson had today.

No more Mr. nice Gordon
Of all the drivers, there is one who appears to be taking this “have at it boys” thing to heart more than anyone else. Surprisingly, it’s veteran and four-time champ Jeff Gordon, who got into it with a bunch of drivers at Sonoma. Most notably, he spun out a strong-running Martin Truex Jr., who then got caught up in a wreck after being mired in traffic as a result.

Truex vowed payback for Gordon, who admitted he made some bad moves during the race, including the Truex incident. Gordon seemed willing to accept any payback that’s coming his way in the future, but said he was being pushed around so much on Sunday that he wasn’t going to take it anymore. He had to push back.

In the past, Gordon was not like this, but this year he has stepped up his aggression … with notable incidents involving Matt Kenseth and even his teammate Jimmie Johnson. I would say that in addition to NASCAR’s order to have at it, something else is at play behind Gordon’s change in attitude: Wanting to get his fifth title before Johnson, who he helped bring into the series.

Regardless of motivation, this Jeff Gordon is a whole lot more interesting than the Jeff Gordon of the past. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Stoddard confronts Stewart, and he wasn’t polite
Amid all the beating and banging Sunday, Boris Said must have ticked off Tony Stewart, because after the race Stewart drove into Said’s car and caused significant damage, according to Said’s crew chief Frankie Stoddard.

It gets better, though.

A furious Stoddard apparently went over to Stewart and screaming in the middle of the garage, for all to hear, that Stewart was a “fat f---”. (The first part is undeniable, The second part is a bit harsh, though.)

"When the checkered flag was over, (Stewart) went up the hill and ran into the side of (Said), knocked the whole side off the car," a visibly upset Stoddard said. "He's a disrespectful jerk. The guy's got no respect. Never has, never will. When the checkered flag is out, he needs to show respect. And he does not even know how to spell the word. OK? He never has. He runs over people after he's had a bad day."

Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb chalked it up to hard racing and said Tony had reason to retaliate, but given the small size of the #26 team it was a bit unnecessary of Stewart to get payback after the flag had dropped and the race was over. Stoddard said the fixes will cost the team, which is hardly flush with money, about $15,000.

The whole incident, and others that happened Sunday, prove that tempers are not reserved for short tracks.

The biggest winners
Among those with solid runs Sunday:
--Robby Gordon, who finished 2nd for his best finish in five years (though his joy is short-lived; his car, with P.J. Jones driving, will have to start-and-park at New Hampshire next week
--Kasey Kahne, who came in 4th one year after winning at Sonoma;
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr., who salvaged an 11th place finish by avoiding trouble and moved within 57 points of the Chase; and road-course ringer
-- Jan Magnussen, who finished 12th in the #09 car (which usually is about 40th)
-- Rookie Kevin Conway, who finished 28th, tying his second-best career finish in his young career. He was able to avoid trouble, which is an important skill for young drivers to develop as it often leads to finishes that are better than your car is capable of doing on its own.

The biggest losers
Easily Kyle Busch, who wrecked early, ended up 39th and slid in the points. Also, teammate Denny Hamlin had issues with his hood and got caught in some wrecks, finishing 34th. With Joey Logano 33rd, this was easily the worst day for Joe Gibbs Racing in a long, long time.

All three drivers who did the Road America and Sonoma double fared poorly on Sunday. Paul Menard was 22nd, Carl Edwards was 29th and Brad Keselowski was 35th.

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Road America impresses in Nationwide debut

For those NASCAR fans who say they hate road course racing, I hope they were watching Saturday’s Nationwide race at Road America.

It was an amazing showcase of great driving talents from all over the world, competing on a track that I hope is part of NASCAR for a long time into the future.

This race was added surprisingly last year after financial problems prevented a race continuing at the nearby Milwaukee Mile. Quite a transition from a 1-mile oval to a 4.048-mile road course that’s unlike anything most NASCAR drivers have ever experienced (it’s like you’re driving through the woods at one point).

Though most drivers in the field had never seen Road America before, a lot of great road racing talent from around the world was on hand, including some people who had won there in the past like Jacques Villeneuve (a 1994 CART race) an Paul Menard (a 2001 NASCAR Midwest series race)

And it wasn’t good just cause a bunch of people wrecked … actually, that’s not very good at all, as nobody likes a 1-hour red flag after a 7-car pileup.

What was good is the great battles through the field all day as drivers tried hard to pass on this difficult track; the awesome three-wide pass that Villeneuve made to pass Edwards late in the race; and Edwards’ march to Victory Lane from 14th after late-race pit strategy left him mid-pack after he dominated the first half of the race. My only wish is that we could have seen an Edwards-Villeneuve battle to end the race, but mechanical issues ruined Jacques’ day with a couple laps remaining.

Sure there were some silly moves by people who are just bad at road racing, but up front and even mid-pack, there were some great battles all day on a truly unique track that I wouldn’t mind seeing the Cup series visit one day (It’ll probably never happen, but no one saw this one coming either, so who knows?)

Among the notable finishes: A 4th-place finish for Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski on his first visit to the track; 3rd for Brendan Gaughan, 5th for Australian Owen Kelly; 6th for Gibbs driver Brad Coleman; 7th for Jr. Motorsports driver J.R. Fitzpatrick; and 11th for Colin Braun, who was stuck in the gravel pit early and could have had a much worse day.

Also, I have to mention the great effort by Morgan Shepherd, who stayed out all race, despite his limited budget, and avoided all the wrecks to finish in 19th. At age 68, that’s quite impressive and shows Shepherd still has the ability to race.

If the Sonoma race today is anything like Saturday’s race at Road America, I’m guessing we’ll have a few new converts to the Road Racing Fan Club.

Ford back in victory lane
Congrats to Ford for its first win this year in another of the top-3 NASCAR series. I’m sure Carl Edwards will win again this year (maybe even in Cup at some point), and other drivers like Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne will step up with a win or two. Ford may be struggling, but to paraphrase the bodies being picked up in that Monty Python movie, “they’re not dead yet”.

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Red Bull Racing’s wings have been clipped

Not so long ago, as Brian Vickers ascended to make the Chase, the future was looking very bright for the Red Bull Racing operation.

But since last fall, things have been quite the opposite of good.

It started last year, when Vickers had a terrible Chase run, finishing at the bottom of the pack.

Then, we saw the team get off to a mostly lackluster start. Vickers had few good runs, and we soon learned he had a medical condition that would require him to take medicine that prevented him from racing the rest of the season.

2nd driver Scott Speed had some good runs early, but lately he’s nowhere near the front. The first fill-in tryout for the 83 car of Vickers was Casey Mears, and that didn’t go so well, to be kind.

It all came to a head at Michigan Speedway last week, when Mears got into the back of Speed, sending him spinning … when they were running 29th and 30th …
“I mean really, we’re running like in the very back of the pack and like crap and we’re going to wreck each other? Really?” Speed said over his in-car radio. He went on to use a word that starts with “a” and ends with “hole” to describe Mears.

After the race, Speed blasted Mears (who has since returned to Tommy Baldwin Racing and the #36 car): “Whenever you’re at Hendrick [Motorsports] and Richard Childress Racing and then you still don’t have a ride and haven’t done anything, there’s no real excuses after that, but whatever,” he said.


Then, in the least unexpected move of the year, Mears was dropped from the team early in the week, as it was clear that the relationship wasn’t going to work. One of the shortest stints of his career, just four races, was over for Mears.

I was pretty amazed at an interview with ESPN I saw him do after the dismissal, where he admitted that he can understand how fans might think he doesn’t belong in NASCAR, due to his lack of success at so many teams (though he doesn’t agree with them, he can see how they might think that way). You don’t hear drivers talk that candidly about topics like that very often.

Getting back to Red Bull, it’s clear something is broken. The team has shuffled crew and behind-the-scenes duties in an effort to make things work, but this year is not going their way and major adjustments in how they run the team are likely needed if they want to return to their pre-Chase 2009 form, when Vickers ran up front every week and contended for wins.

Putting aside the teammate drama at MIS, the biggest problem remains that Red Bull often runs “in the very back of the pack and like crap”, as the oh-so-colorful Speed said in that radio transmission.

For a team that had a driver in the Chase last year, this is unacceptable, and the team’s cars are 25th and 27th in owner’s points.
Speed said this week that the key for Red Bull is to try to make progress without any more distractions.

“It’s hard enough for us to push forward with the loss of Brian, with the experience that he brings to our two-car team. When you lose that, it really hurts the progression of everything. It hurts the stability of the teams. We don’t need any more problems than we already have on ourselves,” he said.

European rally driver Mattias Ekstrom is driving at Sonoma this weekend in the 83 car, and Reed Sorenson will drive the car for three races following that. Beyond that, no final decisions have been made.

The team’s hopes for the future, on the driver side, lie with Vickers’ health improving and him getting back in form in 2011. That will require more than just a good driver; the team must produce cars that are capable of competing.

2010 will most likely end up as a lost year for the Red Bull team, but there are some positive notes. As I mentioned, Speed has show flashes of ability to finish well, and maybe once the equipment is up to par on a regular basis he can continue to improve.

You’ll likely see the team try everything it can to figure out what’s wrong with the team and its performance, and the focus will be on returning to form in 2011.
Will they ever get back to the Chase again? I don’t know. But I do know one thing: It’s going to be a long and busy offseason for the Red Bull team as they attempt to improve and get their wings back.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

FR9 engine's Michigan performance a good sign for Ford teams

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- What’s going on with the Fords this year?

That’s a common refrain being heard each week, and even back to 2009, as the Fords racing each week haven’t been competing at the levels they are used to from past seasons.

I was able to talk this past weekend with some of the people behind the scenes are Ford Racing, to get their take on what’s different and how they hope to get back in gear.

David Simon, race engine engineer for Ford Racing, said one of the key elements Ford is hoping will boost its stable’s performance is the new FR9 engine, which has been sampled over the past half-year, and at MIS was run for the first time in all the Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and Wood Brothers cars.

“The FR9 has a lot of advantages in terms of thermal efficiency, mechanical efficiency. It makes more power. We are going to see some advantage to running it. Hopefully it will increase our performance on the track,” Simon said.

So far, it seems to be doing OK. Kasey Kahne’s Ford came in 2nd at MIS on Sunday, and 4 other Fords finished between 9th and 14th in the race. It was hardly dominating (Denny Hamlin was pretty unbeatable), but it was a good sign of things to come.

Simon, who works at Roush-Yates engines in Charlotte, said the FR9 will be used for the rest of the year, with the exception of the road courses, Bristol and Loudon.

“We’ve been finalizing race spec on the engine. We’re through the development,” he said. “Now it’s time to race it full-time.”

What’s most notable about the FR9 is that it’s the first ground-up NASCAR racing engine Ford has ever built for their racecars. Before, all engines were production-based. This one is built strictly for racing, and it’s the first major engine change in about a decade.

Despite the promise it brings, Simon noted that nobody should expect any miracles because of the FR9’s arrival, as it’s only one part of the car.

“Every aspect of the car has got to be right to compete. It’s not a magic bullet,” Simon said. “But it is better than the old engine, so there will be some performance increases. Chassis, setup, aero all has to be on. If you’re off in any one area, chances are you’re going to struggle.”

Another reason change won’t be instant is that the FR9 sits differently in the car. This affects the chassis, which must then be modified, which then affects the handling of the car. It’s a domino effect, and a whole fleet of new cars will be built this year by Ford’s teams to accommodate the new engine.

Simon went on to say that the engineers are continuing to try to get as much power out of the new engine as possible. “We’re continuing to work on power. The engine is never done.”

Some Ford drivers also weighed in on the new engine at MIS. Carl, who won nine races in 2008 but has struggled to reach Victory Lane since then, doesn’t just want to catch up to the other makes, he wants to pass them. And he hopes the FR9 will eventually become the standard others strive to equal.

“Everyone at Roush-Yates engines works very hard. It will be nice for us to have an engine everyone is trying to catch up to, instead of us trying to catch up to them. We’ve got to think how we can be the guy they’re trying to catch,” Edwards said. “The engine seems reliable, makes great power. I can only hope that in the future it produces more power, we can run more tape.”

Greg Biffle also weighed in on the Ford squadron’s performance of late, and said he hopes that the success the team is seeing in the showroom will soon be echoed on the racetrack.

“The engine is just one part of the puzzle. It runs better off the corner, so we’ve leveled that playing field a little bit. It has a tad bit better cooling. We may be able to run more tape on the grill. Our car not being as fast is mostly handling. We’re continuing to work on that, but it’s one piece of the puzzle.
“I certainly wish we could bask in the glory of how well Ford’s done on the racetrack compared to off the racetrack. I was at Ford and got to drive 11 of the new products coming out. It’s no wonder they’re leading the industry. I wish we’d hold our end of the bargain up.”

Simon said that if the teams can get all aspects of the cars improved, the FR9 should give them a boost as the Ford teams try to surge past the other manufacturers.

“With everything right, the FR9 will give us a little more power, hopefully help the aerodynamics a little. The center of gravity is lower, which helps the front out. All those things are incremental moves in the right direction,” he said.

During this effort to regain top billing in the series, Ford remains committed to the teams and will do everything it can to help, said Kevin Kennedy, Ford Racing Technology Communications Manager.

“If you look at the overall charter of our group, it’s to provide technical expertise and resources to complement what the teams have,” Kennedy said. “Simulation, aero work, engine and engine simulation, testing facilities.”
“We take all resources from Ford Motor Co., Ford Racing, and the race teams, and hope that leads to results.”

While financial support has been pulled by Ford from Nationwide and Truck series teams, Cup teams have not seen any cuts in support, he said. And the lower series drivers are still welcome to use Ford resources, such as test facilities, and purchase Roush-Yates engines.”

Pat DiMarco is NASCAR program manager for Ford Racing and works with the Ford Racing teams. He explained how the testing ban in effect for 2010 has changed how teams must determine the proper way to build their cars.

“With no NASCAR testing, you have to rely on simulation,” DiMarco said.

DiMarco said Ford provides simulation software to the teams, as well as personnel and test facilities to do simulation and further chassis development.
“We have a 40- percent scale model of the car that runs in the wind tunnel. That allows us to do underbody development,” he said.

The tricky thing about computer simulations is they can go both ways for teams. In 2008, when Carl Edwards won 9 races, the Roush Fenway team found something that put him above the competition and led to him nearly winning a championship. In 2009 and into this year, they haven’t gone as well, and Jack Roush suggested publicly last week (though he blamed third-party vendors, not anyone at Ford or Roush Fenway).

Despite issues like this, DiMarco said that after a disappointing 2009, things are picking up for the Fords in 2010 and the future looks promising for Ford drivers.

“Teams are definitely making progress compared to last year as a whole. We don’t have cars that run up front all day and lead the most laps yet. But compared to last year, we’re on average 5 to 10 positions better. It’s not like you flip a switch and all of a sudden run better.”

As an observer of NASCAR for a long time who has seen the history of Ford’s success in NASCAR, I’d say it’s a safe bet that once the latest technical issues are worked out and the teams get better data and the new engines, they will be up front once again.

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Little guys get hit harder by NASCAR penalties

Earlier this week, Front Row Motorsports, which has three cars but is still a small operation that is far behind the big teams in budget and success, was hit with huge monetary and points penalties after the discovery of illegal valve stem caps.

Apparently, NASCAR discovered valve stem caps on the tires of Travis Kvapil’s car had been altered to allow air to gradually leak out, which would help the car with its speed during a long run. Crew chief Steve Lane was fined $100,000 and suspended for 12 weeks, along with car chief Richard Bourgeois and tire specialist Michael Harrold. Kvapil and car owner Doug Yates 150 points each after the infractions were discovered at Pocono, bumping Kvapil out of the top-35 and a guaranteed start at Michigan.

Team co-owner Bob Jenkins took responsibility for the "unintentional" mistake and plans to appeal the penalty, which he properly calls “excessive”.
I understand the need to fine them for cheating, but why does it seem to be that it’s always the little teams that get hit the hardest? Remember Carl Long … whose engine was a fraction out of whack at the All-Star Shootout, a race that doesn’t even count for points?

He got a massive $200,000 fine that he could never afford to pay, so they basically ended his career as a car owner. He didn’t race much, but it’s the principle that bothers me … why be so harsh on the guy? It’s not like he benefitted from the engine.

It’s not as severe a blow for Front Row, but it’s still a big one. This team may not be marching to the front of the field each week, but at least their cars stick around and run the whole race, unlike the start-and-park teams that quit after 20 laps or less.

"For a team like ours, that's a pretty devastating blow," said owner Jenkins, who also fields cars for David Gilliland and Kevin Conway "I understand there should be a fine, but I felt that 12-week suspensions and that level of points are pretty high."

When is the last time a Hendrick team had 150 points taken away from it? Well, they haven’t. Crew chiefs like Ray Evernham and Chad Knaus at Hendrick teams have been caught playing with things on the car they shouldn’t have done (they call it “gray areas”), but never got hit as hard as the #38 team was hit. Points are especially important under the current rules, and it’s not like the Front Row team was in a great points spot to start with, so I don’t see what makes this worse than the Hendrick violations.

Maybe it’s just me, but it looks like NASCAR protects the big guys and dumps on the little guys when it comes to penalties for car irregularities.

Braun team turning into experts at wrecking
If the Braun Racing team wants to have any real success with their 4-car team in the Nationwide series, they’re going to have to stop wrecking. Every week they are tearing up cars, and the Kentucky race Saturday nightw was especially brutal, as three of their cars ended up catching the wall. One incident ended up causing damage to two of the cars. They have some talented drivers like Jason Leffler and Brian Scott, but I think the team needs to have a meeting to let its drivers know they won’t be hanging around much longer if they keep tearing up equipment on a weekly basis.

Good sign for Ford?
Seven Fords (All 4 Roush drivers, 2 Richard Petty Motorsports drivers, and Bill Elliot in the Wood Brothers car) were listed in the top 13 in final practice. With the disappointing year Ford drivers have had so far this season, you can bet they’re hoping that this good fortune will continue in today’s race.
One big factor in this possible resurgence: The new FR9 engine, which is in all the Ford cars for the first time here at Michigan.

Martin not talking about 2012
On Friday, Mark Martin was asked about his plans for 2012, and did not respond to the rumor that he will go over to the #09 car owned by James Finch in 2012, buying the team so he can be an owner-driver, and that Kasey Kahne will fill the seat in that #09 ride in 2011. Finch has said he wants to sell the team, so the timeline makes sense, and I’m sure Rick Hendrick could persuade him to leave his name on as team owner for one more year if it means he has a chance to compete every week.

With the news that Stewart-Haas Racing has no plans for a third team in 2011, the #09 is the most logical spot for Kahne, so I see this deal happening, possibly very soon if they can work out any sponsorship issues (I don’t see Kasey Kahne driving around in a sponsorless ride, like the #09 has been for much of this year.).

Great runs by Almirola, Logano
Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Todd Bodine, Ron Hornaday and young Austin Dillon put on a great show for the fans at Michigan Speedway. A big and wide track like MIS is built for these Trucks, which like to make it 3- and 4-wide whenever possible. I was very impressed by Dillon, who is Richard Childress’ grandson and Mike Dillon’s son, and no doubt picked up the racing talent in that family.

Almirola, whose career has seen quite a few setbacks due to events beyond his control, is making the most of 2010. He is competing for the Truck series title, and should win a bunch more race this year. His three-wide pass to take the lead at Michigan was a great one that will be remembered for a while.

And for those of you who don’t like Kyle Busch, It should be fun to see Almirola win in that truck after Kyle Busch couldn’t do it in the past four years – finishing 2nd three times.

Almirola will also serve as possible backup in the #48 car when Jimmie Johnson’s wife gives birth, in case it conflicts with his duties at the track. By winning races in lower series and getting his name out there in the Cup series still, he is doing right things if he wants a ride back in Cup in the future.

Meanwhile, Joey Logano flew to Kentucky and dominated the race. Amazing stat … three straight wins there, all from the pole. Never done before. Pretty amazing, though I doubt Kevin Harvick will congratulate him.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Harvick vs. Logano … the verbal battle royale continues at MIS

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- In the red corner, a young hotshot driver whose talent is recognized by all, but who many drivers think needs to have more respect for his elders.

In the blue corner, a 10-year veteran who doesn’t think that a 20-year-old should be acting in such an impetuous manner to a driver of his stature.

This is the tale of the tape in the renewed rivalry of Harvick vs. Logano.

Ding. Ding. Ding. … Will this fight continue Sunday at Michigan International Speedway?

Words were flying at breakneck speed Friday at Michigan Speedway – from the two drivers involved as well as their competitors, and the verdict was far from unanimous.

I remember the first time I saw Joey Logano in the Cup garage two years ago, shortly after his 18th birthday. Still full of acne, he looked like what he was – an awkward teen trying to fit in.

On Friday at MIS, he looked nothing like that. As he spoke confidently to reporters in the garage area about this controversy, you could tell that after two years in the sport, he feels like he belongs and has every right to run hard against veterans like Harvick every Sunday.

He did not apologize for confronting Harvick, and did not take back any words he said, including that now famous “firesuit” comment that mentioned Harvick’s wife Delana.”

“I said how I feel about it and I’m moving on from it. It is what it is. Right now, we’re trying to make the Chase and that’s our main priority. I take nothing back,” he said. “I’m a man of my word. I said what I had to and that’s it.”

Many drivers were supportive of Harvick.
“I don’t think Harvick did anything terribly wrong,” said Kurt Busch, who was famously taught a lesson by Jimmy Spencer at MIS early in his career when he got punched in the face. “He was a veteran teaching a young driver the ways of the world. It happened to me early in my career, and it elevated my game.”

Logano did have his backers, such as Mark Martin, saying it happened in part because of how strong Logano is running.
“The confrontations with Biffle and Logano happened because he was running against them real hard, not real easy. It might irritate you because Joey Logano shouldn’t be able to run side-by-side with me for 10 laps.”

The dad issue
Martin – whose son Matt played hockey and was involved in racing -- also said he loved that Joey’s dad, Tom Logano, was out on the track urging his son to confront Harvick.
“I loved seeing Tom Logano’s reaction. And I’m a dad,” Martin said. “Anybody who would criticize that, a lot of them aren’t dads.”

On that point, he was definitely in the minority.
Matt Kenseth, whose son Ross is a racecar driver, said the father has no place in this.
“If you’re old enough to be out racing with adults, you’re got to be able to take care of that yourself. It’s part of learning, growing up.”

Harvick was a little more blunt about the issue of Tom Logano.
“There’s a big step to be taken … shedding the dad. Those things don’t need to happen. He’s responsible for his own career.

“His dad shoved him into a pile like a dog chasing after a bone. His father has no place in this. His father needs to act like all of the rest of the dads, and be happy that his kid's here,” he said. "This isn't Little League baseball anymore. He just needs to stay away and act like a 50-year-old man, or however old he is."

Logano defended his dad, saying he’s just doing what any dad would do.
“I love him to death and he’s there for me,” Joey said. “So I think that’s something that’s really cool and a lot of people don’t have that. He’s always been by my side my whole life and maybe it was a position that maybe he shouldn’t have been there, but he’s a father and I bet 99 percent of the fathers would’ve been there anyway.”

Logano denied accusations by the 29 team that he put their crew in danger on pit road, and says he thinks the T-shirt the Harvicks are selling, which reads “I wear the firesuit in this family,” is pretty funny.

So is retaliation coming?

Martin said that if he was Harvick, he would assume it will come eventually, but that he knows Joey and doesn’t think Logano will do anything.
“If I was Harvick and didn’t know Logano, I would say yes. But I think Logano has enough integrity to continue to try to make that right without doing. If I’m Harvick, I figure I’ve got one coming.”

In perhaps the strangest moment of the day, Harvick took a shot at Martin, saying “Mark and the Loganos are buddies, so he’s on whatever side is convenient for him this week” … I can honestly say that’s the first time I’ve heard any of the drivers take a shot at Mark Martin.

Why is Harvick mad?
Harvick – who said he recognizes that Joey is a talented racecar diver who deserves to be in Cup and is going to have a long career -- broke down to the media on Friday why he is upset with Logano.

“We had the issues at Bristol. We raced for 40 laps -- Chop chop chop chop chop. We get done at Bristol, his dad has physical contact with one of my PR people. I go to Nashville. I tell him, ‘Alright, Joey, the best thing you can do is get your dad under control.’ And he turned around, laughed at me, and said, ‘Do you really think that was a big deal’. At that point, he doesn’t want to take any advice and talk about things.”

Harvick went on to say that Logano also ran into his car at Phoenix and Richmond, both prior to the controversial incident last week in Pocono

Because of this pattern by Logano, “That’s how you got to race him,” Harvick said Friday.
“Racing is one thing, not chopping and blocking.”

Harvick admitted he has said plenty of things in the past that he shouldn’t have said, “I’m not an angel,” but that Logano’s comment about his wife Delana wearing the firesuit in the family was over the line.

“It’s right on the edge of making it personal,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he really wants to get into that. That would be a lot worse for him than jut handling it man to man and doing it the right way.”

Logano said he had to confront Harvick because the Pocono incident was the last straw, after several instances where Harvick had disrespected him on the track. “Enough is enough. After 2 or 3 of them I kind of had enough of that.”

As to how long it will take until he can have some respect for Harvick, Logano said: “It will probably take a long time.”

Biffle, others chime in
Greg Biffle has also had his run-ins with Logano, and was very blunt in his criticism of Logano.

“It seems like he’s the common denominator in the deal. So it might be some of his doing, if I had to guess. I’ve had a few run-ins. There’s times when you race, and there’s times when you give,” Biffle said.

“I watched the Nationwide race (at Bristol) and watched him chop off Harvick for 15 laps. I knew that was only going to go on for so long. You’re going to have a problem eventually. Last lap, he has a problem, and he has no clue. If you don’t understand why, you’ve got a serious problem. If you mirror-drive someone for 10 laps, they’re going to put you in the fence. That’s the way it is. He’s in the mirror for a reason.”

He went on to detail some of the trouble he’s had with Logano.
“At Kansas, he door-slammed me and felt like there was nothing wrong with that. He’ll figure it out sooner or later. He’s a great racecar driver, Lots of talent. He’ll come around.”

Logano insisted he doesn’t do the chopping and blocking Harvick and Biffle mentioned, and is just racing hard.
“I try to be good with the give and take,” Logano said. “At the end of the race, you should be able to race.”

Carl Edwards did not comment on the Harvick-Logano fight, saying “That’s between them.” But he did say that drivers should stand up for themselves.
“When we had an issue with someone, you address it. You can’t just let it be,” he said. “What’s different now is it’s on television. And some people use the media to turn the situation to their advantage. It makes it hard for a driver to decide what to do.

Some drivers indicated they had no problem with Logano’s driving style, such as Jeff Gordon. He said, “I haven’t had any issues with Joey I feel like when he’s competitive he’s aggressive and does what he needs to do. When he’s not, he’s respectful.”

Gordon said he prefers to settle beefs like this quickly, so it doesn’t affect him later in the year.
“I don’t want it to linger, because I don’t want it to affect me at a time that’s important,” he said.

Kyle Busch stuck up for his teammate, saying: “You have to turn into the corner. Kevin Harvick went straight.”

He added, though, that the Joe Gibbs drivers aren’t dirty drivers who want to take a bunch of guys out. “I don’t try to race dirty,” he said. “I might race hard, but I’m not out there to wreck anyone on purpose. I think Joey is a smarter race car driver than that and he’s not going to stoop to that level. Time will tell.”

Will the feud end?
As far as patching things up, Harvick said that his attempt at Nashville was blown off by Logano, it’s on Joey to decide how this thing will play out.
“I tried to break the ice once and help him with his dad and he laughed at me, and now look where we’re at,” he said.
“I’d love to work it out. It’s at that stage where it’s up to him what he wants it to go into. However he wants to play the game, I’m fine with it. I’ve been on both sides of it.”

So what does Joey say? Is the feud over?
“You never know. I’m not going to say it is, and I’m not going to say it’s not,” he said.

Stay tuned on Sunday to find out.


Keselowski, Edwards at peace?
Remember when Carl Edwards flipped Brad Keselowski, in a rivalry situation very similar to the Harvick-Logano deal? Well, that may all be over. After they raced each other last week for the win, Edwards came to victory lane to congratulate him.

Edwards said Friday said the past is behind them.
“Brad and I had our issues, but I did not mean to flip him into the fence. That’s behind us,” he said. “Brad and I get along just fine. I was just congratulating him like I would for anyone else.”

2 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won
On the 2-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last win, Mark Martin said that Jr. is doing everything he can to try to win, but it’s not that simple.

“It is really, really hard to win in this series, no matter how well you run. Just look at how well Jeff Gordon has run the first half of the season without getting a win. It is just amazing. In my eyes, Jr. is driving harder than any race car driver out there. I can see it clear as day how bad he wants it.”

Drivers sound off on ‘crazy’ racing; Kurt Busch talks Dodge

BROOKLYN, Mich. – Aggressive, crazy, unbelievable.

What are the drivers talking about? That’s pretty obvious if you’ve seen the races lately. Since NASCAR’s edict that they’ll let the drivers race each other hard, and the addition of rules like the double-file restarts, up to 3 green-white-checkered finishes and wave-arounds, there have been some pretty rough restarts. And the general consensus among drivers is that’s good for the fans, even if some drivers don’t like it.

“It’s crazy. On some restarts, there was some crazy stuff going on, people taking risks that ended in wrecks,” Carl Edwards said Friday. “Some people say ‘Screw it, I’m going for it.’ ”
Edwards said it’s all about choices.
“I could go 3-wide and door-slam someone just like anyone else, but do I really have to do it?”

Jeff Burton said Friday that he believes that despite the craziness, the racing is now better.
“These restarts, it’s just unbelievable how aggressive they are. And it’s made much better racing,” Burton said. “It’s by far the right thing to do. It just puts all the good cars in a wad, and everybody views that as an opportunity to pick up positions.”

Denny Hamlin said Friday that it’s all about taking advantage of the opportunities you are given on restarts.
“If your car’s bad, you have to get all the positions you can on restarts. Everyone tries to get everything they can,” he said.

Jeff Gordon said drivers have to use their heads, though, and it shouldn’t turn into a demolition derby.
“There’s a different between taking a guy out and hard racing at the end of the race,” he said. “I lost 10 spots on one restart, gained 3 or 4 on another. You have to be extremely aggressive. I don’t think it’ll settle down.”

Matt Kenseth said that it puts drivers in a tough position, but they have no choice but to get used to it.
“It happens because that’s what the powers that be want. When you have 2-wide restarts and 3 green-white-checkered runs, there’s not a lot of time for patience. It’s just the way it is,” Kenseth said. “We’ve got to get used to it. We get put in that spot every week.”

Elder statesmen Mark Martin said that in the past, drivers didn’t race this way because they were afraid they’d wreck a lot and lose their ride. Now, he said, that’s not as big a concern for many competitors, so drivers are willing to take more risks.

He recognized the appeal to fans, and said he’s looking forward to watching this kind of racing whenever he decides to quit, and that will be more fun that actually being part of it.
“You will certainly see more of that in the future, not less,” he said. “In some ways, I’m glad I’m 51 and not 31, because I’m going to enjoy watching these things in the future instead of dragging them in on the hook.”

Kurt Busch: Dodge considers us ‘family’
Kurt Busch, who won the pole for Sunday’s race on Friday, said he enjoys coming to the home base of Dodge for the MIS races. He said he attended some events earlier this week at the Chrysler Tech Center in Auburn Hills, and noted that Dodge is dedicated to the success of the Penske Racing team – with drivers Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Rochester Hils native Brad Keselowski.

“The technology that crosses over between the race teams and production cars, it’s really neat to be part of that program. To walk through the Chrysler Tech Center facility, now being with Dodge my sixth year, I almost know my way around that campus,” Busch said. “It is special to be a program where we have all our eggs in one basket. We are their factory team. They’ll pulling for us like we’re part of the family.”

Heading into this year, a lot of people doubted whether the Penske team could do well with no other Dodge teams to work with. Busch said the team’s success has been a kind of vindication.

“It’s special to be the only group out there and having success with the odds stacked against you,” he said.
Recalling his win in the 2007 MIS race that was rain-delayed until Tuesday, Busch added: “Anytime you win at Michigan, it’s special; especially for your manufacturer.”

Kyle not laughing at Brad’s joke
If you saw the victory lane interview with Brad Keselowski at Nashville next week, you’ll remember he mentioned the absent Kyle Busch, who had stayed in Pocono to focus on his Cup ride, saying that he couldn’t wait for Kyle to do another Nationwide race so he could beat him for the win.

It was a pretty light-hearted comment in my mind, but apparently Kyle didn’t see the humor. On Friday, when asked about the comment, Kyle said it was: “Brad just running his mouth.”

Busch also mentioned how he couldn’t stand sitting around and watching the Nationwide and Truck races last week. Unfortunately for Kyle, traveling to 3 races in one weekend is just crazy – 2 is hard enough – so he’s wise not to attempt too much and focus on Cup. It’s one thing to want to race. But flying all over the country for days will likely lead to some bad finishes, as Kyle found out a couple years ago.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Richard Petty Motorsports has teammate turmoil

So that big wreck at the end of the Pocono wreck, in addition to tearing up a lot of good racecars, also did something else: Expose a big rift in the Richard Petty Motorsports team, where outgoing drivers seem unhappy with their teammates and want out as soon as possible.

The wreck, which sent Kasey Kahne violently into the wall before he collected others, began when Kahne tried to pass teammate A.J. Allmendinger, but Dinger made a move to “block” him, as the announcers put it.

Funny they put it that way, because I saw him just protecting his position. That’s the whole point of racing. Kahne could’ve backed off and not gone onto the grass and into the wall, but he didn’t and we saw the result. Allmendinger admitted his move caused the wreck, but added that he was just defending his position.

This whole feud goes far beyond this particular incident, though. Kahne is a big star, so he believes that position belonged to him and A.J. should have let him pass.

But there’s a problem with that thinking. Despite Kahne being the biggest name on the team now, next year Dinger will be the star at RPM. Kahne is off to some yet-to-be-named Hendrick affiliate, and may have already mentally checked out on the team as he has visions of sugarplums and Hendrick motors in his future.

Elliot Sadler is not going to be around either. That leaves A.J. and Paul Menard sticking around, and Allmendinger is the best choice to lead the team in that pair.

So who's the most important guy on the team: The star who's leaving, or the lesser-known guy who could lead the team into the future? I'd say there's a very good debate in there, so Kahne shouldn't expect his teammates to just give him spots.

If the RPM team wants to have a good finish to 2010, they'll do whatever is needed to cool down any in-house rivalries. It's a distraction the team doesn't need as they try to build up their program.

Gordon in a Toyota?
Yes. Jeff Gordon drove a Toyota this week at Watkins Glen during a test.

Don’t panic, Chevy fans. It wasn’t his car. He and Marcos Ambrose swapped rides for a few laps, with manufacturer approval of course, to see if they could learn anything that would help them in the August race.

Ambrose said he was thrilled to have the opportunity to drive the 4-time champ’s car.

“There’s probably only a handful of people in the world that can say they drove Jeff Gordon’s race car,” the JTG Daugherty Racing driver said. “It was a real thrill for me. I will never forget it.”

Gordon, a many-times road course winner, said the experience showed him that Ambrose is even better than him at the road races.

“I learned two things there at the test,” Gordon said Friday. “One is that when Marcos Ambrose goes really fast through the road courses, it’s not his race car. He’s just really fast. He got in my car and went really fast. I got in his car and went slow. It was just basically that Marcos is fast and that we’ve got really good power. That’s what I learned.”

I like stuff like this, whether it’s within NASCAR or the Cup-Formula 1 swap at Indy between Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya years ago.

Usually, this kind of brand-switching isn’t allowed. Kyle Petty was fined $45,000 by Dodge in 2004 for relieving Kevin Harvick during a race at Bristol without permission.

2nd place for Danica
Danica Patrick, who will be running a couple Nationwide races in the next month, had a great weekend, finishing 2nd in the Indycar race Texas, her best finish since her 2008 win in Japan. In the process though, she didn’t make any friends, cutting off her teammate Tony Kanaan and nearly causing an accident.

Scariest moment of the race: Simona de Silvestro wrecked, her car caught on fire, and the rescue crew took their sweet time getting her out of the car and putting out the fire. They’re lucky she wasn’t seriously burned.

Penske’s super weekend
So this weekend, Roger Penske’s driver Ryan Briscoe won the wild Indycar race at Texas, his driver Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide race, and late in the Cup race his driver Sam Hornish had a legitimate shot to win his first Cup race.

All in all, I’d say this weekend was pretty good for the Captain.

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Logano’s message to garage: Don’t push me around, I’m no kid anymore

I have three words for Joey Logano after what transpired on Sunday evening at Pocono.
Good for you.

I’m glad you finally did the equivalent of facing off with the school bully, when you confronted Kevin Harvick after the race and dropped a few well-deserved F-bombs on him, after he blatantly wrecked you for no reason while you were batting for the fifth position late in the race at Pocono.

This is not the first time Logano and Harvick have had a conflict. For some reason, Harvick has made it a habit in the past to seek out Logano and make contact, most recently at Bristol in the March Nationwide race. Logano said he has absolutely no clue why Harvick is so set on knocking him out of the way.

Then came the quote of the year from Logano, who burned Harvick with the following comment.
"[I was] racing the No. 29 and he let me go in the middle of the straightaway and decided to dump me in the next turn," Logano said. "I don't know what his problem is with me but it's probably not his fault. His wife wears the fire suit in the family and tells him what to do. It's probably not his fault."

Some would say he went to far with the wife joke, but they’re missing the point. It’s not about Delana. She’s a big girl who has heard much worse, and really the comment wasn’t even about her. It was just a good bit of trash-talking aimed at her husband, who is continuing to confirm the belief of some fans that “Happy” is really a jerk on the track sometimes for absolutely no reason.

By standing up for himself and letting Harvick know how he felt in graphic terms, Logano did more than release his anger. He put out notice to the rest of the garage that he’s not just some kid anymore. He’s one of them, an experienced driver who they do not have the right to bully.

Last year, Logano was a mild-mannered rookie, and didn’t yet have the credentials that would force his fellow drivers to show him full respect on the track. In just 50 races, he has already racked up a win and a bunch of top-10 finishes, and proved to his competitors that he is a driver they can trust on the track. There is no reason for any of his competitors to show him disrespect at this point, and Harvick crossed that line Sunday.

The RCR team tried to deflect from Harvick’s actions by indicating that Logano put the 29 crew in danger by driving toward them on pit lane. That’s just silly, though, as Logano just stopped his car and got out.

He had no intention of running anyone over. Instead of crying about silly things like this, the team should tell Harvick that it’s not cool to knock people out of the way when there is plenty of real estate on the track for both cars.

My only advice to Logano: Stop having your father so close and stand on your own. I know he wants you to do well, but you have to fight your battles alongside your team and pit crew now, not your dad. Let him stay in the hauler and watch you do your battles on your own.

This feud is a also a great sidebar to the emerging storyline of Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing being the teams most likely to have a shot at taking the Cup title away from Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports. It’s more than just Joey vs. Kevin, it’s team vs. team.

Speaking of teams, what was up with Harvick’s team standing in front of him and stopping Joey from getting directly in Kevin’s face. By my count, Logano looks like weighs about buck-20, and I’m guessing Harvick could easily take him down if they got to scrapping.

Whether this feud dies or continues, I’m loving it, as it was one of the late-race antics that spiced up a race that was dreadfully boring until lap 150 or so.
And as someone who’s suggested from the time he showed up in NASCAR that Logano will become a true superstar and live up to his “Sliced Bread” moniker, I’m proud to see him finally stand up to the big boys and let them know he will not be pushed around just because he is young.

Please shorten Pocono races
I learned a good lesson Sunday: A short Pocono race is a fun one. The end was great, and the rest was “meh”. A 400-mile race would be more than enough, and the track’s owner said he would be open to shortening the race if fans wanted that. I can’t speak for the people who attended the race Sunday, but I know the people out in the world watching these races are bored to tears by most Pocono races and would love to see them shortened.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

2010 turning into a driver search year for Dale Jr's Nationwide team

Things just haven’t been the same at JR Motorsports lately.

Their much-publicized deal with Danica Patrick will get them headlines, but it’s yet to yield solid results on the track. Round two will begins shortly, but it’s anyone’s guess how much Danica will improve.

There was a divorce from Kelly Bires already this year, as he just wasn’t improving in the car and the chemistry wasn’t there. In the ensuing search drivers including Steve Arpin and Landon Cassill have taken a shot driving for the team this year, but have had limited success.

Now, in the upcoming standalone Nationwide events, more young drivers, such as Coleman Pressley and Josh Wise will try to do a good job for the team and land a ride on a regular basis.

The problem is two-fold.
For starters, there isn’t the full sponsorship the team had when Brad Keselowski was driving for them the past few years.

Then, there is of course the driver. Losing a talented driver like Keselowski is always tough, especially when there’s no one who you will step in and keep things going at that level of success. It appears Bires couldn’t do that, setting up the current scenario of testing out endless drivers.

Last year, Keselowski ran in the top-5 almost every week. This year, the JR Motorsports cars haven’t come close to that, except occasionally when Dale hopes in a car.

What’s the lesson here? Even for a superstar like Dale Jr., keeping a team at a level where it continues to run well and compete for wins in the Nationwide series is a tough task that isn’t always going to work out, especially if the sponsorship money isn’t there.

All is not lost for the team, which will look back on 2010 as the year of its driver search. There is promise, though, for a happy ending. Danica may actually come through and become a competitive NASCAR driver eventually (“may” is the key word there), and after testing so many young drivers, Jr. is bound to find one eventually who fits well with the team and has the level of dedication and talent that he found with Keselowski.

When this happens, the team will see a return to the glory days of the past few years, when Keselowski would have won a couple titles if Cup interlopers didn’t steal the show (Ironically, Keselowski is now the Cup interloper trying to steal a title … but since he got robbed a couple times when he was just in Nationwide, it doesn’t bother me as much. He’s just trying to collect what he should already have.)

In the meantime, Jr. is doing what he has to do to get by with his Nationwide team, and in the process he hopes to find his next star to carry him back to Victory Lane and title contention.
There’s no guarantee that will happen, but if I were a young driver looking for a ride I know where I’d be sending my resume.

Former team owner Richard Jackson dies
Richard Jackson, a team owner in NASCAR for almost 30 years, has died. A lifetime racer, his accomplishments include winning the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400, with driver Brett Bodine. He also fielded cars for Tommy Ellis, Dave Marcis, Benny Parsons, Terry Labonte, Rick Mast, Morgan Shepherd, Jerry Nadeau, Lance Hooper, and others. He won his first Winston Cup race in 1988 at Talladega with Phil Parsons.

Richard Jackson is survived by his wife Karen of 53 years, brother Leo Jackson Jr., sisters Patricia Marshall and Gail Morgan, daughter Lisa Jackson, and grandchildren Jackson T. Young (21) and Emily S. Young (18).

Fans walk the track at Charlotte
There were some pretty cool snapshots taken this past week by Harold Hinson at Charlotte, as thousands of fans took part in the Coca-Cola Family Track Walk and Quarter-Mile Cookout at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28. Fans walked the entire length of the 1.5-mile track, followed by a free cookout on the nation’s longest grill.

Looks like a lot of fun, though it might get kind of tricky at some of the higher-banked tracks.

David Ragan lucky Roush renewed contact; now he must perform

David Ragan should play the lottery this week, because he just got really lucky.

Despite a horrible run over the past 49 races, during which he has just 3 top-10 finishes and 0 top-5s, it was announced this week that he his contract with Roush Fenway Racing has been extended through 2011, and he will drive the UPS Ford next year.

To put it kindly, he’s getting a gift here.

He’s getting one more chance to prove that the promise he showed in an awesome run in 2008, when he barely missed the Chase, was not all hype and that he is a driver who can compete for wins on a regular basis.

In a sport where you are expected to provide instant results, especially when you have a big sponsor like UPS, it was very likely that Ragan has overstayed his welcome at Roush.

But this signing shows that Jack still believes Ragan has the talent he flashed in 2008, when he posted 14 top-10s. Given the choice last year, he kept Ragan and let Jamie McMurray go. The move worked out well for McMurray, who went on to win the Daytona 500 in his first race back with Chip Ganassi’s team, but Ragan has done almost nothing of note for Jack Roush.

A man like Jack Roush is used to winning, or at least competing for wins, on a weekly basis. He will not tolerate mediocrity for long, as that’s not his style. Even in lower series like Trucks and Nationwide, he has shown over the years that drivers who don’t succeed will be shown the door.

2011 will be do or die for Ragan. If he doesn’t get better between now and next fall, I guarantee you he’ll be looking for a ride.

But he is a very lucky man today, because he has earned the one get-out-of-jail free card that he’ll get from Jack Roush. I hope he makes the most of it.