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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

When I die, bury me at Daytona … actually, don’t

Some sports fans are crazy, that’s undeniable.

NASCAR fans often fit that description very well … my favorite ever being the guy who shaved Earnhardt’s No. 3 in his back hair. (So disgusting, yet so brilliant at the same time.)

Well, I saw a story the other day that was a whole new level of crazy. Legislation was nearly passed that would have allowed the creation of a Columbarium (a building that houses urns with the ashes of the deceased) on the grounds of both Daytona International Speedway and Homestead Miami Speedway (it was narrowly denied by a committee vote).

Prior to the vote, it was reported that International Speedway Corp. spokesman Lenny Santiago said many NASCAR fans have asked over the years about having their ashes laid to rest at Daytona International Speedway. "We have a lot of fans that are very, very loyal to NASCAR races and to Daytona in general," Santiago said. "This opens that door, this bill, and we're hopeful that this will get passed."

Don’t get me wrong. I love NASCAR, and I love Daytona, but the idea of what’s essentially a cemetery inside what is always a really fun racetrack just doesn’t fit and is a bit creepy to me. It’s like last week, when I went to Costco and saw they were selling caskets. …. I know they have a right to sell them, but I’m there buy some hot dogs and crab cakes, not prepare for my final resting place, and that’s a bit morbid for my shopping tastes.

Getting back to the Florida vote, I’m going to say they made the right call.
No disrespect to the people who want to live eternally at the home of NASCAR’s biggest race after their demise, but that’s a bit too much devotion for my taste, and I’m glad Uncle Jesse and Grandpa Joe won’t be permanently stored by the campgrounds inside turn 4.

"I just felt very strongly that to have people's remains, cremated remains, at the same place where there's NASCAR racing and a motorsports entertainment complex was not appropriate," said state Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs, D-Delray Beach, the committee's vice chairwoman. "A lot of that has to do with the fact that I love NASCAR, and I love Daytona, and I didn't want it to turn into a partial cemetery."

Well said, Senator. I couldn’t agree more.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Curse of the frontrunner hitting Denny Hamlin as reliability issues continue

After his near-championship in 2010, Denny Hamlin was widely picked as the guy who will come out in 2011 and topple Jimmie Johnson. But just as prior anointed ones have done, he is falling flat on his face so far this year.

And unfortunately for Denny, it may not be anything he can change. The biggest concern for him has been reliability of his cars. (which is odd considering how well teammate Kyle Busch is running.)

"It looked like something in the valve train,” Hamlin said after his car troubles took him out of race Sunday and dipping him way down in the points. “Obviously, we've got pistons beat up pretty good. It's tough to say what
exactly came first, what problem came first but it's definitely internal where it ended our day."

Rightfully so, Hamlin said he is concerned about the engine reliability issues coming from the Gibbs cars this season.

"At this point, yeah, now it's starting to affect me. I'm worried a little bit more. It's frustrating because you want to do the best you can each week and Mike (Ford, crew chief) and the team did a great job setting up the car and we had a fast car. It doesn't matter in the end if you can't finish the way you're supposed to. … We definitely need to get some solid finishes. We need to prove at this point we can finish a race."

If these issues continue to come up, with the new points system it’s harder to climb in the points, so Hamlin may end up relying on wins to make the Chase. If he can come through at Martinsville, Pocono and other places where he traditionally has been strong, he would be able to get in the Chase as a wild card via those wins even if he’s nowhere near 10th in points.

That’s all far away of course, and a string of good runs would get Hamlin in the Chase the traditional way, but I know one thing – Hamlin is probably wishing he wasn’t anointed the front-runner by so many people – it only shines more of a light on his disappointing 2011 start.

Roush teams find way to get good finishes
While they weren’t the class of the field and didn’t make the headlines, several Roush drivers did a solid job of ending the day well at Fontana, finishing 4th (Kenseth), 6th (Edwards) and 11th (Greg Biffle).
Edwards, who is still the points leader, seemed surprised with how well he finished.

“For our Aflac team to come out of here leading the points is big considering how we ran all day,” Edwards said. “We really weren’t that good. Congrats to those guys that battled up front. They put on a good show.”

Kenseth said his crew chief had a big part in his top-5 run.

“The last two weeks Jimmy and these guys have made some great adjustments and had our Crown Royal Ford the best it has been all day at the end of the race which is important. It is a good day for us. You are always greedy and want more. I was the first guy on tires and I didn’t do probably as good a job as I needed to on the restart. It just took awhile to get there.”

Stenhouse in Nationwide points lead
Under the new points system in Nationwide, even though the Cup guys are still winning all the races (correction; Kyle Busch is still winning all the races), the points go to the Nationwide guys. And the winner so far is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose 2010 was quite the opposite of good.

Young Ricky is putting on a great show in the #6 car, despite not having full sponsorship for the year, and is leading Jason Leffler, Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola, Elliott Sadler, Trevor Bayne, Reed Sorenson, Kenny Wallace, Brian Scott and Mike Bliss.

Stenhouse said he’s a fan of the new points setup, which he says helps the Nationwide regulars push even that much harder
“The Championship format, I like it. I think Nationwide Insurance has done an awesome job of making our own identity. I feel like looking at the races, I don’t know if it is the new points system getting in our minds that a Nationwide regular is going to win the championship, but it seems like the regulars have been in the top five and running strong. I think it has upped the competition and everyone is trying a little harder,” Stenhouse said.

Fun fact of the week
This is pretty crazy, considering that 43 drivers take to the track every week, but apparently Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win the last NINE races at Martinsville. Quite frankly, this is pretty nuts … if you have a fantasy team, I would definitely go with one of these guys … or both if possible.

Trevor Bayne talks about ‘Idol’ experience
Since winning the Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne has done a lot of cool things, and he can add a visit to ‘American Idol’ to that list.

“Man, that was awesome. I have gotten to do some really cool things recently but last night ranks right up there. I was so excited when I found out that I was getting to go and check it out,” Bayne said. “We got to sit in the front row right behind the judges and witness it. I got to see Stevie Wonder perform and Hulk Hogan was there and then the judges used their save deal to save Casey and the whole thing was so dramatic, it was crazy.”

Bayne said he got to meet some of the judges, too, which was a bit of a surprise.
“I got to meet Jennifer Lopez and her husband Marc Anthony, which was really awesome. I got to meet Randy Jackson too. The cool part to me is not that I got to meet them, but that they actually wanted to meet me. That blows my mind. I mean that is Jennifer Lopez and she wanted to meet me? It is just crazy,” he said.

Logano, McMurray struggling
The biggest surprises in the standings continue to be some guys who should be much higher, but have struggled mightily so far in 2011. Both Jamie McMurray, who won all those big races a year ago, and Joey Logano – who has yet to live up some people’s expectations – are hovering near 30th in the points. These guys were expected to contend for the Chase, and they’re nowhere near that level of performance so far. Barring them getting some wins and making the Chase that way, it’s not looking good for either of these drivers in 2011.

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Hard-charging Kevin Harvick makes a point with impressive win over Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch

Ever since I’ve been watching him race, Kevin Harvick’s always kind of had a chip on his shoulder – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sure, at times he can be a little contentious and butt heads with other drivers, but it’s clear from interviews with Harvick that he’s quite annoyed when others – whether it be Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards or anyone else – is crowned as the “favorite” by the media to win the race or the title.
Harvick, like all great racers, thinks he’s the best, and he wants the media to recognize that.

The good news for him is that if he continues to put on performances like he did in Fontana this Sunday, we most certainly will.

As I watched most of the race Sunday, I was prepared to write about the usual snoozefest that you get out at California – with an equally snooze-worthy headline – another Kyle Busch victory (seriously, that guys wins way too much. I don’t even think wins get him excited anymore, he’s so used to it.)

But with a few laps to go, things got real interesting. There was an intense battle between Busch and Jimmie Johnson, which looked for a minute like it might get physical. Then, after Jimmie made the pass, he thought he was home-free – until Happy showed up.

And by ever so politely nudging past the five-time depending champion to take the win at Fontana, Harvick made a very big point without saying a word – last year’s title run was no fluke, and he’s ready to do it all again despite his shaky start in the first few races of 2011 leading up to California.

The “golden horseshoe” he joked about Johnson having in a certain place has now been transferred to Harvick, and he’s fine with that.
“I hope it stays right on up there. I'll be more than happy to go ahead and tote the thing along,” he said with a laugh after pulling out the thrilling win.

He said the win was long overdue, and his finishes in 2011 haven’t represented how well his team has been performing.

“We've had four weeks that we hadn't exactly had everything go right, but our cars have been fast. Today we had everything go right and our car was fast again. As long as we keep our cars running the way that they are, we can overcome things and we can hopefully capitalize on days when our car is fast enough to win.”

Now that he’s back up with the Chase contenders where he belongs, Harvick is hoping to start a hot streak of his own.

“Momentum never hurts. I always tell people, you have to take the highs and lows, treat them pretty much the same. Bottom line is, you can't ever shake off the confidence that winning gives you,” he said.

Jimmie: “That was racing”
Johnson said after the race that it was a clean pass by Harvick.
“I don't think he got into me all that hard. I actually put my head back against the headrest and thought it was going to be a lot harder than what it was,” Johnson said. “He did it well. He did his job. I didn't do my mine holding him off. That was racing. That's the cool thing about our cars, especially the way they're designed now. You can lean on each other at 190 and still make it back.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Carl Edwards will be all talk, no action on Kyle Busch payback

There has been a lot of talk this week about what Carl Edwards might do to Kyle Busch if the two get near to each other this weekend on track.

It seems that Carl is still upset about a bump from Kyle earlier this season that cost him a win, and let those feelings be known both last week at Bristol and this weekend at California -- hinting he would try to get some payback in the near future.
While there was no payback from Edwards at the end of last week’s Bristol race when they were battling for the win, Edwards said he was definitely considering it.

“It boils down to this. I had my shot to pass him and I couldn’t because I wasn’t fast enough. When things got going, his car was just faster. I couldn’t get back to him. If I could have got to him with one or two laps to go then maybe I could have made something happen. I know that is what all the fans wanted to see. Trust me, nobody wanted to see it more than me. I would have loved to be in that position. As it went, I wasn’t even in position to consider that.”

The incident bothering Edwards happened at Phoenix, and it’s all about lost points.

“The deal is I am just going to go race how I need to race. It is nothing personal. That deal at Phoenix cost me 28 points at least in my opinion. So, the least he can give up is one spot. I don’t know. I told him I owed him one and he asked for me to give it back to him at the All-Star race. You never know. Maybe that is how it will go. This is racing guys. You go to Bristol and are on a guys back bumper and you have a chance and you start thinking of all the little things and all the little reasons behind everything. Really it is fine. Hopefully him and I get to race a bunch this year and hopefully it is good clean racing. It might get exciting, you never know.”

For his part, Kyle Busch wasn’t too concerned with what Edwards is saying or doing. He’s just focusing on trying to win in Cup this week and get his second straight weekend sweep after his Saturday Nationwide win at California.

"If Carl wants to continue saying that he still owes me one, whatever, I don't care. I'm racing my race and how I should be racing, and
racing all of my competitors and not worrying about all of that stuff. To me, we're here at California and I'm ready to move
and see if we can't win out here,” Busch said.

Other drivers have hinted that talking about payback is cheap – and you should just do it if you want to do it. Edwards wasn’t concerned about those comments, though.

“Yeah, that is fine. People can say whatever they want. I am going to do what I have to do and say whatever I am going to say. That is me.”
What do I think? While Carl definitely has shown he’s not afraid to punt an opponent (you’ll recall Brad Keselowski in the air a couple years back), I’m gonna say that this little feud is all hype and won’t amount to anything.
I’m with the drivers who say shut up and do it, or don’t say anything at all. It might make for a good sound bite, but if Carl Edwards was going to do anything, it would have happened at Bristol. That’s a place made for contact, and they were close enough in the race that Carl could’ve pushed the issue if he really wanted to. He didn’t, and maybe afterward he wished he had, but the more he talks about it, the less likely something is to happen.

It reminds me of the bad guys in the James Bond movies who talk endlessly about all the things they’re going to do to Bond, and by the time they try to do anything, Bond has already escaped. A smart villain would just stay silent, pull out his gun (or lower him in the lava pit, etc.) and take out Bond without even talking.
So by my estimation, Busch doesn’t have much to worry about … at least until Edwards stops talking about it.

No tweeting for Dale Jr.
Many NASCAR drivers – including Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kenny Wallace and others – are really into Twitter. But don’t count on Dale Earnhardt Jr. joining their ranks anytime soon. Why? … well, Jr. just doesn’t want to take on any more jobs.

"I used to have a page and I used to have a Facebook page, (but) I don't anymore because it was just too much responsibility," he said. "I felt like you had to plug in and be involved with it so much and I thought personally I don't need to do it. I understand we use it on the business side of it and how it works for JRM, but personally, you know, it would be fun for about a month and then I would start to feel like it was a job where people expected me to do it."

To each his own, but I say Jr. is missing out, and I’m glad other drivers take the time to interact with fans.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Kyle Busch has potential to rewrite the record books

Not so many years ago, Kurt Busch was the master of Bristol Motor Speedway, rattling off an impressive string of wins.

It appears Bristol is in the Busch brothers’ blood, as younger brother Kyle is now the current undisputed king of Bristol after sweeping the weekend there for the second consecutive time – he won all three races last August and both races this weekend. Never in NASCAR’s history has a driver swept two straight weekends at one track.

Busch led 153 laps and claimed his first win of the season, but it will definitely not be his last. Busch has shown he is a threat nearly every week and will be a force when it comes time to battle for the championship.

With the win, Busch’s 20th overall in Cup, the tornado that is Kyle Busch continues to blow apart the competition. The fact that he outdueled extremely strong competition like “5-time” Jimmie Johnson and super-hot Carl Edwards shows that the #18 team is at the top of its game. Not only is the driver awesome, but the team is giving its all on pit road and at the shop to make his wins possible.

Ask any driver, and they’ll tell you Bristol is one of the hardest tracks in NASCAR to win on. The fact that Kyle Busch has done it five times in three different series in the past five races is a testament to the tremendous potential he has to rewrite the record books (with the exception of the King’s 200 wins of course … they ran a lot more races back then, so that’s the only one that’s probably safe).

Don’t forget about Jimmie
While other drivers like Carl Edward, Jeff Gordon and Trevor Bayne have taken the biggest headlines away from him so far this year, Sunday at Bristol was a reminder to all of us that Jimmie Johnson is not about to be forgotten.

When he took the lead mid-race, I thought the same thing most people probably did: “Here we go again”. This man is a five-time champ, and it’s clear he’s not about to let others take his crown easily. Despite not winning (he was doomed when he came out of the pits fourth in the final sequence), Johnson managed a third-place finish and jumped from 12th to 7th in the points. And if he and Chad Knaus have their way, and they usually do, the #48 will be moving up even more in the future weeks as he racks up a bunch of wins.

Menard’s roll continues
Another Chevy drivers who had good days included Paul Menard, who’s amazing start to the year has him fifth in points, fitting since he finished 5th in Sunday’s race. No one predicted this, but Menard is far about his teammates in the points, and he’s done it on different types of tracks so it’s very likely he can actually stay up front and contend for the Chase – something that would be pretty amazing considering his past struggles at different teams and all the doubt about his ability to succeed at the top level of NASCAR.

Harvick, Biffle rebound
Kevin Harvick spun late in the race, but still somehow finished a strong 6th and jump to 15th in the point standings, and is on the right track after a rough start. Greg Biffle also recovered from a shaky start Sunday to jump 8 spots in the points to 23rd.

Keselowski’s tire woes continue
I’m not sure what the crews are doing to set up Brad Keselowski’s cars, but the guy’s had a hell of a bad run with tires blowing these past few weeks. In Nationwide action, for three straight weeks he has blown a tire. This week, it happened on the Cup side.

For a guy who completed almost every lap in Nationwide last season, these kind of issues are bizarre, and I’m curious if the Penske team will be able to get to the bottom of this anytime soon.

Labonte’s career resurrected
Not long ago, I and others had left Bobby Labonte’s career for dead, but he is trying to prove us all wrong this year in his new ride. Labonte finished in 13th at Bristol and is near the Chase cutoff in the points. While still a longshot, he is racing like a guy who still has what it takes to contend for wins and the title, something we haven’t seen from him in a long time.

"We were good all day. It just seemed like the longer the runs went, the better we were,” he said after Sunday’s race at Bristol. “ We just had a little bit of an issue with going on the green flag runs. Guys did a really good job though for no more practice then we had on this tire. It was a good, strong run for us. We beat a lot of good cars today. We got too tight there at the end. We just really didn't get the car freed up enough there at the end. It was so hard to pass and track position meant so much."

As someone who watched Labonte win races and a title over a decade ago with the Gibbs organization, it’s nice to see him running well, and I’m glad I was wrong about his career.

Bristol top runners are your likely title contenders
As I watched the great battles up front for the lead at Bristol, one thought was in my head – these are the guys who will run for the title.

All the heavy hitters were doing great – Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick … and Kurt Busch, who is trying to crash the party in 2011 and doing a great job so far.

Johnson said after the race that Edwards is the hottest of all of them.
“If you're going to go on short term results, you look who has done the best, it's the 99.”

Harvick said Sunday that his team is definitely going to be battling for the title come year’s end, because it knows how to overcome setbacks.
"We have a championship team. We proved that we could race for it last year. Everybody is just so confident in each other and everybody is just mellow on the radio and when something happens we just fix it and come back. That's not a feeling I've ever had until last year and these first four weeks I've had that feeling over and over again and we keep fighting back," he said.

Gordon unhappy with Keselowski
There wasn’t any fights this time, but the Bristol anger did pop up a little bit. Jeff Gordon wasn’t happy with Brad Keselowski for a move Brad made during the race while laps down.

“Well, the guy was three laps down. I understand. He’s trying to keep from going a lap down and hey, you’ve got to give him credit. They fought back and got back on the lead lap and got a decent finish out of it. I’ll just tell Brad that the next time I’m three laps down, and he’s on the lead lap, just expect the same out of me, you know?” Gordon said. “I don’t expect him to just let off. He had a fast race car. But when you’re three laps down and then you door-slam the guy trying to pass; that’s what ticked me off is when he got loose underneath me and got up into me, I got pretty mad then.”

Ford Mustang contest
For the fourth year in a row, Ford Customer Service Division brands Motorcraft, Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center and will give away one of Ford’s hottest vehicles to one lucky winner. This year’s contest has a Grand Prize package that includes a 2012 Ford Mustang GT (maximum MSRP $29,995) with $5,000 in Ford Racing Performance Parts and Ford Custom Accessories.

Fans age 18 years and older are invited to enter at the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Racing Experience at select NHRA Full Throttle Series events, online at and, or by texting FORDNHRA to 57682 between now and Nov. 21, 2011. The winner will be chosen by random drawing.
“Ford consumers are passionate about the brand, from purchase to maintenance, and that passion gets passed down,” said Brett Wheatley, Director of Marketing, Ford Customer Service Division. “We see fans from all generations stopping by at our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Racing Experience display. We’re proud to see them experience Ford’s latest products, and happy to give one winner a new Ford Mustang GT.”
Follow the contest on Facebook (Motorcraft and Quick Lane Racing) and Twitter (MQL_Racing) for the latest updates.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Jennifer Jo Cobb shows commitment to racing, refuses to start and park

Jennifer Jo Cobb isn’t a big name in NASCAR yet, but after her decision to refuse to start-and-park on Saturday at Bristol, she probably has a lot of new fans.

Before I get into Cobb’s situation in-depth, let me say that while I don’t like it in principle, I’m not of the opinion that starting and parking should be banned. For many owners, it’s the only way to survive in the short term, and it would be pretty hard to enforce that kind of rule.

Having said that, what Cobb did Saturday at Bristol was pretty courageous, and a sign that she wants to race and not just sit in a car for a few laps.
Cobb says that 10 minutes prior to the start of the race, she was told by team owner Rick Russell that the team was going to start-and-park and save the car for next week at California, rather than risk wrecking it at Bristol. At that point, she refused to drive it.

"I have made a commitment to my sponsors, my fans and NASCAR that I'm not a start-and-park driver. I'm really serious about this. I have to work hard to prove to people that I'm serious about this,” Cobb said. “The conversation was never had with me until 10 minutes before the race started that I was to start and park. I had already bought & tires to run this race, so you can imagine, it was a blow both to my principles and my finances to hear this.”

She said Russell was going to force her to stop if she didn’t agree to start-and-park.

“As the owner of this team, he has the right to ask NASCAR to black flag me and said he would do so. “

Russell, of course, had a different story. He said Cobb knew the plan and her last-minute refusal to driver made the team look bad.
"Five minutes before the race, she took her crew and left. We had a crew meeting here on Friday morning and I explained to everyone what our purpose was here this weekend. In Vegas we destroyed a car through Kyle Busch's accident. We only had one car, so had to have the body completely replaced on the car except for the roof, decklid and rear bumper, so without a sponsor the total of about $16,000 about broke me to get this car together. We already had our entry in for here and California, so rather than try to roll this and lose this, we decided we'd come up here and I let everybody know we were here in a conservative mode. We would practice smart. We would qualify and we would make a few laps and then we would park the car and save it for California. She waited until five minutes until start time and told her crew chief and her other people that worked for her and they left. I'm sitting on pit road with a car without a driver and made myself look stupid, NASCAR look stupid, the whole bunch of us look stupid.''

While I can sympathize with Russell’s small-team status and the lack of cars to spare, it’s still refreshing to see Cobb step up and let her refusal to start-and-park be known. With that kind of dedication to her racing career, it would be greatto see a team committed to racing the full distance each week give her a shot to continue racing this season.

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Fords continue hot streak with Carl Edwards-Greg Biffle front row

It’s been a great 2011 for the Ford contingent, and that has continued with the front row at Bristol that includes Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
Edwards scored his second pole of the season, and further showed the strength of the Roush Yates FR9 engines, which have seen a major resurgence since mid-2010. Biffle was second, and David Ragan was the 5th-place qualifier.

“This is another extremely positive day for Ford Racing and Roush Yates Engines," said CEO Doug Yates. "The talents of many individuals come out in engines like these when you get to a short track like a Bristol (.533 mi) where mistakes and differences in engine power are easily magnified. The talent inside Roush Yates that designed and continues to build these FR9 engines for all Ford teams week to week - and the true driving expertise of people like Carl and Greg who know how to make these engines perform the way they're intended - has gotten us off to a great start in 2011. I'm also very pleased that our engines have performed extremely well across a variety of track configurations so far this season."

Edwards said he hopes the momentum for the #99 team and Ford in general keeps rolling.

“This is fun. The cars have just been great,” Edwards said. “For me and Greg to be up there sitting on the front row, I mean Greg motivated me. I didn’t think anybody was gonna be able to go that fast. I thought that the track had slowed down a lot more than that, so I was out there driving my heart out. I had my volume turned down too far, so I couldn’t hear Bob the first lap. I thought, ‘Man, we must not be fast. He hasn’t said anything.’ I don’t know what the times were exactly, but my second lap was petrifying. I was driving for all I could, but this is fun.”
In addition to the front row at Bristol, Roush Yates' FR9 engines won the Daytona 500; won the pole at Phoenix and earned the top four qualifying positions and the won the race at Las Vegas.

Bristol intro song fun
One unique aspect of Bristol is the driver introductions, complete with song:
Some of my favorite choices:
#00-David Reutimann: "Pretty Fly For A White Guy" by The Offspring
#4-Kasey Kahne: "A Country Boy Can Survive" by Hank Williams Jr.
#13-Casey Mears: "Regulate" by Warren G
#33-Clint Bowyer: theme music from the movie "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
#60-Landon Cassill: "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley

Cassill takes the cake, for bringing the RickRoll song to a NASCAR race.

Kyle Busch, Marcos Ambrose should contend
Last summer, Kyle busch swept all three races at Bristol in the top three series … the first time that had ever happened. So you can bet he will be up front this Sunday at some point.

But don’t count out my sleeper – Marcos Ambrose. Mostly known for his road course prowess, Ambrose also does very well on short tracks, and Bristol is his favorite. He’s definitely a contender for the win this weekend.

Menard off to strong start
One of the biggest surprises of the early season is RCR’s newest driver, Paul Menard, who is in Chase contention and ahead of all three of his RCR teammates in the points.

Menard said that despite his fast start, he can still do even better.
“We’ve have three solid races and in each race I feel like we could have finished better so something Slugger and I have been talking about is how do we close these races. We ran better in all three races than where we finished. Knock on wood we haven’t had any trouble. With the new points system that is such a big deal. If you stay out of trouble you can gain some points. The guys that have trouble, finish 30th on back, they don’t pay a lot of points back there. So that’s our goal, to be smart. Obviously we have fast race cars we’ve just got to capitalize a little better at the end and keep our nose clean.”
Menard said that he believes that, unlike some of his past rides, he is getting equal equipment as his more well-known teammates, which is helping him succeed more this year than in the past.

“I’ve got all confidence that Richard (Childress) is going to give me what I need. I’ve never seen anything different from Richard. In the past without getting into details yes we’ve had issues with that. We’ve brought it to the attention to the people that mattered and it kind of seemed like it fell on deaf ears sometimes, other times it seemed like they cared. Richard cares. Richard wants the No. 27 team to succeed. He’s very personally invested in it and it’s cool to be a part of.”
One thing’s for sure. If Menard continue to finish strong like he has so far this year, he won’t ever have to worry about getting that equal equipment, or the respect of his peers.

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Tire changes create intrigue at Bristol; Danica Patrlck facing an entirely new challenge this weekend

There’s nothing like a Goodyear surprise to make things even more interesting for the drivers at Bristol, a place that’s already full of excitement from the get-go.

After extreme tire wear during practice (tires lasting about 30 laps instead of 100+ as they should), Goodyear and NASCAR decided to bring in a different right-side compound for the Nationwide and Cup races this weekend (the compound used last summer). Goodyear planned to bring in 1200-1300 tires from a Charlotte-area warehouse Friday evening.

This is a wise move, as the sport does not need another debacle like we saw at Indy a few years back. Any sign that the tires are not working and would result in a race reminiscent of that poor excuse for a race requires instant action, and NASCAR was right to step in so quickly.

The teams won’t have much time to adjust to the new compound, but it’s a necessary change and throws another wrinkle in the always-exciting Bristol weekend.

Drivers were on board with the change.
Kasey Kahne said there just wasn’t enough rubber being put down on the track, and the change should lead to a better race Sunday.

"I think it's a really big deal, but I think it's the right decision. We have to do something -- this tire is just not putting rubber down on the track,” Kahne said. “I thought the tire the last couple of years has been great here. Not real sure why we have a different tire and didn't tire test. We do and I think they are fixing the call so I think we'll be fine. We just don't get a lot of practice with that one set that we're going to get. It's going to be equal for everybody. It will turn out to be a really good race on Sunday."

Kyle Busch said the change is the same for everyone, so it’s all the same in the end.

"It doesn't matter. It's the same for everybody so you just race with it. When you get out of a good driving car and you have a good feel of how to get around this place, you can pretty much change anything you want and you'll be alright," he said.

Danica likely to find headache, not history, at Bristol
In her second stint in NASCAR, Danica Patrick has gotten off to a much better start – but this week is a whole different ball of wax – Bristol.
Danica has said she just wants to finish the race, and I’m glad to see she’s being realistic about the daunting task she faces this week (Bristol is not nice to newcomers).

I put the odds on Danica being around for the checkered at under 50 percent, but who knows – maybe she’ll surprise us.

Bad news, good news for Brian Keselowski
There was some bad news, and then some good news, for Brian Keselowski this week. The bad news came on the health front, as he found out he had to have emergency surgery for gallstones, sidelining him for the next two races.

The good news came Friday when his fill-in driver Dennis Setzer got his #92 car qualified into the race at Bristol, something Keselowski had failed to do at Phoenix and Vegas after his storybook entry into the Daytona 500. With a small team like this, just making races can be a lifeline to survival, so Setzer making the race will no doubt make him smile even though he’s going through some health issues.

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Fords back contending … especially Carl Edwards

Not too long ago, the Fords were an afterthought on race weekend.
This year, building off a strong end to the 2010 season, things are starting to turn around for the blue oval.

They started off the year strong with a win by Trevor Bayne at Daytona – and impressive performance from the FR9 engines.

At Vegas, that positive performance continued – with the Fords claiming the top four spots in qualifying, and the weekend being capped with a win by Carl Edwards – his third in the past five races.

"This is an exciting win for Roush Yates Engines," said Doug Yates, CEO of Roush Yates Engines in Mooresville, NC. "We ran great all week long. I think this says a lot about our program and how we plan to run at 1.5 mile tracks throughout the 2011 season. I want to thank Ford again for their support as we continue to excel with the FR9 engine."

Edwards had praise for his team after the win at Vegas.
"The key to winning today was my team, my Ford team, these guys are unbelievable. I am having a blast.”

This resurgence goes to show – you can never count out a manufacturer , even if they’re having the kind of struggles Ford recently endured. Just as quickly as they faded away, the Ford teams have figured out how to win again and have a good shot – especially with Edwards – to contend for the Sprint Cup.

Big stars dig big holes in the points
Looking at the points, the biggest surprises aren’t up top, but down low. Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano are all 30th or worse in points … pretty risky and unfamiliar territory for a trio of winning drivers who can do much better.

And with this new points system, it’s going to be harder for them to climb the points ladder, leaving the Chase a tough sell for these drivers – even though we’re only three races into the year. They’ll need consistency, and soon, to start that climb – and it won’t be easy to get to the Promised Land.

On the opposite spectrum, Paul Menard is solidly in the points. Heading into this year, many people wondered whether adding Menard as the fourth car would hurt the Richard Childress Racing organization.

Instead, he is far above all three of his teammates at RCR after three races, something nobody thought would happen. How ironic would it be if he made the Chase, but the other three did not (an unlikely scenario, but still very possible)

Wendell Scott honored at Vegas
This past weekend, the Cup and Nationwide drivers paid tribute to the legendary Wendell Scott, the only black driver ever to win at the Cup level.
Drivers had a commemorative decal on their cars this weekend celebrating the achievements of Scott, who had to face not only his competitors, but also blatant racism, as he tried to be a successful NASCAR driver.

Mar. 4 marked the 50th anniversary Scott’s first start at Spartanburg, S.C. in 1961, at Fairgrounds Speedway. Scott’s only win came at the one-mile dirt track in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 1, 1963. He beat Buck Baker by two laps at Jacksonville Speedway Park.

-- Scott competed in 495 starts posting 147 top-10 finishes.
-- His best season was 1966 when Scott competed in 45 races and finished sixth in the championship standings.
-- Scott posted top-10 championship finishes in four consecutive seasons (1966-69).
Scott died at age 69 in 1990.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

A few more great runs like this, and Indycar will be in Danica Patrick's rearview mirror

Saturday’s Nationwide race at Las Vegas was not your typical affair.
Kyle Busch didn’t dominate all race – in fact, he made a mistake and ended up crashing himself out of the race – something that pretty much never happens.

And there was a special guest – Mark Martin – who used to win these things all the time back in the day and found himself in the right place at the end of the race to come home the surprise winner when Brad Keselowski crashed on the last lap.

But neither of those things was the headline Saturday … instead, it was ESPN’s favorite – Danica Patrick – actually earning her TV time for once.
Danica did a great job Saturday, finishing fourth to record the best finish by a female driver in NASCAR history.

Unlike some previous races, where the camera would linger on Danica as she toiled back in 30th … this was a great effort by Danica that deserved our attention.
Even before the broadcasters mentioned it, I noticed early on that she was doing better than usual. There was a hiccup when she got trapped a lap down, but when she was able to work her way back to the lead lap it was clear she was out to contend Saturday. When the race came down to fuel mileage (like her Indycar win in Japan did), it was possible she could even end up taking the checkered flag – an unthinkable idea after her rough start to her NASCAR career last season.

This season – and three good runs to get it started -- has shown that Danica is learning (and her team has put great coaches around her, so that was to be expected) and might just end up being a little better driver than the naysayers would have you believe. She no longer sounds clueless on the radio, as she did in the past at times, and has genuine hope for the future of her NASCAR career.

As someone who has in the past been somewhat of a naysayer, I would say that now there is at least hope she can succeed in stock cars. But let’s not go crazy with our expectations. One top-four finish does not mean she will be great every week. And she isn’t even running the whole season, so there’s always the chance she can get rusty during her time off.

One thing is for sure though: If she does continue to have success like she saw on Saturday, the Indycar series can pretty much say goodbye to her – as she’ll definitely make the move to NASCAR for 2012 if she thinks she can compete on a full-time basis. It was probably her plan already, but this run and more like it would solidify her plans without a doubt.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meet Jeff Gordon – the underdog (who also happens to be a 4-time champ)

When I fell in love with NASCAR, there was always one guy who kept ruining my day … and his name was Jeff Gordon. This Rainbow Warrior stunk up the show more often than I can remember, whether I was watching in person at the track or at home on television.

The late 1990s were his time to shine, and by 2001 he had racked up his fourth Cup title.

Then, thankfully for the sport, other drivers started to win the Cup. Prior to the ridiculously long reign of Jimmie Johnson, there was actually some question about who might take home the title in the first half of the 2000s decade.

If you had told me in 2001 that I’d be watching Jeff Gordon be cheered by fans as an underdog in the future, I would have laughed. But it happened at Phoenix.
Heading into Phoenix, Gordon had not won a race in almost two years. Unlike his nonstop winning of the past – which is now been taken over by his protégé Jimmie Johnson – Gordon has far too often been unable to close the deal. He runs good and finishes high pretty regularly, but can’t seem to deliver in the end.

But at Phoenix, the Gordon of old reappeared. I knew something was up when he passed Johnson, a rare sight lately. Then, as the race’s end neared, he was oh-so-close to leader Kyle Busch, who was just laps from another three-race weekend sweep and had plenty of incentive to hang on to the lead.

But as he closed in on Busch, I felt a strange thing going on inside – I actually kind of hoped he would pull it off, and was glad when he did.
Why? Because we all like an underdog, and let’s face it – that’s what Jeff Gordon has become, and a Gordon win might be even more popular now than it would have been in his championship years.

Sure, he has four titles and drives for the best team in NASCAR at Hendrick Motorsports. But that doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed since his glory days.
Even though he’s still one of the best drivers on the track, it’s no question that Jeff Gordon winning a bunch of races and contending legitimately for his fifth Cup would be a huge deal and a major comeback story.

Guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and other drivers win races all the time, but in the past few years Jeff Gordon doesn’t … (though new crew chief Alan Gustafson will do his best to change that, and has a good chance to do so.).

And the reaction to this Phoenix win shows that just because you’ve won a lot of races and titles doesn’t mean you can’t still be the feel-good story years down the road. A lot of those people complaining with me about Gordon 10 years ago might actually be his fans now.

Phoenix, Las Vegas notes
-- Gordon’s Phoenix triumph tied him with Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time wins list. His next win would tie him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third – behind only David Pearson (105 wins) and Richard Petty (200). Gordon spoke about tying Yarborough; click here to listen.
-- In breaking a 66-race winless drought, Gordon has now won at least one race in 16 of his 19 full-time seasons. In 14 of those, he won multiple races.
-- Gordon took the lead for good at Phoenix on lap 304 – the 28th lead change of the race. That makes two consecutive races where the lead-change record crumbled.
-- At Las Vegas, hometown hero Kyle Busch has seven starts, a win in 2009, three top fives and four top 10s.
-- In 10 races, brother Kurt Busch is winless with one top five and two top 10s. His best finish was third in 2005. He has struggled of late there. His last four finishes: 26th (2007), 38th (2008), 23rd (2009) and 35th (2010).

Martin making Nationwide appearance
Mark Martin, who once dominated the Nationwide series whenever he made an appearance and racked up 48 wins, returns this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch is only a handful of races from topping Martin’s win total, and that will likely happen this year. But if Martin can pull out a win this weekend, he can at least delay the inevitable.

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Super-Morgan Shepherd to the rescue

If Morgan Shepherd ever decides to quit driving, I think he may have found a new career -- man of the law.

Shepherd made news this week when he happened upon some fleeing thieves outside a Walmart, and decided to take action. He may be 69 years old, but anyone who has ever talked to Morgan knows he is not someone who sits in a rocking chair. He regularly exercises, is famous for his roller skating, and has plenty of spring in his step.

In true Morgan Shepherd fashion, when saw the thieves running with security people following, he took charge and managed to take down one of the fleeing thieves.

"I just got out and took off after them," Shepherd said. "I caught one of them just as they were getting ready to hop a little wall at the end of the parking lot. I yanked him down and got on top of him."

In a scene I would have loved to seen on video, the police then tossed Shepherd a pair of cuffs and he restrained the suspect while the police went after his cohorts.

"I cuffed him and sat on top of him," Shepherd said. "The police department officers showed up and asked if I could hold him a while longer while they ran down the others. I told them he wasn't going anywhere."

And in my favorite part of the story, Shepherd spend his time with the suspect lecturing him about the poor choices he made in life. So not only did he get taken down by a senior citizen, he also got a good talking to.

As someone who has talked to Morgan several times, I can say I am not surprised at all at this incident, as it fits very well with his belief system. Unlike some people who would have sat and watched, Shepherd knew he had to step in, because that’s just what comes natural to him. And those kind of beliefs are part of why so many people in the garage respect him and love the fact he’s still racing after such a long career.

Drivers getting antsy earlier
If you watched the first part of this past weekend’s race at Phoenix, you saw a lot of cars bouncing around like pinballs. Perhaps it was a sign that in the new NASCAR, with its new points system, things might get a little dicey more early in the race.

Despite a denial from Kenseth, Brian Vickers said that Matt Kenseth got a little to close and ruined his day at Phoenix – and that he won’t forget it.

"The 17 ran us into the wall, door slammed us into the corner coming out of turn two, just 67 laps into a very, very long race. I felt like it was unnecessary and I'm sure it will come back to him."

Vickers said he’s noticed an increase in aggressiveness right out the gate in 2011.

"In general, I think everyone is racing hard because track position is important. All the cars are so even and it's so hard to pass right now.
You can get besides someone and it's very difficult to complete the pass. Guys are really racing hard for that position -- for every single spot. But in general, I didn't have anybody that I felt raced me unnecessarily hard or unnecessarily rough until we got wrecked."

Clint Bowyer – who got caught up in a wreck -- said that while points are very important, drivers need to be smarter or it will be an ugly year on track.
“They were driving like it was the last lap! Man, if we keep this up we’ll only about four cars to end all these races,” Bowyer said. “I have no idea what happened. Everybody was checked-up all over the place and running into the back of us and we got crashed. But it’s just stupid. To be racing this hard this early in a race; we’re all smarter than this. We’re driving like idiots. It’s just stupid.”

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