Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A few random notes:

Has anyone noticed that the Nextel Cup banquet will be televised, more or less live, on ESPN Classic? It is supposed to re-air on ESPN2 at midnight, but does this show ESPN's commitment to Nascar or what? I don't get Classic, and might try to catch the replay on ESPN2, but to me this really stinks. ESPN has already pushed Nascar to a very distant back burner. I know usually the banquets aren't really exciting, but it is a last chance for many fans to see their favorite drivers one last time, and wearing nice clothes for a change! All I can say is that ESPN has been a disaster this year for Nascar fans, and they really need to fix a lot of problems before I like it.

I listen each day to a radio station based in Clemson, SC on my drive to and from work, WCCP FM. In the afternoon, the run a syndicated show called Primetime with the Packman, hosted by Mark Packer who is the son of basketball commentator Billy Packer. It's a very entertaining show, and though they don't deal with a lot of Nascar talk on the show, Mark has shown he has a very healthy respect for the sport. Check out his experience at the night race at Bristol here. I don't think you'll be disappointed, it's a very interesting read.

I killed some time online at work today (don't tell my boss!) just reading a lot of Nascar related stuff. I found a couple of sites that want to ban Nascar. That's right, ban Nascar and all racing. The claims made were that it's bad for the environment, that it wastes fuel, that it's too dangerous, and that it is, after all, not even a sport. People with these views just amuse me. If it's soccer, they love it and think it's all good. I'm not particularly a soccer fan, but I don't mind it. I just think it's relatively boring. To some people cars turning left all day is boring, I guess. To each his own.

I've been watching racing since the early 1970's. Usually we only got to see a condensed version of a race on Wild World of Sports, a week after the fact, but beginning in 1979, we began to at least occasionally see a race start to finish live on TV. I was lucky enough to get to go to some dirt track races and even a couple of trips to Greenville-Pickens Speedway back when it was actually on the old Grand National circuit. In other words, I've been a fan of the sport for a long time. I think my favorites years were between about 1980 and 2000, watching drivers like Pearson, Petty, Yarborough, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Kulwicki, Wallace, and a ton of others tear up the track every week. Nascar periodically made rules changes, such as allowing Fords to change the height of the real spoiler, or allowing Chevy to lower the car a quarter inch. Nascar did these things to make the racing more competitive. Nascar still strives to do the same thing, and I've tried to embrace the Chase and the Car of Tomorrow, but after watching the results of these latest changes, I'm feeling just a little turned off by the whole deal.

I think the Chase could be good, if they tweak things a little, but even though I'm not a Jeff Gordon fan, I still feel like he got cheated. In the old points system, he would have easily won his 5th cup championship. I feel bad for you folks that are Jeff Gordon fans. In my opinion, you and your driver got cheated.

I also feel that the Car of Tomorrow was a great idea, at least on paper. I was excited about it before they actually started racing them. Let's make the cars bigger, like they used to be, let's make them more of a challenge to driver, but let's still make them fast. Unfortunately, the COT has turned out to be a dog. Very few of the drivers like to drive them, they don't handle well, and Nascar has put so many limits on how teams can adjust them, it makes for a bunch of drivers all playing follow the leader in ill handling cars.

All in all, I miss the 80's and 90's in Nascar. I love to watch some of the old races where so many things that are controversial nowadays were just facts of life back then. I like watching the days when drivers would get out of cars and put their hands on each other to vent their frustrations without worrying about fines, points penalties, etc. I miss the days when it was not only acceptable to put the bumper on someone to move them out of your way, it was expected. Not it's a sin, and I think the quality of racing has suffered for it.

I'm pretty jazzed about the 2008 season though. I can't wait to see how all the changes will affect the teams next year. Dale Jr. driving for Hendrick. Mark Martin driving the 8. It just boggles the mind! If you had asked me 365 days ago if either one of those drivers would be where they are going next year, I would have said you're crazy for even thinking that!

Truth is often stranger than fiction though.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What should Nascar do this off season?

I hope everyone had a very Happy Thanksgiving. As always, I ate too much, and am feeling a little like taking a nap this morning, but it's a work day as usual here.

I keep hearing about TV ratings and empty seats at the race tracks, especially the latter part of this season, and I keep wondering what should Nascar be doing to keep the fans interested in our sport? Why has interest been falling off as of late? Is it because of 2 drivers on the same team basically dominating the year, and especially the Chase? Is it because of the Car Of Tomorrow leads to boring racing? In the case of TV ratings, are ESPN, ABC, TNT, and FOX running off viewers by putting a poor product on the air?

Let me give you my opinions on these issues one by one. Just because I say it, doesn't mean it's right, of course. I'm just a fan, as most of you are, and my opinion is just that: One fan's opinion.

I think that unless you were a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson fan, the last part of the season, indeed a lot of the season became somewhat boring. I love racing, and watched every lap that I could this season, but I have to admit that I got bored when it seemed to become a Johnson/Gordon streak. I watched, but I was not nearly as excited about the races when it became clear that 2 drivers on the same team clearly outclassed everyone else on the track when it came to equipment and just pure ability to get it done. I hope the playing field evens out next year, and we see more racing from more teams than just one or two.

At first I believed that the Car Of Tomorrow would help make the racing better in the Cup series, but now I'm not so sure. I watched about the most boring Talladega race in the history of the sport, and I feel like maybe the COT is a step in the right direction, but it's missing something. When virtually all the drivers complain about how the car handles, I'm beginning to think that Nascar needs to allow the teams some freedom to tinker with the chassis and suspensions and try to find something that makes the car go faster or corner better. Unfortunately, this type of thinking seems to be 180 degrees out of phase with Nascar's purpose here. I'd like to see better racing, and more creativity on the part of the teams, and Nascar apparently would like to see less. Oh well. It's not the first time I've disagreed with Nascar! I would really, really like to see better racing on the track though. It would make me want to watch more racing, and I suspect that other fans probably feel much the same way.

Now on to the TV networks. Oh, there are so many things I could say about ESPN and ABC's coverage of Nascar this year. From the network who used to do it the best in the late 1990's to the absolute worst in 2007. Almost everything about the broadcasts grates on my nerves, from Rusty Wallace's practice of being unable to pronounce names like "Gilliland", to Brent Musberger and Suzy Kolber's apparent complete lack of Nascar knowledge. But the absolute worst part of watching the broadcasts is the apparent unimportance of actually showing us the racing on the track. ESPN routinely spent 2 minutes or so coming back from breaks by going to Brent and Brad and Suzy, and we got to watch them blather on and on about meaningless drivel. It wouldn't be so bad listening to them, but do we have to watch them too? We already know what they look like. At least show us what's happening on the track!

I think all the networks that air Nascar broadcasts could improve, but ESPN and ABC have been a total and complete disappointment for me this year. TNT was not so good, but Kyle Petty in the booth made it tolerable. Fox is in my opinion the best. They get on my nerves sometimes, but they still show more racing, and have more fun with the broadcasts.

In my opinion, ESPN should pull out some old video tapes of some of the races from 1999 or 2000, and watch them. Put knowledgeable people on the broadcasts, keep the cameras pointed at the track and not at the commentators, and just show the racing. That's all I ask.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The original (official) Thanksgiving.

The following is a proclamation issued by one of the founding fathers of the United States. I hope that you all have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor -- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be -- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks -- for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation -- for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility [sic], union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed -- for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted -- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions -- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually -- to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed -- to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn [sic] kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord -- To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease [sic] of science among them and us -- and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York
the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

George Washington

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Back to the real world? (At least for a While!)

I don't know about you, but I woke up Monday morning feeling a little like I had a hangover. I didn't imbibe any alcoholic beverages on Sunday, yet I felt like I needed a hot cup of coffee, and quite frankly, a day off just to recover.

Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson on his 2nd Nextel Cup Championship. Jimmie's second consecutive cup is well deserved, and he deserves all the accolades that go with winning it again. Jimmie was perfect when he needed to be, and only failed when it apparently didn't matter. His teammate and co-owner Jeff Gordon was scratching his head the other night wondering how he could have accomplished all he did this season and still come up short. As a matter of fact, so am I. Jeff had an unprecedented year of success, and he still got beat. It just goes to show how high the bar has been set in Nascar's elite series.

Part of this does concern Brian France's recent tweaking of the series of course. Without the Chase, Jeff Gordon would have won the championship easily. As an old time fan of Nascar, I'm experiencing some mixed emotions about this, but Nascar, and it's drivers have always had to play by the rules handed down from on high. This year is no different.

For all of us Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, Sunday was a day that was absolutely gut wrenching on so many levels. It was Dale Jr.'s last race for DEI, the company that his father built, and it was also Dale Jr.'s last chance to get one more win in the old 8 car. Sadly, the day did not go well at all, with some early cautions that unfortunately involved Nascar's most popular driver. First he gets spun on the entrance to the pits, and then gets punted on the restart by the 31 Chevy of Jeff Burton. I don't fault Jeff in any of this, he is not the kind of guy that hits someone on purpose, and it was either someone checking up in front of Dale Jr., or Jeff was blinded by the sun. I don't blame Jeff really at all. See what having a good rep does for you? Kyle Busch, on the other hand, did exactly what I've come to expect from him over the last couple of years: He came in too hot, and didn't get on the brakes when he should have been. In my mind at least, that's what his past reputation has done for him. Sorry if I'm wrong, but this is the kind of thing I have come to expect from Busch the younger. Or for that matter, from the older. Family tradition, anyone?

Martin Truex Jr. must be extremely disappointed this week. He made the Chase, ran hard for all 10 of the last 10 races, and was rewarded with no invitation to the big banquet in New York. I think that if Nascar tweaks anything at all in the off season, it should be that all 12 or how ever many Chase drivers there are, all should have a seat in the Waldorf. Limit the speakers on the time they have to speak, if they must, but they worked hard to get to where they got. Let them have that recognition at least.

Kevin Harvick might have had at least as disappointing Chase as well. He won the Daytona 500, and looked like a lock to contend for the title. Crappy handling cars seemed to keep him from living up to his potential though. Kevin's year could be summed up in 3 words: Almost Good Enough.

Both Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer got their first wins in the Cup this year. Congratulations to both of them. Both victories are well deserved. Clint's came at a very opportune time, being the first race of the Chase. Congratulations to both of you and I hope you experience the joy of being in Victory Lane many, many more times in your careers.

Congratulations are also in order to Juan Pablo Montoya, who won Rookie of the Year. It was a well deserved award, and JPM has really stepped up to the plate this year, and has probably learned a lot about racing 'taxi cabs'. Guess it's not as easy as some of your open wheel brethren thought, huh?

As an aside, I'll be here on a regular basis, talking about whatever I feel is worth talking about during the off season. Off season is sometimes one of the best times of the year for news, and I'll continue to let you know what I think about all the news in Nascar. Like all of you, I'm counting the days until Daytona, and I hope we all have very happy holidays in the meantime.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. If you know a person who wears a uniform in service of their country, pat them on the back and thank them for what they do for us all every day. We should all truly give thanks for that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Is this the best driver in Nascar?

I've been hearing this all week, from various sources, which I won't name, but if you've read or watched a lot of Nascar news this week, you've probably heard the same thing. My question is this: Is Kyle Busch really the best driver in Nascar?

I will give Kyle some kudos, first of all. Kyle Busch can drive a wicked loose race car better than probably any other driver I've seen in many years. He can drive his car with the tail hanging out and still pass people. It's pretty amazing to watch, really. He can hold down the throttle longer into the corners and get on it faster than just about any other driver out there. He can keep that car on the very razor edge of out of control, that I find him a very entertaining driver to watch on the track.

For a driver that exhibits such skills at car control, he unfortunately exhibits some very poor decision making skills. Kyle tends to push when he needs to let up, and he tends to get upset when a cool head would keep him out of trouble. Kyle is still very young, and I imagine that when a little maturity kicks in, he really might be the best driver in the sport. Right now I see a hot headed kid that not only wrecks himself more than he should, but he also wrecks other cars by being in the gas when he should be on the brakes, and by just letting his temper get the best of him.

We were all young once, and some of you dear readers still are, but Kyle Busch is different from other drivers that are booed loudly at the race track. Sure Kyle has talent, and he's won some races, but it seems to me that he gets booed because of his attitude and his tendency to shoot off his mouth.

This weekend marks Kyle's final ride in the hallowed Rick Hendrick 5 car, where Kyle got his start in the Cup series by getting in the car vacated by past champion Terry Labonte. Kyle will be driving the 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing beginning next year, a new team and a new manufacturer. He will also have two teammates that have made their own news with reputations for having hot heads: Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

2008 will a crucial season for Kyle Busch. Can he cope with the new team and the new car? Will he be able to work with Denny and Tony? Regardless of his driving skills, all the above abilities will determine whether Kyle Busch is truly a great driver or not.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

It's all good, folks. In February, it will all be better!

Watching the last Cup race will be a bit tough for me this week. After the Homestead race, I'll be forced to watch more NFL and NCAA football, and probably even some NCAA basketball for a few months. As a long time fan of ACC basketball, I suppose I'll survive.

I'm going to miss the racing season though, but as Jayski has taught all of us, just because there's not racing on the weekends doesn't mean that big things aren't happening. I'm guessing one of the biggest subjects that will be talked about this off season will be how Nascar will tweak the rules, regarding the Car of Tomorrow, which after Sunday's race might as well just be referred to as The Car. It's going to be in 38 races next year, unless Nascar makes a big change.

In a way, I'm all for the new car. It makes everyone a little more equal, at least on paper. No one tested the new car as much as Rick Hendrick Racing did, and the profit of that has been very obvious this year. I remember certain teams dominating the sport before, usually with one driver, but this year the 24/48 knockout punch of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon has basically devastated the rest of the field. I have a feeling that Nascar will try once again to achieve parity, though I can't imagine how they'll attempt it this time.

In a lot of ways, I'll be glad to see the season end at Homestead on Sunday, but in a lot of ways, I'll be sad, and be counting the days until Speedweeks at Daytona in February.

Monday, November 12, 2007

More heartache for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Finishing 43rd in yesterday's race was not Dale Jr.'s idea of fun. The DEI driver drove his heart out, yet again, and finished 43rd in the race at Phoenix, Arizona. First he apparently over drove the car, and crashed. Then the engine went south, probably because of the crash. This just hurts, folks. Let's put a bullet in the head of this thing and move on to another horse.

We still have one more race at Miami/Homestead. Dale Jr. could defy the odds and win it. It's his last chance, and I know he's going to go for it. I just pray that he saves himself for a fresh start next year. We don't need to see a win this year Dale. We just want you safe and sound for your start in the 88 next year.

Don't push it, even though I know you will. Let's just get out of this car next week with no feelings of shame, and move on.

You've given it the old college try, old boy. Let's just move on from here.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bruton Smith and New Hampshire

Let me preface my comments by saying that I've never been a race in New Hampshire, so I'm just speaking as a fan who has watched a lot of New Hampshire races on TV. If I lived in New England, I would have seen some NH races, but I haven't.

I used to hate watching races at New Hampshire, to be honest with you. I remember the awful year of 2000, losing Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty there. I remember a race that Jeff Burton led from start to finish. I remember restrictor plates at the track. All that leads to bad memories and not so fun racing, at least from a television standpoint.

But I have to admit that the last few races at what will soon be known (if not already) New Hampshire Motor Speedway have been great races to watch, even on television. I know a lot of racing fans in the Northeastern part of the country and Canada love to go to the track to watch racing. Nascar has traditionally been a Southern sport, but over the years the news has spread, and we now have die hard fans in all parts of not just this country, but other countries as well.

For these reasons, I hope that Bruton Smith will not pull a North Wilkesboro on us and take even one date away from New Hampshire. If anything, I'd like to see Mr. Smith make the racing at New Hampshire even more exciting, and not subject us to yet another track date at another cookie cutter 1.5 mile tri-oval track. I love Charlotte, and I love Atlanta, and I think 1.5 milers are fun tracks to watch a race, but tracks like Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol, Darlington, and two of my favorite tracks no longer on the schedule, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro are all factors that make watching racing every week enjoyable. Dover and New Hampshire fall into that category as well. I say let's mix it up, and put more dates on short tracks.

Bruton Smith has already threatened to leave Concord, NC, and build another track elsewhere in the Charlotte area. I'd hate to see that, especially if he built another featureless 1.5 mile track that lacks Lowes' Motor Speedway's history and character. If he builds another odd ball track such as a Dover, or a Bristol, I could get over not having the old track at Charlotte.

Mr. Smith has also bulldozed the relatively new Las Vegas track and rebuilt it from the ground up recently. I think Bruton Smith has better racing and more ticket sales as his goal, but I just hope that he doesn't take away a race from the pretty little track in Loudon, New Hampshire.

An aside: I know most people don't like the thought of someone like Bruton Smith building a race track in their backyards. I happen to love it, though. I live within a mile or so of my local short track, the Anderson, SC Motor Speedway. AMS is your typical 3/8 mile bullring, and features talent from all over the SC, NC, GA area, and from places far beyond. Even when I'm not at the track, I can hear them racing on Friday nights even when my windows are closed. This does not bother me at all. In fact, I've often drifted off to sleep listening to the sweet sound of horsepower.

I'll be pulling for you, New England! The Sox won it all, and BC is doing extremely well, the Patriots are undefeated, and I hope New Hampshire will end up being another victory for you!

Monday, November 5, 2007

How dominant should one owner be?

I freely admit, because my driver is joining the team next year, that I hope that the Rick Hendrick Motorsports strangle hold on the Nextel Cup series continues into next year. Those of us who have watched the sport for a long time know that teams achieve a level that no one else can match, and what I'm wondering is whether or not it's good for racing. Back in the 1960's, Petty dominated. Oh, yeah, in the 1970's Petty pretty much dominated too. In the 1980's, it was people like Earnhardt and Waltrip that seemed to be on top of the heap. There's a lot of others as well, such as Elliot, Wallace, etc. but I'm going for dynasties here. In the 1990's, Jeff Gordon was just ridiculous with his winning percentage.

In 2007, it appears we have another dynasty on the loose, and it's name is Hendrick. Can Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon possibly be more dominant than they are now?

Nascar has had an unending quest for parity in the sport for decades now, and I'm pretty sure there are some folks in the big office in Daytona Beach right now crunching numbers, reading statistics, and trying to figure out the next new bombshell that Nascar will drop on us, the fans, the people that ultimately finance the entire sport. Fans finance the sport, you might ask? Of course we do!

Sponsors such as Dupont, Lowes, Home Depot, Budweiser, and about a few hundred others actually write the checks to the teams. But where does that money come from? Uh, well, from us, folks. We support the sponsors, we buy beer, building materials, paint, and all kinds of stuff. When you think about it, We, the Fans, really do pay for what we're watching every Sunday. How happy are you with the quality of racing lately?

Compared to years gone by, I'm not that happy. Nascar has their fingers poked into too many pies these days. I'm still not totally sold on the Chase. I'm not totally sold on the huge penalties in points that some teams take, and other's don't. Nascar is the ruling body over the sport, but they literally beat themselves to pieces when they are not consistent with how and who they apply the rules to.

What it comes down to is that I feel that the more control that Nascar exercises over the actual racing part of the sport, the more boring it is. If I were watching drag racing, it would be totally boring to watch cars tie every single time they ran against each other. Nascar seems to be trying to push literally a 43 car tie at the line every week.

Let's even the playing field, but let's give credit to the guys that think smarter and work smarter. Hendrick Motorsports is the team that seems to be ahead by head and shoulders right now. Once upon a time it was Roush, then it was DEI, at least at restrictor plate tracks, then it was Richard Childress, then it was blah, blah, blah, going back to Raymond Parks in the early 1950's.

If people work smarter, and back it up on the track, They deserve to win. This is Rick Hendrick's year, and he's the best of the best.

Is it fair? Probably not. Is it right, I say yes. Let them race, and Nascar, just quit tinkering with the system. I for one really don't want to see 43 identically prepared cars on the track every week. If you prepare properly, and if you have the sense to get the right driver, then you ought to be rewarded by getting some wins and some championships. Rick Hendrick has figured out the system, and he's the best there is right now.

Can anything stop this guy?

Rick Hendrick must be a happy man. If I had 3 of my 4 teams in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and it was going to be a shootout between two of my guys to win it all, I'd be happy too.

Next year, Rick Hendrick also will be able to boast that not only does he have the winningest active driver in Nascar, but also the most popular driver when Dale Earnhardt Jr. joins the team. 2008 is shaping up to be a storybook year for Hendrick Motorsports.

There are still a lot of unknowns though. How much will the rest of the field catch up with Hendrick in the off season? Will Dale Jr. be able to hit the ground running with his new team and win races? Will the magic that has blessed the Hendrick family of drivers this year extend into the new season? As far as I can tell, all indications point to a resounding 'Yes' on all counts.

As great a season 2007 has been for Rick Hendrick, 2008 is shaping up to be at least as good or better. The COT will be used in all the races, and Hendrick engineers already have a big lead in understanding the secrets of that car. From everything I've seen and heard, Hendrick seems to have an advantage in virtualy every facet of racing, whether it be people behind the wheel, or the people behind the scenes.

I'm just wondering if Nascar will, in it's never ending quest for equality, begin to penalize the sports top teams just for being so good? I won't be surprised if somewhere along the line, Nascar decides it's just not right for one team owner to be so dominant.

Until then, Hendrick remains the team to beat, week in and week out.