Monday, December 29, 2008

Athlete or Not? Are NASCAR Drivers really Athletes?

It's an age old argument, that I'm quite frankly getting tired of.  Listening to a recent Christmas edition of Sporting News Radio, I head a guest host say that NASCAR drivers are not athletes.  "They drive around in circles, for Christ's sake" the host exclaimed.  "Anybody could do that!"

I'll refrain from my usual arguments about the 120 plus degree heat.  I'll refrain from my usual arguments about losing up to 8 per cent of total body weight during a 500 mile race in the summer.  No, I have a different argument that I'd like to bring up that will prove for once and all that yes, indeed, NASCAR drivers are true athletes.

Hand and eye coordination has long been touted as the main ingredient for any athlete.  Yes, any idiot can drive a nice climate controlled passenger car for hours in circles.  Most of us, who happen to be male, have done this with families in the car while looking for our vacation destinations.  Asking for directions?  That's truly a non-sport.

I personally have never driven the family minivan at 180 miles per hour in circles around anything.  I've never been able to get the minivan up to even half that speed on a dead flat stretch of interstate.  My face pours sweat, my perfectly arranged hair sprouts horns, but the dang thing won't go over 75, no matter what I do to it.  I asked a racing experienced guy that I know why that phenomena exists.  His answer was succinct.  "Well, it's like you're driving a dang barn door through the air.  It just ain't going to go that dang fast."  I thought, with my superior hand and eye skills, that I could make a UPS van go 180 on a dead, flat, straight road.

I was wrong.  As it turns out, there was some stupid deal called aerodynamics that made my minivan, and indeed, the big brown truck, move relatively slowly through the air.  A really huge vehicle with a huge profile will go slower than something shaped like a bullet through the air.  I'm guessing that this is why we don't see many bullets shaped like UPS delivery vans.

But, naturally, I digress.  The main point of what I'm trying to say here is that very few sportscasters could maintain control over a 3500 lb stock car at speeds much over 45 MPH for more than a lap or two, on any track in the nation.  There is no CD player, there is no Garmin.  There is no cruise control, nor is there any gas gauge.  In many cases, I'm guessing some of these NASCAR haters couldn't do without a regular shot of thier favorite beverage at regular intervals.

Here's one for you, sports experts.  Try driving any vehicle on a straight line at 180 plus mph for more than 5 seconds.  Now, try doing it while having to steer and turn corners, and try to keep that vehicle out of the wall.  Try doing it with 42 other vehicles on the track.  Try to pass a slower car in front of you without crashing.  It's not a sport, huh? 

Try it for real before you say it's not a sport.  In NASCAR, it's not just Hand to Eye coordination.  You have to have your hands, eyes, feet, and basically your entire brain utterly coordinated, sometimes at extreme heat, pulling extreme G's.  

Do it before you criticize it, please.  I don't know crap about soccer, but I'd say it takes some skills.  Racing takes some extreme skills most sports types have never even thought about.

In the Unemployment Line - NASCAR Faces Tough Times

Not all of NASCAR, obviously, but there are quite a few people who depend upon the sport for their livelihood that are looking for jobs this off season.  The recent tough economic times have been far reaching in the sport.  Hundreds of shop employees have been laid off, beginning back during the racing season.  More than a few drivers are looking for a ride, and even long time writers who have covered the sport for many years are not suddenly without jobs.

No one, of course, ever really seriously suggested that NASCAR as not just a sport, but an industry of its own, was immune to tough times.  No form of entertainment is truly immune, unless you count liquor stores, and that's only if you call drinking entertainment.  It certainly makes for an interesting spectator sport at times, especially during the holiday season.

Two relatively high profile drivers are looking for jobs right now.  Elliot Sadler has reportedly been let go from GEM in favor of A.J. Allmendinger.  Bobby Labonte, who announced he was leaving Petty some days ago has still not announced where he will be in 2009.  One would hope that both drivers find gainful employment for the 2009 season, but times are tough in NASCAR.

Sponsors have suddenly found themselves with much smaller advertising budgets going into the new year.  Car manufacturers have had to cut support for racing to the bone in many cases.  As of right now, there are apparently only 29 cars that will be fully sponsored in the Sprint Cup series in 2009.  This situation makes me wonder if now might be the time for smaller teams to make a few all out pushes to build a car, hire a driver, even for just a one race deal, and try to get the car and crew to the race track.  It's beginning to look doubtful that the field will be overpopulated with cars in 2009, at least at a lot of races.  Instead of seeing 48 cars battling to fill 43 starting spots, we may see only 39 or 40 teams show up at some tracks next year.  If these small teams can pass technical inspection, actually put a car on the track with a qualified driver, and have some form of over the wall crew, they could be racing in 2009.  It will take some deep pockets, and hopefully some short term sponsors to make this happen, but this could actually be a boom time for small teams just trying to get a toe hold in the sport.

Thinking along the same lines, this could be a good time for small sponsors to get their names on TV in 2009.  Smaller teams might have a better shot at making the field, and even a one race deal with the right team and driver might give a small sponsor more coverage than they ever dreamed would be possible on a national forum.  I keep thinking back to a few years ago, when in 2005, a Dodge driven by Kevin Lepage, owned by a Georgia businessman named John Carter, and sponsored by Patron Tequila finished 9th in the Daytona 500.  That little deal netted winnings in excess of $300,000, which is not a bad race day for anyone.  Storybook endings like this won't happen every race, but all racing is a gamble.  You don't know what you got until the green flag drops, and in a lot of ways, advertising has to be the same way.  You never know quite what you have until you put it out there for all the world to see.  A smaller playing field in NASCAR might mean that some small company, some small race team, and some driver nobody's ever heard of could make a big splash on the national stage.

Sometimes what seems like unfortunate events for many can actually turn into opportunity for others.  Racing is obviously a competitive sport, but what many might not realize is that there is competition well beyond the track.  Sponsors compete to have their names and products showcased in the best possible places.  Crew members compete to get on the best teams.  Even writers and journalists have been hit hard by this economic downturn.  Mike Mulhern, who wrote for the Winston-Salem Journal for over 30 years had his job eliminated this year.  I've not always agreed with Mr. Mulhern's opinions, but I've always had great respect for his writing abilities.  I know we'll be seeing much more of Mike's writing in the future, because he's far too good a journalist to keep away from the sport, and much more importantly, his readers.

Also, careful NASCAR junkies will no doubt notice that Yahoo has basically dropped it's full time coverage of NASCAR as well.  Though there will be some feature and special articles, we probably won't be reading the day to day happenings in NASCAR in 2009.  I wish all the crew at Yahoo who have worked so hard over the years well in all their new endeavors.  We'll be seeing more of those guys on other forums soon, I trust.

Though we all face tough times ahead, it is nice to remember that sometimes, for every dark cloud that covers the sky, often a little rainbow appears.  Ten years from now, I hope to be reading stories about people who found success beyond their wildest dreams in the middle of such hard times.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A NASCAR Fan's Open Letter to Santa Claus

Hey, Big Man! It's almost that time of year again. I know you're busy finishing up the toy production run for this year, and undoubtedly almost finished making your list and have probably proceeded to checking it twice. May a sometimes naughty, but mostly nice racing fan make a few last minute requests?

First and foremost, Santa, please bring us safe racing next year. Let every driver, crew member, official, fan, and passerby return to their homes after the race under their own power. We pray to the Good Lord for the same thing week in and week out, but we figure maybe a little Christmas Magic could help in that area as well.

Please bring us some good racing in 2009. Please let every race have its own unique qualities, its own personality, it's own reasons for fans wanting to watch it over and over again, and to want to come back to the same track in the future for even more.

Please bring Goodyear a magic formula for tire compounds in 2009, please, please, please Sir! Please don't give us the ugly lump of coal that was the Indianapolis race from 2008 again, Santa! We as fans promise, we'll be good!

Santa, please bring the new car better handling. Please let the drivers race each other for wins rather than simply just trying to keep the car on the track and out of the fence. In other words, Santa, please give us racing again instead of 500 mile tests.

Santa, please bring all the teams more sponsors in 2009. Many of the smaller teams are hurting, and need just a little boost to get them in the races. On a side note, please bring us all more money so we can support our sport by buying tickets and merchandise! Or just bring us the tickets and the merchandise! You know who we are and who wants what! (wink, wink!)

Santa, can you please bring us some good, old fashioned, straight up qualifying? Bring us the fastest 43 cars and let them race. Bring NASCAR some common sense so that they know the top 35 rule is basically making it harder, instead of easier, for smaller teams to get into the field.

Santa, can you bring us a return to racing without the Chase for the Cup? I think the Chase is another deterrent to would be sponsors, because the sponsors that really want to shine want to make sure they are only on a top 12 car every year, which leaves a lot of cars without adequate sponsorship who might be in the Chase if they had more resources. NASCAR has unwittingly created a vicious circle here, Santa, and instead of improving the racing with its so-called play off system, it's only eliminated most of the field from gaining much exposure during the last 10 races of the season. Nothing irritates a sponsor more than not getting air time.

Santa, can you bring the upper management at NASCAR a little extra wisdom for next year? Just enough to show them that monkeying with a great product almost always lessens the value of the product. It seems to me that the racing just isn't as good as it used to be. There are exceptions, of course, but even races that in the past have always been exciting seem to have lost a little of their luster lately. (Try saying that fast three times, Santa!)

Finally, Santa, I implore you to send some of your elves to Detroit and other great cities all over the continent and help get the Big 3 straightened out. NASCAR just won't be the same without Chevrolet, Ford, or Dodge. We know your guys have production down to, well, magic. If anyone can straighten out the mess our automobile manufacturers are in, you and your folks can, Santa! I just know you can!

Lastly, (I know I said finally before, but you know how I am) I'd recommend a little higher spring rate and a round down on the track bar on your sleigh. It will help you in the corners, I think.

Merry Christmas Santa! Merry Christmas to all the Racing Nation.


Your Friend,

Jimmy C

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dodge Says They're Hanging In There

Despite the massive financial problems facing the Chrysler Corporation, Dodge Motorsports director Mike Accavitti says that they will continue to support its NASCAR program. In the short term, this is very good news for NASCAR and its Dodge teams.

I will not delve into the root causes of the financial difficulties which all the domestic automakers face here. There are literally thousands of places to read analysis of the economics involved. As far as NASCAR is concerned, 3 of the 4 automobile manufacturers represented in the sport are in big trouble. Dodge is shutting down all North American manufacturing plants for at least 30 days. Ford has announced that it will extend the annual 2 week shut down of 10 of its plants by an extra week in January.

The fact is this: All of NASCAR's non Toyota teams face drops in manufacturer support in 2009 and beyond. This quite frankly blows NASCAR's carefully tweaked level playing field all to heck. Toyota has already been flexing it's considerable muscles and appears to be ready to dominate the sport should its competitors lose manufacturer support.

Dodge's commitment to supporting its race teams in the middle of such uncertainty is commendable. How effective its support to its teams will be remains, of course, to be determined. Coming off a disappointing 2008 season, and now faced with a financial crises, Dodge has proven that when it came back to NASCAR in 2001, it came back to stay.

I sincerely hope that Ford and Chevrolet will be able to step up to the plate and make the same commitment.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Silly Season Information... and Misinformation

No, I'm not going to tell you all the latest news and rumors in NASCAR in this column. You can find much better (or worse) sources for that information. If you read the rumor mills on a daily basis, as I do, you may begin to feel your head spinning around, or at least your mind within your head. Done deals are refuted within hours, sure things are found to be very unsure at all. It's all part of what we call the silly season, of course, but there are more players in the game every year, and thus a geometrical expansion of possible rumors.

It appears that some rumors are simply created to produce readership. One popular mid season rumor had Bobby Labonte signed, sealed and delivered to Richard Childress Racing's 4 team for 2009. I was guilty of partly buying that rumor. If you look back through the archives here, you will find what I said about it. At the time, I did not myself say it was a done deal at all, but at that particular moment in NASCAR thinking, it was the conventional wisdom. As it turned out, that particular rumor couldn't have been farther from the truth. Bobby Labonte went on to sign a multi year contract with Petty, though he has now announced that he has parted ways after becoming disillusioned by the performance of Petty's new business partner (read majority owner) since Boston Ventures came into the picture.

The latest rumor involving Labonte is that he will join the newly formed Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as the driver of the 41 Target sponsored Chevy. Bobby Labonte has not commented other than to say that he did not have a new ride at the time he announced he was parting ways with the Petty organisation. I will therefore refuse to believe anything I read until Bobby Labonte makes an announcement.

Some formerly reputable news outlets have soiled their reputations in the last couple of years. Remember the 2007 frenzy over the future of Dale Earnhardt Jr.? If you've been more than a very casual fan of the sport in the last few years, you have to remember all the rumors flying around over that deal. Dale Jr.'s departure from DEI and his move to Hendrick was undoubtedly the NASCAR media event of the 2007 season. This year has been much more of the same, only probably the biggest mover was Tony Stewart from Joe Gibbs Racing to his own team at Stewart-Haas Racing, and now being joined by former Penske driver Ryan Newman. Someone, I don't know whether it was Tony himself or not, was wise enough to complete most of the deal before allowing too much talk to get started about where he would be driving in 2009. How the media must have hated not having 6 plus months of rumors to spread about Tony, as they did with Dale Jr. last year!

In the last few days, I've read about how Petty and Gillet Evernham Motorsports were going to merge, then not merge, and now supposedly going to merge again. Will we see a Toyota in Petty blue next year? If so, who will the driver be? I don't have a clue, and chances are, if you're reading this, neither do you. It's one of the fun parts of the sport, not knowing and being surprised, sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not so much. The misinformation aspect of the silly season doesn't bother me nearly as much as how much stock many fans put in the rumors they read and hear about. Folks, never believe everything you read. That should be a basic fact of life, especially on the Internet.

Another word of advice for my fellow fans as well: Don't believe what you read just because it's what you want to believe. Early in 2007, the conventional wisdom among Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans was that he would drive for Richard Childress, and eventually drive his daddy's old number 3 on his car. I thought that was the most likely scenario early in 2007 as well, and never in a million years did I think he would end up driving for Rick Hendrick, and be a teammate of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But that's exactly what happened, and once most of his fans recovered from the initial shock, they supported Dale Jr. in his decision and as a result of guilt by association, many Dale Jr. fans are also pulling for drivers that they once reviled as enemies. There is something else to remember as well: Though there are still some true rivalries among NASCAR drivers, many of these rivalries are blown out of proportion in order to make the most out of the press value. By all accounts, the Hendrick drivers are all at least friends, if not bosom buddies. They respect each other. Mark Martin coming on board for 2009 and beyond is not likely to change that spirit.

For most of us, NASCAR is not the ultimate purpose for our lives. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who do depend on their livelihood from the sport, and in some ways I do as well. I think it's important to remember that it is a sport, it is entertainment, just like football or baseball or basketball. We have fewer major players in our sport just because of its very nature, and therefore we become very attached to our drivers. Rumors should be taken at face value, and my advice to everyone is to not rush to conclusions until the people involved make an official announcement. It's very easy to start a rumor, and it's very easy to lose all credibility for spreading them around as well.

I plan on posting here again before Christmas, but in any event, I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas. If you don't believe in Christmas, then Happy Holidays. Either way, Seasons Greetings to all of you.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dale Earnhardt Inc., RIP

1999, Mooresville, North Carolina:

Dale Earnhardt is riding high. He's had surgery that makes him feel younger than he's felt in years. He's beginning to win races again. He's finally won the Daytona 500, a goal that he came so close to achieving for 20 years, yet slipped away, often on the last lap. But Dale finally has put that feather in his cap. Dale Earnhardt Inc. is beginning to boom. He's in the process of setting up his 2000 team, which will include driver Steve Park and his son, 2 time Busch champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale has Pennzoil on board as Steve's sponsor, and Budweiser has inked a multi year deal for Dale Jr. Dale spends time putting people in position at DEI, but takes the time to enjoy the hunting season. He spends quality time with Teresa and Taylor. Life is good for Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2000. Dale wins again, win number 76 in his storied career. His son, Dale Jr. wins in his first full season in the Winston Cup, not once, but twice. He also wins the Winston all star race at Charlotte in May. Life seemingly could not get much better for the man most of the NASCAR world calls the Intimidator.

Fast forward once again to 2001. It's February in Daytona, Florida. Dale Earnhardt and his son have just driven as teammates in the 24 hour Rolex race, and had a great time together. Dale's relationship with his often rebellious son as matured to the point that they are more comfortable in each other's presence. Dale Jr. seeks his father's advice on many subjects, and Dale is more than happy to share his experience with him. Dale's team has grown to 3 Cup teams this year, with the addition of long time friend Michael Waltrip, driving the DEI Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet. Dale's teams are running good, and so is his black number 3 Chevrolet which he's driven for long time friend Richard Childress all these years. Life is good, and it's Speed Weeks in Daytona. NASCAR has new TV contracts with Fox and NBC, and now, for the first time, literally all of America can watch every race from green flag to checkered flag every week.

Finally race day is here. Dale runs well most of the race. Early on, he gets bumped by a rookie driving the 98 Ford. Dale puts his hand out the window, at 200 mph, in order to give the rookie a one finger salute. Fox TV replayed the event, and that was probably the first time most of the racing world ever heard of future Cup champion Kurt Busch, who was the recipient of Dale's salute.

On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, two of Dale's cars, the 15 of Michael Waltrip and the 8 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are running 1st and 2nd. Dale runs third, and has to be a very happy man seeing two of his cars running up front in NASCAR's biggest race. Strangely, Dale Earnhardt does not try to race his employees. He holds back, as if to block the field from being able to catch his two drivers. In the process, Dale gets a little bump from behind, swerves down onto the track apron, and then shoots across the track into the Turn 4 wall, and the racing world literally stopped.

Hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton revealed the awful news. Dale Earnhardt was gone.

In the hours and days after Dale's death, DEI and Richard Childress Racing scrambled to recover. All of the NASCAR world reeled from the shock for weeks and months afterward, but these two teams really had to scramble to put their game face back on. Richard Childress recalled later that he was ready to walk away from racing for good at that point, but remembered a promise that he and Dale had once made to each other: If one of them were to die, the other would carry on. Richard decided to go on, and brought up a hot young driver named Kevin Harvick, painted the old black 3 car white, and put the number 29 on the car. A few races later, Harvick won his first Cup race at Atlanta.

At DEI, things were very grim. Dale Earnhardt Jr. later would describe the turmoil that he felt in the days after his father's death. He wondered if his sponsors and fans would leave him, since at that time he felt that his followers were only there because of his father. He was later shown that his fans were genuine, and his sponsors stayed with him.

One week after Dale Earnhardt's death, NASCAR took the show to Rockingham, NC. Very early in the race, Dale Jr. was hit and slid into the wall, in an eerie slow motion replay of the accident that had taken his father's life so recently. Dale Jr.'s day was done, and he was limping when he got out of the car. It later turned out that he was not injured in the crash, but simply had his belts so tight that his feet and legs were starving for blood circulation. Dale Jr. of course survived and went on to win a lot of races in the 8 car in future years. The Rockingham race was eventually won by DEI driver Steve Park, in what must have the been the most emotional victory in his career.

At first, it appeared that DEI was going to be just fine. Dale Jr. was successful, as was Michael Waltrip. Eventually, Michael Waltrip left DEI, beginning his own team with the entry of Toyota into NASCAR. By 2006, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began to become increasingly frustrated by the lack of performance that he and all the DEI cars were experiencing. In 2007, Dale Jr. began negotiations with his step-mother, Teresa Earnhardt for possible control of the race team. Teresa rebuffed Dale Jr.'s offer, and eventually Dale Jr. left the company that his father had started, mostly in order to give his children a place to race if they so wished.

During this time, Teresa Earnhardt had struggled with a changing racing world. As DEI's competitiveness declined, she responded by hiring Max Siegel, a recording industry CEO, and made him a top manager in the company. What Mr. Siegel knows about racing is still a closely guarded secret, but one which is not highly in demand, judging by the steady decline at DEI.

And now, late in 2008, what was once known as Dale Earnhardt Inc. is no more. In it's second merger in 3 years, DEI is now part of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. No one named Earnhardt is currently racing for the company. Dale's grandson Jeffrey ran some races in the Camping World East series in 2008, but was replaced by another driver before the end of the season. EGR currently has 3 drivers, Martin Truex Jr. who will be sponsored in 2009 by Bass Pro Shops, Juan Pablo Montoya who will be sponsored by Big Red and others, the 8 car driven by Aric Almirola and currently having no sponsorship, and the 41 car, driver currently unnamed, and possibly sponsored by Target. Bobby Labonte, who recently announced that he was leaving Petty is listed as a top candidate for the 41 car.

My entire point is this: In 8 years, DEI has gone from a top contender, week in and week out, to at best a 3rd tier team. Hundreds of employees have been laid off over the last 3 years as mergers, first with Ginn, and now with Ganassi have occurred. DEI has hired marketing geniuses but have virtually nothing to market, other than the memory of Dale Earnhardt. Many are saying that what was once DEI is now on the verge of just being a memory.

Hard times abound now for virtually all teams in NASCAR. Even the top teams such as Hendrick and Roush have felt the pinch of a tightening economy and car manufacturer woes. DEI, however, has been sliding down an abyss for years, it would seem. This, to me, is one of the truly sad stories in NASCAR in the 21st century.

The company that Dale Earnhardt left behind on February 18, 2001, was a strong one. It's since become only a very thin shell of the greatness it once was and held.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The State of the NASCAR Nation

2008 saw a serious decline in ticket sales at the tracks and a drop in TV viewership in general for NASCAR. Layoffs abound at the many shops, and the Big 3 American automakers are in deep financial doo doo. Is NASCAR simply an innocent victim of the times? Well, yes and no.

Certainly, higher fuel prices during much of the 2008 season led to lower ticket sales at the tracks. Try as hard as they could, the TV networks covering the races, especially in the latter half of the season could not hide the numerous empty seats at many of the tracks. But NASCAR should share the blame for lower ticket sales as well, since even though they're not selling as many tickets, they haven't lowered the prices on most of them either. If you want people to come to the track to watch your races, price the tickets accordingly with the economic times. That only makes sense. Why would most people miss paying the rent or the light bill just in order to go see a race? The answer, of course, is that most people wouldn't. The US is currently enjoying low fuel prices at the moment, so hopefully that will translate to more people going to the track in 2009, but if even a medium range ticket costs somewhere in the range of $70 - $100 at some tracks, will people bother to make the trip? I wouldn't.

In the 1990's, NASCAR had a very viable product that was growing by leaps and bounds. In 2000, they inked the first of their huge TV deals with Fox and NBC. New tracks were being built, and NASCAR seemed to be destined to move into the backyards of all the major American markets, and even some in Canada and Mexico as well, as well has even providing NASCAR's style of entertainment in countries overseas as well. The sky was the limit, or so it would seem.

Actually, the limit came way lower than the sky, and was embodied by the man named Brian France. As did his father, Bill France Jr., Brian came into control of the family business burning with desire to change the sport and make it ever bigger and better. Brian France began tweaking with practically everything, including qualifying, initiating the Chase for the Cup, and directing that the sport level the playing field, by developing the Car Of Tomorrow. Brian France also began an aggressive campaign to enter markets previously largely untapped by the sport. Forays into New York and Seattle encountered hard resistance, and eventually NASCAR capitulated.

In no particular order: The Chase for the Cup has been thrilling at times, but boring at other times. My biggest beef with the Chase is that it's probably been driving sponsors away from the sport since well before 2008. At first, only the top 10 drivers in points got in, but that was later expanded to the top 12. The net benefit of this was that NASCAR could claim they had a playoff system, as do stick and ball sports. The net disaster is that NASCAR is driven by corporate sponsors. Sponsors that weren't on cars in the top 10 or top 12 were hardly given any TV time once the Chase started. The result? Sponsors began only competing to be on teams that they viewed to be likely to make the Chase, and ignoring smaller teams that desperately needed the funds in order to compete. Remember Eastman Kodak? They're gone. Hopefully not forever, but as of now, Kodak has left the building.

The Car Of Tomorrow sounded like a very good idea, since it was designed to be safer and more cost efficient than it's predecessor. The COT has been a partial success, at best. The new car, as it's now called, seems to be able to absorb more punishment than the old car did. One chassis can also be used at a wider variety of tracks than could the old car. It's probably the safest car ever to run in NASCAR. But with the improvements, so came the drawbacks. In my humble opinion, the racing has suffered since the COT was introduced. The cars are ill handling, meaning that most of the drivers are simply trying to keep the car on the track and out of the wall, rather than racing other drivers. Many teams have still not figured out how to effectively race the car. One week, they hit the setup, other weeks they miss completely, and never find it. Only 3 teams seemed to have figured out the COT's mysteries in 2008: The 48 team of Jimmie Johnson, the 99 team of Carl Edwards, and the 18 team of Kyle Busch. Most of the other teams were mired in mediocrity for much of the season. That, to me, does not spell exciting racing.

Possibly my biggest problem with Cup racing, and indeed all NASCAR series is qualifying. Many times in 2008, we saw qualifying rained out, and starting position was set by points. NASCAR claims that they want to allow easier access to the top levels of the sport to small teams, but the very system it has devised is killing small teams. I understand that qualifying is a scheduled event, much like the race itself. TV has schedules to keep, but why just cancel qualifying because of rain on Friday afternoon when Saturday blooms bright, beautiful, and most importantly, dry. For examply, small team owner John Carter, of Toccoa, Ga, attempted several races in 2008. He managed to get into one, mostly because of NASCAR's prohibitive qualifying policies. This was the owner who's driver at the time, Kevin Lepage, finished 8th in the Daytona 500 in 2005. Today? A reliable source tells me that John Carter's shop has a big 'For Sale' sign on it.

With the general financial crunch that most of the country is feeling, it's understandable that many corporate sponsors are leaving the sport because of their own difficulties. More are likely driven away by the fact that the NASCAR system favors the super teams such as Roush, Hendrick, Gibbs, RCR, and a few others. With massive layoffs at the shops, beginning in the middle of the season and continuing today, there is a huge feeling of disbelief among both the fans and the teams themselves. 2009 appears to be a very important year for NASCAR, because the very survival of the sport is at stake.

In a perfect world, the higher ups at NASCAR would examine their history and discover that certain things that worked well for them in the past have been abandoned, at least partially. I say let the racers race, let the crew chiefs innovate, and let the best car and driver win.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Looking Back on 2008

First of all, I must apologize for being away for a while. That was unavoidable on my part, but I apologize all the same. Second of all, Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Johnny Benson, the 2008 champions of the Cup, Nationwide, and Trucks series. In all three series, there were triumphs and heart breaks, feelings of "We can do this" and "What the heck is wrong with us?"

My primary focus, as always, is on the Cup series. After a slow start to the 2008 season, Jimmie Johnson came roaring back to win his 3rd consecutive Sprint Cup. Jimmie's boss and teammate, Jeff Gordon, remains winless in 2008, the first time in 15 years Jeff hasn't won a race during a season. Jeff's championship total remains at four, while Jimmie now has three. Is there a rivalry here between these two friends? Probably. But it's a friendly one, and one which team owner Rick Hendrick has to be very happy about. Despite all the changes that have taken place in the series with the new car, Hendrick still seems to have a good handle on how to give his teams what they need to win races.

Speaking of Mr. Rick Hendrick: I know there are still the haters out there. You claim that Hendrick was once convicted of some crime, which he was. He was under house arrest for quite a while, during which time he had leukemia. You claim that Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus is a cheater. It's true he's been caught cheating. Any crew chief worth his keep has either been caught cheating or should have been by now. If you're not pushing the envelope in this sport as a crew chief, you're not trying hard enough. Not that cheating is right, but in NASCAR, it's not cheating unless or until you get caught. It's that tiny advantage that you gain of the other competitors that helps you beat them by 1/10th of a second per lap is what counts. That's what any crew chief who makes it to this level has to be thinking about if he's going to win races.

What had to be NASCAR's biggest embarrassment this year was the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Competition caution flags flew every 10 laps during most of that race because tires kept popping like bubble gum. As usual, NASCAR tried to pass off the race as a huge success, but even the newest fan of the sport had to see through that ruse. NASCAR did everything they could to shovel as much praise on Goodyear for providing a tire that was an abject failure, it was hilarious to see. All eyes looked to Tony Stewart, who has been critical of Goodyear in the past, but apparently Smoke had already had the word about that. Don't disrespect the tires, ever, or else, Tony must have been told.

One of the more exciting finishes in any race this year was Kansas, when Carl Edwards let it all hang out in a last lap dash to beat Jimmie Johnson. Carl knew he was going way to fast when he shot around Jimmie going into the corner, but he was thinking about winning all the marbles at the time. Carl paid for his aggressiveness by hitting the wall and falling behind once again, but that was a real racing move he made there. Too bad he ran out of talent before he could make it stick.

The biggest disappointments in the actual Chase for the Cup had to be for Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Despite Kyle's dominance early in the season, and beginning the Chase out front, he basically hit everything and broke just about everything there was to hit in the next 10 races. Dale Jr., already suffering a series of slumps after his win at Michigan in June, continued to slip and slide along, and though he had some good finishes, he was never seriously a threat to win a second race in 2008. Worries about his crew chief situation continue to be debated by his fans. I'm going to stay out of that argument. Dale Jr. will have who he wants as he crew chief, period.

NASCAR faces a tough year in 2009. Unless the economy quickly recovers to the point that people have a little spending money, attendance will be down at the track next year as it was much of this year. American auto manufacturers will likely step down their support of the teams, as companies such as GM, Ford, and Chrysler fight for their very lives. Toyota will have an advantage in this area, since their sales are higher than ever.

Mergers among teams took some surprising turns this year. The new Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is proof of some of the hard times being experienced by so many second tier teams in this sport. Almost every team has announced layoffs in light of the changing conditions in the sport. Virtually all phases of NASCAR face tough times in 2009.

My vote for most improved driver in 2008 is David Ragan. David was struggling in 2007 just to finish races, but in 2008 he showed exactly why Jack Roush put the young driver in the the famed #6 Ford.

My vote for most improved team has to go to Red Bull Racing, and namely Brian Vickers who was in contention to win a few races in 2008. It appears that Red Bull benefited from Toyota's emergence as a true contender in NASCAR. Everyone looks at Joe Gibbs Racing success, namely with Kyle Busch, but the Red Bull guys were strong this year. I look for them to be even better next year.

My vote for best overall team effort goes to Richard Childress Racing. This three car team, soon to expand to four cars in 2009, managed to get all three cars into the Chase in 2008. Richard Childress managed to put all of his cars into the top 12 when it counted, and his driver, Clint Bowyer, also won the Nationwide championship in a RCR car. Richard Childress Racing has proven itself to be very consistent, even though they don't have the resources that Hendrick or Roush possess.

All in all, 2008, to me, was somewhat of a disappointing season. The new car, which was supposed to make the racing better, seemed to accomplish the opposite. The cars are harder to drive, and most of the drivers seemed to spend more time fighting the cars and the tires, rather than racing each other. Though I respect NASCAR's attempt to make the sport safer, I feel like they've finally meddled with a good thing too much, and now they will spend years trying to figure out how to get the excitement back that they once had an abundance of.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's Official. Earnhardt Ganassi with Felix Sabates?

The news was just announced that indeed the recently rumored merger between Dale Earnhardt Inc and Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates Racing is official. I can't help but wonder what Dale Earnhardt is thinking as he looks down from Pearly Gates.

Mergers seem to be the latest fad in the Nascar community. With sponsors disappearing from the sport, it is becoming tougher for what used to be top flight teams to stay afloat in the sport. Neither DEI nor Ganassi have any wins in 2008, in the Cup series. In an era where companies everywhere are laying off employees, Nascar is no different. It's been reported, though not confirmed as of this writing, that DEI has laid off 110 employees today. Other teams have been laying off employees lately as well. I pray that all these talented people find other jobs within the industry soon, though that would appear to be unlikely at this point.

DEI has always used Chevrolet products. Ganassi has used only Dodge products in his 8 year history in Cup. Felix Sabates has used a variety of makes, but he is a minority owner now by far, I would guess. Felix for many years used Pontiacs and Chevrolets, so he does have a past relationship with General Motors.

Details about the merger are sketchy as of now. It is known that Martin Truex Jr. will remain in the 1 car, and that Juan Pablo Montoya will remain in the 42 car. Aric Almirola will drive the 8 car next year. Supposedly a 4th car will be announced, supposing the combined company can find sponsorship and a suitable driver. Regan Smith maybe? Kyle Petty on a part time basis? No one knows right now.

One has to wonder if eventually Nascar cup teams will end up as Hendrick, Gibbs, Rousch, Stewart-Haas, and DEI-Ganassi-Bill Davis-McClure-Petty-Hall of Fame-Yates-Front Row-Gillet-Evernham-Wood Brothers Racing. With Felix Sabates, of course. Will we soon be racing only 20 cars in Cup? I sincerely hope not. Loss of sponsorship has already dealt the Nationwide series some serious blows over the past year. Some teams are folding and simply going away. I'm afraid that with the current economy woes, the same will begin to happen to Cup teams as well. McClure's team is still currently in limbo. The legendary Wood Brothers could be headed that way as well.

Events such as took place today make me worry about the future of my favorite sport. I have to admit that. ABC takes the race off the air in the Eastern and Central time zones in favor of 'America's Funniest Home Videos.' Is Nascar in possession of a product that's dieing a slow death? Let's all hope not.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

One More Shot at all the Marbles

Who am I talking about? Mark Martin of course. In 2009, Mark will make his final full season run at the Sprint Cup. He will be doing it in one of the best rides in the series too: The number 5 Rick Hendrick Chevrolet.

Mark Martin has managed 11 top 10 finishes and 4 top 5 finishes in only 24 races run out of 35 so far. Had Mark been running a full schedule, he probably would have made the Chase. From latest reports, Mark will not be running at Homestead, which I feel is a shame.

Like him or not, Mark Martin will be a good teammate for the rest of the Hendrick boys. I can call virtually all of the drivers 'boys' because I'm older than them. I can't call Mark Martin a boy because he's older than I am. But you know what? For an old man, relatively speaking, he's still a very good driver. Mark has 35 wins in Cup, 48 wins in Nationwide, and 7 wins in the Truck series. In other words, the man knows how to take the checkered flag.

Mark might be driving the best equipment he's ever had when he takes over the 5 car. Old friend Rick Hendrick will make sure he's got the best of everything. Mark is still a racer, and he'll overcome the stigma that many Dale Jr. fans attached to him as the first driver to take over the old 8 car at DEI. Next year, he'll be Dale Jr.'s teammate, and he'll be a good one.

Mark will race as hard as he can, but he'll help out his teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. All of the guys can learn from him, and probably will. Mark's been in this business longer than any of them and he's got a wealth of information in his brain. Mark Martin is one of the nicer guys in the garage on any given weekend, and many drivers seek out his opinions and lessons.

Here's to you, Mark Martin. Go out and win. I personally will be pulling for you every race, along with others of course. I'm glad you're on the team now.

One to Go

One more race to go, huh? Wow, what a ride it's been. Mathematically, only one driver can catch Jimmie Johnson now, and that's Carl Edwards.

Carl has an uphill battle all the way now though. He's got to hope that Jimmie Johnson either wrecks or blows an engine in the early laps at Homestead. Given Jimmie Johnson's track record, neither is likely to happen. My prediction is that Jimmie Johnson will indeed win 3 Sprint Cups in a row. I don't suppose that's going too far out on a limb either.

Jimmie could blow an engine or get caught up in an early wreck. Right now the 48 team has got to be thinking pole, pole, pole at Homestead. The best way to insure that Jimmie Johnson will not be caught up in an early wreck it to make sure he starts out front. Chad Knaus and the Lowe's boys will do their best to make sure that Jimmie starts up front.

One doubt in their mind must be the valve train problems experienced by teammate Jeff Gordon last week. As unusual as it is for a Hendrick engine to let go, Jeff's did at Phoenix on Sunday. Normally, the Hendrick engines have been almost bullet proof for a long time, but this only goes to show that with one race to go, anything can happen. Jimmie Johnson's best bet is to win the pole and stay out front all day, and pray that the engine holds together.

It's only a two man show now, and by my calculations, Jimmie Johnson holds a 141 point lead. It's not impossible for Carl Edwards to overcome that, but it's going to take much more than winning the race and leading the most laps. Carl will have to have a ton of luck on his side, and Jimmie will have to have a ton of bad luck on his side.

That's why we run the races though. Odds are that Jimmie will for the 3rd consecutive year be our Sprint Cup Champion. But, 10 races ago, it appeared that Kyle Busch was our obvious Cup winner.

Anything can happen on the race track. This season isn't over until the checkered flag drops at Homestead.

Special prayers and thanks to our nation's veterans on this special Veteran's Day. If you know a veteran, please take time to shake his or her hand and thank them for their service to our country.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hello all.

I've been ill this week. I'm not writing at all, really. I'm listening to Man on the Moon by REM. I highly recommend it.

I hope to be back soon. I really hope to.

Friday, October 31, 2008

How Important Are Crew Chiefs in NASCAR?

Crew chiefs are variously described as team leaders, or even as the quarterback of the team. That part is obvious. What many fans may not know is that the crew chief is much more than just the guy in charge in the shop and in the garage.

Once the green flag drops, the performance of the race car is out of the hands of the crew chief and in the hands of the driver. At that point, the crew chief sits more or less helplessly on the pit box, listening to the spotter talking his driver though the traffic. He watches his driver's lap times.

He gauges the driver's performance on the track. He makes plans, and then dashes them as events unfold. He talks to his crew, getting them ready for any eventuality. He tries to think ahead to the next pit stop. More importantly, he tries to think ahead to the last pit stop of the race.

During the week, the crew chief acts as the shop foreman. He directs his crew as to what they need to do to get the cars set up properly. I say cars, because the teams take two to the race track.

On travel day, they load up the cars and the hauler takes off, whether to Lowes Motor Speedway just down the road in Concord, NC, or to Sonoma, California or Brooklyn, Michigan.

NASCAR travels all over the country, so long airplane flights are part of the job as well. Along with the car chief, the crew chief directs every single task performed on the race cars.

On race weekends, the crew chief becomes the statistician. He watches lap times during practice and qualifying. He looks at the tires that come off the car after it's run laps. He looks at the spark plugs. He looks at the lifters and the valves. He measures fuel mileage on long runs during practice. He's writing on his clipboard, taking down the data.

On race day, the crew chief transforms into not only the boss of the team, but his driver's primary cheerleader.

Along with the spotter, the crew chief's job is to keep the driver focused on the task ahead of him. Whether it be maintaining a lead, or trying to pass the cars in front of him in order to gain better track position.

All the while, the crew chief remains in statistician mode. He's gauging lap times against fuel mileage.

He's looking at options such as short pitting, two tires or four, up or down on the track bar or air pressures. He's sitting on the pit box, but he's working as hard as his driver is. He looks calm, but he's nervous.

He didn't get to his position by being naive about anything in this sport. He knows his crew and his driver, and he, himself have to perform perfectly to get his driver into victory lane.

Another quality that's required of a crew chief is to have good relationship with his driver. The driver often gets cranky on the track, in the heat of battle.

It's the crew chief's job to decipher the clues that his driver is giving him about the car's performance.

Some drivers are better at giving feedback than others, but a good crew chief can simply watch the car and know what changes need to take place, should he be working with a young or inexperienced driver.

The crew chief tries to calm his driver down when he gets frustrated. He tries to tell his driver to save fuel if he can.

He basically becomes the driver's best friend. Chemistry between driver and crew chief is more important than many people realize.

When it comes right down to it, a great driver can only be a good driver with a so-so crew chief. A great crew chief can make a so-so driver look great though.

Note: This article first appeared on the Bleacher Report. For commentary, facts, stats, and just plain fun, visit

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are we now in the Post Gordon Era in NASCAR?

Statistically, he's the greatest active driver in NASCAR. He's won 81 races and 4 championships. In his 17 years in the sport, he has 245 top 5's and 334 top 10's. He's won 66 poles in his career. He has almost 100 million dollars in winnings. But he's not won a race in 2008, and hasn't won a championship since 2001. He's Jeff Gordon, and even after all he's won, he's still hungry for more.

When interviewed yesterday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff said that he's happy with how his 24 Chevrolet team has been progressing this year. He said they need to get better, but he's not unhappy with his team. He has hinted in past weeks that they may need to tweak certain things, such as personnel. Many of Gordon's fans have been putting a lot of blame on his crew chief, Steve Letarte. Jeff has done nothing but praise Letarte, but that's what drivers do. Placing blame on the crew chief is common in this sport. As an Earnhardt fan, believe me, I know the feeling.

Jeff Gordon's personal life has changed greatly over the last few years. He's remarried and now has a daughter. Jeff appears to be a very happy family man now. Has that made a difference in his driving performance? Some think it's a possibility, but I don't. On race day, I see the same guy with the same game face on that I watched 10 years ago. His focus does not appear to have changed. What's going on in his mind, nobody can know but Jeff though. Does having a family change what a driver is willing to do? In some cases, I'm sure it does. Jeff Gordon, being the professional that he's always been appears to be able to compartmentalize his life and his various roles in it.

At the age of 37, it's doubtful that Jeff is past his prime as a race driver. His reflexes may be slower than they were 10 years ago, but he's still consistently one of the best drivers on the track race in and race out. Other drivers have won races when they were 10 years older than Jeff, though not lately. Certainly the competition is tougher than it ever has been, but Jeff has always found ways to win against the odds.

Gordon can chalk up some of his problems in 2008 to just plain bad luck. He's been involved in several crashes this year, mostly as an innocent victim. The 24 team seems to be missing the setups on the new car, a problem common among almost all drivers in the sport this year. Though Jeff is currently 6th in points with 3 races to go, he will not win his 5th championship this year. With 3 races to go, he could, of course, break his winless streak, and undoubtedly that is his primary goal right now.

Gordon's primary sponsor, Dupont, is supposedly signed with the 24 team through 2010. Jeff can supposedly drive for Hendrick Motorsports as long as he desires. It has been speculated that Jeff might retire if Dupont leaves. I suppose it's not unreasonable to suppose such a thing. Jeff has already won pretty much everything there is to win, has more money than he can spend in 10 lifetimes, has a lovely wife and daughter, and except to race for his personal satisfaction, he really doesn't need to. I don't see it happening though. Jeff will certainly retire one day, but I feel like he will keep trying for at least one more championship. I imagine somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that with just a few more wins, he can top legendary drivers such at Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough in all time wins. Other than Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, Jeff has already won more championships than any other driver. Surpassing Earnhardt and Petty's record of 7 championships each would appear to be a fading dream though.

I doubt that we will ever see Jeff Gordon running partial schedules much in his later years. Jeff does not appear to be the type of driver who even wants to be on the track unless he thinks he can win, and win it all. Every single season he's driven has been a championship run, at least in his mind. Missing the Chase for the Cup in 2005 must have been a devastating development for him. Every driver wants to win, but a lot of them know that realistically, in the Cup series, if they finish in the top 15, they've had a very good day. 15th for Jeff Gordon must feel like 43rd to him.

Whatever the future holds for Jeff Gordon, you can never, ever count him out. Not yet.

Spoils of Victory somewhat spoiled for Carl Edwards at Atlanta

After the Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, Carl Edwards performed his signature back flip into the infield grass and celebrated in Victory Lane. He celebrated, that is, until he got the news. Jimmie Johnson finished 2nd.

A jubilant Carl Edwards was visibly deflated when he was informed during the initial post race interview on ABC that Jimmie Johnson, who at one point was a lap down after being penalized for speeding on pit road, had come charging back during the final 9 laps, in an amazing performance which was definitely the highlight of the race. On several message boards that I scanned after the race, it was difficult to tell who had won the race. One person on my board, who had not actually seen the race, scanned another board and posted that Jimmie had won again. When I replied that Carl had won, she was surprised. That surprise is understandable, because today, hardly anyone is talking about Carl Edwards. They're all talking about Jimmie Johnson, even though he finished 2nd.

It's hard not to be impressed by Jimmie Johnson during the 2nd half of the 2008 season. I'm not a Johnson fan, but I can appreciate that what looked to be at the outset a down year for the 48 team has become a runaway freight train to another championship. Not that it's over, mind you, but it's going to take practically a miracle for anyone but the 48 team to win the Cup in 2008.

What's great for the 48 team and Jimmie Johnson fans is probably not so good for NASCAR as a whole. ABC could not disguise the many empty seats at Atlanta yesterday. Dale Earnhardt Jr., in a pre-race TV interview even mentioned that he wished more fans would buy tickets to come see the race at Atlanta. Many of the empty seats can certainly be blamed on the recent financial upheaval on Wall Street and elsewhere, and what I consider to be outrageously high ticket prices. I do feel, however, that part of the lack of attendance can be blamed on what has become a lopsided Chase for the Cup. Who wants to spend all that money to see the same guys win every week? As much as I love to go to Atlanta, I'm glad I didn't go this year. In the early part of the season, it was all Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Now during the Chase, it's been all Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. It's strange, isn't it, that though Carl Edwards has won races all during the year, it looks like he's going to come up short in his championship hopes. That all leads to another subject though, and I hope to address that one later.

All in all, I could have skipped yesterday's race except for the final 9 laps. Jimmie Johnson's charge through the field was indeed amazing. He and several other drivers had new tires, but to pass that many cars in so few laps was really something to see. The race had it's other moments too, but nobody's going to remember them.

Oh yes, congratulations to Jimmie, er, I mean Carl Edwards on your win at Atlanta.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jr. Nation? We're fine, Thank You all the Same.

So he's won races but no championships. So he's won Bud Shootouts and even the Winston in 2000. Oops, excuse me, he has won what was once known as the Busch series championship, now known as the Nationwide championship in 1998 and 1999. Jr. Nation? We're fine, thank you.

Say what you want to about the Jr. Nation. We're dedicated. Maybe we don't know so much about stats. I do. Maybe we don't know so much about win/loss records versus other drivers. I do. It's possible that some of my brethren are not as educated about Dale Jr. as I am. It's possible. If you rank your NASCAR fans on a whim, then go ahead. We're about a real guy. Dale Jr. is about as real as it gets. We're about as real as it gets.

We laugh together. We cry together. We pray for each other. Some of us might be superficial. Examine the sport closely, and you'll find much the same for any driver. For the most part though, we care about the statistics. We care about the team. We care about the crew chief. We also care about the driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has made us believe in him, win or lose.

Does he lose more than he wins? Yes. That can be said for all drivers though. Sprint Cup is the hardest series on the planet in which to achieve wins, but Dale Jr. has done quite nicely, thank you very much.

You may rank the Jr. Nation as part fake, part real, but the vote for MPD counts. I'll give you this: Some members are simply interested in the man, not the driver. But we all care about Dale.

To many of us, he's the link to the past, the path to the original Dale. Many of us miss Dale, me included.

Don't dis Dale Jr. He's the real deal and he's doing great things.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chad Knaus: Giving Credit where Credit is Due

Many of the NASCAR pundits have already declared the 2008 season as being over. Jimmie Johnson will win his 3rd straight title, and it's all over but the crying, even though there are still 4 races to go. I'm not so sure about that, but it's obvious that Jimmie and the 48 team are going to be very tough to beat in 2008. Just like 2007, and to a certain degree, 2006.

Jimmie Johnson has earned a reputation as a driver who can win on virtually any track. He appears to be a very calm driver, not given to fits of rage or frustration. Johnson's ability to keep his cool under pressure has probably earned him quite a few of his wins. In other words, Jimmie Johnson is not likely to beat himself on the track. He's already a two time champion, and his talent as a driver has certainly made him deserving of those titles.

But there is a puppet master behind the scenes, and that is Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. Chad has probably won as many races for the 48 team from atop the pit box as Jimmie has won by staying calm and using his talent. Chad Knaus has come from a position of relative obscurity to perhaps the sport's most admired crew chief in just a few short years. Though Johnson certainly has the talent to have won races with any crew chief, it is from Chad Knaus that the 48 Chevrolet truly gets its magic.

Jimmie Johnson himself entered the ranks of Sprint Cup drivers as a relative unknown as well. After enjoying a lackluster showing in the Nationwide series, Jeff Gordon personally pointed the young driver out to team owner Rick Hendrick. Gordon became the co-owner of the 48 Cup ride along with boss Hendrick. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chad Knaus has been with Jimmie Johnson since the very beginning of his Cup career. Chad worked his way up through the ranks at Hendrick Motorsports, and finally got his shot at the big time when he was tapped to be the crew chief of the brand new 48 car. Since 2002, the duo have managed to win 39 Cup races and 2 championships. This is a feat that could be seen as on the same level as that of Dale Earnhardt in the 1980's or Jeff Gordon in the 1990's.

Chad Knaus' ability to make the proper adjustments on the 48 Chevrolet and to make pit calls that make him appear to be an absolute genius are fast becoming, if not already, legendary. It's not very often that Jimmie Johnson runs out of gas with half a lap to go. It's not very often that the 48 car is not running at the front of the field. Chad Knaus has fit in perfectly with the Hendrick formula of putting the best people in the places where they are most talented, and then giving them what they need to make it all work. We've seen this formula work with Jeff Gordon's team in the past, and now we are seeing it work with the 48 team. Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team are on the verge of winning their 3rd straight championship, the likes of which has not been seen since Cale Yarborough did it in the 1976-1978. Jimmie and Chad could achieve greatness that has only been seen in this sport one time before in 2008. Earnhardt never achieved 3 consecutive championships. Gordon so far hasn't. Even Richard Petty never did. Only Cale Yarborough has so far. Jimmie Johnson could be next.

I believe that Jimmie Johnson would be the first to tell you that he could not have achieved nearly as much success as he has without the help of Chad Knaus. When it comes to crew chiefs, Chad Knaus has indeed proven himself to be a genius.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Reviewing a Clean Slate

Many commentators proclaimed this 2008 season the year of Dale Earnhardt Jr. How has that worked out? So far, it has and it hasn't.

Dale Jr. and the 88 team set some goals for themselves which they have largely achieved. They won, not only a points race at Michigan, but also the Budweiser Shootout in February. They made the Chase for the Cup. Up until the last few races, the 88 team was a very viable contender to win a championship. Much of the disappointments which have occurred since the Chase began have been the result of plain bad luck.

Have there been miscues by the team? Surely there have been. Some of the miscues this season were made by the driver himself. Some were made by crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Much blame has been heaped upon Eury Jr., and though some of it may well be deserved, much of it is not. Two tires or four? Are we good on fuel? Up or down on the air pressures or track bar? These are questions that few but the most expert fans of the sport can answer. Most of those experts are already on top of pit boxes. As is the case with any driver and crew chief combination, the comfort level must be there, especially for the driver. Dale Jr. trusts his crew chief, and it appears that he has the final say on that matter.

Problems with pit stops have been the cause for some missed opportunities this well. Even the most well oiled pit crew can and does occasionally make mistakes. A missed lug nut here, a snarled air hose there, and positions are lost on the track, and this season, more than other, track position is important.

Overall, this season has been a success for the 88 team. Goals have been achieved, and hopes and expectations will undoubtedly be even higher next season. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. The more time this team spends together, I feel the better they will be. Is Dale Jr.'s first season with Hendrick Motorsports the best first season with a new team this year? Critics point at the driver whom Dale Jr. replaced at Hendrick, Kyle Busch. Kyle has 8 wins to Dale Jr.'s 1 win, that's true, but here's one important fact that many are willing to overlook: After 31 of 36 races, there are only 28 points separating the two drivers. It's very possible that Dale Jr. will finish ahead in the points standings at the end of the season.

Are wins more important than championships? That's debatable. Wins are important, but the ultimate goal of any driver is to be holding the Cup trophy at the end of the year. It is unlikely that either Dale Jr. or Kyle Busch will be holding that trophy in November, but it's possible that Dale Jr. finishes higher in the standings than 2008's golden boy.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Want to make NASCAR better?

Sure you do. We all do. One way to do it is to support your local short track. The future driver of the Truck series, the Nationwide series, and even the Cup series are on display this week at your local race track.

Of course, not many of your local drivers will ever make it to the big show. Some of them have no interest in racing for a living. Many of them do it for fun, or for a few extra bucks. Many of them just love doing it, and don't care if they go broke trying to do it. For what ever reason, they show up every week to provide us with some of the best entertainment you can get for 10 bucks.

At most tracks I've been to, yes, $10.00 is the admission price for adults. That's not too bad when you consider that you can watch a bad movie for not much less. Short track racing is what this sport was built on and really, when you dig way down deep, what it still is all about. Local short track drivers don't travel in jets, nor do they sleep in huge motor homes at the track. Most of them do double duty, as in hauling their race cars to the track behind their pickup trucks. These folks are our friends and neighbors. They deserve our support.

Here at our local short track, you can often party after the race with the drivers and their families on the track grounds, or at a local restaurant only a mile or so down the road. Around here, the drivers will have a beer after a Friday night ruckus on the track and tell you all about why they ran into Billy, and why Tommy was stupid enough to run into Joey, or why the car hit the wall on the pace lap. It's all fun, and even though tempers get hot at the track, usually the combatants are seen a couple hours later with their arms around each other at the local watering hole.

10 bucks isn't too much to spend to see some great racing, on a track small enough to see each and every detail. Kids under 12 are often admitted for free, so an evening at the track can be a great family event. You can bring your own food, or try a hot dog from the snack stand. Most tracks allow tailgating, so you can come early and do your own thing. Consider a night at the races a huge block party. You can meet new people and have fun with people you know or maybe never have met in the past.

Local race tracks have been around since nearly the invention of the automobile. They will continue to abound as long as people love to compete.

Do yourself and racing a favor. Go support your local short track!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Take out the Fork. DEI's Not Done Yet

Dale Earnhardt Inc. made a very strong showing at the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega on Sunday.

Regan Smith basically won the race, by outrunning the leader. He got penalized for it though and finished on the tail end of the lead lap, in 18th place.

Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard, along with Aric Almirola also had good cars too. Truex got wrecked while running in the front, but DEI cars were always contenders to win, all day long.

Truex was probably at least as frustrated as was Regan Smith on Sunday. A blown tire on the car of Brian Vickers ended his day early, when clearly, Truex had a car that was capable of running up front.

DEI's day will come, and probably soon, if they can keep up the kind of performance they showed at Talladega.

DEI has definitely shown some muscle in at least their super speedway program this past week, after it was announced that Paul Menard was leaving the team after the 2008 season for Yates.

I was among those who thought DEI was headed for trouble, but I stand here, totally reprimanded. DEI is still a factor, and even though the have no drivers in the Chase for the Cup, they still can upset the apple cart by putting a driver in Victory Lane.

Races are still won by drivers who have the ability to become, how shall we say, 'creative'. What Regan Smith did certainly wasn't a sin, at least to me. My NASCAR's standards, I suppose it was. To me, it meant doing what ever it takes to win, and that's what Regan did. If the guy ahead of you blocks you low, go lower. On any other track on the circuit, except Daytona, of course, this move would have been totally legal.

DEI is not out of the game yet. They still have some cards to play.

The Best Driver in NASCAR? It's Easy to Figure Out

Who is it? We'll wait until the end to show you. But I have to ask you, who else has won 38 races out of 249 starts, and also has 98 top five finishes and 152 top ten finishes?

Who also has 18 poles out of his 249 starts? Who also has never finished worse than 5th in the points standings since he started driving all the races in Cup?

This driver's ability to cultivate wins astounds me. He has a fantastic crew chief as well, about as nerdy as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, but the combination has produced fantastic results.

This driver also lacks, or so it would seem, in personality. He is one of those "I want to thank my sponsor" kind of guys in interviews. He never seems to have a hair out of place, and never says the wrong thing on camera. In other words, he's a sponsor's dream.

This driver overcomes adversity at all costs. He never sounds tired or overly frustrated on the radio during the longest of races. I know. I spent a lot of time listening to his radio during Sunday's Talladega race, and he had more reasons than I have the space to list here to be frustrated. His crew chief kept him in line very well.

Who am I talking about? Of course it's Jimmie Johnson. Since his first Cup race in 2001, he's managed to win 38 times and has 2 championships. He never gives up, as was evident on Sunday during the Talladega race. He salvaged a 9th place finish after losing a lap early. He is the current points leader in Cup, and appears to be on his way to a 3rd consecutive championship. What he lacks in on camera personality, he makes up for on the track.

Performance is what counts, and Jimmie Johnson has proven that he's one of the best.

Want to change NASCAR?

You can do it, as is a catch phrase in most Adam Sandler films. All you need to do is convince about 12 drivers not to show up. All you have to do is convince Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin not to show up at Charlotte. That's all you need to do.

You think I'm crazy? Ok, so maybe I am. But think about it. If you get the 12 chasers to quit right now out of protest for NASCAR's rules, or because whales are still be slaughtered by certain countries, or because wolves are being hunted and shot down by helicopters, then you will get NASCAR to change it's rules.

There is a quote that comes from somewhere which basically says of drivers who buck NASCAR's rules: "You need NASCAR more than NASCAR needs you." That's certainly true for individual drivers. When many current drivers boycotted Talladega for it's inaugural race in 1969, NASCAR put out the news that there would be a full field there. There was, mostly. Drivers such as Richard Childress got their start there. A guy named Richard Brickhouse won the very first race at Talladega. Have you ever heard of him? Not many have.

Richard Brickhouse ran 39 races total in Cup. He only won one time. His winnings from the first Talladega race were $45,637.00 That was real money back in those days. Richard Childress finished 23rd and earned a whopping $1,175.00. That was big money to Richard in those days.

NASCAR owns this sport. NACAR makes the rules. NASCAR changes the rules. NASCAR owns the rights to do just about anything they want to as far as the sport goes. You could change that. NASCAR makes its money from the people who buy tickets, who watch on TV, who support the sport. If you can convince 12 drivers to stay at home, NASCAR might understand that they need to change things around.

If the top 12 drivers just didn't show up at a track, for just one race, what would NASCAR do? Sure, it would allow drivers who normally don't have a shot at Cup racing get in. But do the drivers themselves, whom I've mentioned above really need NASCAR?

Probably not as much as NASCAR needs them.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tire Problems, Bad Decisions Mar Exciting Talladega Race

Photo by AP.

Tony Stewart was scored his first victory of the 2008 season on Sunday, after crossing the finish line in second place at the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega, Alabama. The picture above speaks for itself.

Regan Smith, driver of the 01 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet passed Stewart just before crossing the finish line. There was one problem though. Part of that pass occurred while Smith was below the yellow line, which is considered a no-no by NASCAR. It would appear that Stewart, driver of the 20 Home Depot Chevrolet had actually forced Smith below the yellow line. NASCAR, in it's infinite wisdom, said it didn't matter. Tony Stewart went to Victory Lane and Regan Smith was penalized and finished a very disappointing 18th.

Yellow line passes on restrictor plate tracks have been controversial in the past, but none is likely to be as controversial as the one that occurred in Sunday's race. NASCAR seemingly changes the rules from incident to incident, and that makes for a lot of angry drivers, crew chiefs, owners, and especially fans. Right or wrong, Tony Stewart was awarded the trophy, and as always, what NASCAR says goes. Only NASCAR makes the rules in NASCAR, and if they want to change them, it's their option. I personally feel it makes the sport look bad, and gives it a certain WWE feel. If that's what NASCAR wants to do, neither you, nor I, not Regan Smith can change that. There will be no asterisk in the record book.

Goodyear tires once again led to some unnecessary danger in Sunday's race. Blown tires caused at least what could have been one very serious injury when Denny Hamlin blew a right front tire while leading the race, shooting him hard into the wall. Denny was taken to an ambulance on a stretcher and transported to a nearby hospital and kept overnight for observation. Brian Vickers, Mike Wallace were among others who experienced catastrophic tire failures as well. Talladega, even with restrictor plates produces speeds of up to and even exceeding 200 mph. This track is dangerous enough without Goodyear once again providing an inferior and unsafe product. Harsh words, you say? I think perhaps not harsh enough. Several of the drivers expressed their concerns about their safety after Sunday's race. Talladega is nerve racking enough for the drivers without having to wonder if the next blown tire could end their race. Permanently.

Another bad decision was made by Carl Edwards, driver of the 99 Office Depot Ford, who in attempting to push teammate Greg Biffle to the lead, caused a spectacular wreck, not only taking himself out, but also teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was caught up in that crash, which ended his day as well. Edwards did take responsibility for his mistake, but that was small consolation to the drivers who's championship runs were effectively ended by one bone headed mistake. Aggressive is one thing, but stupid is another.

One true high point of the race, from this fan's perspective, was the 13th place finish by Kenny Wallace, who apparently drove a one race deal in the Michael Waltrip owned 00 Toyota. Kenny was penalized a lap early in the competition for speeding in excess of 100 mph on pit road, but was able to recover for a very good finish. Kenny, who is a well liked personality, showed yesterday that he's also a pretty good race car driver. I hope to see this open up the opportunity for Kenny Wallace to drive more Cup races in the near future.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why Paul Menard is a great addition to Yates Racing

It's very simple. Paul Menard brings to Yates what all NASCAR teams need, in order to survive. $. Yep that's it.

It doesn't matter that Menard has not won a race in the Sprint Cup series. He did win one in the Nationwide series, back when it was still called the Busch series. In the Cup series, he has exactly one top 10 finish, which came as a 7th place finish at Atlanta in 2006. That's out of a total of 68 races thus far in the Cup series.

I'm not saying that Paul Menard is not a good race car driver. I'm just saying that a driver without a built in sponsor, which is what Paul brings to the game, would not even be in the series at all. Paul's father, John Menard, is the owner of Menards, a major mid western home improvement chain. John Menard is the richest person in the state of Wisconsin, as of 2007, according to an online encyclopedia.

Having a rich father certainly helps a young race car driver succeed. Many people attribute Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s success to the fact that his father was a successful race car driver, and not that Dale Jr. could possibly have any talent of his own. That point of view is foolish at best, and ridiculous at worst, because drivers with no talent who win the Busch series championship 2 years in a row and 18 Cup races by the time they are 33 years old are rare indeed.

Paul Menard is not among the top tier of drivers in NASCAR, and never has been. However, as long as Menard's keeps doing business, and as long as his father believes in his son, Paul Menard will have a sponsor. Is this a trend that will become more prevelant in NASCAR in the future? It's difficult to say.

As long as money is the life blood of all NASCAR teams, any driver with a built in sponsor will be poplular. Race wins or championships will not make any difference, as long as the bucks keep pouring in. Yates Racing, now run by Doug Yates, has done what his organization needed to do to keep the doors open for next year. They hired a guy with a rich dad. Does this cheapen the sport in any way? I say yes, it does.

There are drivers out there that cannot get a job anymore. They have won races in the past. Steve Park comes to mind. Though he's had some terrible accidents, Steve is a proven Cup winner. He drove for DEI, basically as the company's first Cup driver. His dad doesn't own a multimillion dollar business though.

Once again, I have no beef with Paul Menard. If racing is what he wants to do, then so be it. I find it somewhat of a shame when Paul gets a ride with Yates Racing, and Steve Park is still on the outside, looking in.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More Problems Ahead for DEI?

The rumors that have been circulating in the garage areas at tracks for the last couple of months are apparently true: Paul Menard, who drives the 15 Menard's Chevrolet, will leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. after the 2008 season and will drive, with Menard's sponsorship, for Yates Racing in 2009.

For Dale Earnhardt Inc, this presents more of a problem than the loss of a so-so driver. Though Paul has won in the Nationwide series, he has yet to post a win in the Sprint Cup series. The main problem for DEI is that Paul Menard came to the company with a built in sponsor. When Paul leaves DEI after the end of the season, the company run by his father John will leave as well.

Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s struggle to find sponsorship in 2009 and beyond is not unique among Sprint Cup teams. Yates Racing has not had a full time sponsor for either of its cars in 2008. If full time sponsorship cannot be found before the beginning of the 2009 season, it's likely that either Travis Kvapil or David Gilliland will be looking for a new ride next year. It is also apparent that DEI will likely be dropping at least one team next year unless sponsorship is found and signed quickly.

The 01 car currently driven by Regan Smith, the 8 car that will be driven by Aric Almirola, and the 15 car currently driven by Paul Menard will all need sponsorship that has either not been secured or at least not announced at this point. Only the 1 Chevrolet driven by Martin Truex Jr. appears to have secure full time sponsorship for 2009. Whether or not the 15 team folds completely would appear to be contingent upon whether a driver can be found for the team that will attract sponsors. DEI does not appear to have a popular driver waiting in the wings for that Cup ride at this point.

It has been reported that Richard Childress, owner of Richard Childress Racing, has taken a personal interest in helping the company started by his former championship driver and close friend started. When Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, many questioned whether DEI would survive. In fact, the company did survive, at least up to this point. With the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr., last year, who left the team his father started after the 2007 season, many considered this event to be the beginning of the end for DEI. With the loss of a driver with a built-in sponsorship such as Paul Menard, it would appear that there are indeed tough times ahead for Dale Earnhardt Inc.