Monday, February 25, 2008

Some thoughts on California

Photo Credit: Harry How/ Gety AFP

Congratulations to Carl Edwards on his win in today's race, which started yesterday. Carl had by far the fastest car, and passed Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon with ease to win the Auto Club 500 at Fontana, California. The race track, by the way, is now called the Auto Club Raceway. I guess that's fine, since what used to be the Charlotte Motor Speedway has been called the Lowes Motor Speedway for years. I really hope that this isn't a developing trend, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it were. Baseball and football stadiums have long been naming themselves after their corporate sponsors, so I suppose we will be seeing more and more of this in Nascar as well.

Congratulations also to Kyle Busch for winning the Trucks race on Saturday, and to Tony Stewart for winning the Nationwide race today after the Sprint Cup race. All 3 drivers dominated in their respective races, and I guess that is one of the problems I've had with the quality of racing in general this weekend. Not that there was no good racing, but there wasn't a lot of it. I read in a column by David Poole today that stated that California is experiencing the exact same problems that prompted Nascar to take away the race dates from Rockingham altogether. I tend to agree with him. Basically Rockingham lost it's February race date because of the weather, and because they couldn't fill the stands. I know that California was a victim of some very atypical weather, but even bad luck is something that Nascar can't fix sometimes.

The main problem with the track was the fact that even when it wasn't raining, the track would never totally dry because water would weep up through seams in the asphalt, and the wet spots could never be totally dried, even when track personnel did some late night emergency drilling and cutting to dry to allow the water to drain. This problem will hopefully be corrected before Nascar visits the track again this September. And don't get me started about the other date that California took away from one of my favorite tracks, that track being Darlington.

I'm hoping and praying that the new car will indeed lead to better racing. I think on some tracks it will. Darrell Waltrip mentioned today during the broadcast that he couldn't wait to get to, funny he should mention it, Darlington. I agree. I think the racing will be very good there, even with the new surface and with the new car.

Which leads to an obvious question. Should Nascar be more worried about building mega tracks in new markets that potentially they cannot fill, or should they be concentrating on making the actual racing better? Declining race attendance and lower television ratings last year leads me to believe that Nascar needs to make sure that the fans get what they want: Really great racing.

If Nascar takes measures that will practically guarantee great racing virtually every week, I think the ticket sales and tv ratings will rise accordingly. I think the drivers will have a lot more fun too. Even when a driver doesn't win a race, it's refreshing to hear him get out of the car and say "That was fun!" Chances are, if the driver is having fun, so will the fans, and in the end, so will Nascar.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

How good is Kyle Busch?

If you're DW, or the now racing commentator named Darrel Waltrip, he's the best. Kyle won the Trucks race at California today, and probably could have won it if it had been a 600 mile race. Darrell said before the race that Kyle could have been a great driver for Junior Johnson if he had been born about 40 years before he was. The admiration that DW paid to Kyle was apparently breath taking. At least it was for DW.

Kyle Busch loves driving Trucks. He even has his team paint the name "Rowdy Busch" above the door. He's very young at 22 years old, and he has won in all 3 Nascar series. Kyle likes driving a loose race car, meaning he likes it when the rear wheels break away and makes the car slide.

Is Kyle Busch a good driver? Absolutely. Without question, Kyle is one of the best there is. Maybe if he were mature enough to appreciate his talent, he would actually be a good driver. Right now, he's annoying everyone he races with, and that may not be a bad thing. He's getting noticed. That's not a bad thing.

Does Kyle make stupid mistakes? Yes. Can Kyle drive a race car? Yes. What will Kyle's legacy be? He'll win a lot of races, and some championships, but there will be a lot of drivers that will never like him.

In other words, He will achieve a lot of success, but will not be respected among his peers.

Unless he grows up.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Champion, but hardly anyone ever talks about him.

I'd like to introduce you to a few statistics. Who has won 21 Cup races, 10 Nationwide races, and 1 Trucks race, and 3 IROC races? If you guessed the 2000 Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte you would be correct.

Bobby Labonte is one of the few drivers to have ever won in all the top 3 Nascar series, and he has won 3 times in the IROC series. Bobby, of course, is the younger brother of 2 time Cup series champion Terry Labonte.

Bobby was born and grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was racing not long after he could walk. Bobby is a champion, not just on the track, but as a person.

People that have been watching the Sprint, or Nextel, or Winston Cup series for years remember his brother as a true gentleman. Bobby is pretty much the same. A true gentleman at all times, Bobby is one of the last of the old school drivers in Nascar.

For reporters, Bobby is always interesting in an interview. Bobby has a very understated sense of humor, which means that he basically will say something and then laugh at you while you struggle with what he just said. When you get it, you laugh. But there is no way to hide that though Bobby Labonte is a soft spoken driver, his wit got the best of you.

Bobby Labonte's pedigree is pure. When Bobby first started racing in Cup, his competitors were people like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliot, and Davey Allison. Of course, his own brother was racing against him as well.

Bobby Labonte has been a true gentleman in the sport, and has always respected the history of it. I hope we will always appreciate him that way.

He's not done yet though. After a lot of wins at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby moved on to Petty Enterprises, to take over as driver of the most famous number in all of racing, the 43, in which Richard Petty won 200 races. Bobby finished 11th in the 2008 Daytona 500. This week he starts at California, and I would advise all race fans to keep an eye on that 43 car this Sunday at Fontana, California.

A little of that Labonte and Petty magic are going to be with the 43 this weekend.

Rainout in Southern California on Friday

Contrary to popular belief, it actually does rain in Southern California. It's a shame that the rains came this particular weekend though.

On Friday, beautiful Fontana California had temperatures in the 40's, and intermittent rain and always clouds. It was frustrating for many racing teams, not just Sprint Cup, but also Nationwide and Craftsman Trucks series as well.

One of the Cup teams that had to be very disappointed was the 08 Dodge, driven this week by Burney Lamar. The 08 is owned by E&M Motorsports, and John Carter.

On a lot of recent weekdays, the 08 car could be seen in the shop of John Carter in the tiny North Georgia town of Toccoa. Take a drive down Route 17, which is known locally as Big A Road, and it has been a common sight to see the shop doors open, and the team working feverishly on the car.

John Carter is not a mega car owner such as folks like Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, or Chip Ganassi, or even Robbie Gordon. This team has very limited resources, and has a difficult time finding sponsorship for their effort to go racing each week. After all, why would someone sponsor a team that even most Nascar fans have never heard of?

The reason is that even with limited resources, this owner and this team have achieved success in the series. They did it in 2005 in the biggest race of the year too.

On February 20, 2005, the number 37 Patron Tequila Dodge, piloted by Kevin Lepage, and owned by John Carter finished an incredible 9th in the Daytona 500. The team grossed over $300,000 for that top 10 run in America's biggest race, and since then, the Carter team has faded back into relative obscurity. They have not given up though.

This week, the 08 Dodge, to be piloted by Burney Larmar was hauled from the East coast of the US all the way to the West coast. Now they are headed home, without having a chance to even put the car on the track. Think of the incredible cost that John Carter must have incurred sending the car across the country for what? Absolutely nothing.

I don't know what Nascar can do about this situation to help the small teams. I don't really like the top 35 rule, but then again, when rain wipes out qualifying, what is a team to do? The field is set at a maximum of 43 cars, and there's not any really logical way to argue that John Carter's Dodge deserves a start, when there are about 50 odd teams with more owner points than he has. It is a shame though.

Tonight I praise the small teams such as John Carter, and the aspiring Cup drivers such as Burney Lamar. I know they're all feeling down tonight, but I hope we get to see them on the track soon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

California, Here We Come!

Actually there they go, since I won't be going anywhere. California has become a race track that I appreciate more and more as the years go by. The last few races there have left me feeling fulfilled as a race fan.

Matt Kenseth won last years race, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finishing 2nd and 3rd. Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Mark Martin also had strong finishes at Fontana last year as well.

Engines are almost always problems at California, and 2007 was no exception. Besides the DEI cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr., Dave Blaney in a Toyota, Kasey Kahne in a Dodge, and Kenny Schrader in the Wood Brothers Ford also had engine problems. Little did we know just how disappointing the engines would get for DEI and especially Dale Jr.

California is a beautiful, big track, at 2 miles in length. It's considered a mirror of Michigan, but really has not a lot in common with it's counterpart other than total length. California has 12 degree banking and Michigan has 18 degrees of banking.

Jeff Gordon has 3 wins at California. Jimmie Johnson has 2, as does Matt Kenseth. Other Cup drivers who have won at this track include Kyle and Kurt Busch, Elliot Sadler, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, and Jeremy Mayfield. Of all drivers, Jeff Gordon has 7 total top 5 finishes, while Jimmie Johnson has 6. This last start is impressive when you count in the fact that Jeff has 5 more starts at the race track than Jimmie.

In looking ahead to this weekend's festivities, it is difficult to count any of the Hendrick cars out, or Matt Kenseth for that matter. Will Casey Mears and Dale Earnhadt Jr. have more success than they have in past years? Will Mark Martin return to victory lane in a Chevrolet? Will Elliot Sadler finally find his way to victory lane again?

What I'm hoping is that this race proves to be as exciting as several of the California races have proven to be in the last few years. It would be nice to see the stands full for a change as well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What is a Fan?

Have you ever wondered what a fan really was? The word 'fan' is short for 'fanatic'. Not so classy a word. 'Fanatic' can mean a lot of things, and most of them aren't good.

Most of us, in one way or another, are fans of one sport or multiple sports. I, for example, am a fan of football and baseball. I like them, but don't love them. I love it when the Boston Red Sox win the World Series, but my world won't come crashing down around me if they don't win. I was a fan of the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, but their loss didn't cause me any loss of sleep.

My biggest passion is Nascar though. Probably more than any other sport, Nascar fans make the sport what it is. We pay the ticket prices, we pay for merchandise, we pay for Trackpass or Hotpass just to enjoy the sport we love. We as fans actually invest in the sport we love. Football fans and fans of any other sport do the same thing, but no where on earth do we see all our favorites on the same playing field for every single game. That's what makes being a Nascar fan so special.

We've all got our favorite drivers, and drivers we can't stand. We've had ordinary Sundays made glorious or depressing, depending on what our drivers do. Most of our favorite drivers only have a good day once in a while, and have problems the rest of the time. We still stick by these drivers though. We argue about them endlessly in person, in e-mails, and on message boards. Our driver is the best, and always will be!

Nascar is unique in one other way as well. Most of us get to see the races in the series other than Cup on a weekly basis. Most of us have favorites in those series as well, unlike the minor leagues in baseball. Most of the time in other sports we don't know who the new guy is. In Nascar, we've watched him for years.

Are we loyal to our drivers? You bet we are. We stand with them through the good times and the bad times. Are our drivers perfect? Of course not. There are human just like you and me. My favorite drivers have made plenty of mistakes over the years. They all do. It's just when the driver you don't like doesn't make mistakes is when you feel like they've got an unfair advantage.

All drivers make mistakes. All of them are human, and all of them will do the human thing at times.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Parity in Nascar?

I suppose it can be called that. Toyota and Dodge have had a rough time in the Cup series, and yesterday Nascar proved that it will do whatever it takes to achieve equality.

Last year, Toyota and Dodge struggled to even make the Daytona 500. The speed just wasn't there, and the Chevrolets were dominant, once again. Ford looked strong as well, and no one thought anyone that wasn't driving a Ford or a Chevy didn't have a chance. That was true, for the most part.

What a difference a year makes though. A Chevrolet won the pole at Daytona, and Dale Jr. won the Bud Shootout and his Duel race, but neither Chevy nor Ford was much of a factor in any of the actual points races. In the Daytona 500, Dodge and Toyota accounted for the entire top 10, save the 9th position of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy.

While fans of Toyota and Chevrolet may be cheering today, as well they should, it makes many of us question Nascar's engine rules. It was reported on Saturday that Tony Stewart's Toyota had 30 more horsepower at the rear wheels than did the Chevrolets of Richard Childress Racing, and at least 15 more horsepower than Dale Jr.'s Chevy. Did Toyota get an advantage in engine rules from Nascar? Did Dodge?

Nascar will deny any of this, but how did Dodge and Toyota go from worst to first in such a short time? I find it doubtful that Dodge and Toyota now suddenly have the best engine and car builders in the sport. The addition of Joe Gibbs Racing to Toyota's stable certainly added some much needed muscle to Toyota's Nascar program, but all 3 Gibbs Toyota's led the Daytona 500, and almost won it. Many times the Toyota cars appeared to need very little drafting help to stay in front. Jeff Gordon led the race a few times, but was easily passed by the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Perhaps Jeff Gordon's car was not as good as he thought it was, but all the Hendrick cars appeared to be quite a bit slower than the Toyotas yesterday. That's no crime, but it does lead to a lot of head scratching.

For the time being, I will say a hearty congratulations to Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, who finished 1st and 2nd in the Daytona 500. The Penske Dodges were hardly factors at all for 99 per cent of the race, but were at the front when it counted, on lap 200. Congratulations to the Toyota teams as well. Kyle Busch clearly had the car to beat most of the day, followed closely by his teammate Denny Hamlin.

Enjoy the success, boys! Nascar might decide you've got too much of an advantage and put you back in the pack with the Chevys and the Fords

Friday, February 15, 2008

Over Rated?

Yeah, right. Dale Earnhardt Jr. only has his ride because he's the son of a 7 time Winston Cup Champion. (Yeah, I said Winston, because that's what it was when Dale won all of them.) Chances are that Dale Jr. would not even be racing had he not come from a racing family. He might have, but he probably wouldn't. I've got news for you: Neither would Dale Earnhardt, or for that matter Richard Petty.

Being born into a racing family is not a sin, folks. Lee Petty was racing long before King Richard ever stepped into a race car. So was Ralph Earnhardt before Dale ever climbed into one. Racing roots are not bad to have on the resume, it would seem.

Indeed, most of today's drivers have some racing in their blood. Practically every one of the drivers on the track have a brother or a father or a cousin or an uncle that was a racer. The relative in question may not have raced in Nascar, or even been that successful on the short track near home, but he was a racer. Sometimes it wasn't always a 'he', either. Mom might have got some of these boys into racing.

Like I said, having racing genes is not a sin. It just makes it easier to decide on a career as a young person. When Dale Jr. began racing in his early teens, his daddy was surprised. He said he never knew Dale Jr. was interested in racing. Dale Jr. would later say that it was all he ever wanted to do.

Well, guess what? Dale Jr.'s doing it! He's doing it in grand style too. First the Budweiser Shootout, now the Gatorade Duel 1 race. 2 for 2. Dale Jr. promised to come out of the corner swinging, and he has delivered in a huge way. Not only has he won both races he's been in, but he's proven that he is definitely a chip off the old block, and might be the best restrictor plate driver in the business. Possibly the best ever. Time will tell on that though.

Dale Jr. has not won just at Daytona and Talladega though. He's won at bullrings like Bristol, Richmond, and Dover. He's won at tracks like Chicago and Phoenix and Atlanta. He's not won a road course race, at least not in his cup career, but early fans of Dale Jr. will remember his Busch series win at Watkins Glen. Oh, and by the way, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a 2 time Busch Series Champion. I put that in caps because I think a lot of the detractors like to conveniently overlook that fact.

Over rated? No. Dale Jr. just has the equipment and the people and an owner that will allow him to live up to his own potential.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Drafting Partners for the Gatorade Duels

It's difficult to formulate a strategy for any race, except maybe to try to stay out of trouble and be at the front at the end of the race. Things can work a little differently at Daytona and Talladega though, where the draft is so much in play. During the actual race on Sunday, all the partners will be available, assuming they all qualify. Things are quite a bit different in the Duels though.

With the field basically split in two, some drivers will have plenty of partners, while some will have none they can really trust. For instance, in Duel 1, 3 Hendrick Motorsports drivers will start the race already lined up to draft in the low lane, with Jimmie Johnson on the pole, Casey Mears starting in 3rd place, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting in 5th place. They maybe all the drafting partners any of them may need the entire race.

Jeff Gordon races in Duel 2 however, and will have no teammates to help him. That is not to say that he won't have help, but will it be help he can really rely on? My best guess is possibly. That's not saying much, but it might be all Jeff will need to finish well or even win his race. One name that comes to mind? Dale Jr.'s old car, the 8 driven by Mark Martin.

Mark showed us all last year that he's a capable driver at Daytona. He's never won a 500, but he almost won last year. Mark is likely to latch onto Jeff's bumper if he can get to him, and probably won't hang Jeff out to dry, until maybe the last lap.

Other notable drafting teams in race 2 will be Michael Waltrip and David Reutimann, who will start the race first and second, and I imagine it will be difficult to pry those two cars apart. Dale Jarrett also is in this race, though he is starting farther back. If I'm David Reutimann, I would be pretty happy about this circumstance, since both of his teammates have won at Daytona before. Dave Blaney, who starts 3rd, is not a team member of Michael Waltrip Racing, but as a fellow Toyota driver, I imagine he will be welcomed by the MWR guys into their private draft.

Also in Duel 2, all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars will start. Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart will start close together, with Kyle Busch starting farther back. I imagine Kyle's first goal will be to catch his teammates as early as possible in this race. Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton will start near the back of the field as well, but I think the RCR cars will be much faster during racing conditions than they were in qualifying trim.

In Duel 1, beside the aforementioned trio of Johnson, Mears, and Earnhardt, we will have the Red Bull cars of Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger starting near the front. Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard will be starting close to each other, with a third teammate Regan Smith starting farther ahead. I imagine the DEI cars will attempt to work together as much as possible. The Chip Ganassi cars of Reed Sorenson, Juan Pablo Montoya will be starting together near the back of the field as well.

All in all, much of draft racing is about temporary partnerships formed between drivers with cars that draft well together. Some times drivers will try to draft with cars that are the same make as theirs, out of brand loyalty to the manufacturer. Sometimes they recognize an old friend who they know will not wreck them, and will hook up with them. Sometimes they will just find that on this particular day, their car works best with someone that they would ordinarily not want to be around on other tracks. In other words, drafting makes for strange bedfellows sometimes.

The only thing I know for sure is this: When the white flag waves, there are no partnerships anymore. Teammates are meaningless, and it's every driver for himself. This is the beauty of racing at Daytona.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How did Nascar handle the Kurt and Tony Feud?

Today it was announced that Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart would be placed on probation for the next 6 races as punishment for an incident that occurred during Friday night's practice for the Bud Shootout. To this amateur race fan, it appeared that Kurt came up high in front of Tony, and Tony hit him, and Kurt spun out. During the trip to pit road, Kurt came up behind and around Tony and hit his car in the right side at least 3 times. Tony pulled down onto the track apron in an apparent effort to avoid Kurt. Before going behind the wall, Tony stopped, and Kurt pulled his car up against Stewart once more.

That's what I saw. There were reports that later, in the Nascar hauler, Tony took a swing at Kurt. Those reports remain unconfirmed.

To me, it appeared that Kurt, understandably upset about the damage caused by his contact with Tony and the subsequent spin, was attempting to damage Tony's car on pit road in retaliation. I might be wrong. Perhaps if Nascar had inspected Tony's car more closely, they would have discovered the super magnets that Tony's team has hidden in the passenger side door of the number 20 car, causing the number 2 car, through magnetic attraction, to repeatedly strike the 20 car in the passenger side door. I'm still weighing those two possibilities before I make a decision on which way to think about this.

It's possible that Tony, in the Nascar hauler, was so enraged by Kurt's on track antics, that he resorted to violence. It's also possible that Kurt was so enraged by the realization that Tony had wrecked his car with super magnets, attempted to physically assault Tony's fist with his face. The jury's still out on that one too.

Over the last couple of years, Kurt has become a changed man, so the media tells us. On camera during interviews, he smiles like Ward Cleaver, and appears to be about as threatening as Mr. Rogers. Kurt is also always very presentable, clean shaven, hair neatly shorn, and he's even keeping his ears glued to the sides of his head these days.

Tony on the other hand, often appears with a stubbly beard, and lately, long hair. At times he appears to be unhappy during interviews, and has been known to give snide answers to such hard hitting questions such as "What do you expect to get out of the race today?" Indeed, Tony actually resembles a small football linebacker more than he does Mr. Rogers. Tsk Tsk.

Probation in Nascar is a very serious thing indeed, and I hope both of these drivers have learned their lesson. Having to stay after class and straighten the desks for six whole weeks is not a lesson either one of these fellows will soon forget.

I imagine we'll see no more tomfoolery out of Mr. Stewart and Mr. Busch again any time soon!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Full Circle

After months of hype and speculation, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fulfilled a promise on Saturday night. It was a promise he made to his team and to his fans, but more important, it was a promise he made to himself. Dale Jr. was back in Victory Lane!

It was a non-points event, but it was still a huge victory for the 88 team. After months of speculation that finally led to Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving the team that was started by his father, and joining Rick Hendrick Motorsports, a racing team that many Earnhardt fans have always considered the 'Dark Force', Dale Jr. got back into Victory Lane for the first time in well over a year. Dale Jr. showed us the finesse that won his earlier victories on the tracks at Daytona and Talladega. As Tony Stewart said after the race, and I'm paraphrasing, Dale Jr. might be the best restrictor plate driver that's ever lived.

Many fans and reporters have been critical of Dale Jr.'s talent over the years. Is he only good on RP tracks like Daytona and Talladega? Jr.'s other wins include Phoenix, Bristol, Richmond, Chicago, Atlanta, and even the All Star race at Charlotte. He's won at what many consider a very difficult track in Dover. Yet people persist in questioning his talent.

I have a theory for this. Readers that are familiar with me know what my theory is, but I'll repeat it again. Jealousy. Pure jealousy. I read message boards of drivers who have not won 1/10 of the races that Dale Jr. has, and some of them have been driving much longer. They always blame the losses on equipment, but never on talent. Dale Jr. has driven with sub par equipment for the last several years, but has managed to claw out a few wins. Dale Jr. now has the best of all worlds now. He's got the best equipment, he's got the best people behind his efforts, and he's got a renewed drive to win races.

Dale Jr. is not alone in being criticized for lack of talent. Teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have been criticized as having no talent as well, and their combined 6 Cup championships and 114 combined Cup victories are simply the result of cheating. Now that Dale Jr. has joined the team, I imagine that those claims will become even more prevalent.

As a fan of Dale Jr., I don't really care. My driver is back in Victory Lane, and let the haters hate all they want to. Last night, the haters were also the losers.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What a Beautiful Time of the Year!

If you live in Chicago, you got probably a lot of snow today, and if you live in Tennessee, you have been dealing with violent storms, and my prayers go out to all of you that have had a rough time with the weather this week. At last count, 55 dead in the tornadoes that swept the Southeast this week. My prayers for the people involved in all this terrible business.

But I'm so happy that February is finally here, that I'm beside myself with excitement. It is now very early Thursday morning here in South Carolina, and I'm going to get to see live Cup racing on Saturday night, Lord willing.

The Bud Shootout at Daytona is one of my favorite races of the year, because even though it's a non-points race, we actually get to see them running to the checkers for the first time. For a fan like me, it's the end of an excruciating long period of inactivity, at least racing wise.

The off season has been anything but boring, as usual to the average Nascar fan. Drivers chanced teams, teams changed manufacturers, and crew personnel changed on probably virtually every team out there. Some owners and drivers are raring to go, confident in their belief that they will go all the way this year. Others wonder how they will keep their heads above water at all. Many teams are still searching endlessly for sponsors, and praying that they can meet the payroll the week after the Daytona 500. Such is racing, and always has been.

I'm not much of one for making predictions, and at this point it would be foolish to make a prediction about who the eventual champion might be. I will hazard one guess though: The winner will be on a well financed team.

I worry about some of the small teams in Nascar. In a way, much has never changed. They used to call the drivers that drive for lower tier teams "stokers". I haven't heard that word lately. A stroker was a guy that ran races, as many as he could afford to, but knew he never had a real chance of winning. If he got a top 10 finish, he was pretty happy. For instance, back in the 1970's there was an owner/driver out there who not only drove the race car, but he also built it, fixed it when he crashed it, and drove the pickup truck that hauled it to the track every weekend. He wasn't the only guy in that situation. Most of these guys either hooked up with teams with more money and resources, or they quit. This one didn't really fit that bill. He eventually hooked up with a hot driver, and got out of the car and just became an owner. He now has one of the better operations in Nascar. Yeah, you guessed it. I'm speaking no other than Richard Childress, and when he stepped out the car, and Dale Earnhardt got in it, the rest is history, as they say.

I wonder about people like John Carter. Who is John Carter, you ask? John Carter owns a garbage disposal business in Toccoa, Georgia. He is also the part owner of a Sprint Cup racing team. In 2005, his driver, Kevin Lepage finished 9th in the Daytona 500. Kevin was obviously a stroker in that race, no one probably expected him to finish the race, much less place in the top 10. $307,138 dollars was awarded that year for his efforts. This year, John Carter will attempt another Daytona 500 entry, with Eric McClure as the driver. I'm pulling for him to make the race, because I'd love to see a long shot get a chance again.

Most of all, I'm just ready for the beginning of Speed Weeks again. I'm just ready to shake off the winter doldrums and hear the sound of the engines, smell the exhaust of hi-octane racing fuel, and basically just get it all rolling again!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

What's the Future for DEI?

I've read an article about the DEI/Ginn merger, where former Ginn co-owner Jay Frye and crew chief Ryan Pemberton were talking about the pain of dissolving a team that had been around for about 10 years. When DEI basically bought out the Ginn operations, a lot of employees were suddenly without jobs.

Jay Frye is now with Team Red Bull, and even though he could have stayed with DEI, he decided to leave, because he didn't like the thought of having to fire so many employees while keeping his own job. I like Jay Frye's style.

Ryan Pemberton left DEI for different reasons. He didn't like the corporate structure of the company, and the "Wall Street" style of management at his new employer. Ryan spoke of the DEI mantra of preserving and continuing Dale Earnhardt's legacy, and quite frankly, Ryan said that's not what he was there for. I think he's right.

Ryan Pemberton is now with Michael Waltrip Racing, serving as David Reutimann's crew chief. Ryan felt like he probably could be working for a team like Rick Hendrick's, but felt that MWR is his place, because he felt like he can make a difference at a young struggling team, such as Michael Waltrip Racing.

I like Ryan's style too. He know's what he's good at doing, and he seeks out opportunities to do it.

My question is this: What exactly is Dale Earnhardt Inc. good at doing these days?

The first answer to my own question is this: DEI is good at marketing memorabilia for the late, great Dale Earnhardt. My second answer is that DEI is good at coming up with really cool sounding titles, such as President for Global Operations. I assume that Max Siegel, who holds that title at DEI, regularly visits the operations folks at DEI London, DEI New Delhi, DEI Shanghai, DEI Tokyo, and DEI Toronto. They do have operations globally, don't they?

Oh, and by the way, they also have some sort of race car team or teams too, don't they? Yeah, that's right! Dale Earnhardt Jr. used to drive for them! Now they've got Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin, Aric Almirola, and Regan Smith and Paul Menard. They currently drive the 01, the 1, the 8, and the 15 cars. A 4 car team should make them a major contender on the track, shouldn't it?

Martin Truex Jr won a race last year, and that was the only race that DEI won in 2007. DEI has recently joined forces with Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt's former employer and friend, to produce engines for both operations. Some fans of Richard Childress Racing drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer are a little nervous about this joint endeavor.

I have to make this one observation: After Dale died on February 18, 2001, DEI became a launchpad for Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Dale Jr. left at the end of 2007, DEI ceased to be what it was, as far as a racing operation. Mark Martin is a great driver, and so is Martin Truex Jr., and probably so are the other drivers. What remains at DEI is not nearly as important as what has left DEI, in my humble opinion. Dale Jr. made DEI popular. He wasn't able to keep the performance up to what it was in 2003 and 2004, and he left. Dale wanted to race competitively, and that's exactly what his son wants to do, so he left a team that wasn't providing what he needed and went to one that promises to do all that he needs: Win.

Dale Earnhardt, in my humble opinion, was the greatest driver Nascar has ever had. When he died, DEI started to die, and now that the son is gone, it will continue to compete, but the spark is gone now. DEI is basically a marketing operation now. Racing is not the priority, selling memorabilia is. I hope DEI proves me wrong, but so far they are not coming close to doing that.

I think what DEI doesn't seem to understand is that this company was started by a racer. That racer is gone, but racing continues. Racers race. Period. When racers can not compete with what the owner gives them to compete with, they leave. The go race for someone else. That's what racers do. Dale Jr. left DEI because he could no longer compete on the level at which he accustomed to competing. If you read a history of his father, you will discover that Dale did exactly the same thing in 1981, and again in 1984. He left J.D. Stacy when he bought out Rod Osterlund, and then left Bud Moore when he was not happy with the equipment. Where did he go both times? Richard Childress. The rest, as they say, is history.

DEI? Just win races. Give your drivers what they need to win races. The marketing will be automatic if you just put them into victory lane. Fans love winners. They still love Dale Earnhardt too, but he hasn't won a race in 8 years. Put some winners in your shop, and you'll sell all the tee shirts you can produce.