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.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Danger: Message Boards May be Dangerous to your Health

I'm not kidding, folks. I had a near death experience on a certain NASCAR related message board recently. I will not name the message board, because legal details are involved, but I can say that recently, I was threatened with death by deletion on a message board.

I'm familiar with message boards. Heck, I even have one myself. We've got 4 members pumping out information with all their might. Recently, on a board dealing with not only politics, but religion, I was threatened with removal because I committed the greatest sin of all: I told the truth. I said to the board, and I quote here: "George W. Busch has not been the greatest president in history."

I backed up my facts there. I did my research before I made such an audacious post. I did my homework, in other words. I based my reasoning upon the fact that none of us, here in the USA, the land of the brave and the home of the free, have yet to acquire space cars. Yeah, I said it. Space cars.

I once watched a film, back when they had film, about the future. In the future, we would all have space cars. I'm in a midlife crises here. I want a Corvette, but should I wait for my space car instead?

I watch guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr, and he makes life fun by being a guy that makes me think that he lives like a rock star. I imagine being Dale Jr, because being him must be so much fun, right?

The fact is, if Dale Jr. wanted a space car, he'd probably already have one. That's just how cool that guy is. Everything he touches seems to turn to gold. He's got his own racing teams. He's got his own production company. He rocks, he rolls, he's like so totally cool.

I wish I had my space car, but I'm probably not going to get one anytime soon. The prices seems to be very high, the registration costs seem to be very not so nice either. I'd hate to think about the insurance on one of those things.

Getting back to my original topic, I have to report that I once had a message board contact offer to shoot me in the face. I was talking about Kyle Busch at the time. This kind board contact offered to shoot me in the face, free of charge. With the price of ammunition these days, that was indeed a kind offer. I declined, however, because I'm apparently too sissy to take on an armed racing fan. What a shame.

I find it refreshing to know that so many fans out there feel passionate enough about their drivers to kill someone. I'm also a bit disturbed by it. But that's just me.

Don't mind me. If I offend you, why don't you just shoot me in the face?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Filling Some Very Big Shoes

It's just not the same anymore. In 2001, NASCAR lost one of it's largest personalities ever on February 18th. That was the day that the flame of Dale Earnhardt was snuffed out, the flame that had burned like a road flare among birthday candles for so long. NASCAR indeed lost a hero and one of its greatest drivers that day. But yet a son remained.

It's not been all celebrity and fun and games and drinking beer for Dale Earnhardt Jr. since then. Dale Jr. has built a reputation as a business man, beginning with JR Motorsports which fields 2 Nationwide series teams. Dale Jr. later created his own TV production company and his own popular Charlotte night spot called Whisky River. He still drives a race car, the 88 Chevrolet Impala SS for owner Rick Hendrick. Dale Jr. is in the Chase for the Cup, and he's a proven winner.

But at the age of 33, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has no Sprint Cup championships to his name yet. As a two time winner of the Busch series, which is now called the Nationwide series, Dale Jr. is indeed a champion, and a proven race winner. 18 wins in Cup since 2000 is a record that many veteran NASCAR drivers would love to have. He's won the Bud Shootout. He's won the All Star race. He's won the Daytona 500. He's basically done it all but win a championship, and for many of his critics, nothing means anything at all unless he wins at least several championships.

Critics of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are many and varied, but most follow one common theme, which is that he would not even be racing were his name not Earnhardt. According to his critics, Dale Jr. is highly over rated, and basically has a driving talent quotient of exactly zero. If you read many of the message boards and comments to articles posted from all over this land, you will get a taste for the abject hatred that many people feel for NASCAR's most popular driver. Many feel that the MPD title is undeserved, and then eventually they say they don't care because he hasn't won a championship. It is true that any driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. included, would rather have the title of Sprint Cup Champion added to their list of achievments rather than being the sports most popular driver.

I'm sorry to report to the many Dale Jr. detractors that his 18 wins and Daytona 500 victory put Dale Jr. in a class that very few drivers, past or present can boast much about. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won exactly as many races as has Kurt Busch, who is the 2004 champion. He's also won exactly as many races as Geoffrey Bodine, Harry Gant and Neil Bonnett. If you don't recognize what an achievement that is for a guy that's been racing for 9 years in Cup for full time, you don't know your NASCAR history. With one more win, Dale Jr. will tie Buddy Baker and Davey Allison. With two more wins, Dale will tie Jeff Burton's current win record. Jeff's been around a lot longer than Dale Jr. In other words, for a grossly over rated driver, Dale Jr. seems to have a pretty impressive record.

It's probably not as much fun anymore for Dale Jr. as it used to be. The tiring ordeal with leaving his father's company, Dale Earnhardt Inc. to make the move to Hendrick Motorsports must have made for a lot of sleepless nights. Many of his critics call him a traitor for ever leaving DEI. I beg to differ, however. Anyone with the name Earnhardt has to know that it's better to go with a winning team, with better equipment and more resources as far as engineering and technical support than it would be to stay with a team that served up a whopping 10 engines that failed to finish races last season. An Earnhardt will always go to where the racing is. This Earnhardt did just that, and I seriously doubt that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have had any problem understanding that.

Tony Eury Jr., Dale Jr.'s cousin and crew chief has spoken of the switch from DEI to Hendrick. He left DEI early last year to get a head start on learning the Hendrick equipment and personnel. Tony Jr. has mentioned that he has had to work harder at HMS than he had to work at DEI. He has more resources available to him, and he's finding that he's spending more time in the shop than he ever did at DEI. Tony Jr. doesn't mind though, as long as it all adds up to better performance. Though many will criticize Tony Jr.'s decisions from on top of the pit box, his peers at HMS feel that there is a good reason for him to be where he is. General manager Marshall Carlson said. "Tony Jr. is one of the smartest guys we've got at that whole place. He's as sly as a fox, …He made friends with everyone through that place, front to back, so that when the season started, it was pretty neat to see everyone through the organization, all these channels of support they have, they were all pulling for Tony and Dale."

Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Jr. have the opportunity to do great things together, and for those who discount Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a driver with little or no talent, I would advise you to remember one thing. This is only the first year out of a multi year contract, and Dale Jr. is performing. He's not where he wants to be, but he's getting there, slowly, race by race, lap by lap. Beware, detractors: Before you disparage a man you don't understand, make sure he's not kicking your driver's tail out on the track. Regardless of what you might think of him, I'll bet that his old man would be proud. I am.

Tony Eury Jr.'s comments supplied by Brant James at the St. Petersburg Times

Friday, September 19, 2008

Is NASCAR Sprint Cup as Good as it Used To Be?

We've got the new car. We've got the Chase. We've got the free pass, or the Lucky Dog as some call it. The world of NASCAR has changed much in the past 10 years. Has it all been for the better?

In terms of safety, I heartily applaud NASCAR's efforts to keep the drivers and crews safer. Many did not like the HANS device when it was first mandated, but I'm guessing that the head and neck restraint system has probably saved a few driver's lives since 2001. Though Dale Earnhardt might have fought that rule tooth and nail, he might still be alive today had NASCAR mandated the HANS device before 2001. So might Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. I also applaud NASCAR mandating the use of helmets for all crew members that climb over the wall to service the race cars on pit road. It just makes sense, just as much as it makes sense to make your children wear head, knee and elbow protection before you turn them loose with a skateboard. Racing is and always will be a dangerous sport, but any measures made to make it safer have to be a good thing in my opinion.

I believe that NASCAR's attempt to even out the playing field with the new car is still a work in progress. True, the teams build fewer cars than they used to, but are they really saving that much money? When an ill handling car seems to be attracted to the fence like a magnet to a refrigerator door, is it really saving the teams money by having to spend endless hours in the shop cutting away twisted metal and fabricating new bodies for banged up race cars? Sure, beating and banging happens in every race, but some drivers find the new cars so ill mannered and bad tempered that it seems that more cars are being wrecked, not just during races, but also during practice and qualifying. Many of the drivers complain that in many cases, it's nearly impossible to set up the race car so that it handles well in traffic. It seems that the new car mostly likes to run at the front, without cars in front of it. A car that grabs the lead on a restart almost automatically becomes the fastest car on the track, and the only way that cars back in the field can catch the leaders is for a caution to occur. To me, that's not racing, at least by old school standards. Sure, there have always been dominant cars and drivers in the field, but the new car seems to be an advantage to those who are in the front, and a disadvantage to many who are in the back.

This phenomenon does not apply to all tracks, obviously. Last week's race at New Hampshire saw very good racing all through the ranks. At other tracks, such as California, it just seems that follow the leader is the game. If you can get to the front for a restart, you might have a chance. If you're mired back in the field all day, there's little chance you will be able to charge to the front in the closing laps, it would appear. Hopefully, the technical folks at NASCAR will find a way to help prevent yawn inducing races, if they insist on racing at tracks that are inherently set up to be boring in the first place.

Again, in the interests of safety, I like the rule that there is not racing back to the yellow flag when a caution comes out. Having cars scattered sideways across the track while other cars try to beat each other back to the flag is often dangerous, and I agree that the field should be frozen at the point that the yellow flag flies. Giving a free pass to a driver who is a lap down is more questionable in my mind however. If the driver got beat on the track, why help him get a lap back that he lost by getting beat? Maybe one free pass per driver per race, or maybe each driver gets so many free passes per season, or some other system would make more sense to me. Drivers can and do make up laps on their own, on the track, and under competition.

The Chase is the most complex change, at least in my opinion, that NASCAR has made in recent years. We have all read about how the last few seasons would have turned out had the Chase not been instituted in 2004. We've read about how past championship races would have shaped up had the Chase been in effect back in the 1990's and early 2000's. All I can say is that the Chase does offer some advantages, mainly by creating something to really race for with 10 races left in the season. Arguments continue, however about whether enough emphasis is placed on wins, or simply driving in a consistent manner is still what matters the most. I agree that the Chase should include 12 drivers instead of 10, so I see that as an improvement. Do we really need the Chase at all though? I'm still having a tough time making up my mind on that.

For whatever all my or anyone else's opinions matter, these and other complaints and arguments are really nothing new in NASCAR. The subjects of the complaints and arguments have changed, but that's about all. When we get right down to it, nothing really matters except what NASCAR itself deems will sell more tickets and improve TV ratings. Our opinions will certainly not fall totally on deaf ears, because there are always other fans that will agree or disagree with us. As far as NASCAR itself goes, however, it is what it is, or more importantly, it will be whatever NASCAR decides it's going to be.

Monday, September 15, 2008

How Quickly the Chase Landscape can Change

The New Hampshire International Speedway has gone from being at best a rather boring track to being a track that has regularly showcased some of the Sprint Cup Series' finest racing in recent years. NHIS is quickly becoming one of those tracks that I really want to visit on race day before I either die or give up watching the sport.

We witnessed hard racing, not just for the lead, but well back in the pack yesterday. We saw the odds on favorite to win the Cup's race turn from bad to worse yesterday, when Kyle Busch had major suspension problems early in the race and saw him finish in 34th place, many laps down. We saw Greg Biffle, whom many didn't believe would even make the Chase a month or so ago, charge to the lead in the closing laps and win his first Cup race of the season. We saw the series' most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., take the lead for nearly 80 laps, only to lose it when he apparently received a bad set of tires on a pit stop.

To say that Dale Jr. was frustrated after losing the lead for good with the bad set of tires would be an understatement. As he is known to do during the heat of competition, he expressed his frustration roundly on the radio to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. It was at this point that owner Rick Hendrick stepped in. He talked to Dale Jr. on the radio, urging him to calm down, to not lose focus. Hendrick reassured Dale Jr. that he still had a good car, and he just needed to give Tony Jr. some feedback and to take out his frustration not on his crew chief, but on the cars ahead of him. Earnhardt seemed to respond to the coaching his owner was giving him, and rallied to finish 5th, his second solid top 5 finish in a row. Top 5 finishes are what got Dale Jr. to the position he's in, and it's good to see him return to that form once again.

True, a win would have been better than a top 5. I don't think anyone would dispute that. Dale Jr. says that he needs to be fired up inside the car sometimes, that it helps him keep his eye on the prize, as it were. I don't think any other driver would disagree with him about that. I do feel that it is important that the driver remain calm enough to help his crew chief sort though problems that the driver is having on the track though. I believe that this is an adjustment in the way Earnhardt Jr. has dealt with problems on the track in the past. I think it wise that one remember that until this year, Dale Jr. has rarely had an active owner talking to him on the radio during a race. Dale Jr. has long expressed his desire to have an owner at the track with him, to be able to talk to about the car, about the conditions of the track, to just be there as a cheerleader, if nothing else. Dale Earnhardt Jr. now has that in Rick Hendrick. Rick has made a commitment to give Dale Jr. whatever he needs to win, and now Dale Jr. needs to learn how to take the advantage of using what he's been given to do what he's there to do: Win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a talented and driven race car driver, and he's still in his first season with a new organization. Old habits die hard, as they say. I agree with Rick Hendrick that Tony Jr. can probably help get the car better if he's not facing an onslaught of rants, but receiving solid information that will help him to make the call on adjustments that need to be made. In the past, at DEI, Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. were both basically men stranded on their own island, receiving apparently little in the way of direction from the higher ups at DEI. This year is different. They have an active, interested team owner who is willing to do whatever it takes to help them to reach the next level in NASCAR's most elite series, which is winning championships.

Rick Hendrick, in his 25 years as an owner in NASCAR Cup racing, has won a lot of championships. He knows how to get it done. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a great year, but he needs to know that he's not in it alone anymore. He's got the support, and he needs to know that if the car has problems, Tony Jr. and the crew will fix it. He's got to help them though, which he does, but he's got to realize that thousands, maybe millions of people are listening to his every word on the radio every week, and his words during the race can give the impression that he is not as happy with his crew chief as he says he is off the track. This leads to much of the criticism that Tony Jr. receives every week, from fans of Dale Jr. and from people who aren't fans at all. Fortunately, neither Dale Jr. or Tony Jr. appear to care what the arm chair crew chiefs think.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is tied for 4th place in points after New Hampshire. He is only 50 points behind the leaders. With the misfortunes of Kyle Busch on Sunday, he actually gained on the lead. Top 5 finishes are a good way to stay at the top of the points list, but Dale Jr. knows he's probably going to have to win at least one of the next 9 races in order to win the championship. If Dale Jr. will take a little of Rick Hendrick's advice, that task will be much easier.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

For Earnhardt Jr., Racing for Championships is a Family Tradition

Racing for, and even winning racing championships is nothing new for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even as all the naysayers foretell that he will come up short in his efforts to win the Sprint Cup in 2008, many forget that Earnhardt Jr. is already a two time champion in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, which at the time was known as the Busch Series.

Dale Jr.'s father won the Cup championship 7 times in his career, and came very close to winning a few more. Dale Jr.'s previous best shot at winning the Cup came in 2004, when he won 7 races and was in contention until having problems near the very end of the season. Dale Jr. knows that all it takes is one little mistake, and a driver can take his team completely out of the running in just the blink of an eye. I was at the fall Atlanta race in 2004 when Dale Jr. spun on the backstretch, effectively ending his hopes for the Cup that year. After such a successful season, the pain and frustration that Dale Jr. felt after the race was reflected in the faces of the fans at the track, a huge sea of red, which was the color of Budweiser, Dale Jr.'s sponsor back in those days.

To say that Earnhardt Jr. wants to win the Cup championship would be like you or I saying that we want air to breathe or water to drink. Dale Jr. has come close, so close he can taste it, and has come up short thus far. He knows that these next 10 races will have to be perfect. Perfection does not mean that he has to win the next 10 races. It just means that he cannot make any major mistakes on the track or in the pits. He knows that his crew chief has to make solid decisions, and that his pit crew has to perform as a well oiled machine. He cannot suffer engine problems. He must not put himself in a position to wreck, yet he must charge hard and try to finish up front each and every race.

Arguably, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is equipped with the best team and the best equipment he's ever had in his career. This year, he broke a 76 race winless streak at Michigan. For the first part of the season, he was one of the most consistent drivers on the track. After a few late season miscues, some of which were of his own making, Dale Jr. finished the race to the Chase with a solid top 5 finish at Richmond last week. What Dale Jr. and the 88 team must do now is to make sure they have their game face on for the next 10 races. Any ironing out of problems or differences must now be complete if they are going to finish the season in first place.

Technically, each of the 12 drivers who made the Chase has a legitimate shot at winning the championship. Dale Jr. knows he will have to drive some of his very best races in the coming weeks if he is to overcome the odds that face him right now. The 3 drivers ahead of him in points have won a total of 18 races between them this year. Teammate Jimmie Johnson appears to have momentum on his side right now, having won 3 or his 4 races in the latter part of the season leading up to the Chase. Kyle Busch has been dominate at practically every track at which he's raced this year. Carl Edwards has been so strong, his insurance company has to be considering raising his premiums, in the event that Carl finally misses one of his signature back flips and lands on his head. In other words, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows that to win the championship, he will be fighting an uphill battle all the way.

Eight other Chase drivers will be facing the same uphill battle as Dale Jr. There are other drivers not in the chase who will be desperate to make a good showing of themselves as well, whether it be just to put a better face on a disappointing season, or to help keep their sponsors for next year. Though the spotlight will be mostly on the 12 Chase drivers for the rest of the season, the best way to break into that circle of light will be to win a race. Just because there are only 12 drivers in contention for the championship, it will not mean that the rest of the field will meekly pull over and let the championship contenders drive on by. In fact, quite the opposite might happen.

Few NASCAR drivers come from as pure of a racing heritage as does Dale Earnhardt Jr. His father knew how to race for and win championships, and a younger Dale Jr. did so as well back in the old Busch Series. An older, wiser Dale Jr. has proven his ability to keep his cool under adversity and pressure, and as long as he keeps doing much of what he's been doing all year, he will be a serious contender for the championship this year.

For Dale Jr., it's all in his hands and in the hands of his team now.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Word of Prayer.

Last night, along with millions of others, I watched with growing horror as the reporters on the various news channels brought us first hand reports of the devastation of Hurricane Ike, as it came onshore directly over Galveston, Texas. Also being reported in the news cycle was the tragedy that occurred in Los Angeles, when a commuter train collided head on with a freight train, where the casualty count thus far stands at 15 dead and 135 injured. That number, sadly, is likely to increase.

The total casualty counts from Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana are not know yet, and indeed it could be weeks before even an approximate number is known. As I look back through the logs of recent readers that my statistics program for this blog keeps, I see a lot of familiar names, such as Galveston, Clute, Beaumont, Clear Lake, Texas City, and many others. Because of the massive loss of power, it may be months before any of these readers have the time or the ability to visit us here again. Of course this is nothing but a blog about a sport, and there is certainly no life or death concerns associated with NASCAR, other than the usual possibilities that exist in the sport. Life and death, though a real part of racing heritage, is a choice undertaken by the drivers involved. In the real world of everyday life, all this seems very insignificant today.

The casualties on the trains in LA never had a chance. They never saw it coming. Lives were snuffed out in a fraction of a second, and as horrible as the loss of life is, that may have been merciful compared to what the people in Texas and Louisiana have gone through over the last 24 hours, and indeed is still going on. With Hurricane Ike, everyone knew it was coming. Some doubted whether or not the conditions would become as bad as they did. Some people refused to evacuate, and it's entirely likely that some of those may not have survived the storm. Though it is extremely unlikely that there will be anywhere near the casualties suffered during the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, it is unlikely that all who stayed behind could have survived.

My prayers go out today to the people of the Gulf Coast, and to those affected by the train crash in Los Angeles. May the Lord be with them, their families and their loved ones. The loss of property has already become staggering from the effects of Hurricane Ike. I pray that the loss of life does not become so as well.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Thoughts on the 2008 Chase for the Cup

The Chase positions are now set, and a few drivers and teams with high hopes are merely just now trying to salvage some wins in the last 10 races of the season. Among the disappointed is most definitely Kasey Kahne, the series top ranked Dodge driver, who just missed his shot at making it to the show. Even with two wins, Kahne will finish no better than 13th in points this season.

Among the drivers who did make it into the Chase, the odds on favorites have to be Kyle Busch, the points leader, and 8 time race winner in 2008. Carl Edwards is another favorite, with 6 wins. Jimmie Johnson has been on a run as of late, with 4 wins, with 3 of those coming near the latter part of the season. This years Chase is made up of cars running under the banner of only 4 different owners, those being Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Motorsports, HendrickMotorsports, and Richard Childress Racing.

Despite some great races this year, Red Bull Racing's Toyotas, driven by A.J. Allmendinger and Brian Vickers will not be part of the big show. The only Toyotas in the Chase are the 3 cars of Joe Gibbs Racing. It would appear that the vast improvement in Toyota performance in 2008 was limited mainly to one organization. Though Red Bull, Bill Davis, and Michael Waltrip's teams all showed improvement this year, none was much of a threat in most of the races. I also find it interesting that even though all 3 of the Childress cars made the Chase, none of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars did, even though both teams share the same Earnhardt-Childress engine packages.

Once again, Hendrick Motorsports managed to get 3 of their cars into the Chase, with Jimmie Johnson, who has lead all of his teammates with 4 wins. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 1 win, and possibly the most shocking statistic of all, is that even though Jeff Gordon will be in the Chase, he has no victories as of yet this year.

Jack Roush managed to put 3 cars in the Chase field as well. Carl Edwards has had a phenominal season, and teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth will join him in this years elite field. Young David Ragan just missed getting in, which has to be disappointing to a driver who has showed much improvement this year.

As for me, I'm still not totally sold on the idea of the Chase for the Cup. If I'm in charge of marketing for Budweiser, which is the primary sponsor for Kasey Kahne's Dodge, or AAA, which is David Ragan's sponsor, I would be very much against the idea of the Chase. No matter what these two drivers do for the rest of the season, short of winning multiple races, these sponsors have to know that they will not be in the spot light for the rest of the season.

NASCAR keeps tinkering with the Chase format, and I expect further changes once again next year. In my belief, however, I think it's time for NASCAR to quit tinkering and just let the drivers race.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

California Dreaming

The Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, California hosted our NASCAR traveling circus over the Labor Day weekend, and for a pure racing fan, there was much left to be desired. As usual, there were many empty seats, especially for the Nationwide race on Saturday night. The Pepsi 500 Cup race netted more ticket holders, but still, the empty seats at the track in the 2nd biggest market in the US were obvious.

I agree with several of my more esteemed colleagues in the NASCAR writing game, that California should indeed have 2 race dates. The market is too big, and too important to leave with just one race date. The racing, however, needs to improve.

Kyle Busch led practically every lap in Saturday's Nationwide race. Nobody was nearly as good as Kyle. If you are a Kyle Busch fan, the race was fantastic. Since most of the racing world are not Kyle Busch fans, the consensus was this: Boring.

The Pepsi 500 was little better. Jimmie Johnson had a car that just completely dominated the field all day, and though Greg Biffle tried to catch him at the end, it was obvious from lap 1 that no one had anything for the 48. The only real excitement during the race was watching car after car almost spin out coming out of the turns. For a fan on the east coast, such as me, it seemed not worth the effort to stay up until midnight to see the end of such a boring race.

I agree with some of my more esteemed colleagues on another point, which involves the track itself. Bulldoze it. Tear it down, and start over.

Roger Penske had a vision of duplicating the track at Brooklyn, Michigan when he built the California Speedway. He got the length right, at 2 miles, but precious little else. There is not enough banking on the track. There is a lot of single groove racing, for the most part. Cars can run in separate grooves, but they can't pass in them. At least the new car can't.

The new car poses enough problems of it's own. Most of the teams still haven't been able to get a handle on the car, or to fix the handling problems therein. Only a few teams seem to have figured it out. Obviously the 18 car of Kyle Busch and crew chief Steve Addington have got it mostly figured out. The 99 car of Carl Edwards with crew chief Bob Osborne seem to have it somewhat figured out. And now the 48 car of Jimmie Johnson with crew chief Chad Knaus seem to have made a breakthrough as well.

The Pepsi 500 was started during the daytime, and finished under the lights. On the west coast, that's probably a fine idea, but back here in the east, that makes for a long night, especially when the race basically consists of follow the leader. The current configuration of the track at Fontana has shown itself to be a disaster.

Some solutions that I would offer: Make the track a high banked oval at the very least. Watching cars running at half throttle much of the laps in an attempt to keep from spinning out makes for bad racing. Better yet, tear down the track and start over. Go to a short track format with stadium seating all around, such as Bristol. Or, make it a 2.75 mile high banked oval, in other words, the track that makes Talladega look weak. Do one or the other, but just do something!

Another solution I would offer is to give California a different race date other than Labor Day, and give that date back to Darlington. NASCAR is all about tradition and history, and taking that race away from Darlington in the first place was a very big mistake, in my not so humble opinion. If Darlington is only worth one race date, let it be Labor Day. Darlington certainly is not situated in a major market, but it's only a couple of hours from cities like Charlotte, NC, Atlanta, GA, Charleston, SC, Columbia, SC, and Savannah, GA. Darlington always pleases the fans. There is awesome racing there, virtually every race that is run there. Tradition and history are things that old school fans appreciate, and NASCAR has really screwed up both of those by moving the Labor Day race to California. Attention: Brian France, get with the program please!

NASCAR has tried to expand too rapidly, I think. They want to have a track next to every major city in the US, but they haven't allowed the fan base to catch up with their greed yet. I say don't put a race in the New York City area, let them watch it on TV and then let them scream for a track on Long Island or somewhere. Let the demographics decide where you put tracks. Don't put a track where no one really cares about racing. Since 2001, NASCAR has had major exposure on several different TV networks, and as long as they keep that up, the sport will grow. Quit trying to slip in the back door in markets that don't really care about the sport. Wait until they are jumping up and down, screaming, and demanding that you put a track in their area. That will assure success.

In other words, Brian France needs to go back and look at what his father and grandfather did before him. Screwing with a good thing can make it all go down the drain. NASCAR was and is a good thing, but the more it's tinkered with, the worse it will get.

Let the drivers drive, let the car builders build cars, let the engine builders build engines. For the love of God, Brian France, let the racers race!