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.