Monday, February 22, 2010

Dale Jr. What's The Deal, Dude?

After finishing 2nd in the 2010 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 32nd at California, many laps down from the leader.

I have purposely not read the message boards.  I’ve not even read most of my e-mail, because I really don’t  want to prejudice my opinion because of what other Dale Jr. fans say.

What I saw on Sunday was a driver with an ill handling car, who broke his left axle on a pit stop, and the pit crew wasn’t ready to deal with it.  During qualifying on Friday, I saw a guy with a fast car but no brakes, and that basically screwed his attempt to get a good starting position.  What the heck is going on with the guy that’s supposed to be getting major attention by the engineers, and the owner of the car, Rick Hendrick?

Crew chief Lance McGrew was very vocal about it, even over the radio on Sunday.  Not being ready to go with a replacement axle was a huge mistake.  Broken axles are not very common during a race, but it is a part that can be replaced on pit road, and apparently, the 88 crew wasn’t ready to deal with that particular circumstance.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the switch to Hendrick to run with the best equipment, the best possible personnel, and win races and championships.  What’s wrong here?  Seriously, I want you to tell me.  Has the driver just forgotten how to drive?  Is there a mismatch in crew chiefs?  Do they need to fire them all and start all over again?

Let me know what you think.  Your guess is at least as good as mine.  For a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr., this is not going to work.  This situation has to improve drastically.

California, Version 2010

I think I forgot to mention it last week, but congratulations to Jamie McMurray for winning the Daytona 500 in only his first points race for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.  I watched Jamie during speed weeks, and was surprised by how strong he seemed to be right out of the box in that number 1 Chevy.  He got a great win, and he deserves it.

Back to the present.  Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson for his win at California’s Auto Club Speedway, and though I’m not shocked that Jimmie Johnson won at California, he probably is.  The timing of that last yellow flag was perfect for Johnson.  Had it not been for that fortuitous series of events, it’s doubtful that he could ever have taken away the lead from the Richard Childress Racing duo of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.  Though Harvick charged hard in the last laps, a brush with the wall ended all hopes of frustrating Jimmie Johnson’s 48 team’s resurgence to dominance.

For one of the first times in several years, I was impressed with the quality of the racing at Fontana on Sunday.  I don’t know whether it was the tire that Goodyear brought to the track, or if it’s because the teams are starting to get a handle on the new car, but the race at California was worthwhile for a change.

NASCAR and track officials seemed to get a handle on the weepers that perpetually plague this track in the February race, and a wet track never really was a factor for a change.  I still don’t know that California really should have two race dates every year, but I have to say that I enjoyed the race I saw on Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson’s win was meaningful, because Sunday marked Jimmie’s 48th win in the Cup series.  Jimmie Johnson has won 48 Cup races, all of them in the 48 car.  That’s a milestone, because JJ’s first win came back in only 2002.  If I’m not mistaken, that first win also occurred in California.  For those of you who follow statistics, you have to think about a few things.  It’s possible that Jeff Gordon, who has won a ton of races and 4 championships, might have passed his peak as a driver.  Jimmie Johnson is younger, and he’s already won 4 championships as well.  Has Jimmie peaked yet as a driver?  I really don’t think so.  Jimmie might have a few more championships left in him.  Jimmie Johnson is the only current driver that could seriously compete to equal or even surpass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in Cup championships.  That’s food for thought.

I give at least 50 per cent of the credit to crew chief Chad Knaus for the 48 teams success.  Sure, Jimmie is a very talented driver, but Chad is an uncommonly exceptional crew chief.  The relationship between Johnson and Knaus is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been watching for a long time.  I don’t know that Richard Petty and Dale Inman even had as good of a driver - crew chief relationship as Jimmie and Chad have.

Many would say that Jimmie’s victory at California on Sunday was a fluke, just a great piece of luck, and they would be correct in saying that.  Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have that going for them though.  Part of it is instinct, part of it is pure luck, but the 48 team has it, and however they do it, they get the job done.

I haven’t read any estimates of the total attendance at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, and I don’t have much of a feel for it, except that I do know that FOX seemed to avoid camera shots of the grandstands during the race, which tells me all I need to know: 

Many Californians missed a pretty decent race on Sunday.  It’s a shame, but there are valid reasons why, and I’m going to lay it all out for you in a future article here.  I have my theories about why major metropolitan areas seem to not generate great numbers for NASCAR events.  I’ll share them with you at a later date, God willing.

This week, it’s on to Las Vegas.  From Daytona to Southern California to Nevada is a brutal tour for the NASCAR teams’ logistics departments.  So many miles to travel in so little time.  My FDNY hat’s off to all the car hauler drivers, the team hauler drivers, the owners and drivers’ motor coach hauler drivers.  These guys are running a marathon every February, and they do it all very, very well!

I’ve got a lot more thoughts about Sunday, and I will share them soon.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Things I Hope I Live To See

I hope I live to see Mark Martin win a Sprint Cup Championship.  Hopefully, that will happen in the next ten or twenty years.

I hope I live to see Michael Waltrip drive on North Carolina public highways without having a wreck for at least a year.

I hope I live to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. get married, settle down, and have some kids.  I really think that would help him find his place in life, and on the race track.  I would really love to live to see Dale Earnhardt III win 8 Cup championships and 201 races.  But I probably won’t live to see that happen even if it does happen.

I hope I live to see cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, lupus, and a myriad of other ailments.  I’d like to see a ten minute cure for a bad back as well.  I’d really, REALLY like to see that bad back thing happen, like, well…… NOW.

I’d like to see Colin Braun win multiple Cup championships.  I just like the guy.  I’d also really like to see Marcos Ambrose win a Cup race, because I just can’t wait to hear him in victory lane.  That Aussie accent just fascinates me, and I’d love to hear him really excited for once.

I hope I live to see some driver, any driver, even approach Dale Earnhardt’s passion and charisma in the sport of stock car racing.  There’s some potential out there, but I haven’t seen that spark yet.  I hope I live to see a driver as hungry as Dale was back when he broke into the sport.  I’ll know him when I see him.

I hope I live to see Jimmie Johnson get all the acclaim he deserves, which is being the first driver ever to win four consecutive Cup championships.  Jimmie wins four in a row, but what is the NASCAR world talking about?  Danica Patrick, who won an IRL race in Japan, and has never won anything in a stock car?  If I were Jimmie, I’d be perturbed.  A female friend told me not long ago that Jimmie Johnson is better looking than Danica’s husband.  I have to defer to a female’s opinion on that.  What I really like about Danica is her personality.  She’s a small woman, but she’s willing to take the gloves off and mix it up when she’s mad.  I’ve never seen Jimmie do that.  Who would be willing to give Jimmie Johnson some free boxing lessons?

I hope I live to see a world in which the sanctioning body of NASCAR lets the drivers drive, the crew chiefs make the cars faster, and fix things to where the best car wins, and only the fastest 43 cars get into the race..  Probably, that will never happen, at least in my lifetime.

I hope I see live to see that gopher on FOX TV disappear forever, and I really hope I don’t see him in the afterlife.  If he’s there, I’ll…… Huh.  Never thought about it before, but can you commit suicide after you’re dead?  If Digger is there, I’ll find out.  I’ll let you know by haunting the crap out of you about it.

Speaking of  haunts, I really hope the Ghost Hunters guys will find Casper the Ghost and take some photos of him.  A white sheet saying “Boo!” would be so cool!  Especially if the word “Boo!” was in a comic balloon over the sheet’s head.  Now, THAT would be some good TV!

I hope I live to see Paul Sr., Paul Jr. and Mikey repair their familial relationship and restart the American Chopper series, with a return to making motorcycles, not idiotic family soap operas.

I hope I live to see the day when NASCAR is America’s number one sport, because it is, after all, the only sport where people die playing the game, at least on a regular basis.  People say football is like a battle, but NASCAR is all war, every week, from February until November.  These guys may be friends off the track, but on the track, they have no real friends.  On the last lap, everyone is an enemy.

I hope I live to meet each and everyone of you who reads this column, because you’re all very important to me.  That probably won’t happen either, but even if I never met you, it was real.

Hopefully it will be real again soon.

If you’ve got anything you’d like to see, I will welcome your comments here.  Just click below in the space provided, and you can add to the list or tell me I’m full of it on one  or more of the suggestions I made.  Any and all comments are always welcome here.

Sports Figures and Apologies

All the big news of the day, it would seem, revolves around Tiger Woods’ first public appearance since the very strange events that took place on Thanksgiving evening last year.  His statement was carried on most of the major networks, including, of course, ESPN, ESPN2, CNBC, MSNBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, and FOX News.

Tiger Woods is one of the most popular sports figures in the country, if not the world.  Woods is to golf what Michael Jordan is to basketball, or possibly Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt are to NASCAR.  For fans of golf, and even for those who aren’t, Tiger Woods’ name is known in pretty much any household which also contains a television.

I’m not going to analyze Tiger’s apology to his friends here.  He apologized to his friends and his family, and he also mentioned regret that he had let down his fans.  I thought he seemed pretty sincere about that, and I am more than willing to let it go at that.

The fact is, Tiger Woods doesn’t owe me an apology for anything.  Chances are, he doesn’t owe you an apology either.  My life has not changed in any way because Tiger carried on with women to which he was not married.  That’s not my concern.  I miss seeing Tiger Woods playing golf, because he is obviously one of the best players in the world,  but what he does off the golf course doesn’t really matter to me.

To people with kids who might be or have been fans of Tiger Woods, I can understand your concerns, and perhaps Tiger’s apology will help your child understand that it’s OK to admire great athletes, but sometimes even the rich and famous have problems away from the cameras.  Athletes may be the very best in their sport, but they might be a lousy father, or mother, or husband or wife.  Celebrity in and of itself only means that someone has been noticed, and the closer we look at people who’ve grabbed our attention, the more likely that some unsavory character flaws will emerge.

Jeff Gordon went though a somewhat similar event a few years ago.  Jeff and Brooke Gordon seemed to be the perfect couple.  They had plenty of fame, plenty of money, and somewhere, something went wrong.  NASCAR fans, whether they were Gordon fans or not, were somewhat shocked when all the allegations were flying.  The details of what broke up the marriage are not known by but a few people, but obviously Jeff Gordon showed that he was indeed human, and even Jeff Gordon can make mistakes.  Gordon now is remarried and has a child and another on the way, and the breakup with Brooke seems like it took place a million years ago to most fans.

Gordon’s situation got much less universal attention than Tiger Woods’ current mess, but in the NASCAR world, the Jeff and Brooke show was huge news at the time.  Most of us who have been fans for more than a few years remember it, but I doubt that few people who were Jeff Gordon fans before the breakup with Brooke jumped ship.  Whether that will be the same with Tiger Woods, only time will tell.

Tiger Woods should apologize to his family and his friends, and maybe even his sponsors, because they are the people he really let down.  As a casual fan of golf, my only thought was that golf will be less interesting if Tiger isn’t around for the tournaments.  The fact that he had so many affairs was surprising to me, but at the same time, I doubt it will change my opinion of his talents as a golfer.

Parents, if you’re offended by what Tiger Woods did, that’s fine.  If you’re worried that your kids will be adversely effected by Woods’ actions, then explain to them that Tiger is human, and he did wrong.  Don’t count on your kids finding role models for life on television.  Why not try to be the life role model for your kids?  So, you can’t play sports.  So what?  You do the right thing, your kids will notice, and hopefully they will decide to be like you and do the right thing when they are adults.

If your kid wants to be a great athlete, by all means show him the best and let him or her watch and learn.  If your kid wants to be a great golfer, show them tapes of Tiger Woods.  If your kid wants to be a great basketball player, she them tapes of Michael Jordan when he played for the Bulls, or UNC.  If your kid wants to be a great stock car driver, show them tapes of Petty, and Earnhardt, of Pearson, of Allison, of Yarborough, of yes, even Johnson, Gordon, Stewart, or whomever you consider to be a great driver.

Please remember that however great your favorite athlete is when he’s playing his game, he might not be so great away from the field or the track.  If your favorite athlete screws up in his personal life, remember, that ought to be personal.  Just because a guy has a zillion dollars, it doesn’t mean that he’s better than you or me, at least on a personal level.

We are all, each and every one of us, human.  Or at least you are.  I will reserve the right to reveal my true identity later!

Friday, February 19, 2010

The State Of NASCAR: February, 2010

We’re now only one race into the 2010 NASCAR season, but I’ve already seen some encouraging signs that the sanctioning body is on the right track as far as making the racing better and giving the fans a better experience, both the fans at the track and those watching at home on TV.

Before the Daytona 500, NASCAR announced that it was relaxing its rules on bump drafting on the restrictor plate tracks.  True, that’s only 4 races a year, but I believe it shows that NASCAR is finally willing to bend, at least a little, when it comes to changing policies to make the racing more interesting.

NASCAR has also announced the return to the spoiler, forsaking the ugly wing that seems to cause more problems than it solves.  Hopefully, teams that have been frustrated in their attempts to set up the handling on the current incarnation of the race car will find some more familiar ground with the spoiler.  Better handling cars should make more teams competitive in the future.

They Daytona 500 was a good race, when you take the pothole problem out of the equation.  The race itself was up for grabs until the last turn on the last lap, and that’s the way it out to be.  Daytona was just plain good racing.

In my maybe not so humble opinion, the sport has suffered as of late by too many restrictions, too many attempts to even the playing field, and by basically abandoning what makes this sport fun in the first place, which is, of course, good, hard racing.  If the racing is good, finding fans will never be a problem.

In such uncertain financial times, it’s not surprising that many fans simply cannot afford to travel to the race tracks as often as they did in years past.  Hopefully, the economy will recover, and fans will find their way back to the tracks, spend some of their disposable income on souvenirs, and the sport will recover the audience that it seems to have lost in the past couple of years.

NASCAR has the potential to return to its previous greatness, and even surpass what it has been in the past.  The potential is there, but the product has to be good enough to make the fans want to buy tickets and tune in every weekend for the races.  It appears that NASCAR is headed in the right direction, and one hopes they will continue to do so.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Daytona 500 Time. It's Finally Here!

In just a few hours, The 2010 Daytona 500 will kick off, and if you're like me, it's the most exciting time of the year.

The NASCAR season is just kicking off, and I can't wait to hear the command to start engines.  It's Daytona, the biggest race of the year, and there is just nothing quite like Daytona in February.

Who's going to win?  I don't have a clue, but I'd put my money on guys like Tony Stewart, or Greg Biffle, or Kevin Harvick.  Maybe even Jimmie Johnson, because JJ and Chad can seem to do no wrong. 

Personally, I'm pulling for Dale Jr., because another win at the Daytona 500 would take the no-win monkey off his back so fast, it would make your head spin.  Dale Jr. is due, and he's already won this race once.  Dale Jr. has the equipment and hopefully the right people behind him, so who knows.  It would be a great shot in the arm for not only Dale Jr. and the 88 team, but for NASCAR as well.

This is a day of celebration, NASCAR fans.  Let's scream at the TV, enjoy a few of our favorite beverages, at least in moderation, and let's get excited!  The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is upon us, and let's get fired up!  I am, and I invite you, no matter who your favorite driver is, to get fired up too.  Cheer your driver on to victory lane, and let's get this puppy started up!

Early congratulations to whomever wins the Daytona 500 later today.  The field is so tight, that just about anyone can win, if they're in the right place, at exactly the right time.  That's the way it ought to be every week in this sport, and often is.  Today is all about why we love racing and why we devote so much time and attention to it. 

Today, the Daytona 500 will hopefully show us something:  Racing at its very best.

Some People Ought To Know Better

I was listening to my local sports talk radio station yesterday, and late afternoons the station runs a popular talk show out of Charlotte, North Carolina.  Since the show does originate in Charlotte, the host does pay some lip service to NASCAR, but 99 per cent of the time, the show is devoted to stick and ball sports.
The other day, however, the host went on a rant about Danica Patrick’s 6th place finish in Saturday’s ARCA race, and basically said that ARCA is a nothing series, more or less a sandlot league.  The impression that he was trying to make was that even racing in the ARCA series proves nothing, because ANYBODY can race in ARCA. 

My friends, that’s just not true.  I understand the host’s frustration over the whole Danica phenomenon, because quite frankly, it’s being a little overdone in the media.  But to act like ARCA is just some little dinky racing series is just idiotic, and quite frankly, this host ought to know better.  Danica Patrick is not the first woman to race in NASCAR, not by a long shot.  She’s obviously not the first open wheel driver to cross the bridge to race stock cars.

ARCA is not the most elite series in stock car racing.  The most elite series is obviously the Sprint Cup.  But nobody just soups up the old Chevy in the backyard and goes ARCA racing.  Virtually all of the drivers in ARCA have raced their way up the ladder, beginning at their local bull rings, graduating on to regional series, and beyond.  These folks are in ARCA because they’re all winning race car drivers at other levels.  Danica Patrick did not become a Indy Racing League driver because she had a pretty face.  She grew up racing, and was good enough to eventually reach the big leagues in open wheel racing.

The arrogance that seems to pervade the mainstream sports media where stock car racing is concerned is pathetic.  Many prominent radio personalities simply scoff at the very idea that stock car racing is even a sport.  “Anyone can drive a car around in circles,” they say.  “Even my grandmother can do that.  It’s not a sport.”

I’ve got a newsflash for those sports talk show hosts who just don’t get it.  Not only is stock car racing a sport, it’s even more than that.  Racing is the most brutal sport of all, because people actually die driving race cars.  When is the last time you heard about a professional golfer suffering a broken neck on the 13th green at Augusta National?  Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway has claimed the lives of more great professional athletes than pretty much any other sporting venue in the country.

It’s much like the old saying:  “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.”  I don’t understand all the nuances of the NFL, but I still like to watch it.  Heck, I even watch curling, even though I don’t really get it.

Many racing haters say that stock car racing is just some stupid, redneck, hillbilly sport.  That’s simply not true anymore.  Judging by the readers of just this site, I have way more hits from California and New York than I have from North Carolina.  Sports personalities, especially popular ones in Charlotte, North Carolina ought to know better.  They do know better, but spouting ignorance such as what I heard the other day is more than pathetic.

It’s actually embarrassing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Budweiser Shootout Starts the 2010 Season Off With a Bang

Saturday night’s Bud Shootout was an interesting race, and for me, at least, entertaining as well.

The racing itself was good, what I would consider to be an improvement over last year’s race.  There was quite a bit of passing, especially back in the pack, and the larger restrictor plates appeared to allow greater throttle response than in past plate races.  This all adds up to more exciting racing.

Kudos have to go to NASCAR as well for retracting the rules for bump drafting.  Any driver who gets pushed too hard into a corner is gong to complain about it, but it just makes for better racing when the drivers are free to bump and bang a little.  Drivers at the Sprint Cup level are among the best in the world, and if they couldn’t handle a little physical contact, they would be doing something else for a living.

The bottom line is that the changes that NASCAR has made for racing at Daytona appear to promise a good Daytona 500 on Sunday.  A better race means fans see a better product, and that’s really the most important priority.

Congratulations to Kevin Harvick, who, after being sick much of the week, pulled out the win on Saturday in a car in which he had not driven one practice lap.  Perhaps Richard Childress Racing will turn a corner in performance in 2010 and get back to victory lane in the points racing.

One major disappointment was the performance of the 88 Chevy, driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr.  After running strong for a few laps, the 88 car faded back and Dale Jr. was complaining about a problem that plagued his team’s efforts in 2009.  In Junior’s words, the car was “wrecking loose.”  Though the Shootout is only the first race of the season, and fortunately carries no points considerations, the Junior Nation has to be somewhat dismayed by the handling problems on Saturday night.  It’s not time to panic yet, however.  Dale Jr. will be starting on the outside pole on Sunday, so he’s definitely got the horsepower to get to the front.  Hopefully crew chief Lance McGrew and the team will get a better handle on the handling problems by Sunday.

With the Budweiser Shootout out of the way, and the twin qualifying races coming up later in the week, it finally feels like the long off season is indeed over. 

I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I'm Loving Me Some Daytona

I regularly listen to a local sports station, WCCP FM which is based in Clemson, South Carolina, and is the official radio station of the Clemson Tigers.  Feel free to Google it.  They’d love to have you listen online, if you don’t happen to be in the Upstate South Carolina area, and chances are you’re not.

A particular radio host who’s name is Walt Deptula, is on from 3:00 until 5:00 PM Eastern time.  Walt is a walking, talking sports encyclopedia.  If you ask Walt if he watched the basketball game between East Utah State and Northern Michigan, Walt will say “Of course.”  Walt watches everything, as long as it’s stick and ball sports.  You know, football, basketball, baseball, hockey, etc.  Walt’s not a big fan of NASCAR, but he does talk about it from time to time, whenever there’s big news in the sport.

Walt does talk about basketball a lot though.  Remember Dick Vitale?  You know, he’s the basketball color guy that says “Yeah, baby!” and is very entertaining to listen to, or at least some people think so.  Dicky V has a love relationship with Duke University, which usually has a great basketball program, and no matter what game Dick is calling, he inevitably brings Duke into the conversation. 

Walt Deptula regularly has a contest on his show where callers can call in and guess about how far into the basketball game Dick Vitale will mention Duke University.  Walt calls this contest “Dick Vitale’s I’m Loving me some Duke.” 

Well, I’m loving me some Daytona right now.  February, for quite a few years now, makes me get all tingly inside.  With some tickets going for as low as $55.00, I’d be there in a heart beat, because I’ve never actually watched a race at Daytona International Speedway, at least in person.  I’ve been to Atlanta, Charlotte, Darlington, Talladega, and some other tracks, which were all awesome, but Daytona is basically the Super Bowl of NASCAR.  On Valentine’s day, Daytona is the place to be for any NASCAR fan.

The off season is over.  It’s time to get back to some high octane racing fuel, the deafening sound of 43 racing engines screaming, making your eardrums bleed.  As General George S. Patton once said about war, I’ll say the same thing about NASCAR:  “God forgive me, but I do love it so.”

If there’s any way you can get to Daytona in the next couple of weeks, I would encourage you to do so.  Ticket prices are probably lower this year than they have been in decades.  Daytona International Speedway is an awesome place to see, even when you’re the only person inside the track.  Imagine being there with a hundred plus thousand of your friends and neighbors.  Imagine them all screaming, encouraging their drivers on, calling them home for the win, which may be the win of a lifetime.  It may be the event of a lifetime for you or someone in your family.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Do You Feel The Need For Speed?

I know that I do.  It’s racing season, and things are starting to get cranked up in Daytona.  For me, at least, I can’t wait.  I love speed weeks.  I can’t say that enough, because speed weeks gets my blood flowing.

It’s like a spring thaw.  Florida was hit with some of the coldest temperatures they’ve had in years, if forever.  California has seen some of the worst  rainstorms and snowstorms in decades.  In other words, doomsday is near at hand, right?

NASCAR  has the perfect solution to this bad weather, bad feeling that winter leaves behind.  The Budweiser Shootout, the Twin races, and the actual Daytona 500 are just around the corner.  We’ve got a ton of racing in NASCAR just around the corner, and it couldn’t come soon enough for me.

It’s been an unbelievably long off season, at least for me.  It seems like it’s been years since the guys were on the track.  I know it hasn’t been that long, but at the tender age of 46, I still believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  When I get older, maybe I’ll stop believing in the tooth fairy.

To me, February is the real Christmas, at least as far as racing goes.  No, no, I still believe in Christmas on December 25th because that is the day of the birth of my savior Jesus Christ.  But February 14th will have special meaning for me this year, because Valentine’s day coincides with the Daytona 500.  I’m hopelessly romantic, and though I’ve got no sweetheart to spend Valentine’s day with, I will be wired and fired up for the Daytona 500.

For me, Daytona is the best part of the year.  Gas fumes, burning rubber, can it get any better than this?

I don’t think so.

I’ll be back lots with more thoughts as Speed Weeks gets under way. 

Whoever your favorite driver is, I wish him or her well this season.