Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Offseason Musings

Okay, so I never wrote a wrap-up after the season finales at Homestead last month -- sue me. Work has been hectic of late, and let's face it: what more is there to say about Jimmie Johnson winning his third straight Sprint Cup title?

That's what I thought. Moving on ...

In With the New

Jamie McMurray won't be the only driver at Roush-Fenway coming to Daytona next February with a new crew chief. The team announced on Tuesday at the Drew Blickensderfer, who helped Carl Edwards finish second in the 2008 Nationwide Series behind Clint Bowyer, will be Matt Kenseth's new crew chief in the No. 17 in 2009.

This makes Kenseth's third crew chief in the last three years. After running him whole career with Robbie Reiser calling the shots, Kenseth went 2008 with Chip Bolin on the pit box. The team struggled early and never found that consistency, and Kenseth went winless for the first time since 2001.

Though I'm generally one to not change crew chiefs (or head coaches) after just one year, it was clear Kenseth and Bolin didn't have the right mix that translated to on-track success. Edwards, Greg Biffle and even David Ragan outran Kenseth for much of the year, even though Kenseth is the only one in the Roush garage with a Cup title to his name. If Jack Roush felt something had to be done, then let's trust his judgement.

Besides, he could've done much worse than Blickensderfer. Edwards won seven of the last 19 Nationwide races with Blickensderfer calling the shots, nearly overtaking Bowyer for his second straight series title. Blickensderfer also worked with Kenseth in the Nationwide Series, guiding him to three wins before taking over for Edwards mid-season.

All in all, I think this is a good move, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Kenseth back to his competitive, consistent self in 2009. He could even see Victory Lane a few times.

Only Themselves to Blame

While I grant that what's happening to Petty Enterprises is sad, I can't help but only feel but so bad. After all, if the organization hadn't fallen as far behind as it had over the past 15 years, this pending merger with Gillett Evernham Motorsports might not be happening, and 2000 Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte might not be looking for a ride.

The famed No. 43 hasn't won a race since 1999, and the No. 45 is likely a thing of the last -- leaving Kyle Petty's future up in the air. A proposed merger is said to not include Kyle, while Richard Petty -- you know, The King, he of 200 NASCAR wins and seven titles -- will be on board, though no one's sure in what capacity. Sponsorship is an issue (as it is with most teams), but the fact remains:

Petty Enterprises fell behind as Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress proceeded to take over the sport. People are resources became what defined success in the Sprint Cup Series, and the fact is, Petty fell way behind on that. Now the company's trying to play catch-up, when the nationwide economic crisis is making everything a little tighter for everyone.

I hope Petty can get things right and keep the No. 43 on the track, just as I hope that ride one day sees Victory Lane again. But while everyone looks at that organization as a victim, I see it more as an offender; that company had a chance to change with the times over the past decade, but it didn't.

Petty has no one to blame for this mess but itself.

The Cool Kid

Brad Keselowski is like that kid you knew in high school. You know, the slightly sweeby one who's all cool and respected cause he's friends with the cool kid?

Make no mistake -- I'm not calling Keselowski a dweeb. But he was named the Nationwide Series Most Popular Driver last week, and for anyone who wants to know why, I simply point to his car owner:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior is so popular, fans can buy a plush doll of his black boxer, Killer. It's popularity by association; if you're friends with the cool kid, you're automaticall cool. Keselowski certainly helped himself by winning two races and finishing third in the final series standings -- the highest-finishing Nationwide-only driver -- but in the end, it comes down to the guy signing the checks.

Keselowski is also a humble guy, one who in spite of his success still realizes he's not quite ready to be a full-time Cup driver. He wants to run the full 2009 Nationwide schedule, while racing in select Cup events -- then, when Mark Martin goes to part-time work in 2010, Keselowski's transition to Cup could begin in earnest.

Joey Logano might have all the hype, but Keselowski is the man as far as the fans are concerned.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nine Down, One to Go: Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix Musings

You gotta give Carl Edwards credit for trying. He finished third at Martinsville, a track he's not that good on, and then won Atlanta and Texas. Edwards even finished fourth at Phoenix on Sunday, putting together a four-race stretch after a disastrous Talladega and Charlotte that would give anyone a boost in the points.

Unless that person was chasing Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson won both Martinsville and Phoenix in dominating fashion, and even rained on Edwards' parade with a late charge to finish second in Atlanta. Not even a 15th-place egg at Texas could bring Edwards within 100 points of the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. And unless something completely unforeseen happens Sunday at Homestead, Johnson will become the first driver since Cale Yarborough to win three consecutive Cup titles.

Johnson could easily be working on his fifth straight championship; he's never finished lower than fifth in the season standings in his Sprint Cup career.

If Johnson finishes 36th or better in the Ford 400, he'll clinch the title regardless of what Edwards, 141 points back, does. If Johnson leads a lap, he needs a 38th-place finish; if he leads the most laps, the benchmark becomes 39th. Johnson finished 39th in the Coca-Cola 600 in May thanks to a blown motor, so it is possible.

Just not likely. Like it or not, we can start engraving the trophy now.

Needless Change?

Jamie McMurray will be getting a new crew chief in 2009, but the way he's been running in recent weeks, one might wonder why. McMurray has four Top-10 finishes in the last five races, including three Top-5s. He finished fifth in Charlotte, along with back-to-back third-place efforts in Texas and Phoenix.

He also finished seventh in Atlanta, and McMurray had strong runs at Talladega and Dover derailed by any number of issues.

So ... why is owner Jack Roush getting rid of Larry Carter again? I'll grant that McMurray sits 16th in the point standings and hasn't won a race since July 2007, but is it really that smart to make a change just when things seem to be coming together?

I'll grant Roush normally makes these sorts of moves with a measure of success, but it's no coincidence that Edwards struggled in 2006 when Roush took away crew chief Bob Osbourne. Only once Osbourne returned did Edwards return to his winning and championship-contending ways.

If I'm Roush, I'm not letting Carter go anywhere.

Merger Talks

I realize I'm well behind on following the Chase for the Sprint Cup on this page -- I'll get to that in a bit -- but the big news of the day coming into the NASCAR season's final weekend takes precedence. There have been talks in recent weeks of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. merging with another existing Sprint Cup operation -- Petty Enterprises and Chip Ganassi Racing being the two likeliest candidates -- and as of Wednesday, the talks became reality.'s David Newton reports that DEI will merge with Ganassi for the 2009 season to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. As it currently stands, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Juan Pablo Montoya will be three of the team's four drivers, while the driver of what is now the No. 41 Dodge has yet to be decided.

A.J. Allmendinger and Scott Riggs are among the drivers slated for that ride. Reed Sorenson, the current driver of the No. 41, will move over to Gillett Evernham Motorsports' No. 10 at the end of this season.

Given both organizations' recent struggles, both on the track and in the bottom line, this move makes sense. NASCAR was already moving toward a competitive climate that would only allow the super teams to flourish, and the economic struggles facing NASCAR and the nation as a whole made such a move even more necessary.

Ganassi and DEI have both struggled for sponsorship dollars of late -- Ganassi had to shut down the No. 40 team in July and lay off 70 employees because of a lack of sponsorship, and of DEI's four cars, only Truex's No. 1 has full funding for 2009. So from an economic standpoint, the merger benefits both teams, even if funding is still needed for Montoya and Almirola. Montoya's car, the No. 42, only has partial sponsorship, while Almirola's No. 8 will lose the U.S. Army as a sponsor after this weekend'd finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Manufacturer details remain to be seen, given Ganassi's contractual obligations to Dodge, but reports have EGR running under the Chevrolet/General Motors brand. There is also the matter of DEI's engine alliance with Richards Childress Racing, though a source told Newton RCR wanted to keep that relationship, even after the merger.

DEI's season has been well-documented, and many attribute much of the team's problems to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s departure after last season. But DEI's problems started long before NASCAR's most popular driver left for Hendrick Motorsportsl, as evidenced by the team's results each of the last three seasons. While the merger probably won't yield short-term results, if the newly-formed EGR can survive the economic crunch and not give way to the Hendricks, Gibbs and Roushes for the world, this team could be successful in the long run.

I'm just not sure the late Dale Earnhardt ever had anything like this in mind when he founded this company.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Five Down, Five to Go: Charlotte Musings

Is there anyone who can honestly say they’re unhappy whenever Jeff Burton wins a race? Easily one of the most respected drivers in the Sprint Cup garage area, Burton took the checkered flag Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The win, coupled with troubles for Carl Edwards (more on him in a bit), vaulted Burton to second in the standings, 69 points behind Jimmie Johnson.

Can Burton now be considered a serious title threat, much like Greg Biffle was after winning back-to-back races to start the Chase? It’s possible; Burton runs well at Martinsville (the stop this week), as well as upcoming 1.5-milers Texas and Atlanta. Burton’s only problem is Johnson himself, who not only has the same consistency, but this is the two-time champion’s time of year.

Johnson always seems to run well once the series leaves Richmond in September. He’s quickly turning into NASCAR’s version of Reggie Jackson. The Yankee legend is known as Mr. October; we might have to start calling Johnson Mr. Chase.

But should Johnson stumble in the final five races, Burton seems best positioned to take advantage given the remaining schedule. Biffle and Edwards will be strong on the 1.5-mile tracks, as well as Phoenix, but both Roush-Fenway drivers are average at best on the Virginia short track in Martinsville. Barring a career performance from either this weekend, the trophy will come down to Johnson and Burton.

If that’s the case, the analyst in me says Johnson – for obvious reasons. But the face says Burton. I mentioned earlier how Burton is so respected. For many fans, Burton is their second favorite driver; i.e., “If my favorite driver can’t win, I’d really like to see Jeff Burton win.”

Fair? Perhaps not, but it beats having ¾ of the crowd booing you every week. Right, Kyle Busch?

From Bad to Worse

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Carl Edwards last week, the Bank of America 500 happened. Ignition problems doomed Edwards to a 33rd-place finish and a tumble from second to fourth in the standings, 168 points behind Jimmie Johnson.

Edwards’ bad week actually started at Talladega, when a bump draft of teammate Greg Biffle triggered a 12-car pileup that ate up six Chase contenders. Then Kevin Harvick voiced his displeasure pointedly on ESPN’s live broadcast, calling Edwards a “pansy.”

Edwards and Harvick then reportedly had words in the Nationwide Series garage on Friday, which resulted in Edwards’ hand around Harvick’s neck and Harvick shoving Edwards so hard that Edwards’ backside left a dent in the hood of Harvick’s No. 33 Nationwide car.

I swear, there’s a joke in there somewhere.

Call it karma if you wish – some believe Edwards was the guilty party in the brawl, even though there’s little visual evidence – but if Edwards loses the championship this year, he can probably point to the seven days between Talladega and Charlotte to find the culprit. Edwards is a fine talent and the sort of personality that NASCAR needs, but he apparently needs to learn how to lose a title before he can win one.

Make no mistake, though; he will win one. At least.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Raw Deal

Am I the only one who thinks Patrick Carpentier got a raw deal?

The rookie Sprint Cup driver -- who before switching to stock cars was an open-wheel champion -- was released unceremoniously by Gillett Evernham Motorsports on Tuesday. Despite missing this past weekend's AMP Energy 500 at Talladega, Carpentier had shown signs of progress as the season progressed, often managing to qualify on time because of the No. 10's standing outside the Top 35 in owner points.

After qualifying at Talladega on Friday, Carpentier apparently had words with crew chief/team director Mike Shiplett, who allegedly blamed Carpentier for not making the race. Carpentier, who won the pole for the June Cup race at New Hampshire, shot back by saying he took cars Shiplett said weren't fast enough at Dover and Atlanta and made both races.

After running in the No. 00 for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend at Charlotte, A.J.Alllmendinger will run the No. 10 for the rest of the season. Carpentier's plans for 2009 are unknown, but I hope he doesn't return to open-wheel racing the way Dario Fanchitti did. Carpentier obviously loves and has a passion for stock car racing, and I think he has a chance to flourish under the right circumstances.

The reason open-wheel drivers struggle in NASCAR isn't a question of talent -- all of them that made the chance, Allmendinger aside, have won championships in other series around the world -- but experience. Open-wheel cars are night and day from stock cars, in terms of weight and handling and engine placement and all those other technical aspects. To expect someone to adapt almost immediately is insane.

Just because Tony Stewart made the switch with relative ease doesn't mean everyone else can. The open-wheel veterans need seat time, whether it's in the Cup, Truck or Nationwide Series. Hell, run some ARCA races if you have to. The open-wheel drivers also are, by and large, on teams that are struggling at the Cup level, which can't help matters.

Here's hoping Carpentier finds his way in NASCAR next season. His talent and personality would be great for the sport.

Pay Your Taxes

Memo to Helio Castroneves: you have to pay your taxes here in the United States. Washington gets kind of upset if you don't -- just ask Willie Nelson.

Some in the media -- okay, the guys of PTI -- expressed shock at how little coverage this has received. They point to Castroneves being one of the more recognizable names in the IndyCar Series, as well as the fact that he won the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. While that may be true, the simple fact remains: he's an IRL driver, so his star power only reaches but so far.

Now, if this were an NFL or NBA player -- or even a high-profile NASCAR driver -- this would get a lot more attention. Think about it: say you flip on ESPN and see Jeff Gordon under investigation for tax fraud. That's a bigger deal, no? What about if the IRS started pounding on Ray Lewis' door?

Hell, Sidney Crosby would probably create more buzz over something like this.

Not only that, but compared to shootings, robbery and any number of other crimes (like getting all rebellion in the scrip club), tax fraud just isn't all that ... sexy. Sure, Castroneves forgot to pay the federal government, but he didn't kill anyone in doing so (we think).

Still, the PR hit IndyCar will take from this can't be good. That's a sport on the fringe of the national consciousness as it is -- it needs all the good pub it can get.


Hey, I just went an entire post without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr. That's an accomplishment worth celebra -- oh, wait ...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Four Down, Six to Go: Talladega Musings

Memo to Regan Smith: a rule is a rule, so shut your mouth and get over it.

The finish at Talladega on Sunday, while exciting as usual, wasn’t without controversy, as Smith ducked below the yellow line to pass Tony Stewart coming to the checkered flag and take what he thought was his first career win. Only problem was, Talladega has the “out of bounds” rule – no diving below the yellow line on the bottom of the race track to advance your position.

Both Talladega and Daytona – the only two tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit that run horsepower-robbing restrictor plates – have this rule, and it’s discussed ad nauseum every time the series visits either track.

Stewart bellowed after the checkered flag Smith passed him below the line; NASCAR officials agreed, and gave the victory to Stewart, who crossed the finish line second. Smith, as penalty for the move, finished 18th, the last car on the lead lap. Feeling he’d been robbed, a teary-eyed Smith told NASCAR officials he’d been forced below the line – NASCAR rules state a pass under the yellow line is legal if the driver who does the passing was forced down there.

No dice.

Looking at the replay, Stewart obviously ducked low on Smith in the tri-oval. He was blocking his position, which is what the leader at Talladega always does on the last lap. It’s the nature of plate racing. Did Stewart force Smith below the line? Possibly; you could argue he did. But being forced below the yellow line is so hard to quantify; it’s a judgment call. Only two people know for sure: Stewart and Smith. And I guarantee you they disagree.

NASCAR made the best call it could with the information it had. There had been some rumblings that the yellow line rule went out the window once the checkered flag was in sight – a SPEED TV commentator said so during the Truck Series race on Saturday, and a NASCAR spokesman said the same after the Feb. 2007 Truck Series race at Daytona.

I’ll leave it to The Virginian-Pilot NASCAR writer Dustin Long – a veteran of covering motorsports, to explain what exactly is said in the drivers’ meeting in his blog.

And while taking the win away from Smith could affect his future with the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. – that No. 01 team needs a sponsor to keep running – the fact remains that he broke a rule and as such, didn’t deserve to win the race.

And considering all the bad luck Stewart’s had this year, doesn’t it seem fitting for a break to finally go his way?

Talladega Wild Card

Just how much can Talladega affect the Chase standings? When Carl Edwards bumped Greg Biffle in Turn 3 with 15 laps to go Sunday, he triggered The Big One – and took out seven of the 12 Chase drivers in the process.

Jeff Gordon found himself a victim of David Reutimann’s tire problem earlier in the day. Denny Hamlin, another Chase driver, smacked the wall while leading earlier in the day, when his right front tire exploded in Turn 2. More on that later.

So nine of the 12 drivers eligible for the Sprint Cup title had troubles Sunday. Jimmie Johnson didn’t, finishing ninth and opening up a 72-point lead over Edwards. Among those involved in the big crash: Edwards, Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

No wonder everyone calls this race a wild card in the Chase. Martinsville, the Virginia short track the series will visit in two weeks, is also considered a wild card, given the unpredictable nature of short track racing, but in terms of shaking up the standings and turning everything on its head, nothing beats a good restrictor-plate race.

The tight packs, the constant three- and four-wide racing drives fans and television executives wild, and any sneeze could send as many as 25 cars to the hauler and the scrap heap. Everyone loves it but the vast majority of drivers, and Sunday’s wreck was exactly the reason why.

Credit goes to Edwards for manning up to his mistake, and I want to give Biffle credit too for not jumping down his Roush-Fenway teammate’s throat. Biffle would’ve been well within his rights to, considering Edwards’ bump sent him sideways, into Kenseth and all hell broke loose from there.

Still, if Edwards and Biffle fall short in their quest for the title this year, we can probably point to The Big One when explaining why.

Don’t Blame Goodyear This Time

Sure, there were a lot of blown tires on Sunday, but this wasn’t Indy Part II. The tire debacle at the Brickyard was entirely Goodyear’s fault for not bringing the right compound to the track after doing what they said was an exhaustive tire test.

Sunday’s issues – which led to blown tires for David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, Mike Wallace and Denny Hamlin – were likely more an issue of either the track surface or car setups. Aggressive camber settings and low air pressures can sometimes lead to disastrous tire failure.

But think about this: Friday’s ARCA race at Talladega faced similar tire issues – the ARCA Series runs on Hoosier tires, so it wasn’t just Goodyear. The Truck Series race also saw its share of blown-out tires, running theoretically a different Goodyear compound than the Sprint Cup cars.

Something needs to be done, no doubt – Hamlin’s impact was so fierce, he wound up going to a Birmingham hospital overnight after complaining of headaches and a sore right ankle – but I don’t think the blame lies with Goodyear this time.

Again, look at either the track itself or have crews examine their setups a little closer.

Side Note

I just realized: this is the 43rd post in this blog. It could just be the fact that I'm a NASCAR geek, but I think that's pretty cool. Besides, if you're reading this and I have to explain to you why No. 43 is so freakin' cool when it comes to auto racing, then you really don't know anything about the sport, do you?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Three Down, Seven to Go: Kansas Musings

Following Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway, I just have one question: how different would the Chase look if Carl Edwards didn't smack the fence in the final corner and managed to win the race?

I don't mean the standings themselves -- Edwards would still be atop the standings with Johnson a very close second -- but the outlook heading into the final seven races. It would have been a nice bit of momentum for Edwards, and it would've also been one more race Jimmie Johnson didn't win.

Everyone knows the Chase is Johnson's time of year. He's never finished worse than fourth in the playoff, and has won the last two Sprint Cup titles. His win on Sunday put Johnson atop the points going into Talladega, and Johnson has shown more often than not that once he's on top, it's almost impossible to knock him off.

Edwards and Greg Biffle -- who finished third on Sunday -- will still contend, and this championship has all the signs of coming down to the wire in Homestead. But Johnson has the momentum, and if he becomes the only man other than Cale Yarborough to win three consecutive Cup championships, we can probably point to Kansas as why.

That said, let's not hold Edwards' banzai move against him. He wanted to win that race badly, and not just because of the points, either. Edwards wanted to win in front of what is the closest thing he'll have to a home crowd. He wanted the checkered flag, which in an era of points racers, is a refreshing sight.

If only more guys in the Sprint Cup Series would show such a passion for winning. An already exciting series might be even more entertaining.

Down and Out -- And This Time, We Mean It

Remember last week, when I said counting out Kyle Busch, even after back-to-back horrible finishes was foolish, and that he still had a good shot of getting on a roll and winning the title?

Yeah, scratch that. He's done.

That 28th-place egg at Kansas leaves Busch 311 points out of the lead, in 12th place in the standings. More importantly, it shows that whatever the team had before the Chase started is gone.

For the third straight week, Busch's car had a mechanical issue, a fuel pickup malfunction that caused the engine to sputter. Even when the crew fixed that, the car didn't have the speed we've grown accustomed to seeing this season. While I find it hard to believe the No. 18 team has suddenly lost whatever it had earlier in the year, when it won eight races, the fact is other teams -- the No. 99, No. 48 and No. 16, specifically -- have caught up.

Busch might win another race or two in the final seven, but the best driver with the best crew and the best car for much of the season won't be hoisting the Sprint Cup Series trophy in Homestead. Some will love that, but others will point to this as the flaw of the Chase. But the fact is, even without the Chase, Busch would no longer be the points leader, and Edwards, Johnson and Biffle would still have all the momentum.

Seeing Red ... Bull

It was bad enough Red Bull Racing told A.J. Allmendinger he wouldn't be returning to the No. 84 car after the end of this season, but Tuesday's announcement he wouldn't be in that car anymore this year -- after a career-best ninth-place finish at Kansas -- seems disrespectful on so many levels.

Credit to Allmendinger for not phoning it in and driving like he meant it on Sunday -- that will go a long way in convincing another car owner to take a chance on him in the future. I realize Red Bull Racing wants to get Scott Speed to the Sprint Cup level as soon as possible, but at the expense of Allmendinger, who since being benched for Mike Skinner at the beginning of the season has qualified for every race and managed six top-15 finishes in the last nine races?

RBR never gave Allmendinger a shot -- adding an unproven open-wheel driver to a new team in the Sprint Cup Series will never lead to instant success, but Allmendinger was starting to get a handle on the whole stock car thing. Allmendinger deserves to be in the Cup Series full-time, and don't be surprised if in the next couple years he finds Victory Lane.

He just got a raw deal over at RBR. Not to take anything away from Speed, but Allmendinger deserves to be in that ride.

Taking His Sponsor and Going Home

According to the Associated Press on Tuesday, Paul Menard will leave Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at the end of the season to drive for Robert Yates Racing. Menard will bring his sponsor, the home improvement outlet carrying the family name, with him.

While that could spell good news for Yates, that possibly leaves DEI in a bit of a pickle. The team did manage to sign Martin Truex Jr. for next season, but he's the only driver on the team now with guaranteed sponsorship for next season. Sure, Aric Almirola will be in the No. 8, but rumors persist the Army won't be with him. And considering how Regan Smith has used a patchwork of sponsors this season, things look bleak.

It does provide an interesting option for Allmendinger (see above), but he's probably more likely to wind up at either Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 41 or at Petty Enterprises. If I had to guess right now, I'd say Allmendinger's heading for Ganassi.

Three drivers, four cars, one sponsor. Was this really what the late Dale Earnhardt had in mind when he founded this company? Probably not -- then again, he probably didn't envision his own son driving for Hendrick Motorsports, either.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Two Down, Eight to Go: Dover Musings

Now can we consider Greg Biffle a title threat?

If his win in the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire wasn't convincing enough, how about a follow-up performance on Sunday at Dover? Battling his Roush-Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth (who can't seem to catch a break this season), Biffle went on to his second win in as many weeks, and now sits 10 points behind points leader Edwards.

Oh, and have I mentioned Biffle won at Kansas last year, which is where the Sprint Cup boys set up shop this weekend? A three-race winning streak to open the Chase is not out of the question, but it will be necessary as Edwards and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson continue logging top-5 finishes (Edwards finished third and Johnson came in fifth at Dover).

I'm still not quite ready to count out Kyle Busch just yet (more on him in a bit), but Biffle's surge could not have been better timed. Biffle's been strong at times throughout the year -- he had the car to beat at Darlington before loose lugs and bad pit stops derailed him, and he led at Sonoma before deciding to dirt-track it -- but to come out of the gate with back-to-back wins is impressive and unprecedented.

Seriously, before Biffle, no one has ever won back-to-back races to start the Chase. It's also the first time since 2000 that Biffle has logged back-to-back wins. What'd he do that year? Just won the Craftsman Truck Series title, that's all ...


Kyle Busch's 43rd-place finish at Dover because of a motor problem left many fans ecstatic -- and Busch frustrated as his 80-point cushion heading into the Chase officially turned into a 210-point defecit. Busch sits 12th in the standings, last among Chase drivers.

To hear Busch talk, he's done. He said he started the Chase the same way in 2006 and finished last in what was then a 10-car field. And according to logic, he's right.

Thing is, logic and Busch don't go together. Neither do logic and the Chase, for that matter. For inspiration that his Chase isn't yet over, Busch need look no further than former teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson left Talladega in 2006 156 points out of the lead before rallying and pulling off the title.

Johnson was also down over 200 points after the Chase's midway point in 2004, but used an insane charge in the season's final five races to finish second, eight points behind champion Kurt Busch. So it's not impossible for Busch to go on a hot streak and drive himself back into this thing.

Then again, attitude has a lot to do with that. Busch is already waving the white flag, which can't make the No. 18 crew all that happy with him. They worked their butts off in Dover to get the car ready to drive again, but Busch refused to go out, make laps and try to salvage even three more points.

If that sounds familiar, it should; Busch refused to re-enter the spring race at Texas last season after a wreck. The car went back out, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel. Two months later, Busch was out of a ride and Junior was shaking hands with new boss Rick Hendrick for the cameras.

Not saying Busch will get fired again, but ... it's starting to become a pattern, isn't it?

Bullish Move

Gotta feel bad for A.J. Allmendinger, who this week found out he won't be back in the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota next season. Allmendinger, who came over last year from the now-defunct Champ Car Series, is in the Top 35 in owner points and has solidly progressed throughout the season. The addition of crew chief Jimmy Elledge has done wonders for that team, and Allmendinger can even claim a career-best 10th-place finish at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

But now, he's looking for a ride. Rumors have Allmendinger talking with Chip Ganassi Racing and Petty Enterprises about rides for next season, but the fact that Team Red Bull waited until late September to make the move leaves Allmendinger with few options. Allmendinger showed this year he has a lot of potential as a Sprint Cup driver, and I hope someone gives him that chance.

Potential Disaster

Now that Robby Gordon is no longer looking to merge with Gillete-Evernham Motorsports -- lawsuits are funny like that -- he's rumored to still be in the market for a merger. The potential suitor? According to multiple sources, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Yes, that DEI.

While it's hard to imagine Gordon's team being much worse than it already is -- we are, after all, talking about the Gordon who can't drive a stock car -- merging with a team like DEI just might do it. Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola aside, that team is largely in flux. Regan Smith and Paul Menard's futures are still up in the air, and sponsorship is also an issue.

Then again, when as the last time Robby Gordon did something smart?

Debut Time

Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski will attempt to qualify for two Sprint Cup races this season with Hendrick Motorsports, at Lowe's Motor Speedway and at Texas. Keselowski, third in the Nationwide Series point standings, has two wins this season and many feel once Mark Martin's completed his 2009 ride, the No. 5 could be Keselowski's.

Keselowski drives the No. 88 Navy Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, a Nationwide Series team co-owned by Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At 24, Keselowski has proven to be one of the up-and-coming young talents of NASCAR. He doesn't have near the hype or expectations of, say, Joey Logano, but if Hendrick feels Keselowski is the real deal, then I think Keselowski is someone worth watching.

Roger Penske reportedly offered Keselowski the No. 12 ride once Ryan Newman announced he was leaving, but Keselowski turned it down, mostly because of the potential future he has at Hendrick Motorsports. Keselowski's also smart, having admitted he's not ready for a full-time Cup ride and committing himself to running the full 2009 Nationwide Series schedule.

In a world where everyone wants to get to the Sprint Cup Series as soon as possible, such self-awareness and maturity is refreshing. Brad Keselowski is a Sprint Cup star in the making.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One Down, Nine to Go: New Hampshire Musings

Raise your hand if you had Greg Biffle in your New Hampshire office pool.


That's what I thought. You all probably took one of the Big Three: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards or Jimmie Johnson. If you went with Edwards or Johnson, you still had a good day -- Johnson finished second, while Edwards came in third -- but those of you who picked Busch ... sorry, but those things happen sometimes.

But more on Busch later. Biffle snapped a 33-race winless streak, dating back to Kansas last season. He admitted to holding back toward the end of the race, conserving fuel and waiting until the last possible moment to make his move on Johnson ... which he did with 12 laps remaining. Johnson couldn't get back around, and suddenly Biffle vaulted to third in the standings.

With Dover and Kansas the next two tracks on the schedule -- two places Biffle runs quite well at -- he could further solidify himself as a title contender. I'm not gonna sit here and say Biffle will win the Cup, but another couple runs like Sunday's and he'll be right in the thick of things.

And chew on this little nugget: if Biffle does win the Sprint Cup, he'll become the first driver ever to win championships in the Craftsman Truck, Busch/Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series.

Down, By No Means Out

I would love to write off Kyle Busch after his 34th-place disaster Sunday, but I just can't. It was only the first of 10 races, and if Busch gets on a tear again -- which he can -- he'll be right back in the mix.

I'm sure it's frustrating to see nearly all of that 80-point bonus he earned in the regular season evaporate, just as I'm sure he hated falling from first to eighth in the standings because of a loose sway bar. But Busch would do well to keep this fact in mind: Jimmie Johnson finished 39th at New Hampshire in 2006 and still came back to win the title.

Busch can still win the championship if he avoids another race like Sunday's. There's also the very real possibility that some of the other Chase drivers will have a bad race or two down the road as well -- Matt Kenseth already did. Talladega is also three weeks away, which could throw a monkey wrench into things for, literally, anyone.

Then there's Martinsville the week after that.

Busch is still a contender, and anyone who's counting him out after one bad race on a track that's traditionally not his best is either short-sighted or afflicted with a serious case of wishful thinking. Now, if Busch has another day like Sunday, he'll be done, but let's not throw dirt on the boy yet.

Tempting as it might be.

Radio Whisperer

Kudos to car owner Rick Hendrick for stepping in over the past couple races and trying to act as a mediator between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Earnhardt's race on Sunday was typical of his season: strong car early, leading a lot of laps, then fading once the race passed the halfway point.

The culprit this week? A bad set of Goodyears, and Junior let Eury know it with an expletive-laden tirade before Hendrick stepped in to calm him down. Junior rebounded to finish fifth, his second straight top-5, thanks in large part to a pit crew that gained him spots on pit road all day.

Let's be honest for a minute -- if you listen to drivers' scanners while at the race, you'll notice Junior is far from the only guy to cuss out his car and crew. In fact, I would argue every driver does it. But Hendrick knows a thing or two about winning championships -- he has seven in the Cup Series alone -- and if he felt Junior's temper was getting in the way of winning, he was right to step in and say something.

Hendrick has done this for the past three races, and Junior's results have improved. He finished a solid 11th at California, fourth at Richmond and fifth this past weekend. Junior came to Hendrick Motorsports to contend for a championship, and while the season has been a success so far -- the team met its goals of winning a race and making the Chase -- Junior needs to focus and keep a certain level of calm if he's going to truly contend.

And Rick Hendrick knows that.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2008 Chase Preview

With the 2008 Chase for the Cup starting this weekend at New Hampshire, it would appear a preview of the 10-race "playoff" was in order. These predictions are by no means expert, and there's a fairly good chance I'll be wrong in most of my thinking, but here they are nonetheless.

We'll start with the drivers making up the 12-man field.

1. Kyle Busch (5,080 points, 8 wins)
NASCAR's most despised driver has won a series-high eight wins so far this season, earning him the top seed in the Chase in spite of a 15th-place finish at Richmond. It's entirely possible for Busch to win another race or two once the playoffs start, and he is one of the three drivers with a realistic shot at the Cup. The only things working against Busch? His overly aggressive style, the fact that a few drivers still owe him payback and a little thing called Jimmie Johnson.

2. Carl Edwards (5,050 points, 6 wins -- 10 bonus points from Las Vegas taken away)
Perhaps more important than Edwards' six wins in the regular season is the fact that he refused to back down to Busch after he used the bump-and-run to win at Bristol. When he turned Busch after the checkered flag, Edwards served notice that not only could he keep up with Busch on the track, but that he wouldn't let him rough him up, either. The one thing going against Edwards, and this is true of Busch as well, is his lack of championship experience. Edwards won the 2007 Nationwide Series title, but that was a runaway -- and that series doesn't have the Chase.

3. Jimmie Johnson (5,040 points, 4 wins)
The two-time defending Cup champion won back-to-back races heading into the Chase for the second straight year, setting himself nicely to become the first man to win three straight titles since Cale Yarborough. Johnson is traditionally a driver who heats up in the Chase -- as evidenced by his winning the last four races of the 2007 season. Johnson has that championship experience and pedigree that both Busch and Edwards lack. For that reason alone, make Johnson the favorite.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5,010 points, 1 win)
In June, Earnhardt would've easily been considered one of the few guys with a shot at challenging Busch, thanks to his consistency. But since winning the June race at Michigan, Earnhardt has just two top-10 finishes: eighth at Daytona in July and fourth this past Sunday at Richmond. Earnhardt has led laps, but inconsistency late in races and with his crew chief have left Earnhardt searching for answers while Busch, Edwards and Johnson take checkered flags left and right. Earnhardt might very well win a race or two in the Chase, but he's not a title threat.

5. Clint Bowyer (5,010 points, 1 win)
Last year's Chase darling -- he finished third behind Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- Bowyer snuck in this year after a rough race at Richmond. Bowyer won the May race in Richmond, the beneficiary of Busch and Earnhardt's late-race tangle. But since then, Bowyer has had neither the speed nor the consistency, which will carry over into the Chase. Bowyer does run well at a few of the remaining tracks -- like New Hampshire and Charlotte -- but Bowyer can't keep up with the Big Three, especially since his attention is divided between the Chase and the Nationwide Series title.

6. Denny Hamlin (5,010 points, 1 win)
After saying his team didn't deserve to be in the Chase after blowing a motor at Michigan, Hamlin enters the Chase with three straight third-place finishes. He hasn't found the speed teammate Busch has this season, but Hamlin won the Martinsville race in the spring, which will make him a threat when the series returns in October. Hamlin also performs well at New Hampshire, Phoenix and select 1.5-milers, and he's got enough momentum to possibly make a run at the title.

7. Jeff Burton (5,010 points, 1 win)
Before the July race at Daytona, Burton hadn't finished worse than 15th all season. That consistency hasn't been easy to find since, though Burton is in the Chase and has one win to his name: Bristol in March. But Richard Childress Racing as a whole doesn't have the speed to keep up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. It's impressive that RCR has all three cars in the Chase field, but I don't see Burton being a title threat. He could be a threat at Dover and a few other tracks, but Burton won't be a problem for Busch, Edwards and Johnson.

8. Tony Stewart (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Most years, I would consider Stewart a serious threat for the title. But even though Stewart could easily have three or four wins this season, don't look for him to make any noise in the Chase. He could win his first race of the season, but with his attention slowly turning to Stewart Haas Racing in 2009, tensions are starting to boil over between Stewart and his team. Their post-race bickering in Richmond isn't just a bit of frustration from Stewart finishing second to Johnson, it's indemic of bitterness about Stewart's decision to leave -- and it will keep him from winning the Chase.

9. Greg Biffle (5,000 points, 0 wins)
It's kind of hard to believe Biffle hasn't won yet this season, as well as he's run at times. Then again, Edwards aside, Roush Fenway Racing as a whole hasn't quite been at the same level as the better teams in the garage. For that reason alone, Biffle won't be much of a threat; he might win a race at some point in the final 10 races, but I really don't see the No. 16 team being a serious threat to Busch, Edwards or Johnson. At best, Biffle can make a push to put himself in position to make a run at the title in 2009.

10. Jeff Gordon (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Are we serious? Has Gordon really gone all season without winning a race? You have to be kidding, right? Gordon and his No. 24 crew have struggled throughout much of the season, trying to find a handle on the new car. By their own admission, the team fell behind because of their pursuit for the title last season, when Gordon finished second to Johnson, and there have been races where Gordon hasn't even been competitive, and for that reason alone, Gordon won't make a push for Championship #5. In fact, he could very well go winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993.

11. Kevin Harvick (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Harvick hasn't seen Victory Lane since he edged past Mark Martin to win the Daytona 500, and there have been times this season in which the No. 29 team hasn't even looked competitive. But since getting caught up in a wreck with Kurt Busch at Indianapolis, Harvick has run better, and even led laps at Richmond. Harvick isn't fast enough this year to win any races, though, let alone challenge Busch, Edwards and Johnson for the title. Like his Richard Childress teammates, Harvick won't be a threat.

12. Matt Kenseth (5,000 points, 0 wins)
That Kenseth is without a win isn't that surprising -- he won the 2003 title with just one victory -- his lack of consistency has been. After Phoenix, Kenseth was 22nd in points, and while he's worked to establish a rapport with new crew chief Chip Bolin, teammate Carl Edwards has found something no one else at Roush Fenway has. Kenseth will go winless this season, and we're probably likely to forget he's even in the Chase.

2008 Sprint Cup Champion: Jimmie Johnson

2008 Chase Race Winners

Sylvania 300, New Hampshire: Denny Hamlin
Camping World RV 400, Dover: Kyle Busch
Camping World RV 400, Kansas: Carl Edwards
AMP Energy 500, Talladega: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bank of America 500, Lowe's Motor Speedway: Jimmie Johnson
TUMS QuikPak 500, Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson
Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta: Carl Edwards
Dickies 500, Texas: Jimmie Johnson
O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, Phoenix: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ford 400, Homestead: Jimmie Johnson

Monday, September 8, 2008

Doubleheader Sunday

Revenge: The drivers might not always get revenge on each other, but the karmic nature of racing has a way of righting previous wrongs regardless. Everyone remembers what happened at Richmond back in May, when Kyle Busch spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the two battled for the lead late. The roles were reversed Sunday in the Chevy Rock n' Roll 400, though Earnhardt didn't do it on purpose. Busch, who was in lead, dove low in Turn 1, even though Earnhardt was already along his left rear fender. Earnhardt flat-spotted the left front tire, contact was made, and Busch backed into the fence.

Imagine over 120,000 people screaming in jubilation, loving the racing gods for their sense of justice. Earnhardt didn't intentionally dump Busch -- he said if he were to intentionally wreck someone, he'd make sure that person couldn't come back and get him later that race -- but there has to be some sense of karma in racing that allowed that situation to play out.

So now Earnhardt and Carl Edwards are both even -- well, in their minds. Whether Busch, who's on probation for his actions at Bristol, feels that way is another story.

Crap: Tony Stewart finished second for the fourth time this season, unable to overtake Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps for his first win of the season. After the race, a frustrated Stewart told his crew, "Great job, guys. You lost us another one today."

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli immediately shot back with, "We win as a team and we lose as a team. Enough of this crap!"

Stewart shot back with, "Yeah, well -- I'm the one who got us back up here."

You think as the 2008 season draws to a close, Stewart and Zipadelli are no longer concerned with playing nice? It seems to me there's some animosity over Stewart's decision to leave at the end of the season to co-own Stewart Haas Racing. Everyone said all the right things before Sunday, but it would seem no one really cares anymore.

If this trend continues, look for Stewart to suffer the first winless season of his Cup career.

Favorites: Some would consider Kyle Busch, who won eight times so far this season and rebounded to finish 15th on Sunday, the title favorite once the Chase starts this weekend at New Hampshire. Others point to Edwards, who has won six times and isn't nearly as temperamental as Busch.

But don't forget Jimmie Johnson. You know, the guy who's won four races this year and just so happens to be the two-time defending Cup champion.

Johnson has won the last two races, and has repeatedly shown that the Chase is his time of year. Johnson won the last four races of the season last year to take the title, and since the Chase debuted in 2004, Johnson has never finished worse than second in the points.

Sure, he's 40 points behind Busch right now, but with drivers refusing to back down from Busch and Johnson's tendency to get hot at the end of the calendar, don't be surprised if Johnson puts himself in the same sentence as Cale Yarborough -- the only man to ever win three straight Cup championships.

Not Yet: David Ragan might've missed out on the Chase by virtue of his struggles Sunday at Richmond, but don't discount how much this young man has progressed in one year. Ragan was a liability last season, tearing up equipment more often than finishing, while this season saw the Cup sophomore land four top-5s and nine top-10s.

Ragan is also fifth in the Nationwide Series standings.

I don't think Ragan will win his first race until 2009, but the Georgia native has made significant strides. Whereas last year he had other drivers in the garage criticizing him, Ragan has heard nary a peep in 2008, because he's finishing races and learning every week.

I think Ragan makes the Chase next season, I really do.

Double Dip: The doubleheader on Sunday that was forced by Tropical Storm Hanna worked out better than anyone could've imagined. The Cup race went off in just over three and a half hours, with plenty of time for fans who weren't attending the Nationwide race to leave the grounds.

Those who stayed were treated to a solid night race, where Carl Edwards overtook a dominant Clint Bowyer in the late stages. More importantly, though, those fans weren't burdened with horrible traffic afterward.

I doubt tracks would ever do something like this without the intervention of Mother Nature, but why not? I think doubleheaders like this have the potential to be really popular. Run the Cup race during the day (for logistical and traffic purposes), then follow it with either the Nationwide Series race or one from the Craftsman Truck Series.

If fans know of both races ahead of time, and are going to be at the Cup race anyway, they may buy a ticket for the other race and stick around. NASCAR races are all-day affairs anyway, between the souvenir sales and everything else that goes along with it, and doubleheaders like the one at Richmond on Sunday can only help that.

I enjoyed it, at least.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Only Move

Dario Franchitti's foray into NASCAR was short-lived, and fortunately, the 2007 Indianapolis 500 champion saw the writing on the wall.

It was reported on Tuesday that Franchitti would remain with car owner Chip Ganassi, but return to the IndyCar Series. Franchitti, the 2007 IRL champion, will pilot the No. 10 machine, replacing Dan Wheldon. Wheldon's options are limited, though reports have him replacing Vitor Meira at Panther Racing next season.

Wheldon might be one of the best drivers in the IRL, but Meira isn't exactly chopped liver. He has eight second-place finishes this year, including twice in the Indy 500, so I'm not sure what the thinking would be in replacing a young guy with that much potential.

Then again, Wheldon has an Indy 500 and an IRL title on his resume.

But back to Franchitti; if Juan Pablo Montoya was the welcome mat for open-wheel veterans to give NASCAR a shot, Franchitti should be the cautionary tale. While Ganassi brought him over thinking sponsorship would latch on (after all, who wouldn't want to sponsor a likeable Indy 500 champion with a movie star wife?), it didn't, and after the No. 40 made just 10 races this season, Ganassi pulled the plug on the team.

The same No. 40 team that nearly won a Cup title with Sterling Marlin in 2001 and gave Jamie McMurray his first Cup win in 2002.

Franchitti's best Sprint Cup finish? A 22nd-place effort at Martinsville. He showed a little more promise in the Nationwide Series, with two top-10s and a top-5 finish. But sixth-place at Las Vegas and fifth at Watkins Glen couldn't keep the struggles at bay, as Franchitti fractured his ankle in a Nationwide Series crash at Talladega.

All in all, NASCAR just wasn't in the cards for Franchitti anymore.

There had been discussions of Franchitti taking over the No. 41 Sprint Cup ride, which will be vacated at the end of the season when Reed Sorenson leaves for Gillett Evernham Motorsports. But the 2009 IndyCar schedule, which promises more road and street courses, and Ganassi's own IRL success, made the decision easy for Franchitti.

To say Ganassi's NASCAR program is struggling would be like saying Chad Johnson is a selfish player. Between the shuttering of the No. 40, Sorenson leaving and Texaco-Havoline leaving the no. 42 at the end of the season, things aren't nearly as fruitful in the stock car world as they are on the open-wheel side for Ganassi.

And I applaud Franchitti for seeing that. I like Franchitti, and have no doubts with regards to his ability to drive a race car, but stock cars just weren't working out for him. Stock cars aren't as easy as some might think.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don't Look Now

Just when you thought it was safe -- two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson showed he isn't to be ignored in the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Because of the three main title contenders this year -- Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch -- Johnson is the only one with championship hardware.

Sure, Edwards has a Nationwide Series title, but that's nothing compared to the Sprint Cup.

Johnson won the Pepsi 500 in Fontana in dominating fashion Sunday night, while Edwards and Busch had to settle for fifth and sixth place, respectively. With all the talk of late about the budding rivalry between Edwards and Busch, Johnson reminded them, and everyone else, that he's won the last two titles for a reason.

And anyone who thinks Johnson can't join Cale Yarborough as the only Cup drivers to win three consecutive titles is a right fool. Don't forget, last year Johnson wasn't the most dominant driver, but he caught fire in the Chase, won the last four races of the season and hoisted his second Cup trophy at Homestead.

What's to keep him from doing something like that again here in 2008?

I'd like to think Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are also players in this, given their pedigree, but neither has won a race so far this season. More importantly, Gordon has been too inconsistent -- and if his night goes bad enough at Richmond this Saturday, there's a chance he could miss the Chase altogether.

And you Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans (okay, us Junior fans) -- content yourself with the fact that he made the Chase this year and won a race, because NASCAR's most popular driver isn't winning the title this year. He could still finish the season top-five in points, which is a monumental improvement over last season, but the early-season success has been replaced by crew and driver mistakes. Junior's saving grace is the rest of schedule is mostly run on tracks he performed well at early in the year. Another win could be in the cards, but it looks like 2009 might be a more realistic title hope.

Busch and Edwards might have won 14 of the 25 races run so far this season, whereas Johnson only has three, but we're coming up on the time of year in which Johnson thrives. And any time he's got Chad Knaus on the pit box, I'm not counting him out.

Anyone who does needs to have their head examined. Right along with anyone who really thought Tennessee was the No. 18 team in the country.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Welcome Back, Bristol

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a rivalry on our hands.

After Carl Edwards used the bump-and-run on Kyle Busch to win the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, the fireworks really started. Edwards and Busch were already on a crash-course for each other, winning a combined 14 races this season and sitting 1-2 in the point standings.

But as Edwards ran his cool-down lap, Busch slammed into the side of him. Fine; sometimes that's how a guy congratulates the winner. But Busch slammed into Edwards again. So on the backstretch, once both cars were clear of the rest of the field filing onto pit road, Edwards turned down, rammed into the right rear of Busch's car, and sent the No. 18 spinning to the delight of the 160,000 fans on hand.

Busch showed his displeasure, tried to rattle Edwards' cage. Edwards didn't back down, giving better than he got.

Busch, who himself has used the front bumper a time or two in his career, said Edwards would apologize for the contact, like he always did. But a funny thing happened on the way to Victory Lane:

Edwards didn't apologize.

"It's one of those deals where I couldn't get by him, I couldn't get by him, and I just had to ask myself, 'Would he do that to me?' Edwards said. "And he has before, so that's the way it goes.

"Let's make it real clear -- I'm not apologizing for it. We're even."

Busch didn't see it that way, threatening to race Edwards this way throughout the Chase -- even though he was called to the NASCAR hauler after Edwards put the points leader in his place. NASCAR did not call Edwards to the hauler.

If I'm a fan, I'm hoping this isn't over. And considering Edwards said in Victory Lane that he hit Busch partly as payback for an incident in a Nationwide Series race in Richmond back in May, I don't see this party ending any time soon.

Which should be music to everyone's ears. A natural rivalry is exactly what NASCAR needs. The last couple -- Jeff Gordon-Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon-Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Kyle Busch -- have been media creations; the budding rivalry between Edwards and Busch seems genuine in its intensity.

And for Edwards' reputation as a happy-go-lucky, aw-shucks kind of guy, one thing is abundantly clear:

Carl Edwards doesn't forget, and he doesn't put up with anything from anyone. And that attitude might just win him the 2008 Sprint Cup championship.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dropping the Hammer

It took a day longer than expected, but NASCAR finally dolled out its punishments to Joe Gibbs Racing.

The No. 18 and No. 20 cars in the Nationwide Series were found to have magnets placed behind their accelerators after Saturday's race at Michigan International Speedway. While this wasn't a race violation, and both cars passed post-race inspection, the magnets were discovered when the cars were placed on the chassis dyno, which NASCAR used to monitor horsepower numbers.

With the magnets, the accelerators would not have gone all the way down, affecting the numbers NASCAR could compile. In essence, JGR officials hid some of their horsepower from NASCAR.

Horsepower among the Toyotas was already a contentious issue in the Nationwide Series, since before the race at O'Reilly Raceway Park, the Toyotas basically had 15 horsepower taken away. Toyota has won 15 of 25 races this season -- all but one coming from Joe Gibbs Racing.

The rule change was needless, essentially punishing Toyota -- and more specifically, JGR -- for excelling under the current rules package. Toyota worked its butt off to get the success it had, and rather than allowing Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge to catch up, NASCAR decided to take something away from Toyota.

That's not normally the way things work; years before, Chevrolet had a distinct advantage over Ford and Dodge in front end geometry. Rather than punish Chevy teams for their hard work, NASCAR merely gave Ford and Dodge an inch or two on their front noses in an effort to keep up.

I'm all for competitive balance, but taking something away from a team that excelled within the rules just seems ... petty.

Besides, if this was a Toyota thing, wouldn't all the other Toyota teams outside of JGR be running better?

But back to the punishments; drivers Tony Stewart and Joey Logano were docked 150 driver points, and car owner Joe Gibbs lost 150 owner points for each car. Seven JGR employees have been suspended indefinitely, including crew chiefs Dave Rogers and Jason Ratcliff.

Monetary fines were also levied, and everyone involved has been placed on probation for the remainder of the season.

The penalties are largely fair, and unprecedented in the Nationwide Series. Gibbs said in a statement that he would consider levying punishment beyond that which NASCAR handled, which leaves me to wonder who's going to wind up on the unemployment line before too much longer. If anyone gets fired, I don't see it happening immediately, lest it nullify NASCAR's punishment.

Hard to suspend someone who doesn't have a job.

My problem comes from the driver points. Why punish Stewart and Logano -- who aren't running full schedules -- for something they probably weren't aware of? I normally don't buy the "driver doesn't know" excuse, but considering this infraction had nothing to do with the race itself, I don't believe either Stewart of Logano knew of this -- and whoever did this probably wouldn't tell them, because the fewer people knew, the better.

In theory, anyway.

Gibbs said he would appeal the driver point penalties, based largely on that concept. He will accept the other penalties, and I think Gibbs is handling this situation the best possible way.

Though this rules infraction wasn't a case of actual cheating, it was more akin to obstruction of justice -- which one could argue was worse. NASCAR needed to obtain raw data for their own purposes, and JGR purposefully fed NASCAR false information -- likely in an attempt to hide horsepower it knew it wasn't supposed to have.

If I have to choose between cheating and feeding NASCAR false information, I'll take cheating every day of the week.

One last note ...

In the spirit of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Ryan McGee of wrote an interesting article about the prospect of auto racing in the Olympics. Check it out here -- fascinating stuff.

Could you imagine Jeff Gordon standing on the medal podium with a gold medal around his neck? I bet Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage could ....

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Michigan Thoughts

If Kyle Busch doesn't win the Sprint Cup championship this season, Carl Edwards will.

Edwards served notice Sunday with his fifth win of the season in the 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Raceway. If the Chase for the Cup were to start this weekend at Bristol, Edwards would have 40 bonus points (he lost the 10 from Las Vegas as part of his penalty) to Busch's 80. Getting more bonus points was important, but even more important was keeping those 10 away from Busch -- who finished second.

Edwards has shined mainly on the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals -- and five Chase tracks are 1.5 miles in length. The series also returns to Fontana in two weeks for a 500-miler at Auto Club Speedway -- where Edwards picked up his first win of the season in February.

A month ago, there were four legitimate contenders for the title: Busch, Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. After Michigan, though, I think it's down to Busch and Edwards. Junior isn't strong enough at the end of races lately to make any noise, and Johnson seems to stumble the moment his team finds any momentum (more on that later).

Simply put, Edwards and Busch are the class of the Sprint Cup field this season, and if neither of them hoists the trophy at Homestead, I'll be very surprised.

From Champs to Chumps

It was a bad day for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who both suffered damage from contact with Tony Stewart on lap 93 on Sunday. Johnson had a flat tire and had to pit, which put him down a lap, while Gordon lost a right front tire and finished 42nd.

Johnson isn't out of the woods yet -- he was down 68 points with five races to go last season and won four straight races to clinch his second Cup title -- but he lost more ground to Busch and Edwards, his two main title rivals. Gordon, meanwhile, dropped to 10th in points, where he is in the thick of the Chase bubble.

Could Gordon miss the Chase again? Could he also go winless for the first time since his rookie year in 1993? As absurd as it might sound, if he has another race like the one in Michigan, he very well could.

Reliable Ragan

Last year, David Ragan tore up more race cars than Paul Menard and Robby Gordon. At least, it seemed that way.

This year, Ragan is on the verge of the Chase, tied for 13th with Clint Bowyer after finishing third at Michigan. The 22-year-old has yet to win a race, but the way he's run this year -- only two finishes worse than 40th -- don't be surprised in that changes.

Also don't be surprised if Ragan winds up in the Chase, given all the troubles that seems to have befallen much of the bottom half of the top 12.

Will Ragan amount to much if he makes the Chase? I doubt it; then again, people said the same thing about Bowyer last year. He finished third in the standings after picking up his first career win.

Silly Season Notes

-Ryan Newman has been officially announced as the second driver for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. He'll drive the No. 4 car with sponsorship to be determined.

This just in: no one is surprised.

-If Casey Mears does wind up driving for Richard Childress next year, expect it to be in the Jack Daniels machine. General Mills, which will sponsor RCR's fourth car, doesn't want a former Kellogg's man piloting its car.

By the way, cereal and whiskey? RCR's kinda hitting both extremes of the demographic, aren't they?

-Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to announce on Aug. 25 that Joey Logano will take over the No. 20 car for Tony Stewart. While I still contend he isn't ready for a full-time Cup ride yet (the boy's only made eight Nationwide Series starts), the fact is -- who else is out there?

I'll understand if you're drawing a blank.

Speaking of JGR ...

Look for the team's two Nationwide cars -- the No. 18 and No. 20 -- to get hit hard this week after NASCAR discovered magnets under the accelerator pedals during chassis dyno. While the infraction wasn't a case of cheating during a race, it basically amounts to obstruction of justice. Whoever put those magnets there purposefully gave NASCAR false information.

With the magnets where they were, the accelerator pedals wouldn't go all the way to the floor, giving NASCAR inspectors false horsepower readings during the chassis dyno. After NASCAR took horsepower away from Toyota -- the manufacturer has won 15 of 25 races this season, 14 of which came from JGR -- this could amount to a huge deal.

Tony Stewart finished third in the No. 20, while Joey Logano finished seventh in the No. 18.

The entire JGR Nationwide operation will be hit hard, and both Joe and J.D. Gibbs promised that whoever was responsible would be dealt with accordingly. Can you can unemployment line?

Again, even though this isn't an instance of on-track cheating, the implications are massive. The team gave NASCAR false information on purpose, and that leaves me to wonder whether they actually took away the horsepower NASCAR mandated.

For the team's sake, I hope they did.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Musings After The Glen

Wonder Boy Not So Wonderful?

Perhaps more surprising than Tony Stewart's inability to overtake Kyle Busch during the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen on Sunday was the fact that Jeff Gordon finished 29th.

I'll say it again, because it bears repeating: Jeff Gordon finished 29th at Watkins Glen.

I'll understand if you have to read that last sentence a few times before it really sinks in. Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, has won four races at The Glen, tied for the most all-time with Stewart. Gordon has also yet to win in 2008, and many figured the upstate New York road course was just the place to get back in line.

Only it didn't happen. Gordon was just off all day long, while teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were factors until each encountered their own set of problems (Johnson a flat tire, Junior an idiot crew chief). Gordon has been off for much of the season, even though he sits sixth in the standings.

Yes, for Gordon, sixth in the standings is an off-year.

Is it the cars, crew chief Steve Letarte or Gordon himself? It's hard to say, and although Gordon appears set to make the Chase again, he's running like a shadow of his former self. Then again, if it weren't for the Chase, he'd be a six-time Cup champion, so I guess struggling is only relative.

But bear in mind: Gordon is in danger of going winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993.

McDowell = Cup driver? Maybe not ...

Michael McDowell made contact with David Gilliland late in Sunday's race, setting off a massive nine-car pile-up that caused a 43-minute red flag and sent Bobby Labonte to a local hospital. Now, McDowell has been parked for three races.

Mike Skinner will drive the No. 00 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing the next three weeks in what the team is calling an "evaluation period." This is the second big spill of the season for McDowell, who tumbled famously in qualifying at Texas back in March. McDowell also ran afoul of Jeff Burton at Martinsville, so it's been a tough year for the rookie.

While I'm tempted to joke about Skinner hoping into this ride -- he never won a Cup race and has spent the last couple years exiled in the Craftsman Truck Series -- the fact is Skinner worked well in this capacity once before. Remember early in the season when Team Red Bull parked A.J. Allmendinger and put Skinner in the ride?

Skinner did what was asked, and since Allmendinger returned to the car, the No. 84 Toyota's performance has improved -- even more so once the team hired Jimmy Elledge as crew chief. In fact, after Allmendinger's 11th-place finish at The Glen, the No. 84 is in the top 35 in owner points, guaranteeing a starting spot this weekend at Michigan.

So there is precedence for success in this role for Skinner. I'm just not sure McDowell has the ability to rebound the way Allmendinger did. Say what you want about Allmendinger, but he doesn't make a habit of tearing up his, or anyone else's, equipment.

Mears to Childress? has reported that sources close to the situation say Casey Mears is close to signing a deal to drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2009. Those same sources say an official announcement could come as early as this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

One possibility is that Clint Bowyer would move over to the No. 33 car, which will be sponsored by General Mills, while Mears takes over the Jack Daniels No. 07. Mears' current sponsor, Kellogg's, would probably have a lot to do with that potential move; General Mills is reportedly uncomfortable with the idea of sponsoring a driver who spent the last two years peddling Frosted Flakes.

What makes me wonder, though, is ... would Mears succeed with RCR? Nothing I've seen to this point in Mears' career suggests he would. Mears struggled at both Target Chip Ganassi and Hendrick Motorsports -- though in the interest of fairness, Mears did go through four different teams in four different seasons. Hard to succeed when you spend most of your time trying to build chemistry.

But the fact remains; there are those who feel that in firing Kyle Busch last year, Hendrick got rid of the wrong driver. Mears is one of the more likeable guys in the garage area, and he does have one career win (the 2007 Coca-Cola 600), but if Mears couldn't consistently succeed at Hendrick, what's to say he'll succeed at RCR?

Then again, I could be wrong. Who thought Busch would be this dominant in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wrong Call

Kyle Busch earning his eighth Sprint Cup win of the season Sunday at Watkins Glen is, ultimately, of little consequence; that tends to happen when winning becomes so commonplace, back-to-back finishes of 15th and 36th counts as a slump. The fact that Busch locked up the top seed once the Chase for the Cup starts in five races is also, at the end of the day, neither surprising nor particularly compelling.

What I prefer to focus on is the guy who finished 22nd: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior, who has never won a road course race at the Cup level, was strong on Sunday, starting second and taking the lead from Busch on lap 2. Junior led twice for 33 laps and had a car that at worst could've finished in the top five, but poor pit strategy relegated Junior to a 22nd-place finish, dropping him from second to fourth in the points.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. has taken some heat this season for being too conservative and possibly costing Junior a race or two. It got to the point where before Junior won the June race at Michigan on fuel mileage, some fans were calling for Eury's job.

Expect those calls to start up again after Eury kept Junior on the track for too long on Sunday, leaving him out when everyone else was pitting for fuel. A lap 64 caution bit Junior, and he was just one of two lead-lap cars to put under the yellow, because everyone else had already been down under green.

It was actually the second time in the race Junior waited a good two or three laps after everyone else to pit, but because the first run stayed under green, it didn't matter much. But Eury's decision to leave Junior on the race track as long as possible -- even as Junior was losing a second per lap to second-place Busch -- kept Junior from contending.

Would Junior have won without the pit miscue? Hard to say, but his chances of finishing in the top five were much better.

I realize the last time Junior and Eury split, in 2004, was a disaster. The two, as cousins, have a chemistry that's hard to come by in the Sprint Cup garage, but I can't help but wonder if owner Rick Hendrick might consider making a change before 2009 if things continue.

After all, Darian Grubb has shown on more than one occasion he can be a capable Sprint Cup crew chief. If I'm Eury, I might be looking over my shoulder a little bit.

Quick Shout-Out

A.J. Allmendinger deserves some credit for the way he's been running in recent weeks -- specifically, since Jimmy Elledge came on board as his crew chief. Since Elledge came on board at Chicago, Allmendinger has posted four straight top-20 finishes -- including an 11th-place run Sunday at Watkins Glen.

Allmendinger also posted a career-best 10th at the Brickyard two weeks ago. The recent run of success has catapulted the No. 84 Red Bull team to within the Top 35 in owner points -- which means Allmendinger is guaranteed a starting spot in next week's race in Michigan.

Though rumors persist Allmendinger might not return next season -- the ride could go to Scott Speed, who's progressing nicely through both ARCA and the Craftsman Truck Series -- the former Champ Car star might just be figuring out stock cars.

Which would make it a shame if Allmendinger found himself looking for a ride next season.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Which is it?

First, reported over the weekend at Indianapolis that Martin Truex Jr. had signed a two-year contract extension with Dale Earnhardt Inc., which would keep him with the company through the 2010 season.

Then, Truex angrily denied the story, telling The Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service, "That's [expletive]. I don't know what the hell [the reporter] is talking about."

Yet still reports the extension is all but done. Is this a case of shoddy journalism, or does David Newton have something from a reliable source to which the rest of us aren't privy? Truex's denial doesn't really mean that much to me, since people make public denials all the time ... only to have the story they denied turn out to be true anyway.

Right, Roger Clemens?

Assuming the report is true, and that Truex is indeed staying at DEI ... sad as this might sound (and anyone who's read this blog knows how I feel about DEI), this was probably the best Truex could do, given the circumstances. Truex had been rumored to be moving to the No. 12 at Penske Racing, the new No. 33 at Richard Childress Racing, and even a possible third car at Stewart-Haas, but at the end of the day, the best Truex could've likely hoped for was a lateral move.

The No. 12 isn't the premiere ride it was when Newman broke into Sprint Cup, winning 12 races in his first four full seasons. Penske's equipment is lagging behind, much like DEI's.

Stewart-Haas might be competitive and successful in a few seasons' time, but I don't see the change being immediate. Tony Stewart has a lot of work ahead of him with that two-car operation, so much so I don't pay any mind to rumors he'll add a third car. Maybe in three or four years, but certainly not in 2009.

Which leaves RCR's No. 33. While Childress is one of the better organizations in the Sprint Cup garage, with three cars capable of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, I'm not sure how smooth the introduction for that fourth car will be. I don't think the General Mills-sponsored No. 33 would be a Chase contender right out of the gate.

So at the end of the day, maybe Truex is best-served staying with DEI for the next two seasons. Either the organization will improve and Truex will eventually the kind of driver that organization can build itself around, or once 2010 wraps up, Truex could find himself with a better crop of rides from which to choose.

If things hold true to form (and if the last two seasons are any indication, how likely is that?), the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports could be open. Stewart-Haas, if competitive by this point, might go ahead and add that third car, which would also be a viable option for Truex.

The options could certainly be better than they are now; the best ride available right now is the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, but unless your name is Joey Logano, I don't see you getting into that car -- regardless of age or experience or anything like that.

So maybe Truex is best-served staying where he is and waiting things out -- assuming DEI doesn't go belly-up within the next two years.

And I'm not convinced that won't happen.

Why So Serious?

Anyone who questions how serious Randy Moss is about succeeding in NASCAR need look no further than his announcement on Wednesday that Jimmie Johnson would drive his truck in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Bristol later this month.

Randy Moss Motorsports, which in its first two races has finished a respectable 13th and 14th, will put a two-time Sprint Cup champion in the wheel at one of NASCAR's most exciting tracks. It's a smart move, and even if Johnson doesn't win the race (which I kind of doubt he will, this being his Truck Series debut), it shows just how seriously Moss is taking this venture.

Moss has already shown he's serious enough to shell out his own money in the event of a lack of sponsorship, and he's already shown how serious he is by starting off in the Craftsman Truck Series, the perceived lowest of NASCAR's three national touring series.

Previous NFL players-turned-NASCAR owners failed, in part because they started in the Sprint Cup Series, a series dominated by four super teams that leave little room for anyone else. Moss, by starting off in the Truck Series and being willing to fund it himself, is showing he's trying to learn from the mistakes of others, and putting a driver like Johnson behind the wheel, even if only for a race, gives that team credibility.

And by agreeing to drive that truck, Johnson is in a way validating Moss' effort. Who knows? If a sponsor or up-and-coming driver sees Johnson climb into the No. 81 and have a solid run ( atop-10 would go a long way), they might decide to latch on, giving Moss even more stability and the chance for future success.

Even with everything Moss is doing right, though, even he can't find a solution for the tire debacle at Indy. Oh well, we can't all be miracle workers ...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Back in America

According to published reports, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will not return to Mexico City for the 2009 season. Though officials have not announced which track might take the road course's place, it is believed it will be a track in the United States, and the Charlotte Observer reports that sources say it could be Iowa Speedway.

Iowa, a 7/8-mile tri-oval which currently hosts IndyCar and NASCAR Camping World East events, could be a perfect fit for the Nationwide Series, which already runs a good bit of its schedule on short tracks not otherwise used in NASCAR's top national series (along the same vein as O'Reilly Raceway Park just outside of Indianapolis).

Add to that the quality of this season's IRL race at the track, and the Nationwide Series just seems like a perfect fit. In the meantime, NASCAR's move out of Mexico City isn't as much of a negative as it might seem on the surface. Though attendance had been on the decline in recent years -- and the event had its smallest crowd earlier this season when Kyle Busch won -- NASCAR's plan ultimately was to help stock car racing as a whole grow in Mexico.

And considering the steady growth the NASCAR Corona Mexico Series is seeing, I would consider the sport's foray into Mexico a rousing success. And with this weekend's race in Montreal the lone international date left on the NASCAR docket, it's possible a return stateside is part of CEO Brian France's preseason pledge to bring NASCAR "back to basics," a campaign that has, by and large, been a success.

Now, if we could just get a good tire to Indy ...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Not Your Local Short Track

I would imagine even the racing world's biggest optimist (guilty as charged) would have to be embarrased following Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.

I won't print the word I really have in my head to describe the mess, in the interest of decorum, but suffice it to say, this was easily the worst race of the year, and if I was one of the 200,000 people who paid for a ticket, I'd likely be demanding my money back.

Competition cautions every 10 laps isn't racing. Running a 2.5-mile track at three-quarter speed to conserve the tires isn't racing. A series of short-sprint heat races might work at the local Saturday night short track, but that shouldn't happen to what some believe is NASCAR's second-largest event behind the Daytona 500.

It's embarrassing, inexcusable. NASCAR and Goodyear should both be ashamed of themselves. For this sort of thing to happen at Charlotte or Dover would be bad enough, but at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? A place in which purists even today feel stock cars have no place? How does something like this happen?

Granted, on race day NASCAR did the best it could to ensure the drivers' safety -- which should always be priority number one. If there was no way these cars could go more than 12 laps on a set of tires, then NASCAR had to act accordingly.

Problem is, it should've never gotten to this point. Most years, NASCAR and Goodyear conduct a full tire test at Indy. The special grooves in the race track being what they are, Goodyear needs data to create a safe yet competitive tire -- which, most years, isn't an issue. Sure, the tires wear to the chords after five laps on Friday, but as the weekend progresses, the rubber fills in the grooves and by race time on Sunday, the problem's gone.

Only that didn't happen this time. The track shaved off the tire rubber until it was a fine powder, and instead of that rubber laying down on the track, it stuck to the back of the cars, only to be deposited in pit road or the garage area. NASCAR and Goodyear were left scratching their heads, wondering why the rubber wasn't setting on the track. Drivers and crews were left tiptoeing though what should be one of the series' marquee events.

This year's "tire test" consisted of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch running a series of laps at the Brickyard. Even then, in April, the problem was evident -- Earnhardt's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., said they couldn't run any more than six laps to a time before the right sides gave way.

NASCAR and Goodyear's response? "Oh, it'll get better when we're here for the race."

NASCAR said a full-field test wouldn't have made a difference, but I'm not so convinced. Perhaps it's hindsight, an undeniable feeling of "Well, you should've done something!" Rather than wait until race weekend to bust out extra sets, unloading the Pocono-compound tire and throwing the caution flag every 10 laps, NASCAR and Goodyear should've been proactive, taking the data from that test in April to create a safer, more competitive tire.

Now we're left with a year of questions and watching as the sanctioning body and its only tire provider try to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen next year.

Texas Motor Speedway probably has the right idea; before an event at the track, president Eddie Gossage hooks about 10 to 12 race tires to the back of a pickup before dragging them along the surface. It's an old-school idea -- one Darrell Waltrip advocated Sunday night on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain -- but I think it would've helped this time around.

Particularly since teams only got a combined four hours of practice time for the race.

Another option that is being discussed is moving the Nationwide Series and Craftsman Truck events from nearby O'Reilly Raceway Park to the Brickyard so those races could help lay down some rubber. I'm not sure how I feel about this move, considering ORP is a staple of both series and I rather enjoy the action on the short track (Kyle Busch's dominating win in the Nationwide race Saturday night notwithstanding).

That said, something has to be done. Not only to ensure this doesn't happen again this season -- this is the second time this year Goodyear has come under fire for an inferior product -- but to make sure it never happens again. ESPN touted the Brickyard as one of NASCAR's "majors" all weekend, and to have an event reduced to a series of heat races at a place of such importance and magnitude is simply inexcusable.

Oh, FYI: Jimmie Johnson won the race, capturing his second Brickyard title. To give you an idea of how bad this tire situation was, just watch his reaction. Sure, he was happy to win, but such a muted celebration after winning one of the series' marquee events tells me even he knew how horribly things were screwed up.

The winner of the Brickyard is often immortalized. This year, the race winner will be but a mere footnote as we examine the mistakes made by NASCAR and Goodyear.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Indy Indy Indy

An interesting question has surfaced as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard:

Just where does Indianapolis fit in NASCAR lore?

Depending on who you talk to, the 400-mile race at Indy is NASCAR's second-biggest race behind the Daytona 500. Others will tell you it's actually bigger than the February tradition. Others still will shrug their shoulders and call it just another race.

Something tells me Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart would disagree with that last one.

While I can't offer the definitive answer, I can offer my own perspective. Growing up, I was more of an open-wheel fan than a NASCAR fan. To me, I loved the sleek look of the Indy cars -- I loved how they almost looked like spaceships, and I loved how fast they were. Stock cars looked too much like the kind of thing I'd see on the streets, and they weren't as fast.

But more than anything, I loved Indy cars because of Indianapolis.

My father didn't do much with me, but one of the things he did was instill in me a love and respect for the history and tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From that, I came to respect Indy as the most hallowed ground in all of American motorsports, and as a child, my credo was simple: if you don't race at Indianapolis, you don't matter.

Which meant that, until 1994, I paid little attention to NASCAR. Hard to believe, as much as I love the sport now, but that was the way I felt. No Indy, no interest.

But whereas other traditionalists were up in arms when Tony George announced NASCAR would invade the Brickyard in August 1994, I sat up with interest. Could it be that this form of auto racing I mocked and despised was finally growing up? Coming out with the big boys and firing up the engines on the only race track that truly mattered?

When Rick Mast led that 43-car field to the green flag, I watched my first full NASCAR race. All the way through, and I loved every minute of it. Before that race, if I had been pressured to choose a NASCAR driver I liked, I would've chosen Rusty Wallace -- mostly because that was who my mother liked, and I wasn't about to root for Dad's favorite, Dale Earnhardt.

But after the inaugural Brickyard 400, I became a Jeff Gordon fan. I didn't care that he drove a rainbow car, and I didn't care that he wasn't from the South -- I would never be considered an old-school NASCAR fan. All that mattered to me was that Gordon had talent and won the first stock car race on the world's most important track.

Then, an odd thing happened: I watched the following weekend's NASCAR race, and then another, and then another. Soon, I came to appreciate Daytona and Bristol nearly as much as I appreciated Indy, and I often slapped myself for missing out on a brand of racing that was, frankly, better than the joke open-wheel racing had become.

For me, NASCAR's 400-mile visit to the Yard of Bricks is less about the race and more about the atmosphere and what that track means -- not just to open-wheel racing, but all of motorsports. Daytona will always be the top dog for NASCAR, as well it should be, but Indianapolis is a close second.

I know a lot of people will call the racing at the Brickyard boring, and they're not necessarily wrong. But every time the boring argument fires up, I counter with television's at-times lackluster coverage -- and the fact that Ned Jarrett once won a race at Darlington in the 1970s by lapping the field eight times.

Try staying awake through that one.

The Brickyard got me into NASCAR, and for that reason alone, I will always love that track and get excited whenever the series visits. I even watched Formula One races at Indy, in spite of my distaste for that style of "racing," and I think it's a huge mistake for that series to not be returning. You can't call yourself the premiere form of motorsports in the world if you won't even visit one of the world's most prestigious tracks.

I don't know who's going to win this weekend, and I don't really care. For me, this isn't about the drivers or the cars, but the race track. And even though I can't be there in person, I'll be glued to the TV on Sunday.

Because it's Indy.

Cat Fight

By now I'm sure you've seen the video from Mid-Ohio this past weekend, where IndyCar Series drivers Danica Patrick and Milka Duno got into a shouting match after a practice session. Patrick felt the slower Duno should've let her by, rather than forcing the issue, and wanted to discuss the situation with the Brazilian model-turned-driver.

What Patrick got instead was a tongue-lashing and a towel thrown in her face. Not once, but twice. Not sure if this is what Duno had in mind in terms of making a name for herself in racing, but it worked nonetheless.

In terms of who I side with on the argument itself, I side with Patrick. Duno was clearly slower -- as she has been her entire IndyCar career -- and Patrick felt she didn't need to be pressured so hard in the corner during a practice session.

To paraphrase Allen Iverson: Not a race, not a race. Not a race. We talkin' 'bout practice.

For the three of you interested, Duno sits 25th in the IRL standings, 355 behind leader Scott Dixon. Patrick, meanwhile, sits sixth in points with a win and one of the largest fan bases in the IndyCar Series.

In a lot of ways, this fued would be a lot like what might happen if Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into it with Patrick Carpentier. Amusing for a time, but ultimately useless.

Instead of lashing out at Patrick for trying to talk to her, Duno needs to concern herself with trying not to be so slow. She's practically nothing more than a field-filler, someone taking advantage of a door opened to her by Patrick's popularity and isn't really doing anything with it. While Patrick has a win to her name and is driving for one of the IRL's most successful teams, Duno's driving for IndyCar's equivalent to Haas/CNC.

Which makes her about as relevant as Anna Kournikova on the tennis court.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Title Sponsors

How does the Kobalt Truck Series sound?

A little odd, I'll admit, but it might be a name we have to get used to; Craftsman's contract to serve as title sponsor for NASCAR's truck division runs out at the end of the season, and a report says Kobalt Tools is a leading candidate to land the next contract. According to the report, Stanley Tools and NAPA have also inquired about title sponsorship.

As if NASCAR fans didn't have enough to get used to, what with both the Cup and Grand National Series having new sponsors this season. Sprint replaced Nextel as title sponsor of the Cup Series, while Busch beer gave way to Nationwide in the Grand National ranks.

I'm still having a hard time trying not to call it the Busch Series.

If Kobalt were to land the deal, which is said to be in the seven-figure range, it would likely also become the Official Tool of NASCAR (whatever that means). And since Kobalt is a Lowe's brand, there's the potential for Lowe's to replace The Home Depot as the Official Home Improvement Warehouse of NASCAR at season's end.

The IndyCar Series is also looking for a primary series sponsor, having been without one for the past couple years. Kodak and Subway are said to be in talks with the series about title sponsorship, even thought both companies have a strong presence in NASCAR.

In financially lean times, any motor racing body who can find a sponsor is already ahead of the game, and it's nice to see the Truck Series on the verge of a new deal. NASCAR truck racing is probably one of the best-kept secrets in the world of American motorsports, while a revitalized IRL can only benefit from the exposure and dollars a title sponsor would give them.

Remember, NASCAR's monumental growth didn't really start until R.J. Reynolds slapped the Winston brand on the Cup Series all those years back. Sponsors = money, and in auto racing, money = everything.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Saw That Coming

In a move that surprised absolutely no one, Penske Racing announced on Monday that Ryan Newman will not return to the No. 12 team in 2009. While Newman's destination has not been officially announced, sources close to the situation say Newman is a virtual lock to drive the second car for Tony Stewart at Stewart Haas Racing next season.

Despite winning the Daytona 500, Newman has struggled this season, sitting 16th in the point standings with seven top-10 finishes. Newman has said throughout the season that he would leave if performance didn't improve, which only fueled the rumors he'd drive for Stewart in 2009.

An announcement regarding Newman's signing with Stewart Haas is expected in two weeks when the Sprint Cup Series visits Indianapolis.

While the move itself lacks any surprise or drama -- Newman hasn't been a consistent threat to win in two years -- the intrigue comes in who could potentially fill Newman's spot in the No. 12. Sponsor Alltel isn't expected back, and rumors continue to circulate that Martin Truex Jr. will leave DEI at the end of the season and join Penske.

There were rumors IndyCar star Helio Castroneves would make the switch to NASCAR and take over the ride, but Penske announced a few weeks ago Castroneves signed an extension to remain in the IRL.

Casey Mears is still out there, as is Dario Franchitti. And if Stewart makes the moves everyone expects, guys like Scott Riggs and Johnny Sauter will be looking for rides as well. But regardless of who drives or sponsors the No. 12 next season, expect the struggles to continue; Penske is not one of the elite Cup organizations anymore, and I really don't see that changing any time soon. And with all due respect to the drivers I just mentioned, this year's Silly Season lacks any real punch now that Stewart and Newman are supposedly spoken for.

Will Newman find his form again with a new team? Possibly -- this is a guy who won 12 Cup races in his first four seasons -- and while I expect Stewart Haas to struggle initially, look for Newman to start making frequent trips to Victory Lane again by 2010, maybe as late as 2011.