Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Postponing Brickyard until Monday would have been best option

Tony George, owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is hopping mad.

After days of hearing about how his track’s “abrasive surface” is part of the reason Sunday’s event turned into something less than a race, George came out Tuesday and said: “The problem is solely (NASCAR‘s), and by that I mean it’s theirs to figure out. It’s not going to come with anything we do to the track.”

Then George threw down the gauntlet: “The track won’t change next year, so if they want to come back, they better figure it out because I don’t think the fans want to come back and see that.”

Tony George has done a lot of things in the past that fans don’t like (see: Indycar split), but he is a very smart man. He realizes, as should fans, that NASCAR and Goodyear really screwed up by not doing more testing to make sure the tires Goodyear provide were going to work with the COT. They did not do their homework, and the race fans and race teams suffered as a result. The “diamond-grinding” process Indy uses to smooth out the track works fine for the Indy 500, so that’s not going to change anytime soon. Between now and next summer, NASCAR and Goodyear need to do as much testing as is necessary to find out what’s going on at Indy and make sure next year‘s race goes off smoothly.

In a move I hope doesn’t turn out like George Bush Sr.’s “No new taxes” remark, NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton has come out to say “This won’t happen again” … I hope he’s right, but I won’t head to Vegas just yet to bet on it.

One argument that really bothers me that I’ve been hearing all week is: “At least all the drivers raced. Most of the Formula 1 drivers pulled into pit lane and refused to race after their tire problem”
In retrospect, all the drivers pulling into pit lane and refusing to race would have been the best move possible Sunday. They should have given Goodyear and NASCAR 24 hours to either rubber up the track properly, or bring in a tire that would last more than 10 green laps and not endanger their lives, and then held the race Monday. The Formula 1 drivers were smart … why should they go out and risk their lives just so F1 can continue to put on its show. Safety is more important than entertainment. CART drivers pulled a similar move at Texas in 2001 to ensure their safety, when the speeds and G-forces got out of control and they were feeling dizzy and couldn‘t control their cars.

The standby “They did the best they can” argument to defend NASCAR means very little when what happened on track Sunday can hardly be called a competition.

I know why a postponement didn’t happen … there were more than 200,000 people in the stands who were promised a race, and postponing it would cause chaos … as many would have to go to work Monday and thus never see the race, but it really was the best option if the goal was to provide a good race for the fans.

Though it will never happen, those fans deserve a refund.

I’m not sure who needs whom more between NASCAR and the Brickyard, but neither one of them wants to see the Brickyard 400 stop running. The chance of that happening is close to zero, as too many people make boatloads of money off this race. But if next year brings another show like we had Sunday, it might actually be discussed.

Adios, Mexico City!
In a move I find disappointing, the Mexico City race has been dropped from next year’s Nationwide schedule. NASCAR says its already achieved its goal of further developing stock-car racing in that region.
They say a permanent race outside the country was never planned.
I think that’s a copout, and robs the up-and-coming drivers of another chance to hone their road-racing skills. Also, I bet money was a factor in removing the race, which is understandable, but they won’t even come out and say it. The replacement race will likely be at Iowa Speedway, which could be an entertaining race, but I hate to lose a great race at a great track from the schedule.

Johnson going Truck racing
Randy Moss Motorsports has delivered on their promise to land a big-time Cup driver, at least for one race. Defending champ Jimmie Johnson will get into the team’s Truck at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s Johnson’s first Truck race ever, but it’s still a huge score for Moss’ team to land a driver of Jimmie’s caliber. The team must be on the right track, or stars like Johnson wouldn’t consider getting behind the wheel.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Goodyear should be ashamed after Brickyard charade

Shame on Goodyear.

That’s all I can say after forcing myself to sit through the event Sunday afternoon that masqueraded as the Brickyard 400, which left drivers, team owners, NASCAR itself and fans everywhere disgusted and disappointed.

Goodyear’s lack of preparation and bringing such a terrible tire to this historic racetrack created a situation as embarrassing as the Formula 1 debacle in 2005 where only six cars were on the track racing in the U.S. Grand Prix due to tire issues with Michelin.

Goodyear had to know the Car of Tomorrow presented a new challenge for them at Indy. But they still didn’t do the proper amount of testing necessary to ensure a tire that would last more than 10 green flag laps without falling apart. There’s nothing else to say, other than they screwed this one up worse than I could have envisioned.

The result of this horrible misjudgment was a race that was a series of short heats, always followed by a mandatory competition caution. But in reality, they weren’t even true heats, as the cars couldn’t even go full speed for fear of blowing a tire.

Sure, there was some occasional action. But deep down, all the teams were doing all afternoon was trying to survive. It was a farce of a race, and will go down in history as one of the most ridiculous shows NASCAR has ever put on -- right up there with the 2000 New Hampshire restrictor plate race where Jeff Burton led all 300 laps.

Anyone who tries to defend Goodyear will really be stretching. With the COT being a new animal at Indy, there is no excuse for them not doing more testing to make sure the tires would work properly at Indy.

I won’t even comment on the little racing that did happen Sunday, as this “race” isn’t worthy of that. NASCAR is very lucky no driver got hurt because of Goodyear's poor planning.

Jimmie Johnson may have taken the checkered flag, but nobody won Sunday. I feel sorry for all the fans who had to pay money to watch that charade, and all the fans who wasted their time watching it at home, not to mention those who had to participate.

Points repercussions
The big winner was Denny Hamlin, who jumped four spots to 8th after a third-place finish.
Kevin Harvick got caught up in a wreck and dropped four spots, out of the Chase, to 13th place. The tires literally ripped up the right rear quarter panel of Matt Kenseth’s car, dropping him three spots to 11th and within a few points of falling from the Chase. As far as the drivers battling to make it in the Chase: Clint Bowyer snuck back into 12th place; Brian Vickers had trouble and fell 132 points back and may have ruined his chances; and sophomore sensation David Ragan moved within 56 points of the Chase with another decent run.

What’s the truth about Truex?

Silly Season is an exciting and enjoyable time for us in the media, but it can also cause a lot of trouble for journalists eager to get a scoop.

A reporter from that famous 4-letter network put out a story Saturday saying that Martin Truex, Jr. had agreed in principle to a 2-year deal to stay with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., according to “multiple sources” close to the deal.

But hold the phone. When asked about that topic, Truex angrily retorted: “It’s (expletive). I don’t know what the hell … he’s talking about.”

So what’s the truth? Usually, when something like this breaks and is denied, there is at least a nugget of truth to it. The problem comes when a reporter takes the leap and publishes a story without knowing for sure it’s true. I can almost guarantee you Truex is negotiating with DEI, as they desperately need him to stay if they want to compete next year. And maybe progress has been made on a contract, and one will be signed shortly.

But unless you are absolutely, 100 percent sure that Truex is staying and has already made the commitment, it’s pretty irresponsible to come out and say it in such strong terms. To say he “isn’t going anywhere,” when you really don’t know that, is pretty bad.

So what do I think is going to happen in the end? I’ve said all along that Truex will leave the sinking ship that is DEI, but the more time goes by, the more likely it is he will stay. The more money you dangle in front of a driver, the harder it is for him to walk away, and you can bet DEI is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at their only marketable driver to get him to stay.

New car, new fight for Stewart
Tony Stewart has had a busy week --- unveiling his 2009 paint schemes and professing his joy that he will be driving Chevys again, then getting into a scrap with a USAC official Thursday night. The No. 14 will be co-sponsored by Old Spice and Office Depot, and looks pretty sharp.
The altercation happened when Tracy Hines, who drives one of Stewart’s USAC National Midget cars, was stuck on pit lane and it took too long for Stewart’s liking for a push truck to help Hines get going and back in the race. In confronting the USAC official, he apparently knocked a headset from the official’s head and then shoved him. Afterward, Stewart said he expected to be fined, but was still angry about how his driver was treated.

Between reporters, fellow drivers and officials, Stewart probably has a higher fight-per-year ratio than any other driver over the past decade. But as I’ve said before, that’s part of why I like him. He is passionate about racing, and the drivers who work for him, and was just standing up for Hines. He went too far this time, but you have to admire his spirit.

Rusty Wallace vs. Ryan Newman
As a driver, Rusty Wallace was kind of like Tony Stewart is now -- he often opened his mouth and said things that made a lot of people angry. Now an announcer and team owner, he’s up to his old tricks, angering Ryan Newman by publicly saying that Newman was fired by Roger Penske and the split was not agreed upon as Newman said. Rusty apparently talks to Penske regularly, and decided to reveal what Penske allegedly told him about what really happened.

Newman and Rusty never got along as teammates, so it’s possible Rusty’s lying. But I believe him on this one. Rusty said Penske was upset that Ryan was complaining publicly about how bad his cars have been this year, and decided that if Newman was going to call the cars junk he might as well not drive them. From what I know of Penske, this sounds like a move he would make. You do not go up to a man of his stature in the racing and business world and tell him he’s doing a crappy job. Jeremy Mayfield made similar comments in the past, and he saw a similar fate. Newman still insists it was his decision to leave at the end of this season, but I think his ego is just bruised and he won’t publicly admit the truth.

McMurray the odd man out
As I’ve long suspected, Jamie McMurray’s days at Roush Racing are likely numbered. After 2009, Roush must trim to four teams, and he came out this weekend saying that no one is going to take Matt Kenseth, David Ragan, Carl Edwards or Greg Biffle away from him. McMurray’s name was curiously missing, and Roush has been critical of his lackluster results this season compared to all of his teammates.

There are a variety of rumors out there -- McMurray going to the fourth Childress team; McMurray staying at Roush next year , then moving to Roush satellite team Yates Racing in 2010; and others. I can’t tell you which one will come true, but I can tell you what I‘ve known for a long time -- the Roush-McMurray marriage didn‘t work out and will soon be over, as soon as the end of this year.

IRP excitement
As I predicted, the weekend got off to a great start with the races at the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park. Friday night’s Truck race featured a battle for the ages all night between Michigan native Johnny Benson and Ron Hornaday. Benson ended up getting the win, after Hornaday dominated early, but the excellent short-track side-by-side racing was a great way to get the weekend started. In my dream world, the Cup guys would race on more of these kinds of short tracks and less of the cookie-cutter bigger tracks. It’ll never happen with the big business NASCAR has become, where bigger is always better, but I can always dream.

Saturday night brought the Nationwide cars to the track, and Kyle Busch gave a big middle finger to the NASCAR bigwigs who tried to slow him and his fellow Toyota drivers down with the rule change this week, leading all but 3 laps. Really though, the change didn’t matter this week and won’t be noticeable until the cars return to bigger tracks. Behind the Kyle domination, there was awesome racing all night, with youngsters like Josh Wise, Cale Gale and Landon Cassill racing each other hard all night and getting some of their best career finishes.

The best performance of the night, though, goes to Carl Edwards. Normally I bash the Cup guys who double-dip, but the show he put on Saturday was awesome. After going down 3 laps due to a major mechanical problem, Edwards raced hard with leader Kyle Busch (the only person to do so all night) and caught enough cautions to get back on the lead lap near the end of the race. Restarting in 24th with less than 20 laps to go, he got up to 11th place by the end of the race. It was truly a sight to see, and he might have challenged Busch if the race had been 50 laps longer.

Tire trouble
Goodyear appears to have missed the boat again, as the tires at Indy are showing extreme wear, many showing cords after just 11 laps of practice at the Brickyard. As a result, 10 sets of tires are being given to each team for raceday. Look for a ton of pit stops, which could affect the outcome of the race. Pit crew performance could very well decide the winner.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Brickyard long on history, short on excitement

With all due respect to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to a century of great motorsports moments, it’s probably one of the worst tracks on the schedule when it comes to providing exciting Cup racing.

During Brickyard week, all you hear is the NASCAR drivers fawning over the track and saying how it’s right up there with the Daytona 500 on the list of races they want to win each year. The Indiana-born drivers like Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are even more excited than the others, having grown up in the shadow of the track where so many of the greats have won. I can respect their desire to join the elite group to have crossed the bricks in first place.

But for the fans, watching a Cup race at Indy is far from a fantastic experience. With rare flashes of excitement, and usually long stretches of single-file racing with passing at a minimum, it can be a long day for Brickyard viewers. I remember making the trek to Indy to see the race 10 years ago. Indianapolis is a great town and I had a wonderful time, particularly at the “Turn One Bar“ across the street from the track. The speedway is a site to see, and all race fans should make at least one trip there in their lifetime -- whether it be to see the Brickyard 400, the Indy 500, or the U.S. Grand Prix (when it eventually returns).

But the racing -- not so hot. The IROC race was pretty memorable that weekend, as Arie Luyendyk had a terrible crash that tore his car to pieces and had everyone scared, but he ended up being OK. As far as the Cup race, the most exciting thing that happened all day was Dale Jarrett running out of gas. To top things off, the place is so big, fans really can only see a corner (two at most) of the racing action, of which there is little to begin with.

I’m glad I went, as just being in that historic place surround by 250,000 people is an amazing experience. But I wish the product on the track could live up to the atmosphere. The place was built for open wheel cars, and that’s painfully obvious every time Cup cars take to the track. Watching this parade on television is hazardous to fans’ ability to stay awake, so I recommend keeping a pillow nearby.

If you want to catch some excitement, watch the short-track Truck and Busch races at nearby short track ORP (formerly IRP). They are quite exciting every single year, and also a blast to attend.

Fantasy tips
The obvious choice this week is Tony Stewart, who has won two of the last three Brickyard races. Kyle Busch, as always, is a threat, but this may be one of the few tracks where Tony’s experience will put him ahead of his teammate. The big 3 Hendrick drivers are also among the list of contenders. Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya did very well here last year, finishing second, and is due for a good finish. But stay away from Sam Hornish Jr., who has also won the Indy 500 but done very little in his Penske Racing Cup ride this year.

Who you end up ultimately choosing will depend a lot on qualifying. With passing at a premium, if a contender starts too far back, it’s going to be hard for them to get up front.

I’m going to pick Tony to win. He’s overdue for a win and this is his favorite track. It’s hard to bet against him.

Stremme up for some rides
David Stremme, currently driving for Rusty Wallace in the Nationwide series, is being considered for several Cup rides next season -- including the one being vacated by Ryan Newman. Another option is Rusty bringing his team up to Cup with Stremme, which the TV bigwigs say is OK now that fellow cars owners Ray Evernham and Brad Daugherty are part of the ESPN crew covering NASCAR races.

Stremme was spotty when he drove for Chip Ganassi last year, but he has showed flashes of greatness. I suppose in the right equipment, he could become a contender in Cup. But he has to be careful. He’s having some good runs in the Nationwide series, and if he goes to a Cup car and fails again, it could be a potential career killer as far as his Cup aspirations. Word is he’s already turned down some Cup rides for this very reason. Penske has been underachieving for a while, so maybe a hungry driver like Stremme is what they need to get some better results.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Toyota rule change unnecessary, un-American

In my experience, nobody likes a whiner. But apparently, enough of it will lead to an unnecessary NASCAR rule change.

The cries grew to deafening levels from fans and drivers about how NASCAR needed to do something to slow down the Toyotas, who are putting on a clinic in all three top series. The critics were focusing on the Nationwide series, where the Toyota entries (more specifically, the Joe Gibbs Toyota entries) are the class of the field each week. Toyotas have been to Victory Lane in the series 14 of 21 races so far this season, including eight straight races at one point.

This is an outrage, critics said, and the Toyotas needed to be slowed down in some way so there could be more parity. Apparently NASCAR now agrees, and has just announced a new rule altering the spacer applied to Toyota’s Nationwide Series engine, which will result in lost horsepower. "Eventually, all teams that upgrade to new engine packages will be subject to this rule modification,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “Over the years in our sport, we’ve taken steps on numerous occasions to help maintain a level playing field among our competitors and we will continue to do so.”

As a fan of NASCAR, I can sympathize with those who support this new restriction. Nobody likes a race with a runaway winner, and that has happened quite a bit this season. Part of me will love seeing more competition up front and between the different car makes in the Nationwide races.

But there are several problems with the arguments in favor of keeping Toyota’s power down. The first is that many of the complaints are based on emotion, on the fact that Toyota is a foreign nameplate and not one of the U.S. Big 3. If it were GM, Ford or Chrysler cars dominating the Nationwide series, do you think as many people would be calling for limits on their power? I doubt it. Proof of this is that Chevrolet teams dominated the Cup series in 2007, but there was nowhere near as much complaining about their success as we’re hearing this year about Toyota.

The other problem is that NASCAR is not truly a “stock car” series anymore, and there are going to be differences in power between teams. This is not what IROC once was … where drivers are given truly equal pieces of equipment and success is based totally on the driver's ability. Clint Bowyer made a comment that “a monkey” could win in the #20 Nationwide car, which has seen Victory Lane with four drivers this year. He may have been joking, but that comment just reeks of jealousy to me.

Horsepower numbers are going to be different between teams, depending what the engineers do. Gibbs engine builder Mark Cronquist, who has helped bring Cup titles to the organization, is at the pinnacle of his profession, and his ability to squeeze horsepower out of an engine is amazing. It’s even more impressive when you realize that last season, Toyota struggled just to make races. While the skills of the Toyota drivers have a lot to do with this year’s success, don’t discount the role Cronquist and his engine building colleagues have had in this year’s surge of success for Toyota.

What's more American than hard work leading to success? Why should it be punished?

Rightfully so, the Toyota people were not happy with the new limitation. After it was announced, Toyota Racing Development President Lee White said he was “extremely disappointed” in NASCAR’s decision. “In our opinion, there is no technical justification to penalize the Toyota engine utilized in the Nationwide Series,” White said Wednesday evening. “The success of the Toyota Camry this year in the Nationwide Series is the result of hard work and achievement by all of our race teams.”

Finally, mid-year adjustments have always seemed unnecessary to me. I remember a few years ago how NASCAR would be adjusting the nose of one make or another in Cup after the first few races of the season to even up the competition. Unless the difference between the makes is ridiculously huge, I think all of these modifications meant to create parity can wait until the end of the year. Let them use the same equipment from start to finish and then judge what changes need to be made after seeing how the equipment did all year.

Bowyer and others drivers upset about Toyota’s dominance in Nationwide better hope they start to compete more. NASCAR is already giving them a boost, so here's my advice to the whiners: Stop the complaining and simply do better. Build better engines, adjust your cars better during the races, and do whatever else you have to do to beat those Toyotas that make your blood boil so much.

I see no reason for NASCAR to punish Toyota for working hard and building a better engine. To put it simply, that’s just un-American.


Stewart takes Foyt’s number
When he begins driving for Stewart-Haas Racing next year, Tony Stewart will have the number 14, formerly used by the legendary A.J. Foyt. It’s fitting, as Foyt was as feisty a driver as Stewart is today.

World of difference
I have to detour to Formula 1 for a minute, and point out how amazing it is that FIA president Max Mosley has apparently survived a controversy surrounding a sex tape that shows him with several prostitutes engaging in a Nazi-themed sado-masochistic orgy. When this vile tape came out a few months ago, everyone thought his career was over, but apparently that wasn’t to be. There was a vote on his future, and he was not removed from office. Even more amazing was his decision to turn the tables, suing the newspaper which released the tape for invasion of privacy. It appears Mosley, who is married and the son of a known fascist, has now portrayed himself to be the victim, and will continue his career unscathed.

To put this in perspective, what do you think would happen if Brian France or another NASCAR bigwig was caught on tape with several prostitutes in a Nazi-themed orgy? I’m going to go out on a limb and say they wouldn’t get as much of a pass on this side of the pond.

Right time for GEM to grow?
Gillett-Evernham Motorsports has indicated it may be another possible destination spot for the many drivers who will be seeking a ride for 2009. The team has begun to show a return to form this season, but unless a fourth team comes with some big-time sponsor money, the team may want to spend 2009 getting its three current teams consistently up front before bringing in the distraction of a new team.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Indycar catfight highlight of Cup off-week

The women of Indycar (yes, there is more than one) apparently aren’t getting along very well.

A mostly uneventful off week for the Cup series was livened up by an interesting encounter between Danica Patrick and Venezuelan driver Milka Duno. Duno, who is slow every time she competes, apparently pulled some blocking moves on a clearly faster Patrick during a practice at Mid-Ohio this weekend and hot-tempered Danica went over to have a word with Duno.

The ensuing argument was a moment of hilarity not seen in Indycar since Danica’s angry walk down the pits and threats against Ryan Briscoe at this year’s Indy 500.

The highlight of the video was Duno responding to Patrick’s “bad words” by throwing a towel at her -- twice. Though Duno’s English is pretty hard to understand, my favorite quote from the video is Danica saying, “It’s not my fault that you’re slow.”

Many people don’t like Danica in part because of these tirades she has, and would argue it wasn’t appropriate for her to confront a driver over something like this happening in practice. But that’s probably the best insult I’ve heard a racecar driver give in a long time. Come to think of it, that would make a great bumper sticker.

Duno later made comments that, “She can push the guys because they cannot do anything to her, but she cannot push me.” Perhaps Vince McMahon can set up a match at Wrestlemania for these two. And based on what I saw of the race on Sunday, this incident was a lot more exciting than what happened on Sunday.

Formula 1 near-shocker

For a series that’s usually quite predictable, 2008 has been an interesting one for Formula 1. It was beginning to look like a typical, boring, take-the-lead-on-lap-1-and-never-look-back F1 win for Lewis Hamilton at Hockenheim, when a bizarre screwup by the McLaren team dropped Hamilton back in the pack. Then, a one-stop strategy by usual backmarker Nelson Piquet Jr. put him in the unthinkable position of leading late in the race, with a chance to win. In the end, Hamilton did come back to win, but Piquet -- son of a 3-time Formula 1 champ -- got his first-ever podium finish by taking second. There is a four-way battle for the points lead … that’s more than I can say for any NASCAR series except for Trucks.

Moss off to good start
The debut of the Randy Moss Motorsports team co-owned by NFL star Randy Moss was impressive, with a 15th-place run by Willie Allen. The Truck series is very competitive, but Allen was 2007 Rookie of the Year in the series, so Moss and his partner may make some noise before the season is done.

Speaking of Trucks, the points battle there is excellent, with the top 3 drivers separated by 5 points. Mathematically, the entire top 10 could win the title. Looks like they don’t need a Chase in that series.

Pit stops in the dark
I’ll just come right out and say it: Watching Carl Edwards (or Clint Bowyer, or any other Cup driver for that matter) win a Nationwide race is like kissing your sister -- there’s no enjoyment to be had. Joey Logano finished second, and continues to show he’s ready for Cup. After 5 starts, he has 1 win, 4 top 10s and 3 top-5s … and he crashed out of the fifth race. Without the dozen or so Cup interlopers that show up most weeks, Logano and Brad Keselowski would be duking it out for the win each week, with other young guys like Landon Cassill right behind. And the fans would actually get some enjoyment out of the junior series.

The humor at Gateway came when there was a power outage just before the start of the race. As the race began and the cars got going, there were still no lights on pit road. The teams were actually going to wear something that looked like miner’s hats with lights on them and lighted gloves to do their jobs. The lights came back before that was necessary, but the thought of pit stops in the dark is so funny I almost wish I could have seen it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Woes of Big 3 U.S. automakers could eventually lead to exits from NASCAR

Imagine this: A Cup series involving competitors driving Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans.

The thought of this induces nightmares and sends chills down the spines of many NASCAR fans, who love the sport in part because of its all-American history. The top three U.S. automakers -- GM, Ford and Chrysler -- have been the backbone of the sport we all love since it started. When Toyota began fielding cars several years ago, many fans were disgusted, and to this day refuse to root for a Toyota. It’s clear that even some drivers (read: Tony Stewart) don’t really feel comfortable driving a Toyota.

But a shocking, new reality may be coming to NASCAR within the next decade. Anyone who has been watching the news has noticed that things are not well at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Job cuts are happening across the board, monthly sales figures are often dismal, plant shutdowns are being extended, car models are being eliminated, etc. Simply put, they are in trouble.

I’m not here to offer advice to the industry. There are many opinions out there as to why this crisis is occurring … Some blame the unions for driving up costs, others think gas prices over $4 a gallon are to blame, and others blame the Americans who have decided to buy foreign vehicles instead of domestic ones.

I’m only here to comment on one thing -- how this will affect NASCAR. And a sobering idea was put out there when GM Racing Director Mark Kent said that “Racing is not exempt (from cuts) … We are looking at ways to be even more efficient … looking to see if they are genuinely positioned for a positive return on investment.”

By no means am I suggesting that any of these three companies are planning to abandon NASCAR in the near future. I’m sure they would all love to continue to do so at long as NASCAR exists. But it costs them many, many millions to continue this support each year, and that doesn’t even include the money spent on series such as NHRA, USAC, SCCA and others.

The immediate impact is that GM is dropping some sponsorships at racetracks, and you can bet that is the tip of the iceberg. Teams will likely receive less support from the companies, as they try to save every dollar they can.

The worst part is that while the U.S. automakers struggle mightily, Toyota, Honda and Nissan continue to do well, partly because their products often offer better gas mileage. If the U.S. automakers continue to struggle and lose money, there might come a day when at least one of them decides to completely remove itself from NASCAR. And should that happen, there’s no doubt one of the foreign makes would be eager to take its place.

I’m not saying I want to this happen … far from it, in fact. As a resident of the Detroit area, the success or failure of GM, Ford and Chrysler have an immediate impact on the state economy and, subsequently, my own wallet. I wish them nothing but success, and hope they can make the changes necessary to return to profitability and a bright future.

But right now, the cloud of doom hanging over these companies is hard to ignore. There are even discussions of whether they will need to file for bankruptcy, or if they can even survive. The worst-case scenario, though unlikely, is all three U.S. automakers eventually deciding NASCAR is no longer worth the investment.

Obviously, there would be a huge backlash if this happened and all the cars had foreign nameplates. But people love racing, and after cooling off, most would probably still tune in to see how their favorite drivers are doing. They would have a simple choice… either grit their teeth and root for a foreign make, or just shut NASCAR off completely.

Let’s hope it never gets to that point.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Zipadelli made right move by staying with Gibbs

No one was surprised when Tony Stewart announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season to become partial owner of the newly named Stewart-Haas Racing.

But one major question remained -- would his longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli go with him and stay loyal to his driver, or would he stay loyal to Joe Gibbs, the team owner who has given him the opportunity for so much success in NASCAR.

Wisely, he chose Gibbs, and his future will be much brighter as a result.

It was probably tempting to leave. The decade Zippy and Smoke spent together was very successful, with their combined efforts netting more than 30 wins, and two Cup championships.

But looking to the future, Zipadelli saw the writing on the wall. The effort to rebuild the downright terrible team formerly known as Haas-CNC Racing into a winning stable will likely be a long and difficult process. Even with talented drivers (Stewart will likely partner with Ryan Newman) and big-time sponsors coming aboard with multimillion dollar deals, the team will be essentially starting from the bottom.

Meanwhile, over at Gibbs, Zipadelli is on a team that’s the undisputed kind of NASCAR right now, currently dominating last year's dominators at Hendrick Motorsports. Better yet, teenage phenom Joey Logano will likely be the driver of that #20 car next season. If Logano is anywhere near as good as he’s indicated he can be, 10 years from now Zippy might end up with more wins working with Logano that he got pairing with Stewart.

I’m sure Stewart understands this, and there are no hard feelings. Working together for so long no doubt makes the separation hard. (Stewart said in the press conference that Zipadelli knows him “better than most of my girlfriends”) But Tony also knows business is business, and he no doubt recognizes that Zipadelli has much more chance to succeed at Gibbs than with his upstart organization.

If Smoke can manage some wins with the new team, I’m sure Zippy will be the first to congratulate him. And the first time Logano brings a Sprint Cup car to Victory Lane, Tony will likely do the same.


Rookies a huge disappointment
After this year’s disappointing rookie class, it will be nice to see Logano’s likely entrance into the Cup series next year. This year’s illustrious class includes Regan Smith, Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier, Michael McDowell and Dario Franchitti, who have combined to do a big pile of nothing. The best points position for any of them is 33rd, just barely inside the line for a guaranteed starting spot. Not one of them has a top 10 finish all season.

Franchitti already lost his ride. McDowell and Smith are basically field-fillers and likely won’t return to their teams next year. Carpentier and Hornish have shown flashes of ability, and should probably get one more year to try to prove themselves. But overall, it’s been a hugely disappointing year for the first-timers.

Kvapil overachieving
The impressive efforts of Travis Kvapil in an underfunded Yates Racing car has earned him a sponsor for six of the remaining races this season. Trouble late in the race at Joliet dropped him to 21st in the standings, but early in the race he was running pretty well. He’s had some impressive finishes this year in less-than-spectacular equipment, and at one point was closer to the top 15 in points.

Once a Truck series champion, Kvapil has talent and I’m curious to see what he could do if given the kind of quality car the big stars get to drive each week. I’m not saying he’d make the Chase, but he might be right on the cusp.

Aussie alert
Australian driver will make the jump to Cup with the JTG Racing team, which will be partly owned by NASCAR announcer and former NBA player Brad Daugherty. Ambrose is a road course ace, but has yet to prove he can compete regularly on ovals (let’s call it “the Boris Said problem”). We’ll see next year whether he can make the transition.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Championship-caliber move gives Busch win No. 7

I can only imagine how happy Jimmie Johnson must have been as he passed Kyle Busch late in the race at Chicagoland, thinking someone had finally tamed the beast that Kyle Busch is this year. The two-time defending Cup champion probably could feel the checkered flag in his hand as he did something so few have done this season … passed the seemingly unstoppable Busch so late in a race.

And then, the caution came, giving Busch one more chance to get the win. He had to begin his pass as soon as the green dropped to have a realistic shot at getting back by Johnson. When Johnson tried to get a slower start going, Busch wasn’t having that and basically pushed Johnson so he had to go faster. Then, in a championship-caliber move, Kyle Busch went to the outside and took back the win.

While in many past weeks, it could be argued that Busch simply had the best car, there was no doubt at Chicago that his win was due to the guy behind the steering wheel.

After sweeping the weekend at Joliet, Busch has 7 Cup wins, 5 Nationwide wins and 2 Truck series wins ... and it's only mid-July. Unless the other teams can come up with some major improvement to their cars in the upcoming week off, look for Busch to continue his dominance of the series when they get back on track. At this pace, 14 or more wins is not out of the question. The Chase, and the bunching up of points that it brings, is the only reason any of the other drivers even have a chance at winning the title.

As far as the race overall, I was somewhat unimpressed. There were some exciting moments and a decent amount of competition/passing, but the cookie-cutters don’t really do much for me. Having the race at night was a great idea, though, as it adds in the variable of how the cars will change once darkness sets in. Some cars got better, and others got worse.

Also, let me be poetic and say the sunset was absolutely beautiful and a great background for the racing as the evening came on.

Remembering Davey
15 years ago today, on July 13,1993, the great Davey Allison was taken from us in a helicopter accident at Talledega. For those who don’t know about Davey, he was a talented second-generation driver whose future was bright as can be at the time of the tragic accident. He was 1987 Rookie of The Year, won the Daytona 500 in 1992, and won 19 races overall.

Allison was most famous for driving the #28 Texaco/Havoline car for Robert Yates, and was involved in the tight three-way battle for the championship at the season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta in 1992. A wreck took him out of contention, and Alan Kulwicki (who also tragically passed in 1993) beat Bill Elliott for the title by just 10 points. There’s no doubt Davey would have been a championship contender for years to come, perhaps even strong enough to lessen the number of titles taken by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon in that decade. Sadly, we’ll never know.

Biffle jumps, Hamlin freefalls
The points saw some major shakeups this week, and Denny Hamlin’s bad day dropped him five spots, from 7th to 12th in the standings -- just 27 points ahead of Clint Bowyer, who fell out of the Chase. The big winners were Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick, who each jumps four spots to 7th and 9th, respectively. Another strong performance was given by BrianVickers, but he’s still in 14th, 95 points out of the Chase. He has the car and ability to make the Chase, but needs people like Hamlin, Bowyer and Kasey Kahne to struggle a little for that to happen.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

It's hard to bet against Busch at Chicagoland

Heading into tonight’s race at Chicagoland, there’s really no question about the likely outcome. Kyle Busch is the man to beat. Even the fans booing him relentlessly have to admit that his hot streak is showing no sign of ending, and I see no reason he won’t leave the field in his dust as we return to the cookie-cutter track in Joliet.

One possible spoiler could be Greg Biffle, who’s had a great car many weeks this season, but has been snakebitten by the worst luck. He’s been at or near the top of the charts during all practices, and is due for a strong finish.

Keep an eye on Tony Stewart, who can focus on finishing the year strong now that all the speculation about what he's doing next year is done. He should run well, but I won't go so far as to say he'll contend for the checkered flag. He'll get a couple wins before the year ends, but I don't see it happening this week.

-- Among the NASCAR news making the rounds Friday was that presidential candidate Barack Obama was considering a sponsorship of the BAM Racing car driven by Ken Schrader when the Cup series goes to Pocono later this summer. Though the Obama campaign said late Friday that it likely won’t happen, I think it would be wise for Obama to go through with this sponsorship, at least for a race or two.
NASCAR’s fan base is stereotyped as GOP-backing Southerners, but the reality is the sport has grown so much in the past decade, there are fans in every state of all political persuasions, and it could serve Obama (and McCain) well to get their face and name on the hood of a car before November (though backmarker BAM might not be the best choice). Showing up at a race would be an even better PR move for both candidates. There’s millions of potential voters watching the race every week, and it’s a great chance to try to sway some voters.

-- Something needs to be done about the Nationwide Series, where the races are becoming ridiculously predictable most weeks. Joe Gibbs’ teams are stinking up the show, and the races aren’t remotely competitive most of the time. I’m not knocking Gibbs for having superior equipment and drivers.
But I long for the days when the junior series was a true training ground for young, hungry drivers fighting to earn a Cup ride, and battling for the championship in the process. It’s become a place Cup drivers go to collect wins and championships while boring fans to tears.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dominoes will start to fall now that Stewart move is official

The worst-kept secret in racing became official Wednesday, as Tony Stewart has been released from Joe Gibbs Racing, and will become part owner of Hass-CNC Racing. Rumor is Ryan Newman will be his teammate in 2009.

Now Silly Season can really get under way, and this year a ton of drivers will announce they are on the move to a new team.

First off, there’s the 20 car. It’s very likely 18-year-old Joey Logano will take over Stewart’s ride. He could benefit greatly from a year in the Nationwide series. But nowadays, owners are pretty impatient if you show any sign of talent, and Logano had more talent than any driver I’ve seen in years. Home Depot is not a very good sponsor fit for him, and he’ll likely bring Gamestop up to Cup next year. Gibbs may even start a fourth team next year, so perhaps Home Depot will move over there.

With Newman likely leaving Penske, his #12 ride will be available. One rumor has Michael McDowell leaving Michael Waltrip Racing for this ride, as MWR may scale down to two cars next year due to poor results and possible sponsorship trouble.

Martin Truex Jr.’s #1 ride should become available, as he’ll probably leave DEI for one of the many rides opening up.

The fourth Richard Childress Racing car has yet to be filled, and a decision on that will likely come soon. I think Bobby Labonte really missed the boat by passing up this ride to stay at the team formerly owned by the Pettys. Whoever gets this ride (most likely Truex or Casey Mears) has a good shot at some success next season.

Even Kyle Petty is rumored to be out of the #45 car next season. While likely not true, he really should just retire on his own for the good of the team. He’s a decent announcer and should try to do that more often. His days of being a successful driver are over. Let a young driver get in there and try to do something.

Juan Pablo Montoya says he’s staying at Ganassi, but do you really think he’d turn down a ride in a fourth Gibbs car if he got that offer? I don’t. He’s a winner and wants to go where the winners are, and that trumps loyalty. He can’t be happy running around in 25th place in inferior equipment all the time.

Other drivers not mentioned that may be in danger of losing their rides are Reed Sorenson and J.J. Yeley. Jamie McMurray will certainly be dumped by Roush at the end of 2009 when the four-car rule kicks in, but Roush might as well get it out of the way a year early. That team is pretty terrible most weeks.

Scott Riggs and whoever’s driving the 70 car lately (I lose track) are obviously out of rides with the Stewart announcement. Riggs may have to go back to Nationwide, as he’s gone from a driver with much potential to an also-ran in just a few years. Also, the 01 team at DEI probably won’t even finish out the year due to lack of sponsorship.

My biggest question is where Mears will end up. If he doesn’t get the Childress ride, I see him at either Penske or DEI. Either way, it will be a step down from Hendrick, and he’s probably the biggest loser in the shuffling.

Beyond all the driver switching, many sponsorships will change, and there will likely be more unsponsored cars next year than there are this season, as the economy is forcing even profitable companies to scale back their spending.

Another ripple effect of the economy is that several NASCAR teams are rumored to be considering mergers. One rumor is Chip Ganassi’s team may merge with Waltrip’s to form a 4-car team. Other rumored mergers are Red Bull Racing w/ Ganassi, and Bill Davis Racing w/ Red Bull. None of these are likely, but the fact they may even be in the discussion phase says a lot about how hard the economy has hit NASCAR.

I would offer predictions about how the final roster will end up, but that’s like throwing darts at a board at this point, with seemingly half of the drivers in play. Let’s just say it might be hard to spot your favorite driver for the first few races next year, as you adjust to the new lineup.

My favorite rumor of the week is that Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve may be talking to Robby Gordon about coming to drive for Gordon in Cup next season. This would all hinge of the open-wheel super duo coming up with sponsorship for a second car. With Robby struggling on his own with a blank car, I doubt this will happen, but I would be very happy to see it. Villeneuve would be a good addition to NASCAR, and a lot might have been different this year if he had made the Daytona 500.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Blame Teresa’s ego for rumored demise of DEI

What was unthinkable just over a year ago is on the verge of happening, as Dale Earnhardt Inc. will likely be sold off to investors by Teresa Earnhardt, basically ending the company Dale Sr. started so many years ago with the intention of leaving it to his children.

Max Siegel, president of global operations at DEI, is talking with major investors about buying DEI. Rumblings are that Teresa would retain all rights to the name “Dale Earnhardt” and “Intimidator” and related merchandise sales, but Siegel and his investors would take ownership of the race teams, race shops and the company’s headquarters. Her asking price is reportedly more than $100 million.

If this all goes through as planned, DEI may continue in name only with the new investors … but without any Earnhardt involved in the operation, they will essentially be a new operation.

I can see Dale Sr. rolling his eyes from the grave.

Let’s look back at how it all unfolded, how badly Teresa miscalculated what would happen in the aftermath of her power struggle with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and how different things could have been.

Jr.’s contract decision
Last year was one of the most pivotal of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s career, as he was in the process of hammering out a long-term contract with DEI, where he had driven since jumping into NASCAR in the mid-1990s. When Jr. first started in NASCAR, most fans likely imagined him driving the #8 Budweiser car for DEI for the rest of his career.

Had Dale Sr. remained alive, that likely would have been true. But dealing with the company owned by your stepmother is a lot different than dealing with the company owned by your father. Jr. drew a line in the sand and bluntly stated that in order to stay, he wanted 51 percent ownership, so he could be in control. Otherwise, he wasn’t going to stay. He wanted to win a title, and didn’t feel like DEI was going to provide him the cars to do that unless he was in charge.

Teresa Earnhardt had a choice. She could let Jr. take over majority ownership of the team, and sit back collecting big checks for the rest of her life as minority owner. Or she could keep the power, and lose Jr. as a driver, and see what happened next.

As everyone knows, she chose option B. Jr. landed a ride at superpower Hendrick Motorsports, home of champions for the past decade-plus. In his new ride, Jr. is doing very well, and is no doubt happy now that he did not become owner of DEI. His chances of winning a title are very high at Hendrick … much higher than they would have been at DEI.

The aftermath
Meanwhile, with Jr. gone, DEI has had very little to celebrate so far this year. Top driver Martin Truex Jr. is struggling mightily this season, and the rumor mill has him as a candidate for just about every decent ride that comes open. After his car didn’t even pass inspection this weekend at Daytona, don‘t expect him around next year.

The #01 car, driven by Regan Smith, is the definition of an also-ran. The team has no sponsor for 2009 and will likely not run next year, regardless of who‘s running the company. The #15 car, driven by Paul Menard, sits far back in the standings. Menard is sponsored by his father’s company, and there are rumors his father is considering a move. This move may become more likely if the new investors take over.

The #8 car was taken over this year by Mark Martin and Aric Almirola, and has been pretty consistent. Problem is Martin is leaving after this year (ironically, to Hendrick again) and the unproven Almirola will be the full-time driver in 2009. He has lots of potential, but who knows how much success he‘ll have?

Many people in the sport, most importantly Earnhardt Sr. himself, have long credited Teresa with a great business acumen and called her the key to creating the brand name that is Dale Earnhardt. Thanks in large part to her, marketing of drivers was taken to a new level with her husband, paving the way for the current situation, where NASCAR is in your face basically everywhere you go and drivers are hyped in every way possible.

But, especially in light of the latest news, it’s obvious Teresa missed the ball on these negotiations with Jr. She appears to have misunderstood how much more difficult it would be to maintain a successful stable of teams without Jr. in the fold. Like him or not, he’s the biggest star in the sport.

Some readers have accused me of being biased toward Jr., and prejudiced against other drivers. Believe it or not, this is not the case. On the contrary, I believe there are several drivers in the Cup series who are more talented behind the wheel than he is. While he will no doubt be in the running for the title many times in his career, it’s entirely possible Jr. will end his career without winning a Cup title, and be viewed as somewhat of a failure by everyone (including myself) when he hangs up his helmet. But no one can deny that he does have a good degree of talent, and that (in large part because of his name) he draws sponsorship money easier than anybody else in the sport. Losing him was clearly a bad choice for DEI on many levels.

If Jr. had remained at DEI, the likely DEI lineup for 2009 would have been pretty solid … Jr., his buddy Truex, and Menard, with a possible fourth car. And it’s not a stretch to say the team would probably have gotten some better results with Jr. calling the shots.

As it stands now, the team not only has an unknown driver lineup for next year, it’s also up in the air who will be running the show.

What could have been
To be fair, I don’t know what happened behind the scenes during negotiations last season. Maybe there was so much personal conflict between Jr. and his stepmother that it just couldn’t be overcome. Maybe they just didn’t want to work with each other anymore, under any circumstances. Whenever family is involved in any dispute, business or otherwise, it’s likely there’s a lot of stuff going on that only the two people involved will ever know.

But I do know one thing … Had Teresa swallowed her pride and let Jr. take over majority ownership of DEI, Both she and her stepson could have become very rich and successful for many, many years. Now, he’s reaping plenty of rewards over at Hendrick, and she’s so disgusted with the sport that it appears she wants out for good.

DEI is about to succumb to squabbling of a nature Dale Sr. would not have allowed. His death has had many major effects on the sport, and it appears the demise of DEI is the latest.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Earnhardt had car to beat, but Busch steals another one

After watching the first 100 laps of Saturday night’s race at Daytona, during which Dale Earnhardt Jr. put on his usual clinic for the other drivers, two things entered my mind.

The first was, “Wow, this is a very boring race.” There was way too much single file racing, and I was far from intrigued.

The second was, “The demolition derby will begin soon.” Sure enough, my prediction came true far too many times.

It’s become an annual ritual that in the last 40 or so laps of every restrictor plate race, the drivers lose their minds. People get so desperate to gain positions, they risk dangerous contact with their competitors and often wreck their car and a bunch of others in the process. There’s no one driver to single out on Saturday, as they all were doing this as the race drew to a close.

It’s not all on the drivers though, as they are just driving in the conditions provided for them. NASCAR for some reason insists on telling us that their group of brilliant mechanics STILL can’t find a way to slow these cars down without using silly restrictor plates, which creates the conditions conducive to “The Big One” the TV announcers seem determined to see every plate race. I find that hard to believe, and there has to be a better way to slow them down that will allow great racing and diminish the massive packs. If not for some great driving by many to avoid wrecks, there could have been about three or four “Big Ones” Saturday night.

Late in the race, after his earlier dominance, Earnhardt was shuffled back a little bit and never recovered. With all the cautions, he never really had a chance to run long enough to get back into the lead. If he had a long run, he most certainly would have been the victor.

That brings us to Kyle Busch, who somehow pulled out yet another win, his sixth of the season. While he did lead some laps early, he really wasn’t much of a contender for most of the race. Early in the evening, he almost tore his car up, but made a great save and had to charge back through the field. But even if Jr. had problems, Jeff Gordon looked like the car to beat and I figured Kyle would end up with just a top 10 finish.

I must have forgotten that the driver of that #18 car has had a rabbit’s foot in his pocket all season.

TNT’s unique approach to the TV coverage had its good and bad points. I liked that we had a constant view of the on-track action, but I also think the announcers spent more time hawking products than commenting on the race. It was pretty silly, and I almost would prefer hearing the advertisers do their own hawking. The more I hear them endlessly hawk the sponsors, the less respect I have for the announcers. Even worse, they often did not cut away from the pop-up ads when something happened on track, leaving viewers to guess what was going on while listening to the end of the ad.

J.J. Yeley had to jump in Tony Stewart’s car because he felt “nauseated and dehydrated”. It must have been bad, because you don’t get a dedicated racecar driver like Stewart out of his seat easily. Yeley actually did a decent job after jumping in the car for his former team. Unfortunately, he ended up collected in the late-race wreck fest.

Speaking of points, Stewart got credit for the Yeley finish of 20th and dropped to 12th in the points standings as a result. He is only two points ahead of Kevin Harvick in the race for the final Chase spot. Big winner of the week was Matt Kenseth, whose third-place finish jumped him from 13th to 9th in the points. He can’t get too comfortable though, as positions 8 through 13 are separated by 34 points. Also, Jeff Burton wrecked and had his first bad finish in a long time, so Earnhardt Jr. was able to leapfrog him to 2nd in points, 182 behind Busch.

Kyle Busch needs to stop that ridiculous bowing he does after every win while all the fans are booing him. It might have been funny the first time, now he just looks stupid every time he does it.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Martin doing his best Brett Favre impression

Remember a few years ago when Mark Martin said he was tired of the Cup grind, wanted to spend more time with his family and would move on to racing in the Truck Series.

If case you didn’t notice, that plan didn’t quite work out. Martin has spent the last couple years doing part-time schedules for Ginn Racing/DEI, and announced Friday that he will do one more full-time season in 2009 -- this time driving the #5 car for Rick Hendrick, replacing Casey Mears. In addition, he’ll do another part-time Cup schedule in 2010, splitting time with a yet-to-be-named driver in the same car.

According to Martin, he wants one more run at the title. I respect Martin, but he’s beginning to sound as believable as Larry Brown, or Brett Favre, or Michael Jordan. Martin held an official “farewell tour” in 2005, then Jack Roush convinced him to come back in 2006 for one more year. Now his retirement from Cup won’t happen until at least 2010.

It’s petty clear that Martin is like a junkie when it comes to racing. He can’t give it up. Don’t be surprised if Martin comes back in 2010 and says he’s going to another team to make “one more” full-time shot at the title.

Don’t get me wrong … I understand Martin’s frustrations. He came close to winning a title four times, yet never took the trophy. I don’t begrudge him for wanted to achieve that feat.

But even he has to know that’s highly unlikely in the #5 car. Casey Mears is a pretty talented driver, and he’s been doing terrible in that #5 car this year. With teammates like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin’s #5 will basically be serving as the team’s R&D car, so there’s little to no hope of a title.

At least Martin isn’t as bad as Brett Favre, who sobbed like a baby at his “retirement” press conference, but now wants to play again.

I respect Martin as a driver and he is a stand-up guy, but this endless retirement process is pretty silly.
At this point, I’m wondering why he ever stopped driving full-time in the first place.


Embarrassment for DEI, Truex

The other big news heading into Saturday’s race at Daytona is that Martin Truex Jr’s car didn’t fit NASCAR’s roof templates during tech inspection, so the car was confiscated and Truex had to go to a backup car, with possible fines and penalties to follow. As a result, he didn’t get any practice laps in during the first session, and the second session was wiped out by rain, so now he has no clue how his car will run on Saturday night.

Way to go, DEI. This team is self-destructing more rapidly than the Titanic (I’ll have more on that next week). Truex was clearly not happy with the team after this happened, and now is almost guaranteed to move on after this season. It was already suspected, but this might be the last straw. A team at the highest level of NASCAR should not have these problems. I see him ending up as the driver of the fourth Richard Childress team, and the way DEI is going I feel bad for whoever replaces Truex.

Fan appreciation not Stewart’s strong point
Tony Stewart got upset this week with all the people, including myself, who questioned his crew chief Greg Zipadelli’s decision to take tires on the final stop at New Hampshire, which cost him several positions.
Among his quotes, Stewart said: “You see all of this criticism from people and it's people who can't even control their own lives and they want to sit here and tell us how to run race teams on the weekend.” He went on to say, “If they were that smart, they would be crew chiefs, and obviously they're not that smart listening to the criticism.”

Nice to see that Stewart thinks so highly of his fans that he‘s basically calling them stupid. How does he know how well his fans can control their lives? Normally I defend Tony’s rants, but this one is unnecessary. Fans and journalists have every right to question the decisions you and your team make on the track, Tony. Don’t take it personal. In fact, you should be happy they are interested in you at all. Don’t get upset until they stop caring how you finish.

Good move for Moss
NFL star Randy Moss made a smart move this week by deciding not to go it alone with a new Truck Series team, and instead purchased 50 percent of the Morgan-Dollar Motorsports Craftsman Truck Series team. While not one of the very best teams in the series, it has been around a while and certainly stands a better chance of success than he would have had if he was all on his own.

There was almost no practice, but that’s not a big deal because practice and qualifying speeds both mean very little at the restrictor plate tracks. This is a risky week for fantasy players, as any driver -- even the best car on the track -- can get caught up in The Big One. It’s best to pick people who will likely be running in the very front all or most of the day, as The Big One usually happens mid-pack. Just look to the past and it’s easy to see who’s good at Daytona.

The no-brainer choice is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has taken to Daytona just as well as his father. He’s guaranteed a good finish if he doesn’t wreck. I’m picking Tony Stewart to win, as he’s always strong in the July race, with Jeff Gordon right behind. A good dark horse option is Michael Waltrip, who was great here with DEI and still has restrictor plate ability. He finished second last week at Loudon, and may be pumped up enough to pull out a shocking win at his best track. Other possible contenders are the Penske cars of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch -- who were 1-2 in February -- but they’ve been shaky ever since so I don’t foresee a repeat of that outcome.


Last, but not least, happy birthday America. I hope everyone has a great weekend with family and friends, and the Firecracker 400.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Franchitti's fall shows talent is often not enough

Racing can be a humbling sport, and Dario Franchitti’s experience this year in NASCAR is the ultimate example.

Just last fall, less than one year ago, Franchitti won the Indy Racing League championship on the very last lap of the last race of the season. Shortly after claiming the title, the Indy 500 winner began his switch over to NASCAR to race in Cup for Chip Ganassi, where he would be driving the #40 car and be teammates with fellow open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

No one ever doubted Franchitti’s talent, but the question looming was how he would adjust to stock cars, which are a whole different breed of racing than Indycars. Also, a full-time sponsor never stepped up for the #40, raising concerns.

Now, 10 months after celebrating his IRL title, Franchitti experienced the opposite of the emotional spectrum Tuesday -- the embarrassment of seeing his entire team shut down, due to lack of results and lack of sponsorship.
“If I keep going, I run the risk of dragging the other two teams down. I don’t want to do that,” Ganassi told the Associated Press. “There’s no money. It makes no sense to be running this out of my pocket. I had to put a stop to it.”

The impact goes far beyond Franchitti’s ego. The entire No. 40 team was shut down, which resulted in 71 layoffs, the AP reported.
While it must help to have a lovely wife like Ashley Judd by his side to console him, Dario must be stinging after this announcement.

Franchitti has failed to qualify for races this season (not to mention the ones he missed after being injured in a Nationwide wreck), has only qualified in the top 20 twice all year, and has not finished any better than 22nd. Even on the rare occasions he was running strong, like this past weekend at Loudon, he ended up wrecking.

Why did it happen?

How does a driver who is clearly talented fail so miserably?

The simple answer is he was rushed into the Cup series. Franchitti only ran four Busch Series races last fall in preparation for this year’s Cup season, and it’s obvious now that he needed longer to adjust to stock cars and his learning curve wasn’t as quick as Ganassi might have hoped.

Also, going into a season without any primary sponsor guaranteed for the year is always risky. Less sponsorship means less money, which means often-subpar equipment.

It’s similar to what happened with Jacque Villeneuve, a former Formula 1 world champion whose dreams of NASCAR success didn’t pan out this year either. Villeneuve may be (and certainly was in his prime) a better race car driver than all 43 who will race this Saturday at Daytona. But he was driving an unsponsored Bill Davis car... translation: junk. I didn’t expect him to make the race at Daytona, and was not surprised when his trip to NASCAR-land ended abruptly.

And I’m not surprised by Franchitti’s downfall either. Juan Pablo Montoya is really the only open-wheeler who has taken well to the stock car switch, and even he is struggling this year. It’s a testament to how hard it really is to succeed in NASCAR, no matter what some elitist open-wheelers who look down on the sport may say.

Where does he go from here?

With sponsorship unlikely to come now that the team is shut down, Dario basically has three choices. He could wait for another Cup ride to open and wait for an offer, but that would be silly because the new team would likely be just as poorly funded and the results would be the same.

He could drive for Ganassi in the Nationwide car for the rest of the year, and that’s probably his best option if he wants to stick around NASCAR for a while. He can finally get the experience he never got prior to the start of this season. If he had done strictly Nationwide this season, with maybe a few Cup races sprinkled in, and then a full Cup season in 2010, maybe he wouldn’t be in his current predicament. If he can find a groove and get some good results in Nationwide races this year, maybe a sponsor will come along and he can return to Cup in 2010.

Third, he could go back to Indycar. The reigning champ would be welcome back with open arms, and he could probably snag a ride with a pretty good team. Problem is it’s already late in the season, so if he does give up on stock cars, he’d be smart to wait a few months and see who loses their ride at the end of the season. That way, he could be a chooser. Going in mid-season makes him a beggar.

Will Dario ever become a force in Cup? I hope so. I really like the guy, as he’s got a lot of personality and he’d be a great permanent addition to the garage … as would his wife, of course. But he’s going to have to take his time and find out whether he’s really cut out for stock cars.

I don’t doubt his talent, as he’s shown he can certainly succeed in Indycar ... but some guys are stock car drivers and some aren’t. Franchitti needs to figure out which group he falls in and go from there.

NFL’s Randy Moss won’t have easy road with new Truck team

Randy Moss is a superstar by any definition. He’s thrilled fans with his performances on the football field, and offended many at the same time with his antics through the years.

But now he’s taking on a whole new challenge … owning a team in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series. He’s not the first person from the ‘big 4 sports’ to venture into the racing world as an entrepreneur, but history has shown his chance of success is slim.

Randy Moss Motorsports will reportedly make its debut July 19 in the truck race at Kentucky Speedway. Rumor is he’s lining up a big-time Cup start to drive for him.

Even if he can round up a great driver, history has not been kind to past teams owned by sports starts. Former NFL stars Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach brought the 96 car to the Cup series several years ago, had little success and have since sold majority interest in the team to Jeff Moorad, an owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. Despite a partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing, the 96 car has done even worse under Moorad’s leadership.

In the past, others have tried owning a NASCAR team -- including NBA great “Dr. J” Julius Erving, ex-NFLer Joe Washington, ex-Cleveland Cavalier Brad Daugherty (now an announcer, and rumored to be considering a return to team ownership), and even track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee. All of those experiments ended in failure, too.

The exception to the rule are the ones who come in with big-time bucks into existing teams. In 2007, Fenway Sports Group made an investment in Roush Racing, which was renamed Roush Fenway Racing and has continued its success in all three NASCAR series. But that was a team that already did well, so it’s hard to compare to a startup team.

Another success story is Gillett-Evernham Motorsports. Ray Evernham’s team got a jolt in the form of an investment from Montreal Canadiens team owner George Gillett, and there has been evidence that the investment has helped. Kahne ended a cold streak when he got hot during the Charlotte Speedweeks earlier this year, and is currently in the Chase as he sits in 10th place. Elliot Sadler is running better this year, though he has terrible luck.

I wish Moss luck in his new venture … he’s going to need it. Succeeding in NASCAR, even in the Truck series, is very difficult and his learning curve is likely to be sharp. He needs to surround himself with talented people who know the business or he is doomed to repeat the failures of the past sports stars who have ventured into NASCAR entrepreneurship.