Saturday, December 5, 2009

On crashing at the banquet

Just a quick thought about something I read on SceneDaily.com by my friend Bob Pockrass...

Now, I didn't watch the banquet from Las Vegas but apparently during the NASCAR Images video highlight package they included footage of on-track crashes for the first time in nine years.

Here is what NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston had to say about it:

“We want to tell the story of bumping and banging,” Poston said. “There are moments in races throughout the season where crashes and wrecks are a key part of the story line. … There’s a balance you’ve got to take to make sure you’re not glorifying dangerous situations.”


Here is my take: the reason why NASCAR has fallen off the radar with most people is because it doesn't glorify the danger. All we hear about is the safety features of the new car, the new SAFER barriers, the new and improved safer catch fencing, and on and on. All of those things are all very good and the sport is better for having them. But for the general public, they want to see racecar drivers defying logic, sanity, and yes even death by driving on the absolute outer edge of control at breakneck speeds through dangerous situations to win races.

NASCAR needs to let the world know that in the X-Games world, its drivers are the most extreme athletes out there. Yes, danger is around every corner but it doesn't matter to men like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon.

Crashing is a part of the game. Some of them are accidents. Some are on purpose. All serve a purpose. Do real race fans watch *just* for the crashes? We all know the answer is no. But there is no need to disguise the fact that they happen and they add excitement to the sport.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Rick Ren's KHI departure, getting drivers back in touch with the public, and good equipment

A few things I wonder as the off-season starts to settle in...

-Does the departure of Rick Ren from Kevin Harvick, Inc. have anything to do with the team owner's conversation with the crew chief and driver Ron Hornaday following the race at New Hampshire? Remember, Harvick was incensed that his employee raced him hard for position at the end of that race, believing that he could have challenged Kyle Busch for the win if he could have gotten past Hornaday. I can't help but think that Ren realized that mindset wouldn't change ; afterall it's the same circumstance that prevented Hornaday from being a three-time consecutive champion when KHI's Ryan Newman passed Hornaday on the final lap at Atlanta taking 10 valuable points away and giving the championship to Johnny Benson by just eight points.

-I've listened to Sirius NASCAR Radio a lot throughout the year and one of the most popular topics among members of the media that are guests on the various shows is what needs to be done to show the drivers' personalities to the fans. The theory is that NASCAR got popular back in the 1970s and 1980s on the backs of drivers that exhibited their personality week-in and week-out, so the same thing could happen today. While I have no doubt that the drivers would benefit from showing their true selves more often, it's not a true apples-to-apples comparison. It's nice to know that Jimmie Johnson grew up in a trailer park in El Cajon, but at this point, what does he have in common with Joe Sixpack who saves all year to buy tickets to the closest NASCAR race? Thats' what made the sport what it is: drivers who were very much like the people who sat in the grandstands. You could sit there and think of Bobby Allison as your nextdoor neighbor. Even Dale Earnhardt was seen as an everyman. I am sure motorcoaches have made the lives of NASCAR drivers much easier, but the motorcoach lot is the worst thing to happen to the sport. It insulates the drivers from the general public and keeps them away from the people paying the freight. If the drivers aren't on the track or debriefing with the team in the transporter, they are in their bus. In reality, they should be out signing autographs or mingling with the people who make that motorcoach possible.

-Speaking of Sirius, I heard Chocolate Myers say RCR's new ARCA driver Tim George would finally get a chance to prove himself as he will have his first opportunity to drive good equipment in 2010. No doubt RCR will field great racecars, but George had access to good cars in 2009 too. He drove for Eddie Sharp in '09, the same team that fielded cars for series champion Justin Lofton. The cars George drove for much of the season were previously driven by Michael McDowell and Scott Speed, both multiple winners in their brief ARCA careers. I'd say George had pretty good stuff in 2009 too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On "the feud", the resurgence of RCR, Hornaday's fourth, and the end of the streak

The recent flare-up in hostilities between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski breathed some excitement into what was an otherwise bland end of the 2009 season. Hamlin's frustrations with Keselowski were well noted by the media. Afterall, Keselowski had caused Hamlin to spin and/or crash at least four times over the last year and a half. Members of the media have gone to other drivers asking them to weigh on on the antics, and most have sided with Hamlin - including the so-called Mayor of the NCSC garage area Jeff Burton. But not one member of the media asked any of the drivers to analyze what started the feud, when Hamlin sideswiped Keselowski at Charlotte in 2008 after being raced "too hard."

Burton was quoted in the AP's recap of an incident between Tony Stewart and Juan Montoya:

Veteran driver Jeff Burton said stock car racing could do without the trash talking.

"What this sport needs is good racing. It doesn't need running that mouth," he said. "I think running that mouth is not what it's all about. Good hard racing is what fans want to see."

Good, hard racing? Isn't that what Hamlin was upset about in that Nationwide race back in 2008? If memory serves, Keselowski never made contact with Hamlin that night; he just raced him hard for a position in the top five. When the caution waved and the field slowed, Hamlin drove up and sideswiped Keselowski and ruined the aerodynamics on the nose of Keselowski's car. Is it possible that Hamlin made a career-long enemy in Keselowski that night?

When that incident took place last season, Keselowski was still proving himself on the racetrack. Racing at the front in a Nationwide race with the Cup drivers shouldn't afford you any less respect simply because you are a Nationwide-only driver. If Hamlin didn't want to be raced hard by a Nationwide-only driver with limited experience, he shouldn't have been in the race to begin with. As hard to believe as it may be for some of the Cup guys, there are drivers in the Nationwide Series that are just as capable at running up front as the Cup guys are, and just as aggressive.

It's understandable that Hamlin is tired of getting wrecked. But it's also understandable that Keselowski is never going to give Hamlin an inch on the racetrack. If Hamlin is waiting for Keselowski to come over and apologize for what's gone on over the course of the past 18 months, maybe he should be the one to man up and apologize first for starting the feud in the first place.

Hamlin exacted his revenge on the track on Saturday, spinning Keselowski down the frontstretch and going on to win the Sprint Cup finale the next day.

Personally, I hope the apology doesn't come from either sides. In an era when most of the personalities in the sport are plain vanilla, it's nice to see some open dislike among the residents of the motorhome lot.

*Speaking of Burton, it was nice to see the No. 31 car running near the front again at the end of the race on Sunday. It's been a long season for the RCR organization, but the final month of the year saw some signs of life from the Nos. 29 and 31. A productive off-season could calm the waters with Kevin Harvick, who has made it known he'd like to leave RCR as soon as possible.

* Congratulations to Ron Hornaday at KHI on their second Camping World Truck Series title in three years, and Hornaday's fourth overall. Hornaday was consistently the man to beat all season long, although other teams did show they could match his speed throughout the course of the year. The new pit road rules, which are thankfully on the way out for 2010, continually jumbled the standings every time there was a round of pit stops and arguably cost several teams - including Matt crafton's - a chance at winning more than once throughout the year.

* One of the biggest disappointments of the season has to be the end of the "IronMan" streak for Terry Cook. Ironically Cook's streak ended where it began, at Homestead. Cook started his streak in the season opener in 1998 and he had started 295 consecutive races before being released by the HT Motorsports team after the Texas race. Cook was able to find a start-and-park ride for the Phoenix race to make it to 296, but that team withdrew from the Homestead race and the streak ground to a halt. When Rick Crawford's streak ended in 2005, SPEED made plenty of mention of the fact. Cook barely received mention on the broadcast, which is a real shame.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On fixing the racing at Daytona and Talladega with a history lesson

It's now mid-week, four days since the checkered flag waved over the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Internet message boards are still buzzing with armchair analysis of "what went wrong" on Sunday and paid journalists and bloggers alike are offering up their opinions on how to fix the racing at Talladega.

One writer for a major national media outlet said NASCAR promoting 58 lead changes among 26 drivers is like a used car salesman spit-shining a jalopy. Others have said they would rather have watched traffic on the nearest interstate for a few hours. The fans on the message boards are wondering where the excitement went, since they have been lulled into thinking that every race at Talladega is going to feature 14 rows of three running inches away from each other for 188 laps.

Was there anything wrong with Sunday's race? Or are we in an era where our expectations outweigh reality?

Maybe the people writing about our sport need to have some historical perspective.

Not every race at Daytona or Talladega has featured the pack racing we've seen since many of them discovered the sport in the days following Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001. In fact, in the 1980s these events were usually run single file with several groups of cars spread out around the track running in drafting packs. According to many of our prominent journalists today, the 1983 Daytona 500 would have been a boring race. Never mind that Cale Yarbourough passed on the final lap for the win and there was a three-wide photo finish for second.

That's exactly the kind of racing we need to get back to now.

NASCAR has made today's cars and trucks so stable on the superspeedways that it's almost impossible to lose the draft. Huge spoilers and wings punch an artificially large hole in the air to ensure that everyone stays in one large group. Keeping your car handling well isn't an issue either because the setup you're running is mandated by NASCAR too - they give your your shocks and mandate the springs you run. Of course the horsepower is limited and no one has an advantage there. So it's no wonder everyone is running in one big group. It was only a matter of time until the drivers figured out that it makes sense to ride around patiently for 450 miles and then race hard for the final 50.

If NASCAR wants to truly fix the events at its biggest speedways, it needs to allow the teams to step outside of the box and run setups of their choosing. It needs to take all of the downforce out of the cars and allow the teams to lay their spoilers or wings as flat as their driver can bear it.

In 1984, Dale Earnhardt won at Talladega in a race that featured nearly 70 lead changes. The cars were boxy, the small spoilers on the back were laid nearly flat and the speeds were right at 200 miles per hour. The drivers could slingshot past one another because they didn't have to run flat-out to stay in the draft - they had some throttle in reserve. The driver running in second could get a run on the leader, put the pedal to the metal and go blasting past to take the lead. But that then put him in position to be a sitting duck because the guy now running in second could do the same thing.

NASCAR replicated this style of racing when the Truck Series raced at Daytona for the first time in 2000. The slingshot was back and the race was spectacular. But the Geoff Bodine flip - not caused by aerodynamics, by the way - put a damper on that real quick. When the series returned the next year NASCAR started tinkering with the rules for that series and eventually made the racing identical to what we see in the Cup Series.

What you didn't want to do back then - at all - was touch anyone else. The cars were loose. Very loose. Even down the straightaways they were on the edge of control. Drivers would routinely lose control by themselves at Daytona and Talladega, something that hasn't happened in nearly a decade since NASCAR mandated huge spoilers standing up nearly vertically to plant the back of the cars to the track.

Was it boring watching six cars run together a third of a lap ahead of the next pack of ten cars? No way. Why? Because at any instant, someone could slingshot and they often did. Or, someone could lose it. And they often did. It was unpredictable. And it was being done in cars that looked exactly like you would find in your driveway.

NASCAR's current philosophy that racecars should all look alike and be the same under their skin goes against everything that the sanctioning body stood for during it's first 50 years of existence. (It's also the cause for a large portion of the audience tuning out, but that's an entirely different subject.) You don't need 43 identical cars to put on a great show for the fans.

One only needs to look at the results from the very first restrictor plate race at Daytona in 1988.


Bobby Allison won by a car length in a Buick over his son Davey Allison in a Ford. Third was Phil Parsons in an Oldsmobile, Neil Bonnett was fourth in a Pontiac, and Terry Labonte was fifth in a Chevrolet. Five makes of cars running five distinctively different body styles - all of which looked identical to their street versions with the exception of air dams dropped from the front bumper and spoilers on the decklid - finishing in the top five in the biggest race of the year, all within a second of each other at the end. Imagine that!

Bobby Allison's race-winning Buick at the 1988 Daytona 500Second-place finisher in the 1988 Daytona 500 Davey Allison in his 1988 Ford Thunderbird at Riverside International Raceway

Third-place finisher in the 1988 Daytona 500 Phil Parsons enroute to victory at Talladega in his 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass

Neil Bonnett's 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix at Riverside

Terry Labonte's 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Riverside

Here's how to fix Daytona and Talladega (and much of the rest of the races on the schedule too):

- Get back to stock appearing bodies. The common body is a failure on the racetrack. The safety features of the CoT can stay, but put the chassis underneath bodies that match the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Fusion, Dodge Charger, and Toyota Camry that we can go and buy. Do what the teams in the 1980s did - add an air dam to the front and a spoiler to the back and go race. No widening the front fenders or twisting up the bodies to maximize aerodynamics in yaw. Downforce is the enemy of good racing.

- Develop smaller engines. Every manufacturer has come out with a brand new 358 cubic inch V-8 within the last four years, despite speeds getting out of control at many racetracks. Why not spend that money developing a smaller engine that would allow teams to run unrestricted at Daytona and Talladega at 180-190 miles per hour. Robert Yates has been a proponent of this since NASCAR announced restrictor plates were going to be used way back in 1988. How much money would it cost to develop a new engine? It's probably a lot, but it's probably a very small fraction of what the industry has spent researching, developing and building restrictor plate engines for four races a year. That's not to mention the cost of throwing away the hundreds (if not thousands) of destroyed racecars in the restrictor plate era.

- Allow the teams to lay the spoiler as flat as the driver's rear end can stand it.

- Allow the teams to run their own setup. Shocks, springs, spoiler angles, rear end gears, transmission ratios - everything.

You'd see single file racing, but it would be white-knuckle, all-out racing. When there was double-file racing (or even three-wide racing) it would mean something. It would be hair-raising. It would be exciting. It would be exactly what NASCAR's fans are begging for.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On media buzzwords, aggressive driving zones, keeping cars on the ground, and Martin's first flip

The buzz word among the NASCAR media throughout the 2009 season has been safety. You can't read anyone's work without seeing those six letters repeated over and over. Every time there is an accident some writer must make the now-inevitable comment that the car formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow is much safer than its predecessor and that the driver(s) involved would surely be seriously injured - or much worse - in the previous generation racecar.

Once again racing at Talladega generated a couple of spectacular accidents. And once more, every serious NASCAR journalist offers their opinion that Ryan Newman and Mark Martin would surely be injured if their trip to upside-down world happened in the old style car.

Please.

Sure, the new car does a good job protecting the drivers. But to say the drivers involved would have been seriously injured in the old-style car is just plain wrong. Any cursory search of YouTube with "Talladega crash" will show you dozens of instances of cars getting upside down at the 2.66-mile monster and the driver popping out uninjured. From Ken Schrader's wicked tumble down the backstretch in 1995 to Ricky Craven's ride up the turn one banking and into the catch fence to Elliott Sadler's twin tumbles in 2004 and 2005, the old car proved plenty safe.

The real heroes aren't the designers of the CoT; rather they are the people who worked behind the scenes and developed the HANS device and the SAFER barrier.

- So NASCAR has made the entire track at Talladega an "aggressive driving zone". Isn't that what racing is, aggressive driving? Again, the buzzword "safety" pops up and further neuters the sport. I know NASCAR thinks what it's doing is in the best interest of the sport, but in reality it's the exact opposite.

NASCAR and the drivers need to wake up and realize that stock car racing (and any form of motorsport) is an inherently dangerous activity. If the drivers are complaining to the sanctioning body about aggressive bump drafting being too dangerous, well, maybe it's time for those drivers to take the multiple millions of dollars they have earned and retire to the safety of their Lake Norman mansions.

Racing cars should be about the bravest of the brave driving so deep into the corner he doesn't know if he'll make it out the other side. If Jeff Gordon doesn't want to bump draft, he can control it by not doing it. And if he doesn't want someone to bump him from behind, he can run at the back of the pack all day. NASCAR doesn't need to police what goes on on the track any more that it already does - and even that is too much with the ridiculous yellow line rule.

Let the drivers race, and let those that don't want to find some other way to spend their weekends.

- What can NASCAR do to prevent cars from getting airborne at Daytona and Talladega? It's simple. Leave them in the garage. How many millions of dollars have been spent in researching this perceived problem? It's impossible to guess. It will never be solved, either. Whether it's due to aerodynamics (Ryan Newman) or car-to-car contact (Mark Martin) cars will turn over from time to time.

- Some journalist reported on Monday that Mark Martin's flip at Talladega was the first time in his career he's been upside down. Wrong. Martin ended up on his lid in the inaugural Cup race at Sears Point in 1989. Martin lost a tire and spun into the tire barrier in turn 1, which kicked the car up and gently rolled it onto its roof. Martin has never been on his head at Daytona or Talladega before Sunday, but came close when he stood his Ford on it's nose in a wild ride down the backstretch at Talladega in May 1991.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On not all illeglal engines being the same, aggressive driving, closing the deal, and the jinx of the fill-in PR rep

It wasn't long ago that Carl Long was penalized $200,000 for an engine violation during the All-Star race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Long was driving a car with a third-hand engine that was destined to run at the back of the pack before the engine mercifully blew apart. NASCAR took that engine for some reason, and discovered it was seventeen-hundredths of an inch over the 358 cubic inch limit. "Illegal is illegal" was the NASCAR stance and Long was hit with the biggest penalty in NASCAR history.

Fast forward five months.

Roush Fenway Racing violated the NASCAR sealed engine rule.

The engine in question won the Nationwide race at Darlington in May, then was sealed to be used again at a later date. Since the engine won a race, after its second race it was to be torn down and inspected according to NASCAR rules. However, before it could be looked over by officials it was torn apart and rebuilt.

Team officials and NASCAR agreed that a clerical error led to the engine being disassembled prior to being inspected. Team officials did not appeal NASCAR's $30,000 fine or 100 point penalties to driver Matt Kenseth or owner Jack Roush.

While it's unlikely the engine was illegal, no one will ever know. A team with unlimited resources is tagged with a $30,000 fine, where the guy scraping along and rolling coins found in the couch cushions to race is pegged for $200 large.

That doesn't seem like a level playing field to me.

-Brad Keselowski didn't do himself any favors with his aggressive nature in winning at Memphis, but kudos go to Mike Bliss and Carl Edwards for their reactions to racing with Kes. Neither whined about the contact, but they simply said they would file it away and remember that the next time they were racing Brad with something on the line. There's nothing wrong with the bump-and-run, as long as you don't complain when it comes back at you. Somehow I have the feeling Brad won't be whining when Carl repays him somewhere down the road.

-Speaking of Keselowski, how cool is it that he won at Memphis? It wasn't all that long ago that Brad had the opportunity of a lifetime - subbing for Ted Musgrave, who was suspended for one race by NASCAR - at, of all places, Memphis Motorsports Park. Brad won the pole, led 62 laps that night, and was in the lead with a handful of laps to go when he was hit from behind and spun out of the lead. He ended up 16th that day back in 2007, but it put him on the radar screen and opened the door for the opportunities that followed.

-Congrats to Timothy Peters on picking up his first career Camping World Truck Series win at Martinsville. Tim's win should give hope to every short tracker out there with visions of making the big time and winning. It's harder than ever, but it can still be done. I had a chance to talk to Tim for a few moments at Iowa while I was on my three-race tour of duty with the HT Motorsports team and he said he drives to the shop from his home in Virginia every day. That's about two hours there, and two hours home. He does it so his guys know how much he wants it. Some (like me!) might think he's crazy, but there is no questioning Tim's commitment to be a winner and it finally paid off.

-Congrats to the HT Motorsports team for finally getting back into the top ten, as David Starr finished eighth and Terry Cook was tenth. I guess we know where the recent bad luck came from since it mysteriously ended when the fill-in PR guy returns to the couch!

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Charlotte attendance and Hall of Fame induction process

Just a couple of thoughts from last weekend's events at Lowe's Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Hall of Fame announcement...

- Following the recent Fontana weekend, some in the Charlotte media called for the Auto Club Speedway to lose one of its two Sprint Cup races because of all of the empty seats during the Pepsi 500. What's fair is fair. There were many more empties at LMS over the weekend than there at Fontana. So where is the call from that same media outlet that LMS should lose a date? Charlotte has three Sprint Cup weekends and it only approaches capacity on one of them. I would argue that Charlotte doesn't support NASCAR and it should lose one of its dates. One of the best lines I've heard about attendance at Charlotte: "There are blue seats there in turn four that have been there for over ten years now and have never had a butt in them."

- The recent announcement of the first class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame brought no real surprises. However, there is no shortage of debate on who should and shouldn't have been in. One thing is obvious: five inductees per year is not enough. The sport has sixty-plus years of history. There is no way you can do justice to the founding fathers of our sport with just five inductees per year. The voting criteria should allow for the following: the top five in the voting plus any other nominee that receives at least 80 percent of the vote. Surely names like Pearson, Allison, and Yarbourough should be included in that first class, yet they were left out because of the five inductee limit. I'd also like to see the people voting for the Hall of Fame actually have some sort of historical reference for their vote. There are undoubtedly people with votes that never saw Richard Petty race (even on television), and that's a shame.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On phantom cautions ruining the integrity of the sport

It's the fourth quarter. It's quickly approaching the two-minute warning. Pittsburgh, chasing their seventh Super Bowl title, leads 42-17 over the resurgent Redskins who are looking to pick up the Lombardi trophy for the first time since Joe Gibbs was coach. The ball is Washington's, and they've just moved into field goal range with four fresh downs and two timeouts left. Just as the clock ticks to 2:00, the referee cues his mic on the field: "scorekeeper, please adjust the score for Washington to 39 points."

How many football fans would erupt over the notion? How many would chose not to watch if the NFL blatantly evened the score to give the audience a better show?

The answer is that the NFL audience would be incensed and a very large and significant portion of them would easily find something else to do with their Sunday afternoons.

Manipulating competition is what the WWE does. Sure, professional wrestlers use many athletic moves and must be in tip-top shape (and often use performance enhancing drugs to get into that shape), but their events are orchestrated and scripted. Therefore, true sports fans who watch to see who wins and who loses in a true competitive format don't generally watch professional wrestling.

NASCAR might not script races the way WWE does wrestling matches, but they are closer than ever before. In fact, they are manipulating the competition through the nefarious "debris caution".

There are many problems in NASCAR right now, many that will take a generation of new drivers to fix, but the debris caution is something that can be fixed immediately. But it will take a fresh new attitude by the officials in the tower to make it happen.

The thought is they are giving the fans a better show by bunching up the cars. The reality is they are impacting the competition and driving fans away. Do they want the same audience that the WWE has? Or do they want the once fiercely loyal audience that made the sport a powerhouse back in the 1990s?

When the tower calls for a caution, there needs to be an actual reason for it. Jimmie Johnson leading by seven seconds is not a good reason for the caution flag. Sports fans know that sometimes you get a great game from start to finish, sometimes a boring game gets good at the end, and sometimes it's a blowout from the opening kickoff. The same thing should happen in NASCAR - except for the fact that the powers that be insist on trying to manipulate the competition to ensure every race is a classic.

Johnson did hold on to win after a couple of late twists in the Pepsi 500 - not to mention a huge wreck that never would have happened if not for a phantom caution. One has to wonder what officials like David Hoots and John Darby think about the Indy Car race at Homestead, which went green-to-checkered caution free. Dario Franchitti averaged over 200 miles per hour to win, and he did it through pit strategy by savig fuel to make one less stop than Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon. Imagine that! A race where drivers had to adjust they way they drove based upon actual strategy!

Quit with the phantom yellows. Ensure every call an official makes - whether it's a loose lug nut, too many men over the wall, or debris on track - is backed up by actual verifiable proof. Otherwise, all NASCAR is doing is evening the score. We wouldn't accept it from the NFL, NBA, or MLB, so why should we accept it from NASCAR?

Monday, October 5, 2009

On being almost illegal and over-managed competition

What is all this talk about cars nearly failing inspection? If you pass, you pass. Now, NASCAR is warning teams the tolerances are too close? Is this really where we are going? Soon you will have cars confiscated for being "too close". Inspection has changed greatly since the 1990s; it used to be in a team presented a car from inspection prior to practice and there was a slight infraction with a measurement the team could work on it and fix it. Now the team faces losing the car and a huge monetary fine. NASCAR has now determined if you present a car for pre-practice inspection illegal, no matter what the infraction may be, that's how you intended to race it and therefore they can penalize you. If you're illegal before the race, go ahead and fix it and make the inspectors happy. If you're illegal after the race, then you should be disqualified. None of this keeping your position and then being fined points and money. You should be removed from the results altogether! The never-ending quest for a level playing field has brought us down a road with cars that are all exactly alike and tolerances that are smaller than the thickness of a dime. Maybe a return to common sense is due here: get back to cars (and trucks) that resemble their actual street counterpart. Running real stock cars (in a racing sense, not in an actual street car sense) again instead of cars that resemble a boxier version of a dirt late model will eliminate much of the fudging teams try on the bodies. And we wouldn't have to hear about cars being *almost* illegal.

What's with NASCAR feeling the need to micromanage every aspect of the competition? In addition to the ridiculous warning to Hendrick Motorsports that their cars are *almost* illegal, the powers that be in the tower feel the need to warn drivers about how they are driving on the track too. Warning Brad Keselowski about his driving after a brush with Juan Montoya is seriously laughable. What's even better is it is being done from afar by people who have never been in a racecar. How about letting the drivers actually get out there and race? If there is an incident, let the drivers figure it out. If it means on-track retaliation, so be it. Drivers have a wonderful way of remembering incidents and policing themselves. And guess what? That usually gives ticket buyers a little extra action too. Now that NASCAR has invented a racecar that doesn't spin out (at least according to Darrell Waltrip) maybe they are trying to ensure that drivers never, ever make contact therefore eliminating all accidents? There are 12 drivers going after a championship. There are 31 that aren't. Maybe the 12 that are need to watch themselves around the 31 that aren't. Afterall, they are the ones with the most to lose, right? Keselowski is doing what is best for him, that's going after wins. No one should be getting in his ear and distracting him from doing that, especially from the tower. NASCAR officials should be there to enforce the rules, not manage the competition.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On ThorSport, Johnny Benson, Logano's flip, and a little irony

Johnny Sauter dominated the Truck race out in Las Vegas on Saturday. After how well that truck has performed recently - read that as after the addition of Joe Shear, Jr. as crew chief - it shouldn't come as a big surprise. Yet there are still people who are surprised that a team based in Ohio with no real connection to a Cup program can win. They shouldn't be. ThorSport has assembled all of the pieces needed to be a championship contender: they have great trucks, great people, great sponsorship programs, and an owner that refuses to quit. Throughout the years numerous people have told Duke Thorson he couldn't win based in Ohio, and that had only strengthened his resolve. Now he has two teams among the top five in the series standings, and if not for a slow start by Sauter's team he could have two in the top three. No one has scored more points than Sauter in the last six races, and that's exactly why Ray Dunlap predicted early in the year that he would be the champion. He missed the mark a little but not by much. The economics of the series continue to change, but ThorSport remains on very solid ground. Look for Sauter and Crafton to figure very heavily in the 2010 championship battle.

I don't think I want to see him retire from driving quite yet, but as soon as Johnny Benson, Jr. calls it a career behind the wheel SPEED needs to hire him to be the permanent third voice in the NCWTS booth. He did a fantastic job during the three races he worked and the entire series will benefit from having someone with his experience and professionalism handling color analyst duties.

As should be predicted any time there is a significant crash with the "COT", there are columnists and fans alike lighting up blogs and message boards everywhere saying how Joey Logano would most certainly be dead if not for the safety features built into the new car. Yes, Logano's wreck was spectacular and the car did what it was designed to do. But again, must I point out the thousands of crashes in the "old" car in which drivers hopped out and walked away from? It's like every crash in that old car left drivers hobbled or dead, and that's simply not the case. The old car was plenty safe. There are hundreds of clips on YouTube of crashes involving the "old" car - and most of them resulted in no injuries at all. The "COT" was directly responsible for this particular crash too because Tony Stewart couldn't see through Logano's car to know that Bobby Labonte was coming down the track forcing Logano to get off the gas ever so slightly. Spotters are great but no spotter in the world can see something happen in a split second and relay that on to the driver. Drivers should be able to see what's happening in front of them, and that's something that needs to be worked out with the new car.

Anyone else think it was ironic that in the City of Lights the start of the race was delayed because a bank of lights went out?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Harvick v. Hornaday, Harvick v. Crafton, Johnny Sauter, and nuclear engineers

My three week run as PR rep for HT Motorsports has come to an end. Congrats to Lori and Danny Rollins on the birth of their son Brody! I had a blast with the team during my short tenure, and it was fun to get to see the new Iowa track and visit old friends in St. Louis and New Hampshire. I only wish the team had a little better luck while I was there...

- So what exactly did Ron Hornaday do wrong at Loudon? He raced hard for a position in the top three? Isn't that his job? Did Harvick ever explain to Hornaday, or maybe put it in his contract, that under no circumstances is Hornaday to race the boss hard for position? It's hard to understand Harvick's thought process here. Sure, everyone wants to win and maybe Harvick could have given Kyle Busch a run for the money had he been able to pass Hornaday. But in order to get up and race for the win, you have to be able to pass the rest of the drivers separating you from the leader. Unfortunately, Harvick couldn't quite get it done. Did he have a fast truck? Yes. Did he have a winning truck? No, because he wasn't good enough and couldn't get there and fight for the win. Should be be upset? No, because he's out there playing in the sandbox. Yes, bring all the fire and desire you can whenever you strap in, regardless of the series or division you are competing in - but also remember that sometimes even Babe Ruth would strike out against minor league pitching talent. Just because you lose in the minors, even if your employee plays a role in it, doesn't mean you should be a total jerk about it afterwards.

- I wonder if Harvick's sponsor for the weekend was happy with his hijinks with Matt Crafton on Friday during practice and then early during the race? Crafton had every reason to be upset with Harvick's antics during practice, and his commentary on the radio to his team earned him a visit from the series director to tell him to chill out. I certainly hope that Wayne Auton paid a visit to Harvick and told him to settle down too. Afterall, something had to have made Crafton that mad, right? And although SPEED didn't cover that practice, its cameras were on and caught Happy harrassing Crafton on pit road a couple of times. Of course, there's also the little matter of Harvick's text message to Crafton immediately after the St. Louis race telling him he better buckle up tight because he was coming to get him in New Hampshire. I understand the competitive spirit and it's certainly easy to get fired up when you perceive a wrong perpetrated against you on the track, but how about showing a little class too?

- If Johnny Sauter had pitted one lap earlier on Saturday, I have little doubt he would have won the race. That team has turned the corner since adding Joe Shear, Jr. as crew chief. After years of struggling to build a competitive program with one truck, ThorSport now has two legitimate contenders week in and week out. And now there's the possibility of a third truck? With many teams on shaky financial footing, ThorSport could be positioned to make a serious charge for the championship with both (or is it all three?) teams in 2010.

- I had a chance to give a pit tour to some guests of David Starr's sponsor, Zachry, during the weekend at New Hampshire. Several of them were involved in engineering nuclear power plants. They were a lot of fun to talk to and had a ton of questions about racing - both current Truck Series racing and some vintage 1980s Cup racing, two of my favorite racing topics. But I had a lot of questions of my own too, I mean, who wouldn't have questions for nuclear engineers, right? I thought about it later on, and this is the power that NASCAR and the drivers have to the general public, but it's amazing that these people who work on and build some of the most technologically amazing structures known to mankind can look at a guy like me and think I have it made in the shade. I mean, afterall, I was merely a fill-in PR dude! A paid spectator that really has nothing to do with making racecars go fast! Meanwhile, they are the ones out there making our country go, and on top of that, they are employees of the company that makes it possible for that race team to go out and compete. In reality, it was me who was in awe of them...

Friday, September 4, 2009

On Iowa Speedway, the ARCA RE/MAX Series on television, and RCR bringing back the No. 3

A few notes and thoughts while watching practice for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Iowa Speedway...

- It is amazing that no one ever thought to build a track this size before. The length, shape, and banking at Iowa has produced awesome racing for every division that has every competed here. It's a short track that offers superspeedway speeds. But those speeds aren't so high that you can't beat and bang in the corners and trade some paint. Watching the Trucks buzz around as quick as they are, one can only imagine how fast the Indy Cars are when they race here. Kudos to the staff and management for designing and building a wonderful facility. Hopefully when the next round of cookie cutter tracks are built they use this place as the template.

- It's too bad the economics of television don't allow for the ARCA RE/MAX Series short track races to be televised. SPEED covers most of the companion races when ARCA is with Cup or the Truck Series, but the real heart of ARCA lies in short track races at Toledo, Salem, Berlin, and the dirt miles at DuQuoin and Springfield. In a perfect world those races would also be shown year in and year out. Toledo has produced dozens of exciting races over the years and is very television friendly, but for some reason neither Toledo race was televised this year. That's a real shame, considering the fact that last year's season closer there was probably the best ARCA race on television in many years. Some tracks don't have the facilities for a complete broadcast to be produced, but surely there could be something done for those of us hardcore enough to want to watch. For those -- like me -- who care, you can watch streaming video from all non-televised ARCA races by joining the ARCA Nation at www.arcaracing.com.

Austin Dillon sits in the No. 3 Bad Boy Mowers Chevrolet during a break in practice at Iowa Speedway
Charles Krall photo

- It's really neat to see the RCR No. 3 truck out on the track here again. Richard Childress Racing fielded the No. 3 in the Truck Series from 1995 through the 1999 season. Sure, there are some writers out there who are saying watching the No. 3 on the track in any NASCAR division is an afront to Dale Earnhardt's memory. But Dale Earnhardt never drove the No. 3 in the Trucks. When he was involved in the series as an owner, he used the No. 16. Childress used the No. 3 on his Cup cars long before Earnhardt joined the team. Much like Earnhardt's fans believed his family's legacy number - the No. 8 - should have gone with his son when he left the family-owned team I believe the No. 3 is Childress's to do with as he pleases. I think he's honored his late friend by not running that number in the Cup Series, but I also think he has every right to use it in the Truck Series where he is a former champion as an owner. And who knows, maybe one day a Childress family member will bring that number back to prominence in the Cup Series, should grandpa so desire.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

On closing the deal eight years later, Chicago Motor Speedway, and improving the racing in the CWTS

Kyle Busch again dominated the Truck Series, this time in the series inaugural series race at Chicagoland Speedway. It's no surprise to see Busch in victory lane in a Truck but this win had to be especially sweet as it was redemption from 2001. Busch was within a handful of laps away from winning in just his second series start, as a 16-year-old, at the old Chicago Motor Speedway before fuel and eventually tire problems derailed his bid for victory. Not that Busch needs a redemption - afterall, he's since gone on to score 56 total wins among the Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck series - but it puts a nice end to a story that was started just over eight years ago.

Seeing the highlight footage from the two truck races at Chicago Motor Speedway during the SPEED broadcast brought back memories. The track was wedged into property between a residential neighborhood and a solid waste transfer station in Cicero, just a couple of miles from Midway Airport. The track packed them in for a couple of CART Champ Car races, and drew a decent crowd for the first Truck race in 2000. But the attendance for the second Truck race in 2000 set an unofficial record for the smallest crowd to ever witness an official Truck Series event. Some veteran observers trackside estimated attendance at less than a thousand, making the cavernous grandstands that were capable of holding upwards of 60,000 to appear absolutely desolate. One joke going around on race morning in 2001 was that the drivers would go up into the grandstands and shake hands personally with the fans in attendance, and since there were so few of them there it wouldn't take any longer than the traditional driver intros do. It is a real shame the event didn't gain any traction because, despite its location, it was a cool racetrack. It was a tight paperclip, more of a Martinsville clone than even New Hampshire, and the racing was pretty good. It looked like a decent crowd was on hand Friday night at Chicagoland.

NASCAR's best kept secret has been the quality of the racing in the Truck Series. But rules changes in the engines and on pit road have degraded that competition this year. The tapered spacer that restricts horsepower means that drivers can run wide open around virtually every 1.5-mile track on the schedule. So rather than drivers testing themselves to see how deep they can run into the corner, they simply hold it to the mat and guide the truck - almost like a slot car. At Chicagoland, cameras caught some side-by-side racing (usually after restarts), but there was a lot of single-file running with very little racing for position. The pit stop rules that don't allow tire changes and refueling on the same pit stop hurt the quality of the on-track product too. If a team needs tires after a 60-lap green flag run, they must make two pit stops - one for tires and one for fuel. If a caution falls during a round of green flag stops, someone's night is essentially ruined. Hopefully things will change in 2010 and teams won't have to make the choices they are forced to make now. There are plenty of changes NASCAR can make that will improve the quality of the show without increasing the number of people that the teams need to take to the track. Allow four tires and fuel and eliminate the tire carriers. Only allow two tire changes during any one pit stop. Or go back to the way it was with full-blown four-tire changes.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On the surprising maturity of Kyle Busch, comparing win totals, and Jason White

Just when you thought you had it all figured out, Kyle Busch comes back and shows you he's still the man in charge. First he dominated the late stages of Wednesday night's Camping World Truck Series race, then he makes a huge statement on Saturday night in winning the Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol. Busch is still on the outside looking in as far as the Chase is concerned, but with two tracks that Busch excells at - Atlanta and Richmond - dead ahead on the schedule, Matt Kenseth must feel like a proverbial sitting duck.

But that wasn't the most pleasant outcome of the weekend concerning Rowdy. Busch had the dominant car on Friday night too but was taken out when Chase Austin had a flat tire and tried to make a hard left onto pit road while the leaders were approaching. The crash was a big one and Busch's night was cut short. Busch was mad when he hopped out of the car, but he ignored the cameras and microphones on his way back to the trailer and calmed down. When he came out and did speak it was a shocking display of maturity and diplomacy instead of the verbal dynomite that many expected. Busch has shown he can do it. From a PR standpoint, his sponsors must have been thrilled with what they saw after his unfortunate early night on Friday.

- Note to the broadcasters and anyone else that has caught on to this: Kyle Busch has not exceeded Lee Petty's mark of 54 career Sprint Cup wins. Yes, Busch has 55 career NASCAR National Touring Series wins (that's the Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and Truck Series). But regardless of ESPN's efforts to make this a story the Nationwide and Truck Series wins simply do not carry as much weight as Cup wins do. Busch's win production is incredible, even in the Cup Series alone. Sixteen wins at this stage in his career is awesome. The 55 wins in all three series is equally awe-inspiring. But comparing that total to Lee Petty's career Cup win total is apples and paperclips. Also, keep in mind that Lee Petty didn't have a Nationwide Series or a Truck Series to compete in back in the 1950s and 1960s to bolster his win total.

- It was a nice surprise to see Jason White run competitively at Bristol and lead the race for more than half its distance. White has improved greatly even in the past couple of years and with the depth of the Truck Series field thinner than it has been in recent years it's nice to see some new names make it to the front from time to time. Unfortunately for White his pit strategy was just a tick off and he had to give up the lead, but he did show that he can race with the leaders and not be in over his head. Hopefully that team will have another opportunity to show its strength before the end of the season.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On the continuing Kyle Busch saga, Keselowski's hometown win, and backseat drivers

The Kyle Busch saga continues.

It's been a long time since the NASCAR community has seen a driver with so much raw talent. Yes, there was Dale Earnhardt in 1979 and Tim Richmond in 1981 and Jess Gordon in 1993. But since then there have been a slew of "good" drivers but no truly "great" drivers.

Then along came Kyle.

He's won more races in NASCAR's top three national series in the past two years than most drivers could hope to win in their career.

When the greats of the sport like Petty, Pearson, Yarbourough, Allison, Waltrip, and Earnhardt were winning there was often controversy, but in general their efforts were applauded and appreciated by the audience.

So when then is Kyle Busch reviled?

Earnhardt was polarizing. You either loved him or hated him. But regardless of which side of the fence you were on, you respected his talent.

That's not the case for Kyle Busch. For the vast majority of racefans, he's the driver they love to hate. I have to suspect there are many in the media corps who feel the same way, though they could never admit it.

Perhaps it's incidents like post-race contact with Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen or post-race interviews at Michigan that cause the boo birds to jeer every time Busch is seen, heard, or mentioned.

What is it about those two races that has Busch so upset? Since when is racing someone hard a cheap shot? Did Ambrose do anything dirty in passing Busch entering the inner loop? Did Brian Vickers do anything dirty in chasing Busch down to the apron on the front stretch and taking his entry into turn one away from him? No contact was made in either instance and the result was that Busch was beaten, fair and square. Yet when the microphones appear, Busch becomes petulant and abrasive.

Yes, Earnhardt could lose his temper with reporters, and Waltrip could too. But the difference is once the moment passed they would return to their jovial, respectful selves. Busch has slid down the slope to where he rarely smiles on camera anymore, unless of course it's in victory lane.

Yes, winning is the ultimate goal for racecar drivers. Busch's attitude towards winning is refreshing since many believe a good portion of the starting field in the Sprint Cup Series are merely out there collecting money for their retirement funds. Being a good winner is important but so is being a good loser.

Especially when the race you just lost is in a minor-league series, not in a Cup race.

It would be one thing if Ambrose's dive-bomb into the inner loop at The Glen resulted in a crash or of Vickers' move on the frontstretch at Michigan was a tire-rubbing, fender-crunching body slam. But they weren't. They were clean moves, and Busch lost fair and square.

No one wants Busch to become a sponsor-plugging automaton. It's possible to have personality and give good interviews and still be upset you lost. Busch needs to find that middle ground, especially on Saturdays.

There is nothing lost by coming up to a reporter and saying how hard you were trying to lose and how much you wanted it only to fall short. There's nothing wrong with being upset with seven second-place finishes (remember the "what if those second places were all wins" line?) but when you have a pout on and you act like a school kid who lost the game so he took his ball and bat and went home, well, then there is something wrong with it.

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Congratulations to Brad Keselowski on his surprising win at Michigan, his home track. ESPN paid lip service to the importance of this track to Brad and his family, but as someone who has known the Keselowski family since the early 1980s and is proud to have spent a lot of time with the entire clan in the latter years of their Truck Series involvement, I can say that the ESPN reporters have no real feeling for just how much that win means.

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The "Backseat Drivers" experiment during the Nationwide broadcast was interesting. Dale Jarrett showed he can be a very competent play-by-play announcer, and the rest of the cast - Andy Petree, Rusty Wallace, and Ray Evernham - did a decent job throughout. It was interesting but not something I'd like to see every week. One has to wonder if this experiment was done as an audition as Dr. Jerry Punch continues to struggle with generating excitement as lead play-by-play announcer.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On the weather, Hornaday, Iowa, Belleville, and Indy cars

- What has NASCAR done to anger the weather gods this racing season? How many practices, qualifying sessions, and races have been canceled or postponed due to rain? From my position, it always seems when things are going good - fans are happy, sponsors are lined up at the front door and maybe even trying to sneak in through the windows to get involved, and the racing on the track is excellent - the weather seems to always be bright. Maybe this is Mother Nature's way of letting us all know that she's unhappy with the current state of motorsport too.

- Ron Hornaday has won, this time at Nashville, for the fifth consecutive time in Camping World Truck Series action. Taking nothing away from Hornaday's accomplishment (or crew chief Rick Ren, who now is the leading crew chief winner in the series), but the domination of the series by one driver is doing nothing to increase interest in the series with die-hard fans. While the series is low on entrants out to actually race, it would be nice to see a variety of winners rather than one dominant team and driver. But it's Hornaday's job to get it done, and that's exactly what he's doing. Is it too early to call the championship in Hornaday's favor? Matt Crafton is in second but it's the largest first-to-second spread in the history of the series at this point in the season. Hornaday will have th have the wheels fall off on the first lap in consecutive races if anyone has any hope of closing that gap.

- The Natrionwide Series took to the Iowa Speedway for the first time, and the event can only be categorized as a complete success. Hopefully traffic ingress and egress was better than our first Truck race at Mansfield in 2004. It is amazing to think that 55,000 people showed up for a Nationwide race virtually out in the middle of nowhere. But even more amazing is that Iowa Speedway has attrracted upwards of 20,000 for ARCA races and nealy 40,000 for the IndyCar Series. It's blatantly obvious trhat whatever they are doing in Iowa is working. Congrats to the management team out there for putting on a great show.

- The Belleville Nationals, one of the most prestigious Midget races in the country, went off this weekend. The three day show was plagued by low car counts and - you guessed it - bad weather. There used to be a time when Belleville attracted one of the biggest fields in Midget racing. In 2009, there was barely a full field. Hopefully the economics of short track racing will get back into the green in coming years and events like Belleville regain their status as "must see" races.

- It's not just the USAC fields that are struggling, but its virtually all of the short track world. Car counts are down everywhere and promoters are fighting to get every fan through the front gate possible. It doesn't hurt that today's sports fan equates "NASCAR" with "auto racing", particularly "NASCAR Sprint Cup Series". And it also doesn't hurt that none of the sports networks broadcast live short track racing anymore.

- The Indy Car Series was at Kentucky over the weekend, and if you didn't notice, join the club. The event flew under the radar as the series has been struggling with boring races and trying to build an audience on a new network, Versus. The first part of the race was a continuation of the start of the season, a single-file parade of cars so glued to the track they can hug the white line all the way around the track. The final segment of the race was a barnburner, with unsung Ed Carpenter nearly doing the impossible and knocking Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe off the top of the scoring pylon. Carpenter missed his first win by just 0.016 seconds, or just about a foot and a half. After a season of dull racing and domination by the series' two superteams, the race at Kentucky was just what the open wheel fan needed to re-energize for the run to the championship. But one race does not a revival make - hopefully races at Chicago and Homestead are similarly exciting.

- The IndyCar Series released its 2010 schedule over the weekend, and there were no real surprises but some significant disappointments. It's a shame the series wouldn't leave a hole in the schedule for the new Milwaukee promoters, who seem closer and closer to getting their deal finalized for 2010. It's also a shame that the New Hampshire track wasn't added. It seems the management at NHMS is bullish on the Indy cars when most of the rest of the motorsports world couldn't care less, so why leave them off? It's also a disappointment that the series is now made up of a majority of road and street circuits. There is nothing wrong with road racing, and for much of this season they've been the most exciting races for sure. But for those purists among us, Indy cars are all about high speed oval racing. It's a shame the powers that be in Indianapolis don't get that or have lost their "vision" of that fact. For a series that is struggling to remain relevant, there is no real "wow factor" on the schedule. Sure, the superspeedway races have the potential to be exciting, as Kentucky proved, but they also have the potential to be snoozers, as Texas and Kansas proved earlier in the season. IndyCar needs to revisit everything it's doing, from scheduling to the engine and chassis formula, and it needs to do it immediately. There is a lot wrong in the world of Indy car racing these days, but most importantly the powers that be need to understand that spec racing at the sport's highest levels is not captivating and it is not going to draw in spectators. The Indy 500, and the series of races that lead up to it and support it, should be the ultimate test of automotive ingenuity. F1 is all about technology, but Indy used to be about innovative technology, amazing speeds, and the ability to make it endure for 500 miles. Now it's about 33 drivers in the same car with the same engine and the same tires all going the same speed.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On the Trucks delivering value

Ray Dunlap published an excellent column this week on SPEEDTV.com about some potential changes that NASCAR could make or in fact may make to consolidate the Camping World Truck Series schedule. These changes, you guessed it, would save the teams money - allowing current teams to stay in business and maybe even recruit new teams into the series.

Dunlap has been around the racing world a long time, from carrying his own video camera to short tracks across the Midwest to produce his own motorsports news program to being the PR guru for ARCA and eventually on to becoming one of the best pit reporters in the business for ESPN and now SPEED. His opinion carries a lot of weight and he has the best interest of the series at heart. Ray is right, NASCAR should look at changing the schedule in the interest of saving teams money - but they also need to change the schedule to deliver teams, and their sponsors, more value.

Do the Trucks have any value at all as a third-tier series in markets that also host Sprint Cup and Nationwide races? Do they have any value at all racing on Fridays of a tripleheader weekend with the Cup and Nationwide cars? When the Truck Series was new and had 50 teams and drivers that were working to climb up the ladder, like it did in 1996 or 1997, the answer would have been yes. Now, with many of the drivers dipping down from the Cup Series to the Trucks and the series struggling to fill fields, that answer is no.

In the early days of the Truck Series, there was value built in to the schedule. Races were held in areas of the country where the Sprint Cup and/or Nationwide cars didn't go. If there was a conjunction race held with the Cup cars it was at a track the Nationwide cars didn't race. There wasn't an oversaturation of any market, and in many cases the Truck Series race was the only national NASCAR race in town.

Places like Bakersfield, Louisville, Portland, Seattle, Flemington, Topeka, Kansas City, and Denver were penetrated by the Truck Series. Costs were inherently lower for the teams because there were no live pit stops and the vehicles themselves didn't need to be aerodynamically slick because every track was a mile in length or less.

Then came the addition of places like Las Vegas and Michigan: big, wide, and fast. That meant the trucks were now going to wind tunnels. And being at tracks that hosted Cup races started to erode the inherent value of the Truck Series.

Eventually the Truck Series schedule morphed from mainly short tracks where the Trucks were the biggest show in town to superspeedways where they were the third-level series, often on the same weekend. The last track that hosted a Truck race and no other national NASCAR series was Mansfield, and it fell off the schedule after the 2008 race. Sponsors who were used to getting exposure in front of thousands of fans in markets that weren't over saturated with NASCAR racing were now being drowned out by the multi-million dollar activation programs by Cup's biggest sponsors.

Cutting costs should be a huge priority for NASCAR. Making it less expensive to race will bolster fields and allow some drivers who are good on the local racing scene to try to reach their dreams to be a NASCAR champion. Engines should revert back to the tried-and-true 9.5:1 compression ratio as they were when the series started. Bodies should become more stock - with stock hoods, fenders, greenhouses, and bed rails and contours in the doors to match the street version of each truck.

And the schedule should be revamped from top to bottom. Certain conjunction events should be kept, but the series needs to get back to its roots and deliver the product to racing fans that can't get to a Cup or Nationwide race. There are dozens of quality short tracks across the country that could host races, as well as numerous quality road courses. Tracks shouldn't have more than one Truck race, meaning second races at Texas and Martinsville should move elsewhere. The tripleheader, currently held at places like Dover, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead, should be kept to a minimum or even eliminated all together.

The Truck schedule doesn't necessarily need to mirror the Cup and Nationwide schedules. In the late 90s, the series opened in January at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, and the crowds were huge and enthusiastic. The Trucks can deliver more value when they aren't competing with - and against - the Cup and Nationwide series. The Truck champion has been crowned at Homestead since 2003, often in front of barren, empty grandstands. NASCAR could move the finale to Las Vegas, where ticket promotions with casinos put upwards of 50,000 people in the stands and give teams and sponsors the value they desire and deserve.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

On getting back to real stock car racing

The Brickyard 400 is in the rear view, and despite some doom-and-gloom predictions following last year's race the tires held up and well over 150,000 fans came out to watch. Television ratings are in, and bucking the double-digit loss trend, ratings were only down six percent from last year's race. There is still some magic about racing at Indianapolis, and the fact that many people showed up or watched on television proves it.

As for the race itself, while it was immensely better than last year, it still left something to be desired. The top of the field was separated by several football fields throughout much of the race and actual passes for position on the racetrack were few and far between. No one expects side-by-side restrictor-plate style racing at Indy, but it is blatantly obvious that the current Cup car does not race well on any type of flat, high-speed racetrack.

Why do long-time fans continue to dream about a return to the "glory days" of the past? No one wants to return to the days when races were won by 14 laps and only 10 cars running at the finish. But would it be so terrible to return to 1995?

As an example, the Brickyard 400 in 1995 was won by Dale Earnhardt. He started 13th out of the 41 starters. It was slowed by just one caution. There were 19 lead lap finishers, none of which got there due to a "Lucky Dog" free pass. Thirty-six of the 41 cars that started were still running at the finish. Nine drivers showed up wanting to race but weren't fast enough to make it in, including two former Indy 500 winners and another former Indy 500 pole winner. The starting field was comprised of teams owned by 36 different people. Earnhardt's winning margin that day was just 0.37 seconds. And he did it in a car that looked almost identical to what Chevrolet offered for sale to the car-buying public. That's the key right there: he did it in a "stock car".

In the past decade, we've seen the NASCAR media speak out on issues and force NASCAR into making changes. There is no more racing back to the caution flag. Head and neck restraints are mandated. Anyone going over the wall on a pit stop must wear a helmet. So where is the outrage from the media that all the cars look the same? Has everyone bought into the theory that spec racing is what the fans really want?

The "CoT" is a good idea but it was poorly executed. Safety enhancements are always a good thing. Making every car identical and only allowing very few adjustments to the cars is a bad thing. NASCAR had allowed the cars to get out of control once they want to common templates in 2002, the didn't resemble anything remotely like a street car and they actually looked more like a dirt late model than a full-bodied stock car.

NASCAR needs to get back to stock cars resembling stock cars. Re-energizing the fans with actual competition between a Chevrolet and a Ford instead of two cars that are exactly alike except for decals will be a good first step. And with manufacturers struggling and cutting back on NASCAR budgets, giving them a chance to get back to racing something that the public can identify with - and maybe even go and buy! - is also a good thing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On the maturation of Kyle Busch

I am a believer in Kyle Busch's talent. For my money, there is no one better in the Sprint Cup garage right now. He is aggressive and is mad at the world unless he's sitting in Victory Lane. He's often compared to the late Dale Earnhardt because of his aggessive nature and the reception he receives from race fans all across the country.

Yes, despite his posthumous notation as the most-loved driver in NASCAR history, Earnhardt was for much of his career the most hated driver on the circuit. But at some point, Earnhardt changed. The aggressive nature on the track stayed the same but the short-tempered nature off the track mellowed. And an amazing thing happened: what were once jeers from the grandstand changed to cheers.

Busch has been in the spotlight since 2001 when he ran a limited Truck Series schedule and nearly pulled off a win as a 16 year-old. It's tough to handle the spotlight as a mature 35 year-old, so to imagine an 18 year-old doing it is difficult.

Contrary to Earnhardt, for much of his early career, Busch's accomplishments were lauded. After a rousing battle with a gaggle of Toyotas - including Jack Sprague and Johnny Benson - Busch pulled off an amazing victory in a Truck race at Atlanta. The leaders tried to race off turn four to the checkered flag four wide and it didn't work, and only Busch kept it pointed straight and he took the victory. As he climbed from his Chevy truck the crowd showered him with adoration.

When Busch walks across the stage this fall at Atlanta, many of those fans who appreciated his accomplishment that day are going to boo him just as loudly. What changed?

For starters, Busch is a big winner, racking up 50 wins in the top three national series in a very short period of time. Some fans like a winner, others don't. Those who don't tend to be loud about it. Then there is the fact Busch pilots a Toyota, and like it or not, many of NASCAR's core fans still love to boo anything not seen as good old-fashioned American metal. Then there are those who don't like the chip he carries on his shoulder for the driver that replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It only incenses them more when Busch reminds the NASCAR community that he has outperformed Earnhardt dramatically over the past 18 months.

But I think the biggest struggle Busch is facing now is one within himself. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's something everyone one of us goes through. We all grow up. We all learn from mistakes. We all make the transition from tempestuous kid to street-wise adult. Busch is doing that in front of millions every week.

Being replaced on the biggest and most successful team in NASCAR was a big blow to his ego and self esteem. Despite the successes he's seen since, one can gather there is still resentment there. And with the performance of the driver that was chosen to replace him no where near his own, Busch could rightfully believe that he wasn't replaced by someone who could out drive him but by someone who could out sell him on souvenir row.

It's only a matter of time until that wound closes. They all do. And it's only a matter of time before Busch completes that transformation from aggressive youngster to the world-wise, savvy, and mature "grown up" he's destined to be. His brother has done just that, and despite some rough years early on Kurt Busch continues to gain fans in the grandstands and respect from his competitors.

Busch may be upset at how last Saturday's race at Daytona played out. He really doesn't have anyone to blame but himself. Replays showed over and over that Tony Stewart had pulled alongside Busch's car and once contact was made there was little either driver could have done to prevent the inevitable. As upset as he was, Busch invoked more angre from the fans by walking up pit road (seemingly to go to victory lane to confront Stewart, although I doubted that at the time). Busch never commented on it on Saturday and made imbittered comments on Thursday at Chicagoland leading up to this weekend's race.

Imagine the fan response to Kyle Busch if he had channeled the later Dale Earnhardt after hopping out of his wrecked racecar on Saturday night. Instead of storming up pit road, what Busch should have done is grab the first microphone he saw and told everyone he was okay, was upset he wasn't sitting in victory lane but what everyone had just been a part of racing and that Stewart had simply "rattled his cage a little bit." My guess is the lines in front of the Kyle Busch souvenir trailers would have been enormous and the cheers from the grandstands deafening.

Monday, July 6, 2009

On getting rid of restrictor plates, the finish, TNT, and The King's 1984 Pontiac

The Coke Zero 400 will be remembered for its thrilling finish. It certainly was exciting, but was it a "great finish"?

Petty vs. Yarbourough in 1984 was a great finish. Even Elliott vs. Wilson in 1988 was a great way to end stock car racing's Independence Day celebration. Where does Shrub vs. Smoke rate?

Unfortanately for those who believe today's style of racing to be more exciting than days gone by, I wouldn't rate it in the "great" category or even as "good". Exciting as it was, it merely highlights the need to change the way NASCAR handles racing at Daytona and Talladega.

Restrictor plates have long since outlived their usefulness. Sure, it's a low-tech way to manage speed. But with each of the four participating manufacturers having developed brand spanking new engines over the course of the past three years, shouldn't that development have been done on an engine that would allow drivers to run at Daytona and Talladega at speeds approaching 190 mph without a restrictor plate?

That development could have been done on a six-cylinder engine with a smaller displacement, similar to what each of the manufacturers run in the street versions of the racecars they put on the track. The biggest problem with restrictor plates is the same as it was when it was first introduced in 1988: there is no throttle response. Drivers have to run wide open all the way around, whereas in the pre-plate days drivers running in the draft could run at half or even three-quarters throttle and maintain speed.

I continue to believe the cars need to have less downforce, which will make them handle differently and will break up the packs that cause the big wrecks. Teams need to be able to choose their own shocks and springs, and they need to be able to work on wing angles and let the driver's butt and bravery determine what is best. Spec racing is boring, and with the COT and all of the NASCAR-mandated shocks, springs, wings, and tire pressures, that is exactly what we have now.

- As for the finish of Saturday's race, yes, it was exciting. But what have we learned from Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch and their failed attempts to block? I think we've learned that drivers running in second will give you one move, but the second one is going to end up with the leader going for a ride.

- I read one long-time writer's comments that Kyle Busch's crash was eerily similar to Carl Edwards' because Busch also became airborne during the wreck. It doesn't take a genius to see that Busch's car only came off the ground as the result of contact with the wall. There was no aerodynamic lift at all in Busch's crash. Sure, he "landed" on Kasey Kahne's roof, but only after Kahne drove underneath the rear of Busch's machine. It's not the same as Edwards landing on Ryan Newman at Talladega.

- TNT continues to set the bar very high for both Fox and ESPN's coverage of NASCAR racing. Ralph Shaheen has done an admirable job of taking over the play-by-play role for Bill Weber, and both Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach are among the best analysts in motorsports. All of the pit reporters are solid too (and kudos to Adam Alexander to hopping in and getting up to speed immediately). ESPN will take over in a couple of weeks and they definitely have their work cut out for them if they want to match TNT. Based on their Nationwide coverage, those who have gotten used to the way TNT does things are going to be somewhat disappointed.

- How cool was it to see the car Richard Petty won with at Daytona in 1984 on the grid before the race? Looking at that car and its similarities to a street version of a 1984 Pontiac Grand Prix, is there anyone who is glad all of today's current racecars look exactly the same?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On reviving the Truck Series

The rumors of the Truck Series' demise have been floating for as long as I've been a part of it, which this season is ten years. There has always been someone talking about NASCAR shutting it down due to one reason or another. Most have to due with races taking place in front of empty grandstands or because the manufacturers don't support it at the level they do their Cup and Nationwide programs.

Earlier this week, NASCAR's Jim Hunter stated that NASCAR has no intention of shutting down the Truck Series any time soon. That is a nice vote of confidence - but unfortunately there is an inaccuracy in Mr. Hunter's remaining thoughts on the matter. He also said that NASCAR has never given up on a series, but for those of us that remember the Busch All-Star Tour, the Goody's Dash Series, the old NASCAR North Tour, and most recently the four regional touring late model series, we know that isn't the case. So with that in mind, those that love the Truck Series hope that NASCAR is willing to do whatever it takes to breathe life into our favorite form of motorsports.

I do think that NASCAR is committed to the Truck Series. There is value there, to sponsors, to track operators, and even to the teams and of course the fans. But there are things that need to be done to ensure the future is brighter and on a firmer foundation.

Sponsor value has always been a weak link for the Truck teams. Because of the costs of participating, they continue to need to ask for more from sponsors although the value they return hasn't increased at the same rate. Sponsor value has stayed flat, and according to some experts, has even dropped. Why? Because at best, the Trucks are plaing second-fiddle to the Nationwide Series and third-fiddle to both Cup and Nationwide on race weekends. With the demise of the Mansfield race, there isn't a single venue on the schedule where the Trucks are the top attraction. If NASCAR wants to add sponsor value, then it needs to eliminate some conjunction races and take the Trucks back to markets that the Nationwide and Cup cars don't go. Second races at Martinsville and Texas should be moved to markets like the Pacific Northwest and/or the upper Midwest. Other races that have no value, such as the California race, should also be moved elsewhere.

Track operators will benefit from redistribution of the schedule too. More tracks could be a part of the NASCAR family, and fans craving NASCAR action in underserved parts of the country can finally come and see big league racing. And those tracks that continue to hold conjunction races will benefit too since triple-headers will be less common, marketing them as something the fans don't have a chance to see often will help attract customers into the seats.

Teams will benefit because sponsors will again return to the series. As it is now, why would a sponsor come in when the majority of races are held in areas where Cup and Nationwide sponsors already saturate the market? What chance does a small ($2.5-$3 million) sponsor have when trying to activate next to someone spending ten times that much? But that smaller sponsor will find value in markets that aren't already saturated. That's what helped the series flourish in 1995 through 1998. As an example, in 1995 over half the Truck races were held at tracks that didn't host a Nationwide or Cup race. That had dropped to 25 percent in 1999, and now in 2009 there are no races held at tracks that don't have a Nationwide or Cup race.

There are plenty of racetracks out there that could help diversify the Truck Series schedule. Road courses in the Pacific Northwest, a number of good short tracks in the Upper Midwest, and even some venues in Canada that would fit the bill.

Racing at huge cathedrals of speed like Daytona and Charlotte does have value. But so does reaching the grassroots fan at places like I-70 Speedway and Evergreen Speedway, two tracks that are unfortunately long gone from the Truck Series schedule. There are other tracks in underserved markets that should be looked at and added. Then maybe ther Trucks will again be a series that is growing and flourishing instead of simply treading water and fighting for survival.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

On Indy cars, double file restarts, Ron Hornaday, and the Nationwide Series

It's been a few weeks since I've shared my thoughts on the goings-on in the world of American motorsports. I apologize for the absence. That said there was a lot going on over the course of the past two weeks...

- One thing that has bothered me about the state of Indy car racing over the past half decade is the IRL is going down the same path that the CART series did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The owners aren't hiring drivers based on their talent, they are taking drivers with a check they can cash. While it might help their bottom line, it certainly doesn't do anything to build the series. Now, just a year after "reunification" the car count is back down to where it was prior to CART/Champ Car's demise. There are bright spots on the horizon, but there is a long way to go before Indy Car is a picture of health. Events in Texas, Iowa, and Richmond draw impressive crowds, but even long-time venues like Milwaukee are finding it hard to pay the sanction fee.

Indy cars are impressive to watch. They buzz around even the 1.5-mile ovals well over 200 miles per hour. At 3/4-mile Richmond, speeds were over 165 miles per hour meaning lap times were about 17 seconds. That's insane. But the Indy Cars have the same problem that faces NASCAR now: it's glorified spec racing with drivers no one has heard of or cares about. There is talk of more engine manufacturers ready to join whenever the IRL makes a change to their engine regulations (maybe in 2011) but they will all be bolted into the same Dallara chassis. Whatever happened to Indy being the hotbed of automotive engineering and development?

-Speaking of Indy cars, whats with the number of foreign born drivers driving cars sponsored by the US military? I think it's great that the branches of the service think motorsports is a good recruitment tool, and I also think it's great that drivers from all around the globe want to come to America and compete. But shouldn't American drivers represent American servicemen? I like Dan Wheldon, but honestly, is he getting any 18-year-old American kids to join the National Guard? And Raphael Matos surely doesn't represent the target audience for Air Force and Marine recruits. You mean to tell me that John Barnes, owner of Panther Racing, and Jay Penske, owner of Luczo Dragon Racing, couldn't find a young American hotshoe to fill those seats? I can think of a dozen guys driving USAC open wheel cars right now that would fit the bill and would also generate a lot more excitement, sales at the front gate, and television ratings if they were in an Indy car.

- The double file restarts are coming to all of NASCAR's national touring series. I continue to say that it is just a patch to fix a much bigger problem. Did they enhance the competition dramatically at Pocono? Not really, except for a couple of laps following each restart. And at Sonoma, I thought the single file restart would have actually made for a better race up front because Marcos Ambrose wouldn't have had to race for third over and over again, and he could have worked on racing to the leaders instead of repeatedly retaking his rightful position on the track. The fact remains that the new generation car simply isn't racey. The history books will show that when NASCAR instituted it's socialist-like "aero matching" bodies in 2002 is when competition started to decline and fans started to find other ways to spend their Sunday afternoons. If NASCAR suddenly decided to race cars that looked like something you could find on your local dealer's lot, I think you'd find a lot of the attendance and television declines start to reverse.

- Can anyone stop Ron Hornaday? After dominating at Milwaukee, he followed up with another dominant run at Memphis to score back-to-back wins. As tough as Hornaday is, I still think there are going to be a couple of times where his aggressive nature sends him to the garage for repairs (such as what happened last fall at Phoenix). The battle for the championship could turn out to be a classic hare vs. tortise match-up. The hare doesn't always win either: case in point, Travis Kvapil's unlikely run to the title in 2003. Matt Crafton has been impressively consistent so far in 2009 and could find himself in position to challenge for the title if Hornaday does have a speed bump or two in the second half of the season.

- So Kyle Busch's streak of misfortune in the Nationwide Series ended, giving him his first win since the guitar-bashing celebration in Nashville. That sound you may have heard, after all the boo-birds were done of course, was a huge yawn. Busch is the best in the business these days, no question about it. But the fans are tired of Cup guys dipping into the minor leagues and stealing the glory on Saturdays. The Cup owners that have moved into the Nationwide Series are to blame. And one day, when someone like Richard Childress or Jack Roush needs to fill a hole in the Cup Series with a qualified driver, there won't be any because they have chosen not to use their developmental series teams to develop drivers! Sure, Roush runs Erik Darnell and Ricky Stenhouse in partial schedules, but getting to run 15 races a year doesn't help hone the skills needed to race on Sundays at the level needed.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Texas, Nashville, and Pocono

It was a busy weekend to say the least, the first of the year that saw the Camping World Trucks, Nationwide cars, and Sprint Cup cars all in action at three different facilities in three different states. The trucks tackled the ultra-fast Texas Motor Speedway, the Nationwide cars rumbled in the concrete canyon that is Nashville Superspeedway, and the Sprint Cup guys were in resort country at Pocono Raceway.

Truckin' in Texas...

For a team that nearly shut down during the month-long break between Martinsville and Kansas, Todd Bodine's Germain Racing organization is extremely strong. Bodine had the worst streak of his Truck Series career with three consecutive wrecks at Martinsville, Kansas, and Charlotte, but that's all out the window as he scored his second win of the season at Texas. Bodine is a threat every time he races on the mile and a half tracks, but that's magnified at Texas where he's now won five times.

The weekend started with a surprise pole winner in Johnny Sauter. Sauter's team, ThorSport Racing, has struggled to get it's No. 13 truck running on par with the No. 88 driven by Matt Crafton for its entire existence dating back to 2004. Now with Sauter behind the wheel it seems that team has come together and is starting to become a weekly contender. Sauter was fifth at Dover last week and finished sixth at Texas in addition to scoring the pole. ThorSport Racing will enter its 300th race at Michigan this weekend on a major high: Crafton finished second at Texas and leads the points while Sauter is leading the rookie points.

The race was extremely clean with just two cautions, one for Dover winner Brian Scott bouncing off the wall and the other for debris. NASCAR has proved it can respond to fan input with the new double file restart proceedures, now it needs to heed the call of the fans and eliminate phantom debris cautions. And if there actually is debris on the track, the televion cameras need to show it to the audience at home to justify the caution.

Ten of the 33 starters were out of the race before 30 laps were complete. I am not a believer in the argument that for a race to be entertaining there needs to be a full field of 43 cars or trucks, but I also believe there needs to be more than 25 out there too. Hopefully the economy continues to recover and we'll get back to having deeper fields in the Truck Series soon.

Terry COok will also be making his 300th series start at Michigan this weekend. Terry didn't have the weekend he was hoping for in Texas and he banged up his favorite speedway truck to boot. No doubt Danny Rollins and crew were busy at work as soon as they could get the rig back to Martinsville to get it fixed for Cook's home track.

Even after scoring his best finish of the season at Texas, fourth, Johnny Benson's season has been one of frustration. Now, the news has broken that Red Horse Racing will park Benson's No. 1 truck due to lack of funding. That is a real shame as Benson is truly one of the good guys of the sport - not in it for the money but in it to do what he does best and that's win races. The real shame of the situation is the announcement comes just before Benson's home race at Michigan. My guess is there will be hundreds of Johnny Benson fan club members that are very disappointed at this turn of events and may not attend as a result. It closes a confusing chapter in Red Horse Racing's history, one that saw it dismiss a driver in David Starr within weeks of the start of the season although he had some sponsorship in his hip pocket in exchange for two drivers, one of which didn't have funding. Granted Benson is the defending champion and the team was banking on that luring in some significant sponsorship dollars. But that didn't happen. Thankfully for the team T.J. Bell is able to pay his own freight but the No. 11 truck is still devoid of any major sponsorship.

Nationwide in Nashville...

We could have all witnessed the best race in Nationwide Series history at Nashville, one with 70 lead changes and a last corner of the last lap pass for the win, and all we would be talking about is the victory lane celebration of winner Kyle Busch. The Gibson guitar given to the winners of all Nashville races is one of the most cherished in all of NASCAR racing. Yet as soon as he laid his hands on his, Busch tried to shatter it into dozens of pieces - supposedly to be shared among his crew. It doesn't matter that Sam Bass - the artist who spent 40 hours painting the guitar - didn't mind seeing his work destroyed because the fans have responded with disgust and disdain for the sport's leading personality. As an artist who has also spent dozens of hours on art for customers that I hope ultimately enjoy my work, I am torn. I hate to see Bass' labor destroyed. But the fact of the matter is the trophy is Busch's and he can do with it what he wants. He simply doesn't care what the people outside the catch fence think. I've heard that Gibson and Bass have been commissioned to do a couple more guitars for Busch, so maybe it's really not that big of a deal. But like Chocolate Myers said today on Sirius NASCAR Radio, Busch may think that the fans all hate him now, but just wait until he knows it for sure. I like Kyle and I like his style, but there's only so much negative PR a driver can cause before those supporting him start to back away.

Cuppers in Pocono...

The big news of the weekend was the new double file restart proceedure. Little did anyone know that we'd all get to see it within the first five laps of the race. After lighting up Pocono with two wins as a rookie, poor Denny Hamlin hasn't had any luck there at all, and that streak continued as his car faltered just a couple hundred feet past the green flag. That set up the first double file restart in a points race in Cup racing history. It is a good idea and does create some good racing for a couple laps, but I'd still like to hear everyone stop saying this is how it's done at the majority of short tracks across the country.

The coverage from TNT was a welcome respite after a tumultuous 13-race stretch on Fox. Even Bill Weber was tolerable, not digging deep down inside to pull on everyone's heart strings with every train of thought as he's done in years past. Kyle Petty has become the best analyst in the sport, and Wally Dallenbach is as solid as ever. The pictures delivered by the cameras and production team were great and not drowned out by graphics. Heck, even Larry McReynolds does a great job on TNT. It would be great if the producers at Fox kept everything under control the way the TNT team does.

The only downside to the telecast was the missed shot of Kasey Kahne's spin on the final corner and not following the story as some drivers trying to stretch it on gas started to run out of gas. It would have been nice to get an update on some of the front runners, particularly as they dropped back in the pack. And there was no replay of Kahne's spin even though we all got to see him come sliding off turn four in a cloud of smoke.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On Carl Long, standard starting times, double file restarts, Fox Sports, and Citizen Journalists

Some thoughts on some recent off-track news in the NASCAR world...

- It comes as no real surprise that the appeals board denied Carl Long's appeal of penalties levied by NASCAR after the All-Star Showdown at Charlotte. Yes, Long's engine was 0.17 cubic inches over the 358 c.i. limit, and therefore illegal. But is that really worth $200,000? Considering the engine blew up after three laps of practice and was never on the track in qualifying or the race, I say no. I am not suggesting a sliding scale, harsher penalties for bigger teams and smaller penalties for the little guys, but some common sense has to bubble to the surface here. Long was running a used engine that he had no hand in building. Maybe it's time NASCAR penalize the engine companies that supply the engines to the teams instead of the teams themselves.

- Some NASCAR track operators are pushing for standardized starting times, a move that should be applauded and implemented starting with the 2010 Daytona 500. The starting time should also be the time the green flag waves, not the time the pre-race show starts or the national anthem is performed. Standardized starting times should be something like this: daytime races in the eastern or central time zones go green at 1:30 P.M. Eastern; daytime races in the mountain or pacific time zones go green at 4:30 P.M. Eastern; night races - regardless of time zone - go green at 7:30 P.M. Eastern.

- I've been to almost 60 short tracks all across the country, and I can count on one hand the number of tracks that had double-file restarts. Maybe they do it that way in the Northeast where Mike Joy is from, but the vast majority of short tracks have single file restarts.

- An anonymous NASCAR executive reportedly has blamed Fox Sports' ill-conceived gopher cartoon character as the reason why television ratings have declined precipitously over the past two years. I wouldn't pin 100% of the blame on it, but it surely plays a part. The fact that millions of viewers only watched to see one particular driver do well has something to do with it too. The sport saw it's audience grow disproportionately on the back of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Now there is nothing wrong with being a Jr. fan, but the networks banked on Jr. to draw in viewers and by showing him even when he's running poorly it turned off a significant segment of the audience. Now, with Earnhardt running poorly, another significant chunk of the audience that tuned in only to see him run well is gone too. Those viewers may or may not come back when Earnhardt starts to improve on the track. Many viewers who can no longer tolerate Larry McReynolds' constant butchering of the English language and Darrell Waltip's conflict of interest-filled commentary towards his brother and his entire racing team probably won't be back until those two have retired. Fox came into the sport with a bang in 2001 and in many ways has raised the bar when it comes to covering motorsports of all types. But now Fox relies on too much bufoonery and self promotion and too little coverage of the actual event. What we need is much more Dick Berggren and Krista Voda and much less Chris Myers and Digger.

- NASCAR has announced it will support a group of Citizen Journalists to enhance the sports coverage in the media. I read Michael Knight's SpinDoctor500Blog regularly, and he was upset that bloggers and fan sites were given room in the media center at the Indianapolis 500. I enjoy Knight's commentary and have learned a lot from reading his blog archives over the past few months, but I disagree with his stance on this one. As a former track public relations representative, I appreciated coverage wherever I could find it. Granted, not all bloggers are created equal. But like the Supreme Court says about obscenity, you know a good one when you see it. There is nothing wrong with inviting a talented blogger to sit next to a professional journalist in today's modern world. In fact, in some of the media centers I have been in, finding a "real" journalist that is truly knowledgable about the sport (particularly the Nationwide or Truck level) can be a real challenge. Kudos to NASCAR for openly welcoming Citizen Journalists into their media circle.