Saturday, February 28, 2009

Up and Down Day for Hometowners

It always seems like certain drivers become the center of attention whenever their chosen racing series heads to their home track. Back in the day, Michigan drivers Bob Senneker and Mike Eddy would always battle it out at their hometown tracks. Senneker would rise to the occasion at his home track at Berlin, while Eddy was the man to beat at Tri-City. If the "wrong" driver happened to win, the officials almost felt like there would be a mutiny in the grandstands by riotous fans.

In later years, Johnny Benson was tough at Berlin too. In fact, for 19 consecutive ASA races at Berlin a Michigan driver went to victory lane. Now, Benson is a perennial favorite when the Trucks go to his other home track, Michigan International Speedway. He has three top-five finishes and was just a couple of inches away from his second win there last June.

So it's no surprise that the Las Vegas drivers jumped up and took the spotlight at their home track on Friday. But it was an up and down day for the hometowners.

Brendan Gaughan's day started on the up end of the spectrum but ended down in the dumps. He was fastest in the morning Nationwide practice, his first attempt in NASCAR's second series at his hometown track. But then two hours after setting the fastest lap in the first session, Gaughan's day went up in smoke as he wrecked in turns three and four, doing heavy damage to his car. He's now faced with the daunting task of qualifying and racing his backup car, or the repaired primary, without any practice laps.

Conversely, Kyle Busch's day started off poorly but ended spectacularly. He had engine failure in the early moments of the first Cup practice and missed most of the session as the team replaced the burned out bullet. Once it was time to qualify, his early day problems were nothing but a memory as he blistered the track record to take the pole for Sunday's Shelby 427.

It will be an all-Busch front row as 2004 series champ Kurt Busch claimed the second position in qualifying. The older Busch has been off the radar in recent years, particularly after moving to the Penske operation. In contrast to his days with Roush, Penske has reigned in the brash and outspoken kid and turned him into a polished and professional adult. The only thing that has been missing has been the same level of performance, and the new Dodge engine could put Kurt Busch back at the front of the field on a more routine basis.

Kyle will be forced to take the green at the tail of the field due to the engine change, but will line up at the front of the field on the grid and on the pace laps. While he might not technically take the green flag from the pole, the qualifying results give hometown Vegas fans their first all-Vegas front row in their own race in the track's history.


It was noted on the SPEED broadcast of Cup practice that Roush Fenway Racing has signed 35 sponsors for its program in 2009. Is there anyone better at creating viable sponsor programs than Roush's marketing team? He even manages to create programs with competitors (such as Con-way Freight in the NCWTS and R+L Carriers in a limited Cup role) and seemingly leave everyone happy. The best sponsorships don't just involve companies writing a check to the race team, but they include opportunities for the sponsors to directly create added revenue from their racing involvement, and Roush knows this. Many other team owners do too, but not all. Particularly in this challenging economy, the days of a company simply writing a check just to see it's logo on a racecar are over.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Few Odds and Ends...

A few odds and ends leading into this weekend's action in Las Vegas...

It's interesting that after two races Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is teetering on the brink of the "top 35" in Sprint Cup points. The chances that he would fall out and stay out of the top 35 in owner points and then fail to make a race is microscopic. But if there was ever a chance for NASCAR to decide to get rid of that silly rule, having the sport's most popular driver miss the show because of it would be it.

There are probably no stats in this category dating back to the sport's origin, but Drew Blickensderfer is in elite company by starting his Cup crew chief career 2-for-2. Matt Kenseth has had great success at Las Vegas before, so there is a decent chance Kenseth can become the first driver in 12 years to start the season with three consecutive wins.

Where are all of the reporters who were talking about the resurgence of Richard Petty Motorsports after the team placed three drivers in the top ten at Daytona? Not every one of those reporters was a NASCAR beat writer, but some were. It's easy to overlook those stories by writers that don't follow NASCAR week in and week out, but those who are in the garage every week should have known that Daytona is it's own animal. Predicting season-long success for a mid-pack team after a decent run at Daytona is like playing roulette. Those writers should have said it was a surprisingly good result for the newly merged operation but the chances of them crashing back to earth at Fontana and beyond was almost a certainty.

Maybe it's because I grew up going to races at Michigan and I have grown accustomed to the type of racing the 2-mile D-shaped ovals produce, but I don't find the races at MIS or Fontana to be boring. I like seeing cars run several different grooves through the turns. Seeing them spread out three and four wide down the straightaways is always spectacular. The racing isn't the same as it is at Daytona, but that doesn't mean it's worse. It's a different challenge. Teams must find the combination to allow their driver to keep the foot on the loud pedal deeper into the corners and then get back on it the quickest. Just like in baseball, sometimes you get a 1-0 snoozer and sometimes the Fontana and Michigan races are the auto racing equivalent. But sometimes you're going to get a game when you see seven homers and the game comes to the last at bat in the bottom of the ninth too.

I heard a discussion on Sirius NASCAR Radio yesterday between hosts Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers and a caller about the "S" in NASCAR not standing for "stock" any more. The hosts seemed put off with the caller and dismissed his opinion as rubbish. Sure, it's nice that the COT is a "safer" car but many (myself included) wonder why the cars all have to look the same and have virtually nothing in common with their street counterparts. I firmly believe there is a direct correlation to the decline in NASCAR ratings and attendance at events to the introduction of common template cars. NASCAR fans may like the sport's focus on the driver and only the driver, but racing fans liked seeing the drivers race different vehicles on the track. Now that all the cars are the same, the racing fans are gone and the NASCAR-only fans are what's left.

Looking at the Camping World Truck about a call to Timothy Peters? He's driving for an independent, self-owned team that works out of a garage behind his partner's house and he's fourth in the series points after two races. Tim got the short end of the stick during an ill-fated stint at RCR a couple of years ago. Here's hoping he finds some sponsorship and can keep his team on the track throughout the 2009 season.

Looking at the SPEED predicitions for the NCWTS top-five at the end of the year brought one glaring oversight. Not one member of SPEED's on-air crew picked Matt Crafton to be in the top five at the end of the season. Crafton was a contender all season in 2008 and currently sits third after the first two races of 2009. There are many worthy drivers that could be - and were - selected for their lists. But Crafton should have been included on at least ONE of them.

It's easy to call someone out when they deliver a sub-par performance but too often good performances go without mention. Coming after a bogey at Daytona, Darrell Waltrip shot an eagle with his delivery at California. Waltrip's experience behind the wheel and knowing what Jeff Gordon was thinking over the final laps really gave the viewer at home an added bonus as the front two battled for the win.

Although I do enjoy the new layout at Las Vegas with the added banking, I still miss the old layout. Maybe it's because every time I had been there was for a night race with the trucks, which was a totally different show than the Cup and Nationwide cars running in the daytime, but I loved the racing on the old track. The new garage area is one of the coolest in all of racing though.

Last weekend saw the three national touring USAC divisions kick off their season at Manzanita Speedway in the Copper on Dirt. While the event tries to replicate the old Copper World Classic that used to be held annually every late January/early February at the nearby Phoenix International Speedway, it doesn't get the same level of attention as the true Copper Classic used to. One can't argue with the success of International Speedway Corporation as a promoter of big-league racing events, but the France family hasn't been quite as successful with it's grassroots events and tours. As soon as ISC bought into the Phoenix track, the Copper World suffered. Sadly, it's now a two-division warmup act to the November NASCAR weekend instead of a three-day, four-division stand alone event that it used to be. And of course virtually every one of NASCAR's touring short track divisions has died off in the past five years.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rearview: San Bernardino County 200

Rearview: San Bernardino County 200

The second round of the 2009 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is in the books and to no one's surprise Kyle Busch dominated for his second consecutive series win at the 2-mile track. Busch was so strong that he led 95 of the race's 100 laps and won by over nine seconds. Only Chad McCumbee, who led under caution during a round of pit stops, and Colin Braun, who led late after Busch made his final stop for fuel, kept Busch from pitching the proverbial no-hitter. It's a fair bet that the rest of the series will be using the three-week break between the Fontana race and the next race at Atlanta to try to figure out how to stop the No. 51.

Todd Bodine was the runner-up, and was just barely into turn three when Busch flashed across the line. Bodine's team is still searching for the funding to compete through the entire season. It's a sign of the times that a team that has scored eight straight top five finishes dating back to last season and opened the 2009 season with a first and a second can't find sponsorship.

It looked early on that Matt Crafton would be a factor for a top-five finish, but unfortunately he was brought to pit road with a plastic bag over the grille opening on the front of his Chevrolet. Crafton might have had the second-best truck in the field, but was forced to spend nearly 50 laps one lap down. Once back on the lead lap he simply didn't have enough time to race back to the front. Despite his problems, Crafton managed to finish eighth. The No. 88 team should be a strong contender week-in and week-out.

The unique pit stop rules got their first real test at California as long green flag runs forced crew chiefs to make the difficult decision to either forego tires on the final round of stops or make a second stop for fresh rubber and give up valuable real estate on the track. Some teams, like Chad McCumbee's, played their strategy a little different and took tires on a different schedule and had fresher rubber on at the end. It worked as McCumbee gave SS Green Light Racing its best NCWTS finish - a strong third-place. For others, the gamble didn't pay off. Mike Skinner made two stops, one for fuel and one for tires, and ended up dropping off the lead lap at the end.

Speaking of Skinner, he must have run out of patience with Brian Scott sometime during the week at Daytona because he surely didn't give the youngster any room at all leading up to Scott's spectacular frontstretch crash. Yes, Scott technically did pull up into line ahead of Skinner just inches shy from being clear. But Skinner kept his foot on the gas knowing what the end result would be. It was another tough break for Scott who had a long couple of weeks in Daytona with a crash in the ARCA race, a crash in Truck practice, and another crash in the race. Three races and four wrecks is a frustrating way to start the year.

It's ultimately ironic that the California race is televised on Fox. The race will likely be the most viewed NCWTS race of the entire season since it was broadcast over public airwaves instead of on cable, but it is also the race that will likely have the fewest fans actually in the stands watching.

I've always liked the idea of the series having a couple of chances to race on Fox. It increases the viewership numbers (which helps those sponsors and justifies some of the money they are spending) and it allows the series to be seen by some people who might not otherwise have watched. However, using the regular NASCAR on Fox crew is a mistake. The regular crew has intimate knowledge of the series - owners, drivers, crew chiefs, and crew members. The NASCAR on Fox crew concentrates solely on Cup racing and during the broadcast it showed. Early graphics showed the viewers at home that Matt Crafton has one career NCWTS win coming in 2008 at New Hampshire. Close, but no cigar. Crafton's first series win came last season at Charlotte. He does have one pole, that coming in 2005 at New Hampshire. Maybe no one at home noticed but that's simple stuff that's easy to check and easy to get right. Later in the show, Larry McReynolds talked about Johnny Sauter's owner - former California Lt. Governor Mike Curb. He said Curb was the car owner for Richard Petty when he won his 199th and 200th Cup victories in 1984. That's correct, Curb did own Petty's car for his historic victories. Except that Mike Curb doesn't own the truck Johnny Sauter drives, Duke and Rhonda Thorson do. They've been a part of the series longer than any other active owner except Jack Roush.

It's great to have the race shown on Fox but spending those two hours showing Truck racing to the nation shouldn't be an afterthought by the crew showing it. They should spend as much time and effort to get it right as they do with the Cup race or even the other ancillary shows throughout the weekend, like Trackside.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Treatment of Jr. by broadcasters continue to do fans a disservice

The move to the West Coast and Auto Club Speedway should bring an end to the discussion of the Daytona 500 and its related controversies. The weather that brought a premature end to the 500 is a distant memory. The punt that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. gave to Brian Vickers is still at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Listening to the SPEED broadcasters - Steve Byrnes, Hermie Sadler, and Jeff Hammond - continue to discuss the 500's most controversial moment during practice coverage from Fontana brings to the forefront one of the biggest issues many fans have with the Fox broadcast team.

Sadler, a former driver himself, said early in the coverage of Nationwide Series practice "if you think I am going to say anything negative about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. you guys are crazy."

Isn't the job of the broadcast journalists covering the event to accurately describe the action on the track, and when needed, analyze what happened?

In my book, it is.

That means having to form an opinion based on the pictures. The pictures from Daytona show Earnhardt yanking the wheel to the right, nudging Vickers in the left rear and starting a multi-car crash. Was there intent in the move? Was Earnhardt taking out his frustrations from two unforced errors on pit road? Was he repaying the favor from the last lap at Talladega in October 2006? It's impossible to know whether or not there was any intent there or what Earnhardt's level of frustration is. But it is plainly obvious to anyone, Jr. fan or not, to see the No. 88 car turned right up the track and into the No. 83 car.

If the broadcasters want to continue to talk about it, that's fine. But do your job and analyze what happened. Don't take the easy way out and say "I have no opinion because he's the sport's favorite driver and if I say anything negative the fans will be mad."

If the pictures show Earnhardt, Jr. doing something wrong, the broadcasters have a duty to report it. Good guys and fan favorites make mistakes, and in the eyes of many, Jr. made a mistake last week. To have the broadcast team treat the sport's biggest star with kid gloves just because of his status in the sport does the viewers a huge disservice.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's good for the goose should be good for the gander

Five days later and the NASCAR Nation is still abuzz with talk of "the big one" from Sunday's Daytona 500. Spectacular crashes have been a part of restrictor plate racing ever since Richard Petty kartwheeled through the short chute at Daytona in 1988. But never has one of the big multi-car crashes been started by the sport's biggest name and that's what has been driving bloggers and message board postings by the thousands this week.

The crash itself was no different than the dozens of others we've seen at Daytona or Talladega in recent years. Two drivers lost sight of the big picture and let themselves get caught in the moment; neither refused to budge when giving an inch or two would have saved them both a lot of grief and saved a lot of wrecked racecars. That's racing.

There have been, and rightfully so, comparisons made to a similar incident during Saturday's Nationwide Series race. Jason Leffler made contact with Steven Wallace and Wallace went for a wild spin and eventually collected a couple of other innocent victims. Leffler was penalized five laps for making intentional contact.

Meanwhile, Dale Earhardt Jr. spins out Brian Vickers and collects nearly a dozen cars in the process and NASCAR doesn't bring him down pit road.

NASCAR's Ramsey Poston says the two incidents have nothing in common because they deemed one to be intentional and the other to be incidental.

Look through the history of the sport and you'll see hundreds of instances of intentional contact. Dale Earnhardt, the sport's now-mythical hero, was often it's biggest villain in the 1980s because of his tactics on the track. Look at the 1986 race at Richmond when he hooked Darrell Waltrip in the right rear quarter panel and caused a huge wreck with a handful of laps to go, or when he wrecked Sterling Marlin at Bristol in 1987 while fighting for the lead, or when he wrecked Terry Labonte at Bristol in 1999 and stole the win on the last lap. In the 1999 incident, Earnhardt so much as admitted he intentionally made contact with the famous "all I wanted to do was rattle his cage" remark. The key to it all is that Earnhardt was not penalized for any of these incidents, although each of them could easily be considered intentional.

NASCAR has evolved through the years. They now want to legislate every possible aspect of the competition. I wish they would lighten up on some of it.

Keep the rules tight on the cars. Let the drivers race.

If someone intentionally takes someone out, there's no need to park them for five laps because it will eventually work itself out. The drivers are the best ones to handle that situation, whether it's back in the garage or it's a favor that is paid back on the racetrack somewhere down the line. That's how it was when guys like Petty, Pearson, Allison, and Yarbourough all made their name in the sport.

There may have been some penalties for intentional contact back in the day, but those instances were few and far between. That's how it should be today. Only in the case of the most flagrant car-to-car contact should someone be parked.

But with the precedent set with Saturday's penalty that opened the door for controversy on Sunday. Once Leffler was penalized, that meant anyone doing anything remotely similar should face the same five-lap penalty. Earnhardt's move certainly looked avoidable - notice the quick jerk to the right he made to get into Vickers - and therefore should have warranted the same penalty.

The good news is the ridiculous yellow line rule won't come into play again until April. This weekend the only areas that are out of bounds are those set by the nature of the sport: the wall and the infield. That's how it should be.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

You can't argue with Mother Nature, but...

Rain happens. Unless you're living in the Sahara desert or in Death Valley, chances are you see some rain once a week or so. Sometimes that rain falls on a Monday, which is just fine for most of the world because not much ever happens on a Monday. But sometimes that rain falls on Saturday and/or Sunday and that throws the best laid plans of weekend revelers into disarray.

Whether it's a weekend cookout with the family at the park or the Daytona 500, outdoor activities are always at the mercy of Mother Nature.

With the shortening of this year's Daytona 500 to 380 miles, there are a lot of complaints that NASCAR shouldn't have called the race and they did so out of greed and disdain for the fans.

I have criticized NASCAR and Fox for the late start time, but I also believe that they moved the start back in order to broaden the audience not shrink it. Now, we can debate until next year's Daytona 500 whether or not that has worked or not, but the fact is NASCAR and Fox actually want as many people as possible to watch the race - either in person or on television.

NASCAR has run the Daytona 500 for 51 years and in that time it has never had to run the race on a day other than the one on which it was originally scheduled. Four of those 51 races were shortened by rain; two of those were in 2003 and in 2009 (of course the 2006 race ran the final hour in a steady drizzle too). The 1995 race had a lengthy rain delay but eventually ran to its full conclusion. That's not a bad record, all things considered.

I have no problem with rain postponing, interrupting, or even bringing an early end to any NASCAR race. While NASCAR now has its hands in many more pieces of the pie than it did back in the 1990s, they still haven't found a way to influence the weather.

I do have a problem with the late starts. I don't believe it adds anyone to the audience by starting at 3 P.M. And when you have races at Michigan or Martinsville, tracks that don't have lights, any slight delay from the weather means the race will be shortened. Two cases in point: I sat in the rain at Michigan in June 1991 from 10 A.M. until the scheduled start of the race at 12:30 P.M. The rain stopped and the track was dried and the green flag came out around 2 P.M. under bright sunny skies. The race ran to its conclusion. In June 2006 I sat through a mid-race rain delay at Michigan and the race was forced to end early because there was no chance to dry the track because it was getting dark. If you start at 1 P.M. and have a delay you have time to give the paying customers what they've paid for. If you start at 3 P.M. and have a delay (and don't have lights) you're sending everyone home early and upset.

Even at some tracks with lights, a delay is going to mean a premature end to the race. It takes a couple of hours to dry Daytona. Just like we saw on Sunday, a two-hour rain after halfway is going to mean the race is over. Track drying would have started at 9 P.M. or later, and under a best-case scenario that would have meant an 11 P.M. restart. While I would have stayed up to watch, that's not a good circumstance for anyone.

There's nothing you can do about Mother Nature. NASCAR made the right call under the circumstances on Sunday. There was no chance the racetrack was going to be dry within a reasonable amount of time.

There are things that can be done to change the starting times. The race needs to be moved earlier in the day so a slight delay doesn't mean a premature finish to the sport's signature event.

And it sure would be nice to see the Daytona 500 winner celebrating under that bright, sunny Florida sky again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

On the line is on the line

One of the major controversies of Sunday's Daytona 500 - at least until lap 120 - was the pit infraction and subsequent penalty incurred by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. With one unforced error to his credit on pit road already, Earnhardt stopped with his right front tire on the white line and before he could move the car back into legal position his crew completed service drawing a one-lap penalty from NASCAR.

Earnhardt expressed dissatisfaction in the rule in his post-race comments. He believes "one inch" on the line shouldn't draw any penalty and he shouldn't have been placed a lap down.

As a student of the sport's history, Earnhardt should know why that rule is in place and there should be little question as to why such penalties are levied.

It was November 1990, the Atlanta Journal 500 at Atlanta International Raceway, and Earnhardt's father was locked in a title fight with Mark Martin. The senior Earnhardt would eventually lock up the title but his fourth championship was tempered by the death of crewman Mike Rich.

Rich was servicing Bill Elliott's car when Ricky Rudd spun on pit road and impacted the right rear corner of Elliott's car. Rich was trapped between the two cars and perished from his injuries.

The following season, NASCAR implemented new rules to reduce the traffic on pit road starting at Daytona. Teams would not be allowed to pit for tires under caution and once the green flag came out the field was split in half and each half could pit on subsequent laps. It was a confusing system and it was eventually changed after a handful of races.

The rules put into place for the North Wilkesboro race are fairly close to what we see today: the pits are closed until the pace car picks up the field under caution; lead lap cars pit the first time by and lapped cars the following lap; there is a speed limit on pit road at all times; spinning on pit road will draw a penalty between one to five laps depending on the severity of the infraction; and teams must pit their car in the pit box.

It used to be the teams could service the car with only one tire inside the box. That was dangerous and often saw crew members out in the lane of traffic with cars speeding by. The rules put in place in 1991 keep crew members closer to the pit wall and out of traffic.

Earnhardt's crew serviced his car and the tire changers, tire carriers, and jackman were all out in the lane of traffic. Earnhardt has every right to be upset for losing a lap, but the blame falls squarely on his shoulders. He drove the car and stopped it with the right front on the white line. NASCAR doesn't differentiate between one inch or twelve; on the line is on the line.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rearview: Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 is in the books. The fans have waited over three months for the superbowl of stock car racing, and as Matt Kenseth and crew celebrate their victory in the 51st running of the Great American Race I am left with an empty feeling.

I have made my living in the sport for nearly a decade, but when the engines fire for the Daytona 500 I am still nothing more than a fan. I look forward to it all winter, and I still feel the butterflies when I wake up on race morning.

I'm not disappointed because Kenseth isn't a deserving winner. He is. He drove a cautiously aggressive race (he did, after all, take the green flag in 43rd and last position) and put himself in position to make the winning move as weather came in to shorten the race with 120 miles yet to race.

I am disappointed in several things that in my mind tarnish the image of my favorite sport.

First and foremost is the quality of the broadcast.

Just three weeks ago, we were treated to one of the most thrilling Super Bowls in the history of pro football. The broadcast not only showed the compelling pictures of the game, but the commentary was delivered in a sharp, professional manner. It was expected that the viewers would have some sort of basic knowledge of the game. There were no amateurish cartoons in the pre-game show, and that same cartoon didn't make repeated appearances every time the NBC crew used some gimmicky camera angle.

I tuned in to the Daytona 500 pre-race show looking for information and updates on the race. Instead, I saw a silly cartoon, a mediocre musical act, and repeated clowning by the on-air personalities.

The race started and the action on the track brought back the warm and fuzzies that were lacking in the pre-race show. But how many times do we need to see that gopher? Sure Fox has turned it into a marketing gimmick to sell T-shirts, but enough is enough. Every time the in-track camera is used is way too much.

The silly cartoons and the buffoonery from Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond were nothing once Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made contact with Brian Vickers and started a 10-car crash as the race reached the 120 lap mark.

The lack of critical analysis by the booth, particularly Darrell Waltrip, is inexcusible. Earnhardt may be the most popular driver in the garage, but when he makes a mistake he needs to be called on the carpet for it. Particularly when the mistake takes out 10 other drivers. And on top of that, Jason Leffler was penalized five laps for a similar incident the day before. Waltrip alluded to the incident, but never made mention of what happened or how the driver involved was penalized. As fans, we deserve forthright and honest analysis not unabashed cheerleading.

It's basic journalism. Provide the viewers with the facts. As a former driver Waltrip is uniquely qualified to offer insight on what is happening on the track. Yet he chose to give Earnhardt a pass without any analysis at all.

Boothmate Larry McReynolds said it was "wrong" but he too put the kid gloves on when dealing with Earnhardt.

Finally, Dick Berggren spoke to Earnhardt during the rain delay and asked him what happened, and Earnhardt didn't shy away from responding and even spoke about other mistakes he made throughout the day.

I thought it was humorous that Earnhardt admits to being on the line on his pit stop - which draws a one-lap penalty - yet he thinks there should be a change made. It's a black-and-white rule. Either your on the line or you're not. Earnhardt was clearly on the line, and it doesn't matter if it's one inch or 12. The one-lap penalty was deserved. But the question does need to be asked: if Jason Leffler deserves a five-lap penalty for causing an incident, why doesn't Jr. draw the same penalty?

I am also disappointed that the Fox-mandated start time to the Daytona 500 prevented us from seeing the full 500 miles. The weather patterns in central Florida have been the same since Daytona International Speedway has been in existence. Rain is often a factor around 6-7 P.M. this time of the year. Yet this is the time that Fox wants for the final 100 miles of the race. The days of seeing the Daytona 500 winner take the checkered flag in the glimmering Florida sun are apparently long gone and that's a shame. The race needs to start either at 2 P.M. or at 7 P.M. I prefer an earlier start because if weather is an issue it gives them time to get the track back in shape and we can see the full 500 mile distance.

Joey Logano had a rough SpeedWeeks. Want to bet the next time someone gets loose in front of him and checks up that Logano will chose making some contact rather than spinning and taking himself out?

At one point, just before the rain delay, Richard Petty Motorsports had three of the top four positions on the track. Elliott Sadler led with Reed Sorenson second and A.J. Allmendinger in fourth. Sorenson was shuffled out of the draft and Sadler was overwhelmed by Kenseth's charge to the front but Allmendiger did a great job to come home third. Hopefully the team can secure funding to allow him to run a complete season. It's obvious that he has found his comfort level in stock cars.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rearview: NextEra Energy 250

The Camping World era started off with a strong showing as the Tough Trucks of NASCAR opened their season at Daytona for the tenth consecutive season. And just like he did in 2008, Todd Bodine ended the night in victory lane. The youngest brother of 1986 Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine has now claimed four consecutive "plate track" victories.

As a spectator, I was on the edge of my seat virtually all night - glued to the SPEED broadcast. The pictures coming through to my television were amazing, showing just how on the outer edge of control the trucks were and how close these drivers were running at over 185 miles per hour. The Truck broadcasts are the most solid in NASCAR, with no extraneous bells and whistles, just racing. The personalities don't get in the way of the race either, save for whenever a driver receives the free pass to get a lap back and Michael Waltrip goes into overdrive shill mode for one of his sponsors. Sometimes less is more, and that is a classic example.

It was interesting to see the last lap play out the way that it did. Bodine obviously has a strong truck as he's held off last-lap charges at Daytona and Talladege the past two years to take the victory. With Kyle Busch on the back bumper on the final lap it's easy to guess there will be some fireworks but Busch has not been able to capitalize. He even said it himself on pit road following the race, he just hasn't figured out the timing on that final lap to make the pass and claim the win. Busch tried to move Bodine up the track going into turn three with a bump but what he ended up doing was giving Bodine such a strong shove that it pushed him to an insurmountable advantage. Had Busch done that the lap before, he and Terry Cook (and the rest of the field) would have had such a run on Bodine that he would have been the proverbial sitting duck. Maybe what Busch learned last night will come to good use in the Daytona 500 and/or later in the season when the Trucks rumble at Talladega.

Cook must have watched the final lap unfurl with his heart racing and his eyes wide open. Knowing that the final 100 yards is when the race has been settled in years past with a three-wide move, he had to feel like he was in the catbird seat. He was driving a chassis that had won at Daytona on three previous occasions when Bobby Hamilton Racing owned it (2001 - Joe Ruttman, 2002 - Robert Pressley, and 2005 - Bobby Hamilton) and Cook himself is no slouch on the plate tracks with now seven top-10 finishes in ten starts. Although he started his career in the mid 1980s at little quarter-mile Flat Rock Speedway, he had to feel like it was good old days as he was back in the No. 25, a number he used to win dozens of races at both Flat Rock and Sandusky Speedways. He also gave team owner Jim Harris his second third-place finish as an owner at Daytona, with Pressley finishing third (after leading the race with an eighth of a mile to go) in 2003.

The new pit rules didn't seem to affect anything at all. With teams allowed to only take tires or fuel on a pit stop, not both, it meant that teams made two pit stops during each round. It may have shuffled the running order from lap to lap as the teams stopped, but it had very little effect on the race itself. That will likely change at Fontana, and could be even more pronounced at the short tracks. I personally am not a fan of the changes; to me it makes more sense to go back to the rule that was used when live pit stops were first implemented in the series back in 1998: you can only change two tires per stop. With five men over the wall, you can still add fuel and change tires, but the tire changers would have to act as their own tire carrier too.

The high attrition rate in the NextEra Energy 250 meant that several independent teams and unheralded drivers had a good finish. JR Fitzpatrick, a rookie from Canada who had never seen a track bigger than a quarter-mile before last October, finished fourth; Timothy Peters, in a very low-dollar effort, was strong all week and finished sixth; Tayler Malsam drove Randy Moss's second truck to tenth; Chase Austin, in the new Trail Motorsport effort, was 13th; and Dennis Setzer, in a last-minute third entry for the new Racing team, drove a Dodge to 18th.

Interesting that both drivers that were pegged with passing below the yellow line during the race, Todd Bodine and Terry Cook, both finished in the top three. I have never driven a race vehicle of any type so maybe I am not the one to voice this, but I agree with Bodine's assessment after the race. The yellow line rule might have been implemented with the best of intentions, but it causes more problems than it solves. I have always thought that out of bounds on a racetrack was easily defined: the concrete wall to the right and the grass or the infield to the left. The drivers know where they can race. If they think they can squeeze up in line before making it into turn three, I say let them try. Will it cause a crash? Possibly. But as we saw, so will holding your line in an effort not to go below the yellow line. It's too bad for last week's ARCA winner James Buescher, he was taken out through no real fault of his own. He definitely proved that he's the real deal bu running at the front for much of the first half of the race.

Enjoy the rest of SpeedWeeks! The Nationwide race today is shaping up to be the calmest race of the weekend, while based on what we've seen all week in practice and the Gatorade Duel, tomorrow's 51st Annual Daytona 500 promises to be a wild race.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My favorite Daytona memory

I've talked about it in other venues before. In a lifetime that has seen many races, many of which had memorable moments in their own right, this one stands out above the rest.

It was the Truck race at Daytona in 2005. It was the sixth race at Daytona, but the first I witnessed from the grandstand side of the track. And to top it off, it was from the comfort of press box, high above the track with a crystal-clear view of every inch of the track.

I remember walking across the track. I crossed when the teams started pushing their cars to the grid from the famous Gate 7 halfway between turn four and the tri-oval. Walking with the teams was neat because I could hear the reaction some of them were drawing from the crowd.

Once at the start-finish line, I did what any red-blooded fan would do: I took a picture.


Then I headed for the crossover gate and was met by a huge throng of people. I swiftly went up the grandstands and made my way to the elevator. Within moments I was somewhere I never thought I would be, the press box at Daytona.

As a kid, I had watched the 500 every year since 1981 (and had even gone back and watched the 1979 and 1980 races on VHS too). I remember Bumper-gate in 1982, the 200 mph barrier broken in 1983 and again (officially) in 1984. The aero-coupe invasion started in 1985 with the Ford Thunderbird and has eventually changed the sport as the importance of aerodynamics became more and more pronounced.

I remember when ESPN brought us the first broadcasts of the ARCA and Nationwide races in the early 1990s. The track itself blossomed too as the Winston Tower sprung up nearly 15 stories behind the start-finish line.

And now, here I was, sitting atop that very structure.

The countdown to green was electrifying. The time, which usually seems to move very slowly, flew by at an astonishing rate. Before I knew it, the command to fire engines was given and trucks were on track.

As soon as the green waved, I instantly knew why Daytona is packed to the gills with fans for SpeedWeeks. The sight of 36 trucks slinging around the highbanks was truly breathtaking. Sure, I had a job to do, but I found it hard to take my eyes off the track to type.

The race itself was thrilling. Both Rick Crawford and Chad Chaffin went upside down and drove back to the pits in separate incidents. There was a multi-truck accident at the waving of the white flag among the lead pack and a last-second pass for the win as the yellow was waving. Jimmy Spencer went to victory lane but Bobby Hamilton eventually was awarded the win after NASCAR reviewed the SPEED tapes.

I tried to hustle down from the press box to make the winner's press conference in the media center but couldn't get there in time. I was pleasantly surprised to be invited back to Hamilton's motorhome for a private interview and chat long after his official obligations had ended. It was the perfect ending to an improbably perfect night. And for a journalist who is still a major fan of the sport, it was a memory that will last a lifetime.

PR needs to take a more prominent role

With the economy in the tank (it's effects are especially strong in the Truck and Nationwide series) teams must do everything they can to get as much positive exposure possible for their sponsors. Disappointingly many teams have cut their PR budgets at a time when they need to be shoring them up.

The team PR rep is often overlooked, and as Michael Knight points out in his SpinDoctor500 blog, often rightfully so. There is often little done to attract additional interest to unique stories that a series like the Camping World Trucks have to offer.

Teams need to hire competent, professional PR managers to pitch stories and get that exposure. Sure, we can all work with radio personalities on site and if our teams finish high enough we might get a mention in the local newspaper. But there are other opportunities that are routinely left on the table because as a whole we don't pursue them.

I hope team owners in the Truck and Nationwide Series realize the need to hire active, engaging professionals before it's too late. The PR rep needs to do much more than carry the drivers towel and bottle of water after the race.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Making a case for ARCA at Daytona

I've been in the media center at NASCAR tracks, and I know how it works. One or two of the more vocal writers finds an angle, and the next thing you know everyone wants to talk about it. It seems the angle this week is the ARCA RE/MAX Series and whether or not it should be racing at Daytona International Speedway.

Saturday's race wasn't the best on-track competition in recent memory. But it wasn't the worst either. Sure, there were crashes. At a place like Daytona there always are crashes, regardless of the series racing at the time. Need proof? Following the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 was the Budweiser Shootout, with 28 of "the best" drivers in the world. The best managed to match the ARCA drivers crash-for-crash.

Three drivers were injured in the ARCA race: Bobby Gerhart went to the hospital after popping a tire and pounding the wall in turn one while Larry Hollenbeck and Patrick Sheltra were taken to Halifax Medical Center after their massive collision with a handful of laps to go. Some writers are suggesting that the spate of injuries alone is enough to banish ARCA from the highbanks.

That's ridiculous.

Fifteen years ago this week the Sprint Cup Series faced the unlikely prospect that multiple drivers can lose their life at a single race meet when Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr were killed in separate crashes practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500. Were there calls for suspending all racing at Daytona as a result? What about after the death of Dale Earnhardt?

Racing is inherently dangerous. The drivers all know and accept the risks when they strap in. Maybe some of us have been desensitized to this fact because injuries (and fatalities) have thankfully been drastically reduced in recent years. But they have not been - and will never be - totally eliminated.

As for the ARCA race at Daytona, it serves a very important role (other than kicking off SpeedWeeks). It also provides young drivers with the first step in learning superspeedway racing. Without ARCA's two races each year at Daytona and Talladega drivers would be forced to learn racing in the draft in the Craftsman Truck, Nationwide, and/or Sprint Cup Series. The ARCA series provides a competitive platform but without the intense pressure found in the other series.

I used the example of Denny Hamlin's ascent to Sprint Cup racing from the local late models in Virginia with one writer earlier this week. Hamlin was planning on racing at Daytona in 2005 but had yet to receive clearance to do so. He raced the 2004 ARCA race at Talladega - unfortunately he was crashed out early - and impressed NASCAR officials enough with what he did in practice and his short time in the race to earn his clearance.

Maybe there are some drivers that shouldn't be allowed to race at Daytona. Maybe there are some spotters who shouldn't be in the spotters stand. But how will we ever find out if we don't let them try? And for what it's worth, there are several drivers involved in crashes week in and week out in the Cup Series too, and I wouldn't want those guys to deliver me a pizza much less drive next to me at 180 miles per hour.

One has to wonder what these writers will say when we see accidents in the Camping World Truck Series race and the Nationwide race later this week. Surely the Gatorade Duel will be spiced with action as nearly 20 drivers vye for just four open positions in the Daytona 500. And of course now that racing at Daytona is as physical as racing at Martinsville, the last 100 miles of the 500 itself it sure to provide a season's worth of action.

I have a feeling we'll see the crashes in the Daytona 500 mentioned in the same light we saw the crashes in the Budweiser Shootout. It seems the same writers who railed against ARCA were also saying the Shootout was the best race in the event's 30-year history. I don't follow that logic. If it's okay for the so-called best drivers in the world to crash into each other, why isn't it allowed for those drivers learning their trade?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Some Daytona thoughts...

Here are some thoughts from a busy weekend of racing down in Daytona...

Saturday's ARCA race was an interesting affair, as it always is. Some new fans to the sport might not realize the importance of this event, and truthfully, that's understandable because SPEED has relegated the SpeedWeeks opener to afterthought status. ARCA has been racing at Daytona for 46 years, and it has given numerous NASCAR winners their first look at superspeedway-style racing.

The ARCA race is always peppered with accidents as the mix of young guns and career ARCA racers takes to the World Center of Speed. Many of the crashes in Saturday's race were due to a mix of inexperience and impatience. On a couple of occasions, a driver in the second groove tried to move into the bottom lane when that groove was already occupied. Thankfully Patrick Sheltra wasn't injured more seriously than he was as a result of his crash; Sheltra was running third when he tried to move low to block Justin Lofton and the result was Larry Hollenbeck drilling Sheltra in the left-rear wheel. The question does need to be asked, however: what was Hollenbeck's spotter watching? He narrowly missed Bobby Gearhart's stricken car just a handful of laps earlier while still running at a high speed and the contact with Sheltra was at high speed too.

ARCA winner James Buescher kicked off a big year on the right foot. Buescher also won at Lakeland a couple of years ago to become ARCA's youngest winner. He moves to NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competition full-time this season with Circle Bar Racing.

The nightcap on Saturday, the Budweiser Shootout, was every bit as rough and tumble as the ARCA race. The 28-car field raced for 75 laps, with six cautions for on-track accidents throughout the race. Over half the starting field was eliminated or heavily damaged by crashes. Greg Biffle was involved in no fewer than four of the cautions. These are supposedly the best stock car drivers in the world, yet they can't race more than a dozen laps on the sport's biggest stage without running into one another.

Some of that is due to the rules that keep the cars stacked up in one big pack at the two restrictor-plate tracks. Some of it is due to the drivers themselves; regardless of what Fox or NASCAR might want us to believe many of the current crop of drivers are not among the best in the business. There are simply too many incidents started by the same drivers over and over. But even the best aren't immune at Daytona: both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon played instigator in a couple of big crashes.

David Poole has a blog on talking about Sunday's pole qualifying for the Daytona 500. I don't always agree with Poole, but in this instance he's right: superspeedway qualifying is boring. It's a necessary evil, but it's as fun as watching grass grow. The qualifying formula for the 500 used to be interesting and thrilling, because you never knew who would be brave enough be able to hold the pedal down the entire way around. Cars were on the ragged edge trying to find that speed: spoilers were laid back and drivers were wound up tight. Now someone like me could hop into the pole winning car and drive it at the same speed. The cars are much safer now than they were 25 years ago, but they are also planted to the racetrack too much - especially when they are in qualifying trim.

Good for the Earnhardt-Ganassi organization that they've come out of the gate strong. Many were wondering how this team would perform after a rough off season. One race doesn't necessarily indicate how the rest of the season will go - especially when that race is Daytona and absolutely nothing that goes on here transfers over to 33 of the following 36 races. But EGR has two cars in the top-five in qualifying, including pole winner Martin Truex, Jr. and getting to hold your head up a little higher than the competition for the rest of the week is a great way to start the year for that group.

It's also nice to see the Wood Bros. team back in the 500 after missing the race last year. Hopefully Bill Elliott will make it through Thursday's Gatorade Duel unscathed and can be competitive in the 500.

More later in the week...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Points swapping mess

The idea that a team owner can swap points or buy points from another organization to join the "top-35" and therefore be locked into the field for the first five races - and therefore likely longer into the season - is ludicrous. In fact, it defeats the purpose of the rule.

Somewhere along the way, NASCAR decided that qualifying for races didn't matter all that much. Getting to where we are now has been a process: it started with going from 20 cars locked into the field in first round qualifying and 20 more being locked in via second round qualifying to 25 cars in the first round and 13 in the second with four provisionals (based on a 42 car field). Then the second round was eliminated altogether. Then the number of provisionals jumped from four to six and then to seven. Now the number of provisionals is in effect 35.

I subscribe to the theory that no team should be guaranteed a starting position.

Motorsports should be a simple competition. The first from point A to point B - whether it's a simple quarter-mile drag race or a 500-mile oval race - is the winner. The qualifying process should be equally simple. The fastest of those attempting to make the race get in. Those too slow watch from the sidelines.

Sometimes those too slow will have sponsors. Those sponsors should be rightfully worried when their car misses a race. But that's all part of it, a risk that you take when you sign on the dotted line.

But what we are seeing now is pushing the already-silly top-35 rule beyond ridiculous.

Teams are forming alliances and buying points trying to lock into the field because NASCAR says they can. Earnhard-Ganassi Racing, with six teams in the top-35 in 2008, can only field four teams in the 500. That means they have two positions in the top-35 up for the highest bidder.

What should happen to those points? Simple: they should be unused. Points should not be transferable. If you didn't earn them, you don't get to use them. If that means that less than 35 teams are locked into the 500 based on last year's owners standings, then so be it.

The Daytona 500 qualifying system, once uniquely cool among stock car racing's major events, is now among the most ludicrously confusing systems in all of sports. It's even more confusing with all of the point swapping.

Sooner or later NASCAR will awake to the fact that the top-35 rule is not necessary. Until then, the sanctioning body needs to close the loopholes.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Daytona Countdown

The countdown is on to Daytona SpeedWeeks. The action kicks off as usual with the ARCA RE/MAX Series as the opening act for the Budweiser Shootout. After a long off-season filled with talk of doom and gloom it will be nice to see cars on the racetrack.

The Elephant in the Room

The big talk of the off-season was, of course, the economy and its impact on the sport. Many teams have had to downsize or merge with other organizations to survive. While many members of the media keep count on how many workers have lost their jobs as a result, they often overlook the root cause of the problem: team owners let costs get out of control.

NASCAR's thick rulebook certainly doesn't help, but the bottom line is the team owners are the ones who let costs get out of control. Sure, it's easy to let spending go unchecked during times of prosperity, but what happens when things slow down? Of course what has happened with today's economy can't be classified as a slow down - it's more like the sudden stop Jimmie Johnson experienced when he slammed head-on into the barrier at Watkins Glen in the Busch Series race several years ago.

Might there be an upside to this?

I think so. When the stock market is perceived to be overvalued, investors sell off and there is a correction. That's exactly what is happening in NASCAR right now. Some sponsors might be willing to shell out $20 million for a primary sponsorship, but those are going to be even fewer and farther between in the future, even when the economy rights itself.

It shouldn't cost a team upwards of half a million dollars per race to go to the racetrack. If one looks at the Camping World Trucks as an example, those teams budget an average of roughly $100,000 per race. Cup races are usually double the distance of a Truck race, so it's easy to follow that a Cup team should be able to go to the track and compete for wins with $200,000 per event. That's less than $8 million a season based on 38 events.

Speaking of the Trucks, NASCAR has taken some interesting steps hoping to save the teams some money. Limiting the number of crew members at the track is a good start, and it will be interesting to see how the pit stop rules (either gas or tires on any given pit stop, not both) play out. And most interestingly, teams cannot use a fresh engine in three consecutive events. Hopefully this will help teams struggling to make ends meet stay competitive.

But I find it ironic that NASCAR now is trying to mandate how teams run their engines.

It wasn't that long ago that the Trucks ran a 9.5:1 compression engine, which was a lower-cost and dependable format. But somewhere along the way, it was decided that the Truck (and Nationwide) engines should be more in line with what the Cup teams were using and they went to a 12:1 compression ratio. Truck teams immediately saw their engine budgets double, and that's not considering losing the inventory of engines they already had on the shelf. Had NASCAR kept the 9.5:1 engine, the teams costs would never have spiked to begin with and maybe some of the teams that went by the wayside over the past half-dozen years would still be racing.

Who's In - Who's Out

I listened to Sirius NASCAR Radio while running some errands this afternoon and hosts Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers were making their predictions on who would and who wouldn't make the Chase come September. Keep in mind Chocolate is a life-long Richard Childress Racing employee so you can't exactly hold it against him that he picked all four RCR cars to make the playoff. Benjamin, who has been around this sport for decades as well, sees things a little harder for RCR this year as the organization fought for consistency over the second half of last season. I tend to agree: I think Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick will be solid this season and contend for wins and solidly make the Chase. But I think the shuffling of Clint Bowyer into the new No. 33 ride and Casey Mears in the No. 07 will both find it hard to keep up with their teammates.

So who do I pick? It's hard to go against Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon. Greg Biffle seems to be back on track, and you also have to think Matt Kenseth will be there. Harvick and Burton should be in the hunt, as will fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. That leaves three spots open. David Ragan showed last season he is ready to take the next step and contend, and I think he will crack the Chase lineup in 2009. I think it will be a tall order for Tony Stewart to make it in his first year with his own team, and his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing certainly won't do Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano any favors. Mark Martin is running the full season again, but the Hendrick No. 5 hasn't been a consistent contender since Ricky Rudd drove it in the early 1990s. That said, I think Martin will step up and put the car in the Chase. That leaves on spot open, which I think will go to a Dodge driver. The turmoil at GEM/Richard Petty Motorsports in the off-season won't help Kasey Kahne find the consistency needed to get back in the Chase. The one Dodge organization that has had little off-season turmoil is Penske Racing, which should find that Kurt Busch is back to form in 2009. He's my final Chase pick for the year. Let's look back in seven months and see how right these picks are and how close you came.

Truck Talk

The big worry for many over the off-season was that the Camping World Truck Series would simply fade away. Message board posts from fans everywhere said the same thing: the series only had 12 confirmed trucks and since there wouldn't be anything near a full field at any race this year NASCAR would discontinue the series.

That won't happen.

Sure there are some issues that need to be addressed to get the series back to where it was in its glory days when 50+ trucks showed up at many races, it's not as bad off as many have been lead to believe. Just because there aren't 36 "confirmed" full-time teams doesn't mean there won't be full fields in 2009. There's an indication that there will be many part-time teams joining the series this year, which is a great sign for the future.

When times are lean, that opens the doors to newcomers to make their way in. Even for some established teams, like HT Motorsports and SS Green Light Racing, it gives them an opportunity to rack up top-10s and maybe even fight for a win somewhere.

It might not be what you're used to, but I think the upcoming season will be one of the more interesting seasons in the history of the series.