Monday, March 30, 2009

Rearview: Martinsville

The first two-thirds of the spring short track season is now in the books with back-to-back races at Bristol and Martinsville. With the Virginia paperclip in the history books it should come as no surprise that Jimmie Johnson celebrated his first win of the year. He now has won five of the last six there and six of the last ten. In what was probably one of the most well executed races of his career, Johnson took the lead with 15 laps to go in a great side-by-side duel into turn three with Denny Hamlin. Contact was made and both cars slid up the track and both drivers did a great job keeping them pointed in the right direction. Johnson might be seen as too vanilla for some (including yours truly) but he did a masterful job on Sunday.


Hamlin probably could have given Johnson a shot down the backstretch on the cooldown lap and then got out of his car and said what a dirty move it was that cost him the lead. But he didn't. A lot of people think Hamlin didn't pay his dues and that his rise to Cup was too quick. By conducting himself the way he did over the final 15 laps and in the post-race interviews, Hamlin is showing to be a coolheaded pro and more than deserving of his ride.


For those wanting to see Kyle Busch make a mistake, Martinsville ought to have been your favorite weekend of the year so far. He overdrove turn three on Sunday and spun out, taking Scott Speed with him. On Monday, during the rain-delayed Truck race, he got into a late tussle with Kevin Harvick fighting for the lead and dinged the left rear fender into the tire. Trying to fix the damage without a trip to pit road, Busch scrubbed the inside backstretch wall. In doing so, he crossed the commitment line to pit road although he had no intention of pitting. NASCAR, rightfully so, penalized Busch to the tail end of the longest line. Say what you want about the commitment line (I think it's one of the most unnecessary rules ever implemented in NASCAR) but it's there and Busch crossed it. Since he did, the ruling was fair and just.


Speaking of the commitment line, I laughed when I saw Hermie Sadler try to explain where it is located on NASCAR RaceDay. Sadler told the audience the commitment line is very close to the entrance to pit road, marked with an orange box painted onto the track that would ordinarily be an orange cone, and that it's very tricky because it doesn't give a lot of warning for the teams pitting inside turns three and four. It was a great piece...except that Sadler was really describing the line that tells the drivers they need to be running at pit road speed. The commitment line is about 150 feet back up the track at the end of the inside wall. Hopefully Sadler had it figured out by the time he strapped in for Monday's Truck race.


Scott Speed was justifiably upset after being taken out by Busch's unforced error early on. He said following the race that it was the second time Busch had taken him out this year and was looking forward to a nice dinner or something from Busch as restitution. In all fairness to Busch, the first incident at Las Vegas was more like Busch crashing and Speed getting caught up in the aftermath. The incident on Sunday at Martinsville wasn't on purpose either, but Speed's anger is much more justified - particularly because he was running second when it happened.


Isn't it odd how bad luck seems to find the same drivers week in and week out? Guys like Robby Gordon, who are otherwise talented and fast, but can't seem to get through a 500-lapper without flat tires and contact from other drivers putting him into the spin cycle.


How about BrawnF1 picking up the win in the team's debut in Melbourne? The former Honda factory team nearly went out of business before former Ferarri designer Ross Brawn stepped in to purchase the team and keep it afloat. It's only the second time since 1975 that a team won a Grand Prix in it's debut. To put it into perspective, it would be something similar to someone buying out the assets of Bill Davis Racing on January 1 and then going on to win the Daytona 500.


It was interesting to see Jason White race his way towards the front during the Truck race on Monday. White has been around the Nationwide and Truck series for almost a decade but has never driven in top-notch equipment. His current team might not be the most well-funded in the series but they are showing a commitment to be around for the long run. White's good run came to an end after a run-in with Matt Crafton. White moved Crafton out of the way in turns one and two, and Crafton immediately repaid the favor in turn three sending White around. It's no surprise because racing with the veterans at the front is a tough business but if White can show he can do it on a more regular basis he'll start to earn their respect. A nudge like the one he gave Crafton is the price of doing business at Martinsville when you're racing at the front, but so is giving the untested newcomer a trip in the spin cycle.

Friday, March 27, 2009

So who does owe the fans?

The other day I posted my thoughts on what NASCAR owes the fans. Very simply, I wrote all they owe those of us who consider ourselves fans of the sport is an event that is officiated fairly and the rules are applied evenly among all of the entrants.

NASCAR may not owe the fans much, but that doesn't mean the fans should be overlooked. So who does owe the paying customer?

1. The racetracks. First and foremost the tracks owe the fans since in reality that's who the fans are giving their hard-earned money. The fans pay the tracks by buying tickets and concessions, and they make tens of millions of dollars per event. As a thank you, the fans should receive more than just a pat on the back on the way out the gate. Too often, the fans are hit with exorbatant ticket prices (some tracks even charge processing fees per ticket!), concession prices, and even hit them with a parking fee when they get there. It's one thing to pay a fee to park a motorhome in the infield, it's a bit much to ask the average ticket buyer who just wants to come in and watch the race with his family or friends to pay $10 just to park. The tracks should keep ticket prices in check and they should keep prices for food and drinks reasonable. Should a simple hamburger and 20 ounce soft drink cost $12.00? No it shouldn't. The tracks should also ensure there are activities in and around the track that allow the drivers to interact with the drivers. Autograph sessions planned and advertised well in advance are a good way to allow Average Joe a chance to meet his favorite driver, but the possibilities are limitless. At the Truck race in Mansfield the downtown street festival we threw every year brought in a dozen drivers, show cars, interactive displays, and all of the team transporters. Through the track's cooperation with the city, it didn't cost the track anything and the city only had to pay for the safety services (extra police and closing the roads) and it attracted thousands of people downtown for several hours. Some other tracks have similar events but it wouldn't hurt if all of them did.

2. The drivers. We hear about their new private jets and their cushy extistence in the motorhome lot, which is often guarded as tight as Fort Knox to ensure any misguided race fan doesn't end up there to bother for an autograph. We see the millions of dollars they make, even if they run 40th every week. We hear about all of the demands on their time but few of those demands involve the people paying the freight. Sure, they take care of their sponsors. But why are the sponsors here? To have their message spread to a large and loyal audience! The drivers need to be much more accessible to the fans. They shouldn't be forced to do it either, it's something they should want to do. These are the people buying gaudy, overpriced T-shirts and jackets to show their loyalty to you. They have every die cast ever put on the market on display in their living room. Their loyalty to their drivers has put millions of dollars in the drivers' pockets. Instead of hiding in those million-dollar motorhomes (that have been paid for in part by the people they hide from) the drivers should be out mingling with the fans more than they are. Take a page from Robby Gordon's book and go spend a Saturday night on the golf cart riding through the campgrounds and spend some quality time with the people who make the sport go around.

3. The television networks. The networks are how most of the people watch the sport and is the only means of doing so for the vast majority of the audience. Journalistic standards should be met. The commentators should report on the event and avoid attracting any additional attention to themselves. All participants should be involved in the coverage of the event, not just those running among the top ten. If someone running 34th drops out, the audience should be told why. No one is suggesting every car receive equal coverage - those running up front deserve to be shown more. Announcers should be impartial. Anyone with an ownership interest in a team should not be able to comment on an event in which that team is participating. Announcers shouldn't be wearing apparel with sponsor logos on them. Rather than being the show, as many of them want to be, the announcers need to do what they were hired to do and describe and analyze the action on the track. It's fine to have fun doing it, but the shenanigans and buffoonery that's passed off as professional commentary by some of them needs to go.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Does NASCAR owe the fans?

Every year there are numerous blogs posted by racing fans out there stating NASCAR owes them something. Whether it's a photo finish every week or a tight points race, there is always some fan who thinks because he buys a ticket or turns the channel onto a NASCAR race that he is owed something.

I am from the opposite school of thought.

The only thing NASCAR owes the fans is a race where all 43 competitors are subjected to the same rules and enforcement.

The fans aren't guaranteed a photo finish in the Daytona 500. They aren't guaranteed 50 lead changes every week. They aren't guaranteed rumpled fenders and heated tempers at Bristol or Martinsville. They aren't guaranteed an autograph and they aren't guaranteed their favorite will win or even run near the front. They aren't guaranteed anything!

That's what sports is all about. If you knew going in that the Steelers would win by 35 points over the Browns, would you go? Maybe if you're a die hard Steelers fan, but for the rest of us knowing what's going to happen ahead of time goes against the fabric of what sports is all about. You buy your ticket or tune in on television to see what happens and who wins.

Sometimes you go to the ballpark and you get a game with seven homers and a 14-13 final score. The game might even be settled by a bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam. But the very next night, the same two teams could play and end up with a two-hitter and a 1-0 final score. Do the fans from the second game deserve some sort of refund because they didn't get the same game as the fans on the first night?

I don't follow stick and ball sports too much, but I do follow them enough to know I don't read too many blogs from fans wanting their money back after a 1-0 game.

There are still bloggers out there complaining that they were "ripped off" by NASCAR because the Daytona 500 was rain shortened. Was I disappointed? Sure, who wouldn't be? It's the biggest race in the sport and to have it be ended short is a bummer to say the least. Did NASCAR rip us off? No. (The discussion about the 3 P.M. start is for another time...) Since when is NASCAR in control of the weather and how long any particular rain shower will last?

It seems some are mad there aren't more wrecks and heated tempers at Bristol. The new track there isn't like the old track - there is room to race and room to pass. The old track was a terrible racetrack. The narrow groove led to caution after caution and kept the actual racing to a minimum. It's funny, the people who complain the racing is bad at California now complain that actual racing at Bristol is boring!

Racing isn't about wrecks and lost tempers. If that happens as a result of close competition that's one thing. But to expect it as "the show" is something else entirely. Like I said earlier in the week, if that's the only reason you tune in, there are demo derbies at thousands of county fairs all across the country.

NASCAR does a fairly good job at giving us what they owe us: an event governed fairly and equally among all the competitors entered. As long as the rules are the same for the guy qualified 43rd as they are for the guy on the pole, that's fine with me. Whatever the drivers deliver on the racetrack once the green flag drops is fine with me because I understand sometimes it will be a barn burner and sometimes it might enduce a yawn or two.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Smith's misstatement could lead to PR fiasco

I read a post on the NASCAR Insiders site yesterday that opened my eyes a little. I had read the blurb about Lowe's Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith's status as a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and much like everyone else thought, "that's interesting" with a little chuckle and moved on.

But after a couple of days - and not seeing this story touched after the initial coverage of it - I started to wonder why the story doesn't warrant more follow up from the media hordes that follow NASCAR on a weekly basis. Particularly since Bristol is an SMI track and we all know how Bruton Smith loves to work the media during his race weekends. (Although, strangely, there was a distinct silence from the Smith camp over the weekend at Bristol...)

You can try to dismiss the inclusion of the word "graduate" in any communication from SMI, whether it's a press release or its annual report, as an oversight. That's possible, but that also assumes no one that proofread those communications (including, presumably Marcus Smith himself) found the mistake. Having crafted hundreds of press releases myself, I generally have as many sets of eyes look at it as possible before I send something out to the media. Whether it's a client catching something they'd like changed or a colleague who finds a typo, I have had numerous errors fleshed out and changed before I hit the send button.

Once, embarrassingly, I confused a sponsor's name with that of a competitor's product. Both were similarly named, and unfortunately, I didn't catch it until it was sent. I fell on the sword and sent out a revised release with a note of correction and an apology. I didn't misrepresent any fact, but I did make a factual error. It falls upon the writer to correct it, and I did.

I also know people who spend months working on annual reports for publicly traded companies. Every fact - whether it's a financial statement or a statement of someone's credentials - is looked at intensely and verified over and over. The SEC does not like to see mistakes in these filings and there is a large team of people whose only job through most of the winter is to ensure the information in that report is one-hundred percent accurate. Not 99.9%.

SMI is a public company. I don't pretend to understand any of the rules that govern how they can communicate with the public (there are complex rules because anything they say can influence their stock price). However, I do know that misrepresenting facts in a press release or an annual report can cause the company serious problems such as fraud charges and huge fines from regulators.

It may be a simple mistake. And those are the easy kinds to fix. Simply send out an update to the media with a quote from Marcus Smith saying "we goofed up, I did not graduate although I attended for four years and completed all of the requirements for graduation. I simply did not file the paperwork and did not participate in the graduation ceremony." Boom, done. Simple as that.

As someone who did file the paperwork and did participate in a college graduation ceremony, I can tell you it's not something you would forget. Of course this was back in the day prior to Internet access, so I had to wait in long lines to file the paperwork so maybe that's why I remember it, but if you ask me I can tell you that yes, I did graduate.

I wouldn't have to go back and have to ask the University of Toledo for any sort of clarification. Smith not giving an answer and saying he was "checking with the university" seems shady and disingenuous. If one of the loud voices in the media center wanted to pick this one up and run with it, it could become a major PR disaster for the track and SMI as a whole.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rearview: Bristol

Historically, the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway is close and intense, with too many cars in too little space. The combination left many drivers with frayed nerves and hot tempers. But if the recently completed weekend at Bristol is any indication, the era of the 15-caution flag race at Bristol is over.

The old concrete surface was a single-groove nightmare that didn't allow the drivers to race at all. The only way to pass was to move someone out of the way, and using the bumper often meant sending someone spinning into the wall.

The new surface and it's compound banking allows for two and even three-wide racing. There is still plenty of hardnosed racing and some bumping and banging, but the number of wrecks has dropped dramatically. I've always hoped for the return of a layer of asphalt at Bristol (because it's a better racing surface) but I have no real complaints about the new concrete at Bristol. However, many so-called fans are upset because there are fewer crashes. There are thrill shows at most short tracks and county fairs where cars are smashed beyond recognition. Crashes are a part of racing, but like anything in sports, you aren't guaranteed to see them. If that's the reason why you're watching racing at Bristol, you're better off taking your family to the demo derby at the county fair.

The racing is reminiscent of the old Bristol when drivers could run high or low all day long. The CoT is the limiting factor right now; once the car is more developed it will make for even better competition front to back.


It's about time that a JGR driver closed the deal at Bristol, isn't it? How many laps has the three-driver team led at BMS without going to victory lane? To no one's surprise it was Kyle Busch who drove to victory lane. Busch let one get away on Saturday when a wheel got loose on pit road. If Busch's relatively short history in the sport tells us anything it's that he needs little motivation to win, and any little misstep along the way only drives him harder. When that wheel rolled away on Saturday it ended his chance to win that race but it served notice to the Cup guys on Sunday that it wasn't going to be their day.

Busch took a backhanded poke at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. following his win, stating he would rather win races and hear the jeers of the crowd than be the fan favorite and not get to victory lane. Of course that's just going to further fan the flames from Jr. Nation, but the numbers don't lie. Since Busch vacated Hendrick Motorsports to make room for Earnhardt, he has scored ten wins and 20 top-five finishes in 41 races. In contrast, Earnhardt has one win and ten top-five finishes. In all of 2008, Casey Mears (the driver who took over Busch's ride in the No. 5 car) picked up just one top-five and six top-ten finishes.

Jr. Johnson used to say it's easier to slow someone down than speed him up when he would talk about how he wanted his drivers to drive. Busch may have been hard to handle - his comments after winning the first CoT race at Bristol in 2007 are an example - but he gets the job done as well as anyone in the sport right now and he's only going to get better. Rarely does Rick Hendrick make a mistake, and I doubt he would ever admit as much, but keeping Mears and letting Busch go to JGR is one of the biggest errors in judgment in the history of his race team.


For all the heat Earnhardt, Jr. takes because of his choice in crew chiefs I think he's right to lash back at the media and tell them to lay off. Never in the sport's history has one driver been critiqued as heavily as Earnhardt. It's still a mystery to some why he's quite as popular as he is. There is no doubt that Earnhardt is a good driver, and he still has time to become a great driver. But with each week that passes and he's not out performing Jimmie Johnson of Jeff Gordon, the chances of him becoming one of the sport's elite drivers lessens. Regardless of what his fans want or what the media says, the comfort between driver and crew chief is the single most important aspect of building a successful team. Earnhardt says he wants Tony Eury, Jr. calling the shots for him and until Earnhardt changes his tune there won't be a change on top of the pit box.


For a short while it looked like a couple of the little guys might have a good day at Bristol. Dave Blaney and Todd Bodine ran well in the very early laps but before the race hit lap 75 both had been spun out and were behind the wall. These teams might not have the biggest budget, and it's likely they wouldn't have been able to run to the end of the race anyhow, but it's nice to see them be able to compete with the best in the business even for a short while.


Marcos Ambrose showed he's the real deal with a solid top-ten finish on Sunday. I had a lot of fun with Marcos during his rookie year in the Truck Series and could tell even then that he would have a solid future in the sport. It's interesting to watch his progression, from the Trucks to Nationwide and now Cup. Considering he had a successful career in Australia before coming to America one could easily see how he might have wanted to jump directly into a Cup car, but he started from scratch and learned from the ground up and now he's reaping the rewards. It's a good lesson for some of the young kids out there who think success in Legends cars or Bandoleros means they deserve a shot at a Nationwide ride.


The racing world might have been shocked by Justin Allgaier's fifth-place finish on Sunday. Don't be. He's a terrific short track racer with a lot of experience on the highbanks at places like Salem and Winchester. He won at Salem and Toledo last year on his way to the ARCA championship. He'll do quite well in the Nationwide car this year and if Sam Hornish and/or David Stremme continue to struggle he could be on the fast track to a Cup ride soon.


It's a shame to see the troubles of the No. 28 team. Travis Kvapil has done a solid job behind the wheel but the team has never been able to find the sponsorship to keep the team going. Once he fell out of the top-35 it was a clue that the team wouldn't continue to run that car without sponsorship. Unfortunately, his teammate Paul Menard also finds himself out of the top-35 and faces the prospect of missing races unless the Yates team can pick up the performance of that car very soon.


It's a shame to see Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix announce it will cease operations in April. The track has been there for 50 years and its closing should tell racing fans everywhere that their short track could be next. If you like watching NASCAR racing on television, do yourself a favor and visit your local short track. Almost every short track in the country runs some sort of special event throughout the year that gives you the most bang for your buck - whether it's a long-distance feature (some tracks run 100 or 200 lappers a couple times a year), or a special touring series event (such as USAC, the USARacing Pro Cup Series or the ASA Late Models), or even something crazy like a school bus figure-8 race - there's always something cool to check out. Most tracks average a hundred cars or so spread out over three divisions and give you a solid three to four hours of entertainment for ten or fifteen bucks.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Off-week Odds and Ends

I heard a discussion on Sirius NASCAR Radio the other day about what the listeners felt made a good race. That's a great topic because there's no real right or wrong answer because what's good for me might not be good for the guy sitting next to me.

For the majority of race fans out there, a good race is one in which their favorite driver does particularly well. It might not be a win, but a top-five or even a top-ten finish. For some drivers even making the race and finishing somewhere near the lead lap with the car in one piece is a good day and their fans also go away happy.

The hosts, Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers, asked the fans their thoughts and almost to a person they said that passing makes a good race. Some said they thought restrictor plates should be used more because the races at Daytona and Talladega always are exciting with the endless passes for position. Most also said they thought races at Pocono and Fontana were boring because the cars get too spread out.

One of the best races I ever watched in person was at little quarter-mile Anderson Speedway. It was the 1994 Anderson 400 for the old ASA. Twenty-six cars started for 400 laps around the bullring. For those who don't know it, Anderson is the track that Dick Trickle first described as "flying jet fighters in a gynmasium". The action is close and there isn't a lot of room to move if trouble breaks out in front of you.

According to many, if you looked at the stats this could be seen as a "boring" race. Winner Steve Holzhausen led all 400 laps. No lead changes to some means a boring show, right? Not in this case. Mike Eddy was pounding on the back door for much of the race and chased hard the last 100 laps, finishing second by less than a car length. There was a lot of short track bumps and thumps along the way too. some of the drivers that could have challenged Holzhausen found the going a little rough and spent some time in the infield for repairs.

Passing doesn't necessarily equate to a good race to me. In my eyes, restrictor plate racing tends to get to be a little boring because the best cars don't necessarily finish up front. The action seems fake to me because of the numerous rules set to keep all of the cars in one big pack. It's just not my cup of tea.

To me a good race has the following: a competitive race at the front; action and competition through the field; drivers running hard from green to checkered; and maybe a few plot twists and unexpected occurrences along the way.


A quick note to Chocolate Myers, who was discussing the chances for victory by teams that lease engines from other teams: he had said that the first driver to win with a leased engine was Joe Nemechek who won at Kansas in 2004 with MB2 Motorsports. Engine leases have become popular in recent years as many smaller teams can no longer afford their own engine departments. However, engine leases date back decades. In 1984 Richard Petty picked up wins No. 199 and 200 with engines leased from the DiGard team.


We've seen a lot of talk lately about the start-and-park phenomenon that has now seemingly infiltrated the Cup Series. It's been a part of the Truck and Nationwide series for many years and now that the economics are making more sense, it's taken hold in the Cup Series too. I don't understand the outcry from the fans. If you watch 43 cars take the green flag and on lap 20 there are 41 running, can you really tell the difference?


It's neat to see the Mattioli family and the ARCA RE/MAX Series name the recently announced Mansfield race after the late Tim Richmond. The Richmond family was from Ashland, which is 20 minutes from Mansfield. Richmond also had a lot of success at the Mattioli's Pocono track, winning a couple of times there including his final career victory in 1987. It would be neat to see the Richmond family in attendance and see one of his old cars come out of the Hendrick museum and be displayed to the fans. Hopefully the Mattiolis can make that happen.


I have yet to have one kid tell me "I really like that cartoon gopher on Fox." So why do we continually read comments from bloggers and journalists that say the character has found a following with children? And if the character is so popular with kids, why isn't it showing up in the ratings?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Smith Throwing Stones from the Proverbial Glass House

Sirius NASCAR Radio's Dave Moody has a great column this week on Bruton Smith's comments about Homestead-Miami Speedway and NASCAR's decision to host its championship weekend in south Florida.

Smith is one of the more outlandish characters in NASCAR racing; he's always brash and never shies away from controversy. In fact, he often likes to start one when things are a little slow in the NASCAR news circles just to get his tracks a little more publicity.

I won't mention Smith's comments here. He has his reasons to say those things and if you can chew gum and walk at the same time you probably can see right through them. He needs to do what he can do to paint the best picture of his facilities as he can. Afterall, he has shareholders to answer to and they don't like seeing all the empty seats at the two flagship properties in the SMI portfolio, Charlotte and Atlanta.

Smith can rail against Homestead or any other track on the Sprint Cup schedule all he wants, but he needs to remember the old addage about pointing fingers at someone else - there are always three more pointed right back at yourself.

Homestead doesn't have 120,000 seats. It has somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000. And each one of them is full for the Sprint Cup finale. Atlanta, meanwhile, has the aforementioned 120,000 seats. Most in the media would agree that on a good day they have 70,000 on hand for a Sprint Cup race. The claims of 94,000 this past weekend are almost certainty inflated, although there is no doubt that the speedway's $39 ticket promotion worked and did put more people in the grandstands than other recent races at AMS.

Charlotte is another story. Located in the self-proclaimed hub of the motorsports world, the Charlotte track runs three Sprint Cup races every year with thousands of empty seats at each. Those seats have been empty when the country was rolling along in good economic times. How empty will they be when the country finds itself deep in a recession?

Smith's tracks aren't the only struggling to sell tickets. All of the tracks that overbuilt their grandstands during the boom times in the late 1990s and early 2000s now find themselves with an abundance of inventory on Sprint Cup weekends. Michigan and Dover, two tracks that had impressive streaks of sellouts until the past couple of years, now struggle to sell all of their tickets. But both manage to put in well over 100,000 to their two Cup races each year.

Why don't we hear from the track presidents at the facilities that do sell all their tickets deriding the SMI facilities that don't? Why doesn't Jeff Boerger, for instance, speak out about taking away one of Atlanta's dates and moving it to Kansas? After all, Kansas sells out every year and Atlanta hasn't sold out since Alan Kulwicki clinched the 1992 championship there.

I like the SMI facilities. Atlanta is a great track and is comfortable to work at, either in the media center and press box or on pit road. Las Vegas is beautiful and Smith's renovations have made it one of the sport's showplace venues. Bristol's makeover into the Colloseum of Motorsports is something to behold. The motorsports community anxiously awaits to see what Smith has planned for New Hampshire and Kentucky, both recent additions to the SMI family.

But how about making sure your own house is in order before you get critical about someone else's? If Atlanta had been selling out for the past decade and only started having problems selling tickets due to the economic downturn that would be one thing, but those problems have been there for years. Fix those problems and then start worrying about what everyone else is doing.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rearview: Atlanta

The spring Atlanta weekend is always one of my favorites of the entire year. Just like Las Vegas, I always enjoyed the original layout at Atlanta but also enjoy the current layout too. The asphalt at Atlanta has aged over the past 12 years and it makes it virtually impossible to build a tire that will last as long as tank of gas will. The drop-off in times from the start of a run to the end of a run sometimes reaches three seconds, and that's why you saw everyone on pit road for tires with a green-white-checkered finish on Sunday. It's the same shape but it's certainly not the same track that saw Geoff Bodine blister a 197+ mph lap back in 1997.


Was there any doubt that Kurt Busch would pass Carl Edwards and claim the win during that two-lap dash to the finish? Edwards only took two tires and was hoping for a repeat caution to give him the win, but it didn't come. Edwards showed exactly how talented he is by muscling his car alongside Jeff Gordon - who had four fresh tires - for almost a lap and a half before settling back into third.


Brian Vickers was in contention for the win until the final caution flag and ensuing pit stop. Although he didn't get off pit road as well as everyone else, he has to be pleased with the performance of his team on the intermediate tracks to start 2009. Vickers' first win at Talladega is still seen by many as a tainted victory after contact between himself and Jimmie Johnson took out Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and he's certainly a candidate to pick up another win, especially on a 1.5-miler.


The final yellow came out due to rubber debris shed off Robby Gordon's car in turn two and down the backstretch. Gordon obviously knew he had a problem and had slowed dramatically. Why not get the car down below the white line and allow that tire to come apart out of the racing groove?


Atlanta always produces some of the best three-wide racing of the year. So why do television directors chose to show us lap after lap of the leader running a couple of seconds ahead of the rest of the field?


It's not too often that a former Indianapolis 500 winner and a Daytona 500 winner crash together, but that's exactly what happened when Sam Hornish and Bill Elliott wrecked on Sunday. Elliott won at Daytona in 1985 and 1987 while Hornish won at Indianapolis in 2006. I wonder what the players from the SuperBowl in 1985 were doing during the 2009 SuperBowl. No doubt that none of them were playing; yet NASCAR's "SuperBowl" winner from 22 years ago was in the field for this year's running.


It's refreshing to read comments from David Pearson over the weekend. Pearson has maintained a low profile in recent years and maybe we're starting to understand why. Pearson doesn't like the fact that the cars are all the same and NASCAR mandates what shocks and springs the teams have to run. I still maintain that there is a correlation to the introduction of common templates and the drop in television ratings and at-track attendance. Yes it's impossible to go back to true stock cars, and I don't think anyone wants that, but it certainly possible to go back to cars that look stock. The competition among manufacturers is a big part of what drove the sport through the 1980s and 1990s and the fact it's no longer a viable aspect of the sport is a reason why a lot of fans have seen their interest wane.


I am all for safety on the racetrack, but enough with the debris cautions. It's predictable that any time a round of green flag stops is approaching in the Camping World Truck Series - particularly when the field is spread out - that a piece of debris will be spotted and the caution will come out. SPEED cameras never showed whatever debris was found during Saturday's Truck race. The new pit stop rules seem to work well under caution but the Fontana race showed green flag stops lead to tough choices and some odd strategy. It sure seems like the way to prevent those tough choices was to throw competition cautions and allow the field to pit under yellow. The old ASA had competition cautions if there was a 100-lap green flag run. Of course races rarely went that long without a legitimate caution but at least they were up front about what they were doing. Either show the debris or call it what it is, a competition caution.


There weren't a lot of on-track incidents over the course of the two days of racing action as the Atlanta track offers a lot of room and multiple grooves. But many of those incidents that did occur on Saturday and Sunday seemed to involve many of the usual suspects. If these guys continue to perform like they have been, the races at Bristol and Martinsville should have a record number of yellows.


Elliott Sadler was half a lap away from winning the Daytona 500. Where has he been since? The good news is he did pick up his best finish since Daytona on Sunday, but the bad news is was still a 20th-place run. If that doesn't prove how little the racing at Daytona has in common with every other track on the schedule, nothing will.


Terry Cook has opened the Truck season strongly, taking home a third at Daytona and a fifth at Atlanta. It's the first time in his career he's started the season with two top-fives in the first three races. Cook hasn't missed a Truck race since the last race of the 1997 season, and like many other drivers in the series right now is looking for added sponsorship. With the number of full-time teams markedly lower than last season, team owner Jim Harris has to be looking at picking up some top-fives and contending for a win or two this season. Although Cook dropped out with a punctured oil cooler at California, teammate David Starr ended up fourth giving Harris a top five finish in each of the season's first three races. Billy Ballew (Kyle Busch) and Steve Germain (Todd Bodine) also have three top fives in three races.


Chad McCumbee doesn't have any guarantee he'll be racing every week but he's sure making a case for it on the racetrack. He followed up a third-place run in California with a sixth-place finish in Atlanta. McCumbee and crew chief Bobby Dotter are a perfect match; both are excellent at getting the most out of their equipment, even if they don't have the resources of some of the larger teams.


The third caution on Sunday was for one of the most unusual reasons I've ever witnessed in an auto race. The gasman for the No. 47 team, Jimmy Watts, crossed pit road into the grass to retrieve a loose tire. He had to venture about halfway out to the racetrack to get the tire and that drew the yellow. He was suspended for the remainder of the race and is waiting to hear if there are any more reprocussions from the incident. Many will get a laugh from it, and some will go the opposite way and say he shouldn't ever be allowed to work in the garage again. I venture to guess NASCAR made their point on Sunday and we don't have to worry about anything like this happening again any time soon. It's easy to judge it as a boneheaded move (and it was) but unless you've experienced what's going on in the heat of the moment it's difficult to understand. I'm sure he wanted to prevent a caution from coming out, but regardless of what happened the yellow was going to come out. I understand he's a firefighter in Mooresville as well, and after watching him venture out next to the racetrack with cars zooming by at 180 miles per hour climbing up a ladder to battle a blaze shouldn't sound too scary.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gardner would be a worthy inductee into NASCAR HoF

The construction on the gleaming new structure is rapidly reaching its conclusion. The office building next door is reaching new heights every day and will soon be ready for occupancy. Commemorative bricks are being sold to fans so everyone that walks through the doors can read that John Q. Public was there when Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in 1998 or some other memorable moment in NASCAR's history.

Soon, there will be the matter of who receives the honor of induction to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

There is little doubt that people like Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Cale Yarbourough deserve induction. NASCAR's founder, Bill France, Sr. should also have his bust on display. Owners like Rick Hendrick and Leonard Wood should also eventually be so honored.

There is an entire generation of participants - both drivers and owners - that are often overlooked because of simple timing. They weren't around during the romantic, formative days of the sport and they aren't seen on television now when someone who runs 40th every week can make more in a single year than many made after 20 years of racing every week.

The 1970s and 1980s produced some of the most intense competition - real competition - that the sport has ever seen. Teams were allowed to exhibit creativity. Cars looked like their street counterparts and aerodynamics didn't hold them to the ground. Drivers used brute force to guide their cars around the racetrack and speeds seemed at most impossible and at the very least insane.

Drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were discovered during this era. Others, like Pearson and Yarbourough, wound their careers down. The King saw his last days of competitiveness during this time. It was a golden era in the sport's long history.

It was also during this time that one man's racing team helped start the transition from good ol' boys racing on Saturday nights to professionals representing not only their team and their sport to multi-million dollar consumer corporations.

Sure, NASCAR had moved away from the dusty bullrings of the southeast in the early 1970s and had transitioned to superspeedways. But many of the participants had retained their short track mentality. Contracts didn't exist. Sponsorships were often week-to-week, and usually came from a local auto dealer or some other automotive-related product.

That all changed in 1976 when DiGard Racing signed Gatorade to be the team's sponsor.

The team had already signed Darrell Waltrip to a long term contract the previous year. The green-and-white colors with the orange lightning bolt over the rear wheels soon became iconic as Waltrip won 25 races in a Gatorade car over the next five years.

Waltrip also found out that a contract meant what it says when he was forced to buy his way out of it to leave the team in 1981. DiGard replaced Waltrip and went on to further success with Bobby Allison, scoring the win at Daytona in 1982 and following it with a championship in 1983.

All told, DiGard scored 43 wins at the Cup level. That might not seem like a lot compared to Hendrick and Roush, both of whom have won double or even triple that number. But in the days of competing against Petty Enterprises and Jr. Johnson with one car, 43 wins is an incredible number.

Many of DiGard's ideas are carried on today. Sponsorships are activated in supermarkets across the country. Show cars travel millions of miles to thousands of destinations. Teams run multiple cars and have dedicated research and development departments. Teams lease engines to other teams.

And Waltrip, who at one time was as outspoken against DiGard Racing as anyone in the garage area following his acrimonious departure from the team, knows that he wouldn't have had the type of career or made the millions of dollars he did if not for team owner Bill Gardner. Waltrip also knows that virtually every driver in the garage area today owes a large part of his fortune to the Connecticut businessman that revolutionized team ownership in NASCAR.

Gardner might not be the most famous owner to come and go in NASCAR. Many of today's fans probably don't know who he is; afterall, he last entered a Sprint Cup race in 1987. And he may not be worthy of the first class in NASCAR's Hall of Fame - in fact, he might not be in the first six or eight classes.

But there should be little doubt that Gardner - the man who helped corporate America discover our favorite sport - is worthy of induction to NASCAR's Hall of Fame.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rear View: Las Vegas

The third weekend of NASCAR's 2009 season is in the books and it's one for the history books. Sure, Matt Kenseth's bid to become the first driver to sweep the first three races of the season came up drastically short but the record number of yellows in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races will ensure the fans' memory of the weekend will last much longer than last weekend's events in Fontana.


It's hard to maintain any enthusiasm for the Nationwide races. The series regulars have been overshadowed by Cup interlopers for so long that it's really like watching a Cup race. So when many of the Cup regulars took themselves out of contention with mistakes on Saturday it allowed many drivers who never get a mention on a broadcast to contend for a top ten. Although Cup drivers took the first three positions it was great to see drivers like Jason Leffler, Michael McDowell, Brendan Gaughan, and Justin Allgaier in contention at the end. Although he is a Cup driver the high attrition rate allowed Jeff Burton to drive a wrecked racecar to tenth at the end too. Just outside the top ten were Scott Wimmer, Kenny Hendrick, Morgan Shepherd, Kenny Wallace, and Tony Raines, all driving for independent and under-financed stand-alone Nationwide teams. In fact, positions eleven through 19 on Saturday were filled with Nationwide-only drivers and teams.


It was surprising to see so many drivers take themselves out due to wrecks on Saturday. Kyle Busch, David Ragan, and Denny Hamlin all crashed on their own. Each was driving a car capable of winning. Busch pushed too hard early on and got loose under another car and took out polesitter Scott Speed. Rather than all of the buffoonery in the booth during practice coverage, it would be interesting to see SPEED's experts look at the aerodynamic differences between the spoiler of a Nationwide car and the wing on a Sprint Cup car. There were numerous instances of a car getting loose underneath another in the Nationwide race and fewer instances in the Cup race. Hamlin's crash late in the race was particularly brutal because neither he nor Mike Bliss could do anything to prevent it.

**************************************'s Pete Pistone believes there were very few seats to be had on Sunday for the Shelby 427, but I disagree. While the crowd was definitely large, there were indeed thousands of empty seats in turns three and four, including entire sections of seats near the fence. It's hard to see those on television because they are camouflaged to appear full. I understand why everyone pays attention to how many people are in attendance at each event - especially with tracks angling for dates - but this argument is probably not going to be decided in a down economy. Empty seats will be seen at virtually every stop on the tour, particularly at tracks that have expanded their grandstands in recent years. It used to be heresy to think there might be a race at Michigan or Dover that would have empty seats but that's exactly what happened last year. Now even Las Vegas has found it's hard to sell out. Does that mean Bristol could also see some empties in a couple of weeks?


Late in the race Darrell Waltrip pontificated whether Kyle Busch would be credited with winning from the pole or winning from 43rd after taking the green flag at the back of the pack due to an engine change. There were other drivers that qualified in odd-numbered positions that had to drop to the back so Busch wasn't at the tail end of that line when the green waved. Regardless of where he was when he took the green flag, Busch is credited with starting from the pole position so he becomes the first Cup driver to start first and finish first at LVMS.


It's not too often you see Jeff Gordon make a mistake but that's exactly what he did trying to get to pit road under green late in the race on Sunday. Not only did his miss pit road but he locked the brakes up in doing so and then blew out the left front tire trying to get back to pit road. But in true Rainbow Warrior fashion, his team was able to make repairs to his car and keep him in contention. How often did Gordon have problems in the late 90s only to see Ray Evernham and crew rally on pit road and get Gordon back in contention to win? Gordon didn't pull it off on Sunday but to finish that well in a car that had been seriously damaged is a credit to the driver and the team.


We saw Dale Earnhardt, Jr. throw away his chances at Daytona with an unforced error on pit road and his teammate Jimmie Johnson did it at Las Vegas by sliding through his pit during his last green flag stop. I wonder if Rick Hendrick will rent out a non-Cup racetrack somewhere just so his drivers can practice getting on pit road and getting properly into their pit stalls? Sure, Vegas has a difficult pit road entry but who said racing was supposed to be easy? And besides, there were many drivers that didn't have any problems at all getting onto pit road this weekend.


Richard Petty Motorsports has crashed back to earth following an unlikely run at the front in Daytona. AJ Allmendinger and Reed Sorenson were 33rd and 34th respectively. Sorenson crashed on his own in the middle stages of the race. The only bright spot for the team was Kasey Kahne who finished eleventh after doing a masterful job of avoiding a crashed Aric Almirola on lap 144. I wonder if this team will make it through the season without a driver change. Team owner George Gillett already tried to improve his situation in the off season but a lawsuit meant he had to keep a driver he wasn't happy with. I remember a time when drivers were fired for non performance all the time. I bet the team's new contracts will all have a clause in them that allow just such a thing.


Both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races went well beyond their television windows as a result of the record number of caution flags. The Cup race went off the air sometime past 8:30 on the east coast, delaying the start of Fox's Sunday night primetime lineup. If the network's primetime lineup gets delayed often enough it could be the way we get back to a reasonable start time for Cup races.


I've been a Mark Martin fan for his entire career, dating back to his championship days in the ASA. I expect Martin will be competitive in the No. 5 this season, but what exactly makes people think he will be a contender for the championship in that car? He wasn't ever able to score a championship during the peak of his career and that's when he was clearly the No. 1 driver for the Roush team. Now he's over 50 and can easily be seen as the fourth driver in a four-driver lineup. I don't think the No. 5 is or ever has been an R&D effort but that's not quite a championship caliber ride just yet.


It was humorous to hear Mike Joy revise history somewhat with the tale on how Kyle Busch became known to some as "Wild Thing". Joy is usually the last one of the Fox crew prone to unnecessary hype and he is dead on in his recollection that Busch was extremely fast but somewhat out of control when he made his Cup debut at LVMS in 2004. And there can easily be comparisons made to how Busch was then and the fictional pitcher played by Charlie Sheen in the movie Major League. But those comparisons weren't made then. I had never heard of Busch referred to as "Wild Thing" until early last year when Darrell Waltrip tried to pin that tag on Busch for his spectacularly aggressive nature while winning several races. For most of Busch's career in NASCAR he's been known as "Shrub" since he is Kurt Busch's little brother. I'd like to hear Joy's recollection on how Tony Stewart came to be known as "Smoke".


It sure did take a long time for the ServiceMaster track crew to clean up the mess after Paul Menard crashed on lap 270. I wonder if that's an indication on how long an actual ServiceMaster crew would take to clean up a routine spill in an office somewhere.


Jeff Gluck of NASCAR Scene asks in his blog following the Vegas race if Kyle Busch could be the greatest of all time. There is no doubting Busch's talent, and his win totals in all three of NASCAR's top divisions bear that out. It used to be that winning in all three divisions was a difficult task, but Busch has managed to do just that in just three weeks so far in 2009. But the greatest of all time? Jeff Gordon was once seen as a lock to match Petty and Earnhardt in the championship column but has recently found it hard to win races. Three years ago that sounded absurd. Right now the planets are aligned and Busch is having his way with the competition. But let's hold off a while before we annoint him as the next coming of The King. It's hard to say what's going to happen in two years much less then next 15.