Monday, November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Bonnett's 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix at Riverside

Terry Labonte's 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Riverside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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