Friday, February 26, 2010

On the numerology of going from No. 88 to No. 22

It's funny how things seem to come full-circle in racing and in life. And it's funny that things that happened over 30 years ago can happen again.
In racing, car numbers often don't really seem to matter much unless of course you happen to be one of the superstar drivers that have become identified by that numeral on your door.

But for virtually every driver out there, they started their racing career with a number of choice. It could have been a number used by their father or grandfather, or it could be a number that just seemed to fit with their personality.

I know as a kid, whenever I dreamed of climbing aboard a racecar at Toledo Speedway, it always was a No. 16 car. That number is my birthday, so it just seemed to be a perfect fit. Plus it seems to be a pretty good choice as it's won a lot of races in the Camping World Truck Series and four championships with Ron Hornaday, Mike Bliss, and Travis Kvapil. Oh, and Greg Biffle seems to do pretty good with it in the Sprint Cup division too.

Way back in the 1970s, a family from up in my neck of the woods fielded a car in USAC and NASCAR stock car competition with the No. 88 on the door. Ron Keselowski didn't have much success in the NASCAR side of things, but he did win a 500-mile USAC race at Pocono with that number on the door. But the No. 88 was a desirable number, and someone eventually came to Keselowski and offered him a tidy sum to buy the right to use the number.

Eventually the No. 88 went to the DiGard team - first Donnie Allison, then Darrell Waltrip and then finally Bobby Allison - and the Keselowskis went short track racing with great success with the No. 29. Ron retired from the drivers seat and took over crew chief duties for his brother Bob. They climbed up from the weekly short tracks of the Midwest to an ARCA championship and eventually back to the NASCAR ranks in the Truck Series. Their No. 29 went to victory lane at Richmond in 1997 with Bob at the wheel and then again in 1998 with Dennis Setzer at Mesa Marin in 1998. After a sponsor-requested change to the No. 1, the No. 29 reappeared with Terry Cook behind the wheel in 2001. Cook scored four wins for them in 2002, and Bob's oldest son Brian won a track championship at Toledo with the No. 29 in 2003.

After 30+ years, a Keselowski again ran a No. 88 car when Brian's younger brother Brad was hired to drive the JR Motorsports Nationwide Series car in 2007. Brad had some great success with that number, winning a handful of races and contendending for a championship in both of the full-time seasons he used the number.

Now, it's time to go back in time to 1982. After ten successful years with the No. 88, the DiGard team had acquired a new sponsor. This was just before the era when a team would simply add another team, so their previous sponsor Gatorade was free to move to another team. The DiGard team had a good relationship with the Gatorade executives and when the company requested to take the No. 88 along with them to a new team, DiGard said goodbye to the number and chose another, this time going with the No. 22 to use on it's newly sponsored Miller High Life cars.

In the first season using the No. 22, Bobby Allison won six races and scored his only NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

I think you can see where I am going with this...

After departing JR Motorsports at the end of the 2009 season, Brad Keselowski joined Penske Racing for a double-duty season in 2010. He's driving the team's No. 12 car in the Cup Series and...the No. 22 car in the Nationwide Series.

Some people might not believe in the numerology, and I'm not quite sure I buy into it completely either. But Darrell Waltrip surely did when he won the Daytona 500 in his 17th try on February 17, 1989 while driving the No. 17 car. The numbers surely are aligned for Brad Keselowski to drive to his first Nationwide Series championship in 2010.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On McMurray's return to Earth, Jr.'s continued over-exposure, Danica's finish, and overbearning on-screen graphics

- Jamie McMurray continued to light up the NASCAR world when he earned the pole on Friday at Auto Club Speedway, just five days after winning the Daytona 500. Many in the media were loving it and proclaiming McMurray the breakout star of the season based on his season-opening performances. As big as winning at Daytona is (even in today's world of spec racecars and cruise control point-and-steer racing), it doesn't really convert to a successful rest of the season. Sure, McMurray followed it up with a pole, but what does a pole really mean any more? Being fast for two miles doesn't mean you can be fast for 500 miles. McMurray's teammate, and fellow front row starter Juan Montoya was just as fast but didn't last the full 500 miles, bowing out early due to engine failure. McMurray came home 17th and despite looking all over the Web all morning, not much can be found on his performance in the race from many of those writers who were touting him after qualifying.

- While McMurray's 17th-place finish was largely overlooked, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s 32nd-place result generated more coverage than the drivers that rounded out the top-five. Earnhardt's result is noteworthy, but is it feature-worthy? The media has relied on Earnhardt for page views and click-thrus for too long, and his the over-exposure has turned off many of the sport's faithful followers. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying the media needs to overlook Earnhardt, but how about giving him coverage commensurate with his performance?

- Has any 31st-place finish been received with more ballyhoo than Danica Patrick's run at Fontana? All of the media who proclaimed her to be a stock car success after finishing sixth in the ARCA race at Daytona are now having to backtrack, although I am not so sure that Patrick isn't right where she should be right now. Her goals aren't to go out and lead laps and win races; no, they are to learn how to drive stock cars. She's still learning that, although she's not competitive just yet. Once she learns how to drive the racecar, she can learn how to race the racecar. Anyone who thinks she will show up in Las Vegas and magically become a top-five finisher is kidding themselves. Although she has considerable experience in racing, she has exactly three races in a stock car. Let her learn, and then let's see what she can do. It's like Ricky Carmichael's transition from bikes to stock cars. He obviously knows how to race, and so does Danica, but he has to learn how to drive these vehicles before he can learn how to race them. Once both of them get their sea legs under them in stock cars, both will make a solid addition to the driver corps, although a big part of me wishes Danica would stay in the Indy Car Series.

- Anyone else find the Fox "White Flag" graphics and the headshots of the top-ten across the top of the screen to be too much? I wish the networks would minimize all the on-screen bells and whistles during the race broadcasts. I've never liked the ticker across the top because it obscures too much of the screen and only shows you three positions at a time. I would much rather favor a system that showed the entire rundown, statically, on both sides of the screen. The top-20 on the left side, the second 20 on the right, displayed as the position and then the car number. As positions changed, car numbers would move up or down; those going towards the front highlighted in green and those moving backwards highlighted in red. Occasionally other information could be inserted, such as interval (behind the leader and behind the next position) and average speed. That way, the entire field could be updated continually and without obscuring too much of the screen.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On Mr. Afterthought, passing below the yellow line, the first female(s) since 2008, good things happening to good guys, and may the luckiest guy win

A few thoughts and questions following Hershey's Milk and Milkshakes SpeedWeeks in Daytona...

-Bobby Gerhart has to feel like Mr. Afterthought following his win in the ARCA race at DIS. Gerhardt took the checkered for the sixth time - an ARCA record - but ask most of the media in attendance who won and they couldn't tell you. Of course, they were all there to watch Danica. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I wish more media would cover the event instead of that one particular angle. Of course, I feel the same frustration every June when many members of the motorsports media proclaim themselves dirt track fans for a night when many of them have never been to a dirt track race at a track other than Eldora Speedway.

- I wonder why Scott Speed wasn't penalized for passing below the yellow line on the final lap of his Duel race? We were only given one angle of his pass (for some reason the camera angle entering turn three, which catches everything that happens on the backstretch wasn't used), and although it was from a distance it was clear that his left side tires we well over the double yellow line. The simple fact that a pass below the yellow line could be missed - or ignored - like this is the perfect example for why that rule should be abolished.

- It's a real shame that the Truck Series race was rain delayed on Friday, but it made for a perfect day-night double header on Saturday. The Nationwide Series race was a thrill-a-minute, with numerous crashes spicing the event from start to finish. The most spectacular was, of course, Dale Earnhardt, Jr,'s wild flip down the backstretch. It was humorous to note that the "Danica Ticker" on the bottom of the ESPN2 telecast proclaimed Danica as the first woman to start a Nationwide Series race since 2008. Technically this may be correct because she took the green flag first, but Chrissy Wallace was also in the starting line-up. I do believe this was fixed before the end of the race, but it was funny nonetheless.

The Truck was was, for me, the highlight of the week. The race was as it is billed, the best of SpeedWeeks. Although the were a lot of accidents and too many trucks behind the wall at the end, the actual racing was as good as it gets at Daytona. It's a shame that the opening lap accident took out as many quality trucks as it did, and it's a shame the mid-race crash that took out Ron Hornaday, et. al happened too. But that's all part of what makes racing at Daytona racing at Daytona.

- Congrats to Timothy Peters on his win in the Truck race at Daytona. It wasn't that long ago that Tim was rideless and then driving for a shoe-string operation out of a two-bay garage behind his house. Sometimes good things happen to good people.

- The Daytona 500 was a pretty decent race. No real "big" big ones, although the delay for the recurring potholes was a real downer. The real shame of the race, at least to me, was that the final 38 laps weren't all run under green. That is a perfect distance to let the field thin out at the front and let the best car and driver get to the front. As it was, the multiple green-white-checkered finish worked perfectly (although I don't like that it's been limited to three attempts - do it how many times it takes!). It's just a shame that the winner of the race wasn't the best car and driver, but the driver who chose the right lane for a two-lap dash to the finish. Such as it is, Jamie McMurray did a great job over those final laps. It was great to see and hear the emotion from him immediately following the race. However, it wasn't so great to see him cut short his interview with Fox "to go be with (his) team." I understand the desire to go be with the team, but the people at home (and the people who pay the freight - the sponsors) want to hear from you too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On the start of SpeedWeeks, underdogs, fixing the green-white-checkered, and not learning a darn thing in Daytona

SpeedWeeks is underway, and it's great to have the rumble of V-8 engines in the air again...even if they are choked by those still-dreaded restrictor plates. Through Wednesday's Sprint Cup practice, nearly 20 cars have been damaged so far, with the promise of more to come on Thursday and the rest of the week. As fun as it can be to watch this style of plate racing, there is a part of me (a big part, actually) that would like to go back to the way it was. Sure, waiting for the big one is nerve wracking fun and not knowing who will luck out in the draft on the final lap can be exciting too, but the way the racing was "back when" with the small spoilers laid back as flat as the driver could bear it was exciting too. There's nothing like wondering if someone barrelling into turn one at 200 mph will make it out the other end of turn two - not because someone else took him out, but because he just couldn't handle the car. That certainly isn't a problem in this era of excessive downforce and minimal horsepower.

- I am a big fan of the underdog story. When I worked for, I took pride in interviewing not only the guys racing for wins and championships but also the guys struggling to make it into the field as well. There are numerous underdog stories heading into the 500 this year, and with Joe Nemechek scoring a starting spot based on his qualifying speed at least one will make it in the Great American Race. But the one near and dear to my heart is Terry Cook's No. 46 Whitney Motorsports team. Cook is a long-time Truck Series veteran and multiple-time winner in that series. He's making his first attempt at the Cup Series in the sport's biggest event. While Hendrick, Penske, and Gibbs all have hundreds of employees working on building their cars from the ground up, Cook has nine people on the payroll - counting himself (and he's serving as the team general manager in addition to driving). It might seem like a futile exercise to some, but don't begrudge a man chasing after his dream. After 14 years in the Trucks it may have seemed like that dream was out of reach but just six weeks ago Dusty Whitney decided he was going to go Cup racing and Cook got the call. It might not be as far fetched as some believe either; Cook has always raced well at Daytona (he has three top-fives there in the NCWTS) and the car got better throughout the day on Wednesday. He was 34th on the speed chart at the end of the day, not bad for David when he's up against the other Goliaths in the Cup garage. (**Full disclosure - I am doing some PR for Terry and the team so I ought to think it's a great underdog story...but regardless of my obvious bias it is a neat thing to see.)

- So NASCAR is looking at changing it's green-white-checkered rule? That's a wonderful thing. But from what I can gather, they are doing what they do best and taking a simple concept and making it overly complex. How about this: if the caution flag comes out any time in the course of a g-w-c attempt, whether the white flag has been waved or not, you do it over. With the freeze the field rule, the paying customers and the television audience still aren't guaranteed a green-flag finish unless it's done that way. Or, NASCAR could say once the white flag is waved the next flag that is waved is the checkered and let them race back. A change is definitely due, but let's hope it's the right change and not something that doesn't necessarily give a green-flag finish. And for those who want to argue that it took the Truck Series four attempts in that final multiple g-w-c race at Gateway in 2004, I was there that night and I challenge anyone to find someone who watched that race in the stands who didn't feel they got 10 times their money's worth that night.

- I've seen several "what have we learned so far" headlines from some writers postulating on what we've seen so far at Daytona will mean for the rest of the season. They may spend 1000 words theorizing but the simple answer is this: nothing we've seen at Daytona means anything when it comes to the rest of the year. Yes, Danica did well in the ARCA race. Yes, Harvick put his stamp on the Bud Shootout for the second year in a row. Yes, Mark Martin looks strong again and Jr. is back on the front row at Daytona. But this style of racing is so different than what we every week that whatever happens in Daytona is happening in a bubble. Just ask the last three Daytona 500 winners, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, and Matt Kenseth if their success at Daytona carried over to the rest of the season.