Monday, February 28, 2011

On the health of the Truck Series, aggregating win totals, broadcast quality, Jeff Gordon as the underdog, and crashing back to earth

A few notes and observations following a mildly entertaining weekend at Phoenix International Raceway...

- The Camping World Truck Series, while still not on the radar of most of the Sprint Cup garage, is in danger of transforming into another version of the Nationwide Series. Too much Cup driver involvement, too little chance for series regulars to win, and too many combination races with the Cup Series is robbing the series of its identity. For most of its existence, the series stood on its own with numerous stand-alone races in markets not touched by the Sprint Cup and/or Nationwide Series. Those days, sadly, are long gone. Unfortunately, the series is now seen only as easy pickin's for guys like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Clint Bowyer to pad their "NASCAR national touring series" win totals.

- While on that point, we need to put an end to aggregating win totals and making it seem important. Is it impressive that Kyle Busch has 88 career wins among the Truck, Nationwide, and Cup Series? Yes it is. Does it put him in the same league as Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon? No it does not. He has 19 Cup wins. That's an impressive number in and of itself, but he's still 60+ wins in the majors away from joining those guys.

- Leading every lap in a race is impressive. While the action at the front of the pack wasn't always hot in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, it's too bad ESPN chose not to show any of the racing among the rest of the field. Too often NASCAR's broadcast partners choose to show the drivers in the top three, even when they're running by themselves, instead of showing us the race. Maybe NASCAR is not compatible with today's personality-driven mindset. I for one don't want to see four or five drivers all day simply because they're the most famous (or the "Fan Favorite") but I do want to see actual racing. I think it's interesting that the networks continue to show us the drivers they think we all want to see and the ratings have slipped. I have a feeling if they had showed us the racing and covered the total event instead of the drivers that fit into their pre-conceived storylines the ratings might not have dipped so severely.

- I am sure there were a lot of people watching on Sunday that never thought they would cheer for Jeff Gordon to win that were very happy with the results at Phoenix. Who ever would have thought that Jeff Gordon, once hated as the guy who wins too much, would be the underdog?

- The Big One at Phoenix? It's more likely than you think! The first 100 laps at PIR were brutal, with a lot of carnage and some contenders taken out and others left with damage. Is the way the drivers are racing each other now due to the new point system, which doesn't really put more of a focus on winning but instead puts more pressure not to finish badly? There's been a lot of hard racing both at Daytona and at Phoenix, and it will be interesting to see if it carries over to Las Vegas this weekend.

- It's funny to hear Juan Montoya say it's too far to travel between Charlotte and Las vegas as a reason for him not to pursue the $5 million bonus available to non-IndyCar Series regulars for their season finale on October 16. How many Cup drivers traveled to Milwaukee and Road America from Sonoma for a Nationwide Series race over the last five years? The mileage between Sonoma and Milwaukee is approximately 2,149. The mileage between Charlotte and Las vegas is 2,218. Next excuse please...

- It was time for some of those heartwarming stories at Daytona to come crashing back to earth at Phoenix. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had a whirlwind week, but his return to the cockpit was nothing but frustration as he crashed all three days - first in Cup series practice, then in the Nationside Series race, and again in the Cup race on Sunday. People forget that although he's now a Daytona 500 winner, he's still a pretty raw rookie when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series. Racing at Daytona and racing at Phoenix have zero in common, and each takes a totally different skill set. He's still good, don't get me wrong, but it could take him a while to develop at the so-called "drivers tracks," places like Phoenix, Martinsville, Bristol, etc.

- Another heartwarmer turned heartbreaker was Brian Keselowski, who went from finishing fifth in the Gatorade Duel to qualify for the Daytona 500 to DNQing at Phoenix. That's a long way to go only to turn around and head for home with nothing to show for it. Hopefully the next time Brian comes to the track he's up to speed and in the show; like I said last week the only thing he needs to get in there and mix it up with his younger brother is money.

You can follow me on Twitter @ChasKrall

Monday, February 21, 2011

A few SpeedWeeks Thoughts

A few thoughts on the recently completed Daytona SpeedWeeks…

- The two-car draft phenomenon wasn’t necessarily all that aesthetically pleasing, but it raised the level of excitement throughout the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races immensely. Seeing cars run 200 miles per hour was breathtaking, and that was all due to the two-car drafts. While some of the techniques used in the old pack-style of drafting carried over, it showcased a new level of skill and bravery that we haven’t seen at Daytona in many years. Not surprisingly, some drivers that excelled in the old style of racing struggled. Not surprisingly, a young driver with no drafting experience in packs won, I believe in large part because he didn’t have to unlearn anything to succeed.

- While the Wood Bros. Racing team was the winner of the race, the official car owner listed in all of NASCAR’s post-race reports was none other than The King, Richard Petty. With former Wood Bros. Driver David Pearson being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, with the throwback paint job on the car, and it being the 35th anniversary of the 1976 Petty-Pearson finish at the 500, it’s really a nice twist that Petty (who transferred the points from the shut down No. 19 Richard Petty Motorsports team to guarantee the No. 21 a spot in the field for the 500) and the Woods somehow managed to share the victory together, even if it’s just on paper.

- There is a reason why NASCAR races aren’t just one lap. Success doesn’t automatically go to the fastest car that way. One has to finish before they can finish first. All of the negative comments about Jennifer Jo Cobb and Jeffrey Earnhardt lucking into good finishes in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race are nothing more than sour grapes. They both did a great job of staying out of trouble and being there at the end. It doesn’t matter how you get there, only that you did. Ask Derrike Cope if it matters to him that he didn’t lap the field en route to Daytona 500 glory. Would it have been nice? Sure. Did he win the race without it? Sure did, and that’s all that matters.

- If there was any justice in the racing world, Regan Smith would have been battling with Trevor Bayne for the win in the Daytona 500. Smith was excellent all week and even with the accident on the backstretch that left his No. 78 Chevrolet bruised and battered he still managed to salvage a top-ten. Hopefully he can carry some of the momentum from Daytona to some other races this season – particularly at Talladega in a couple of months.

- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seemed like a different man on Sunday. The competitive fire was there, there was the Earnhardt swagger coming across in his radio transmissions, and he drove perhaps the smartest race I’ve seen him drive in his career. I really thought he had a chance to win, even with the late-race flat tire. But that flat eventually cost him his chance as he was caught up in a wreck just after the unscheduled stop to change it. I don’t believe one driver’s success or lack thereof has that much impact on the sport, even a driver as popular as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but after seeing the run at Daytona I am convinced Earnhardt, Jr. can return to victory lane again in 2011.

- With the old pack style of racing, every car could run with every other car. Any driver, as long as he or she could keep the car behind the one in front, could run with any other. This new style of racing truly highlighted driver skill. Those that quickly mastered swapping position could get to the front and stay there. Those that couldn’t languished in the back.

- Someone raised an interesting question regarding Friday night’s Truck race: what would happen if a driver’s window net came down? Surely he’d be black flagged. What would happen if a driver lost half his spoiler on lap 50? Again, surely he’d be black flagged. So why no black flag for losing it on lap 99? Remember, the spoiler isn’t there just for the downforce it creates, it’s there standing nearly straight up because of the drag it creates and Michael Waltrip had half of that drag eliminated in the dash to the checkered. It would have been an unpopular call considering the driver, the date, and the incredible amount of pre-race talk that had been focused on Dale Earnhardt, but NASCAR would have been as justified in that black flag as they were on Sunday when they flagged David Ragan for an improper restart.

- It’s a shame the underdog stories from Thursday’s Gatorade Duels came to such an inglorious end on Sunday. J.J. Yeley fell victim to engine failure before he could work up a sweat and Brian Keselowski was taken out in the big wreck on lap 29. But the fact that either of these drivers made the 500 was a victory in and of itself, it’s just a shame they couldn’t make it to the end.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Daytona 500 dreams coming true

There are days in racing that confound and utterly frustrate you and make you question why you chose to pursue working in the sport for a living. Every racer has felt it – the feeling that the mountain is too tall and the rock being pushed up that mountain is too heavy. The urge to throw in the towel and go back to some normal semblance of life beckons, and some give in.

They return to lives of driving a truck or working as an automotive technician or a plumber. The calls of the fans in the stands are long since replaced by customers walking through the door, the phone ringing, or smoky truck stop restaurants off some state highway just outside of town.

For the thousands of drivers, owners, mechanics, and yes, even PR reps like myself, who have felt the urge to throw in the towel and have gone through with it and returned to “civilian” life, there is the one underdog story out there that proves it can be done. And in this Daytona 500, there are two such stories and both come from the same geographic corner of the country.

By now, everyone has embraced the Brian Keselowski story. Working in a small shop with just himself, his father Bob, and his uncle Ron (along with some part-time help), Keselowski went from the outhouse to the penthouse once his younger brother Brad hitched to the back bumper and literally shoved from from being Tail-end Charlie to nearly winning the second Gatorade Duel.

I’ve had the great fortune of being around the Keselowski family for the better part of the past decade, which came on the heels of being a huge Bob Keselowski fan while growing up and watching him win races in the famous “Black Bandit” No. 29 late model at Toledo Speedway.

While trying to find my footing in this sport, I hooked up with the Keselowski’s driver, Terry Cook, and his wife, ESPN truck series pit reporter Amy East for the 2001 season. I went to virtually every race that season and spent much of those weekends either in the K-Automotive transporter or sitting between the Cook motorhome and the Keselowski motorhome once the garage closed, talking racing and sharing a laugh or two.

In those days, Brian was a mechanic and an over-the-wall crew member, while Brad was a tall, lanky kid who put all his efforts into learning the mechanics and engineering, toting a briefcase and watching everything those around him were doing. Soon, the brothers were racing late models, just like Bob.

Brian won a track championship at Toledo Speedway in 2003, exactly 20 years after his father did. He also scored a couple of ARCA wins, which put him in the same class as his dad again, as Bob was the 1989 ARCA Racing Series champion. Brad also raced late models, but tended to travel between tracks instead of chasing points at any one. I recall one night at Toledo he showed up with a brand new car; it was beautiful and fast. He was making his way to the front when the left rear wheel flew off coming off the fourth corner, sending him hard into the wall and destroying the car.

Brad made his way to the family Truck Series team, but by then they were down on funding and struggling. He still made an impression, and when Ted Musgrave was suspended for a race in 2006, Brad got the call. He immediately showed he had the right stuff by winning the pole and nearly winning the race; a late-race bump from Travis Kvapil taking him out of contention after leading late in the going.

We all know where Brad’s career has gone since. He moved on to JR Motorsports and then on to Penske, with a Cup win for James Finch thrown in for good measure.

Brad has earned his time in the spotlight. Brian has shown the same level of skill and ability behind the wheel, but for whatever reason hasn’t had the breaks his younger brother did. Maybe that’s exactly what happened when Brad spun midway through Thursday’s second Duel race. Maybe that was Brian’s good break. Once Brad went to the back and latched on to his brother, the cameras took notice. Fans started to learn that there are two Keselowski brothers, and the second one isn’t just a start-and-park Nationwide Series driver, he’s actually a pretty competent shoe looking for a good break.

The second story also comes from the state of Michigan. In fact, the Whitney Motorsports team with driver J.J. Yeley has also planted its roots at the same short tracks that the Keselowski family did.

Dusty Whitney was one of the youngest late model owners at Toledo Speedway in the early 2000s. Although his drivers didn’t necessarily win a lot, they did run up front quite a bit and he found his path in the sport. He helped the Keselowski family during their ARCA foray, owning Brian’s cars and collecting a couple of wins along the way. His Dusty’s Collision sponsorship can still be seen on cars racing at Flat Rock and Toledo Speedways, showing he hasn’t forgotten where he came from either.

Whitney moved to the Cup Series in 2010 and found it a tough row to hoe. His start-up team failed to qualify for the first five races, and went through several drivers trying to find the right combination.

Working with a tight budget, Whitney’s cars made 22 starts in 2010 and scored a top-20 finish in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona with J.J. Yeley at the wheel. Yeley and the team split shortly thereafter, but neither found much success while apart. The off-season brought the two back together and new Chevrolet Impalas and some strong engines under the hood brought the team a renewed sense of optimism heading to Daytona.

A sub-par qualifying run left Yeley at the back of the grid for the first Duel and meant he had to race his way into the starting field for the 500.

After a green flag stop for fuel, Yeley was a lap down and looked to be all but eliminated from the 500. But a blown engine and a resultant caution flag changed everything. Yeley picked up the free pass to rejoin the lead lap and darted into the transfer position over the final two-lap dash to the checkered, giving Whitney his first start in the Great American Race.

For Yeley, it marks his return to the 500 after a broken vertebra in a sprint car crash very nearly forced an early end to his racing career.

Dreams do come true. For the Keselowski family, that dream is realized with its two sons lining up in the Daytona 500. For Dusty Whitney, it’s the realization of a vision that took him from the short tracks to the biggest stage in the sport. For both, it proves that the opportunity still exists if you’re willing to reach for it.