Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Keselowski gets new Cup crew chief

   Fresh off helping driver Brad Keselowski win a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, crew chief Paul Wolfe has received a promotion and tougher assignment. Wolfe was named Tuesday as Keselowski's crew chief for the No. 2 Dodge in the Sprint Cup Series for the 2011 season.

   In their first season working together, Keselowski and Wolfe produced six wins and five poles on their way to winning the Nationwide title. The No. 22 Dodge team also established a new series single-season record with 26 top-five finishes.

   "It’s been a fantastic 2010 season with Brad and the team and I’m excited about the challenge of moving up to the Cup Series next season and the opportunity to continue build on the legacy of the No. 2 car team with Brad behind the wheel," Wolfe said.

   A former driver who accumulated six top-20 finishes in 16 career Nationwide starts, Wolfe first became a crew chief in 2006 with Fitz Racing. He moved on to CJM Racing in 2009 before he joined Penske Racing as Keselowski's crew chief in November 2009.

    “We just seemed to click right from the beginning and we look to bring that same magic to the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team in 2011," Keselowski said.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Kurt Busch comes up short at the Rock

   The NASCAR season may over, but not Kurt Busch's racing.
   Busch was edged by Will Kimmel in Saturday's Polar Bear 150 Street Stock Nationals race at Rockingham Speedway. Kimmel led 148 of 150 laps en route to his first victory at the track.
   "It was a little intimidating to look back and see the No. 22 (Busch) in the mirror,” Kimmel said. “I was pretty confident in my car but at the same time it was pretty hard to keep it on the bottom where it ran the best."
   Busch had to battle back after contact with Kimmel forced him to make a pit stop to pull the fender off the left-front tire. After restarting 12th, Busch capitalized on a caution to get on Kimmel’s rear bumper over the last 40 laps.
   “It was just as much fun as I thought it would be. It was old school racing – toss it in sideways and drive the hell out of it," Busch said. "We got every ounce out it. There at the end I think we lost a cylinder. I could definitely feel the power loss.”
   J.D. Frey finished third, Chad Hall fourth and Cliff Gaumond fifth.
   The race was slowed by nine cautions for 42 laps. Ten of the 50 cars that started finished on the lead lap.

   “It was as much fun as it always was,” said Busch. “There were all the lanes to choose from. We worked the low groove and the high groove. This place is so fun with the bumps and quirks.

   "This racetrack, for sure, gets a gold star. Guys in our series (Sprint Cup) that are car guys – that are racers – should definitely be down here racing.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No more excuses for Dale Jr.

   Let's be honest here.

   Ever since Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved to Hendrick Motorsports and it became clear the change was not going to live up to expectations the legions of Earnhardt fans have been looking for someone to blame.

   First it was crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Now, it's crew chief Lance McGrew. And along the way have been the ridiculous accusations that Earnhardt's team didn't get the "best" stuff at HMS, that somehow there was some behind-the-scenes effort to jeopardize Earnhardt's performance.

   While I found the timing of team owner Rick Hendrick's decision to reorganize three of his Sprint Cup programs odd, I'm glad he did it the way he did. Earnhardt isn't just getting a new crew chief, he is getting a whole new team.

   Everything and everyone that have been working on Jeff Gordon's team in recent seasons will now become Earnhardt's. The cars, the personnel, even apparently the pit crew that was used by teammate Jimmie Johnson in the final weeks of the season, will become Earnhardt's next year.

   Yes, Gordon did not win a race in 2010, but there is no question he was a serious contender for many wins and a legitimate title contender. The uniqueness of Hendrick's move has provided something that could likely prove to be a top story in 2011 - no excuses for Earnhardt or his fans.

   I don't believe that Earnhardt suddenly lost all the talent he had when he racked up 18 career Cup wins, but neither do I believe that everyone and everything Hendrick has put to work with Earnhardt since he arrived at HMS has somehow been "sub par."

   There is another answer. And I think in 2011 we might finally find out what that is.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reserve Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR Hall of Fame spot now

   Go ahead and carve out a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame right now for Jimmie Johnson.

   I know he isn’t eligible yet, but if he weren’t already ensured a spot after four consecutive championships, adding a fifth on Sunday should make him a no-brainer.

   He's now won five titles, four by amassing big points leads in the preceding nine races and now a fifth by coming from behind. If drivers had to write an essay to win the championship, he'd likely get bonus points for penmanship he is so smooth.

   For all of those fans who think Johnson winning five in a row is bad for racing, that's easy to say but not as easy in practice. Someone still has to beat Johnson to become champion. And in the face of likely his toughest competition to date, he still came out on top.

   It’s easy to say someone else should win. What's not east is apparently getting someone else to do it. You don't want to see Johnson or his team celebrating No. 6 next season? Then you better hope another finds a way to beat them.

   Unless NASCAR puts a cap on Cup championships for individual drivers - which some fans may actually think a good idea - I suspect Johnson and his team will be in title hunts for many years to come.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Did Jimmie Johnson get a free ride to a fifth consecutive championship?

   The last thing I would think either Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick would want to do would to give Jimmie Johnson any advantage going into the final race of the Sprint Cup season.

   Qualifying over the last few weeks hasn't really meant much on race day for any of the three drivers still in contention for the title. All three have qualified poorly of late but all three have ended up running in the top-10 during the race.

   But still, with everything on the line, with every point for Johnson another step toward a NASCAR-record fifth consecutive title, why wouldn't Hamlin or Harvick's teams try to at least keep pace with Johnson in qualifying?

   Everyone mentions how Hamlin won the Ford 400 a year ago from starting 38th. Two things come to mind. First, Hamlin was out of the title hunt last year and had nothing to lose. We have no idea if his team would or will make the same choices with more at stake.

   Second, in the past four title runs by Johnson, he has entered the Homestead finale with a big points lead and no reason to race hard or push it. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, admitted as much this week on a teleconference.

   The bottom line? We don't know how good Johnson can be here because we really have no idea how good he could have been in the past four races.

   So, now Johnson starts way up front (sixth). His competitors will start from the back (Harvick 28th and Hamlin 37th).

   Is it possible any of the three can still win the championship on Sunday? Of course.

   But there is no way I would want to start that process without at least being able to see the rear bumper of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.



Thursday, November 18, 2010

Will the next driver to "save" NASCAR come on down ...

   Here we go again.

   Another “popular” driver successful in some other form of motorsports decides to make a foray into NASCAR competition and suddenly that person is the answer to NASCAR’s attendance and TV ratings woes.

   This time, it’s Travis Pastrana, who has won numerous titles in supercross, motocross, freestyle motocross and rally racing. He plans to drive seven races in 2011 in the Nationwide Series with a team co-owned by himself and Michael Waltrip.

   Why is it when someone outside NASCAR decides to give it a try it necessarily most follow that we get a litany of reasons how that move will transform the sport?

   Haven’t we learned our lesson yet?

   IndyCar star Danica Patrick made her much-publicized debut in NASCAR this season with the same expectations (or more) and her performance on the track has been at best underwhelming.

   She likely got more people to tune in when she first arrived, and she likely sold a lot of T-shirts. That’s all well and good for Patrick, but what has it done for NASCAR?

   If people are tuning in to see Patrick and then tune out when her adventure is over, what has NASCAR gained?

   The same goes for Pastrana.

   He may be the “next big thing” to come to NASCAR, but unless he actually makes a mark in the sport competition-wise, I don’t know how that improves the NASCAR product.

   I have no doubt that if Patrick or Pastrana were to come into NASCAR and found the success – or even some of it – they have experienced in their other respective racing disciplines, NASCAR would benefit.

   But other sports’ stars coming over to “give NASCAR a try,” who aren’t in contention to win races or plan to run a schedule to contend for a championship, smacks as nothing more than a marketing ploy.

   That’s all well and good, too. Just please call it for what it is.

   I’m not going to make a judgment on what Pastrana can do for NASCAR until I actually see him compete in a Nationwide race.
   The honest truth is I don’t know what he will do. And neither does anyone else until he gets here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Kevin Harvick being overlooked?

   Much has been written and said - even by Kevin Harvick himself - about whether he has been overlooked in this year's Sprint Cup championship race.

   Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin was asked about this on Wednesday and here was his response:

   "I can't explain to you why he doesn't (get respect he deserves), but I can talk to you about why he should. I mean, you just go back and look. Again, I know it doesn't matter to nothing, but everybody talks about stats all week long. That's all you see all week long. When you go back and look where we would be in traditional points, where we are on top 10s, where we are on points gained, where we are on top 5s, I think if you go back and look, it's almost been one of the best seasons that RCR has ever had in its history.

   "Obviously if we don't win the championship, it's not going to be where we want to be, but it's a championship run that we've had all year long. And in order for that to have happened, he had to do a lot of things right this year, and I think a lot of those things have gone a little bit unnoticed because a lot of emphasis has been put on that we haven't qualified very well. But because we haven't qualified very well, the amount of cars that we've passed this year coming from I'll say not even mid-pack, three-quarter pack, through most of the season, I don't know the number of those cars, and I'm sure y'all have the stats on that, but the amount of cars that we've passed this season is probably astronomical compared to a lot of them.

   "And it's a shame that we had the little problem we did in the pits this weekend because I really think when we were running third and had to come back in, if we would have got to see some clean air, our car was going to be very fast out front or in the top two or three this weekend. But he's done a great job, and I think he deserves a lot more credit probably than he is getting."

   A couple things: First, I believe Harvick has as good a chance to win this title as either Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin, given the circumstances with one race remaining.

   Second, given that, I don't think it's unreasonable to consider Harvick an upset winner should he do so.

   Harvick may have led the series points standings most of the first 26 weeks of the season but that feat in an off itself doesn't mean much - or anything - when it comes to the Chase. It's wins that matter, and that's how you get seeded to start the Chase. A driver can have a 1,000 point lead after 26 races but if he doesn't have a win, he'll start dead last in the Chase. That's the system.

   Given that, and the fact Johnson has won four straight championships and has a better than average shot at a fifth, Harvick is right where he should be: knocking on the door, with a chance to kick it in.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If my article ended now ...

   Sunday’s race proved once again why TV and other media’s use of the “points as they run now” statistic is completely and ridiculously meaningless.

   For virtually the entire race, Hamlin – since he was leading the race – was being praised for having dramatically increasing his points lead. Some in the media were already crowning him the champion.

   Then the final 15 laps played out, with Hamlin finishing 12th and Jimmie Johnson fifth. All of a sudden, Hamlin has a razor-thin 15-point advantage going into Homestead.

   That’s not quite the picture that had been portrayed for the whole race. The "as they run now" approach is touted as a way of keeping fans “informed,” but all it really does is continue to mislead.

    A championship bet?
   I don’t know if I have ever witnessed a more gutsy and daring pit call than the one made by Chad Knaus on Sunday. It was also very clever.
   Knaus waited until he was sure Hamlin and his team had decided they would have to pit for fuel. Then he immediately set about having his driver do exactly the opposite – stay on the track and slow down to save fuel.
   It was a season-defining moment for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team.

   Consistency and chemistry
   There he is again. Joey Logano, who had scored the fourth-most points during the Chase entering Sunday’s race, finished third. It was his fifth consecutive top-10 finish.
   It is clear that Logano’s team is developing the consistency and chemistry needed to make the Chase in 2011.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why can't Tony Stewart focus?

   You don't often hear NASCAR drivers admit their focus might be wandering as the season draws to a close, but Tony Stewart certainly offered an insightful answer this weekend when asked if it was difficult to keep focused when you are not in title hunt.

   Stewart's answer: "All everybody wants to do is talk about the guys that are in it and all we want to do is worry about the stuff that we are doing that didn’t get us in it and trying to make our cars better. You know that is the stuff that we are trying to work on and concentrate on our program and not worry about what everybody else is doing. And it is hard. 

   "You want to be in the middle of it and you want to be those guys that are there but at the same time when it doesn’t work out you have to sit there are trying to figure out things at the end of the year to try to figure out why you didn’t get yourself in that situation and you really work really hard now while they are still trying to fight for this year we are already fighting for next year now.”

   Stewart is certainly known for his candor, but it was still surprising to hear a prominent driver explain how he feels a little left out as the focus in the series turns to just those who still have a shot at the championship.

   It's actually more reality than perception, despite what some in NASCAR want to believe. If you're not in the Chase, you are barely noticed. Now as the season winds to close, if you are in the Chase but aren't a title contender, you do little better.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

NASCAR does early inspection of title contenders' Homestead cars

   AVONDALE, Ariz. - NASCAR officials on Thursday confirmed they required the three Sprint Cup teams still in the hunt for the series championship to submit the cars they plan to run in the season finale to pre-race inspection.
   Earlier this week, the teams of Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were required to take the cars they plan to use next week at Homestead, Fla., to NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, N.C., for a precautionary inspection.
   Officials confirmed all three cars met template measurements.
   NASCAR received a lot of criticism when it levied harsh penalties on driver Clint Bowyer after his car failed inspection at the R&D center days after his win in the opening race of the Chase for the Cup at New Hampshire.
   With two races left in the Chase, Hamlin holds a 33-point lead over Johnson and a 59-point advantage over Harvick.
   Johnson has won the last four Cup titles.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Will the real owner of Richard Petty Motorsports please step forward?

Where is George Gillett Jr.?

While we watch the weekly drama unfold of whether Richard Petty Motorsports can piece together the necessary funds and forge the needed deals to make it to the race track, we hear nothing from the organization’s true majority owner.

As questions arise almost daily of whether the team is past-due on its bills, whether it can pay current employees, or whether it will make it to the next race let alone the next season, all we get from Gillett is silence.

He’s nowhere to be seen in the NASCAR garage.

Oh, he’ll toss a team public relations representative to the media wolves without a problem, but he stays silent.

He’ll leave NASCAR legend Richard Petty - only a four percent owner in the company - at the track to face all the questions, while he remains safely tucked away from the media frenzy.

The organization’s top driver - Kasey Kahne - bolts before the end of the season, but nary a word from Gillett. It’s not like he is busy with his Liverpool soccer team any more.

It’s far past time we end the charade that has clouded this team since last season.

There is nothing ‘Richard Petty’ about Richard Petty Motorsports.

Whether on purpose, by chance or by accident, Gillett has managed to tarnish one of the truly good names in all of sports, not just NASCAR. And it’s a shame.

Yes, Petty probably bears some responsibility for allowing his name to be attached to an organization over which he really had no control.

But that name was provided by Petty so the team could succeed and prosper in NASCAR and to make a connection to the sport‘s fans and potential sponsors.

It was not designed to act as a shield to insulate the true owner, Gillett, from criticism and responsibility.

I don’t know if RPM will make it to the final race of the season next weekend at Homestead, Fla. I don’t know if the organization - in whatever form - will return in 2011.

The only person who really knows, not only won’t say but won’t allow himself to be asked the questions.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What Jeff Gordon's crew chief thinks of his on-track tussle with Jeff Burton

   While at a news conference on Tuesday to address the pit crew swap between Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team and Jeff Gordon's No. 24, Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte was also asked several questions about his driver's on-track scuffle with Jeff Burton during Sunday's AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

   What did you think of your driver's boxing skills?
   Letarte: I'm proud of him for this: There are a lot of people in the world or in the media who question his gumption and how hard he wants to be here. He didn't get wrecked running third; he got wrecked running in the back. We needed to get better. He was that disappointed getting wrecked running in the back because he wanted to race that race out. He has faith in this race team and I have faith in him. While it may not have been obvious on TV, we were starting to move in the right direction. I am proud of him. I think that's what this race team meant. We haven't laid down all year long, we're not going to lay down now.

   Was what transpired surprising to you?
   Letarte: After the year we've have had, nothing would surprise me.

   Were you glad to see him as he kind of went at it?
   Letarte: I'm just glad to see he's upset. Anytime I make a bad call, I'm sure he's glad to see I take it hard because he knows how much I really care. It's no different when something happens on the race track. I like to see his emotion. Our team likes to see his emotion. It's great because it's not the old days and the driver doesn't come to the shop seven days a week and hang out with the guys and you have very little interaction with each other because we all have huge responsibilities. I think anytime you see a guy like him who is so clean cut and such a good driver and he shows his emotions, it fires everybody up and everybody knows how much he really cares.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jeff Gordon' pit crew to stay with Jimmie Johnson's team through Chase

   Jeff Gordon's pit crew's temporary move to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson's team will remain in place the last two races of the Sprint Cup Series season.
   Team officials confirmed Monday afternoon Gordon's seven-member over-the-wall pit crew will pit Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet in the final two Chase races at Phoenix and Homestead, Fla.
   The remainder of the teams' personnel will remain intact. Johnson has won the last four Cup titles and trails Hamlin by 33 points with two races left.
   Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, made the change after Gordon wrecked out of Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway on Lap 191 of 334.
   Up until that point, Johnson’s pit crew had lost positions on four pit stops in the race.
   With Gordon's crew in place, late in the race, Johnson made up positions on pit road in his final two stops.
   Mike Ford, crew chief for Chase contender Denny Hamlin - who won Sunday's race and took the points leader - called move one of “desperation.”
   "They removed their team,” Ford said after Sunday's win. “Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out. So this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A look out the rear view mirror

   -I know there is a going to be a lot of people who think that all of the drama that unfolded in Sunday’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway will do wonders for NASCAR and attract a lot of fans, or perhaps bring some back for another look. That may very well turn out to be true. However, what I think is puzzling, is a couple of the reasons people think Sunday was great – one NASCAR driver showing flagrant disrespect to authority and two others getting involved in a fight on the track – have not one thing to do with the actual sport of racing. Perhaps that doesn’t matter any more. Or maybe it never did.

   -Trevor Bayne is a 19-year-old development driver, now for Roush Fenway Racing, who was thrown into his first Cup start in a team he has never raced with previously and a team that doesn’t run fulltime. He finished 17th. Dale Earnhardt Jr., a driver in his 11th season in the series, running for arguably the strongest organization in the sport, was a complete non-factor and finished 25th. You figure it out because I can’t.

   -I see no difference in Richard Childress Racing’s decision to swap Kevin Harvick’s pit crew with Clint Bowyer’s and the decision Sunday to swap out Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew with Jeff Gordon’s. Yes, the Johnson swap was made mid-race, but it was also made with Gordon out of the race for all practical purposes. If it was done with Gordon still in contention for a race win, that would have been different.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fundraisers to help driver Shane Hmiel

   Friends of the family of former NASCAR Driver Shane Hmiel have planned several events to help raise money to cover medical expenses incurred by Hmiel and other race car drivers who have been suffered similar serious injuries.

   November 17, 4 p.m. - Lake Norman, NC - Silent auction to be held at the Rusty Rudder, one of the racing community's favorite hangouts right on the water. Come enjoy some good food, live music and friends of Shane, while bidding on rare racing memorabilia from the sports biggest names, tickets to events, and plenty of awesome merchandise donated from all over the Carolinas. Come meet some of racing's stars and have a good time for a good cause. Bidding will end at 8 p.m. Open to public. (A small donation will be appreciated at the door. Items for bid and additional information will be released before the date of the auction).

   November 17, 9 p.m. - Lake Norman, NC - Party hosted by Shane's brother Tyler at the Comedy Zone above Galway Hooker. Party to feature Shaun Jones, one of the nation's top touring stand-up comedians who has been featured on television stand up hours and acted alongside Jamie Foxx in feature films. To attend the event you will need to purchase a ticket in the form of a $40 donation at http://www.lkncomedy.com/. In addition to the party, everyone that attends will receive an exclusive "Heal The Real Deal" T-shirt, and be entered in a raffle for prizes. Food and beverage will be available for purchase, with proceeds going towards Shane's recovery.

   November 30 - IMIS Show Opening Night Lucas Oil Stadium - Indianapolis, IN - Silent auction to be held at the opening night of the International Motorsports Industry Show. Open to all vendors and attendees of the 2010 IMIS show. Racing memorabilia from the biggest names in open wheel racing. In addition, there will be a booth at the show throughout the week, where you can stop by, hang out and make a contribution to Shane's recovery.

   November 30, 9 p.m. - Downtown Indy - Party at Jillians immediately following the IMIS auction. Open to public. A small donation at the door will get you entered in a raffle with some awesome prizes. Food and beverage proceeds to be donated to the fund. You will have a chance to get autographs and take pictures, but most importantly talk racing with racers.

   December 5, Concord NC - Field Fillers Fairgrounds - Cart race featuring some of the biggest up and comers in racing. Located behind the Joi of Seating race shop is an asphalt oval race track. The atmosphere will be festival-like and JAQ's famous BBQ plates will be available for a small donation. All carts are allowed to race. The only rule is that it runs a limited flathead motor. Other than that, its run what you brung. There is no charge to come to the show, but you will have an opportunity to "sponsor" a driver as we try to figure out who can raise the most money.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Let's get NASCAR fans' attention again

   Let’s try to get some people’s attention.

   I’m a history buff and certainly appreciate tradition, particularly in NASCAR. The importance of tradition ranks as high among racing fans as those in baseball in my opinion.

   But there is also a time for a change. And for NASCAR a big one needs to be made now.

   It’s time to shorten the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and shorten the races.

   Yes, that’s right. Cut the season and cut the race lengths.

   I compliment NASCAR on the changes it has made in recent seasons to cater to fans’ desires, in making the racing safer and better, in trying to enhance excitement through rule changes. I’ve never been a proponent of the Chase format, but I give NASCAR credit for at least trying something.

   Let’s face it. Even with the Chase enjoying its closest points race since its inception, TV ratings are still dropping week after week.

   The racing product is good – last week’s Talladega race was one of the better ones I’ve seen from start to finish in my 13 seasons and the race still lost almost a fourth of its audience from last season.

   Is it football? Maybe so, but if it is, then something has changed because NASCAR and the NFL have shared Sundays for decades.

   What I think has changed are fans’ attention spans. In an Internet, Twitter, Facebook, photo-phone world, four-plus hour events are taxing people’s patience.

   Everyone who has watched races have heard drivers saying things like, “We were riding around biding our time,” or talking about “staying out of trouble until we could race for it at the end.”

   Fans – and media – rate Truck and Nationwide series races typically better than Cup and that’s in large part to their shorter length. Cup races have become in large part endurance events rather than a race to see who is truly fastest or has the best car.

   My solution? Cut the Cup schedule by six races so the season ends as the NFL season starts. Every race in Cup should be 400 miles/laps or less except for the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

   There are two choices here: Give up and wait the situation out and hope it gets better on its own or try again with a big swing at big change.

   You want to produce better racing? Create more of it by removing all the riding around.