Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The wait and the weight is gone for Junior

There has been plenty of talk about how Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500 is good for NASCAR. And, sure it's true, when the sport's most popular driver wins the sport's biggest race, nobody is arguing it's a good thing to see Dale Jr. in Victory Lane.
But there is one person that this victory may have been the most important for: Dale Jr. himself.
The win appeared to mean a lot of things to Junior as he took his backwards victory lap around the famed 2.5-mile oval after his first restrictor plate track win since 2004.
Winning the Daytona 500 again was more than a big deal for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior appeared exuberant. Sure, any driver is going to be pretty happy after winning the Daytona 500. But in Junior's case there seemed to be something extra in his emotion. As he waved to fans on the victory lap, it was as if he was saying I can't believe it took me so long get back here at the Daytona 500. Even Earnhardt himself admitted it was maybe better than winning his first Daytona 500 back in 2004. He certainly seemed sincere in the aftermath in victory lane, thanking anyone who had anything to do with the win, including giving every one of his crew members a hug.
Maybe, too, this victory was a large weight lifted off his shoulders. Junior has faced the most pressure of any driver on the circuit in recent years. And probably a lot of it, not of his own doing. Just having that name, Dale Earnhardt, brings about immeasurable expectations and hopes from the legions of Earnhardt fans who cheered for his father. Junior has said in the past that he likes to win because he doesn't want to disappoint his large fan base. So, somewhere inside him, you know he didn't like letting his fans down.
As if that wasn't enough, there then was his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. Racing to Hendrick Motorsports back in 2008. Sure,he did bring some of the pressure on himself after moving to the best team in the sport. But maybe then, he just didn't know how to handle it. His struggles had been minimal at that time, but it was probably as surprising to him as everyone else that he had won just two of his last 198 races, both at Michigan, before winning at Daytona Sunday.
In a sport where big-time sponsors are crucial to success, Junior is one of NASCAR's top marketing magnets. So, the move to Hendrick seemed like a natural fit, but Junior doesn't want to go down as just a walking ATM machine for the race team.
Then too, you can't underestimate what losing a father in tragic accident does to a young man either. Junior was 26 when his father was killed in a crash on the final lap at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001. Sure, all of the drivers know in the back of their minds somewhere that mortality can tap them on the shoulder in the next three-car pileup at any race track. But losing a father who knew just when to kick you in the butt or when to pat you on the back, there's no way to measure how much that means. It's not unusual for a person to take years to recover from losing a father in a sudden accident. It's difficult enough to deal with that in private, and Junior, likely once again feeling obligated to his loyal fans, sometimes had to figure out how to get through another day in public.
Yes, he gets paid a lot of money to do what he does and he wouldn't have a job without those fans. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to deal with a such a tragic event. In fact, it might be harder to keep putting on that "everything is cool attitude" in public on days where he felt anything but that.
But it looks like Junior is feeling pretty confident now. He seemed to drive with the attitude Sunday of knowing he can win, rather than hoping he can win. I'd be surprised if that doesn't carry over into the rest of the season, even if he does have a bad race here or there.
And this is certainly the right time for him to have the confidence. Junior will turn 40 on Oct. 10
and that's kind of magic number when it comes to the age limit for winning NASCAR Sprint Cup titles. A driver at the age of 40 or more has won a Sprint Cup title just nine times out of the 65 championships awarded. And with crew chief Steve Letarte leaving at the end of the season to announce for NBC next year, Junior knows this may be his best chance for a title.
He knows it's time to go for it. And that may be the best attitude of all to have.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Will Danica be the next to do the impossible?

As a NASCAR fan I had always kind of liked Danica Patrick. I respected the fact that she was a woman entering into what has predominantly been a man's world and that she was not naive to that fact. However, in terms of wanting her to win a race, I thought it would be kind of cool, and a real big deal, if it happened. But you know, I wasn't really hoping against all hope that Patrick would somehow, someway, win a race somewhere, someday.
But after Richard Petty's comments earlier this week saying the only way Patrick would win is if no one else is in the race, well, I went from sort of hoping to Patrick could win, do really hoping she does win somewhere sometime this season.
Now, the rub here is that Petty might actually be right. However, he could have probably said the same thing about a dozen other drivers in the Sprint Cup series. But what Petty did here was a huge, make that a Daytona-like 500 huge, favor to Patrick.
Danica Patrick hasn't won a NASCAR race yet, but she has won many fans.
While some fans view her as just a marketing machine to bring attention to the sport (they wouldn't be completely wrong there either), some fans also view her situation as a bit unfair to other deserving drivers (see Sam Hornish as exhibit A), simply because she is capable of bringing a major sponsor to a team. And in that case, she has been viewed by some as more of an underachiever rather than an underdog.
But when NASCAR's all-time race winner says there's no way Patrick can win a race, that it just won't happen period, then well, boom, now you have a legitimate underdog here in Danica Patrick.  It's not like Patrick is short on fan support either, but if you like rooting for an underdog (and make no mistake here, The King says Patrick is an big underdog) then Patrick's fan base just grew some more. There's nothing more interesting in sports than seeing if somebody can accomplish something that one of that sport's legends says is impossible.
 It would have been like Denver Broncos legend John Elway saying before the Super Bowl that there is no way Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson could win the game. Instantly there would have been a whole legion of fans who might not have cared a whole lot about the game, deciding to pull for the Seahawks. Elway did not say anything like that by the way.
However, the sports world is filled with legions of stories about how competitors have overcome the odds to achieve success. You've got everything from NBA legend Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team to the 1969 New York Mets going from the league's laughing to stock to World Series champions.
And as far as reaction to the seven-time champion Petty's comments, I'm not sure which one I liked better. It was Patrick's calm and collected response of saying everyone has a right to their opinion (she is smart enough to know not to get into a back and forth with The King), or her team owner Tony Stewart saying Friday that if Patrick does win a race, she should take the checkered flag and give it to The King (that's the G-rated paraphrase there). Stewart did say that he would prepare equal cars for Patrick and Petty and allow them to have their own race. Petty said Friday he would do that, but it seemed doubtful that a match race would actually happen.
What's a bit ironic here, too, is that Petty and Patrick do share a common trait. They both have and still do treat their fans with great respect. There are countless stories of how Petty always signed autographs and he still does that today. Patrick too is accessible to fans (though we all know this is a different time than the pre-1990s) and her ability to handle pressure situations in front of the media is something that cannot be underrated.
But whether Patrick will win or not in Sunday's Daytona 500, or sometime this season, no one can say for sure, unless you're The King. You have to have great respect for Petty, and you have to listen to his opinion just because of who he is and what he's accomplished in the sport. But this is one time I wouldn't mind seeing him proved wrong.
Daytona Picks
Here's a look at my top five picks (four favorites and an underdog) for Daytona. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin (both have looked strong this week), Tony Stewart (doesn't have to win this race one of these years), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (even though he last won a restrictor plate race in 2004), and my sleeper pick this week is AJ Allmendinger.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is Stewart's plate too full for 2014 season?

It's hard to imagine a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and winner of 48 races who is on a top level team being an underdog coming into the season. But for several reasons, Tony Stewart may be just that. And for those same reasons, that may be bad news for Stewart's opponents.
Tony Stewart is back in action after suffering a
season ending  injury in a sprint car accident last August. 
One of those reasons is that Stewart is returning from the first major injury of his racing career. Stewart was doing something he truly loves last Aug. 5 when he was driving a sprint car at Southern Iowa Speedway and crashed and suffered a severely broken leg. It ended Stewart's hope of making the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship and his racing season all together.
Another reason is since Stewart is a team owner and major decision maker at Stewart-Haas Racing, he is in the middle of the planning for much of the team. And that got a little more complicated, or maybe even a lot more complicated, when it was announced that fellow owner and billionaire Gene Haas decided to hire Kurt Busch as the team's fourth driver. Just a couple of months earlier, Stewart had said the team wasn't ready for a fourth car. But when the owner with the deepest pocket book says let's go do something and I'm buying, well, you just go do it. So, this will be the first year for Stewart-Haas to have a four-car team and to think there won't be some bumps in the road along the way is simply not realistic.
And this is not just any four-car team. You've got Stewart, Busch, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick all together here. They all have strong personalities and really, do we know which one of these drivers is the most stubborn? Probably not and none of them would probably be where they are now without having that stubborn streak. But to think they won't have at least one blowup at some point in the season is a bit naive. Stewart certainly has matured since taking on the ownership role, and he may well be better at managing these personalities than many think. But expect Stewart to draw on some of the advice he received from former boss Joe Gibbs at least a couple of times this season in order to keep the peace.
For most drivers, getting a new crew chief is a pretty big deal, and without the injury and team changes, that would have been true for Stewart, too. But after two years with Steve Addington, Stewart has now hired Chad Johnston to be his crew chief. Sure, they can like each other, and sure they can talk all they want about learning each other's terminology and how to communicate. But it's not until they are trying to figure out something late in a pressure-packed race that that crew chief-driver relationship gets its real test. And no matter the experience of the driver and expertise of the crew chief, it's just an impossible situation to simulate. They are going to have an adjustment period, it's just a way of life and one more challenge Stewart will have to meet if he wants to win a fourth Sprint Cup title.
And finally, there is the age factor, too. Even though drivers can still be pretty competitive up into their late 40s, when it comes to winning championships, it's still a sport for the younger generation. Stewart has already beat the odds once there, winning his third title at the age of 40 in 2011. Of the 29 drivers to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, only Dale Earnhardt with three, and Joe Weatherly with two, have won multiple titles past the age of 40. The oldest title winner was Bobby Allison at the age of 45 in 1983. And of the 65 NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, a driver at age 40 or older has won the title just nine times. So the clock is ticking on Stewart. He's already beaten the odds once on this one and it won't be any easier to do it a second time.
One crazy thing that would happen if Stewart does happen to claim the crown, is that he will be the only driver to win under four different scoring systems. His first title in 2002 was under the original season-long system. Then he won again in 2005 under the first Chase points scenario. He captured his third title under a revised Chase system in 2011. So, he could make his own bit of history by winning this completely revamped elimination round/points system, too, which puts a major emphasis on wins, which is probably something Stewart likes.
And if you're into the whole number karma thing (which I'm not but can't help but notice this) is that it is 2014 and Stewart's car number is 14. Also, his 48 career wins just happen to be the car number of last year's champion, Jimmie Johnson. And then you've got the whole 3-6-3 thing going on here. What's that? Stewart went three years between his first and second title, then had a six-year gap until he won his third crown. Well, 2014 is three years since then, so you know, he's got that going too.
But what Stewart really has going for him is a lot more than numbers or good karma. He's got the best engine shop in the business with Hendrick Motorsports. He's also going to read about all the reasons why he shouldn't be able to win a title this year. That will make him more determined than ever.
He's going to be out to prove he's still among NASCAR's elite when he steps lines for the Budweiser Shootout Thursday night and the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon. It would be a major surprise if Stewart is not in the new 16-driver Chase format when the last 10 races of the season begin. But really, it will be no surprise if is he's one of the four drivers going for the title in Homestead on Nov. 16.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

So if NASCAR is all about winning, who's going to win?

How many times in recent years has there been a NASCAR race, and when TV reporters talk to drivers afterwards, you sometimes hear them say it was a good points day? And yes, while that may be true, it was sometimes upsetting that they weren't too upset about not winning. Sure, no one, not even Jimmie Johnson, is going to win every race. But it has been more the exception than the rule to see a driver walk away with at top five finish and be upset about not winning.
Maybe that will at least change a little now.
If a driver wins one of the first 26 races of the the Sprint Cup's regular season, is in the top 30 in the points standings and starts all of those races, he or Danica Patrick will be eligible for the 10-race Chase. But now the Chase will feature 16 drivers, with four drivers dropping out after each third race.  But if any driver wins one of those three races in each segment, he or Patrick will automatically advance to the next round. Eventually, that will leave NASCAR with its own version of the Final Four for its last race of the season at Homestead, with the first of those four drivers to cross the finish line winning the title.
There will likely not be a lot of surprises as to who makes the Chase. It's going to be many of the same names. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are all strong favorites to make the Chase. That's 15 drivers right there and I would be surprised if one of them doesn't make it. But anything is possible. This will be a strong rookie class with Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson as the early Rookie of the Year favorites, but you never know what can happen. For example, under this format last year, David Ragan would've made the Chase with his win at Talladega. So a surprise win or two could well occur.
But in trying to find title favorites and with all this emphasis on winning, here's a look at the winners at the 10 Chase tracks in each of the last two seasons. It would seem these drivers would have the best chance to advance in each round.
Jimmie Johnson has had plenty of winning moments in his career. Winning
races will now be more important than ever in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
The Big Picture
First, here's a look at the overall picture. There have been 36 races at the 10 Chase tracks in the past two seasons and the drivers that have won the most at those tracks is not a surprise. Johnson has six wins, Kenseth five, Harvick, Hamlin and Keslowski each have four, Kahne and Gordon each two and then Stewart, Ragan, Edwards, Bowyer, Biffle, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray and Ragan each have one.
Here's a look at recent history at the tracks in each round:
Challenger Round
The first three tracks in the Chase are Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover, with Dover being the first elimination race in the Chase. The winners at those tracks the last two years have been Kenseth, Keselowski and Johnson with two wins each, and Stewart, Vickers, Kahne and Hamlin with one win each. And if a driver needs a win going into Dover to advance to the next round, Johnson has two wins there and Stewart and Keselowski each have one win there. It would be a major surprise if Johnson does not make it out of the first round.
Contender Round
The next three tracks are Kansas, Charlotte and the always unpredictable Talladega. At those three tracks, Kenseth has three wins, Keselowski and Harvick two each, then Hamlin, Kahne, Bowyer, Ragan and McMurray one each. And since the elimination race in this round is at Talladega, it's just impossible to pick a favorite if a driver needs a win to advance to the next round. It will be interesting to see how team work comes into play if say, for example, Johnson has already won and is guaranteed a spot in the next round and a teammate like Earnhardt or Gordon needs a push to get a win to get there. And I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing at all, just another strategy option that may come into play.
Eliminator Round
The next three tracks are Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. Recent winners at those places have been Johnson with four wins, Harvick with two, Gordon, Newman, Biffle, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Edwards each with one. The elimination track here is Phoenix, where Harvick has won twice and Hamlin and Edwards each once in the past two years. This race won't likely have the super-close racing that Talladega will bring, but there will be eight drivers going for four spots, so the strategy here, whether it be with fuel or tires, will likely make for an interesting day.
Championship Round
This actually may be the most difficult round to handicap. That's because with the exception of Tony Stewart needing to win (which he did) in 2011 to take the title, the Chase leader in this race has been in more of a stay out of trouble and just finish mode. The last two winners here have been Gordon and Hamlin, neither of which was in the Chase. And you have to admit, with the exception of 2011, this final race in recent years has been anti-climactic. Now, with four drivers just trying to beat each other, it guarantees significant drama in the final race.
And if you're upset that consistency won't mean as much as it has in past NASCAR championship history, here's the irony in all of this as many of you know. With all this emphasis on winning, a driver who has won just once in his past 198 races, Dale Earnhardt Jr., would have been the champion under this system last year.
And really, who could predict something like that?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Some speedy lessons from Daytona

The biggest race of the season has come and gone. And hopefully NASCAR, it's drivers and its fans have learned some valuable lessons this week. It's true that as humans we are capable of learning and changing our behavior, even if we don't necessarily want to, but know deep down it's for the best. So with that in mind, here are a few things we learned after a week of racing at Daytona.
Fans are at risk: This doesn't happen very often, in fact, it almost never happens.  But that word, "almost" is the key here. When a horrific crash on the final lap of the Nationwide race Saturday ended with big pieces, including a tire, of Kyle Larson's car catapulting into the stands, it reminds us that there is, albeit a small one, a risk for the fans. Fortunately, no fans died in the accident, and sure, NASCAR and all tracks need to check their safety standards. Are the catch fences high enough and strong enough? Should fans sit a little farther back from the track? Should there be a secondary catch fence directly in front of the first row of the stands? Should NASCAR require tires to be tethered to significantly decrease the chance of a tire going into the stands? It's not that the safety standards at Daytona are bad (the catch fence is 22-feet high), but all parties involved need to ask if those standards can be better. It's in the best interest of the fans, and hopefully that will be the first consideration here.
No more Franco: When actor James Franco gave the command to start the engines before Sunday's Daytona 500, he said, "drivers and Danica"  in reference to female driver Danica Patrick. Those of us who follow auto racing know that Danica is a driver. He could have said  "gentlemen and Danica" and that would have been acceptable. Saying "drivers and Danica'' though was a major mistake. She was even starting on the pole and there had been numerous stories written about her last week and she had been on the talk-show circuit, too. Danica is most definitely a driver. Whether you think she's a good one or not, is an entirely different matter. Which brings us too . . .
An eighth-place finish at Daytona proves Danica Patrick
 belongs in NASCAR competition.
Danica belongs: After she qualified first for the Daytona 500, Patrick admitted that was largely due to the crew having her car prepared to go fast. Sure, she pointed it in the right direction, took the right line around the famed 2.5-mile oval, but what she said was true. So the big question Sunday was how would she do at the front of the pack with 42 other drivers on the track. And if there are any doubts if she belonged, those now have to be erased. Danica definitely belongs. It might not be so much what she did, but what she didn't do that should make us take notice. She has never approached her time in NASCAR as some hot-shot know-it-all. She's always ready to take advice and makes it well-understood that she knows she is still learning. So, she didn't make  any stupid moves while running near the front of the pack Sunday. She didn't come close to causing any big accidents. She even led five laps. Sure, some more experience will teach her how to at least keep and maybe improve her position on those final laps at Daytona and Talladega, instead of dropping back five places. But if going from third to eighth in that situation is the worst thing that happened to her, then that's a pretty good drive for any driver.
Stay away from our sport: When Saturday's crash happened at the end of the Nationwide race, one of the networks to break into the coverage was CNN. And, hey, we can't blame them because if fans are hurt then it's a pretty big story. What we can blame them for is not having anyone with any idea about the sport available to talk about the situation. It was clear after about two minutes of coverage they didn't know what they were talking about. There was better and more accurate information from fans and reporters who cover the sport on Twitter than what CNN was attempting to tell us. The responsibility here just doesn't fall on the on-air personalities, but on the production people behind the scenes who don't understand our sport. It was a poor effort and those of us who have at least a decent knowledge of auto racing recognized it immediately and tuned out.
Tony Stewart understands the safety of the fans is more important  than the safety of the drivers.
Tony grows up: Yes, Tony Stewart did win the Nationwide race Saturday, but there was no celebration in Victory Lane. Stewart's first words when he exited his car were to express concern for the fans. Sure, he'll take the win because somebody has to, but he undoubtedly would have traded that victory for the fans' safety. There have been times in years past when Stewart has lost his temper and acted inappropriately, and there's no guarantee that won't happen again. But how he reacted to the situation Saturday won't soon be forgotten. Then he took it one step further by giving  the injured fans who were still in the hospital Sunday a personal visit after the Daytona 500. That's a winning move.
Youth with a machine: There were a couple of years there where one had to wonder if and when there would be a rush of young NASCAR stars that we could look forward to following in the future. That now is no longer a worry. With brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex, Travis Pastrana, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Ryan Blaney racing in the Nationwide and trucks series, and even Ricky Stenhouse and Danica Patrick being regulars on the Sprint Cup scene now, and we're not just talking about their dating relationship, some new blood is coming to NASCAR and that's a good thing. We need new people to like, or hate, or whatever. How successful those drivers will be on the long-term remains to be seen, but it will be fun finding out.
No. 48 is still No. 1: It's not like we needed a reminder, but Jimmie Johnson's victory at Daytona tells us he's still the guy to beat when it comes to winning the Sprint Cup title. After winning five straight titles, Johnson hasn't won the crown the past two seasons. Along with winning Sunday, of course, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus' preparation for Daytona was quite interesting. Instead of running with large packs and seeing how the new Gen 6 car would handle in traffic, Johnson did only solo runs in practice. It seemed a bit odd, but when you do the same thing everybody else does, it's hard to learn anything different. Johnson and Knaus had confidence in their plan and they stuck to it. And like it or not, it worked. That may be bad news for the rest of the field when it comes to the 10-race Chase for the Championship in the fall.
Just another dad:  It was back a couple of years ago that an angry Joey Logano said that DeLana Harvick, not fellow competitor Kevin Harvick, wore the pants in the family after Harvick appeared to purposely wreck Logano at Pocono. Well, after winning one of the 150-mile qualifying races Thursday at Daytona, Kevin Harvick pretty much confirmed that. When Harvick went back to his RV, he found a sign hanging on the door. He was not allowed to enter as his baby son Keenan was asleep. So there was a winner of a Daytona race, still in his driver's suit, left to wait outside of his own RV. Don't worry Kevin, us dads completely get it. And if and when Logano marries and has children, he'll get it too.
The rest of the story:  Winning the Daytona 500 is no guarantee of success for the rest of the season. Of course, Johnson may well be the exception to that rule. The last driver to win at Daytona and then win the Sprint Cup title was well, Johnson, in 2006. It's almost like Daytona is it's own mini-season. The real season begins Sunday afternoon in Phoenix. We'll likely learn a lot more there, too.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Some NASCAR needs for 2013

These are the days that we go around wishing friends and co-workers a Happy New Year.
And with the NASCAR Sprint Cup season ready to start up again next month in Daytona (and later this week with testing in Daytona), there are a lot of new developments that will play a major role in just who will have a Happy New Year and who will not.
So, to get 2013 underway, here's a look at some of those issues.
I need a new car: Yes, the biggest factor for 2013 will likely be which teams can adjust best to the new 2013 car. Chevrolet will have its new SS model on the track, Ford will return its Fusion and Toyota  its Camry. With not a lot of on-track testing before Daytona, everyone will be looking to make the right adjustments to see how cars will react to different situations on different tracks. But here's the real key. If you're a fan of a driver on a big-money team, you're likely to be a bit happier at least earlier in the season. So give the early advantage to the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Chevrolets, the Roush Fords and the Gibbs Toyotas. They each have the in-house testing equipment needed to have their cars more ready when they roll off the trucks. 
I need a new driver: The biggest changes came on the Roush, Gibbs and Penske teams. The shuffle included Matt Kenseth going from Roush to Gibbs, Joey Logano going from Gibbs to Penske and Ricky Stenhouse being promoted from the Nationwide Series to drive full-time in the Sprint Cup series for Roush. Each of these moves comes with some questions, all for different reasons. Kenseth has been a regular contender for the title, but his only championship came in 2003. And since he turned 40 last March, the odds are against him winning another title. Only six of the 28 drivers to win a title have done so after turning age 40. Logano came to Gibbs Racing with great promise and he's proven he can dominate in the Nationwide Series. However, he's struggled in the Sprint Cup Series and while he won't turn 23 until May, he needs to show he can be a consistent contender for Penske. And much like Logano, Stenhouse has proven himself by winning the Nationwide title the last two years. But the Sprint Cup series is a different game, with more experienced drivers and different cars. So the question will be what kind of transition can Stenhouse make in 2013?
I need a new manufacturer: When Brad Keselowski captured the 2012 Sprint Cup title it was a unique situation in that he won in a Dodge after Penske had announced it was switching to Ford for the 2013 season. The question here is if Penske made the right manufacturer choice. Penske was the lone Dodge team left, so he pretty had to make a switch. But Fords found Victory Lane just six times in the 36 official Sprint Cup races last season, while Keselowski put his Dodge in the winner's circle five times. Having another high-profile team to gather and share information will help, but the Fords definitely need a rebound season.
I need a chance: Trevor Bayne, for Roush Racing, and Sam Hornish Jr., for Penske Racing, are each scheduled to run full-time in the Nationwide Series and maybe they will battle for the title. Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, will still run on a part-time basis for the Wood Brothers in Sprint Cup, but it's a shame he hasn't had a legitimate full-time shot in Sprint Cup. He's young and excellent with the media and he'd make a great personality on the sport's biggest stage. Hopefully he can prove he belongs there by winning often in the Nationwide Series in 2013. Hornish started 20 Sprint Cup races, including the last 19 for Penske after A.J. Allmendinger was suspended and eventually let go for violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy. Hornish had 11 top 20 finishes in the final 19 races and regularly ran in the top 10. He's proven he deserves a legitimate Sprint Cup ride, too.
Do we need moe Danica?: Danica Patrick will move to Sprint Cup full-time with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013. She's always going to receive a lot of attention just because she knows how to market herself. But I think she's more than just a pretty face. We'll not go crazy and say she will compete for a spot in the Chase, but out of 36 races, I think she finish in the top 20 with regularity, and a handful of top 10 finishes aren't out of the question for her. Sure, she'll get some not-so-kind bumps, that will ruin a race or two or five, but Patrick isn't afraid to push back either, and once she does, then she can concentrate on racing.
I need a dirt race: The NASCAR trucks will hit the dirt in Eldora, Ohio,  in July. It will be interesting to see how many Sprint Cup drivers go back and revisit their roots as most of them began their careers racing on dirt tracks, including several drivers and tracks from and in the Midwest. Just what will happen and how the trucks will react to the dirt will be a bit unpredictable, which should be a good thing.
I need a lame duck: The heavy rumor is that Kevin Harvick and his Budweiser sponsorship will be leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas in 2014. Since neither side has denied those rumors, it's probably pretty much a done deal. So, for Harvick fans, there's this bit of hope for 2013. The last two champions have involved a lame-duck situation, this past year with Penske announcing a manufacturer swtich, and then in 2011 when eventual champion crew chief Darian Grubb was told before the season ended that he was being let go by driver-owner Tony Stewart.
I need one less point: The 2012 season came down to the last race with Jimmie Johnson pretty much needing to win to have a shot at overtaking Keselowski for the title. However, when Johnson's mechanical issues relegated him to a 36th-place finish, and Clint Bowyer finished second, that allowed Bowyer to finish second in the season points standings. That's not good news for Bowyer and here's why. Sprint Cup drivers who have finished second in the standings in recent years have not fared well the following year. In 2012, the previous year runnerup, Carl Edwards, who came within one point of the title, did not make the Chase for the Championship. In the 2011 season, 2010 runnerup Denny Hamlin made the Chase, but was never a serious contender for the title. In the 2010 season, 2009 runnerup Mark Martin finished 13th in the standings and in the 2009 season, 2008 runnerup Edwards finished 11th in the final standings. Call it what you want. I call it more good fortune for Jimmie Johnson.  Which brings us to . . .
I need two more titles: So now Johnson, who will be 38 in September, has gone two straight seasons without winning a title after winning five in a row. He needs two crowns to tie the Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most in Sprint Cup history. Can he do it? Yes, he certainly can. Will he do it? I'll have to yes, especially as long as he stays with Chad Knaus as his crew chief. Along with their equipment, their familiarity with each other will help them figure out the new cars faster than most this year and that's why Johnson will be a favorite to win a sixth title.
I need one title: Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to Hendrick Racing in 2008 with great promise, and it was just assumed that he would be a perennial title contender. And while he made strides forward  in 2012 and showed some of the consistency needed, he now needs to add some victories to become a legitimate championship contender. Will that happen in 2013? And that's one big question that no one can answer with the outcome determining whether this will be a happy year for Junior and his fans.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Penske more than just a first-rate owner

Roger Penske has done a lot of winning in his storied career as a race car owner. Most notably, Penske's drivers have won 12 titles in the IndyCar Series, where he and his drivers have dominated at times. Penske just missed winning the IndyCar title this year as it came down to the final race in Fontana, Calif. While winning that title would not have been unusual for the 75-year old Penske, it would have made what might happen this weekend all the more remarkable.
If Penske driver Brad Keselowski holds on to his 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and does capture the Sprint Cup crown Sunday, it will give Penske his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title. And if Penske IndyCar driver Will Power had won the title in September, Penske would have won two titles in the same year.
But Penske is not only the leader of remarkable teams on the track, he also a leads significant happenings off the track.
It was last month when the Driving Away Cold Program donated coats to Philadelphia area organizations based on how many cars auto dealer sold. One of those dealers involved was the Penske Group from Reading, Pa. Being part of the coat drive was a good thing to do, but not something highly unusual. However, one of the men at the Community YMCA of Eastern Delaware County in Upper Darby, Pa., in mid-October helping unload those coats was David Penske, Roger Penske's brother. He didn't hang around to be interviewed, and was not seeking extra attention to let the world know how great the Penske organization is. In fact, he was trying to avoid it. Not because he was being uncooperative, but simply because there was the next delivery to make and there was work to do. He wasn't looking for credit.

A little while later, after asking a few questions about the Penskes to a public relations representative for the program, I found that the truck used to deliver the coats was donated by Penske. And also, that the Penskes had been very helpful to the entire program.
That's one of those classy type of acts that often go unnoticed, but as is often the case life, an indication of a true winner.
That Penske hasn't been a Sprint Cup title winner sooner is a bit of a surprise. He came close with Rusty Wallace in 1993, when Wallace won 10 races and finished second, and then finished third the following year. But he hasn't been that close for a while ... until now.

The reason it's a surprise Penske hasn't won that Sprint Cup title is because he leads an organization that works to do everything first class. To put Penske's ownership career in perspective, he was viewed by many in IndyCar the way owner Rick Hendrick is viewed by many in NASCAR today. Penske's team was the place to go if you wanted to win the Indy 500 and win the IndyCar championship.
While Penske's teams got off to a good start when he re-entered NASCAR in 1992, it's been a bit of a struggle at times, with hints of success.
Penske is all about doing the right thing all the time. But he without question took a bit of risk after hiring the brash Brad Keselowski to be his driver three years ago. Keselowski delivered Penske his only NASCAR title by taking the Nationwide crown in 2010. And after making the Chase last year, Keselowski clearly set his sights on winning the title this year.
It's been a maturation process for Keselowski, who at times in years past took to wrecking other drivers if they were in slower cars. But he's realized that creates more problems than it solves.
And some of that maturation has had to come from Penske, whose adept at solving problems.
One of the team's biggest issues this year was being the final Dodge team in Sprint Cup and announced it was moving to Ford beginning next year. But what about this year? Penske has somehow managed to continue a quality relationship with Dodge, which announced earlier in the fall that it would not be fielding a team in 2013.
It could be the second ironic situation in two years for the Sprint Cup champion. Last year, Tony Stewart bid adieu to crew chief Darian Grubb after winning the title. This year Penske will be doing the same with Dodge.
You can be sure Penske has done a lot of work behind the scenes to keep a strong working relationship with the Dodge. Once again, not seeking attention, just seeking victory.

We've hit race No. 36 overall, and race No. 10 in the Chase as NASCAR finishes another season at Miami-Homestead. It will be hard for NASCAR to top the drama it had last year at Miami when Tony Stewart needed a victory to capture the title, then went out and won. It will be next to impossible to match the drama from last week, with then points leader Jimmie Johnson crashing, Jeff Gordon extracting revenge on Clint Bowyer in the form a causing a crash and eventually a pit crew fight, and a last lap finish that became wild when Danica Patrick's car lost oil in the fourth turn with NASCAR not throwing a yellow flag.
Keselowski heads into Miami with a 20-point lead over Johnson and needs only a 15th-place finish for a guarantee of the title. Keselowski's first goal, contrary to what his instincts will want it to be, is to stay out of trouble. He'll also be protecting tires, to try and avoid what happened to Johnson last week.
Unless an accident or mechanical issue sidelines Keselowski early, Johnson will be going all out for the win.
So with that in mind, here's a look at our final picks of the season:
1. Jimmie Johnson. His past history at Miami is a bit deceiving because during his run of five straight titles, he often was in control of the points race and was just looking to stay out of trouble, taking few risks. That won't be the case this Sunday as he knows he'll need to win for any shot to catch Keselowski.
2. Brad Keselowski. He'll be in protection mode, but I'm picking him anyway. He's only led 11 laps in eight races at Miami, but he's been breaking those trends in this Chase and it may well continue here.
3. Carl Edwards. If there's any place that he can break his 68-race losing streak it's at Miami. He has two wins in eight races at Miami and has led 560 laps.
4. Tony Stewart. He ended last season at Miami with a win, and just like Edwards, Miami has been one of his best tracks. In 13 races there he has three wins and has led 450 laps.
5. Matt Kenseth. This will be his final race with the only organization he has ever known, and Miami has also been a good track for him. He has one win there and has led 303 laps in 12 races. He'd love to finish his Roush-Fenway time with one more win before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Just for fun, wouldn't it be interesting to see Gordon leading this race on the final lap, with Bowyer on his bumper. Do we really need to ask what the outcome might be?
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 9 of the Chase at Phoenix.
Jimmie Johnson  - 32nd.  He was looking at a top 10 finish before his right-front tire blew, causing him to go to the garage for repairs, leaving him over 30 laps down.
Brad Keselowski  - 6th.  He was a contender to win for a while, but once Johnson went out, it was clear that he was looking for a good finish and to stay out of trouble.
Denny Hamlin  - 2nd. He also was in contention much of the day and had a nice rebound after a disappointing finish in Texas the week before.
Tony Stewart  - 19th. He was trying to battle for a top 10 finish when a spin put him a lap down.
Kyle Busch - 3rd. He had the dominating car for most of the day, but for some reason chose the inside lane on a late restart when the outside lane had been working well all day for restarts. He led the most laps at 237 and it was the eighth straight time when he has led the most laps in a race and not won.
Here's a look at my results after 35 races and 175 picks.
17 wins
56 top 5s
84 top 10s
Grade for the week: B-. No winner this time, even though Busch should have won it. Still two of the top five and three of the top six isn't too bad a day.
One last thing: Ryan Newman has not started from the pole this year, putting at risk his streak of 11 straight seasons of winning at least one pole position. Newman has not started from the pole in any of his 10 races at Miami.