Thursday, January 8, 2015

No sleep 'til Daytona

Some off-season musings as I try to figure out what to do until Speedweeks arrives in mid-February.
The Deserving Winner
Kevin  Harvick  led  nearly more than 600 laps than
the next  driver during the  2015 season.
Sure there were some drawbacks about the new Chase format and sure there were a few guys in there who really didn't have a chance to win the whole thing. But in the end, at least this time, the most dominant driver throughout the entire season did win the title in Kevin Harvck. When looking at the list of lap leaders for the season, Harvick led 2,137 laps for the 36 points races, 597 more than the next driver, Brad Keselowski. And lets not forget that Harvick tied for the second most wins on the season, just behind Keselowski's six. With a little luck, Harvick could have well won eight or nine races. The point is, he consistently had the fastest car throughout the season, and appropriately he won the title. So it all worked out . . . this time.
The Irony Factor
The champion, however, could have very easily been Ryan Newman, who finished second to Harvick at Homestead and second in the Chase. The irony would have been that in a season where there was more emphasis on winning then ever before, a winless driver could have won the title. Now, it's hard not to like Ryan Newman, don't get me wrong, but if say, Harvick had finished third, just behind Newman at Homestead to give No. 31 the title, a driver who led just 41 laps throughout the whole season would be the champion. And while a good portion of fans could not have helped but be happy for Newman, he was not close to being a dominant driver not only for the season, but for any race. That would have had a lot of NASCAR fans waving a red flag on the new Chase format. Some still are waving that red flag, and when change comes, that will always be the case. But the last race did have drama by design, and that's not all bad.
That No. 46 thing
Jeff Gordon nearly drove the No. 46 car, but luckily it didn't happen.
Former Jeff Gordon crew chief Ray Evernham revealed on twitter this past week that Jeff Gordon nearly drove the No. 46 car, but Hendrick Motorsports could not get the number approved because of licensing stipulation with the NASCAR movie Days of Thunder. The left the team to settle for the now famous No. 24. And when it comes to sports overall, it was a bit of poetic justice that one of NASCAR's all-time greats ended up with what is an all-time great number. Some of the other famous athletes to wear No. 24 are Willlie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr in baseball, Future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant in the NBA and current NFL star running back Marshawn Lynch. It was just a nice anecdote by Evernham and not a reason to cause panic. It's funny how things don't work out as planned every now and then, but sometimes it's for the best.
Will Gas Prices Matter?
One of the reasons that was heard in recent years for the general attendance drop was that gas prices made it more difficult for fans to make long drives to get to races. So, now, with gas prices hitting nearly five-year lows, it will be interesting to see if at least some fans return to the stands due to the money they are not spending on gas. Maybe that, combined with the special ticket offers that many tracks offer and the stands that some tracks are removing, will help make the stands at least look a little more full at some places in 2015.
Will no testing narrow gap?
We know for sure that Sprint Cup teams not being able to test at tracks this year will save teams money. According to Michael Waltrip, it will save his team well over $1 million, so no matter how big a team is, that's not pocket change. The big question though is will the no testing rule close the gap between the big budget and smaller teams. Unfortunately, that answer is still probably no. The issue is that the big teams are still the ones that can afford to put their cars in wind tunnels to check the aerodynamics. They are also the ones that can afford to run their engines in the shop longer to see how long they will last or find where a weak part may develop. Let's face it, the big money teams will spend whatever they need to get an advantage, no matter what the rules package is. Maybe it will help the smaller teams a little, by taking away one piece of the puzzle that bigger teams had. But it will still be an uphill battle for the little guys.
Osborne back on the box
Bob Osborne will be an experienced voice for  Ricky Stenhouse  Jr.
In all of the shuffling at Roush-Femway, it was good to hear that Bob Osborne will be back atop the pit box as a crew chief for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Osborne came within one point of being a championship crew chief for Carl Edwards in 2011. He understands what it takes to win and also what it takes to be good for the long haul. And  let's face it, Stenhouse's results were disappointing in 2014. He had just one top five finish and just four other top 10 finishes in his 35 races. And he finished 27th in points and led zero  laps this season. That's a regression from his  rookie season when he was 19th in points. So maybe Osborne can bring along Stenhouse, who needs to prove  he can be competitive on a consistent basis this year. And,yes, Osborne is first-class person, too, and that never hurts. This team's goal should be to win a race in 2015.
No sleep 'til Daytona
Friday makes it 43 days until the Daytona 500. It seems like forever right now in the midst of the snow and extreme cold in much of the country. But it will be here before you know it. And that's the best news of the day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Some perspective on Stewart's sprint car incident

As a life-long auto racing fan, any time you hear of a driver or fan's death at an auto racing event anywhere, it just makes you sick to your stomach.
Sure, fans, and of course the drivers, know there is risk involved  in what the drivers do. That's understood. But when news began to spread late Saturday night of the incident where Tony Stewart hit driver Kevin Ward Jr. resulting in Ward's death, well, that caused kind of a double sick to the stomach feeling.
First, let's be clear that prayers go out to Ward's family and friends. It's a tragedy, s plain and simple. Second, prayers go out to Stewart who, if you objectively watch the video, obviously had no intention of trying to hit Ward. Those who imply otherwise are jumping way to high to reach those conclusions.
Here's a step by step look at what  happened  at Canandaigua Speedway, a half-mile dirt track.
First, Stewart and Ward were racing for position in the race. Ward was on the high side coming through a corner and Stewart on the low side. Driving sprint cars on dirt that slide through corners is a bit of an inexact science, even to the best of drivers. So, when Stewart slid up the track and  made contact with Ward, causing him to crash into the wall,  it really was as we like to say. one of those  racing accidents. Ward had not pulled ahead of Stewart on the track. They were essentially even. It was a simple case of two cars going for one piece of real estate. And as has been the case thousands of times in races I watched, neither was giving in, and there was an accident. The wreck itself  was really nothing out of the ordinary.
But, sure, one see could why Ward would be frustrated. He was fighting for position and didn't get it. However, it's something that has  happened to thousands of  drivers over the years. The accident wasn't that big of a deal. And that's an important factor  in all of this, because if there was nothing unusual about  the wreck, then Stewart didn't have anything to be angry about. And that's an important factor, too, because Stewart's list of temper tantrums over the years is fairly long.
He's fought Jeff Gordon in the garage area, once knocked a camera out  of a photographer's hands after a race at Indianapolis, and even successfully threw a helmet at the car of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Matt Kenseth after he felt Kenseth wrecked  him intentionally.
But this time, it's hard to see reason for Stewart to be angry while in his car.
But there was no doubt that Ward was angry. After the accident, he climbed out of his car, and marched  down the track looking for Stewart to come back around under the yellow flag, where cars are still going about 40 to 50  mph. Ward got close to the car running ahead  of Stewart and Stewart was likely as surprised as anybody to see Ward standing there. Some say Stewart gunned his engine to spin wheels and make a point to Ward, causing Stewart's right rear tire to hit Ward. It  looked  to me that Stewart was surprised and was actually trying to swerve to miss Ward. Just my opinion.
The immediate result though was tragic.
The long-term result is yet to play out. Because it was Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and owner of  a four-car team, his fame and  fortune will  play  into this as well.
While twitter went crazy when the news broke late Saturday, it was also a bit crazy before the race at the track. Because news was spreading that Tony Stewart was coming to race there. Stewart has said in the past  that once he is done driving Sprint Cup cars, he will keep driving sprint cars on the dirt. He loves  to do it and  lets face it, when he shows up almost unannounced at a local dirt track, fans love that he is there. And don't forget that Stewart isn't there to shake hands, say drivers start your engines, wish everybody well and helicopter it out of there. He's there to race. He  is and will always be  a racer at heart.
Stewart decided not to drive in the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen Sunday afternoon being  replaced by Regan Smith.
The local police investigating did say Stewart was distraught over the incident, as anyone should be. What  happens in the next few days will shed  a lot  more light on the accident. Just how Stewart handles the attention of it will tell us a lot about him. And I expect it will be a lot more good than a lot of people want to admit right now.

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?