Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Osborne, Edwards not losers

Every now and then when covering sporting events, you get a glimpse of what the personalities of high profile people are really like.
It's easy to put on a show for a few seconds or even a minute in front of the TV camera for most.
But in the back of a NASCAR Sprint Cup car hauler, which is converted into a mini-office on race weekends, when it's only you and the person you're interviewing, you can get a much better idea of what a person is really like.
So, when I first met Carl Edwards crew chief Bob Osborne during the 2010 season, I didn't know what to expect. He was in charge of car that was accustomed to running up front in the past, but for whatever reason, was struggling at the time.
But interviewing Osborne was no struggle. That's why in the midst of a time when the team was going through a difficult stretch, there wasn't a lot of panic in his voice or even a hint of disrespect toward a reporter he was meeting for the first time.
A Delaware County native, Osborne still lists Chester, Pa., as his hometown. It's an area he grew up in and first began tinkering with toy cars, and eventually that first Jeep CJ-7 his dad bought him during his teen years, just so Osborne could fix it and get it running, which he of course did.
Having spoken with Osborne on the mornings of NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Dover and Pocono, he comes across as a complete professional and one of those guys who you can't help but be happy for when his team wins.
Osborne doesn't come across as someone who knows it all. Of course, he's got confidence in what he's doing, or he wouldn't be in the position he's in. But Osborne also has a sense of humbleness about him, that he doesn't take his high profile position for granted in Roush-Fenway Racing, one of the top teams in NASCAR. Osborne has worked his way up through the system and he hasn't forgotten where he came from, geographically or in his career. He acts likes his position now is more of a privilege than a rite and that's a good thing.
So, it wasn't really a surprise to see Edwards handle finishing second to Tony Stewart in the Chase for the Championship with class. It's just the way Osborne goes about his business everyday, And that's why Edwards and Osborne were second-place finishers, not losers.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Little did I know what Tony Stewart would become

It was about 20 years ago and I was working at a small paper in Columbus, Ind., and being an auto racing enthusiast, I had heard about a local youngster who was driving United States Auto Club sprint and midget cars.
Driving those types of machines, mostly on one-half mile to quarter-mile dirt tracks, does not guarantee success nor is that series an automatic track to becoming a big-time star an auto racing's biggest series, NASCAR Sprint Cup. But still, something intrigued me about this kid, as he was then, and I asked my editor if I could do a story on him.
Getting the OK, and after a couple of phone calls, I made a connection with this young driver, I think he was 19 at the time.
His name was Tony Stewart.
He did not come from a well-off family, one that could support his racing talents with its own money. In fact, that day, I had to follow Stewart out on some back roads so we could get a picture of him with the car he was driving for owner Steve Chrisman.
This was not some elaborate shop the car was stored in. It was stored in a barn in the middle of Midwest farmland.
And I had to help Stewart push it out of that barn to get the photo taken.
Little did I know I was talking with now, after securing his third Sprint Cup title Sunday, one of NASCAR's all-time greats.
Even then, there was a sense of confidence in Stewart's voice when he talked about racing. It was his passion and while no one could predict this kind of future for him, there was just a feeling that I had better keep an eye on him.
A few years later he went on to win the USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles ... all in the same season, something that had never been done.
He graduated to IndyCar racing and won a series title there, but not the Indy 500 he had grown up watching and wanted to win so badly.
Then his chance came for NASCAR and he couldn't turn down a first-class ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. He spent his first NASCAR season racing in the Nationwide Series ( back then it was called the Busch Series). He learned the ropes there, especially after leading and appearing to be on his way to his first win, only to get bumped out of the way by Matt Kenseth.
But Stewart learned and was the Sprint Cup rookie of the Year the next season.
Even during and after winning titles in 2002 and 2005, Stewart's reputation wasn't always the greatest. He has been sometimes surly, and I think, early in his career, was a little overwhelmed with the kind of media attention he was given. He doesn't always get along with reporters, especially those who ask what he thinks are stupid questions. And there were times he definitely made mistakes in how he handled the media.
But whether you like Stewart or not, there is no pretending with him. What you see is what you get. And his level of maturity showed in recent weeks. He used the media to his advantage during this run to the title, often chiding points leader Carl Edwards, who it seemed, wasn't sure quite how to react.
Stewart matured as a race car driver by winning those first two NASCAR Sprint Cup titles with Gibbs Racing. These last few weeks, he showed has also grown up emotionally, not getting down during the bad times and showing confidence to his team in the midst of setbacks even in Sunday's dramatic win and title run in Florida.
And if I happen to see him and remind of the day we pushed that sprint car out of Steve Chrisman's barn, he remembers like it was yesterday.
And that's why he became not just a winner, but a champion, too.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Stewart title would have historic significance

If Tony Stewart does win his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title Sunday, it will have some historical significance. First, Stewart would be the the only driver to win a Sprint Cup title under NASCAR's three championship systems. He won his first crown in 2002, under the system that had been in place since NASCAR's inception. Then, Stewart won a title in 2005, the second year of the Chase for the Championship, when 10 cars made NASCAR's playoffs, and the points were reset, but the races were still scored under NASCAR's old system. If Stewart wins today, he will be the first driver to win the Chase for the Championship in NASCAR's new scoring system, and the only driver who can win the crown under the three different scenarios.
Jimmie Johnson won the last five titles in the Chase for the Championship Series, and Kurt Busch, who won the first crown when the 10-race Chase started in 2004, did not win a title under the original scoring system.
A title would also tie Stewart with Dale Earnhardt for the second most years between crowns at six. Earnhardt won his first crown in 1980, then not again until 1986. The record for longest time between crowns goes to Terry Labonte who won in 1984 and 1996.
A third title will also put Stewart on a very short list in NASCAR history. Only Richard Petty and Earnhardt each with seven, Johnson with his five, Jeff Gordon with four and Lee Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip each with three, have won more than two NASCAR Sprint Cup titles.
And finally, Stewart would be the first driver-owner to win the crown since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992, who won a close battle with Bill Elliott by 10 points.

The end is near

One trophy, two drivers, three points.
That's what this NASCAR Sprint Cup season has come down to. Carl Edwards goes into Sunday's race at Homestead, Fla., with a three-point lead over challenger Tony Stewart. They are the only two drivers eligible to win the title. So while there will be 43 drivers trying to win the race, all eyes will be on where Edwards and Stewart are compared to each other.
The scenario for winning the title is pretty basic. If either driver wins the race, he wins the title. The other factors to throw in are the bonus point for leading a lap and the bonus point for leading the most laps. So, if Stewart does both of those and Edwards does not, and Stewart finishes one place ahead of Edwards, there would be a tie and Stewart would win the crown based on his four victories this year, to Edwards' one. Other than the bonus points, it's one point per place, so not too hard of math to do there.
At their press conference earlier this week, Stewart was clearly on the offensive and Edwards the defensive. Stewart even hinted that me might do a bump and run if that's what it takes to win the title.
While anything's possible, I don't really think Stewart wants to win the title that way. He was more planting a seed of doubt in Edwards' mind with that kind of statement.
Stewart didn't gain any points last week, but he's acting like he's the one with momentum and the one that's the underdog. That's a great way to relax his team and keep on the pursuit rather than defense. That's why I'm picking Stewart to win his third title this weekend.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NASCAR sponsorships drying up

Here's a good story about NASCAR's sponsorship issues for next year by Pete Pistone from CBSsports.com

By Pete Pistone
The calendar has turned to November and there are still three races left in the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season.
But the NASCAR world never slows down and while we still await the outcome of this year’s championship, plans for next year are finally coming into focus.
Unfortunately it’s not a very pretty picture.
Economic woes and the lack of sponsorship dollars are shrinking the Sprint Cup Series garage area at an alarming rate. The financial crunch is so strong it’s not just impacting mid-level and small teams but the superpowers of the sport as well.
Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing will see their stables contract while an entire organization like Team Red Bull’s very existence remains in doubt.
“We’ve gone through a transition with our sponsors, going from a time when they wanted to compete for the top car to now where the sponsors want just enough of a car to be able to do their promotions," said Jack Roush, who faces shutting down his No. 6 Cup team unless last minute sponsorship for 2012 is found to replace UPS.
"It’s a really strange time. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m not sure what we’ll have coming out of it. It will be different than it’s been in the past."
Seeking one sponsor to foot the estimated $20 million bill to keep a top flight Cup team on track is virtually impossible in today’s climate. But even splitting that cost over the course of 36 races between multiple corporate backers is also a tough task.
The merry-go-round of sponsors that now adorn Sprint Cup cars throughout the season makes for a variety of different color schemes and logos to associate with drivers and some argue that has taken away a great deal of NASCAR’s identity.
In the not too distant past colors and logos were indelibly attached to drivers who were immediately recognized on track by fans who made the instant connection between man and machine.
Jeff Gordon’s colorful DuPont paint scheme. Rusty Wallace and the iconic Miller Lite “Blue Deuce.” Mark Martin and the Valvoline logo. And the most famous of all Dale Earnhardt in the silver and black Goodwrench Chevrolet.
Today you can’t tell the drivers or their cars and colors without a scorecard on a weekly basis.
Current Chase point leader Carl Edwards rarely carries the same look two weeks in a row rotating the No. 99 through a maze of sponsors including Aflac, Scott’s, Subway and Kellogg’s.
Next year he’ll see Fastenal and UPS join the line-up all of which is just a necessary element of today’s NASCAR sponsorship game.
"You have to put the pieces together," RCR’s David Hart told PennLive.com. "It’s 20 races here, 10 races there and then getting someone for the last six races. You have to combo sponsorships together to run your race team.
"This wasn’t all of a sudden and the hammer came down. You started to see it in the mid-2000s and, when the economy went down in 2008, it continued on that path. You have to look at the possibilities if you don’t have your number. You have to cobble sponsors as you can. You are looking to get as few as possible, but you want to get that number by bringing people to the table."
Some teams like the Childress organization approach the sponsorship quest by bundling all its resources together and selling partners on a total experience rather than individual race cars.
“We at RCR do it a little different,” Childress said. “We try to sell our whole company and corporation. The driver is a huge part of it because he plays a large role in the marketing of the product but we also try to sell RCR and make sure that we get the return on the investment for all the companies that we’re associated with.
“At the end of the day I work for every one of these companies and I want to make sure I do a good job to get the return on their investment.”
The money squeeze is having a significant effect on next year’s landscape and forcing several well known names to the unemployment line.
Among those Sprint Cup drivers who appear to be on the outside looking in include David Ragan, Brian Vickers and the most recent addition David Reutimann, who won’t return to Michael Waltrip Racing next year in favor of the team running a limited schedule in the No. 00 car with veteran Mark Martin.
The story gets worse over at NASCAR’s number two and three divisions in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series. Several teams in both circuits are struggling to find the necessary funding to compete in 2012, meaning sleepless nights for the likes of Reed Sorenson, Jason Leffler, Todd Bodine and even four time truck series champion Ron Hornaday.
With current team owner Kevin Harvick deciding to sell his equipment to RCR, Hornaday has two races left with KHI before he finds himself out of work.
The news came as a bit of a shock to the veteran who says the environment in today’s NASCAR world makes it extremely difficult for even a driver of his talents to find a competitive ride.
“You sit there and you talk to people and they all want you to bring money,” Hornaday said of many team owners. “I’ve never done that. I got a phone call from Dale (Earnhardt, Sr.) in ’94 and I started driving for him. I got the same phone call from the Dr. Pepper team with Dave Carroll, and I got the same phone call from Richard Childress then Kevin Harvick called me.
“They know I don’t have three million bucks or two-and-a-half million dollars so I don’t hear my phone ringing but I keep winning races. There are some kids out there that are bringing some money and coming in here. I hate to say it, but that’s where this sport is going. You see Cup cars out there with no name on them and everything else.”
There could be more of that on display next season with some of the sport’s biggest names piloting cars carrying only numbers.
Because right now for many NASCAR organizations at all levels of the sport the most important numbers aren't adding up.