Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Cheatin' Chad a fair nickname?

For years any NASCAR fan who wasn't a Hendrick Motorsports fan has wondered if that organization, one of, if not the, top one the sport, has been treated a little too kindly by NASCAR officials. We've wondered just how those teams sometimes seem to get the right breaks, like a debris caution, at just the right time.
Well, at least for the moment, those questions must be put to rest with the penalties announced Wednesday against the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. NASCAR's penalty of a $100,000 fine to Knaus and 25 points from the team has some wondering if the penalty is too harsh. If anything, NASCAR made a point that it is not a respecter of big money teams.
In fact, it also made a point that it has a long memory when it comes to messing with its rules. Knaus is undoubtedly one of the, if not the, top crew chiefs in the business. He's got five titles and the best team, yet, still feels the need to push the rules envelope, and as his past has proven, the envelope can get a little full at times.
So, is he really Cheatin' Chad when it comes to preparing the No. 48 car for its races, or just the one that gets caught? It's long been a practice of crew chiefs to try and stretch the rules. Even a 10th of a second per lap is considered a huge gain. However, the same technology that allows teams to find ways to go faster, also allows NASCAR officials a better opportunity to catch the rule breakers. The problem is while Knaus may not be the only rule stretcher, he gets caught a lot.
Here's is history of fines and penalties before this year.
2007 - Six weeks and 100 points (old points system) for flaring out bumpers at Infineon Raceway
2006 - Suspended three weeks and told to leave Daytona for rear window violation
2003 - $1,000 for unapproved air directional advice following all-star race
2003 - $2,500 for roof being too low in pre-race inspection at Charlotte
2002 - $25,000 and 25 points for illegal mounting bolts at Daytona in July
2002 - $5,000 for inappropriate language after race at Dover
2001 - $750 for small windshield clips at Talladega.
Also, the team won an appeal when he was scheduled to be fined $25,000 and Knaus suspended two weeks for a low roof at Las Vegas in 2005.
And last year at Talladega, NASCAR officials' suspicions were raised when Knaus told Johnson to damage the car if he won. In fact, team owner Rick Hendrick has said this year's Daytona car is the same one used in all four restrictor plate races last season. So, did Knaus tinker with this car or was the car illegal all last year until NASCAR was tipped off by the Talladega comment? That we likely will never know.
What we do know is that it had been five years since Knaus had been caught by NASCAR. If it had been less time, the penalty would have likely been more severe.
As it is, Johnson will start the second race of the year at Phoenix Sunday with -23 points, 70 behind leader and Daytona winner Matt Kenseth.
Johnson certainly has the kind of team that can rebound. In fact, the question will be how many races will it take him to reach the top 10 in points, not if he can. My guess is he will be there certainly before they return to Daytona in July and probably sometime in May.
That's one of the reasons Knaus knows he can take a chance. The team is good enough to recover from a mistake, or two or three. But the question now will be if Knaus' reputation as one who will try to cheat can recover.
Probably not, and that's something no fine or penalty will ever repair.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tweet this - NASCAR says no penalty for Keselowski

I've been attending auto races for over 40 years. One of the things that keeps me going back is that it's impossible to predict what might happen. And there may be no better example of that then the Monday into Tuesday morning Daytona 500.
We'll get to the jet dryer fire in a moment. The news Tuesday morning was that NASCAR was considering penalizing driver Brad Keselowski for having a phone with him in his car and tweeting during the two-hour plus red flag delay.
The good news came later Tuesday when NASCAR released a statement saying Keselowski and other drivers can have phones with them in their cars, so long as of course,they don't drive and tweet at the same time. It seems funny to think about that, but yes, on Twitter Tuesday morning some were saying Keselowski was driving 200 mph while he was tweeting. While NASCAR drivers are talented, let's be real, they're not that good.
Keselowski did a good thing by tweeting live updates from the backstretch where the cars were stopped. Drivers were allowed out of their cars, but could not make any alterations to their cars.
Keselowski's popularity soared on twitter as he picked up 55,000 followers in that time period. Before the red flag he was at 85,000 followers and by Tuesday morning the number was over 206,000. Keselowski assured all that he doesn't tweet and drive. He said he keeps his phone in his pocket.
Keselowski won't be a little lighter in the pocket later this week since there is no fine. NASCAR enforced the spirit of the rule, not the letter of the law. It's not as if Keselowski is driving and talking on his phone during the race. It was OK to talk with him about it because this is new territory and good territory for the sport. What Keselowski did Monday night with his red flag tweeting is something a NASCAR marketing executive wishes he or she would have thought of.
It turned what could have been a long and tedious delay into a social media entertainment event.
The bottom line is that he was tweeting to entertain himself and others who could do nothing but watch. The fans loved it. They loved it at the track and the ones watching all over the world loved it, too.
Keselowski was in a win-win situation here. If NASCAR had penalized him, then he would have been loved even more for being treated unfairly. Since they didn't, fans can always ask, "remember the time that Keselowski tweeted during the red flag at Daytona?"
And yes, about that red flag.
One of the most bizarre moments in all of sports occurred with 40 laps remaining Monday night. Juan Pablo Montoya was coming off of pit road alone and speeding to catch the rest of the field. As NASCAR has done for years, jet dryers were on the track to clean off debris, mostly tiny pieces of rubber which come off tires that can make the racing surface just a bit slippery. Montoya had been complaining to his crew about a vibration and they couldn't get it figured out. And now they may never figure it out.
That's because when something broke on Montoya's car as he was accelerating, he lost control of his No. 42 car and slid sideways into one of the jet dryers, turning it into a fireball as about 200 gallons of jet fuel was on board. Luckily no one was hurt.

Then came the red flag delay.
When the race finally restarted there were two more yellow flags for incidents and eventually and maybe appropriately Matt Kenseth won. I say appropriately because he is one of NASCAR's most unassuming drivers who has done his job very well over the years. And I also say appropriately because for years, people will talk about the jet dryer fire, and Keselowski tweeting, and then ask, who won that race? And hopefully they will remember that too in what was an unforgettable night for NASCAR.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Gatorade Duels produce different kind of winners

Here's what I wrote about Thursdays Duels.

The Gatorade Duels at Daytona can bring about a unique feeling in sports.
The two 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday’s Daytona 500 produces winners, who well, while happy, don’t quite feel like they’ve won anything. On the other hand, it can make drivers who finish back in the pack feel like they’ve taken the checkered flag.
Tony Stewart in Duel No. 1 and Matt Kenseth in Duel No. 2 took home the checkered flags, but it was Michael McDowell, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek who walked away with that winning feeling.
Those four drivers had to race their way into Sunday’s 500 as they were the top two finishers in each race who could not make the 500 off of last Sunday’s qualifying speeds. McDowell was sixth and Robby Gordon ninth in the first race while Blaney was 11th and Nemechek 17th in the second race.
But for those four guys, it certainly felt like first.
“You talk about stress in your life, oh my gosh,” Nemechek said. “It’s just incredible. When we pitted, we had to pit at least one lap or two laps early because the fuel pressure was down. I didn’t know if I was going to be out of gas.”
Nemechek had enough gas to make it and hooked up with teammate Bill Elliott, who was on pit road at the same time. While Elliott was one lap down to the leaders, he helped Nemechek stay on the lead lap in the 60-lap race. And that was a big reason why the driver known as “front row Joe” for his ability to qualify over the years, will be more than happy to start 34th Sunday.
“What a relief,” Nemechek said. “There’s been a lot of Tums taken this week. People have no clue how hard it is (to make the Daytona 500). We are working with limited funds and we do a lot. My mom is pulling for me and my wife and kids are here. It’s a big day to make the Daytona 500.”
It looked like Gordon’s day was going to end early. On the first few laps of Duel No. 1, there was smoke coming from his car, but it turned out to be a tire rub and not an engine issue. In recent days Gordon has said his team is up for sale, but that he will still try to compete when possible. He was a worthy competitor after the tire rub was fixed, but like many Thursday, he was dealing with dangerously high temperatures in his engine.
“The motor has been running hot the whole time,” said Gordon, who will start 17th Sunday. “We couldn’t even run in the pack for more than 10 or 15 laps. I’m happy to make the Daytona 500. All of my guys bust their butts week in and week out to get here.”
Blaney didn’t appear to have any major motor issues to worry about. So, his big worry was just to avoid trouble and make the race because he knew his car was good enough.
“It’s big for anybody,” said Blaney, who will start 24th Sunday. “I don’t want to come down here with a car this nice and equipment this nice and miss the race. We had to run smart today and not take any chances and be little cautious on the pit stop. But it’s a flawless race car that could run near the front.”
McDowell’s car certainly wasn’t flawless last Sunday, but with some help from friend and defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, McDowell will start 11th this Sunday. And he certainly wasn’t ashamed to give credit for at least one reason why.
“First and foremost I want to thank Jesus Christ, my Lord and savior,” McDowell said. “We didn’t have the speed Sunday to get in. It’s cool to see when you work together what you can accomplish for the work and glory of God.”
Stewart has experienced plenty of glory at Daytona, visiting Victory Lane there 17 times. However, none of those times have come after the Daytona 500. Stewart will make his 14th Daytona 500 start from the third spot. He took the lead with a big push from Kevin Harvick with two laps to go, then was declared the winner on the last lap when an accident sent Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick hard into the infield wall. Patrick escaped unscathed, but the car was destroyed in the head-on collision with the wall.
“We don’t ever want to see us lose a car,” Stewart said. “We took care of business today. We had an awesome car with Kevin Harvick there. We couldn’t have done it without Kevin.’’
Patrick, racing in her first Sprint Cup competition, could have done without hitting the wall. She had run a clean race and was a victim of a crash where it appeared Jamie McMurray came down from the top and was about to hit Aric Almirola, who in trying to avoid the crash hit Patrick in the side and sent her across the infield pavement.
“It happened really quick,” said Patrick, who will start 29th Sunday. “Everyone was on each other’s door really close. It felt pretty big. I don’t know what it looked like.”
But Patrick did feel good about how she raced.
“I felt comfortable, it was just a matter of getting in the right line with the right people,” she said. “It was just kind of hard to get past the mid-pack range. I’m just bummed out.”
Kenseth got in the right line with the right driver on the final lap to win the second Duel and give owner Jack Roush his first 150 Duel victory. With Roush teammate Greg Biffle leading the pack, Kenseth got a big push from Jimmie Johnson up high. Biffle tried to move up to make a block, but Kenseth and Johnson had enough momentum to dive down low and send Kenseth to lead for the final lap.
“I was back a little bit and kind of waiting for Jimmie,” Kenseth said. “ Jimmie worked really good with me today. He gave us a push to get to the front early.”
Then Johnson gave Kenseth the winning push at the end.
“I was going to try and make a plan with him and he got out of line one time,” Kenseth said. “I got up there to try and help him. I’m not sure how I got in front of him, but he gave me the push to win.
This car was really fast. I got out front early and I could tell it had a lot of speed. I made a few wrong moves and shuffled to the back, but was able to get it up to the front.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The right timing and picks

The time has come, and not soon enough, for another NASCAR season to begin. NASCAR is unique in that its biggest event of the year is also the first event of the year. And just because you win that biggest event, doesn't guarantee any type of success for the rest of the season (see Ward Burton as exhibit A).
It's been said that the only thing predictions can do is show your ignorance. Well, I figure I'm already plenty good at that, so I've got nothing to lose here.
So, first, let's take a look at Sunday's Daytona 500 and its 1:30 green flag time on Fox. It's, of course, restrictor plate racing and we all know about anything can and has happened in these races (see Trevor Bayne as exhibit 1A).
But nonetheless, here's a look at my top five to win it, plus a shoulda coulda woulda but didnt pick and which driver in the last five starting spots has the best shot at making the top 10.
So, here's my first five.
1) Tony Stewart - The ghost of Dale Earnhardt is watching. So, maybe he'll get a big push from drafting buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win his first Daytona 500 in his 14th try.
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He hasn't won since June of 2008 in Michigan, a stretch of 129 races. The fans need him to win. NASCAR needs him to win. Mostly, he needs a win for himself and there's no more likely place for it to happen than Daytona.
3) Kyle Busch - OK, I know he's not great at plate tracks, but what he did on the Bud Shootout last week cannot be quickly forgotten. Maybe he's finally got the patience to balance out that determination.
4) Jimmie Johnson - He needs this win more than most realize. That's because there's likely to be a big penalty on the team for crew chief Chad Knaus getting caught cheating. So, they'll need the early points boost.
5) Carl Edwards - He's got a fast car when he's alone, going by his pole position qualifying time. The key will be how he does in traffic. Edwards and his team would like to get the year off to a good start after taking second to Stewart for the title last year.

Shoulda, coulda woulda, but didn't pick - It's difficult not to pick Jeff Gordon here. One of the reasons is that he's excellent at avoid crashes and there's bound to be some Sunday at Daytona. So, no, I couldn't quite type his name in my top five, but may regret that I didn't.

Final 5 best shot - Well, this one is a little bit easy because you've got Trevor Bayne starting 40th. He won last year. He's young, but it's clear he knows what he's doing on the plate tracks. He just needs to stay out of any early accidents to contend again.

Now for the season. The finish was one of the best in NASCAR history, if not the best, last year when Stewart edged Edwards in the final race for title. Here's a look at who I think will be in the top 10 points this year.

1) Carl Edwards - He got too close and the team's too good. They didn't panic and make a bunch of changes. It will be his turn.

2) Kevin Harvick - He seems to have grown up a bit, so we'll see. He and wife Delana are expecting their first child in July, and he sold his Nationwide team to focus on Sprint Cup racing.

3) Tony Stewart - A big deal was made of his crew chief change and rightfully so. It's rare to win a title in anything then go about changing the leadership. But Stewart did that, even though he brought highly respected crew chief Steve Addington. They'll still be good, but it will tough to win back-to-back titles.

4) Jimmie Johnson - OK, he should be ready to make another title run after having his five-year winning streak snapped last season. The looming penalty after Daytona won't help, but remember he just needs to be in the top 10.

5) Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He made it into the Chase last year, so you pretty much have to pick him to make it again. But, he was never really a factor in the final 10 races. It remains to be seen if that will be the case this year.

6) Brad Keselowski - He showed he has the ability, now he just needs consistency. This could be the next step in his development and he may not be far away from making a serious run at the title.

7) Kyle Busch - We've seen how well he can do in regular season, but doing well in the Chase remains a bit of a mystery to him. Maybe the late season penalty where he had to sit out a Sprint Cup race made him think a little bit, or will make him think a little the next time he's feeling a little impatient on the track. The Wild Thing is capable of running off a Stewart-like streak of winning five out of last 10. So, if just gets in, he's got a shot.

8) Denny Hamlin - He got a top crew chief in Darian Grubb, so there's really no excuse now. Grubb has proven he can excel under pressure. Hamlin has not, so maybe this is the right match.

9) Matt Kenseth - He's proven he can be consistent. He just needs to go for the win a little more often. But that consistency makes him all but a lock to make a Chase. The fact he's got sponsorship issues shows unfortunately, it's not always about ability.

10. A.J. Allmendinger - His strong finish last year was overshadowed by Stewart, but Allmendinger has proven he not only belongs in NASCAR, but can compete with the best of them.

OK, that's it for now. Can't wait for Sunday.
Until next time

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The talented Mr. Busch

So, if you follow NASCAR at least a little bit you know who Kyle Busch is.
And if you follow NASCAR at least a little bit, you either love him or hate him. It's extremely rare to bring up his name to a NASCAR fan and get a "he's OK, but I don't really have an opinion" type of comment.
But no matter which side of the fence you are on, and judging by the large amount of jeers and much fewer cheers during driver introductions, most are on the "not a fan" side of the fence, it would be wrong to not respect his ability as a driver.
We're not talking about his post-race comments at times, that can be misread or misinterpreted to fit an opinion of him. We're not talking about his lapses of judgement on the track where he bumps a competitor during a caution period. We're talking about his simple, yet rare, ability to drive a race car. And he's got a ton of that.

It was plenty evident during his Bud Shootout win Saturday at Daytona. The 75-lap, two-segment, non-points race, was the first NASCAR event of the 2012 season. There were three big wrecks, just 10 of 25 cars on the lead lap at the end, and 13 cars still running at the end.
But Busch put on a driving display rarely seen.
First, with 28 laps to go, he was bumped by former Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. It was assumed probably by all watching that the race was in for another big wreck. Afterall, these things happen at Daytona and you just don't keep a car from spinning when you get bumped while going nearly 200 mph. It just doesn't happen.
But with Busch behind the wheel, it happened. He made the improbable save, going down below the yellow line twice and coming back into the racing groove only to not be hit. No big wreck. Just a dented front bumper for Busch, but certainly a very drivable car.
So with two laps to go, Busch found himself in second behind Tony Stewart, ready to make an improbable run for the win. But this time, another former Hendrick teammate (is there a theme here?) bumped him, supposedly sending Busch and likely others on their way out of the competition. But Busch saved it again, and Gordon got caught in the melee. Busch did eventually spin on the infield apron after traffic had passed, but he did not take a hit.
Then, he hooked up with Stewart on the green-white-checkered finish and he eventually pushed Stewart to the lead. And as they approached the final turn, Busch made the pass to win.
So, not only did he survive, he thrived.
It takes a special talent to do both and Busch had it on display Saturday night.