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.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

NASCAR gets it all wrong and all right at the same time

If there's anything that can be said about NASCAR's handling of the events that took place at the end of Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Phoenix is that the organization was all wrong and all right.
And just how might this be possible?
They made mistakes in their late race calls to not throw cautions, but those mistakes also upped the drama meter significantly, and maybe even more than NASCAR could have ever imagined.
The first caution that should have been thrown was when Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer tapped each other, eventually sending Gordon into the wall. Normally, that's enough to cause a yellow, but Gordon managed to keep his car going and since it was late in the race, NASCAR may have been hoping for the race to stay green the rest of the way. But once word  began spreading over the Bowyer team radio that Gordon was waiting for an opportunity to wreck him, NASCAR should have thrown the caution.
And well, as you've probably heard or seen many times now, the result was the big fight (see video at right) between the Bowyer and Gordon pit crews in the garage area. Some are saying that Gordon was at the bottom of that big pileup, but the replays appear to show him being held back by three crewmen at a tool box next to where the melee broke out. And then of course there was Clint Bowyer's sprint from pit lane to the the melee. While the sprint was impressive, it was as if his arrival would bring some sort of conclusion to the fracas, whether it be negative or positive.
So, mistake No. 1 resulted in something better than any reality TV show could ever dream of. Once the action started, it was impossible to change channels. Just what NASCAR wants.
Then there was the final two laps of the race. Danica Patrick was minding her own business while going for a top 20 finish, when Jeff Burton apparently slipped from the apron to the center of the fourth corner and tapped the No. 10 car, sending Patrick into the wall. Again, a fairly significant hit with the wall almost always brings out the caution. But it didn't this time. That left Patrick leaking oil on the track and to give her credit, she did her best to stay out of the way, driving next to the inside wall that separates pit road from the frontstretch. But her spilled oil left cars slipping and sliding all over the place as they came to the finish line, including Patrick, who was limping slowly across the start-finish line when she took a big hit. NASCAR said after the race that the smoke coming from Patrick's car could have been caused by a tire rub. Any veteran NASCAR observer knows from where the smoke was coming from and how slow she was going, it could have only been from oil leaking not a tire rub.
But here's the rub on error No. 2: It gave us a crazy and dangerous finish. Just what the ratings doctor ordered for NASCAR.
But NASCAR wasn't done making mistakes.
Monday it was announced that Gordon would receive a $100,000 fine and 25 point penalty for his role in the final accident with Bowyer. By all rights, and going by history of past judgments , Gordon should have been suspended for this Sunday's final race at Homestead-Miami. But that would take away one of the big storylines of the day Sunday, to see if Bowyer will retaliate. And by not suspending Gordon, NASCAR is sending the message to Bowyer that if wants to extract some revenge on the No. 24 car, go right ahead. NASCAR can say what it wants about the penalty being fair etc., but to believe the powers that be didn't know a revenge scenario would help add to the drama Sunday would be naive. Some have suggested that since Gordon is a four-time champion and drives for Hendrick Racing that he got preferential treatment from NASCAR. And while being a high-profile driver helps in these situations, this time it's all about getting more eyes to tune in to ESPN Sunday.
So, miscue No. 3 gives us the possibility of even more drama.
But we're not done yet.
During the Bowyer-Gordon crew melee, NASCAR red-flagged the race for 15 minutes (well, it was actually 14 minutes, 58 seconds for those your snoring at home). That was the right call by NASCAR. But during the red flag, points leader Brad Keselowski took his phone out and sent and answered a couple of tweets on Twitter. He did the same thing at the start of the season at Daytona, during the great Jet Dryer Fire red flag, and Keselowski become an instant social media star. But this time Keselowski took the big hit, in a $25,000 fine for having that kind of electrical device in his car.
In this age of social media and the public's want for instant information, Keselowski's tweeting, at Daytona and Phoenix, was a stroke of genius. Instantly, you've got more people interested in the sport because they can actually communicate with a participant before the event is over. It's a connection that makes NASCAR, or at least Keselowski, unique and someone who is quickly becoming a fan favorite. Now, with a fine for tweeting, Keselowski's popularity will only grow more. In trying to discipline Keselowski, they may just raise him to hero status.
And really, that's good news for NASCAR, too. They have plenty of stars in guys like Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But if Keselowski keeps his 20-point lead over Johnson to win the title Sunday, he may become NASCAR's next superstar.
And make no mistake about it, that could be a very good thing for NASCAR.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Confessions of a former Jimmie Johnson hater

I keep trying to find reasons to not like Jimmie Johnson, but the well is running dry and, really, I'm ready to give up.
Sure, you could say, the simple fact that he drives on the best financed-team and has won five of the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, with a sixth crown well within reach this season, is enough of a reason to not like him. You could say he gets all the breaks and has the best equipment and sure, he makes a ton of money. But, can you really not like somebody just because of that? Think for a second who your favorite professional athlete is, and how much money they make, and really is there a big difference?
Maybe it's the fact that Johnson's life seems perfect, with his wife and young daughter, and he's on the top of his sport. But, even at that, it's still difficult to not like a guy for the simple reason that he is successful. If Johnson came across with an attitude that he's better than anyone else and he knows it and he could care less about the rest of the world, then OK, maybe that could be the root of having some kind of dislike for him. But he's just not like that.
Maybe if he was not really in the greatest physical condition, and fed the stereotype that race car drivers are not  athletes, and didn't care about how he represented the sport, then, OK, maybe that would work, too. But after the July Daytona race, Johnson, along with teammate Kasey Kahne, went and competed in a triathlon in South Carolina. So, he's an athlete, no doubt.
Or maybe if he consistently won races by purposely knocking other cars out of the way in order to win, then, yes, it would be easy to not like seeing that No. 48 at the head of the pack. But he doesn't do that.
So the problem with trying to dislike him is, well, there's just not much to dislike.
Can we really blame a guy who goes out and does his job well? Sure, his crew chief, Chad Knaus can come off as a bit of a know-it-all at times, but given his record, a little extra confidence can be understood. Last year on the radio one time Johnson basically told Knaus to shut up and just let him drive. So, even Johnson can be a little annoyed with Knaus at times, and that did give us a glimpse of Johnson's more human side.
But Johnson's human side was even more apparent after Sunday's victory at Texas, when in three different interviews, he ended by reminding fans how they could donate to help victims from Hurricane Sandy.
Now, after a victory, the questions are of course all about the driver and the winning team. It's his moment, his time to shine, and as they all rightfully say, they are going to enjoy the moment because they realize the top of the mountain experiences in sports are rare.
And while there was the celebration in victory lane, which includes gunfire at Texas, Johnson wasn't pounding his chest, exuberantly attempting to remind the world that he is the so-called man. Somewhere along the line, he's figured out that others will let the world know how good he is.
If he does go on and wins this sixth title, as racing fans, we should take a second to appreciate what he has done.  Even if you're sick of him beating your favorite driver year after year, if you don't respect what he and his team have done, then you've got a problem. We could very well be in the midst of seeing one of the top two or three drivers in NASCAR history make more history.
But even if he doesn't win title No. 6, he alluded Sunday to the fact that being a father overrides what takes place on the track.  Sure, Johnson figured out what it takes to finish first in a race years ago. Now it seems, he's figured how to be a winner, too. And it's hard to dislike a guy who accomplishes that.

It's Week 9 of the Chase, the next to last race of the year, as the Sprint Cup series heads to Phoenix for Sunday's 2 p.m. race on ESPN. Of course, we all will be watching what points leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Brad Keselowski do. Johnson has a seven-point lead going in and while Keselowski doesn't have to have a huge day, if he gains three or four points on the leader, that will set things up nicely for Homestead-Miami next week. However, if Keselowski loses, say even seven or eight points, he'll be in a tough spot to try and catch the five-time champion.
As for this Sunday, it would be a surprise if each Johnson and Keselowski were not on the top of their games. So, no matter what past history is telling us, they're each must picks this week.
Here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Jimmie Johnson. It's true he hasn't won in the last five races at Phoenix, but he does have four top-five finishes in those races and has led 187 laps. That may be bad news for Keselowski, because if a driver is leading that many laps and finishing that well at a track, that usually means a win is not too far away.
2. Brad Keselowski. Here we go again, ignoring so many of his past performances at Phoenix. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has an average finish of 19.2 in his last five races there, but that doesn't mean there is no hope. Keselowski finished fifth in the spring race there and with so much on the line now, it's hard to imagine this team not being prepared for every scenario this week.
3. Denny Hamlin. After being a contender for the title until two races ago, he's been reduced to spoiler status now. Last week's performance at Texas, where he finished 20th, was a little disturbing because he has been so good there in the past and was never a factor Sunday. We'll give him one more chance this week as he has led 260 laps in the last five races at Phoenix, including one win.
4. Tony Stewart. He showed he was still giving his best all the way to the end with last week's fifth-place finish at Texas. And while this isn't a big issue, he probably would like to finish ahead of Hamlin and former crew chief Darian Grubb, just so he can say he had a better season with his hiring of this year's crew chief Steve Addington. While Stewart hasn't won in the last five races at Phoenix, he is second to Hamlin with 243 laps led in those races.
5. Kyle  Busch. The No. 18 team has had its frustrations this year for sure, including missing the Chase. But what I like about the team is that it continues to go out and compete and try to win races. Busch has led 194 laps in the last five trips to Phoenix, so based on that and his recent contention in races, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him in Victory Lane Sunday night.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jeff Gordon. He got off on the wrong foot to start the Chase when his throttle stuck at Chicagoland, costing him what would have been at least a top 10 finish.  But Gordon has been a contender in several races since then and he does have a win in his last five races at Phoenix.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 8 of the Chase at Texas..
Jimmie Johnson  - 1st. The five-time champion displayed his poise and patience, using the final restart to get the edge and race to his 60th win of the year.
Brad Keselowski  - 2nd.  He was a contender to win at a track where he had traditionally struggled. That's a good sign for this team in the last two races.Denny Hamlin  - 20th. His recent and long-term history at Texas has been outstanding, so this finish was a real headscratcher.
Matt Kenseth  - 4th. For once, not a win or 30 plus finish for the Kenseth. He's had a nice rebound since a poor start in the Chase.
Greg Biffle - 10th. He has been traditionally strong at Texas, and while this was certainly no disaster, it was a bit of surprise that he didn't contend for the win.
Here's a look at my results after 34 races and 170 picks.
17 wins
54 top 5s
81 top 10s
Grade for the week: A-. That's a winner two weeks in a row thanks to Johnson, and Keselowski came through even though he had not been good at Texas. Picking three of thetop  five, and four of the top 10 is a pretty good day.
One last thing: Keselowski is trying to become the first Dodge driver to win a title since Richard Petty in 1975.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

For these five guys, 2012 definitely a disappointment

Yes, we're getting down toward the end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, with just three races left starting with Sunday's 3 p.m. race on ESPN at Texas.  And while we can't quite be sure who the top driver will be this season, you know it's either going to be Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski, we do have a pretty good idea of some drivers who have without question had disappointing seasons.
So, here's a look at five drivers that easily fall into that disappointing category based on the expectations they had coming into this season.
1) Carl Edwards: He finished in a tie for the title last season, only to lose the tiebreaker to Tony Stewart for most wins. But Edwards hasn't won since the Las Vegas race in the spring of 2011, a span of 66 races. And this season, he has just three top five finishes and 10 other top 10 finishes. What's more disturbing is he has rarely contended for a victory this season. He missed the Chase and is 14th in the points standings with an average finish of 15.8. It would be fair to expect a rebound season from him in 2013.
2) Kyle Busch: This isn't so much a reflection on the driver as much as a team that had an endless string of bad luck. Busch is certainly still capable of being a championship driver, but the No. 18 Toyota has had numerous mechanical issues this year, and then in the  final race of the regular season, a questionable call late in the race by crew chief Dave Rogers left Busch on the outside of the Chase.  While Busch has an average finish of 14.2 this season and sits 13th in points, one sign that the team still has a quality program is that the Busch has led 928 laps this season, the third most in the Sprint Cup. Yes, he'll be considered a title contender again next year.
3) Joey Logano: This was a contract year for Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 20 Toyota. And while he did win the first race at Pocono this season, that was really about his only highlight. Logano, who certainly seems like one of the nicest guys on the circuit, sits 17th in points with an average finish of 17.4  And what's more disturbing is that he has just one other top five finish and 10 other top 10 finishes in 33 races this season. Also, he's led just 25 laps this season. He'll be in the No. 22 car for Roger Penske next year and at age 22 Logano certainly has potential. But potential will only last so long when the results don't follow.
4) Kevin Harvick: It's true, he is in the Chase, so you can't say this season has been a complete disaster. But many thought he would be a legitimate contender to win the Sprint Cup title this season. But he has no wins this year and just four top five finishes and seven other top 10 finishes in the 33 races this season and he's rarely been a legitimate contender to win. It's been a disappointing year for the Richard Childress Racing team as Harvick, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton have combined for just seven top five finishes without a win in their 99 combined starts. The team clearly has a lot of work to do before hitting Daytona in February.
5) Juan Pablo Montoya: No, I wouldn't have picked him to win the title this season, but he's a talented driver with a team that looked ready to at least contend for one of the 12 Chase spots coming into the season. But his highlight moment came at Daytona when a suspension piece broke on his car on a yellow flag and he crashed into a Jet Dryer causing a the now famous Jet Dryer fire. Montoya's average finish is 21.4 this year and he sits 22nd in the standings with no top five finishes and just two top 10 finishes. Whether it's the team or the driver or maybe a combination of both, Montoya is simply too talented of a driver to almost never contend for a top five spot.
In these final three races each of these drivers still has a chance to salvage a victory, and maybe go into 2013 with a little positive momentum, something Edwards did two years ago before he went on to contend last year. But if they haven't already, these teams are going to be asking a lot of questions about what went wrong, rather than talking about all the things that went right.

It's Week 8 of the Chase and as the Sprint Cup series heads to Texas it is now without question a two-driver race for the title with three races remaining. It's between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson as Johnson has a two-point lead. Next in line are Clint Bowyer at 26 points back and Kasey Kahne at 29 behind. The largest comeback in NASCAR history in the final three races came when Dale Earnhardt rallied from 49 points down under the old points system to beat Mark Martin for the title in 1990. If that was converted into today's points system, Earnhardt would have been 12 points back. Last year, Tony Stewart was eight points behind Carl Edwards with three races to go before winning two of the final three races and taking the title on a tiebreaker. So, yes, it's really a two-man race at this point.
Here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Jimmie Johnson. He has an average finish of seventh in the last five races at Texas and with a title on the line, it's hard to imagine him not finishing in the top five.
2. Brad Keselowski. It's impossible not to pick him, even though the numbers are telling us something completely different. In his last five trips to Texas, Keselowski has an average finish of 30th and has not finished on the lead lap,. But he's been breaking down personal barriers all season, so we'll go against the numbers here.
3. Denny Hamlin. Yes, his title chances got short-circuited with last week's electrical issues, but he's still been very good at Texas, with two wins in the last five races with an average finish of  9.8. 
4. Greg Biffle. Things haven't gone well for him in the Chase, but he does have a win, three other top five finishes and another top 10 finish in the last five races at Texas. Can't ignore that.
 5. Matt Kenseth. It's pretty much been all or nothing for Kenseth in the Chase. He has an average finish of 6.4 in the last five races with a win and three other top five finishes at Texas. So, he could be in feast mode, which means he could have three wins in eight Chase races and still have no shot at the title. That would be hard to do.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Tony Stewart. His Chase has gone pretty much the opposite of last year when he won five of the 10 races, but Texas has been a good place for him, including winning this race last year and since he's back in 10th in the standings, he'll not be afraid to gamble late and go for the win.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 7 of the Chase at Martinsville..
Denny Hamlin  - 33rd. May have had the best car, but getting caught twice speeding on pit lane and eventually going to garage with electrical issues put him way back in the pack.
Jimmie Johnson  - 1st.  He was at or near the front all day, and five-timer may become six-timer in a few weeks.
Jeff Gordon  - 7th. Was near the front much of the day, but got caught in the dreaded outside lane on final restart and fell back a bit.
Brad Keselowski  - 6th. Tried the old stay out and get track position trick late to go for the win, but he'll take sixth considering his past history there.
Clint Bowyer - 5th. It looked like he might win, leading 154 laps, but stalled in pits and never got all the way back to the front again.
Here's a look at my results after 33 races and 165 picks.
16 wins
51 top 5s
77 top 10s
Grade for the week: A-. Finally, I got you the winner and four of the top seven. And Hamlin would've been a top five car if it hadn't quit running on him.
One last thing: Johnson's win broke an 11-race winless streak for Chevrolet. The last time Chevrolet went 11 or more races without a win was 12 races in 1993.