Monday, February 25, 2013

Some speedy lessons from Daytona

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

Monday, January 7, 2013

Some NASCAR needs for 2013

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