May The (Lack Of Down)Force Be With You In Atlanta

This weekend, the Cupsters, cable guys, and truckers all congregate at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Because why not.

Atlanta is an oddity in that it’s big, fast, and slicker than an used car salesman who dabbles in insurance on the side running for office. Because it’s not nearly big, fast, and slick enough, NASCAR is rolling out its new aero package for the Sprint Cup cars this weekend. Less downforce! Softer tires! The pace car passing everyone after ten laps as drivers slow to a crawl in order to stay on track! WHOOO! Seriously, I get NASCAR wanting to make it tougher in order to encourage that passing stuff they’ve heard is popular among fans. Here’s hoping they didn’t go too far in the other direction.

Favorites? Let’s see, which active driver refers to being sideways on the track as hitting the sweet spot … oh yeah, Kyle Busch. Although keep an eye out for Rapid Roy the stock car boy, a dirt track demon in his ’57 Chevrolet.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone.

The Case Of The Puzzling Manufacturer Switch

Now that some of the dust has settled and shock has worn off regarding SHR’s surprise announcement the other day that it would trading its bow ties for blue ovals starting next year, time for some analysis.

First, the announcement’s timing. While at first glance it seems more than a little peculiar to drop such a bombshell while the track workers are still sweeping confetti out of Victory Lane at Daytona, there is a certain method behind the madness. One, it puts a fair amount of additional pressure on the existing Ford teams to produce, given how the eight hundred pound gorilla will be grabbing from the same bunch of bananas come this time next year. Two, it gives SHR a convenient excuse should this year become a nothingburger – “hey, what did you expect, we’re a lame duck, you think Chevrolet and Hendrick are going to be sending us the good stuff?” The onus then falls on Chevrolet and Hendrick for looking like jilted brides.

Second, why the switch. Let’s look at it from Ford’s perspective. Other than Team Penske, what do they have? Roush Fenway is in a deep slump, and Petty Motorsports is firmly in the thanks for coming department. This leaves Ford’s hopes resting solely on Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, neither of whom are exactly beloved characters in the garage. You don’t think every other driver on the track silently yelled “ATTABOY!” when Matt Kenseth punted Logano last year? And it wasn’t all about the driver’s code. Long story short is Ford could use drivers with both broad fan support (Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick) and drivers at least somewhat less likely to rouse the ire of one and all every time they put on a firesuit. Plus Harvick and Kurt Busch know how to win, which is reportedly the idea in auto racing.

Now, you may have noticed beyond the obligatory carefully worded press releases there has been little wailing and gnashing of teeth from Chevrolet or Hendrick. Why? While doubtless they rue letting SHR go from a winning standpoint (Harvick) and a marketing standpoint (Patrick), plus no longer being associated with Tony Stewart, they also no longer have to shell out both money and manpower for four other cars, thus freeing said money and manpower to be lavished on both Hendrick and Richard Childress. It also saves them from any further association with Gene Haas, who but a few short years ago spent a year plus in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to commit tax evasion. GM has enough problems without such an association, and it’s nothing Rick Hendrick can be enamored of either.

So, while at first glance it seems weirder than weird, there is no great mystery behind why this move and why now. Ford gets a top-flight team, SHR gets out from under Hendrick’s thumb … er, shadow, and both GM and Hendrick can now say to Gene Haas go with God but go. See? Simple.

Denny Hamlin’s Most Excellent Day At Daytona

NASCAR prides itself on being unlike any other major American sport. Fact is, it’s right. Example? Consider this:

  • You win the Super Bowl, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the World Series, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the Stanley Cup, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the NBA Finals, you go to Disneyland.
  • You win the Daytona 500, you … go to Atlanta with everyone else.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Atlanta, although I can’t say I greatly enjoyed walking around downtown the couple of times I’ve been there (never have made it out to Atlanta Motor Speedway, alas). Rather, it points out how NASCAR is the only sport that opens its season with its biggest single event. More people at the end of the year will remember who won the Daytona 500 than won the Sprint Cup. This year it’s Denny Hamlin for the former. The latter will be determined the same month we decide who the next President will be. Speaking of such, what are the odds of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders making an appearance at a NASCAR race this year in an effort to convince folk they’re fellow down-home folk? ‘Twould be a sight to see. But I digress.

Today’s Daytona 500, which if you think of it is a bit redundant as there won’t be one any other day for a year, was a mercifully quieter affair than we’ve seen in recent races. No Big One, people for the most part kept their cool, and the last lap thrills came from who won rather than who’s upside down and/or on fire. Which is all you can ask from restrictor plate racing. Tide us over until the schedule sings the sweet short track happy blues.

Denny Hamlin proved (again) he’s pretty good at this restrictor plate thing, dumping Matt Kenseth like a hot potato on the last lap, pinching Kenseth off to where throwing a block was impossible, and then eking out the win over Martin Truex Jr. Before that it was trying to avoid the slip sliding away combining a hot track and this year’s car created. When you’ve got Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing a solo spin, you know it’s slicker than a promise in the year of election. (One can never have too many U2 references.)

The day was noticeable more for who didn’t finish well, or at all, than who did. Chase Elliott fell victim to the pathological inability of most tracks hosting NASCAR events to hire a groundskeeper, thus forcing drivers to cut the grass themselves. Seriously, as long as these cars have splitters, lose the green stuff and slap on some extra pavement so we’ll stop losing cars that nine times out of eight could gather themselves up and re-enter the fray. Rumor has it people who attend races prefer this over a local attempt to recreate Butchart Gardens. Later on in the day, Danica Patrick and Greg Biffle took the foot fight concept to a whole new level, fried chicken and fig bars flying through the air. Along with Danica. Quite fortunately, her car stayed perpendicular when briefly airborne, as the front end could have easily have dipped just a bit, caught the aforementioned grass, and … yeah.

Ah well. It’s done and everyone is in one piece. On to Atlanta.

Photo Credit:  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Photo courtesy NASCAR Media

Before The Watch, A Clock

Even as NASCAR’s future waved its flag yesterday when Darrell Wallace Jr. captured the flag at Martinsville, so NASCAR’s past refused to wave the flag of surrender today as Jeff Gordon ran down Matt Kenseth to win today’s Sprint Cuo race at the venerable track.

Even as Martinsville is venerated by the NASCAR faithful, so is Gordon. No longer the kid pushing aside a slowing Dale Earnhardt as the sport’s leading light, Gordon is now the one whose every non-winning move is followed by whispers that his time is coming to an end. He made this year’s Chase far more via the twilight zone than being in the zone, written off as having no shot at any title save the sentimental favorite. Yet he is the one whose first move tonight after a day wheeling around NASCAR’s toughest track will be consulting with Ingrid about where to shoehorn yet another grandfather clock into the trophy room.

The race was as vintage as Gordon and Martinsville itself, filled with bumps and spins and strategy gambles that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Kyle Busch saw the paper clip remaining frustratingly outside his reach, another good run thwarted at the end as he faded from contention. Other Chasers suffered similar fates, Clippy clipping down if not completely trimming away their trophy dreams. Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson continued to make every lap toward the championship must see TV even as their private little war gained a new third party knocking at the door, the AARP man reminding the two comparative kids that the old man has no intention of leaving them alone to settle the title by themselves. In the end, it was Gordon who chowed down on the victory hot dog while others ate Martinsville, as is its wont, once again serving several large portions of humble pie.

The Chase just become even more interesting. On to Texas.

(Wishing For A) Talladega Tornado

This weekend, while the claims jumpers take a nap the Cupsters and truckers make their way to Talladega. Oh, lucky them.

NASCAR fans are of an either/or persuasion when it comes to Talladega. Either they love its restrictor plate action, forty or so cars thundering as one lap after lap in a dizzying lockstep where the slightest miscalculation will at best send you to the pack’s back and at worse (i.e. normally) instantly change your ride from a snarling best to Scrapheap Sally, or they are working out the logistics of what it would take to disguise the track as a giant mobile home park just prior to tornado season. In short, turn the track into a used car lot and look for someplace else in Alabama where a nice little short track would suit people just fine.

There was a time when Talladega and Daytona were almost purposeful, venues showcasing stock car racing in an atmosphere as close to open-wheel oval racing as could be achieved. That time has long since passed. You no longer need to artificially jack up the speed in order to have a competitive, exciting race. What is needed is for cooler heads to prevail, assign Talladega to the memory banks and build a track that genuinely honors the Alabama Gang with some authentic racing action, not a vapid thrill ride looking for a place — which it almost inevitably finds — to spill.

Favorites? Whoever survives.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone.

Tony Stewart says Smoke will rise in 2014


September 3, 2013

Joking that he still must not be feeling well because he had actually missed the various media in attendance, NASCAR Sprint Cup three-time champion Tony Stewart spent well over an hour today discussing various matters during his first press conference following a sprint car accident August fifth in Oskaloosa, Iowa in which he suffered a severely broken leg that ended his 2013 racing season.

Stewart was in an upbeat if not altogether jovial mood as he discussed the accident and its aftermath. The primary point he made was that the current schedule has him back in a race car in February of next year, thus putting him in a position to run the entire 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Stewart laid to rest various rumors concerning a disagreement between him and Gene Haas, co-owner with Stewart of Stewart-Hass Racing, regarding Haas’ signing of 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and lightning rod for controversy Kurt Busch to create a fourth Stewart-Haas team next year. As Stewart explained, “It wasn’t as dramatic as he (Haas) made it sound. He told me on a Monday, and then that Thursday there was a contract. The biggest thing was Greg Zipadelli saying, ‘We can do this. It may not be fun or easy, but we can do it.'” Stewart further commented that his main concern was whether it would be possible to put together a fourth team period in the available time period and not bringing Busch on board.

As to his accident and whether he felt any remorse over participating in sprint car races at the risk of jeopardizing his participation in Sprint Cup, Stewart responded, “It’s just life, guys. Things happen every day that you can’t guard against. I’m going to live my life to the fullest in the limited amount of time I have on this earth. It doesn’t mean I can do what I want.” He later added, “This (the accident) hasn’t cut anyone’s paycheck. It hasn’t stopped anyone from working. Certainly it’s been great having Mark Martin driving the car. I’ve been attending meetings most every day. The only part of work I’m missing is me driving the car. It was an accident.”

On the subject of Stewart-Haas driver Danica Patrick Stewart commented, “I knew this would be a learning year for her. I was impressed with her race on Saturday (at Atlanta Motor Speedway in which Patrick finished twenty-first). Every week is a learning week. I’m not judging her by her finishing positions; it’s by what we talk about on Monday and what she is learning.”

The oft-displayed Stewart sense of humor came out once again when asked what he most missed about being at the track to which he immediately replied, “The hot girls. When you’re laying in bed, there’s not much traffic going through your bedroom. You’d think after three Sprint Cup championships and everything I’ve done in racing I could get at least one hot nurse.”

Stewart will be piloting a tricked-out scooter when he attends this weekend’s race at Richmond International Raceway, the first race he will be at since the accident.