Sunday, July 25, 2010

Want a Successful Drive for Diversity Program? Cultivate Older Drivers

SOUTH BOSTON, VA - OCTOBER 13:  Michael Cherry squeezes into his car during the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at South Boston Speedway on October 13, 2008 in South Boston, Virginia.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

NASCAR’s drive for diversity program began in 2004 as a way to attract and cultivate female and minority drivers into the sport and bring them up through the ranks. Through the years, the program has had its share of successes and failures, but remains minorities’ best shot at coming up into NASCAR’s top ranks.

However, none of the drivers participating in the Drive for Diversity program have ever competed in the Sprint Cup Series, and it wasn’t until 2009 that a member, Paul Harraka, won a regional touring series race.

Now, granted, it takes time to cultivate a driver to compete at the top levels of NASCAR. You can’t take a driver from the Whelen All-American Series to the national level in a year.

Though all of these drivers have the backing of the sanctioning body itself, all of them lack experience.

So what can NASCAR do about this? Find some experienced drivers.

On some short track, somewhere, is some African-American driver who has been racing late models for 15 years. America has many regional touring series, most not affiliated with NASCAR, and one of them has to have a minority driver who has been racing off-and-on for the past decade. Auto racing is also alive and well in Latin-America. ASA competed in South Africa over the winter.

Let’s face it: there are no NASCAR teams at high schools and you can’t go to college on a NASCAR scholarship. The only way to break into NASCAR is to do it yourself, and spend a great deal of time cutting your racing teeth.

Today’s NASCAR talents, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, the Busch brothers, Joey Logano… they have all been racing something or another since they could show you their age on two hands (or one). Logano is 20 years old, but has 14 years of racing experience.

It will take at least that for any driver, minority or not, to run up and compete with Logano. Most minorities don’t have the opportunity to begin racing at age 6. That’s why it’s been difficult to cultivate these young minorities.

So, take that African-American that’s been racing late models for 15 years that I mentioned earlier, though he may be 35 years old and not 20, and bring him into the Drive for Diversity program. Though he hasn’t raced in the K&N Pro Series, he will know how to wheel a racecar, and just never had the chance to move up to the big leagues.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Don't Be So Fast to Dis the Mile-and-a-Halfs

Short tracks are the home turf of NASCAR – little dirt slingers some old bootleggers built in an empty lot somewhere. I, like many in NASCAR grew up on short tracks. Short tracks are where today’s NASCAR stars cut their teeth, and still provide the foundation of racing across the country.

Short tracks also provide some of the best racing one will ever see; packing that many cars with that amount of horsepower into that small a space is a sure recipe for carnage, the carnage that many a fan whoop and holler for.

Because of their well-known thrills and spills, the lack of short tracks in NASCAR’s highest levels is a point of contention between NASCAR and its fans. In the Sprint Cup Series, the highest form of auto racing in the country, only three short tracks sit on the schedule, comprising only six of 38 race weekends.

Meanwhile, 1.5-mile tracks comprise 11 of those 38 weekends.

The reason why drivers like racing on these 1.5-mile tracks is the very reason why many fans detest them: they provide enough room to make passes without beating and banging.

But, you see, 1.5-milers offer a far different kind of racing that needs to be viewed differently. Long races are a chess match at any kind of track. As the phrase goes, “to finish first, you must first finish.” No sense in beating up your equipment in the first 450 miles and take yourself out of a chance to win in the last 50.

I want to add to that (though not with quite a sexy play on words): to finish first, you must be in position at the end. If a car behind you is much faster, it’s far more worth it to a driver to let him pass, then make adjustments on your car to make it better later. Ready for another cliché? You can’t win a race at the beginning, but you can lose it.

There’s a problem with trying to let faster cars past you at short tracks, however: many short tracks are one-grove, and letting a faster car past might get you freight-trained another 10 or more positions. That’s not as easy to make up.

At a 1.5-miler, a fast car can move forward unimpeded, but a slow car can also move back unimpeded. At a short track, every car is an impediment to someone… and the chrome horn can take many good cars out of the race.

Case in point: this past weekend, the Sprint Cup Series raced in Chicagoland. The race started in the heat of an Illinois day, and ended under the cover of night. Any NASCAR fan knows how the track changes under these conditions. Some cars handle it better than others.

Your top two at Chicagoland were David Reutimann and Carl Edwards. During the day portion of the race, both drivers were unimpressive, Edwards in particular – he spent a lot of time moving backwards.

At a short track, Edwards would have gotten punted with the chrome horn and been out of the race, or at the very least so far back getting up to second would be impossible.

However, at Chicagoland, Edwards had time and room to nurse his car, fix his car, and move back to the front.

When it came down to the last 5 laps, Edwards slung his car around the outside of Chicagoland Speedway like nothing else I’ve ever seen before… and it was awesome. I was in the stands myself, and I could visibly see him pick up speed. There is no way to describe what driving on the edge looks like, but that’s what Edwards was doing.

I’m not saying short-track racing is poor because it’s not. I’m saying that speedway racing isn’t inherently boring.

What do you think?

-David Dubczak

Tool of the Week

No one this week. Good job everyone.

Something Else I Noticed

There’s nothing like actually sitting in the grandstands at a Sprint Cup race. Here’s something I noticed: the Hendrick engines screamed about an octave louder than anyone else at the top of their powerband, and it was just the Hendrick engines – not even the other Chevy engines sounded the same.

With about 30 laps to go, Jeff Gordon lost the lead and started losing other positions. At the same time, his engine stopped screaming and sounded normal. Hmm…

Don't Forget

The Racing Tool was in Chicagoland last weekend. Make sure to visit the Racing Tool in Chicagoland page to view our gallery of pictures.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tearing Up The Track: Daytona Edition

Asphalt can be used to caulk boats. The first ever photograph involved asphalt in the printing process. Of course, asphalt can also be used to pave roads… or racetracks. In 1979, asphalt paved Daytona, but it’s gotten in rough shape in the 31 years since. It’s time for a change.

I’m not going to go into a discussion of this history of this particular surface – if you’ve managed to find this blog, I’m sure you already know.

Every driver this weekend lamented over Daytona’s imminent repaving, all of them remarking about the incredible “character” the track has. Instead of purely racing each other, the drivers have had to race the racetrack the past few years as well.

Here’s the thing: it was going to have to be repaved eventually, and the time has come. Asphalt doesn’t last very long – trust me, if you had to drive on an interstate with 31-year-old asphalt, you would try to find a detour.

Daytona’s asphalt was beginning to degrade – eventually, given a little rain, the cracks in the surface would become “weepers,” continually pumping out underground moisture while workers try fruitlessly to dry the surface.

We saw in February the damage that could be done by too many cars bottoming out in one spot. While that spot has been fixed, the track isn’t getting any smoother. NASCAR cannot afford another snafu like that in another Daytona 500 anytime soon. Grand-Am races the 24 Hours of Daytona, not NASCAR (and Grand-Am has racing for the full 24 hours).

The track surface had gotten so worn out that it now has absolutely no grip. That, combined with a bumpy track surface, had drivers absolutely out of control on old tires Saturday night. At the end of a run, TV viewers could see drivers simply lose it with no one around them. At Daytona’s speeds, that is wreckless, and it’s not going to get better with time.

Yes, the track had some great character and it’s a shame it can’t stay like that forever. But, Daytona has to fix it before it develops some serious problems. We’ve seen tracks with serious problems before (Martinsville, Darlington, etc) before, and NASCAR cannot afford to let Daytona get that way.

You know what? The racing on the old surface was great, but a new surface will bring about a style of racing that is also great for the next few years.


The Tool of the Week

This week’s Tool of the Week is the Jay Robinson Racing crew member in the Nationwide Series that left the lead/tungsten ballast loose in Mark Green’s no. 49 machine.

As Green was entering the track, the ballast flew out of the car directly into Reed Sorenson’s, no. 32, path. The ensuing carnage also collected Steve Wallace, no. 66.

Last week, I wrote about the perils of debuting the new Nationwide Series car at Daytona. Though it wasn’t a big wreck from pack racing that destroyed a good chunk of these team’s limited fleets of new cars… the fact still remains that these teams still have a limited fleet of new cars. The last thing anyone needed to do was run over a chunk of lead.

Look: remove the cover, insert the lead, put the cover back on, and screw it in.

What a tool.

Do you have a better Tool of the Week? Let us know via Twitter or Facebook.


The Racing Tool Goes to Chicagoland

This Friday and Saturday, the Racing Tool will be in Chicagoland for the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series races.

Follow @racingtool on Twitter and Facebook to see live tweets and pics from the tracks.

-David Dubczak

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Introducing the New Nationwide Car at Daytona Very Cool, but a Very Stupid Idea

Next week, the Nationwide Series returns to Daytona, and we will see for the first time its overhauled car take to the track for an actual race. Fans will love this – we will see Ford Mustangs and Dodge Challengers flying around Daytona that actually look like Ford Mustangs and Dodge Challengers. The car is safer, but also bigger and badder.

On top of that, Daytona is NASCAR’s crown jewel, the end result of a dream by NASCAR founder and Hall-of-Famer Bill France Sr. Men like Petty, Pearson, Waltrip, and Earnhardt have all considered a Daytona trophy among their most prized possessions, despite the rest of their illustrious careers.

From a pure aesthetics standpoint, there is no better place to debut the awesome-looking new Nationwide car than under the lights at Daytona.

However, here’s the problem with Daytona: the pack racing. While the new Nationwide cars won’t use restrictor plates; they will have smaller tapered spacers, which function in the same way: limit air to the engine and reduce horsepower. Without the reduction in horsepower, the cars would easily reach speeds that surpass human abilities to drive them.

The restrictor plates and tapered spacers bring about pack racing, the phenomenon we see at Daytona and Talladega where a large group of cars drafts off each other three-wide (or deeper) for several rows back… imagine if your parking lot suddenly took off at 190mph down the highway.

This pack racing creates the big wreck; if someone at the front of the pack makes a mistake, it collects the rest of the pack with him. 20 or 30 car pile-ups are common in pack racing. Nearly every race at Daytona and Talladega is guaranteed at least one big wreck.

And this is why introducing the new car at Daytona is a bad idea. The Nationwide Series is home to some very low-budget teams, whose cars are discount hand-me-downs from bigger teams. Jay Robinson Racing, Bob Keselowski Racing, Morgan-Dollar Racing, and all the other similar small teams will struggle to get their hands on the new car because the big teams don’t have old ones to sell them yet. This means they will have to build their own or buy a new one, neither of which is cheap.

Because of these factors, the small teams may have one or two of the new cars in their fleet… and then they could go to Daytona and destroy it in the big wreck, sending them back to square one.

There is no better way to get TV time and other exposure for the Nationwide Series than by debuting the awesome new car at Daytona. But, if one driver in the front of the pack makes an incorrect split-second calculation, it could be devastating for the small teams characteristic of the Nationwide Series.


The Racing Tool is Back!

After a more than two month hiatus for personal reasons, the Racing Tool has returned. Once more, you will enjoy weekly commentary on the edge of NASCAR coverage. I hope you all enjoy it.

The Racing Tool is Going to Chicagoland

In two weeks, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the Nationwide Series head to the midwest for a few great shows at the Chicagoland Speedway. Make sure to follow @racingtool on Twitter and Facebook for all the live updates as we are able.

New Feature: The Tool of the Week

No, not an actual tool, as in Craftsman or Kobalt. No, we're talking about a tool as in a person who does something incredibly... for lack of a better word... dumb. Perhaps a power saw removed his brain for the week, or a pair of pliers is cutting off blood flow to his frontal lobe. For whatever reason... said driver/crewman/official/random person will receive the negatively-esteemed award as "The Tool of the Week."

So, with no further adieu...

The Tool of the Week

Reed Sorenson.

He's probably wishing Red Bull gave him actual wings because I'm sure he couldn't flee NHMS fast enough following his incident with Juan Pablo Montoya. The lapped driver pushed into the lead-lap and competitive Montoya, spinning him out.

Now, not that Montoya could have won anyway... that's not why he's the Tool of the Week. The reason he gets the nomination is because he caused the second-to-last caution, ending Jeff Burton's chance at a win and essentially handing it to Jimmie Johnson, something no fan at NHMS wanted to see.

Burton had a huge lead, but was stuck on old tires when the entire field pitted behind him under caution. Had Burton indeed pitted, the rest of the field would have stayed out and put him deep in the pack with 15 to go. It was lose-lose for the Burton gang when Reed spun JP.

What a tool.

Do you have a better tool? Let us know via Twitter or Facebook.

-David Dubczak

Thursday, April 22, 2010

“This Isn’t The 90’s Anymore” As Fans Root for Jeff Gordon

The year is 1998. In route to his third championship, Jeff Gordon wins 13 of 33 races, after winning 10 in both 1996 and 1997. At driver introductions, a thousands-strong host of “boo’s” greets Gordon. His only consolation: Dale Earnhardt’s quote, “At least they’re making noise. It’s when they stop making noise that you know something’s wrong.”

In NASCAR, drivers that are successful are shunned, especially ones who act unlike everyone else – the articulate, young, skinny, California kid among the southern grease monkeys. If anyone tried to pick a fight, Gordon would have lost.

But Gordon did his fighting on the racetrack. By the end of 1998, he had won 42 races, putting him 14th on the all-time win list at the time. This made him the most hated man in NASCAR. Come race day, fans pleaded, “Anyone but Gordon.”

It now takes only three syllables to describe NASCAR in the 90’s: “Jeff Gordon.”

Fast forward to 2002. Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon team up and each put in a 50/50 stake in a new team, and they hire Jimmie Johnson as their driver.

Fast forward to 2010. Jimmie Johnson has 50 wins and four championships. Fans now plead, “Anyone but Jimmie… even Jeff.” Since Johnson emerged, Jeff has won only 23 times, a bit more than half of the first half of his career, but most importantly, no championships.

This season, we’ve seen the fighting Jeff more so than we’ve seen in the past few years.

We’ve seen a Jeff Gordon trying to dispel any more rumors that he’s about to retire, and wants to prove that he can still do this long enough for his yet-to-be-born son to experience his dad winning.

We’ve seen a Jeff Gordon tired of going home short.

Finally, we’ve seen a Jeff Gordon who wants to do anything take back the title of “the best” from Jimmie Johnson.

Gordon’s former crew chief, Ray Evernham, offered a few comments as to why he hasn’t been his ‘90’s self the past few years. According to Evernham, working with a driver with the caliber and records of Jeff Gordon is intimidating. Current crew chief Steve Letarte, as good as he is, has still got to be a little intimidated by Jeff Gordon.

What this means is a hesitancy to coach him. Gordon is the best; where is it Letarte’s place to coach him? Gordon should be coaching Letarte.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way. The crew chief is the coach. The crew chief has the knowledge, the information, and the luxury of not having to concentrate on driving a car 180mph. This puts the crew chief in a much better position to make the types of calls a coach would make.

Fortunately, the duo is getting better. Gordon couldawouldashoulda won three or four races this year, only to be narrowly shut out each time. This has lit a fire under him I haven’t seen… ever, really.

The Jeff Gordon of the ‘90’s was a fierce competitor, don’t get me wrong. You don’t get to be the 2nd winningest driver in the modern era without being that. But the Jeff Gordon of today is quite simply mad – mad that he’s dominating but not winning, mad that the rules keep biting him, and mad that his protégé has stolen his own thunder.

Jeff Gordon is out there to prove that he is still the driver he was in the ‘90’s, and is determined to finish 2010 like it’s 1998.

Who cares if that makes him the most hated driver once again? That’s when he won the most.

-David Dubczak

Friday, April 16, 2010

A New Schedule Would Be A Good Order, Especially for Trucks

I know it seems odd; the 2010 season has barely begun, but now is time of year NASCAR starts negotiating their schedules for 2011. Every year, the story remains the same – too many tracks, not enough weekends. Storied tracks are trying not to lose dates, but NASCAR is trying to break into new markets.

In the past, NASCAR was simply able to just add dates, but, since 2001, the schedule has been at 36 races, and many think that’s already too much (I am not among them). Adding races is no longer an option.

Still, we have tracks like Kansas, which has been guaranteed a second date. Kentucky has been vying for a race for years, but NASCAR insists on not giving them that date unless the track drops a lawsuit against NASCAR (a suit filed to try and get that date). This year, that lawsuit has been dropped.

So, what is NASCAR to do? I’ve been advocating a rotational schedule for years. Here’s the gist of how it would work:

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series currently races on 22 tracks. Add Kentucky and we get 23. Add a few more venues drivers love, like Rockingham, Iowa, and perhaps Nashville, and we get 26. If each track got one race, that’s 26 races. The final ten should rotate from year to year.

Tracks that sell out would get preference. NASCAR would consider input from the fans. Localities would have to submit proposals. Maybe they would add some tracks to those 10 races that they would visit on a semi-annual basis – Iowa would be a good choice, maybe Road America.

In this economy, seating capacity probably isn’t an issue. NASCAR took a date away from Rockingham and gave it to California because (in part) California had more seats. Now, California can’t fill those 90,000 seats, and tracks with 120,000 or more seats are in the same boat.

The rotation should be about where racing is the best, where the fan experience is the best, and what the fans across the nation want, regardless of whether they live by that track or not.

Every year, this rotation might change. It could be on a three-year basis – every track that wants a second date will get it every third year.

This isn’t going to appease everyone, but neither will a traditional schedule. Not everyone can have two dates.

The Camping World Truck Series can benefit especially from a rotational schedule. The popularity of the trucks has been waning, which is unfortunate because they have some of the best racing in NASCAR.

Or has it? Their ratings on SPEED have been steadily growing, while the Nationwide and Cup ratings have been shrinking.

What makes it look like they’re losing popularity is the number of fans in attendance. When the trucks race on a standalone weekend at a track built for 120,000, the stands look exponentially more empty when only 15,000-20,000 fans show up.

Yet, the truck series needs to race at the Sprint Cup venues. This is a developmental series, after all – the drivers need experience at these tracks. They need experience at high speeds and experience drafting.

But, when the series races by itself, or not as a Sprint Cup companion event, they should not be at track built for 120,000. They should be at a track where neither the Sprint Cup Series nor Nationwide Series race. Perhaps, they could also visit some local short tracks that can attract hoards of curious locals because, let’s face it; the Truck Series isn’t going to attract RV’s from across the country for a standalone event.

South Boston. Rockingham. Toyota Speedway at Irwindale. Concord. Imagine… gasp… North Wilkesboro. Can you imagine the trucks going to North Wilkesboro – America’s toughest trucks on one of NASCAR’s most beloved former tracks?

It could happen. Let NASCAR know what you think. They’re listening to the fans this year. It could happen.

Other NASCAR Notes

I’m tremendously excited to see Kasey Kahne’s possibilites at Hendrick Motorsports. Darrell Waltrip put it best – he’s one of the most talented drivers in the sport and is in the prime of his career, but his Richard Petty Motorsports team is unable to support him, no matter the strides they’ve made this year. He can’t spend his prime years driving for a team that is defaulting on loans.

I hope his crew chief, Kenny Francis, can go with him. Kasey and Kenny have a great relationship – in the turmoil at RPM last year, Kenny and Kasey’s working relationship was about the only thing going for them. Larry McReynolds told him to grab Kenny and hold on as tight as he could.

If Kenny and Kasey get together at Hendrick, I think there’s a chance they could become the new Chad and Jimmie.

-David Dubczak

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mark Martin is NASCAR's Happiest Driver

Mark Martin is NASCAR’s happiest driver. No, he isn’t always running the best; no, he hasn’t won a championship; and no, he hasn’t won half the races this year like his teammate has. But that won’t get Mark Martin down.

When was the last time anyone saw him unhappy? It’s been an awfully long time, probably in his last few years with Roush where he admits he simply wasn’t enjoying racing anymore. But not since then.

Martin has this radiating smile, accentuated by his wrinkles developed from what must surely be a lifetime of laughter. Just look at his caricature by NASCAR comic artist Mike Smith.

But what is the effect of Mr. Martin’s perpetual happiness? It’s the way it motivates his GoDaddy team. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Martin unhappy, but it’s been longer since I’ve heard him bash a team. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that.

Week in and week out, he talks about what a pleasure it is driving for Crew Chief Alan Gustafson and how much fun it is to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.

If he wins… his talk is about how great it is working with Alan and the guys.

If he crashes… it’s still a pleasure to drive for Alan and the guys.

Laps down… can’t believe what a great crew chief Alan Gustafson is to work with.

Just barely loses… Hendrick Motorsports is such a great team and it’s so fun to drive fast cars prepared by Alan Gustafson and the GoDaddy crew.

He never talks down about his crew, never complains about how much they sucked today, and never blames his crew for a crash that is obviously his fault.

That kind if negative talk is something I’ve heard from the very best in our sport… both Busch brothers, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and all three of his Hendrick teammates – Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and yes, even Jimmie Johnson on occasion.

Mark is always the first one to tell his crew “great job.” As an athletic coach myself, I know what a big deal this is… and how hard it is to be sincere. If I’m faking it, I know it and my athletes know it. I try not to fake it, but when I do, it’s obvious.

It’s also obvious that Mark Martin is never faking it.

It’s like a marriage vow he’s taken to heart, “through the best of times, through the worst of times, through sickness, and in health.”

And it shows with his crew. His crew is among the most upbeat in the garage and Alan Gustafson is one of the happiest crew chiefs on the pit box. Martin still has the energy of a 20 year old, and the humble spirit from Batesville, Arkansas is able to lift the spirits of his entire team (it certainly wasn’t that way when Kyle Busch drove for that team).

When the Kyle Petty Charity Ride rode through Batesville, Petty remarked he didn’t go through Batesville, Arkansas… he went through Mark Martin, Arkansas. The people there love him too.

Mark Martin doesn’t even have to try. He’s just that way. I’m sure, whatever positive remarks he has for the team, his team has the same toward him.

-David Dubczak
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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Report Cards: Top-35 Edition

Yesterday, I gave report cards to the go-or-go-home teams. Today, I’m not going to delay and instead get right into grading the teams locked into the top-35 in owner’s points, and therefore locked into the race. Working from the bottom up…

Front Row Motorsports
35th: No. 37 David Gilliland
34th: No. 34 Travis Kvapil
32nd: No. 38 Kevin Conway
Grade: C-

Bill Jenkins, the owner of Front Row Motorsports, truly understands that the key to making a little money in NASCAR is to start with a lot of money. Last year, Front Row was a bit of a haphazard team, and driver John Andretti just barely hung onto that 35th position at the end of the season.

This year, however, Jenkins has invested in a better shop, better cars, and secured backing from Ford. Now, five races into the season, FRM has all three teams in the top-35 just barely. Even rookie Kevin Conway, with not even a full Nationwide season under his belt, hung onto that 35th position before swapping rides with Gilliland to give himself more of a cushion.

However, their performance is still lacking. Their cars, though better than some, they admit are not the best. The whole season, they will be using the old and aging Ford engine, and that will hurt them in the long run. At least one of their cars might face a serious challenge for that top-35 berth from the Tommy Baldwin-owned no. 36 or Robby Gordon’s self-owned no. 7.

Team Penske
33rd: No. 77 Sam Hornish
30th: No 12 Brad Keselowski
6th: No 2 Kurt Busch
Grade: A-

“Wait,” you say, “An A- with two teams below 30th?” Yes. Penske, as an organization, has been running extremely well this year. “Sideways Sam” Hornish seems to finally feel comfortable in a stock car, and Brad Keselowski has had some good runs. Kurt Busch has won a race and sits sixth in points.

The reason for Hornish’s and Keselowski’s poor points showing is because of plain old bad luck (and, to an extent, Carl Edwards). As the season wears on, I expect all three cars to be contending on a regular basis.

Hornish still has some work to do, but he’s finally showing he’s a champion racecar driver. Keselowski still has to figure out how to qualify. But, all-in-all, not bad for Team Penske.

Michael Waltrip Racing
24th: No. 00, David Reutimann
20th: No. 56, Martin Truex Jr.
JTG-Dougherty Racing
31st: No 47, Marcos Ambrose
Grade: B+

This organization is not as good as I thought they would be this year. To be fair, they have also had more than their fair share of bad luck. Martin Truex is their shining star who almost won the Daytona 500 and has since had really promising runs only to end up on the caboose end of a wrecker.

Reutimann is normally fast in practice, but hasn’t been able to close the deal in the races. On Sunday, we normally see him running upper-middle pack. Truex has been a rocket ship, and Reutimann has been mostly sedentary.

Marcos Ambrose is clearly in a sophomore slump, not running to expectations at all. However, he was a contender at Bristol until the obviously bored bad luck demon gobbled his engine.

It is hard to grade them though. Their performance last year, with Reutimann on the cusp of the Chase, was exceptionally better than anyone expected MWR. They had hopes placed on them this season that were almost impossible to live up to, especially with the addition of Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson.

I do think they will contend to win many races this year, but just not every week.

TRG Motorsports
29th: No. 71, Bobby Labonte
Grade: C

Last year, this start-and-park team would have had a D. However, with the addition of Bobby Labonte and partial sponsor, they’ve brought their team into solid mid-pack standing. Sitting 29th in owner’s points, Bobby Labonte can put his past champion’s provisional back in storage for the foreseeable future.

This team has a small-team mentality. It’s working for them, but it’s not going to make them contenders week in and week out. Plus, they still don’t have sponsorship for the full season. They don’t need as much sponsorship as other teams will to be competitive because of their small-team mentality… but they need something.

What they don’t have is Crew Chief “Slugger” Labbe. When Labonte decided to sign with TRG, he remarked on how much he liked “Slugger and the guys.” Labbe is known as one of the best crew chiefs in the garage, and his loss was a big, unexpected blow to TRG I’m sure.

But all is not lost. They’re still running well. TRG does have a racing background, just not in NASCAR until last year. With more money and their seasoned, champion driver, this team can have just a few good runs and contend for a win or two at Bobby’s stronger tracks.

Furniture Row Racing
28th: No. 78, Regan Smith
Grade: C

They’re just average, and they’ll probably stay there. They don’t have a whole lot of resources other than an alignment with Richard Childress Racing. They’re not bad by any means, just average.

Roush-Fenway Racing
27th: No. 6, David Ragan
13th: No. 99, Carl Edwards
4th: No. 16, Greg Biffle
2nd: No. 17, Matt Kenseth
Grade: B+

Two A+’s, an A-, and a C average to a B+ in my book. I think Darrell Waltrip put it best at Daytona when he said, “This is the last year I’m going to wait for David Ragan to have a breakout year.” He first came on the scene in 2007 to replace the retiring-or-so-we-thought Mark Martin, almost made the Chase in 2008 and was expected to have a breakout year in 2009.

It didn’t happen. To be fair, none of the RFR teams had a good year in 2009; but, in 2010, Ragan still appears to be the odd man out.

With Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle sitting second and fourth in points, respectively, it surprises me to see Edwards in 13th. He’s still searching for that first victory after winning nine times in 2008.

Those two, however, signal the beginnings of a turnaround at RFR from their dismal 2009 season. It just hasn’t been translated to all their teams yet, and they need to get at least Edwards back into Chase contention to get that A.

Stewart-Haas Racing
26th: No. 39, Ryan Newman
5th: No. 14, Tony Stewart
Grade: B

Stewart is solidly in Chase contention. Much has been made of how he’s not running as well this year, but hey… he’s fifth in points.

A far cry from his teammate Ryan Newman, who sits 26th. I don’t know the X factor that this team is missing, but the no. 39 has never had as much of it as the no. 14 has.

Part of the reason they’re perceived as not running so well this year is because of how well they ran last year – unexpectedly, at that, after Tony Stewart bought this also-ran team and suddenly turned it into a contender.

These cars, also, are essentially Hendrick cars, being built in the Hendrick shop then shipped to be serviced in the SHR shop. The Hendrick cars are running great… just not all the SHR cars are.

Richard Petty Motorsports
25th: No. 19, Elliott Sadler
23rd: No. 9, Kasey Kahne
21st: No. 43, A.J. Allmendinger
9th: No. 98, Paul Menard
Grade: A-

Paul Menard gets my vote as the most improved driver in NASCAR. For years, he took his Menard’s sponsorship from team to team, looking for that performance that some wondered if he would ever get. Last season, I almost wrote an article I would have called, “Who shouldn’t be here and who should be here instead.” Paul Menard would have been one of the ones that shouldn’t have been here.

First, I wanted to see how silly season played out. I guess I found out.

He and the entire Petty gang have been running exceptionally well. Always fast in practice, qualifying, and the race. Unfortunately, they too have been bit by the bad luck bug. Their performance gets them their A-, their results just don’t show it.

Some say, “I would rather have bad luck than no luck at all.” I think the Richard Petty Motorsports team would just rather not have bad luck.

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
22nd: No. 42, Juan-Pablo Montoya
15th: No. 1, Jamie McMurray
Grade: B+

This team was placed with impossible expectations when Jamie McMurray, in his first race with the team, won a race totally unlike any other race, the Daytona 500.

Once again, bad luck. But, here’s the thing with bad luck: there is no room in the Chase for teams with a lot of it. To get back in championship form, they have to have a whole lot of good luck, and run at peak level… something I don’t think EGR is able to make both of their cars do the entire season yet.

They’re a top team, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of top teams this year. I think McMurray might win once more or so and Montoya will finally get his first oval win, but they’ll probably both be shut out of the Chase.

Did anyone else find it funny at Las Vegas when McMurray’s McDonald’s car had the McDonald’s Golden Arches as the “M” in “McMurray” above the doors?

Joe Gibbs Racing
19th: No. 11, Denny Hamlin
17th: No. 20, Joey Logano
10th: No. 18, Kyle Busch
Grade: B

I don’t know what it is about this team, but they’re just off. In the off-season, Denny Hamlin was billed as the best threat to unseat Jimmie Johnson. Right now, he’s 19th in points and, in late breaking news Friday night, will have knee surgery on Monday to repair a torn ACL.

Other than that, there’s just not much I can say. JGR, though dominant in the Nationwide Series, has just been unimpressive in the Sprint Cup Series. They could be stuck in the same boat Roush-Fenway was in last year, where they improved, just everyone else improved more.

Hendrick Motorsports
16th: No. 5, Mark Martin
11th: No. 24, Jeff Gordon
8th: No. 88, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
3rd: No. 48, Jimmie Johnson
Grade: A+

This team is on its game! They have set the mark that all other teams are shooting for. Watch any TV this week? Read anything online? The entire sport is talking about the head game Jimmie Johnson’s team is playing. Every crew chief on pit road is judging his decisions based on what Chad Knaus is going to do, or at least what they think he might do.

Even Dale Jr., after his awful 2009, is 8th in points. What this driver needs, simply, is confidence. He needs to go win himself a race somewhere – as Darrell Waltrip says, in the Camping World Truck Series, perhaps – and he will start finally contending for wins again.

Mark Martin has simply been bitten by bad luck. He’s often the top Hendrick car the entire weekend.

It seems really weird to say this, but Jeff Gordon appears to be the weak link. He’s getting better though – he’s had a sort of nonchalant attitude about his not winning the first few years, and he’s really begun to work out more and get in better shape to start winning races again.

But no one, not even anyone at Hendrick Motorsports, has what Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have. They’re just about unbeatable, and would be leading the points of not for that broken axle at Daytona.

Last year, reminiscent of Babe Ruth pointing to the right field fence before hitting his home run, Johnson said over the radio to, “Start preparing the champagne bottle now.” Maybe, just maybe, they’re becoming alcoholics…

Team Red Bull
18th: No. 82, Scott Speed
14th: No. 83, Brian Vickers
Grade: B

Team Red Bull is in the same spot they were last year, just about. Yes, Scott Speed is running exponentially better than last year, but both he and Vickers are running in about the same place Vickers was running in 2009 – mid-pack, with a few good runs.

Chase material? We’ll see. The entire Chase field is going to be much tighter than it was last year, and only the best get in.

Richard Childress Racing
12th: No. 33, Clint Bowyer
7th: No. 31, Jeff Burton
1st: No. 29, Kevin Harvick
Grade: A+

This year, after a lackluster 2009, RCR has emerged as the top all-around rival to Hendrick. All three teams are running up front, the drivers are getting along marvelously, and their engines are absolutely hauling!

Whatever went wrong last year appears to be fixed this year.

The true indicator of how things are going internally at RCR is Kevin Harvick. Last year, he was very publically at odds with Richard Childress, and he is a free agent at the end of this season. In the middle of last year, he appeared to want to close the book on his career with Richard Childress and move on.

Being first in points will go a long way towards getting him to sign back with RCR. Now, he just needs to win himself a points race. I think all of the RCR cars will do that this year, and maybe just win the Championship.

-David Dubczak
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Go-Or-Go-Home Report Cards: Teams Now Using 2010 Owner's Points

Well folks, we've reached that point in the season where NASCAR Sprint Cup teams will be using 2010 owner's points for situations such as top-35 qualifying and rainouts. For the first five races of any season, NASCAR uses the owner's points standings from the previous season, making the fate of teams dependent on how they performed last year.

Now, however, they have to rely on how well they've performed this year. The money some teams put down to buy the owner's points for defunct teams is no longer valid. Starting this weekend at Martinsville, those who can't make the cut... might not make the cut.

So, let's look at some report cards, starting with the go-or-go-home teams. I'm not going to look at the start and parkers, just the teams on the bubble that run the full races.

Germain Racing No. 13 - Max Papis, Driver

Grade: C-

Germain Racing has an alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, and the entire MWR crew and their aligned teams have been performing better. Driver Max Papis is developing a better relationship with crew chief Bootie Barker, and has steadily improved as a stock car driver.

But they're not there yet.

They don't run well in practice, and they're normally far off the pace in the race. However, when it come's time to qualify... Mad Max can get up on the wheel and put the car in the show. If not for that spin-out on his attempt at Bristol last week, he would have qualified for all five races this year.

Let's get one thing straight, though: Germain Racing is not Michael Waltrip Racing. Yes, MWR is doing great, but those performance increases have not translated into better performance for Germain Racing. I would have given them a D, but Max's love for NASCAR and true desire to try to make himself a top-knotch stock car driver bump him up to a C-.

Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 36 - Mike Bliss, Driver

Grade: C+

Hey, they're making races, which is leaps and bounds better than they were last year! They have partial-season sponsorship from Wave Energy Drink, better cars, better engines, and a better crew.

Are they contenders? Not yet, but they're not making fools out of themselves either. This was a start-and-park model that worked out perfectly - they showed they had what it took to get it done, and now that they have sponsorship, are doing just that. They're making the races and running respectably.

If anyone knows how to make Tommy Baldwin Racing a top team, it's Tommy Baldwin. With time, patience, and money... they'll get there.

Lattitude 43 Motorsports No. 26 - Boris Said, Driver
Grade: F

I honestly don't know what this team is doing. The only reason they're higher than TBR and Germain is because they've qualified for all the races, and even then only because they were able to buy the owner's points from the Roush no. 26 that NASCAR forced them to shut down.

This team tried to run all of Daytona Speedweeks with a single engine, and owner Bob Jenkins hasn't shown me a great deal of commitment. Now that he's out of the top-35 and forced to qualify on time every weekend (something that wouldn't have been able to do these first five races if they hadn't been in the top-35), we'll see how committed he is. Is he willing to provide the investment necessary to make fast cars, or was he just trying to collect the money and go home?

What confuses me even more is Boris Said. For years, he's said he wants to run NASCAR full-time and try to establish himself as a good oval-track driver rather than just a road-course ace.

So... he chooses this team to try to prove himself? Bad career move.

Keyed Up Motorsports No. 90 - Casey Mears, Driver

Grade: D-

This is another team with whom I initially doubted the owner's commitment. In the Gatorade Duels at Daytona, it came down basically to Mike Bliss versus Casey Mears for the transfer spot into the Daytona 500. I was rooting for Mike Bliss because I knew they were committed long term and had a future ahead of them. As much as I like Casey Mears and his crew chief Doug Richert, I wasn't sure about his owner's long-term commitment.

And it showed by their failure to qualify for their first four races.

That is, until the past few weeks. They've begun using Earnhardt-Childress Engines, moved to a new shop, and gotten better cars. At Bristol, they finally qualified for the race, and raced the whole race.

It's these small improvements that bump their grade up to that D-. Their owner shows commitment, and hopefully they can make some more races now that the No. 26 is no longer locked in. However, you can't ignore the first four races for which they didn't qualify.

Robby Gordon Motorsports No. 7 - Robby Gordon, Driver
Grade: D

This is a team that's fallen off the map. RGM formed an alliance to provide cars and technical support for BAM Racing and their fully-sponsored effort by Warner Music Nashville. However, in the races for which Gordon does not have sponsorship, the BAM Racing car essentially becomes Robby Gordon's no. 7.

They were in the top-35 for most of the year last year, but simply haven't shown the chops this year. Even when not plagued by bad luck, they just haven't been fast. Their season-best 22nd at Bristol was largely due to other's bad luck.

RGM was never great in the first place, but this year has just been hard to watch. I don't know what they're missing, but everyone seems to have gotten faster except them.


Well, that's it for the go-or-go-home teams. Check back on Saturday for the report cards of the super teams.

Also, keep checking back this weekend as we go through a bit of a gear change at The Racing Tool. We'll debut our new look later this weekend.

And remember... become a fan on facebook or follow us on twitter.

-David Dubczak

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

NASCAR's First Off Weekend Really Bites

Here I am, a college student smack in the middle of Iowa. A few weeks ago, when we were first starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a long, hard winter, we had Daytona, and it was glorious.

This weekend, I have spring break. No pressure, no busyness, nothing.

Nothing. Including NASCAR.


I finally have the chance to sit down and watch a good race without having to worry about anything to do. I guess NASCAR has considered this weekend a good weekend to have NO racing action. None. Neither the Camping World Truck Series, the Nationwide Series, or the Sprint Cup Series have a race this weekend.

Is there a national holiday this weekend? No. Some sort of religious holiday? Not that I know of. Some important President's birthday? Well, Andrew Jackson's birthday is on Monday, but it's been an awful long time since I've heard of a crew member lamenting over not being home to celebrate Andrew Jackson day.

Oh wait... Daylight Savings Time begins on Sunday. What a royal pain this is. I totally understand now. No wonder NASCAR doesn't dare to stage a race this weekend. We're all better off for it, I guess.

OK, enough with that. What I want to know is why none of NASCAR's three national series are racing this weekend. Not even the K&N Pro Series can be found on SPEED.

NASCAR is trying to rebuild a fan base that has shrunk in the past few seasons. Coming off a storyline-generating race at Atlanta, where we now have feud brewing between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, thousands of excited new fans want to tune in this week and see what happens next, and...

Nothing. NASCAR better hope these fans have a good memory.

What about the Camping World Truck Series? They only race once a month for their first few races? What's up with that? It's awfully hard to build a following for a series that only races occasionally.

What will the newspapers have to print on Monday? Nothing.

How much money are tracks going to bring in this weekend? None.

Few, if any, of the NASCAR Home Tracks and their weekly racing programs are operational yet, so that's not an option. The midwest is still buried in snow. Wouldn't it be smarter to throw the Home Tracks a bone and have a completely free weekend in the middle of the summer where NASCAR can tell everyone via TV to go to their Home Track?

So, for the seriously, seriously addicted and crazed NASCAR fans, what is there to do this weekend? Nothing. I will be on vacation not doing the things I like to do on vacation.

But I'm freak.

The NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway that was in my mall closed a few years ago too. Geez.

OK, now I'm just ranting.

I hope NASCAR makes a change next year so this doesn't happen again. I see absolutely no reason for there to be absolutely no racing, from anyone, this weekend.


Other NASCAR Notes

I guess we now have a feud between Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards. I think this might have staying power because Edwards has apparently held a grudge against Keselowski for quite a while and never acted on it.

In an interview on Sunday, Edwards admitted, "Brad never gives me any room." Plus, I've never seen him intentionally spin someone out before... much less, the rookie. There's something more to this story, something that has been brewing for quite a while, to provoke such a reaction from Carl Edwards, the mild-mannered good young man from Missouri.

NASCAR clearly wants this to keep happening too, just not to that extent. The three race probation they gave him tells me they're saying, "keep doing what you're doing, just don't go overboard like that."

NASCAR once gave Tony Steward a 6-month probation for spinning out Jeff Gordon... on pit road... when the race was over. It caused mild damage, much less turn Gordon's car into an experimental aircraft.

However, on that note, I'm still waiting for that feud we all talked about between BK and Denny Hamlin...


What will you do in lieu of NASCAR this weekend? Tell us on facebook or twitter.

-David Dubczak

Monday, March 1, 2010

Vegas is NASCAR's Second Home

For the past decade or so, NASCAR has been trying to solidify a presence in the west coast. They race in Fontana, but even though that track is in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, the stands are rarely full. When NASCAR scheduled a second race in Fontana, the stands were even less full.

Then the NASCAR circus travels a three-hour drive to the northwest to Las Vegas, a mile and a half that has now had nine consecutive sellouts.

After 28 years in New York City, NASCAR moved their Champion’s Week to Vegas. The New Yorkers were like “yay, nascar.” After the city barred NASCAR from doing its signature victory lap in Times Square, they moved to Vegas, to a fan base that was more like “YAY, NASCAR!” The Champion’s Week in Vegas was a bigger event than NASCAR had been able to envision in years.

Las Vegas has some crazy NASCAR fans, and this is very good.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway also has one of the best fan experiences in the country. Racing action in Vegas started on Thursday with the World of Outlaws at the bullring behind the track, the same bullring that Kurt and Kyle Busch grew up racing at.

Fans also have access to the Neon Garage. Most garages in NASCAR are closed to fans, but Vegas built a garage that has a fan skywalk, so fans can go have a birds-eye view of what the teams are doing below them, and live entertainment throughout the day. No other facility has this. None.

Vegas is a tourist destination anyway! How many people actually live in Las Vegas? It’s just a revolving door of people and tourists. NASCAR is just another excuse for people to come to southern Nevada, stay in the plentitude of hotels, drain some money into the casinos, maybe get married, and watch the race (or perhaps get married after the race to the person you spilled your beer on. Who knows).

As an added plus, the additional banking given to Las Vegas Motor Speedway a few years ago has made the racing great! This track has some of the fastest speeds of any mile and a half, and the banking allows the cars to hold to the track in the corners, making for some fast and furious side-by-side action.

The culture of Las Vegas is closer to that of the Confederate south than any other part in the west. In the middle of the desert has arisen a city of people work hard and play hard. The sport and culture of NASCAR is ideally suited to a populace like Las Vegas.

NASCAR has tried so far to make their sport work in Fontana, but those efforts have been to no avail. Sometimes, it seems, they can't fill those stands even of they gave tickets away for free. No, NASCAR, Las Vegas is your second home.

Other NASCAR Notes

Danica Watch: It finally seemed this weekend like Danica Patrick knew what she was doing. Though still not running with the leaders, she felt confident and had her car under her the whole time.

Now, don't make a big deal out of it that she was able to go and actually race people - look, this is what racecar drivers are supposed to do! She's shown me she can drive a stock car, but is she above average? That remains to be seen. My guess is, probably not.

But, I still think her story line is fun to follow. Welcome to NASCAR, Danica.


Jeff Gordon: Last season, I made the prediction that he is close to retirement, especially if his back problems persist. Turns out, I was wrong. It was announced this week that Jeff Gordon plans on racing for at least another 5-6 years.

This story is yet more ammunition to show that racecar drivers are, in fact, athletes. At the very least, they have to be in good shape to drive at the elite levels. Gordon has been plagued the past few years by persistent back pain. Last season, he began a stretching routine that helped alleviate it. This season, however, he's undergone an intense workout regimen that owner Rick Hendrick says will have him in better shape and more competitive than ever.

Do you have to be in shape to drive a car? No. Do you have to be in shape to be competitive at the end of the NASCAR marathons? Yes. These cars are hard to drive, and drivers work best when they can focus on the car and the track, not on how tired they are or how much their back hurts.

Jeff Gordon wants his fifth championship with a fire I've never seen before in a competitor. He's realized that little, if any, of what helped him be so dominant in the late 1990's is going to work today. Since he won his last championship in 2001, the whole ballgame has changed. Jeff Gordon is remaking himself as a new driver.

He's said himself: not having won a championship under the Sprint Cup Chase format is like not having won a championship at all. He would give up all four of his old-format Winston Cups to win just one Sprint Cup.

Add that to the fact that Jimmie Johnson, the driver he hired and mentored, has turned out to be the only one who can beat him on many an occasion... the Gordon-Johnson battles are sometimes the best ones to watch.


Finally, congrats to the USA Bobsled Team, using Bo-Dyn sleds designed in part by NASCAR Driver Geoff Bodine. More on this later this week.

And remember - fan us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter

-David Dubczak

Monday, February 15, 2010

Petty, Earnhardt, Allison, Pearson... and McMurray. Will it Stick?

After battling a crumbling track and the most fiercely competitive Daytona 500 field in recent memory, the race came down to double overdrive. On the final lap, three drivers pulled ahead of a pack that was nearly overflowing the racing surface. Fifty-four drivers showed up at Daytona, and only one of them would cross that line first.

Jamie McMurray shed tears of joy in hallowed ground after rolling his Chevy into Daytona's Victory Circle – the same hallowed ground Earnhardt finally got to enjoy after 20 years of trying, King Richard visited seven times, and Pearson visited in his battered Mercury.

McMurray himself was battered. When he won in his second race, the NASCAR world expected the future of Chip Ganassi's young star to parallel that of Jeff Gordon.

It would not. He would not win for Ganassi again.

Four years later, he joined Roush-Fenway Racing. Here, it was thought, McMurray would have the tools and resources to truly shine. Roush produced champions and some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR - Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, among others. McMurray was supposed to be the next one.

He was not. In four years, he won twice.

At the end of 2009, Roush's five-car team was forced to downsize to four cars. They tried to find another car for McMurray, but were unable to, especially after having to use his sponsor to fill their own sponsorship gaps.

As the end of 2009 drew near, McMurray had few options. NASCAR Sprint Cup racing had too many drivers and not enough teams. One prospect opened up: he could go back to Chip Ganassi, now a part of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, and drive the no. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy.

But could he?

Bass Pro Shops didn't even want him. His image didn't fit the outdoorsman qualities they were looking for, and his results didn't warrant them turning a blind eye. Chip believed in him, but more successful drivers were also shopping around.

Fortunately, Chip Ganassi's word in the racing world is taken for gold. He was able to get Bass Pro Shops to take a chance on McMurray. It paid off right away.

As he exited his car in victory lane, the emotions of the past few years finally lifted off him, and it was more than he - or perhaps any man - could take. Tears of joy flowed as he simply couldn't contain everything this race means.

And, when he looks at his own Harvey J. Earl trophy, he will see the names of Richard Petty, Dale Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon... and Jamie McMurray.

But will his success continue?

Who knows. No matter what anyone tries to tell you... no one knows. After 2008, we knew Carl Edwards was going to win a lot of races in 2009. We knew Kyle Busch would make the chase. Even in McMurray's case, after his first win in 2002, we knew he would have a great career ahead of him.

We can try to predict, but we honestly can't. Especially in McMurray's case, where we happen to have a great track record of wrong predictions. No one expected him to win the Daytona 500, especially in his first race with a Ganassi organization vastly different than the one he left in 2005. Nonetheless, I'll try...

He'll probably have a decent year - he's never been bad, just not as good as we thought. But, he could still surprise us. His confidence probably hasn't been all that great the past few years, and there's nothing better than winning the biggest race of them all right out of the box with a brand new team to rejuvenate you. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing definitely has the equipment to support him.

Other Daytona Surprises

The Track

Well, um, the track started falling apart.

Opinions are evenly split over whether or not to repave Daytona. Some say it's necessary and will produce great racing, others say Daytona already produces great racing and repaving it will reduce its uniqueness.

I say repave it. It's going to have to be done eventually; it's been 31 years since Daytona's last fresh coat of asphalt - your highways get repaved more often than that. Talladega was repaved just a few years ago, and it still produces great racing. Daytona's racing will be different for sure... but the bumps will be back, the track will weather, and through the whole process it will still have great racing.


A.J. Allmendinger's good run was a surprise as well until it ended prematurely. I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about Calls I Blew in 2009, and A.J. was one of them - I hope I'm not jinxing him by hoping he and the no. 43 have a good year.

The Truck Race

I'm pretty sure NASCAR needs to show a replay of SPEED's broadcast of the Camping World Truck Series race as it's drivers meeting for next year's Daytona race, and perhaps even this fall's Talladega race. Don't just show clips of it as part of the meeting... make the replay the meeting.

The NASCAR officials warned the drivers that bump-drafting - while technically legal - was not such a good idea, that it was really not a good idea... that bump-drafting could result in mass chaos and destruction.

Get the picture?

Yet, the drivers did it anyway. About halfway through the race, I pretty much figured the race would be decided by process of elimination. Bump-drafting works in the Sprint Cup Series, but not in the Camping World Truck Series.


Through all of this, we saw just how simply great Daytona racing is. And, you know what? After nearly three months of waiting... racing is back.

What do you think? Was the racing better than it was in a long time? Should the track be repaved? Sound off in the comments.

The Racing Tool will be with you now through November, and beyond. Check back often. Let's build a community too - become a fan on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter!

-David Dubczak

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Your Short Track on Steroids: The Gatorade Duels 2010

The last-chance transfer race is a staple of weekly short-tracks across America. The drivers not already qualified for the feature race have one last shot at making it: finish well in the last-chance race.

Last-chance races are exciting – many drivers battling it out for those precious few spots. The prevailing mentality: I don’t care what happens to everyone else, as long as I get that spot.

Folks, today’s Gatorade Duels at Daytona are those last-chance races on an epic scale. The Daytona 500 is the biggest of them all. 39 drivers are locked in no matter where they finish in the Duels. These twin 150-mile races will allow two, and only two drivers each race to transfer. For the fifteen hopefuls, it will be the longest 150 miles of their lives.

Four spots remain. Remember, two drivers from each of these races will race in. Below is a list of the drivers playing roulette on Thursday:

Race 1:
Michael Waltrip
Reed Sorenson
Max Papis
Jeff Fuller
Terry Cook
Michael McDowell
Kirk Shelmerdine

Race 2:
Mike Bliss
Casey Mears
David Gilliland
Aric Almirola
Dave Blaney
Derrike Cope
Mike Wallace
Norm Benning

Good luck to them – they’ll need it.

Unfortunately for Waltrip and Papis, their locked-in teammates are not in the same Duel and are thus unable to help them. They will need to help each other. However, Waltrip, though he is a speedway ace, is somewhat accident prone, and Papis has yet to prove himself as a good speedway racer.

But, do you remember in 2008, when Dale Jarrett was on the verge of missing his last Daytona 500? Veterans of all teams were lining up behind him to push him into that last transfer spot – Jarrett had earned so much respect from them over his career that they were not about to let him miss his last Daytona 500. Perhaps the same might be true for Waltrip.

David Gilliland has a pseudo-teammate in Robby Gordon in Duel 2 with him. Robby is locked in and has a monetary interest in helping Gilliland make the show himself.

Mike Bliss and Casey Mears both have Earnhardt-Childress engines, so they might team up initially. However, when it comes down to one spot and two cars going for it, it’s every man for himself.

What Else Is Happening?

Starting position has never been too important at Daytona. Yes, it helps, but the draft helps drivers overcome bad starting positions. Many drivers even purposely race in the back for most of the day, then charge to the front with 50 or so laps to go.

So, don’t expect your 39 locked-in drivers to take too many chances, especially Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who are both locked into the front row no matter where they finish (unless they crash and need to use a backup car).

Chances are, unless these drivers are helping a teammate, they will lay back and let the go-or-go-home drivers duke it out amongst themselves. Finishing well and starting the 500 up front is important… but finishing unscathed is even more important.

The Duels will also function as test sessions. NASCAR made several changes to the car and engine package over the last few weeks, and few have really figured it all out. Drivers and teams will be experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, both on the track and in the suspension.

The 2010 Gatorade Duels at Daytona will definitely be a race to watch, and are often the most dramatic of Speedweeks. If you can’t watch it live, set your DVR. You won’t want to miss these.

-David Dubczak

Hold On Folks! Danica’s Not There Yet.

I can’t say I’m sick of Danica-mania. She is trying to forge a stock car career in exactly the right way. She didn’t come in with a sense of entitlement, “I’m a good driver in other places, so I deserve to be here” (Scott Speed), nor does she think she can just jump right to the top of NASCAR (Dario Franchitti). She realizes she has a long road in front of her, and she is slowly climbing to the top.

She did a mighty fine job in the ARCA race on Saturday. She was timid at the beginning, but you saw her getting slowly better as the 80 laps wore on. Though not quite comfortable following other cars too closely, she gave Ricky Carmichael a run for his money, trading paint coming to the checkered flag.

Media pundits declared that she had proven herself as a stock car driver, that she had proven wrong all the haters. Tony Eury Sr., a legend in the NASCAR garage and part owner of JR Motorsports, for which Danica drove, declared her ready for the Nationwide Series race at Daytona (reversing a decision he had made weeks before).

Alright now, hold on folks. Yes, she was impressive. Her spin through the infield demonstrated she has car control, something Darrell Waltrip said, “you either have it or you don’t.” But, driving in an 80-lap ARCA race (for which, 36 laps were caution laps) doesn’t make anyone an ace, no matter how much talent lies underneath.

Chances are, when she gets to California, Danica will still struggle initially. Then, what happens when the Nationwide Series goes to Dover? In all her races, especially with limited practice and even further limited testing, she will have a tough time getting her mojo on until half-way through the race, if that.

Now, I’m not a “hater.” I think she’ll succeed in the long run. But, these things take time. She’s already been given the gift of time, patience, and sponsorship money. She will need it.

She may do fine in the Nationwide race at Daytona. That race will be packed to the brim with Cup drivers, and she probably learn even more than she did in the ARCA race. The drivers will know how to handle her better and she’ll get far more green flag laps.

But, when she gets to California… that track is an entirely different animal. She will have to nearly start over.

Nonetheless, she will do fine in the long run. Just don’t think she’s made it yet.
-David Dubczak

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Calls I Blew in 2009

Before the start of any season, everyone makes predictions, taking into account everything that’s new, in order to try and make sense of what might be to come. Though my crystal ball is usually spot on, it had a little bit of an oil leak or something that fogged up a few calls for 2009. Here are three in particular.

1. Matt Kenseth and Drew Blickensderfer

Kenseth and new chew chief Blickensderfer surprised everyone by winning their first two outings together, the Daytona 500 and the next race at Auto Club Speedway in California.

Following California, I wrote a column for my college newspaper, “Out of the Dust, A Star is Born.” It appeared as though these two had instant chemistry, something so valuable, yet so hard to find in Sprint Cup racing, that often is the X-factor between successful teams and unsuccessful teams.

“Blick” had a habit of doing big things out of the box as well. In 2008, he became Carl Edwards’ Nationwide crew chief midseason, beginning at Milwaukee. Drew and Carl met for the first time 30 minutes before the green flag dropped, and won the race.

Unfortunately, their success was not meant to be. With engine problems, they finished last in the season’s third race in Las Vegas, and never regained their composure. By the all-important fall race in Richmond, they fell out of the Chase.

But, if you look at it this way, I didn’t totally blow this call: the whole Roush-Fenway fleet had a terrible year, and Kenseth was often one of the best performing Roush cars at the track. If Roush-Fenway Racing had not fallen off the box as a whole in 2009, this point might not be in this article now.

2. Johnny Benson and Red Horse Racing

After winning the Truck Series championship with Johnny Benson in 2008, Bill Davis Racing closed their operation due to lack of sponsorship, leaving the defending champion without a ride for 2009.

Fortunately, long-time Truck Series team Red Horse Racing came to his rescue, hiring Benson, most of the Bill Davis crew, and purchased some of the Bill Davis fleet. Red Horse Racing had always been a solid team, though never a great team. Now that they essentially had all the pieces of Benson’s championship team, it appeared RHR would become a powerhouse.

Not so. After just a few races, still lacking a sponsor, RHR released Benson, replacing him with Timothy Peters, who had a sponsor in A short time afterwards, Benson suffered injuries in a late model race that would keep him off the track for the rest of the year.

Peters had some good runs with RHR, including a win at Martinsville, the team's first since 2005. I do think, however, with Benson’s experience and his crew, if he had been able to bring in some money, he would have run better with Red Horse Racing. But, we’ll never know.

3. A.J. Allmendinger

When A.J. Allmendinger first began in the Sprint Cup Series in 2007 with Team Red Bull, he was clearly a fish out of water. It isn’t inappropriate to say he had the worst entry into NASCAR… ever. Not knowing the terminology, he couldn’t even tell the team if the car was tight or loose.

After suffering through 2007, Team Red Bull called in veteran Mike Skinner to help him out and mentor him. In 2008, after taking the reigns back from Skinner, he began to show signs of slow improvement. He had some promising runs toward the end of 2008 season, but was suddenly released. Fortunately, he found a new home at Gillette-Evernham Motorsports, and had some career runs.

In 2009, after GEM became Richard Petty Motorsports, many, myself included, expected big things from Allmendinger. He was quickly taken under the wings of The King, and began 2009 on the cusp of the Chase. I even picked Allmendinger in my fantasy league once.

However, as 2009 went on, he would finish 15 races 25th or worse. Though Allmendinger was showing promise as a NASCAR driver and was really becoming a strong driver in a stock car, Richard Petty Motorsports proved not to have the chops to support an increase in performance. He even had to race for part of the season without a salary while RPM was mired in financial struggles.

With their switch to Ford in 2010, maybe they’ll be better. We’ll see.

-David Dubczak

Monday, January 25, 2010

What I'm Excited for in 2010

I think I’m more excited about the 2010 NASCAR season than I have been for any other season since Nextel came aboard. NASCAR has announced several new rule changes, new teams are appearing, and new team combinations all came about through the winter that should add up to one doozie of a season in 2010. So, here’s what has me most excited for in the upcoming season:

1. Truex/Tryson/Waltrip

You know, I’ve been a Michael Waltrip fan for years. I was excited when his what seemed ill-fated team began to turn around in 2009, save for Waltrip himself. When Reutimann and Ambrose were running in the top-15 and Waltip was in the 30’s, it was sad to watch. When part-time self-funded rookie Dexter Bean was turning faster practice laps than Waltrip at one race in particular, you knew something was up.

Waltrip said he would hang up his helmet in 2010 if he didn’t perform better in 2009. By mid season, he realized he would need to hire a replacement.

That replacement came in the form of Earnhardt-Ganassi racing’s Martin Truex Jr this summer. By the end of the season, Penske’s top crew chief Pat Tryson decided to move to MWR as well. In 2010, Truex and Tryson will be paired together.

If MWR continues to climp up the slope, look for some big things from the NAPA Toyota.

2. Denny Hamlin

Despite the recent news that Denny Hamlin, driver of the no. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing tore his ACL playing basketball, he is regarded by many as the driver with the best shot at interrupting Jimmie Johnson’s drive toward a fifth straight championship.

Hamlin has the right equipment, and things certainly seem to be clicking with crew chief Mike Ford. They handedly made the Chase, and were in contention to win many of the Chase races.

The reason Hamlin isn’t the 2009 champion might just be because Johnson somehow figured out how do divert all of the crappy stuff that might happen to him over to Hamlin. If not for three DNF’s caused by just rotten luck in the 2009 Chase, his stats beat Jimmie Johnson.

So, if Hamlin’s knee holds up and he can figure out how to avoid all that freaky crap, Hamlin has a fair shot at winning the 2010 championship.

3. The Ford teams

In 2009, Ford had one of their worst years ever. With only 7 cars – Roush-Fenway’s 5 and Yates’ 2 (occasionally, the Wood Brothers’ single entry) – they won the first two races of the season with Matt Kenseth, but then went winless until Talladega in October, much to the ire of those involved in the “We race, you win” sweepstakes, where Ford gave away a 2010 Fusion every time a Ford driver won a cup race.

In 2010, Ford has Roush, the Wood Brothers, the newly converted Richard Petty Motorsports, and the newly Ford-backed Front Row Motorsports.

What separates the Ford teams from the Chevrolet teams, however, is the way these Ford Teams are working together. Roush-Fenway seems almost like the central clearing house for data ¬– Petty, Front Row, and Wood Brothers all get Roush chassis support, and will all feed data into that system as well. On top of that, all these Ford teams will be running Roush-Yates engines.

Speaking of engines, Ford is beginning to introduce a new engine in 2010 as well. The new FR9 engine is Ford’s first purpose-built NASCAR engine, and is a badly needed update to their old design.

At times last year, it seemed as though the Ford cars were handling as good, if not better, than many other teams in the turns, but got killed on the straights with their old engine. When the FR9 is fully rolled out, expect the Ford teams to be serious challengers once again.

4. NASCAR’s loose approach

Finally, NASCAR has begun to loosen up on the drivers. No longer are they restricted from bump-drafting in the turns at Daytona and Talladega, no longer will they be penalized for a little rough-housing. NASCAR is finally letting the drivers go back to bumping and grinding, the way NASCAR started, and the way NASCAR is meant to be.

These are four reasons why the 2010 NASCAR season has me more excited than ever. Were within spitting distance of Daytona now…

What are you excited about?
-David Dubczak

Monday, January 18, 2010

“What If?” Part III: What if we still called it the Winston Cup?

For 30 years, NASCAR’s elite division was the Winston Cup Series because if its title sponsor, Winston cigarettes. In those 30 years, NASCAR grew from a hick southern sport to a national monstrosity with a national TV deal, whose drivers were household names.

In 1973, Winston was a perfect fit for NASCAR. It was a sport spawned in the south, where every other person had some ancestor who made money as a tobacco farmer. Really, it was the marketing gurus in the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company who helped expand NASCAR outside of the Confederate states.

However, in 2003, hit with an onslaught of lawsuits and anti-tobacco legislation, RJR came to the realization they could no longer continue as NASCAR’s title sponsor, and the three-decade relationship that created the Winston Cup Series had to come to an end.

In 2004, NEXTEL bought the naming rights, and ushered in a new era in NASCAR – the NEXTEL Cup Series. When Sprint merged with NEXTEL, the series was renamed the Sprint Cup Series.

Today, in 2010, the Sprint Cup Series is vastly different than the old Winston Cup. The TV has a different presence, the championship structure is different, the track has a different atmosphere.

But, let’s travel back to 2003 and play like Winston never left. How would NASCAR be different? Would we still have the Chase?

One of the biggest differences would be NASCAR’s flashiness, or lack thereof. Sprint/NEXTEL made NASCAR more flashy. The Sprint Yellow wall at the All-Star Race, the fireworks, huge driver intro stage would not exist. Post-Winston, NASCAR became a spectacle it never was with Winston.

In 2003, the race track was draped in Winston Red. In 2004, fans and competitors came in to a sea of NEXTEL Yellow – much more NEXTEL Yellow than there ever was of Winston Red.

The famed “monster car” of the TV commercials would be non-existent (heck, Winston was barred by law from even running commercials).

The Sprint Fan Zone at the track had a rough equivalent with Winston, but visitors had to be 18 and present a pack of cigarettes to get in, only to get Winstons in return. Today, families and kids hoard in to enjoy Sprint’s one-of-a-kind fan experience.

Arguably one of the biggest questions surrounding the matter, however, is the Chase. Would the Chase still be around if Winston had never left?


The Chase, a 10-race play-off of sorts, was NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s project. He was looking for a way to add excitement late in the season to try and compete with the NFL in TV ratings.

Whether or not Winston left at the end of 2003, the Chase was destined to come. The arrival of NEXTEL presented a perfect opportunity to introduce the Chase.

NEXTEL/Sprint helped make NASCAR more family-friendly. When I was in fifth grade, I went to school on Halloween dressed as a flagman (yes, I really did). Imagine the ire of my teacher when I walked into elementary school splashed with Winston logos. I’m lucky they didn’t have the heart to make me change clothes.

NASCAR and company couldn’t put the Winston Cup logo on any children’s clothing. Die-cast cars made for kids, instead of the Winston Cup contingency decal, simply said NASCAR Racing Series.

In video games, on the walls of the tracks, where the Winston Cup logo normally donned, was NASCAR Racing Series (though still in Winston Red).

Without NEXTEL/Sprint, things would still be this way.

NEXTEL/Sprint helped make NASCAR more flashy and family-friendly. It helped propel NASCAR into the 21st century in a way that Winston never could. Overall, the change in title sponsor was a good one.

Other NASCAR Notes

I just have write a bit of commentary about the upcoming switch back to a rear spoiler instead of the current wing.

I do hope this will improve competition – it’s a boost NASCAR needs, but I’m not sure it will.

One of the biggest advantages of the wing is the side plates on either end that provide the cars with tremendous side force. When a car got sideways, the side force would catch it and help the driver straighten out. This helped drivers push the cars harder.

On top of that, NASCAR announced they would make the change, and begin wind-tunnel testing it shortly. This means they decided to make the change before they did any testing. I’m not so sure that’s a smart idea.

However, Michael Waltrip’s suggestion that this spoiler be made of transparent lexan for vision purposes instead of metal is a good idea NASCAR would do well to heed. Various stock-car series, including the ASA series and many Whelen All-American series tracks already do this.

I’m not sure whether a spoiler instead of a wing will improve the racing. I am sure the drivers will end up missing the side force.

-David Dubczak

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

“What If?” Part II: What if Joe Gibbs Racing Stayed with GM?

It could have happened. Joe Gibbs Racing had been with General Motors since they started, first with Chevrolet, then with Pontiac, then back with Chevrolet. Driver Tony Stewart had a long personal association with GM.

Furthermore, Toyota’s initial foray into NASCAR racing in 2007 was dismal – their array of startup and third-tier teams struggled to even qualify for races, much less run competitively. Toyota once even confiscated driver Michael Waltrip’s car to analyze it and see why it was running so slow.

However, Gibbs realized he would never be one of the top teams at GM – Hendrick and Childress would always be ahead of him. So, he took a chance, and moved his team to Toyota in 2008. They surprised everyone when they were successful, perhaps even more so than with GM.

What if Gibbs had not switched to Toyota? Toyota, and their teams, would be gone. Michael Waltrip Racing? Gone. Red Bull Racing? Gone. Bill Davis Racing? With or without Gibbs, they’re gone anyway.

You see, Gibbs proved to Toyota that money is not a replacement for experience. When Toyota came in, they loaded their teams with cash – all the Toyota teams were practically factory teams. They had everything they needed.

Except experience.

When Gibbs began running Toyotas, they could share bits of information that helped improve all the teams, from chassis to engines. They couldn’t keep this information to themselves because, for their sake, they needed the rest of the Toyota teams to run better as well, else Toyota might pull out of the sport entirely and leave Gibbs hung out to dry yet again.

What about the Nationwide Series? Before Toyota, JGR was a respectable Nationwide team, winning every once in a while just like everyone else. But something happened after they switched to Toyota. All of the sudden, they absolutely dominate.

In 2008, JGR drivers won 20 of 35 races, including an impressive 8 in a row. In 2009, their success continued, winning of 35 races. NASCAR instituted several rule changes, most suspected created specifically to slow Gibbs and the Toyotas.

Without Toyota, the face of the Nationwide Series would be vastly different.

And now, in 2010, many (including The Racing Tool) consider Joe Gibbs Racing and Denny Hamlin to be the team with the best shot at unseating Jimmie Johnson from the championship berth he has sat in for four years now.

When Toyota began preparing for a Sprint Cup effort in 2007, the long-established NASCAR teams began freaking out at what Toyota might do because of all the money the manufacturer was pouring into the effort.

Then, they showed up at Daytona in 2007 with an epic dive off a cliff. Joe Gibbs Racing saved Toyota’s effort. Without Gibbs, things would look different today.

-David Dubczak

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“What If?” Part I: What If Dale Earnhardt Had Not Died?

The replay is infamous, the scene now permanently etched into the memories of NASCAR fans young and old from coast to coast. NASCAR President Mike Helton’s words, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt” still seem eerie nine years later.

February 18th, 2001 was the day Dale Earnhardt went from being a star to a legend and a folk hero when he died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest race at a track he had mastered.

These next few weeks, The Racing Tool will be exploring some of NASCAR’s “What If’s?” beginning with the death of Dale Earnhardt, wondering what would be different if The Intimidator was still around.

The biggest result to come out of his death was an advance in safety. The head restraints, seat designs, helmet designs, SAFER barrier, and eventually the COT were advances all prompted by the death of NASCAR’s biggest star in order to prevent it from happening to someone else.

Without Dale’s untimely demise, would these advances still have happened?

In part, yes.

First of all, the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier began development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1998. While it was sponsored by the Indy Racing League and not NASCAR, track owners across the country would have eventually seen the sense in installing them, though maybe not quite as rapidly as they actually did.

The trickier part to predict would be the head restraints and the COT. Let’s start with the head restraints.

Before Earnhardt’s death, a few drivers used a head restraint, such as the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device. But, using an old fashioned low-backed seat sans HANS device and an open-faced helmet were symbols of machismo – drivers trying to show how tough they were; this was NASCAR after all, not the girly-men Indy Racing League. Drivers taking these safety precautions were largely chided.

The Car of Tomorrow (COT) was first track-tested in 2005, first raced in 2007, and adopted full-time in 2008 and was a project directly related to overhauling the old car in the name of safety. It had a wider and taller greenhouse (or cockpit), repositioned fuel and oil lines to prevent fires getting to the driver, foam in the door panels, and moved the drivers seat closer to the center, all in an attempt to keep the impact energy away from the driver.

So, would these advances have taken place as fast, if at all, without the death of Dale Earnhardt?

Eventually, yes, because someone else would have died.

In the year prior to 2001, NASCAR lost three up-and-coming stars: Truck Series driver Tony Roper, Nationwide Series and soon-to-be Cup Rookie Adam Petty, and Cup Series driver Kenny Irwin.

All three drivers died in a similar impact and a similar injury to Earnhardt: a basilar skull fracture.

The 2000 season took three drivers from us. The first race of the 2001 season took Earnhardt. Who was next?

The death of three relatively little-known drivers wasn’t enough to have a big push for safety; it took the death of Dale Earnhardt. If not him, it would have been someone else.

Dale Jarrett? Rusty Wallace? Ricky Rudd? Bill Elliott? All four were popular veterans known for their old-school antics – and driver safety equipment – much like Earnhardt.

Even with a HANS device, driver Jerry Nadeau suffered a career-ending injury at Richmond in 2003. Had it not been for that HANS device, Nadeau may have been the next one to be taken from us.

These safety advances would have happened eventually. Fortunately, no driver in NASCAR’s top three national series has died since that fateful February day in 2001.

Now, aside from safety…

In 2010, Earnhardt would almost certainly be retired. He died a month short of his 50th birthday. What might he be doing today?

He would still be running his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and it might still be a powerhouse.

He might even be broadcasting – Darrell Waltrip is pretty much a lock with FOX, but Dale’s personality was a near perfect fit for a broadcasting position, perhaps with ESPN or TNT.

And, in 2010, though he might have been retired, Dale Earnhardt would almost certainly still be the sport’s leading man.

-David Dubczak.