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.