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