Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Wrath of Danica and Answers to Other 2012 Questions

Regan Smith was among those to feel the wrath of Danica
Before the start of the NASCAR season I put forth 12 questions for 2012.  Time to close out the year with the answers.
Carl's Turn?  Nope, not even close.  Before the year started I said Ford was the make to beat and Carl Edwards was the Ford to beat.  Hardly.  Not only didn’t he win a race, he didn’t even make The Chase.  While both his Roush teammates were competitive, Edwards finished 15th in points. 
Is this the year for Penske Racing?  “Very possibly,” I wrote.  “(Brad) Keselowski could win a bunch of races.”  I also thought it was going to be a big year for A. J. Allmendinger.  Well 50/50 is not bad. Especially when it includes the Cup champion.
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?  “Team owner Rick Hendrick says he wants all four drivers to make the Chase.  Ain’t gonna happen,” I wrote.  100 percent wrong this time.  During the season I also asked if Junior would ever win again -- the week before he won at Michigan.  Sorry.
Can Tony Stewart re-create the magic? Too many distractions I wrote, would leave Stewart on the onside looking in.  No repeat, but Stewart came closer than I expected.
Is Joe Gibbs Racing still one of NASCAR’s elite teams? Hmmmm.  Just one of three cars made The Chase, and Denny Hamlin faded again.  By the end of the year, JGR wasn't even the best Toyota team (see next question). 
Make-it or break-it year for Michael Waltrip Racing?  Interesting to see how this all comes together – or if it all comes together,” I wrote at the start of the year.  Well it came together better than anyone could have imagined.
Any life left at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing? Apparently not.  2011 was a disaster according to Juan Pablo Montoya and 2012 wasn't any better.  The team’s lone highlight came when Montoya drilled a jet dryer in the first race of the season.  The team is on the verge of becoming irrelevant.
Happy Harvick? Apparently not, given that he’s leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of the 2013 for Stewart/Haas.  “Will be interesting to see how the team and Harvick react,” I wrote at the start of 2012.  Ditto for 2013.
Can NASCAR survive all-Danica all the time? NASCAR survived and even got a boost from Danica's first full season.  I’m not sure about Cole Whitt, Sam Hornish, Regan Smith, Landon Cassill and Tony Eury, Jr., all of whom felt the wrath of Danica during the season.  "Danica, The Sequel," opens in February. 

What becomes of Bayne and Stenhouse? “Two of NASCAR’s brightest young stars,” I wrote at the start of the year and they remain that way.  Stenhouse won another Nationwide championship and is making the jump to Cup to replace Matt Kenseth.  Bayne moves into Stenhouse’s Nationwide ride along with a partial season for the Wood Brothers.

Is the Pack Back? The Pack was back at Daytona and Talladega, and so was the Big One, unfortunately.  Now we have to wait and see how the new 2013 cars react to pack racing and bump drafting.

How big of an impact will EFI have this year? A non-issue.  I thought it would have a much larger impact.  Doesn’t deserve a mention as we head into 2013.

There will be a host of new questions for 2013.  In the meantime, Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

See you next year.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Charlotte Test Featured New Cars, Drivers and Teammates

Keselowski in the new Penske Ford at Charlotte
NASCAR teams were back on the track this week, testing their new 2013 cars at Charlotte.  Not only are they still getting familiar with the new cars, several teams were making their first laps with new drivers and several drivers were working with new teammates.  The reigning championship team, Penske Racing, was even working with a new manufacturer. 

In stark contrast to when the Car of Tomorrow first hit the track to the derision of nearly everyone who didn’t receive their paycheck from NASCAR, most seemed to singing from the same hymnal at the conclusion of the Charlotte tests.  After some grumbling early in the year following initial tests of the new cars, most everyone now agrees the cars are a big improvement – beginning with the way they look.

"The cars that you see in the garage; you’ll stand there and see Fords and Toyotas and Chevrolets driving by,” said Dale Earnhardt. “It’s great because everything looks different, everything is instantly recognizable.”

“I think we now have three makes out here that my little boy at nine-years old can tell the difference between,” said Steve Letarte, crew chief on the 24 car who had Regan Smith filling in for Jeff Gordon during the test.  “I think that is the goal – that anybody can walk through the parking lot and see a Chevy, a Ford and a Toyota and know that they are different. That’s really what it comes down to – if you’re into racing you want to watch cool cars go around the track. I think the simple fact is in 2013 we have cooler cars.”

Kasey Kahne turned in the fastest time of the practice sessions, which were cut short by rain.

"It felt fast and I knew where my throttle was, so I knew it was as fast as I have ever been around this track” Kahne said.  “I just think this car goes around the corner quicker.”

Matt Kenseth was making his first laps in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.  It will be interesting to see how Kenseth fits in with JGR.  Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin had been rather vocal about the lack of input the inexperienced Logano provided at team meetings, claiming JGR was basically a two-car team.  Kenseth is certainly more experienced, but pretty quiet.  He’s also had his share of run-ins with teammates, most notably Carl Edwards.  Other than a missed shift that forced an engine change during the Charlotte tests, things went well for Kenseth, posting the second fast time overall.  Hamlin, however, hit the wall when something broke in the front end, causing enough damage to end his test prematurely.

New Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano
Logano’s supposed lack of input shouldn't be a problem at his new team, Penske Racing.  As we’ve seen, Brad Keselowski likes to make many of the calls regarding car setup and pit strategy himself.  Making their first laps together as teammates and in the new Penske Fords, Keselowski and Logano posted near identical times at Charlotte.

“It’s really cool to have a teammate that’s a student of the sport, who really studies it and will push me to do things differently,” Logano said.  “I think the coolest thing that Brad is able to do is he’s able to think outside of the box – like way outside the box.”

For his part, Keselowski, who played an important role in bringing Logano to Penske, had nothing but nice things to say about his new teammate.

“I think that Joey is an elite talent in this sport and if we can work together, that we will both be better,” he said.  “I would rather finish second to him next year in every race -- and even the championship -- than to rest on my laurels, not get any better and the whole field does, and run fifth, 10th, 15th, 17th – whatever it might be – and beat him.  I think it's that spirit that is gonna drive us to be the best we can.”

The teams now have nearly a month off from official testing over the holidays, before open testing resumes at Daytona, Jan. 10-12.  In the meantime, many teams will continue to test at tracks not on the NASCAR schedule.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Who's To Blame For Indy, Charlotte Conflict?

Donnie Allison had best results running 
Indy/Charlotte double -- but on different days
When Tony Stewart announced his decision last week to decline Roger Penske’s offer of a ride in the Indy 500, a chorus of boos rained down on him from an otherwise friendly crowd.

But the boos and criticism of Stewart were misguided.  It’s not Stewart’s fault he won’t race at Indianapolis. 

So who’s to blame?  The government – of course.

For more than 60 years the Indianapolis 500 was always held on Memorial Day, May 30, no matter what day of the week it fell on – except if it fell on a Sunday.  Then it was held on Saturday or Monday. 

When the current Charlotte Motor Speedway opened for operation in 1960, its May race was scheduled for the Sunday before Memorial Day.  As a result there was never a direct conflict. 

During those years a couple of NASCAR drivers gave Indy a try.  Curtis Turner, after being banned for life by NASCAR for his unionizing activities in 1961 and struggling financially (he was later reinstated by NASCAR in 1965), talked Smokey Yunick into letting him drive Yunick’s Indy car in 1962.  Yunick was not only a leading NASCAR builder; he entered the Indy 500 nearly every year and was the winning crew chief on the 1960 car.  But Turner crashed the car in practice and did the same thing ’63, wrecking so badly Yunick vowed he’d never let Turner drive an Indy car again for fear he’d kill himself. In 1963 Junior Johnson also showed up at the track in a roadster with a complete roll cage, something not typically seen on Indy cars.  He practiced in the car but elected not to attempt to qualify. 

It wasn’t until 1965 that Bobby Johns, a NASCAR regular with a couple of Cup wins under his belt, qualified for the 500.  He’d also tested – and crashed – Yunick’s unique sidecar racer while attempting to qualify for the ’64 race.  But in ’65, thanks to his Firestone and Ford connections, he found himself in the Lotus team car to eventual winner Jimmy Clark.  Johns skipped Charlotte to focus on Indianapolis, where he finished sixth.  The Wood Brothers worked the pits for the Lotus team on race day and were one of the reasons Clark was able to coast to victory.

Cale Yarborough decided to run at Indy in ’66, but was forced to skip Charlotte when he had to qualify on the second weekend at Indy, a direct conflict with the 600.  The following year Cale became the first driver to run both races, finishing 41st at Charlotte on Sunday and 17th at Indy on Tuesday.  Lee Roy Yarbrough also raced at Indianapolis that year, but had elected to skip the Charlotte race.

In ’68, Jerry Grant, who passed recently away and was primarily a road racer at the time, became the second driver to run both Charlotte and Indy.  In ’69 Yarbrough ran both, winning the Charlotte race in the process.

The most successful of all the drivers running both races was Donnie Allison, who drove for A. J. Foyt despite being a “taxi cab” driver according to Foyt.  Allison who won Charlotte in 1970 on Sunday and then finished fourth at Indy.  He was impressive again the next year, finishing sixth at Indy on Saturday and second at Charlotte the next day.

Just when things were starting to get interesting, the government stepped in and screwed it up, passing the Uniform Holiday Act in 1971, moving the celebration of most holidays to Monday so workers could have a three-day weekend.  Memorial Day would be celebrated on the last Monday of the May.  Charlotte continued to run on the Sunday before Memorial Day while the 500 was moved to Monday. 

Cale Yarborough ran at Indy in ’72 and Bobby Allison tried his hand at the Speedway in ’73, both electing to skip the 600 the day before. 

In 1974 the Indianapolis 500 was moved to Sunday for the first time.  Fans had requested the move, wanting to use Monday as a travel day.  It’s an indication of the status of the two races at the time that USAC didn’t give much thought to the conflict with Charlotte. Now the Speedway was willing to change the starting time of the race to get Stewart back.

Bobby Allison ran at Indy again in ’75, skipping Charlotte.  The Alabama Gang must have had a special attraction for Indy as Neil Bonnett was ready to bypass Charlotte and run the 500 in ’79 but car troubles got in the way.  Then nothing. 

It wasn’t until 1993 when Charlotte moved its race to Sunday night that the possibility of running both races returned.  John Andretti was the first to run both races in one day ‘94, followed by Robby Gordon and Stewart.  Stewart had the most success, becoming the only driver to run all 1,100 miles in 2001.

In search of improved TV ratings, Indy moved its starting time later in the day for 2005, effectively eliminating any possible hope of a driver running in both races.   Last year the time was moved back to a 12 noon start in hopes of attracting someone to run the double, but no one stepped forward.   

Now that Stewart has turned down Penske, it’s unlikely anyone will attempt the double this year. 

But don’t blame Stewart.  Blame the government.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Charger Daytona Looking For A Place To Run

2013 Dodge Charger Daytona
Dodge unveiled a new “Daytona” version of  its 2013 Charger at the Los Angeles Auto Show today, resurrecting memories of the famous winged Dodge Charger model from 1969.

Unfortunately, the 2013 version of the Daytona does not have a wing – barely a spoiler – nor is the "hemi" engine really a hemi.  Worse yet, it won’t be seeing any action on the high banks of Daytona or Talladega – or any other race track for that matter, a result of Chrysler’s decision not to compete in NASCAR next year.

1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
The original Daytona (and its corporate cousin, the Plymouth Superbird) featured a high wing on the rear deck and a pointed nose cone.  It was created by Chrysler in an attempt to make the Charger more competitive on NASCAR’s super speedways.  Only 503 were built, just enough to meet NASCAR’s minimum production requirements.  Only 2,500 of the new Daytona will be built next year.

The original Charger Daytona won its first race, ironically at Talladega, although an asterisk is necessary.  It was the first race run at the Alabama track and Richard Petty led a driver boycott over concerns about tire durability and safety.  Richard Brickhouse drove a Daytona prepared by Ray Nichels to victory, the first of many to record their first victory at Talladega.  It was also Brickhouse’s only Cup victory.

Ford countered with a drooped nose version of its Torino called, the Talladega  which won the following year at Daytona.  After just two seasons, however, NASCAR outlawed both cars.

Although there were subsequent Dodge Charger Daytona models (as recently as 2009) and even a model called simply the Dodge Daytona (a long way from the Charger), none featured the famous the wing and none came close to matching the cool factor of the original model.   

There is hope, however, that this Daytona could return to the high banks.  While Brad Keselowski will be driving a Ford next season, ther Dodge Charger Daytona may yet return to NASCAR’s victory lane.

"I surely hope so," said Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Chrysler motorsports and Dodge’s Street and Racing Technology brand.  "We're not shutting the door on this, put it that way.  We'll let the history books tell us that someday."

Monday, November 12, 2012

NASCAR Turns a Blind Eye

Gordon gets his revenge -- and then some
NASCAR’s decision to all but ignore Jeff Gordon for purposely wrecking Clint Bowyer should be a surprise to no one.  If there is anything consistent about NASCAR rule enforcement, it’s that it’s inconsistent. 

Gordon was fined $100,000 and docked 25 championship points for “actions detrimental to stock car racing.”  Oh yeah, he’s on probation for the next two weeks(!) and car owner Rick Hendrick loses 25 owner points.  That’s a far cry from the benching Kyle Busch sustained a year ago following a truck race at Texas when he wrecked Ron Hornaday, Jr.  

Worse yet, NASCAR shares in the blame for what happened.  Events were set in motion when Bowyer nudged Gordon.  Gordon nudged Bowyer back to even it up.  Only Gordon got too high on the track.  NASCAR seemed not to notice Gordon bouncing off the wall, nor the parts spewing out behind the 24 car.  The failure by NASCAR to display a caution flag only added to Gordon’s frustration as he waited for Bowyer, then purposely wrecked him, collecting Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the process and nearly Brad Keselowski. 

Sorry about that, Gordon tweeted to the others.  

Then things went from bad to worse.  And I’m not talking about the WWF exhibition going on back in the garage area.  I’m talking about Jeff Burton spinning Danica Patrick.  That one has yet to be explained.  First Patrick sat motionless on the track.  No caution.  Then she pulled down across the track.  No caution.  Then there was the oil slick that trailed behind her car for everyone to see.  Well everyone except NASCAR.  It was Watkins Glen all over again.

“When she got up in there, at the time she came all the way around and she was out of harm's way,” explained Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition.  “We didn't see any fluid or anything, she rode around on the apron, and when she pulled up on the racetrack, there was smoke, it looked like tire smoke.   It's easy to look back on it obviously and wish that you did something different, but at the time it didn't appear like there was any fluid that was coming out of the car.”

The drivers weren’t buying it.  Again it was a question of consistency.  How can NASCAR display a yellow flag for nonexistent debris, they wondered, but ignore cars bouncing off the walls.

“You can't throw the caution flag as fast as you can throw it one time and then just let everybody run through a whole straightaway full of oil,” said race winner Kevin Harvick.  “Those are the guys that are going to have to look themselves in the mirror, the guy who's calling the races, and decide if they're doing a good job.  There was more oil than there was asphalt, I can guarantee you that, and it was very visible.”

Denny Hamlin, who finished second, had perhaps the best line.

“The 29 (Harvick) almost wrecked coming to the line,” he said.  “We almost wrecked, too.  There was a lot of stuff on the racetrack.  That's why that wreck happened on the front stretch — there was oil all over it.

“Ray Charles could see that.  It was just a judgment call, I guess.”

NASCAR fans deserve better

Monday, November 5, 2012

Psych! Keselowski has Johnson’s Number

Jimmie Johnson may be seven points ahead with two races to go in the chase for the NASCAR championship, but Brad Keselowski is clearly in the head of the five-time champion.

When it comes to gamesmanship, Keselowski has held a lead over Johnson ever since Chicago, the first Chase race.  Along with crew chief Paul Wolfe, they have refused to be intimidated by No. 48 team – or anyone else for that matter.  

At Chicagoland, Keselowski drifted up the track while exiting the pits for the last time, startling Johnson, who had been leading the race, and forcing him to lift.  Johnson complained that Keselowski had come up the track too fast, but NASCAR didn’t see it that way and Keselowski went on to the win.

Sunday night in Texas, Johnson was whining again, claiming Keselowski had jumped a couple of late restarts.   On one, Keselowski slid up the track, banging against Johnson and holding on to the lead.  When the pair pulled side-by-side for the final restart, Johnson let Keselowski know what he thought of the move.  

"I pointed that I wanted him to use his head,” Johnson said. “It just doesn't need to come down to that. We walked right up to the line and went to the edge. It's the first time we raced each other to that level.”

Clearly, Keselowski had gotten in Johnson’s head.  

“I was a little shocked by the commitment into turn one,” Johnson said.  “I’ve joked before about driving in so far that I see Elvis.  We went past Elvis, and I didn’t know who was coming next.  I knew he was serious about the race.  That took it to a new level.”

For his part, Keselowski also complained about Johnson leading at the start/finish on the final restart, but held his tongue when he faced the press afterwards.  Obviously NASCAR isn’t about to get in the way of the best racing the series has seen this year.  

Keselowski refused to apologize for going hard at Johnson in the final laps. Even Keselowski’s appearance in Victory Circle afterward to congratulate Johnson startled the winner.  

"I raced hard," Keselowski said. "We both came back around, so there's something to be said for that. It was a good fight, just a dogfight. I fought as hard as I could.

"I came up a little bit short, but I thought I had it until that last restart. Those restarts are like rock-paper-scissors. You are going to lose eventually. I won two out of three."

Looking ahead, it would appear Johnson has the advantage at the next race, Phoenix.  He has four wins at the track and a fifth place average finish.  Keselowski’s average finish is 22nd. But most of those finishes were on the old Phoenix configuration.  In the spring race they finished fourth and fifth.

Keselowski couldn’t resist taking one last crack at throwing Johnson off.

“I feel like Phoenix is a whole different animal,” he said.  “They repaved last year, so it's not the same track. So I don't feel like a notebook there is that significant.  I felt like we may have been a little better in the fall than he was.”

Oh, by the way, the fall race is coming up.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Where's Carl?

Carl Edwards has been MIA this season
Has anybody seen Carl Edwards?

Most police departments require a 24 hour waiting period before a missing person report can be filed.  So what’s Jack Roush waiting for?  We’re approaching 24 months since Edwards was last seen in victory lane.

There was a momentary Edwards sighting at Martinsville this past weekend.  After qualifying 23rd, he actually moved into the top 10 before being spun out by Sam Hornish.  He eventually ended up 18th.

Other than that, not only is Edwards missing from The Chase this year, he hasn’t even been in the picture.  Literally.  If you’ve been watching the television coverage prior to Martinsville the past couple of weeks, you’d never even know Edwards was in the race.  All this from the driver many thought was the pre-season title favorite.

The 99’s decline this season has been dramatic.  Last year Edwards had 19 top five finishes and 26 top 10s.  This year he’s been in the top five only three times – never better than 5th – with just 13 top 10 finishes.  His average starting position this year is 14.8.  His average finishing position is even worse, 15.7.   That’s his worse average finishing position since he started racing full-time on the Cup circuit in 2004.  And it’s not like he’s been dogged by car troubles.  He’s completed 98.4 percent of the laps run this year.

While Edwards has been struggling, his two Roush Racing teammates, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have both won this year and made The Chase.

It would be easy to right off 2012 as an abomination.   But he’s been trending this way for several years.  In fact, he only has three wins in the last four years.

So what’s the deal?

"Man this thing is so competitive," Edwards says. "I cannot express to you how quickly everyone leapfrogs in the garage.  We didn't make the Chase, but as it stands right now if we would have made it, we're still not running well enough and we're getting caught up with troubles that we don't need. It's not like we've gone on a tear and won three races. This is kind of how of where we deserve to be right now."

With three races left in 2012, don't expect any changes yet this year.  But watch out for 2013, with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., moving into Kenseth's seat.  It's one thing to be outrun by Kenseth -- it will be quite another thing to be outrun by a rookie.