Monday, February 27, 2012

Not Ready For Prime Time

Danica was out before it started

It wasn’t exactly the Blizzard of ‘79, but when the Daytona 500 was delayed by rain a second time and re-set for 7 p.m. (ET) Monday evening, there were plenty of those looking for a silver lining in the rain clouds hanging over the Speedway.

In 1979 an East Coast blizzard on the Sunday of the Daytona 500 kept people at home with nothing to do except watch the race. The race featured a last lap bumping incident and crash between leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, a victory by Richard Petty and subsequent fight between Allison and Yarborough. The race is generally credited with setting off a boom of fan interest in NASCAR.

With the 500 moved to prime time Monday TV night because of the weather, there was hope that perhaps the race could have a similar impact.   Think Monday Night Football.  And with Danica Patrick getting the brunt of pre-race coverage, more than a few men were hoping their wives and girlfriends would join them to watch the race.  Hey honey, didn’t I watch the Oscars with you last night?

First came the embarrassing start.  After only one lap, five-time champion Jimmy Johnson was spinning into the wall and out of the race.  Worse yet, the cars of Patrick and defending champion Trevor Bayne also were badly damaged and sent to the garage area.  Men all over America were relegated to viewing room B as the big screens were switched over the The Bachelor and The Voice.

After the wreck the race settled down to a pretty boring, mostly follow the leader affair.

Until Juan Pablo Montoya hit the jet dryer.  

It was a freak accident.  Montoya knew something was wrong with the car and had been in and out of the pits.  When the car did break, he had no control and slid into the jet dryer.  Hard

Montoya pulled himself from his demolished race car and staggered away, small fires burning at both ends of the car.  The driver of the jet dryer truck was helped away.  

So far so good. Nobody’s fault.

What happened next – or what didn’t happen – was unacceptable.  

The jet fuel caught fire. And the fire grew in intensity for nearly two minutes before safety crews equipped to fight it arrived on the scene.  Ok, there was plenty of confusion.  The safety crews were expected a re-start, not to be called out to a fire.  But it still shouldn’t have happened.  

The rest of the race was anti-climatic. More wrecks in the final 40 laps than lead changes. Matt Kenseth wins, but was Greg Biffle even trying?

A delay of more than two hours to repair and cleanup the track pushed the finish of the race, carefully timed to happen well before 11 p.m., to 12:55 in the morning on the East Coast.

Goodnight fans.  Goodbye prime time.

Danica SpeedWeeks

Danica Mania
This wasn’t supposed to be a column about Danica Patrick.  It was supposed to be about Daytona SpeedWeeks.  The kickoff to the NASCAR season.  NASCAR’s Super Bowl.

But with rain still falling at Daytona and the 500 now scheduled for today at 7 p.m. eastern, it's a good opportunity to take a look at Danica's week to date.


Besides, from the beginning it has been Danica SpeedWeeks.  She’s been Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning rolled into one.  She’s seemingly been on every pre-race show, every Speed channel report, every ESPN Sports Center.  At the center of every race.  Only the Camping World Truck Series race was Danica free. 
I’m not blaming her.  In fact, give her credit.  She never shied away from an interview request or ducked a question.  It wasn’t as if she was out there asking to be on the shows.  They were asking her. 
And when the racing started there she was, right in the middle of things.  Her wreck in the 150-mile qualifying race was huge.  HUGE.  She walked away and never whined, handled it like a veteran.  Her stock went way up with NASCAR fans after that one.
Not so much the Nationwide race.  After qualifying on the pole, Patrick led a few laps with first Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and then Tony Stewart pushing her.  Pushing someone else was more challenging for her, as it is for most drivers.  She brushed the wall. She dropped back.  But she was able to run in the middle of the pack on her own, something of a surprise.
By the last quarter of the race, however, she was slipping back and that’s when her JR Motorsports teammate, Cole Whitt, came across her.    Whitt, 20, is moving up from NASCAR’s entry-level truck Series this year and was making only his fourth Nationwide start.  He was riding around at the back of the pack, attempting to stay out of trouble, when he decided to try and help his teammate.
 It may be a long time before he does that again.   
Whitt bumped and then turned Patrick, sending her crashing into the wall.  It was the type of accident seen repeatedly during SpeedWeeks as drivers with a lot more experience than Whitt made the same mistake.  It should have been obvious to everyone that Whitt was trying to help her, not wreck her.  Obvious to everyone except Patrick.  ESPN quickly cut away from her in-car radio transmission, but later aired it, complete with an unofficial record number of bleeped F-bombs. 
“The (bleeping) 88 hit me while we were in a big pack,” Patrick said.  “What the (bleep)?”
“What the (bleep) is he thinking?”
Whitt was thinking he was trying to help.  But he manned up and took full blame. 
“I wouldn’t expect her to be happy about it,” he said.  “I wouldn’t be happy about it either.  I don’t know why anyone would expect her to be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great.’
“The last thing I want to do is take out a teammate. So to Danica and her whole crew, I’m sorry. It’s just part of this type of racing. I was trying to get hooked up with the 7 car in the tandem draft and I just made contact getting into the corner, completely my fault.”
The tirade does checks off another box on Patrick’s resume.  She can swear like a man.  Folks in IndyCar already knew that, where her temper tantrums had become legend and all too familiar. 
I’m sure NASCAR fans will react favorably to Patrick’s blistering of Whitt.  But it better not become a weekly occurrence.  There’s a lesson here for Patrick.  Man up.  She won’t be running with Earnhardt and Stewart every week.  She’ll be surrounded by drivers like Cole Whitt and James Buescher; drivers in many cases with less experience than her.  They’ll make mistakes, just as she’ll make mistakes.  She needs to realize everyone isn’t out to wreck her, especially her teammates.  Most of all she needs to realize she can’t throw a hissy-fit every time somebody bumps her.  It will get old in a hurry.  Can you imagine the reaction if it had been Kurt Busch cussing out another driver?
If NASCAR is smart – and it usually is – they’ll slap Patrick with a fine for her language, just to help keep Danica Mania going for another week.

If Patrick is smart, it won’t happen again. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

12 NASCAR Qs For 2012

Will this be Carl's year?
Carl’s Turn?  After coming close in 2011, can Carl Edwards take the next step and win the Sprint Cup Championship?  Don’t bet against it.  Ford is the make to beat, especially on the super speedways, and Carl is the Ford to beat. But one has the feeling if it doesn’t happen this year, it may not happen for Edwards. 
Is this the year for Penske Racing?  Very possibly.  Firing Kurt Busch and replacing him with always upbeat A. J. Allmendinger will be a huge boost for team morale.  Huge.  He’ll also push Brad Keselowski hard, but at the same time be a better teammate than Busch ever was.  Replacing Steve Addington, who fled Busch before Penske could fire him, won’t be easy.  But Todd Gordon, who will take over Allmendinger’s car, has proved himself in Nationwide.  Allmendinger should win races and Keselowski could win a bunch of races.

Jimmy 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.  A couple of them will certainly make it, but then who makes the run for the title?  No reason to believe things will change much for Gordon or Earnhardt, Jr., so take them off the list.  Johnson says the drive is back, but we saw things on that team last year that hadn’t happened before and no matter what they say, Chad Knaus being in Africa during pre-season testing was just plain weird.  That leaves Kahne.  Can he show the consistency needed to be the champ?  He hasn’t yet.

Can Tony Stewart re-create the magic?  Stewart was having a so-so year in 2011 until the Chase, then went lights out.  Even the team admits they’re not sure why.  With wholesale changes having been made during the offseason and the addition of Danica Patrick – and the distractions that go with her – Tony may find himself right back on the outside looking in.   

 Is Joe Gibbs Racing still one of NASCAR’s elite teams?  We’re about to find out.  A year ago at this time the answer was easy – absolutely.  But the team ended 2011 in complete disarray with a) a sponsor in open revolt; b) a once vaunted engine shop in disgrace; c) Kyle Busch one step away from joining his brother on the unemployment line; d) Denny Hamlin having completely lost confidence; e) the team botching an opportunity to replace Joey Lagano with Card Edwards; and f) the departure of two of the team’s three crew chiefs.  It will take every bit of Joe Gibbs’ team building skills to put the pieces back together again.   It can be done.  Engines are coming directly from Toyota.  Championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb will take over Hamlin’s car.  Jason Ratcliff moves up from a successful Nationwide career to replace Greg Zipadelli, who never connected with Lagano.  We shouldn’t have long to wait.  JGR has always run well at Daytona and if they don’t this year (and they weren’t very good in qualifying, 21-27-37), it could be a long, long year.  Don’t let Busch’s Bud win fool you.

Any life left at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing?  The team fell completely off the map in 2011 and is in need of a major overhaul.  Juan Pablo Montoya called it “freak’in disaster.”  Yet very little is changing.  The revolving door on the office of JPM’s crew chief is swinging again and may keep swinging.  Montoya himself showed he was in mid-season form during testing, taking out both Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Burton with one jerk of the wheel.

Happy Harvick?  Devoid of his truck and Nationwide teams, Kevin Harvick will be focused solely on Sprint Cup this year; well at least until the little one arrives.  Good or bad?  Not an easy answer.  Harvick can be anything but happy at times and has the potential to be a disruptive force on a team along the lines of Kurt Busch.  Will be interesting to see how the team and Harvick react.   

Can NASCAR survive all-Danica all the time?  There appears no truth to the rumor Speed is considering a Danica channel, although they’ve been generating enough content.  Loved Danica handling the color for Fox during the Bud Shootout.  And how many Cup races has she run?  Once the season starts, the Danica story remains a story only if she is competitive.  The quality of the team should make her a Nationwide story.  Not so on the Cup side. 

Make-it or break-it year for Michael Waltrip Racing?  MWR has made wholesale changes, dumping “The Franchise,” David Reutimann, for Clint Bowyer.  They also added Mark Martin to run 25 races with a hodgepodge of other drivers, including Waltrip himself, filling in the open dates.  Martin Truex showed signs of contending late last year and is in a contract year.  Interesting to see how this all comes together – or if it all comes together.

What becomes of Bayne and Stenhouse?  Two of NASCAR’s brightest young stars, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, have only limited plans for 2012 under the Jack Roush banner.  Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 champion, currently will run only about 15 races for the Wood Brothers unless additional sponsorship can be found.  Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide champ, is assured of ride only in the Daytona 500 in the unsponsored No. 6.  After that, it may be back to Nationwide for Stenhouse, although even a full season there is in jeopardy due to a lack of sponsors. 

The Pack is Back?  The Bud Clash appeared to be more of hybrid of yesterday’s pack racing than a return to the pack.  Not sure if the Bud Shootout really told us anything.  One thing to watch when the 500 starts, the battle to see who can get to the back of the pack the fastest. 
How big of an impact will EFI have this year?  Big.  Teams discovered during Daytona testing that a hot engine equipped with electronic fuel injection, once stalled, is hard to re-start.  Watch for at least one of the frontrunners in the 500 to lose a chance at winning after stalling during a pit stop.  On the flipside, EFI will increase the precision of fuel conservation and as a result we’ll probably see fewer fuel economy races in 2012.  Ford says it has a qualifying setting for its EFI and that may be one reason they were so dominate at Daytona.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Kasey At Bat

With teammates including Jeff Gordon, there will be no
excuses for Kasey Kahne this year
 It’s not the bottom of the ninth and the bases aren’t loaded, but 2012 will mark an important at bat for Kasey Kahne.
A lot has been expected of Kahne ever since he stepped into the No. 9 Dodge of Ray Evernham back in 2003, replacing fan favorite Bill Elliott.  At times he has appeared on the brink of a breakthrough, especially in 2006 when he won six Sprint Cup races and two more on the Nationwide circuit.  But inconsistency has always been Kahne’s biggest challenge and only once during the past five years has Kahne qualified for the Chase. 
Of course he hasn’t always made the best career choices, moving from Evernham to Richard Petty Motorsports, which was in turmoil most of his time there, before spending last season at the lame duck Red Bull team.  But he won’t be playing for the Mudville Nine in 2012.  Kahne has a four-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports, acknowledged as the best team in NASCAR.   He’ll be 31 this season and is no longer an up-and-coming driver.  It’s time for him to produce and he knows it.

“I have four years here that I know it's going to be stable and be competitive and have great people and a great team around me,” Kahne said recently.  “To be able to be a part of all that is something that I haven't had. It's definitely nice to have it, makes you feel pretty good about where you're at. It's taken time. I've had some really good years in Cup and I've learned a lot from everything, and now I'm just in a really solid situation and need to take full advantage of it.”

Helping make the transition is Kenny Francis, Kahne’s crew chief since 2006.  The pair began to click in the second half of last year, winning the Phoenix race and scoring the third most points in the Chase, behind only Tony Steward and Carl Edwards.   Kahne has never been particularly good at the restrictor plate tracks, but that may change this year.

“To come down there (Daytona) with Hendrick Motorsports, a team that's won the race, I mean, it's just awesome,” Kahne says.  “The 5 car had two poles last year on restrictor plate tracks.  I'm usually somewhere probably in the 20s or 30s when it comes to qualifying on those tracks.  So that's exciting to know that, man, we might have a shot to get on the front row or something that we've never been able to do before.”

It’s been an unusual off season for Kahne.  First came the furor after he tweeted his disgust at a women openly breast-feeding in a grocery store.  Then he missed NASCAR media week while he was on jury duty (burglary, guilty).  Now comes word Kahne underwent outpatient arthroscopic knee surgery on Friday to repair a torn cartilage in his left knee.  No indication yet on what caused the swelling in his knee that led to doctor’s visit and surgery.  But Kahne has a history of knee surgeries and fast recoveries and isn’t expected to miss any time at Daytona this week when action gets underway.  In 2011 he had similar surgery on a Monday and raced on Saturday night.

That’s good, because there should be no excuses for Kahne this year.    

One of the country’s top paved short track, Irwindale  Speedway in Southern California has apparently closed.  Word started coming out over that weekend that workers were taking down parts of the grandstands and other facilities at the track.  Another victim of the poor economy and the intense competition for the Southern California entertainment dollar.

Milwaukee has been added to the IndyCar schedule for the coming year, with a company owned by Michael Andretti serving as the promoter.  Now rumors have Baltimore returning to the schedule.  While the street race was run for the first time last year with a good fan turnout, it was still a money-losing proposition.   

Monday, February 6, 2012

NASCAR's Tebow

Quarterbacks get all the attention.  But the two quarterbacks getting the most attention in the buildup to Super Bowl XLVI last week had nothing to do with the game itself.  The soap opera that has become Peyton Manning and the will-he, won’t-he play for Indianapolis next year drama was the week’s biggest story.  Then there was Tim Tebow.

Tebow has been pro football’s lead story all season.  The nation’s sports media gathered in Indianapolis tried to give the public what it wanted – more Tebow.  Fans attending an open media session nearly trampled Joe Montana trying to get to Tebow.  And he seemed to be the only one of the four quarterbacks that didn’t shy away from interview requests.

The Tebow phenomenon continues to frustrate non-believers.  And I’m not talking about religious beliefs here.  I’m talking about those who can’t believe Tebow is for real.  That he’s too good to be true.  In general, however, reaction to Tebow has been overwhelming in its support.  I never felt much one-way or another about Tebow prior to this season.  But I’ve got to admit, I admire his guts to stand up for what he believes in.

There’s a message here for NASCAR.  Desperate to stop the drain on its fan base, NASCAR has spent the past couple of years promoting its “Bad Boys” – or letting the Bad Boys promote themselves – through its “boys have at it” attitude.   Partly as a result, race attendance and television viewers have stabilized.  But at what cost?  How long until fans are turned off for good by the antics of the bad boys?

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Just look at Tebow.  Given their druthers, most Americans will root for the guy in the white hat.  However, that message has been lost on normally media-savvy NASCAR.  And what makes it harder to understand is that NASCAR has a ready-made Tim Tebow.  His name is Trevor Bayne, winner of last year’s Daytona 500.

Bayne shares Tebow’s strong religious beliefs, but that’s not the message NASCAR is missing.  The message is that America is looking for heroes.  Given a choice, America would much rather cheer for the good guy, the guy in the white hat.

NASCAR’s message should be the 20-year old kid (soon to be 21) whose strongest language is “cool.”  About the kid who prepared for this year’s 500 by going to Africa on missionary work. 

Up until now, NASCAR hasn’t begun to tap Bayne’s potential.  Some of that is due to his illness last year (now thought to have been Lyme disease) which kept him out of the race car and the limelight for more than a month.    But as defending champion of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, Bayne should be front and center of the public relations effort.

Fortunately for NASCAR, Bayne has shown a willingness to step into the spotlight, even at the risk of exposing himself to Tebow-type criticism. 

“It's what we're here for,” Bayne said recently.  “I started racing for me, I started racing because I wanted to be a driver and I wanted to be successful and I wanted to win races and I wanted to have the most followers on Twitter or the most fans or whatever it is.

“But I think that's changed over the past few years. I got to go to something that was really incredible called Passion, which is for 18- to 25-year olds, and it really got me fired up to see what this is all about, that it's not about me, it never has been. It's not about what I do here, but it's about what happens for the kingdom. I think this year I'm a lot more fired up about storing my treasures in heaven instead of here."

Bayne is one of the leaders of a bible study group that includes mostly young drives from the Nationwide Series including his close friend and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse, Justin Allgaier, Michael McDowell and Josh Wise.  All young.  All potential NASCAR stars.

Bayne has talked with Tebow several times and says the Denver quarterback has helped prepare him for speaking out more and for the criticism that will probably come with it.

“I think it's a really great thing that Tim Tebow is staying firm in what he believes in,” Bayne said.  “He's not letting that (criticism) change him. I read an article today in USA Today that talked about that, and I can see how that would be really hard when you have that much flak that you're catching, whether it's good or it's bad, if people are talking about it so much, it would be easy to change and waver, but I think the reason he doesn't is because it's real. I think Jesus is something that can really change lives, and I think that if we believe all that he says he is and we believe like we say we do, then we'll look different just like he does and like we're trying to do here.”

Bayne has already started spreading his message.  There’s already a book out on his career “Driven By Faith,” which he says is mostly for kids.  And with the 500 just a couple of weeks away, he departed on what’s billed as a “Christian Cruise” on Super Bowl Sunday, where he’ll be one of the featured speakers. 

And if NASCAR's smart, it won't be Bayne's last appearance.