Monday, June 25, 2012

Time for a Chase Road Race

There's Plenty of Action in NASCAR Road Races
It’s not a new suggestion, but when Clint Bowyer starts winning road races, perhaps it’s time to really consider adding a road race to The Chase.

One argument against having a road race in The Chase has been that it takes the drivers and teams out of their natural element.  Sonoma and Watkins Glen have long been considered wild cards on the NASCAR schedule.  Not unlike the races at Daytona and Talladega in recent years.  You’re never quite sure what’s gonna happen.  Bowyer’s Sonoma win is a perfect example.  

But what’s wrong with that?  If a Kansas-bred dirt tracker like Bowyer can win at Sonoma, anyone can learn to be a road racer.  Road race ringers have become pretty much a thing of the past in Sprint Cup in recent years and it’s unlikely The Chase drivers would be upstaged by someone from outside coming in and stealing a victory.  

Another argument against a Chase road race is that with only two road races on the schedule, having one in the Chase puts too much emphasis on the race.  That’s easy to fix – add more road courses. 

Let’s face it; NASCAR already puts on two of the land's best road races of the year.  With ALMS and GrandAm continuing their take no prisoners road racing war, there’s an opportunity for NASCAR to step in and provide the alternative fans are looking for.  So add a couple of more road races.  If NASCAR is looking to attract new fans, start by adding those fans who already have an interest for racing.  

Where?  Rather than go back to Sonoma or Watkins Glen for a second race or simply shift one of those races into The Chase, adding a third road race is a better idea (and maybe a fourth and a fifth?).   NASCAR already runs a Nationwide race at Road America in Wisconsin and that would be a natural candidate.  Road Atlanta would keep the race close to the sport’s roots and fan base and the teams already test at the track extensively.  Take your pick.

Maybe NASCAR will be forced into action by the long anticipated news the Australian V8 Supercar series is coming to the states next year for a race at the new Circuit of Americas track being built in Austin, Texas.  Anybody tuning in to the Supercar races on Speed knows they are exciting and fun to watch.  Can’t imagine the NASCAR execs leaving the door open for something like the Supercar to come in and steal some fans.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

IndyCar: China Syndrome

Michigan, Pocono, Phoenix, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Road America have all apparently been on a long list of candidates to replace the cancelled China race on the IndyCar schedule.  Even Texas, the target of a possible driver boycott earlier this year, was suddenly back in the good graces of IndyCar and on the list.  Pocono and Texas have since reportedly declined the “opportunity.” The series needs to replace China on the schedule in order to meet its television and sponsorship commitments.

Once upon a time Michigan, Pocono and Phoenix were mainstays of the IndyCar series.  Recent repaves at those three tracks make them good candidates for future races.  The road courses at Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Road America also have been on the schedule in the past and are some of the most famous tracks in American racing, deserving of future consideration.  Road America seems to be the current favorite.

But with indications the replacement race will be moved from the original August 19 date assigned to China to a season-ending event – and with the championship presumably at stake – I’ve got another suggestion.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Why not? It’s been a long time since Indianapolis 500 was sacrosanct at the Speedway.  First it was NASCAR.  Then Formula One.  MotoGP.  Indy Lights. (Indy Lights!?!) This year both GrandAm and NASCAR’s Nationwide races will be held during the Sprint Cup weekend.

So why not a second IndyCar race to close out the season and decide the championship?  What better place for it?

Of course you wouldn’t run 500 miles.  But how about 100 laps, 250 miles, 25 starters, started two-abreast?  A 100-lap sprint for the championship.

Seems like a no brainer to me.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Big Day for Earnhardt, NASCAR, MIS, Hendrick

Sunday was a BIG day.

Obviously it was a big day for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  But it also was a big day for NASCAR, for Michigan International Speedway and for Hendrick Motorsports.

For Earnhardt it was his first victory in four years and 143 races.  The win moves Earnhardt from pretender to a legitimate, perhaps even the leading contender for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.  While some openly wondered about crowning a champion without a victory, Sunday eliminated that possibility – at least in Earnhardt’s case.  He’s now only four points out of first place and leader Matt Kenseth said he considers Earnhardt the favorite.

“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year,” Earnhardt said.  “We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me.  I don't know really where we stand in the competition level and what-have-you, where we are, as far as being a threat to win the title.  But we just want to – we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone to try to win a race. We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens.”

He won in dominating style, leading 95 of 200 laps, twice as many of the next lap leader.  Junior’s at his best when it’s fast and Michigan was very, very fast.  

That’s where NASCAR’s BIG weekend comes in.  With speeds approaching 205 mph in practice, some drivers openly wondered if things weren’t getting too fast.  To NASCAR’s credit, it resisted falling back on the restrictor plates to slow the cars and instead went to a harder tire that dropped speeds about five mph and helped guard against potential tire blistering.   A number of drivers were frustrated with the last minute decision to switch, including Earnhardt.  But it proved to be the right move.

It was a BIG weekend for MIS.  The crowd was bigger than those in recent years, despite early rain.  The Michigan economy is improving and that’s one the reason.  But an even bigger reason was speed.  Speed brings out fans and headlines with 200 mph had to help. 

And finally it was another BIG day for Hendrick Motorsports.  In addition to Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and Jeff Gordon sixth.  Add in Tony Stewart’s second place finish in a Hendrick-built and -powered car, that’s four of the top six finishers. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Michigan, Milwaukee Memories

NASCAR returns to the “new” Michigan International Speedway this weekend with the repaved track promising record speeds.  Meanwhile IndyCar returns to Milwaukee for a Saturday race.  OK, I know they “returned” last year, but I didn’t have a blog then.  Anyway, the two tracks bring back strong memories.

I was at the very first NASCAR race ever run at MIS, back in June of 1969.  It was a 500-miler then.  It was a dominate year for FoMoCo in NASCAR, the most serious challenge to the Ford Torinos coming from the Mercury Cyclones.  Even Richard Petty had jumped over to the Blue Oval for the season. (Ironic that going into Michigan this year the hot rumor is Richard Petty Motorsports will jump from Ford to Dodge.)

Donnie Allison was on the pole in the orange No. 27 Torino of Banjo Mathews but left early with a blown engine.  Engine failures happened a lot back in those days.  David Pearson led some in the No. 17 Holman & Moody Ford.

But it came down to a battle between Cale Yarborough in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Cyclone and LeeRoy Yarbrough in Junior Johnson’s No. 98 Cyclone.  LeeRoy had won the Daytona 500 earlier in the year and several other races, but I was a Cale fan.  I even used masking tape to put a “21” on my dad’s Cyclone for the drive to the track (he didn’t think much of that when he saw it later).

Yarborough and Yarbrough banged against each lap after lap.  Coming to the white flag, LeeRoy hit the outside wall and stayed glued to it, Cale going on for the win.  I remember LeeRoy running nearly a full lap grinding against the wall, before coming to stop right in front of our seats.  He climbed out and walked away.  Nothing more was said by either driver.  A far cry from what would happen today.

My Milwaukee memory dates back to 1964.  I wasn't at the race and there was no live television.  The memory comes mostly from newspaper reports of the day.  In those years the Rex Mays Classic took place the first weekend after the Indianapolis 500.  The 500 in ’64 was marred by a fiery second-lap accident that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald.  Fireball Roberts had been badly burned at Charlotte a couple of weeks earlier (he would eventually die from complications) and Joe Weatherly had been killed earlier in the year at Riverside.  The sport of auto racing was under attack. 

A. J. Foyt had won the ‘64 Indy 500 in what would be the last 500 victory for a roadster, turning back the challenges of rear-engine Lotus-Fords.  At Milwaukee, Rodger Ward put his rear-engine Watson Ford on the pole with Foyt second and Jim Hurturbise third. 

When the race started those three battled lap-after-lap, swapping positions until the halfway point of the 100-lap/mile race.  Then something broke in Ward’s rear suspension and he slowed.  Foyt swung wide and slammed on his brakes but it was too late for Hurtubise, who drove up over Foyt’s car and hit the fourth turn wall.  His car flipped before landing on its wheels in front of the main straightaway.  He was knocked out and the car exploded in flames.  It took nearly a minute for rescuers to reach him and pull him from the car.  Foyt went on to win the race, his fourth straight Champ Car victory to start the season.  Afterwards he said the race was so hairy he was considering retirement.  Of course he didn’t and he went on to win seven straight and 10 of 13 races in capturing his second straight national championship. 

But the real story of that Milwaukee race is what happened afterwards.  Hurtubise was badly burned with second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body and he was flown by military aircraft to the Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.  No one expected him to live.

Hurtubise was a fan favorite, known as “Herk” for Hercules, and there is a very real chance his death could have altered the future of auto racing.  Several major papers were already calling for an end to the Indy 500.  But he hung on day-after-day as the newspapers reported his progress.  Finally Herk seemed to turn the corner and doctors began rebuilding his body with skin grafts.  They asked how he wanted his hands shaped, the grafts allowing for little movement once the hands were formed.  "Just make 'em so I can hold a steering wheel," he said.

Herk would somehow be back to start the ’65 Champ Car season with a fourth at Phoenix and would qualify for the Indy 500.  But he would never win another Indy car race.  He did, however, win the Atlanta 500 in 1966.

Oh yeah.  Le Mans is being run this this weekend too and my most vivid of that race dates back to 1964 as well.  Le Mans came several weeks after Milwaukee back then.  It was the first year for Ford to challenge Ferrari, which had won the race four years in a row.  It’s a story well told by A. J. Baime in his book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.  The start and finish was being shown live on Detroit TV and I was watching the tiny black-and-white television in my parent’s room.  At the time they still did the  famous Le Mans start, were drivers stood on one side of the track and ran to their cars at 4 p.m., jumped in and pulled away.  As expected, John Surtees led the first lap in a Ferrari.  By the second lap the announcers were screaming.  There were only a couple of cameras around the track and the announcers were getting their information by telephone, the cars long past the reporter’s position by the time their information was relayed to viewers.  Suddenly there was Richie Ginther, storming onto the front stretch.  Even in B&W it was a beautiful car, the white GT40 with the blue hood -- America's racing colors.  Just like my slot car.  Shortly thereafter the coverage was over and I had to wait 24 hours to find out the Fords had long since gone to hell, except for a lone Cobra that won the GT class and finished fourth overall driven by Dan Gurney.  It would be another couple of years until Ford was able to top Ferrari overall, but it will always be the first year I remember most. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Will Junior Ever Win Again?

Junior remains the fan's favorite, but will he ever win again?
The most dramatic moment of the Pocono 400 came not when Joey Logano nudged aside Mark Martin on his way to his first “non-rain” win.  It took place afterwards as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., struggled to explain how he had lost yet another one.

It is exactly four years ago this weekend at Michigan – 143 races – since Earnhardt last won.  He won that race on fuel strategy.  You have to go back to the May Richmond race in 2006 for his next victory.  So he’s won two races in six long years. 

Ahead of him is a week of questioning about when he’ll win again, something he had hoped to eliminate with a victory at Pocono.  But the question may really be not when Junior will win again -- but if. 

He was oh-so-close.  He led 38 laps in the race, second only to Logano, and at times appeared to have a dominate race car.  He was leading with 35 laps remaining when the caution came out.  Everyone pitted for fuel and most everyone thought they’d be about five laps short on fuel without another yellow.  When a second caution came out, Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon both pitted again to top off their tanks.  Most everyone else – including Logano – stayed on the track, hoping for more cautions even though Pocono is known more for long green flag runs than cautions.  While Earnhardt approved the move over his in-car radio, the TNT broadcast crew questioned the decision to pit at length.

Earnhardt was 16th on the restart and started to fight his way back.  But the caution on which Earnhardt pitted had run long and a second late caution for debris provided the slow laps everyone else needed to finish.  Earnhardt ended up 8th, his 11th top 10 performance of the year, more than any other driver.  With just 12 races until The Chase begins, Earnhardt is all but locked in, even without a victory.  He actually moved up a spot in the overall point standings to second behind Matt Kenseth. 

But the lack of a victory is obviously wearing on Earnhardt. 

When the television cameras caught up with him afterwards, he was distracted by a commotion in the garage area.   He also appeared to be fighting with his emotions and silent when asked if the fuel strategy cost him the race.  Then on live TV, he asked to start over, complete with a second drink of Mountain Dew while the question was being asked. 

"We just didn’t want to run out of gas,” he finally said.  “I didn’t know the caution flags were gonna be so long.  They were long enough to help those guys make it on fuel and we just didn’t.  We’re not able to take those kind of chances – just yet.”

Later Earnhardt seemed to be feeling better and said all the right things, about how he supported the call to pit by crew chief Steve Letarte.  He should.  Letarte has made the right call in race after race this year.

“I like the call we made today,”  he said.  “We raced back up to eighth and didn’t win the race -- might not have won the race.  We might have run third.  I don’t know.   But it was the right call for us at this time.  We had a really, really good car.  That was fun.  That was the fastest car I’ve had all year and the best car I’ve had a Pocono in a long, long time.  So I’m just really trying not to be too upset about it because we did a lot of good things today and we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
OK, that’s the upbeat Junior we’ve seen this year.  But will he ever win again?

I've still got to believe he will.  His team and his equipment are too good.  But most of all, he's too good a driver not to win.  He made a remarkable three-car wide pass at Pocono that reminded everyone just good he is.

Maybe it's time to start taking a few chances and Michigan just might be the place.  Like Pocono, it's been recently repaved and promises to be very, very fast.  With his place in The Chase all but clinched, the smart move now is to go for the maximum bonus points and that means winning races -- and taking a few chances if necessary. 

Officials have hand in Pocono, Texas decisions
Race officials played a key role in both the NASCAR and IndyCar races this weekend.

At Pocono, NASCAR handed out a record 22 speeding tickets to 15 different drivers for exceeding the pit road speed limit, resulting in stop-and-go penalties.  Jimmy Johnson was nabbed twice, but still finished fourth.

In Texas, race director Beaux Barfield made the gutsy call to black flag leader Will Power for blocking a hard charging Tony Kanaan.

The Texas IndyCar race has been a point of controversy since Dan Waldon was killed at Las Vegas last year, a sister track to Texas.  While Vegas was dropped from the 2012 schedule, IndyCar decided to go ahead with the Texas race, to the chargin of some of the series’ top drivers, who didn’t like the 200+ mph pack racing the track was known for.  There was even talk of a driver boycott.

All the drivers gathered a week ago prior to the Detroit race and decided to ask for less downforce for Texas in hopes of breaking up the packs.  The new aero package provided the desired effect, with drivers able to run side-by-side, but not two-wide and eight deep, nose-to-tail. 

It was a nice win for Justin Wilson, who moved to the lead when Graham Rahal hit the wall coming to the white flag.  Rahal held on to finish second and give Honda a one-two finish, the third consecutive win for Honda after Chevrolet opened the season with four straight years. 

Not surprisingly, Wilson liked the new car configuration, saying the race “was a lot of fun.  You had to manage the tires, the grip.  I had a blast out there."

James Hinchcliffe summed it up nicely.

“It was hard to drive these cars.  It was still sort of scary in a way. This Texas you were worried about your car coming back in one piece.  The old kind of racing you worried about yourself coming back in one piece.

It will be interesting to see if IndyCar returns to Texas in 2013 – or even if the series is invited back.  All the pre-race chatter hurt attendance,  obviously down from past years.  IndyCar has already fired a warning shot at the track, scheduling a race next year through the streets of Houston and reportedly talking with the new Austin track about a future race.  So don’t be too surprised if the track decides an IndyCar race just isn’t worth it.

Finally, the wacky F1 season continued with Lewis Hamilton winning in Montreal race, the seventh winner in seven races.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dover: A Sign of Things to Come?

No. 24 has been fast but unlucky
Uh-oh.  The NASCAR garage should be worried, very worried.
It took Hendrick Motorsports months to go from 199 wins to 200.  Since then it has three wins in three races, including the All-Star event.  Jimmy Johnson won for the second time, leading 289 of 400 laps in winning his 7th Dover race.
“Obviously everybody at Hendrick Motorsports is putting a lot of effort right now from the engine and chassis and body department trying to get the cars built because the sport is evolving so quickly with rules changes and things of that nature, it's difficult to stay on top. To get to where we are, a solid three or four weeks for Hendrick Motorsports is nice.”
Johnson wasn’t even the Hendrick team’s fastest car.  That honor belonged to Jeff Gordon, who was celebrating his 20th anniversary with sponsor DuPont.  But a terrible string of bad luck continues to haunt the No. 24 team.  First Gordon was forced to pit with a loose wheel and fell two laps down.  He still had an outside opportunity at the win if the cycle of pit stops ran their course, but a caution for “debris” dashed those hopes.
“The middle part of the race when he got by me and drove away, that's all I had,” Johnson acknowledged.  “I didn't have anything for him then. I'm not sure what he had at the end of the race. 
As bad as Gordon’s weekend was, it was worse for Kurt Busch.  On Monday NASCAR suspended Busch until June 13 and extended his probation period through the end of the year for “actions detrimental to stock car racing; violation of probation; verbal abuse to a media member.”  The suspension means he will miss Sunday’s Pocono race.
Busch seemed to be on the edge of car and emotional control throughout the weekend and lost it after the Nationwide race, barely making it through the post-race Speed interview.  Then he blistered other reporters with profanity-filled comments about the quality of their questions. 
Busch apologized following the suspension, but received less than an overwhelming endorsement from Cup car owner James Finch.  "If he's going to kill himself, I'm not going to be in the airplane with him," Finch told ESPN.  "If that's what he's planning on doing, I am going to get out." Finch has said in the past he wouldn’t put up with Busch’s shenanigans.   
No word on a Pocono replacement for Busch