Monday, August 27, 2012

Hamlin, Stewart Headed in Opposite Directions

Grubb has Hamlin peaking at the right time
Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart are headed in opposite directions. 

It was never more apparent than early in the Bristol race when Stewart was being lapped while Hamlin was fighting for the lead.  Stewart eventually fought his back and was competitive before being knocked out by Matt Kenseth, but he was never really a threat to win the race.  His two-handed helmet toss at Kenseth probably had as much to do with the frustration he was feeling about his car, as it did with his frustration with Kenseth.

A year ago Stewart was openly complaining about his race car and soon announced that crew chief Darian Grubb wouldn’t be returning in 2012.  Of course Stewart and Grubb went on to win the NASCAR championship, Grubb then moving on to Joe Gibbs Racing, taking over as crew chief of Hamlin’s car.

Stewart started this year strong, winning two of the year’s first five races.  But he’s won only once since, dropping to 10th in the point standings after Bristol.  He last three finishes are 27, 32 and 19.  He’s in no danger of missing The Chase thanks to his three wins, but he’s certainly headed in the wrong direction.

Just the opposite is true for Hamlin and Grubb.  It’s been an up-and-down season for Hamlin, winning early at Phoenix, again near mid-season at Kansas and posting 12 top fives.  It’s also been a steep learning curve at times for Grubb, but he’s confident the team is peaking for The Chase.

“Every week we felt like we had a good car, but circumstances took us out of that, or engine failure, mechanical failure or something like that going on in the background,” Grubb said.  “We had fast race cars and we are doing the work that it takes to stay up front each week and once you do that, you had the possibility to win. Guys have been doing really a great job behind us in the background with TRD and Joe Gibbs engineering support and doing a great job making sure we don't have those issues again. Hopefully we can keep staying up front.”

A confident Hamlin called Bristol the biggest of his 20 Cup victories.  He seems fully recovered from the late-season meltdown in 2010, when the team gave the NASCAR title back to Jimmie Johnson.

“As long as we don't have a failure or we don't get in a wreck, we can win anywhere we go,” Hamlin said.  “And that's something that we have not had since 2010, you know, being able to win at every different track at any type of course. 

"So, you know, it's a good feeling to know that you can go to a racetrack and win any given week and that gives you a lot of confidence. For me, even though it shows three wins, I feel like we've got five or six.”

As for Grubb, he believes the team is poised for a run at the Sprint Cup title.

“I really think so. You don't want to count your eggs before you put them in the basket type thing, but it's a lot of hard work.  All the way since December, when I came in, I've been learning every day.  The engineering staff and the mechanics, they teach me lessons and I teach them lessons; and you can see the light at the end of the tunnel on the things we have been working on and you know we are getting stronger as we do it.

“And since then we have been making things better and making the cars better and his feedback has been getting better and better about what we are doing, so hopefully we can take all those things and just keep getting better and not slow down.”

Monday, August 20, 2012

Michigan Moaning

Legit complaint or gamesmanship
There seemed to be more moaning going on after Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 than there was celebrating.

Winner Greg Biffle was about the only one celebrating.  His second victory of the year moved him into first place in the Sprint Cup standings.   But even Biffle wasn’t entirely happy.  His team isn’t getting the respect he thinks it deserves.

“I know that a lot of people don't expect us to win the championship, don't expect us to compete for the title,” Biffle said.  “I don’t care what they say or who they want to talk about or what they talk about. We will be a factor when it comes down to Homestead, I promise you that. 

Second place finisher Brad Keselowski wasn’t happy with his runner-up finish at his home track, even though it was better than he deserved.  Or perhaps because it was better than he deserved. He was embarrassed by the way Jimmie Johnson dusted him near the end of the race.  

“I didn't know how much Jimmie had been holding back,” he said.  “When he pushed the trigger, when he passed me, it was clear he had been holding back a lot.  It's hard to know those things. You never know how hard a driver is pushing. Obviously he wasn't going a hundred percent. When he did, he was clearly the class of the field." 

Then Keselowski upped the ante.  He pointed a finger at the Hendrick team, especially the No. 48 car, for pushing the technology envelope into a gray area, something the team has been penalized for in the past.  

“I just think there's big discrepancies in the cars now. There's certain parts and pieces on the cars that are making them quite a bit different to where we're seeing different paces throughout the field. I think there's probably half a dozen to a dozen cars that are drastically faster than the rest of the field. That's disrupted the parity, created a lot of side-by-side action that is maybe good, maybe bad, depends on who you are.

"But I think right now in the sport the cars are probably the most separated we've ever seen. You've seen qualifying, the pace difference between 20th and pole was over a second. We haven't seen that in over 10 years in this sport. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but it's an observation to your note. It creates more side-by-side racing which opens up the possibility for issues like you described.

"There's parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive. Some guys have it, some don't. There's a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty.

"Obviously there's a question to the interpretation that as of right now it's legal. But I'm sure that Roger doesn't want to be the one caught red-handed. As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative. I'm not going to slam them for it.

"But it's living in a gray area. Roger doesn't do that. There's certainly some performance there that we've lost. I shouldn't say lost, but haven't gained, because we choose not to do that. That's something that we have to continue to evaluate every week that goes by, that those components are permitted to be run. We have to make a reevaluation of that internally to decide if that's the right way to go."

Gamesmanship in advance of the The Chase or a legitimate complaint? 

Surprisingly, Jack Roush came to the Chevy team’s defense.  He acknowledged his team was aware of the Hendrick moves and, after checking with NASCAR, was instituting some changes of its own.

“We've been working at it, got assurance from NASCAR that it's okay, it's within the rules,” Roush said.  “It's not the reason we were able to win today, but it certainly is hard to win if you don't have a competitive aero package and chassis, mechanical grip package.”

So if the Hendrick moves are okay with NASCAR and apparently okay with Roush, what is Bad Brad complaining about?  His real target is Roger Penske.  With The Chase approaching, he’s trying to push Penske to keep pace with Hendrick and Roush.  With all the commotion surrounding the team’s switch to Ford next year, the pullout by Dodge, the suspension and subsequent release of A. J. Allmendinger and search for a replacement, Keselowski may be concerned the team has lost its focus.  

It’s another brilliant move on his part to re-focus those efforts.  Now we’ll see if it works. 


Monday, August 13, 2012

The Danger Behind Dodge’s Decision

Roush (top), Hendrick and 
TRD dominate NASCAR
engine suppliers
It’s now pretty clear why Dodge pulled out of NASCAR.

It simply couldn’t find a team capable of taking on its program.  After five months of searching, Dodge couldn’t find a team with the ability to build its own engines and chassis.

That’s a startling turn of events that should be putting a real scare into the world of NASCAR.  The best options for Dodge came down to a one-car team from Denver – or importing a team from IndyCar racing.

Roger Penske, who had been building the Dodge engines before announcing he was taking his race team and going to Ford in 2013, had hoped to continue building Dodge engines and selling them to the company.  But when presented with the option, top Fiat-Chrysler management, neutral to negative on NASCAR to begin with, wondered why the company would want to buy engines from someone who just jumped to a competitor.  Good question.  And Dodge had no interest in taking on the role of engine builder supplier.

What happens now to the Penske engine program?  Well we know it won’t be building Sprint Cup engines.  Jack Roush announced before Pocono that Penske would be getting his Ford engines from Yates/Roush.  The demise of Penske Racing engines marks the second major Cup engine program to go belly-up in the past year, Joe Gibbs Racing having stopped building Cup engines at the end of last year in favor of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) power plants.

That’s not a good thing.  Sprint Cup engine production is now dominated by three groups, Hendrick Motorsports for Chevrolet, Yates/Roush for Ford and TRD for Toyota.  Oh yeah, Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines supplies those teams along with Chip Ganassi, but they really haven’t been competitive all year.  And Triad Racing builds some start-and-park Toyota motors, but that’s about it. 

In announcing the decision to pull out, Ralph Gilles, head of Dodge’s SRT (Street and Racing Technology) group that oversees the company’s racing activities, pointed a finger squarely at Ford for contributing to the problem. 

“Ford has been very aggressive again trying to get critical mass in the sport with some new launches coming up,” Gilles said.  “That's their strategy. We are not in a position to do the same thing. There's really no one to do it with. It's really a game of musical chairs in NASCAR. They are really shrinking capacity in Carolina.

“What's available in North Carolina now is not what was available five, 10 years ago. It's not as easy as you would think to configure a team at the level that we are accustomed to racing and at the level that we want to perform.

“So unfortunately, the house of cards kind of fell apart. We really apologize to our fans and love our fans. We hope they remain loyal to us as we really make some of the coolest cars on the planet.”

Monday, August 6, 2012

NASCAR: Things Are Getting A Little Dodge-y

Will this Chevy become a Charger?
So what’s going on with Dodge?

Although NASCAR’s first official test of the approved 2013 race cars is taking place this week, the Dodge Charger won’t be present; the company still looking for a team to replace Penske Racing next year. 

Missing the Martinsville test this week isn’t a big deal, it’s little more than a shakedown run for the new cars, considered critical to reversing the trend of fan apathy.  But when the next round of tests begin in early October and visit high speed tracks such as Talladega, Texas and Kansas in short succession, the Chrysler boys better have a team in place, ready to test its car.

Penske announced the move to Ford early in the year with the idea it would allow Chrysler plenty of time to find a replacement.  But while Dodge’s STR Motorsports group has taken over development of the new race car, it has yet to find a team to run it next year. 

For a while it looked as if IndyCar's Andretti Autosport was going to field a team in NASCAR for Dodge, but in the end the available sponsorship dollars and company support didn’t pencil out.  Richard Petty Motorsport also has been mentioned, along with Chip Ganassi Racing.  But Dodge is looking for something more capable than RPM and something less than the big bucks Ganassi commands.    

Openly campaigning for the Dodge role at Pocono was Furniture Row Racing.  Team general manager Joe Garone told ESPN the team has talked with Dodge and stressed “we're a full-service team.  We would be able to hit the ground running if we switched to another manufacturer."  Well they build everything except chassis, which they currently get from Richard Childress Racing, or engines, which they get from Earnhardt Childress Racing.  Other than that, full service.

The one car FRR team is making a lot of promises, such as a willingness to buy and run the Penske engine operation, moving the team from Denver to Charlotte and adding a second driver to pair with Regan Smith.  Kurt Busch is the name most often mentioned and for some reason he hasn’t worn out his welcome at Dodge.  They even seem to prefer him.      

But all that takes money – Dodge’s money – and that’s just what Chrysler was hoping to avoid.  So the company is taking its time making a decision.  Sure they’ve already invested a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the investment required to make the commitment to stay in the sport for years to come. 

It’s not too late.  Dodge could still pull the plug, which would be a major blow to NASCAR.

Speaking of Penske, I’m sure he didn’t appreciate Jack Roush announcing prior to Pocono that the Penske team would be using Roush-Yates engines in 2013.  The official announcement was made today by Doug Yates.  And while Penske had shown some interest in buying into Ford’s engine operations, Roush made it clear that wasn’t gonna happen.  How does it feel being a satellite team Roger?   

And finally on the Penske front, shortly after Brad Keselowski said he’d like to have some input on who takes over the No. 22 car now that A. J. Allmendinger has been released and if Sam Hornish doesn’t cut it, he was captured in the background of an interview on ESPN talking with Joey Logano, one of those mentioned most often for the seat.   Probably just a coincidence.