Monday, September 24, 2012

Babe Hamlin

Hamlin replays Ruth's guarantee
Was Denny Hamlin’s win at New Hampshire worthy of Ruthian comparisons?

Well not quite, but it was close.

After a botched pit stop cost him any chance of a win at Chicago, Hamlin predicted victory at New Hampshire.  It came just one week before the 80th anniversary of the Babe’s called shot, which took place during the third game of the 1932 World Series. 

As the story goes, Ruth was being heckled by the Chicago Cub players and fans during the game, even though he’d already hit a home run earlier.  After taking a couple of strikes, Ruth gestured towards the outfield before the next pitch.  The pitch landed in the bleachers.

Not even a botched qualifying effort that saw him start 28th could keep Hamlin from fulfilling his promise at New Hampshire.  He moved into the lead on lap 93 and led 193 of the 200 laps.  Not even a trio of debris cautions could keep it close.

Afterwards, Hamlin played to the Ruth comparison, replaying the Bambino pointing out where he would deposit the next pitch, right down to the left-handed batting stance.  Then he downplayed Ruthian comparisons.

“There were many people that called their shot with championships ahead of me, so I'm just a small, small little bug on the windshield,” he said.

The Yankees went on to sweep the Series.  It won’t be as easy for Hamlin.  He trails Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski in the standings.   Next up is Dover, where Johnson has won four of the last seven races.  Hamlin, on the other hand, hasn’t finished in the top 15 since the car of tomorrow was introduced.

Finally, thanks Jeff, for shaving the ‘stache.  Although it might be too late.  He finished third at New Hampshire, but picked up just three points on the Johnson.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Shave The 'Stache Jeff

Shave the 'stache Jeff
OK Jeff, will you please shave the ‘stache now?

Gordon appears to be living up to his promise to bring back the mustache he sported when he first joined NASCAR’s Cup series back in 1992.  I say it appears, because after a week, it’s hard to tell.  It doesn’t look any better now than it did back then.

And after having a stuck throttle send him into the wall at Chicago, hopefully he’ll put that nonsense behind him.

Not only does the ‘stache set NASCAR back 20 years, it brings back plenty bad memories. 

Memories of a young Jeff Gordon, brash, aggressive and with more than a touch of arrogance (although relatively mild compared to guys like Brad Keselowski and the Busch Bros).

I didn’t much care for 21-year old Gordon when moved to the Cup ranks at the end of the 1992 season.  I didn’t like the fact he jumped from USAC to NASCAR.  I didn’t like the fact he jumped from Ford to Chevrolet.  I really didn’t like the fact he started beating Big E on a regular basis.  It was all just a little too easy for him.  Except growing a mustache, everything else seemed to come easy to him.

Things have changed after 20 years.

The more he struggled he recent years, the more I came to appreciate and respect him.  On the track and off, he’s proved himself to be a true champion.

Only please, please Jeff, shave the ‘stache.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NASCAR's Road Atlanta Site of New Chase Race?

Watkins Glen provide the best race of the year so far.
Could a Chase race at Road Atlanta also be in the cards?
Mostly overlooked in last week’s reports that GrandAm was buying the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and merging the two in 2014 for a united American road racing series (critical for the future of road racing, by the way), was the news GrandAm also took ownership of the Road Atlanta and Sebring race tracks.

Both tracks were previously controlled by Dan Panoz, the driving force behind ALMS, who sold out for a reported $20 million.  Pretty cheap if you ask me.  Anyway, GrandAm, of course, is owned by NASCAR. 

And that’s the other big news.  NASCAR, reportedly considering adding a road race to The Chase, suddenly owns one of the nation’s premier natural road courses, right in the heart of it fans base. 

By most accounts, the best Sprint Cup race so far this season took place at Watkins Glen.  Some (including me) would say the best Cup races of the past couple of years have been on road courses.  As a result, there's been talk of adding a road race to The Chase.  Up until now, Wisconsin’s Road America, site of a Nationwide race, has been considered the prime candidate should a third road course be added to the Cup schedule and The Chase.  The GrandAm/NASCAR purchase of ALMS/Road Atlanta might change that.  Why let Road America host the race, if you can do it yourself?  

NASCAR teams have long used Road Atlanta for some of its road course testing.  Brad Keselowski broke his ankle there last year.  It’s a track not unlike Road America, with significant elevation changes, fast straights and fast, sweeping turns.  It would require some safety updates before a Cup race could be staged there, but that’s easily accomplished.  There’s not much in the way of grandstands, nothing like Watkins Glen or Sonoma, but on a par with Road America.  

It’s only a couple of hundred miles from downtown Charlotte, less than a four hour drive.  Less than three hours from Talladega, two hours from Atlanta International Raceway.  There’s bound to be concerns about another Chase race being so close to events at Martinsville, Charlotte and Talladega and coming fairly soon after the Labor Day race at Atlanta.

But think of the possibilities.  It could be quite a weekend for race fans, the Petite Le Mans finale to the GrandAm season on Saturday, a Cup Chase race on Sunday.  And what the heck, run a Nationwide race at the ¾ mile Lanier Speedway across the street on Saturday night.

Just too bad Lanier's not a dirt track.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Busch Quit, Gordon Never Did

Gordon never gave up
“Never quit!” Jeff Gordon screamed to his crew, acknowledging their efforts following his second place finish at Richmond Saturday night.  “Never quit.”

Gordon didn’t.  Neither did his crew.  But Kyle Busch did.  As a result, it will be Gordon spending the final 10 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season chasing after a championship while Busch, as he puts it, will be “driving around in circles.”

After leading the first lap at Richmond Saturday night, Gordon saw his car turn to junk.  He dropped back through the field, all the way to 26th place and a lap down to the leaders before a red flag for rain brought the cars onto pit road.  Busch was running easily in the top 10.

“We are completely out of it,” Gordon said during a rain delay.  But the team used the red flag period to discuss what they were going to do to his car to make it competitive.  And then they did it.  Gordon, for his part, drove the race of his life, fighting back from his one lap deficit.

Busch, meanwhile, was the victim of some faulty pit strategy.  His team wasn’t the only one to stay out when rain starting falling again, thinking perhaps the race might not restart.  Then they missed an opportunity to pit with one lap until the green flag.  Bigger mistake.  But rather than put it behind him and try and fight back – Busch quit.  Asked what the team could do to make his car better, Busch said “I don’t even F…ing care.”

Still, after all the pit stops played out, Busch had a lead over Gordon.  It was up to the drivers.  Gordon responded again.  His car was near perfect and he raced it aggressively to the front.  Busch, his car far from perfect, pouted.

Gordon had to overcome his own doubts before staging his comeback.

“For me, as a racecar driver, when you have that kind of start to the race, you don't have a lot of hope you're going to get it turned around,” Gordon said.  “I went to Alan (Gustafson). He never wavered. He was confident. They were looking at the data from what we had, to our teammates, even Tony. We had just done the rear bar. They were pretty confident that was going to get us close to our teammates. He was right. I still had a little doubt in him, though.

It could be a season changing event for the team and Gordon is already talking about a championship.

“I felt like I won the race tonight,” he said. “When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts. To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up there and finish second, almost win the race, make it in by one point, man, I don't see any reason why we can't go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship.”

Busch, under a media microscope because of his previous transgressions, barely acknowledged car owner Joe Gibbs before climbing out and storming away.

He returned long enough to answer two questions.

“We missed. That’s it. Plain and simple,” he said when asked what happened.  What did Gibbs say to him?  “Handle it the right way.”  Busch couldn’t stop there.  “But there’s no right way to handle it.”

Yes there was.  And it was up to Crew Chief Dave Rogers to show him what “handle it the right way” means.  Or maybe Gibbs told Rogers to “handle it with class.”

“The Chase is more than one race, but we certainly were in a position to capitalize and make it, but yeah, that call, I blew it,” Rogers said.  “There’s no two ways to look at it.  I’m pretty honest.  I evaluate myself as hard as I evaluate my guys and I gave one up today.”

That was the right way to handle it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Truex Ready to Join NASCAR's Elite

Martin Truex, Jr., is ready to join NASCAR's elite along with MWR, NAPA
There’s a reason Martin Truex, Jr., was signed last week to a new three-year contract by Michael Waltrip Racing and sponsor NAPA.
He’s on the verge of a breakthrough.  It may not happen this year, but the No. 56 NAPA Toyota is about the join the ranks of the NASCAR elite.
Truex should have won at Atlanta Sunday night.  After starting 28th, he raced to the front and had it well in hand until a late race caution sent it into a green-white-checkers finish.  A slightly quicker pit stop for Denny Hamlin gave him the perferred line on the restart.  Truex started second, spun his tires and ended up fourth. 
Currently fifth in points, Truex is one of only two drivers headed for The Chase without a win this year, Kevin Harvick being the other.  But Truex knows the team is due for a breakthrough. 
"We're right there,” he said after renewing his deal with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR).  “We've been close; we've been capable of winning races all year long. We just haven't finished the deal. We've run second a bunch of times and we've had the car to beat two or three races and we didn't do everything right. It takes a lot of things to go your way to win a race. On the days where we've had the fastest car out there, we didn't have the cautions go our way or maybe pit strategy or the way the cycles went, but we've had the speed and we've got the team that's capable of doing it for sure. For now, it's just a matter of getting that first one out of the way and quit worrying about it and go after a bunch of them.”
 Hamlin knew he was fortunate to beat Truex.
“Circumstances just fell our way at the end,” Hamlin said.  “When you start to falter and fade, you’ve got to have another aspect of the team that picks you up, and today it was the pit crew. They won us this race today. We’re very blessed for that. I’m 70 percent happy for me and 30 percent sad for Michael Waltrip and Martin because I know they’ve come so close.”
Truex traces his team’s turnaround back to early in the 2011 season when not much seemed to be going right.  But Waltrip made commitments to Toyota and its sponsors to improve in 2012.  It entered into an association with Joe Gibbs Racing to share technology and added Clint Boyer, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers to boost its driver ranks.
“Ever since, we've been on an awesome road to improvement,” Truex said.  “With those guys integrating me into the team and giving me some say and making me feel like I'm part of something, has probably been one of the coolest and proudest moments of my life."
Slipping and sliding:  Atlanta saw the continuation of a theme covered here last week, Hamlin moving forward while Tony Stewart continues to slide backward.  Although Stewart qualified on the pole, he slipped back during the race and eventually finished four laps behind in 22nd.  He’s now in danger of falling out of the Top 10 in points, although his three wins will keep him in The Chase. 
Even worse for Stewart, sponsor Office Depot announced before the race it won’t be back next year, the second major Stewart Haas Racing sponsor to quit the sport, the U.S. Army having already announced its withdrawal.  Office Depot was the team’s primary sponsor for 22 of 38 races this year and that leaves a big hole for the team.  Combined with the Army pullout, SHR basically needs to find a full season sponsorship for one car, a major task in today’s economic climate. 
Contrast that with NAPA, which is one of the few sponsors that will be the primary sponsor in every race next year.  NAPA obviously doesn't want to miss an part of the breakout year.