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.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's NASCAR Waiting For?

If NASCAR doesn't act, team
owners including Joe Gibbs need to act

The National Football League has required it since 2006.  Major League Baseball requires it, the National Hockey League requires it and so does Major League Soccer. 
IndyCar requires it.
In fact, virtually every major professional sporting organization in the U.S. (and many amateur groups, from the NCAA to little league) requires some sort of testing baseline be established for its athletes to help check for concussions and guard against athletes returning to action too soon.
So what’s NASCAR waiting for?
"We will continue to work closely and review our policies with the medical experts that advise NASCAR on baseline testing and other medical issues” NASCAR said.  “While not mandatory, baseline testing can and has been used and is just one of the many tools a neurologist or neurosurgeon may use as part of a neurological assessment.''
Time to make a test mandatory.
Last week at Kansas, Denny Hamlin hit the wall hard in practice.  Although Hamlin drove his car back to the garage, avoiding a mandatory trip to the infield medical center, he said he felt “slightly dizzy” and that he “got his bell rung.”
At the urging of a NASCAR official, Hamlin eventually made his way to the med center where he was checked and asked to come back in a hour.  After the second visit he was cleared to return to the track.  The following morning he said he felt “100 percent.”
Compared to what?
That Hamlin was cleared to drive about an hour after saying he got his bell rung and was a little dizzy, is amazing enough.  If he had been a pro quarterback, he would not have been allowed to go back in the game without an ImPact review.  Hamlin’s was a worst case scenario, one which he openly addressed.    
"No doubt about it," Hamlin said. "You would do whatever it took to stay in the car in a championship battle. But the one thing you can't hide is the signs you're not right.
The trouble is, those signs aren’t always readily apparent. 
You probably remember the story of Natasha Richardson, the actress and wife of actor Liam Neeson.  She hit her head while skiing.  At first she seemed fine and refused medical attention.  But three hours later she was complaining of a headache and taken to a hospital, eventually dying three days later from an epidural hemorrhage due to a “blunt impact to the head.”
Contrast that with a similar story with a different ending of Brandon McCarthy.  The Oakland A’s pitcher was hit by a line drive during a game this year, got up, briefly tried to stay in the game and then walked off the field.  The team insisted on a CT scan, which disclosed the epidural hemorrhage.  He was rushed to a hospital for surgery and he is expected to make a full recovery and play again next season.
"If you are not treated for this, you could die, but if you're treated rapidly, you usually have a very, very good recovery," said Dr. Geoffrey Manley, the vice chairman of neurological surgery at the University of California San Francisco.  "That is why people need to be evaluated promptly.”
The real concern here isn’t that a driver walks away from a crash where his “bell was rung” and races the following the weekend, although that’s obviously a concern.  But the real concern should be that a driver says he’s fine, gets on his plane and then suffers the same sort of trauma as Richardson or McCarthy.  A baseline test may help prevent something like that from happening.
Most professional organizations use ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) to establish a baseline to compare a post-event test against.  When Dale Earnhardt, Jr., went to see the experts on concussions he went to see the doctors behind ImPACT.  Most organizations conduct the computer-based tests as part of its pre-season physical regime.  It only takes about 20 minutes and sets a baseline for such skills as reaction time, information processing, etc. 
ImPACT, a commercially sold product and one of several available, is designed to “assists doctors in making return-to-play decisions and should never be used as a stand-alone tool or as a diagnostic instrument,” according to its website.  It is far from perfect and there is a wide-ranging debate in the scientific community as to the value of such tests.  That may be one reason NASCAR hasn’t acted.  Studies on ImPACT indicate a fairly high level of false positives, about 30 percent.  But better false positives than false negatives.  Danica Patrick, who took the test when she was driving Indy cars, said it can be “gamed,” purposely recording lower scores so a post-accident assessment won’t look so bad.  Several NFL players have admitted to doing just that.
Still, virtually every professional sporting organization in America – except NASCAR – considers establishing a baseline as important.
NASCAR doesn’t need to mandate ImPACT.  Leave it up to the teams or individual driver to decide how they want to establish their baseline.  But mandate that a baseline be set as a first line of defense. 
If NASCAR doesn’t act, the team owners should.  Some team owners, including Richard Childress, already have.  Come on Joe Gibbs, with your football experience, you should be a leader here.  Make sure each of your drivers gets a baseline test.  And don’t wait until next year.  Think about Hamlin.  And if NASCAR won’t do it, get together with the other big buck owners and make sure someone on the team is trained to conduct the test and is at every race and every test session. 
There's no reason to wait.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Junior: Take The Rest Of The Year Off

Take Your Time Dale
To: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Subject: Take the rest of the year off

Really Junior, what’s the rush?

You’re already out of the championship hunt.  So why come back with only four races on the schedule.  What’s to gain by coming back three weeks after suffering your second concussion of the year? 

Okay, I’m sure you feel a responsibility to your team, your sponsors, to NASCAR and to your fans. 

Don’t worry about them.  They’ll all be there at Daytona next February.  Your only responsibility now is to yourself.  To get yourself better. 

The word is you'll test next week at Martinsville.  The temptation must be strong to return for Martinsville if the doctors will let you.  It’s one of your best and favorite tracks.  It’s a special track for the Hendrick team.  But Texas the week after?  No thanks.  Not now.  And to start picking and choosing your races would be a mistake.  When you come back, you need to come back totally committed.  Martinsville isn’t going anyway.  It’s on the schedule again next year.

You may be thinking there’s a benefit to coming back this year, getting all the questions out of the way now, before the new season rolls around.   Sorry, those questions are going to be around for a long time to come.  Every time you’re in an accident the media will want to know how you’re feeling.  What they’re really asking is does you head hurt.  The microscope you’ve been under ever since you entered this sport is only going to magnify.  Get used to it.  

Why not just begin your return during off-season testing.  Start slowly, work your way back, away from the glare of fans and the media.  

The concussion debate is relatively new to NASCAR, but it has been ongoing for some time now in football and I know you’re a football fan.  You probably know the story of Jahvid Best.  The 2010 first round draft choice of the Detroit Lions hasn’t played in a year because of a concussion.  He’s had a history of concussions, at least three, dating back to his college days at California.  Lions’ coach Jim Schwartz says there is no way to tell when Best will come back.

"You know, I've said this time and time again, it's different than any other injury," Schwartz said earlier this week. "Any other injury you can try and put some kind of timetable on it, and that (a concussion) you can't.”

That’s the problem, there’s so much we don’t understand about concussions.  So why take any chance right now when you don’t need to?   Error on the side of caution.  If three weeks may or may not be enough time to heal, just think what three months will do for you.

So go ahead Junior, take the rest of the year off.  Even if the doctors clear you to race, take a little more time. 

Just to be sure.

To Rick Hendrick: Junior has said it before, in many ways you’re like a second farther to him.  As a result, you may be in the toughest position of all.  I’m sure you’re proud of your driver, the courage he’s shown and want to support him in any way you can.  A team owner would probably put a driver back in his car as soon as he said he was ready.  A father, I’m not so sure.

To Jeff Gordon: Okay, we know what you’d do if you still had a chance to win the championship with two races left.  I don’t blame you for what your said.  But what about in Junior’s position?  He’s always looked up to you.  Talk to him as a friend and teammate.  You don’t need to tell him what to do, just listen and understand.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bowyer's Back In It

Bowyer's Back In The Picture
Five down and five to go, but only three of 12 remain.  Okay, maybe it's four now.

Midway through The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Clint Bowyer has clawed his back into the picture, although he’s still a longshot at best, trailing Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Jimmy Johnson.

Charlotte was a fuel economy race as it often is, but that didn’t stop Bowyer from going for it.  While Keselowski and his Penske team mishandled the situation for the first time this year and Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson all held back a little bit at the end to conserve fuel, Bowyer took a bigger gamble, just ran that little bit harder and as a result, won the race.

For much of the night Keselowski, Hamlin and Johnson ran one-two-three.  Keselowski, whose charmed life early in the year may be catching up with him, dominated the race, leading more than a third of the laps before running out of gas while trying to stretch his fuel mileage one more lap so he would make only one last stop.  He never recovered, finishing  a lap down in 11th and seeing his points lead cut in half.  Hamlin and Johnson made an extra stop for fuel and still slowed near the end, allowing Bowyer to race to the win.

And that’s one thing Bowyer has going for him.  While Keselowski, Hamlin and Johnson are running not to lose points, Bowyer is racing for max points.

We're going for trophies” acknowledged Bowyer’s crew chief Brian Pattie.  “That's the only way you're going to beat the 2, the 48 and the 11. That mid-pack 4th, 5th and 6th in points were gapped a little bit from the leaders, so you had to do something special to get back into it, and this definitely helps.

Next up is Kansas.  Bowyer considers it his home track, although he’s never done all that well there.  In contrast, the last three winners at Kansas were Keselowski, Hamlin and Johnson.  The track has been repaved and reconfigured, so it will be interesting to see what the track has to offer.

“To be back in victory lane, new life, new hope going into Kansas, there’s a lot of races left. There's a couple short tracks, Kansas -- nobody really knows what to expect there. It's a repave. You know these cars that are running on these mile-and-a-halfs are going to be fast there, but you don't know if somebody is going to stub their toe, if somebody is going to struggle if it comes down to fuel mileage. All's it would have took for one of those three cars to be in the situation that I was in, stretch it out, run out of gas, that opens the door up for everybody.

Hamlin still has some of his best tracks ahead of him, including the upcoming Martinsville race, but he’s also done well at Texas, Phoenix (winning the race last year) and Homestead.

It will be interesting to see how Keselowski and team respond.  There appears to have been some confusion on what lap Keselowski was supposed to pit and just what happened to run them out of fuel.   Things have gone their way most of the year and we’ll see how they react under adversity.

And then there's Johnson.  Five-time.  Hard to bet against him. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Junior's Right: It Ain't Healthy

Junior Speaks Out

Late News:  The following was written and posted before news on Thursday morning that Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in the crash at Talladega, his second in the past six weeks, and will miss the next two races.

Don’t be surprised if Dale Earnhardt. Jr., never says another word following a race.  I’m not talking about the regular “we had a good car and I want to thank…” drivel all the drivers spout after your typical race.

I’m talking about Junior’s emotional comments following Talladega this past weekend.  There’s been a noticeable backlash from fans, media – and a total lack of support from drivers and car owners – to those comments. 

Junior doesn’t speak out often.  He’s not the most articulate driver in the garage.  But when he does speak beyond the typical post-race interview, his comments are heartfelt and genuine.  And that’s what we got at Talladega.  

"If this is what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it – I’ll just put it to you like that," Earnhardt said after being caught up in last weekend’s 25-car accident.  "If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job.

"I don't even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year, but I ain't got much choice."

Much has been made of Earnhardt calling the fans “bloodthirsty.”  Well it didn’t exactly go down like that.  He was responding to a reporter who said the fans liked the big wrecks caused by restrictor plate racing.

“It’s not safe, wrecking like that.  That’s ridiculous man,” said the five-time Talladega winner.  He seemed to be questioning whether the fans really do look forward to the big wrecks.  “It’s bloodthirsty if that’s what people want.  That’s ridiculous.

“For longevity of the sport, that ain’t healthy.  I don’t care what anybody says, for the good of the sport, I mean it’s good for the here and now, and it will get people talking today, but for the long run that’s not gonna help the sport. 

Earnhardt was right.  They were talking about the crash during the opening five minutes of the Today Show on Monday morning.  Joking about it would be a better description.  In fact, it should have been downright embarrassing for NASCAR and its fans.  And if fans like the wrecks, they have an odd way of showing it.  Both Talladega attendance and television viewership were down.  NASCAR said it was because the date for the race changed.  Right.

Earnhardt got little support from his fellow drivers.  Teammate Jeff Gordon came the closest, but his comments following a question about Earnhardt’s remarks were mild compared to Junior.

“I remember when coming to Talladega was fun,” Gordon said.  “I haven't experienced that in a long, long time. I don't like coming here. I don't like the type of racing that I have to do.

"But if I'm a fan, I would love that. I think it is incredibly intense. It's wild. It's crazy. You're going to see it. Sometimes that balance that NASCAR has to deal with doesn't mean -- I mean, I don't have to be happy and be all excited about coming to Talladega. I don't expect that.”

NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton was rather dismissive of Earnhardt.

“I’ve been down here for over 60 races,” Pemberton said.  “Everybody has comments about different race tracks. Some of them don’t like road courses. Some don’t like restrictor-plate tracks. That’s why we have different venues. They don’t always have their best races at those places. Everybody has their opinion. That’s fine.”

Perhaps because of the backlash, by midweek Junior was backtracking.  “I regret making a bit of a scene and not considering the fact we're going to be in a totally different racecar for 2013,” he said.  “It's probably going to present a totally different style of racing at those tracks.  So I probably have a bit more of a positive outlook on the potential for that style of racing to be really good with the next car.”

I hope Junior’s right, but don’t bet on it.  No question the new cars look better.   But during tests of the 2013 car at Talladega last week we continued to see plenty of bumper-to-bumper racing.

Unfortunately, the real loss in all of this may be Junior thinking twice next time before speaking out.  And that will be too bad.  What the sport needs are more drivers willing to share their feelings, not another driver reading from a cue card. 

Junior was right the first time.  It ain't healthy.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stewart Changes His Tune

Remember last year when Tony Stewart warned one-and-all that there was a new sheriff in town; that he would not tolerate blocking and if anyone tried to block him, Stewart was going to “dump him.”

Well apparently Tony, for one, doesn’t.  Here’s a reminder. 

“If they wanna block, that’s what’s gonna happen to ‘em every time, for the rest of my career,” Stewart said after dumping Brian Vickers at Sonoma last year.  “I’m not gonna tolerate it.  I don’t race guys that way and I’m not gonna let anybody race me that way.  So if they block, they get dumped. 

“There are 42 guys out there and they know now how I race and what I expect.  I don’t race ‘em that way, I don’t block guys and I’m not gonna block guys.  If they block me, they will suffer the consequences.”

But at Talladega, Stewart found himself in the place no one wants to be.  Out front and all alone in the center of the track.  He drifted high in attempt to slow the fast closing Matt Kenseth then dove low in a late move to get in front of Michael Waltrip.  Way too late.

Afterwards Stewart took full credit, or blame, for the accident that collected 25 cars. 

“I just screwed up,” Stewart said, with a strange smirk on his face through most of the explanation.  “I turned down across, I think it was Michael, and crashed the whole field.  It was my fault, blocking to try and stay where I was at, so I take 100 percent of the blame.  I was trying to win the race and I was trying to stay ahead of Matt.  Michael got a great run on the bottom and had a big head of steam.  When I turned down I turned down across the right front of his car so I just made a mistake on my part, but it cost a lot of people a bad day because of it.”

Few seemed to blame Stewart.  Not even Waltrip.

"I don't blame Tony at all because anybody in the world would have had to block like that,'' he said.  "That's what you had to do on the last lap.''

Only Clint Bowyer had mild rebuke for Stewart.

“The 14, hung a pretty hard left on Michael there and turned him and kind of wrecked everybody, but he did what he had to do,” he said.  Bowyer himself was drilled by Kenseth on the backstraight, nearly pushing Bowyer off the track.  But Kenseth had the good sense to do it on the straightaway. 

Afterwards, Stewart got a lot of credit for taking the blame.  A class act some said.  Hard to figure out why.  Maybe it’s because it happened at Talladega and nothing really counts there.

But if you ask me, blocking’s blocking and Stewart better be looking in his rearview mirror at Charlotte.  There are 25 drivers with a reason to dump him.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

All You Need Is Love

For some Talladega Good Lovin' you need to embrace the speed
Facing the Dover Mile a week ago, Denny Hamlin contacted his sport psychologist, looking for a little help.  Seems it was the most challenging race on The Chase schedule for him, his “Achilles heel,” with an average finish of just 20.5

So what’s love got to do with it?

"Let your challenge for the week be to fall in love with this track,” the psychologist responded.  “From the moment you arrive, look at things to love about it and reasons to love it. All week look for things great and special to happen to you.  Embrace the challenge of having your best attitude that you've ever had this week. Take pride in showing yourself how strong your mind is. Own your mind and own the race track that you race. Control your attitude and let your emotions own the world. Have fun."

Good Lovin’
Feelin’ the love, Hamlin went out and grabbed the pole, led three times for 39 laps and finished 7th.  A little better fuel economy and he would have been second or third.  Talk about love at first sight. 

Hello, I Love You
So with Talladega coming up, not exactly a favorite with most drivers, where should they be looking for a little love.  Afterall, you’ve got to love the one you’re with.

Speed.  To embrace Talladega, embrace its speed.  Don’t fear it.  Love Talladega for the speed.  No more running around at the back of the pack, waiting for the big one to happen.  You’ve got a 50/50 chance of ending up in the middle of it anyway.  Go for it.  Get up front.  Fight for the lead.  Show those other guys what you’ve got, that you’re not afraid of them, Talladega or anything else.

Oh yeah.  Show them a little love too.