Saturday, July 28, 2007

It isn't about the machinery, Earnhardt Jr. insists

Here, right from Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself, is the answer to that silly question about whether changes at Dale Earnhardt Inc. might have changed his mind about leaving that team at season’s end.

"I don’t think my decision would have been any different," he said.

"I didn’t leave because we didn’t have a seven-post machine. I didn’t leave because we didn’t have 25 CNC machines. It didn’t have anything to do with whether we were a three-, two- or four-car operation.

"In racing, you always have to progress. You can’t never sit still and everybody at DEI knows that. …The things that are happening now are great for the company. But it wouldn’t have changed my opinion."

  • Jeff Gordon has won 79 races in his Nextel Cup career, but he has no trouble picking out a favorite.

    "The Daytona 500 is our biggest event, there’s no doubt about that," Gordon said.

    "But on a personal note, I like Indy. I like the Brickyard. My biggest win, and I don’t think I’ll ever top it, was the inaugural Brickyard 400 (in 1994). It’s always going to be the biggest win for me, personally."

  • You have to give ESPN2 credit for how it rolled with the changes that weather caused to the schedule at Indianapolis on Saturday.

    The network swapped back and forth from Indianapolis Motor Speedway to O’Reilly Raceway Park during practices that wound up overlapping. It got in some coverage of National Hot Rod Association qualifying from Sonoma, Calif., then showed action from Busch and Nextel Cup qualifying from both of the Indy tracks, too.

    Nice hustle.

  • It’ll be a while before we all figure out what to actually call Yates-Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing, the team that comes out of the partnership between Robert Yates Racing and the Champ Car team that was announced here on Friday.

    It will also be a while before we fully understand what all it means, too.

    "A merger of equals is where somebody loses his job," Yates said. "This is not where anybody loses his job. This is a partnership, so we grow it. It’s like if you have a full baseball team and then you bring on nine more guys, you don’t have shortstops in between. In our business, we’re missing some of the shortstops."

    What I think that means is that Yates figures he can get some engineering help from Newman-Haas-Lanigan that will help his stock cars go faster.

    What’s in it for the Champ Car guys? Well, it gives them a foot in the NASCAR door and that might be a door some of the sponsors they work with over there want to walk through.

    Remember, Yates now has two cars sponsored by one company – M&M Mars – and that’s not going to continue forever.

  • Carl Edwards will drive with a brace on the right thumb he dislocated in a crash in a late model race in Nebraska on Sunday and expects to have no problems.

    When Edwards went to his doctor in Columbia, Mo., to have the thumb looked at and to have the brace fashioned. When he went in, he took the steering wheel off his brother’s race car in with him and had the brace built around how his hand needed to fit around it.

  • If you would, please include our friend Ray Cooper in your thoughts and prayers over the next few weeks.

    Coop has done the manufacturer’s notes for the media for Dodge for the past several seasons after doing the same job for Chevrolet and also covering NASCAR as a sportswriter.

    He found out last week he has cancer and started radiation treatments a few days ago. Both of his parents have been battling health issues, too, and on Saturday his father, Eugene, passed away in South Carolina.

  • Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Hello, Rick? About that balance on our engine deal ...

    Just a few things I can’t help wondering about:

  • Mark Martin’s No. 01 Chevrolets will use Hendrick Motorsports engines this week at Indianapolis and again next week at Pocono before switching over to Dale Earnhardt Inc. engines after this week’s merger between DEI and Ginn Racing.

    I wonder if Ginn Racing zeroed out its balance with the Hendrick engine department, or if some level of debt might be “forgiven” in return for considerations by DEI in regard to other matters involving Hendrick.

    I’ll give you (number) 8 guesses as to what I’m talking about.

  • I also wonder if anybody really thinks Regan Smith is going to be satisfied with running Truck Series races when a week ago he was told he would be in a Nextel Cup car for the rest of this season?

    Smith has been a good soldier all year long, saying and doing all the right things as his schedule was adjusted in tune with the fortunes of Ginn Racing. But at some point, doesn’t a contract have to be a contract and doesn’t Smith have to be treated with the same respect he’s treated the team?

  • I wonder if anybody else realized before I did that only two drivers have scored more than 700 points in the past five races – the five races since Hendrick Motorsports announced Kyle Busch wouldn’t be back next year.

    One of those drivers is Carl Edwards. The other is Kyle Busch. Yes, I figured that after the decision to go with Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Busch in 2008 was announced the No. 5 team might start falling apart. And while there has been some outward tension, the team and its controversial driver are still getting the job done.

    Busch isn’t perfect and I won’t pretend that he is. But he’s a heck of a race car driver. If you don’t recognize that, you’re not paying attention.

  • I wonder about people who’re saying that if changes being made at Dale Earnhardt Inc. had been made sooner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have stayed with the team.

    First, Earnhardt Jr.’s decision to leave was always far more about the relationship he and Teresa Earnhardt have had for the past 25 years than about how they’ve worked together at DEI.

    Second, when Earnhardt Jr. announced that he was leaving everyone realized that DEI was at a crossroads. To the credit of Teresa Earnhardt, as well as Max Siegel and the other people who are working along with her, they’ve found a pathway that now looks like they’re heading toward long-term viability in the sport.

    Yeah, I was among those who said and wrote that if DEI didn’t find a way to keep Earnhardt Jr. that it was in big trouble. Who knows how things will ultimately turn out, but if I had to make a call on whether I was right or wrong about that right now, I’d have to go with dead, flat wrong.

    As a matter of fact, I don’t think I could have been MORE wrong. It seems now that the best way for Earnhardt Jr. and for DEI to move forward is for them to do it on diverging paths.

  • I wonder if ESPN has somebody who’s smart enough to say that too many bells and whistles can ruin a good broadcast. I sure hope so.

    ESPN has a great team assembled to do Nextel Cup races. I know how much doing Cup races means to anchor Jerry Punch and I am very happy he’s getting this opportunity. But when ESPN started this year doing Busch races it threw so much at its viewers that it was hard to figure out what to look at on the screen.

    Fans want to see the race. Everything else is icing, and as much as I hate to admit it, you can have too much icing on a cake.

  • Monday, July 16, 2007

    Climb the fence for $1 million? Not me

    So after the race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, somebody in Victory Lane was giving Tony Stewart grief about his form as he climbed the fence in celebration of winning the USG Sheetrock 400.

    Maybe it started when Matt Yocum, Tony's sports information director, challenged Stewart to a climbing contest. I don't know. Anyhow, before long apparently my name got drug into it.

    So when Stewart got the media center, I knew where he was going to go.

    "I'll bet a million dollars you couldn't get to the top of that fence," he said to me.

    OK, let's just say up front that he's probably right. Tony's not carrying nearly as much weight up the fence as I would be, and he's certainly had more practice. These are among the several reasons I have more sense than to be trying to climb any fences.

    But for $1 million?

    He didn't set any kind of time limit. For $1 million, I might be able to make it if you give me a couple of days. But there'd have to be a lot of padding down just in case I fell off. The thing that worries me the most when Tony goes fence-climbing or when Carl Edwards tries his backflips is that they only have to miss one time before it's a bad, bad deal. I'd just as soon not break my leg -- or my neck, for that matter.

    Anyway, here's the payoff to the story.

    Sunday night, Tony and I bantered back and forth a little while about fence climbing and that was that.

    Monday morning, I went back to the track to do the Sirius NASCAR Radio show. I was supposed to go on the air with Marty Snider for The Morning Drive show at 6 a.m. Central time.

    I pulled into the track about 5:35 and when I got to the garage area, all I could find were locked gates. The radio equipment I needed to use was inside a Safety-Kleen trailer located inside the garage.

    On the other side of a fence.

    I tried to find some security guard. While Pat Patterson, who helps us get on the air from each track, and I were looking for someone to let us in, the clock was ticking.

    I had my rental car parked right up against the bottom of the fence. It was 5:50 and nobody with a key was in sight.

    I stood there a minute and looked at the hood of the car and the top of the fence. And, for just a second, I thought about trying to go over the top.

    Then, my brain actually engaged. Marty could last a segment or two if it came to that. I was going to wait on a key, which eventually came about 5:57 and everything worked out well.

    All I could think of the rest of the day was getting stuck on the top of that fence, or falling off and laying there in a big pile long enough for somebody to come take a picture.

    And send it to Tony Stewart.

    Friday, July 13, 2007

    A little bit about a lot on qualifying day at Chicagoland:

    NASCAR defends its current policy on substance abuse saying that its broad nature gives it wide freedom to test whoever whenever it feels necessary.

    The problem I have with that is that it also means it has the power NOT to test whoever whenever it wants to.

    Kevin Harvick is right about how NASCAR should remove room for speculation by establishing a program in which all drivers in its national series are tested at least twice a season.

    The thing NASCAR has going for it is that it doesn’t have any kind of player’s union that it has to deal with. It can, and usually does, do pretty much whatever it wants to do. That means NASCAR can have it both ways. It could set up a random program and still keep the “reasonable suspicion” that exists under the current policy.

    The problem is that for the random part of any such program to truly have credibility, it needs to be administered by an independent agency outside of NASCAR’s control. And NASCAR is never going to give up that kind of control.

    * * *
    Tony Stewart said the smartest thing he’s said in a week Friday at Chicagoland Speedway.

    After ripping Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin after their crash at Daytona on Saturday, Stewart declined to comment in detail about the incident here.

    “If I had just kept my mouth shut like I should have done I wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with it this week,” Stewart said.


    Regardless of what he thought about what Hamlin did wrong in their incident at Daytona, Stewart shouldn’t have chewed his teammate out in a televised interview following it.

    * * *
    Friday’s developments with Budweiser and Dale Earnhardt Jr. leave things in an interesting position.

    Let’s suppose for a minute that Dale Earnhardt Inc. keeps Budweiser. Does Budweiser have enough invested in the No. 8 to make it such that it wouldn’t want to let that go to another sponsor? Or do Bud and DEI understand that it would be hard for anybody to just step into a red No. 8 that isn’t named Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    OK, so let’s say Budweiser goes to another team. Now Bud needs a new number and, if DEI wants to keep the 8, so would Earnhardt Jr. Could you imagine there being somebody in a No. 8 who’s not Dale Jr. and who’s also not driving for Budweiser?

    Some fans don’t care, but this is important stuff to a lot of people.

    Take the guy who called our Sirius Satellite NASCAR Radio show Friday and said that he was a Rusty Wallace fan for years and years, and then one day all of the T-shirts and hats he owned suddenly indicated allegiance to Kurt Busch. He’s not a Kurt Busch fan, so he’s got a lot of stuff he can’t wear any more.

    * * *
    While spending more than an hour on the phone trying to get credit for air miles I didn’t get for a flight last month, I came up with some more new marketing slogans for America’s airlines.

    US Airways – We apologize.

    Delta Airlines – We love to fly when circumstances are not beyond our control.

    United Airlines – Please pardon the inconvenience.

    American Airlines – Hey, at least you didn’t have to drive.

    * * *
    I’ve stumbled on a new name for this track. I am going to start calling it CVS.

    I don’t know if everybody has CVS stores near their homes. We do in North Carolina. It’s a competitor to Walgreen’s (or Rite Aid or Duane Reade).

    Anyway, this track is not in Chicago, at all. I don’t know what would constitute Chicago “land,” but I’ve decided it should be called Chicago Vicinity Speedway – CVS.

    Friday, July 06, 2007

    Knowing you can win? Yeah, you gotta like that feeling

    The only No. 1 that Martin Truex Jr. pays attention to is the one on the side of his race car.

    He’ll leave it to others to speculate how the pecking order at Dale Earnhardt Inc. might be shuffled now that teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has decided to leave next year.

    "I never really thought about it," Truex said.

    "All I ever wanted to do was win and do the job that these guys deserve – get them wins and run up front each week."

    It’s hard not to wonder, though, if Truex hasn’t gone through some kind of transformation in recent weeks.

    When Earnhardt Jr. announced his departure in May, Truex was 20th in the Nextel Cup standings. Going into tonight’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, he’s ninth.

    "It just feels good that we're performing the way we should," Truex said. "That’s the bottom line. We’re having a blast coming to the race track every weekend."

    He should be.

    After finishing 11th at Darlington and 16th at Charlotte, Truex got his first Nextel Cup victory at Dover, leading 216 laps in a dominant performance.

    He then finished third at Pocono, second at Michigan and, after a 24th on the road course at Sonoma, third last weekend at New Hampshire.

    "Once you get on a roll, it just keeps coming," Truex said.

    "You keep running well and everybody's having fun. It just gets so much easier, I can’t even tell you. I just really look forward to each race every weekend and hopefully we just keep doing what we've been doing."

    The victory at Dover was particularly gratifying, of course. After winning 13 races and a pair of championships in the Busch Series, Truex went until October in his rookie season in Nextel Cup last year without a top five.

    He was fifth at Talladega and then runner-up at Homestead last fall, but until the victory at Dover he hadn’t been back in the top five. Since then, though, he’s been out of it only once.

    "I think the biggest thing winning does for you is get rid of all the doubt that anyone has ever had," Truex said.

    "All of the questions that anyone has ever had about ‘Can we do this? When will it happen?’ You don't worry about that anymore. You know you can win and you just have to figure out how you're going to do it again. That’s almost as tough but you don't really worry about it quite as much.

    "Once you get it once you want it more, obviously. But you know how to do it, you've been there, you've done it before. Everybody on the race team, their confidence is up knowing that they can get it done. They can do the job as good as anybody out here. That goes a long way."

    Sunday, July 01, 2007

    It's hard to argue against racing for a win

    I just wanted to expand a little bit on something I wrote in my postrace "Observations" from the race Sunday at New Hampshire.

    NASCAR must have been thrilled to hear Denny Hamlin and his crew chief, Mike Ford, talk after their victory about how they've decided to take gambles to get wins between now and the start of the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

    That's precisely the attitude NASCAR wanted to foster with the changes it made to the format this year. They wanted drivers who're comfortably in position to qualify for the 10-race playoff to have something to shoot for in the run-up to the Chase, and that's what it appears they've done.

    Hamlin and Ford went on and on about how they wanted to get the 10 bonus points for a win that they'll be awarded once the Chase begins. They want to get more, too, over the next nine weeks. They know that if the Chase started today (which it doesn't), Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon would each have 5,040 points while Hamlin would have only 5,010.

    That's 30 points to make up in the Chase, and 30 points is 30 points. If Hamlin can win a couple of more races, he'd chop away at that deficit.

    I still don't agree with making the first 26 races worth, in effect, 10 points more than the playoff races are worth. I still strongly believe that if you win in the final 10 you ought to get MORE for that than you do in the first 26.

    But if the new format has Gordon, Hamlin, Johnson and anybody else thinking about taking more chances to win rather than believing a second- or third-place finish is just as good as a victory, then I am all for that.

    To penalize or not to penalize ...

    There will be a lot of talk this week about what penalties Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and Johnny Sauter should get for failing inspections after competing this week.

    Vickers failed inspection after Friday's qualifying and his time was disallowed. That knocked him out of Sunday's race, and I don't expect his team to get any more of a penalty than that.

    NASCAR actually said as much Friday.

    Busch and Sauter had their cars chosen, at random, for postrace inspection Sunday. NASCAR also picked Robby Gordon's car and it passed, but Busch and Sauter were too low on the left-front corner.

    Some fans will want them to face the same 100-point, $100,000 and six-week suspensions that Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson got. If you're going to crack down on car of tomorrow violations, shouldn't the penalties at least be the same, especially since Busch and Sauter actually competed in the race with their cars out of compliance when the other three didn't?

    That's an interesting point, and quite frankly it's hard for me to argue against that. But that's not likely to be what NASCAR is going to do. It's likely going to say that these violations were the result of any "tampering" or other attempts at manipulation, but rather came from wear and tear on the cars in the event. The cars were high enough in pre-race inspections, but too low after the race. Unless some kind of intentional manipulation is found, which doesn't seem likely, what NASCAR does in this case, I think, will provide the precedent for future "unintentional" violations of this nature.

    Remember, I'm not saying I necessarily agree with that. I am just telling you that's likely to be what happens.