Tuesday, January 30, 2007

This racing beat has gotten bigger, more complicated each season

Now that there’s been time to let last week’s NASCAR Nextel Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway digest a little bit, a few things are apparent:

  • I took over the NASCAR beat for the Charlotte Observer 10 years ago this week, and the one thing that has changed the most in that time has been how complicated the racing business is. Everything, soup to nuts, is just more complex these days. That’s a sign of the sport changing and growing, but it gives a fellow a headache trying to figure out where things are going to be five minutes from now, let alone five years.
    This business of partnerships – with the Fenway Sports Group buying into Roush Racing and Ray Evernham saying that he’d like to have a financial partner, too – has to change the sport down the road. You’ve also got Red Bull, a sponsor, owning a two-car Toyota team. The lines are just going to keep getting muddier and muddier, I believe. I don’t know if that’s bad or good, yet. I guess we’ll just have to see.
  • Reporters who cover the sport are already getting blowback from some fans about how much ink (or, in the case of the Sirius NASCAR Radio show I do each morning, air time) we’re giving to the Dale Earnhardt Jr. story.
    As is the case with any story in today’s media, it is easy to lapse into overkill. You sort of wind up covering the coverage sometimes, and that’s a bad trap to fall into. But if Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson were in a similar contract position, that’d be big news, too.
    The fact that the entire extended Earnhardt family seems to be forced into choosing sides on this deal makes it a story that’s hard to walk away from. And as much as hard-core fans, the people who like to discuss NASCAR every day, hate to hear it, it’s the kind of story that less ardent race fans latch onto and sometimes want to hear more about.
    Don’t forget, too, that media competes as much as anybody. If there’s anything remotely new to this or any other big story, everybody wants it first. That turns up the wick, too.
  • Speaking of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jerry Gappens of Lowe’s Motor Speedway pointed something out to me at the NASCAR Hall of Fame groundbreaking Thursday that made a lot of sense.
    Tuesday night was the Dale Earnhardt Inc. dinner on the media tour. Earlier that day, news of Martin Truex Jr. getting in trouble with the beach patrol in Daytona for urinating on an SUV tire came out and someone asked a question about it at the dinner.
    The question was asked in a way that created an awkward situation, and Earnhardt Jr. stepped into that by saying Truex “is in big trouble.” That got a laugh and broke the tension. “I would never do something stupid like that,” Earnhardt Jr. said, grinning at Truex.
    It was a little thing, but what Earnhardt Jr. did there was get Truex off the hook. The topic was then dealt with and the discussion moved on. Put in the same situation, Earnhardt Jr.’s father would likely have done the exact same thing.
  • A big round of applause to Hendrick Motorsports. Instead of handing out “swag” to the reporters who visited on Wednesday, the team announced that it had taken the money that might have been spent on trinkets and freebies and donated it instead to charities in honor of the late Benny Parsons.
    Every team, every sponsor and every race track should follow that lead, and any media member who complains about not getting a free hat or notepad should be placed on the “rejected” list when it comes time to apply to participate in next year’s tour or for access to tracks this year.
  • I think some folks went a little overboard in jumping down Jack Roush’s throat for saying things like he’s “ready to go to war” with Toyota in NASCAR racing.
    The American auto industry is in Roush’s bloodstream. He’s a car guy, a Ford guy, and has been for so long that it’s part of who he is.
    The company he’s worked with for most of his adult life is going through some rough times, and those hard times have hit Livonia, Mich., the town Roush calls home, as hard as they probably have anywhere. It doesn’t make Roush any happier when people tell him how many cars Toyota builds in the United States or how many people it employs, because in his mind every dollar Toyota makes here is a dollar Ford could be making.
    I am not saying that I agree with Roush about how feels about what Toyota may or may not do in NASCAR. I don’t think Roush isn’t willing to compete for whatever share of success there might be for him or anybody else in racing. I just think he wants it to be a fair competition and he’s willing to say that out loud.

  • Monday, January 22, 2007

    Early impressions from the media tour

  • If you apply the new Chase format to last year’s results, Tony Stewart would have finished second in the final standings instead of 11th after just missing the Chase for the Nextel Cup. He would’ve led Jimmie Johnson by nine points going into the final race at Homestead, but Johnson would have won the title by 16. Of course, everybody would’ve raced differently under those different circumstances, but I knew somebody would ask.
  • NASCAR presented the seven drivers in the fourth year’s class of the Drive for Diversity program at Monday’s media tour stop. The group includes Chris Bristol, who won at Hickory Motor Speedway last year, as well as Michael Gallegos, Paul Harraka, Jessica Helberg, Jesus Hernandez, Peter Hernandez and Lloyd Mack. The program is advancing beyond weekly tracks into the Grand National Division’s Busch East and West series and the Wheelen All-American Series, which is a good step. But money will ultimately determine whether any of those names become household words, and unless NASCAR starts putting a bunch of its own into the program instead of just funneling sponsors’ money that way, progress is going to continue to be slow in coming.
  • Sometimes your "uh-oh" meter goes off when you meet somebody relatively new to racing, and sometimes you get a sense the guy might be around a while. I might be 1,000 percent wrong, but at least based on first impressions I think Bobby Ginn is going to be a good car owner for a long time in the Nextel Cup Series.
  • Ricky Carmichael is one of the absolute best motorcycle racers alive today, but he’s going to start trying to become a stock-car driver at short tracks in Florida for Ginn Racing under Mark Martin’s tutelage. "Let’s be honest," said Carmichael, who’s 27. "The Cup guys are the best drivers in the world. I’m not even about to say I’m ready to be at that level. …That’s like saying Jimmie Johnson and Tony (Stewart) should come and race me. You have to be real. I’m not ready to be a Cup driver by any means." Mabye not, but with that kind of attitude he might get there some day.

  • Friday, January 19, 2007

    Once the conversation with Teresa Earnhardt started, I thought it went pretty well

    LOS ANGELES – You’re a NASCAR beat writer from Charlotte, N.C., the hometown of racing.
    For six years, you’ve been trying to get Teresa Earnhardt for an interview. The door finally opens, and all you have to do is fly across the country to walk through it.
    You arrive a night early. You arrange to have a cab pick you up an hour early to make sure you get to the interview on time. You spend all day doing background work and thinking out your questions. You finally get ready and go out to meet the taxi.
    Then, after 25 minutes and two red-faced conversations with your hotel staff, who assures you he’ll be here in five minutes, the taxi arrives. Now, you’re cutting things close. The map says it’s 11 miles to where you’re going, though, so you’re OK.
    But then, the cabbie decides to take the freeway. I know nothing about driving in Southern California, but it’s 4 p.m. and I know I am in trouble.
    You make a frantic phone call. I’m on the way, don’t leave me hanging. But the person you’re calling doesn’t have his cell phone on.
    Six lanes of traffic, and while it never actually stops it moves at a glacier’s pace. Forget the meter, since the company is paying, but it’s a good thing the cabbie said he’ll take a credit card.
    None of that will matter, though, if you’re not there on time. You were instructed to arrive by 4:30. At 4:35, the cabbie is letting people over in front of him in the left-turn lane. Thousands and thousands of taxi drivers in the world and I find a courteous one now!
    Finally, two mild strokes and $49 later, you pull up in front of the hotel where you’re supposed to do the interview. You have no idea where you’re going inside, but first the driver has to figure out how to get the credit card thing to work.
    Finally, you catch a break. Somebody who recognizes you and knows why you’re her sees you walk in and says, “This way.” One floor up, I walk in and I’m still 15 to 20 minutes down the list.
    This is why I smirk at people running in airports. Who needs the stress?
    Never mind, of course, that it’s already 8 p.m. back at your paper and they wanted your story an hour ago. Never mind that you’re about to finally getting ready to talk to somebody who you’ve been trying to get to for years, and you know you need to try to slip in a question or two that people have been warning you away from for a week.
    Oh, and there’s also the fact that it’s almost certain that Teresa Earnhardt has wanted to throttle you for things you’ve written as recently as 10 days ago.
    Man, this is an excellent job. The fact is, though, that Teresa Earnhardt could not have been more cordial in the 13 minutes I was allotted. She answered the questions she wanted to answer and that was certainly her right. I hope that she doesn’t think it went too badly and that maybe, somewhere down the road, we can talk again for a little longer and cover a little more ground.
    This time, I think I’ll drive.

    Thursday, January 18, 2007

    There has to be a news story when Teresa Earnhardt talks

    LOS ANGELES – By the time you read this, I will have spoken with Teresa Earnhardt.
    For the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, she agreed to sit down and let me, on behalf of race fans and readers of The Charlotte Observer and thatsracin.com, ask her questions Thursday afternoon. Actually, it was sort of her idea.
    There’s a documentary coming out real soon that’s simply titled, "Dale," and it’s the first such project about the late seven-time champion’s life that his family, including Teresa, has been completely behind.
    Part of the deal in coming out here for the media day for that movie and getting a chance to talk to Teresa was that I’m not supposed to write specifically about it until an agreed time in the near future. And I will stick to that.
    I got an invitation late last week offering to arrange a telephone interview during the day of media sessions she was doing. It took me about 30 seconds to say, "No, I believe I’ll come on out." I want to make sure she has a chance to say whatever it is she wants to say and that I hear it and understand it and don’t have to worry about another call beeping in or any of that nonsense.
    Whatever she says, there will be a story about it in Friday’s Observer. In agreeing to hold back on stuff related to what the movie shows and how it’s structured and things like that, I told the representatives who set this up that there had to be a news story written about the fact she’s talking at all.
    I’ve gone on the record in my columns that I think Teresa needs to talk to the racing media about her job as CEO of Dale Earnhardt Inc. She, of course, has every right to disagree and not talk to anyone. But I still think that’s part of the job she needs to do.
    I’ve been instructed that I can only ask questions pertaining to the movie.
    That’s fine, because part of her job at DEI is to sustain the legacy she and her husband built together, and that role of carrying on the legacy is part of the heavy burden she carries in her life after Dale’s death. Sharing the memories that will be in the film is a way to do that, and so questions that relate to the movie also will relate to how Teresa is doing as a person and as a CEO six years after having her life change even more dramatically than the sport her husband loved changed after his passing.
    All I’ve ever wanted to do is let Teresa tell her side of the story, whether it’s about how the team is running or about how she’s doing as a car owner and as the leader of a business that is very important to the success of NASCAR.
    When I send this blog in, I am going to shut down my laptop and pack it into a briefcase to take over to the hotel where the interview is scheduled to take place. Thanks to the time difference, I’ll be pushing deadline to get a story in the newspaper in time to make deadline tonight.
    Look for it on thatsracin.com, and sometime early tomorrow I will follow up on this blog with more about what went on and how things went.
    Talk to you then.

    Monday, January 15, 2007

    Juan Pablo this!

    Some of Poole's notes from Daytona:

  • The second week of Nextel Cup testing started late Monday morning as the track had to be dried. The teams started about 10:45 and went right through a scheduled midday break until 5:30 p.m. That wiped out a planned teleconference with former Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya, much to the chagrin of a breathless cadre of media who believe that because Montoya has driven a car in Europe he’s automatically a superior species.
  • Montoya wound up sixth fastest on the day’s speed chart, two spots behind Chip Pablo Ganassi Racing teammate David Pablo Stremme. Team manage Tony Pablo Glover passed along his simple judgment. "Montoya is really cool," Glover said. "I think he’s going to be the real deal."
  • David Pablo Gilliland had Monday’s fastest lap at 185.090 mph, just ahead of the Toyota driven by Jeremy Pablo Mayfield, who ran 184.854 mph. Four-time Cup champion Jeff Pablo Gordon was third at 184.744 mph. Regan Pablo Smith, driving for Ginn Motorsports, was fifth best.
  • James Pablo Hylton, the 72-year-old driver chasing windmills in an effort to make the Daytona 500 field, has a really nice new yellow transporter for his No. 58 cars. On the side it lists his two victories in what’s now Nextel Cup, the last being in 1972 at that big track in Alabama. You know, the Taladaga 500 – that’s how it’s spelled.
  • Elliott Pablo Sadler went a little overboard in sucking up to his boss in testing, putting the likeness of DaimlerChrysler chairman of the board Deiter Pablo Zetsche on the hood of both of the No. 19 Dodges he’s testing for his Evernham Motorsports team this week.
  • Michael Pablo Waltrip’s car has a nice message on the side of it here. It reads "We Love you BP." It’s a get-well wish for Benny Parsons, who’s still in a hospital in Charlotte fighting complications stemming from his cancer treatments.

  • Saturday, January 13, 2007

    Debunking some of the 'other' Chase notions

    Why just about every “other” idea for changing the Chase for the Nextel Cup is a bad one:
    1. The “separate” system
    This idea is that the drivers in the Chase should be treated separately from the rest of the field. The top Chase driver in each race, even if he finishes ninth behind eight non-Chase drivers, would get “first place” Chase points. The second best Chase guy would get the second most points, and so on.
    Most people suggest a simple 10-9-8 (or 12-11-10 in a 12-man Chase) system. But it fails in two ways. First, it’s dumb. At Atlanta last year, Kyle Busch finished 27th overall but was ahead of three Chase drivers. So he would have gotten four points in a 10-9-8 system. The next week, Jeff Burton finished 10th overall at Phoenix, but ahead of only two drivers in the Chase. How is it fair for Burton to get fewer points for 10th than Busch got for 27th?
    Second, it gives only the illusion of closeness. Going into Homestead last year, Jimmie Johnson would have been seven points ahead of Kevin Harvick. But that only sounds close. Harvick would have had 66 points after nine races, meaning he could only get to 76 by winning at Homestead. Johnson would have had to beat only three Chase drivers to get four points and get to 77. The number of points doesn’t matter, it’s how many you can make up.
    2. Eliminating drivers
    There are all kinds of suggestions for this, like cutting the Chase field to five drivers after five races, or eliminating the lowest guy after each Chase race so it’s down to two at Homestead.
    No. No. No.
    If you’d cut the field down at any point in 2006, Jimmie Johnson would have been eliminated.
    Then, if he’d surged the way he did down the stretch, everyone would be complaining that he’s not winning the championship the way they did when Tony Stewart wasn’t in the Chase at all and won races.
    Cutting one driver after each race is impractical. Do you reset everyone else after each race? That means the season comes down to who finishes ahead of whom at Homestead? A one-race championship? That makes no sense.
    The arithmetic takes care of eliminating people. Everybody’s in the hunt through five or six races, but after that the list of people who have a shot narrows itself naturally. What’s the gain in arbitrarily forcing that to happen otherwise?
    3. Big bonuses for every win
    The whole reason to have a Chase is to try to keep the championship in doubt as long as possible. You might think that’s a bad idea, but it’s what NASCAR wants to do (and there are good reasons for that) and any Chase changes have to keep that in mind.
    It would make it possible for a driver to make up more ground with a late Chase win if the bonus were 50 or even 100 points, but the likelihood that such bonuses would allow one driver to pull away early in the Chase is far greater. That defeats the purpose.
    4. Do away with the Chase altogether
    It never ceases to amaze me how much folks love the old points system now that it’s gone. I’ve actually had people tell me that the Chase hurts sponsors because they’re eliminated from title contention in September. Holy moly! Under the old system, by Labor Day it was usually down to two, three or maybe four teams in the hunt. Once in 20 years it might be five or six.
    In the Chase, it’s ALWAYS 10 – and apparently will be 12 beginning this year – until at least the end of September. More teams, and therefore more sponsors, have more of a chance to be in the championship picture longer under the Chase than ever was the case under the old system.
    If you think the Chase is hokey or a tricked-up way to pick a champion, you’re entitled to that opinion. But don’t tell me the old system was great, because my memory isn’t that bad.

    Wednesday, January 10, 2007

    Junior leaves early as team readies for a race that starts later

  • It may be bad news for Nextel Cup teams that Dale Earnhardt Jr. checked out early from testing. After driving the No. 8 Chevrolet on Monday and Tuesday, posting the fastest lap in drafting practice Tuesday afternoon, Earnhardt Jr. went home and Kerry Earnhardt worked through some things with the team on Wednesday. That would seem to indicate that Earnhardt Jr. is pretty happy with the car.
  • Some folks were surprised Wednesday when word got out that the Daytona 500 wiil start no earlier than 3:15 p.m. Eastern this year. Get used to it. Starting times haven’t been made official for Cup races yet, but 2 p.m. Eastern is the earliest tentative time for anything other than two races at Dover and the fall Martinsville race.
  • NASCAR will require drivers to use six-point safety harnesses this year. That means two straps holding the lower torso instead of the former five-point system that had a single belt coming between the drivers’ legs.
  • Mark Martin is scheduled to miss his first Nextel Cup race in 20 years when Regan Smith drivers the No. 01 Chevrolet at Bristol this year. “I think I will know what I want to do in the future by the end of that day,” Martin said Wednesday in a Sirius Satellite Radio interview. “My career is at a crossroads.” Martin is looking forward to his partial schedule this year. Martin said that after having three weekends off between Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving for two decades, he has 19 weekends off in 2007. “That puts it in perspective,” he said. Martin also will drive at least six Truck Series races for the Wood Brothers and, amazingly enough, at least two Busch races (Daytona and Texas) for Roush Racing, his former Cup team.
  • Tony Stewart is in Tulsa, Okla., for this weekend’s Chili Bowl, but his race team continues to click right along here. Mike McLaughlin is driving it and one of the No. 20 cars was fastest in Wednesday morning’s first session at 184.483. Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Green and Jimmie Johnson were next in the morning. Most teams ran in the draft in the second session. Even though NASCAR will allow teams a half-day on Thursday to make up for Monday afternoon’s rainout, several teams still decided to head home after Wednesday’s session. NASCAR also allowed teams to test a third car on Wednesday, beyond the two they were allowed to use Monday and Tuesday.
  • Trip Bruce will be crew chief for Johnny Benson on the No. 23 Toyotas in the Craftsman Truck Series this year. Rick Ren left the team to work on Ron Hornaday’s trucks at Kevin Harvick Inc. Benson finished second in last year’s Truck Series standings. Bruce has been at Evernham Motorsports since 2005.
  • Gary DeHart has been hired as director of shop operations for Ginn Racing. DeHart has spent nearly 20 years at Hendrick Motorsports, where he was crew chief for Terry Labonte in his 1996 championship season. Since Bobby Ginn bought the team formerly known as MB2, it has nearly doubled from 85 to 160 employees.

  • Tuesday, January 09, 2007

    There was a surprise or two, but not necessarily on the speed charts

  • Jamie McMurray had the fastest lap Tuesday morning as testing continued at Daytona International Speedway, running 184.090 mph, with Mike McLaughlin second in Tony Stewart’s car at 183.981. Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Rudd and Tony Raines were next. Some teams did drafting in the afternoon session and - surprise, surprise - Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fastest at 186.606 mph, with Casey Mears second and Tony Raines third.
  • Dodge took Elliott Sadler, Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch to Detroit on Tuesday to have them unveil a new passenger car model, the Avenger, which will be on the roads as the 2008 model. The NASCAR relevance is that the Dodges run in this year’s “car of tomorrow” races will be Avengers while the cars in the other races will be Chargers. How will you know? Because Dodge says so. How will you be able to tell the difference? Beats me.
  • Eric Kuselias will be the host of the “NASCAR Now” program on ESPN2, which will air weeknights at 6:30 beginning Feb. 5. The show will also air at 10 a.m. on Sundays beginning Feb. 18. Kuselias has been a host on ESPN Radio’s afternoon show, the “SportsBash.”
  • NASCAR finally made it official on Tuesday. No, not how many people are going to be in the Chase (even though every indication is that’s going to be 12). This year’s NASCAR Day is May 18th. Book those party rooms now! NASCAR Day is a fund-raising project where fans buy lapel pins for $5 and then wear their NASCAR apparel to work to show their fans. The money goes to charity through the NASCAR Foundation.
  • Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd both had good lines about age and racing on Tuesday. “That car,” Jarrett said, “doesn’t know how old you are.” Rudd told a story about his first career start at Rockingham. Rudd was 18 and said he walked through the NASCAR garage looking at all of the “old men” he would be competing with. “I was 18 years old. I was racing motorcycles professionally, Rudd said. “I was in the best shape you could ever be in…and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, there’s no way these guys can compete. They’re not in shape. There’s no way.’”
    About halfway through the race, Rudd said, he was so tired he didn’t know if he could make it another lap.
    “Donnie Allison had to be 45 or 50 at that time,” Rudd said. “He lapped me for probably the 10th time that day …and he’s driving with one hand and he’s waving to me as I let him go by. I’m sitting there just white-knuckled up on that steering wheel and I’m thinking, ‘I’m missing something here.’”
  • Voting for the 2007 National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver Award, sponsored by Chex, is now open online at www.MostPopularDriver.com. Voting continues until Nov. 19. More than 2.8 million votes were cast last year, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting nearly 1.2 million votes to win for a fourth straight year.

  • Monday, January 08, 2007

    Actually being at the track can have its advantages, Junior notes

  • You could write stories for a week off what Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in his press conference Monday at Daytona. When asked specifically about his stepmother’s comments about him needing to choose between being a driver and a public figure, Earnhardt Jr. got his point across. “You guys that are here every weekend, you know what the sport is like because you're here every weekend,” he said. For the record, Teresa Earnhardt is not. “You know what it's about. I think it's probably on advantage to have a decent personality as a race car driver. …I think it is important to be well liked and be marketable. I think it's any owner's dream to have a driver that's succeeded” at that.
  • Some of the teams driving Toyotas are going to struggle this year, there’s no doubt about that. But people are underestimating Dave Blaney’s team at Bill Davis Racing, and that was the case before he turned the third fastest lap at 183.756 mph in Monday’s rain-shortened testing. Blaney finished fourth at Richmond and ninth at New Hampshire last year with a team getting ZERO help from the manufacturer of the cars he was driving. Toyota is going to give him as much support as he can handle this year. Blaney will be better than you think.
  • Boris Said, who was a big story here in July when he finished fourth in the Pepsi 400, is back to try to make the Daytona 500 in the No. 60 Ford. “This year it’s going to be so hard to make these races,” said Said, who has sponsorship to try at least seven Cup races in 2007. Said will be among those not guaranteed a starting spot in the 500 based on last year’s points. “There will probably be 30 people going for eight spots – really seven spots because Dale Jarrett will be here – so it’s going to be a nerve-wracking week for sure,” he said. Jarrett would be in line for a former champion’s provision in his new No. 44 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.
  • Kasey Kahne went to Australia and raced in a pair of sprint car races over the Christmas holiday. While he had fun in the cars and traveling abroad for the first time, he said he wasn’t too fond of not being home for Christmas. “I thought it would be a good idea just to go and do something different over the holidays,” Kahne said. “But once I got there I realized I was wrong. It’s not the right thing to do. From now on if I go to Australia or anywhere else, maybe I’ll go on the 26th instead of the 20th.”
  • Robbie Loomis was crew chief for Bobby Hamilton at Petty Enterprises for three seasons and has some fond memories of the driver who passed away on Sunday. “Hamilton was a unique guy,” Loomis said. “He was special. He did his deal, and I think if you look at the way his cancer went it was just like the way he lived his life. He did it quietly and nobody knew a lot about what was going on. He just did his deal. Now he’s up there in heaven probably thinking he’s glad it’s over with.”
  • Kevin Harvick’s perspective on potential changes to the Chase for the Nextel Cup format is a little different, and it makes a lot of sense. “The guy who had the best year won the championship last year,” Harvick said, speaking of Jimmie Johnson. “So if we’d had the old points system, he would have won the championship. If we had the new points system, he'd win the championship still. To me the best car usually is going to come out on top in the end.”