Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Time for Tony Stewart to do his job

Tony Stewart lost the Subway 500 Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.

Stewart finished second to Jeff Gordon, so he didn’t win. He has not yet won this year. He’s been wrecked. He’s had fuel pumps go bad. He’s caught bad breaks with caution flags. In other words, he lost, he lost, he lost.

This is racing’s cruel reality.

Winning, even for the very best, is only a sometimes thing. Stewart has lost 263 times in the Nextel Cup Series, but his winning percentage of 9.93 percent puts him 24th best on the all-time list in the sport and third among active drivers.

Learning to lose begins at the basic level of any sport. If you’re 6 and playing T-ball, as soon as somebody starts to keep score you start learning how to lose. Nobody likes losing – no champion has ever developed that capacity. But every athlete is responsible for how he acts after a setback, and as good as Stewart is at being a race car driver he’s that bad at handling disappointment.

I know some fans want to make Stewart a hero for stomping away after the Phoenix race without talking to the media. There’s nothing gallant or heroic about it, and it seems an entire payroll of people apparently have it as part of their job description to make excuses for Stewart’s unwillingness to do that part of his job.

Monday, ESPN sent reporter Shannon Spake to try to find out why Stewart didn’t talk and how Stewart felt about finishing second at Phoenix in a close battle with Gordon. J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, wound up answering her questions. Here’s what that means. The president of Joe Gibbs Racing had time to deal with the media to explain away why his driver didn’t. How does that make any sense?

Stewart was so frustrated after crashing out at Texas a week earlier that he talked about how he felt like retiring. He spent the next week explaining he wasn’t serious, and some believe he didn’t speak after Phoenix for fear of saying something else he’d have to take back. But the media didn’t “goad” Stewart into anything. They asked questions and Stewart answered. On both sides of that, people were doing their jobs.

It stinks to lose. I get that.

But when Mark Martin lost the Daytona 500, under frustrating circumstances, Martin did his job. When Jeff Burton lost to Kyle Busch at Bristol, barely, Burton did his job. When Gordon lost to Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, Gordon did his job. And in each of those cases the media did its job.

The next time Stewart wins, will reporters refuse to talk to Stewart to “pay back” the two-time champion for his snub Phoenix? Of course not. We’ll ask questions and report what Stewart says to the fans who are the people who’ve allowed Stewart to become a very wealthy man as he’s been able to live out the racing dreams he had from the first time he climbed into a go-kart back home in Indiana.

In other words, we’ll do what we’re supposed to do. That’s all anybody is asking Stewart to do. When he finishes in the top three in a Nextel Cup race, he’s supposed to talk afterward, just like everybody else who finishes in the top three is expected to do.

Do the job. Handle responsibility. Act like a grown-up. Surely the best driver in NASCAR can handle that.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Some Earnhardt fans irrational about Gordon's use of #3 flag

It's absolutely amazing how far some people will go to get ticked off.
Jeff Gordon wins at Phoenix and ties Dale Earnhardt with 76 victories on NASCAR's all-time list.

Gordon had been hung up on 75 wins for a while, so he'd had time to think about what he might do after moving even with Earnhardt in the record books. What he came up with was taking a victory lap while holding a "3" flag as a tribute to the late seven-time champion.

Pretty neat, huh?

Well, no, not if you listen to some Earnhardt fans (and, by extension, Gordon haters).

One internet "writer," whose name I refuse to use so as not to give him the attention he so pathetically seeks, summed up the irrational reaction I am talking about:

"Jeff Gordon’s arrogance never ceases to amaze. ...Gordon and crew will of course claim they were honoring a fallen hero. The argument feigns weak at best with the long-time supporters of the man in black. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. congratulated Gordon in victory lane seemingly endorsing Gordon’s parade. But to a large contingent of Dale Earnhardt fans, Gordon’s antics after his win at Phoenix were self-serving.


"The flag waving did not buy Gordon any new fans. One can well bet that long time fans of the late Dale Earnhardt would rather be boiled in oil than wear Gordon’s colors. There was and only ever be one Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon needs to come to grips with the fact that he is no Dale Earnhardt.

"Here is hoping Gordon enjoyed his little show of defiance and his moment of glory."

Lest you think this is a lone nut, the message boards and Sirius radio talk shows were filled with like-minded responses. Maybe not quite as bizarre as the dancing on the gravesite line, but pretty far out there.

Look, folks. Nobody says you have to like Jeff Gordon. Nobody says you even have to respect him for paying tribute to Earnhardt after his win at Phoenix. But don't assign your irrational feelings to Gordon and his team. That's sad.

Believe what you will -- and you will anwyay -- but here are the facts. Late last year, a member of Gordon's team thought of the idea of carrying the flag around in the postrace celebration. The team member knows Dale Earnhardt Jr. and was actually at a birthday party for Earnhardt's son. He asked Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Elledge, Dale Jr.'s sister, what they thought of the idea and they were enthusiastically supportive.

And, of course, after the race Saturday night Earnhardt Jr. said on his radio that it was a cool, classy thing for Gordon to do. He also came over to victory lane to congratulate Gordon.

What more do Gordon's haters want in terms of "approval" of the idea from the Earnhardt side? I am sure they bought the flag, so Dale Earnhardt Inc. got its licensing money off the deal. What's the problem?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Web reports, ESPN and Earnhardts, oh my!

On the surface, it appears that this weekend’s "news" about the Dale Earnhardt Jr. contract talks is directly contradictory.
It started Thursday morning with a website called MaxChevy.com reporting that a 51 percent ownership stake in Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Earnhardt Jr. had "essentially been negotiated." Glen Grissom, a guy who’s been around racing for a long time and has a lot of good contacts, was behind that report.
Hours later, as it often does, ESPN pretended it invented the story by reporting in breathless terms at the top of its "NASCAR Now" show almost exactly what Grissom had – including the idea of a board of director-type structure set up for Earnhardt Jr. to "report" to.
ESPN did call DEI and talk to Max Siegel, the president of global operations there, to confirm that before taking the story and running with it. One of its online stories quoted a "source" in fleshing out details of the story, and it was fairly apparent that Siegel himself was that source.
Why, you might ask, did your faithful correspondent (in other words, me) not make the same phone calls. Well, it just so happened that on Thursday afternoon I was scheduled to go to Mooresville to see Kelley Elledge any way at the scrapbooking store she and Wendy Childers own up there.
I am working on a story for later this year about people in the sport with talents, interests and pursuits outside the sport, and the Scrap Shack is on that list. (By the way, if you’re ever in a position to bet on how many different shades of paper you can buy to put in a scrapbook, by all means take the over.)
As we wrapped that up, I asked Elledge if there was any news on the contract front. She said the sides were talking just about every day and there had been a lot of things talked about back and forth. So I drove back home and didn’t think much more about it.
Well, after catching the screaming headlines on "NASCAR Now" I tried to touch base with Elledge once again to make sure I hadn’t simply failed to ask the right question. She sent a reply to my e-mail inquiry early Friday morning, and that’s when I wrote a story saying that she said no formal offer for 51 percent ownership has been presented to her and, by extension, her brother.
So what’s the real story?
Well, I don’t think this is necessarily a case where anybody is off base with what is being reported.
Earnhardt Jr. has said he wants control of DEI. When he was pressed on what that means at Daytona’s media day in January, someone asked him if that meant 51 percent. Earnhardt Jr. said yes. In the weeks since, that number has sort of become the key fact in some minds.
If DEI has put forth some kind of proposal that offers Earnhardt Jr. 51 percent of the company’s assets, in terms of how it might add up on paper, I don’t think that necessarily equates to "control," and it’s control that he’s looking for.
Earnhardt Jr. knows that he’s going to be defined in his career by what he does on the track, and if he believes his team isn’t getting what it needs to compete at the sport’s highest level now he wants to change that so that he is ultimately judged on what he does to make sure he has a fair chance to reach his goals. If he falls short of expectations, that way he’d at least know he gave it everything he had.
Teresa Earnhardt, on the other hand, shouldn’t be expected to merely skip away happily after ceding control of a company she helped build. She’s smart, too, and she knows that in the court of public opinion if it appears Earnhardt Jr. has been offered what he’s asked for – that 51 percent number – and he says that’s not enough that the prevailing opinions about this whole soap opera might change.
If a board of directors is created to oversee the operation of the "new" DEI, how is that board constituted. Who’s on it and, more to the point, who gets to pick who’s on it? Answer that and you’ll answer who actually would have control of the company in such a setup.
DEI has been on the public relations defensive on this story since the first time Earnhardt Jr. spoke in January in response to the comments Teresa Earnhardt made in a Wall Street Journal story in December about her stepson needing to choose between being a NASCAR driver and a rock star.
Earnhardt Jr. and his sister have been calling the dance pretty much ever since then, using the leverage of Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity successfully to frame the reaction and discussion to this story in the garage as well as in the "NASCAR nation." What has happened in the past 48 hours, in my mind, is that DEI has tried to move that ball back toward midfield a little bit.
What’s really happening is that Max Siegel and Kelley Elledge are still talking about a new deal for Earnhardt Jr. Rest assured that both of them have plenty of smart people advising them along the way, too, and that include Teresa Earnhardt on the DEI said and Earnhardt Jr. himself on that side.
My belief, and it’s nothing really more than that, is that those talks have crossed a very critical point. I don’t think they’re talking any more about whether or not they can get a deal done, I think now they’re talking about how they can best get one done.
There’s a huge difference.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Maybe Jimmy Spencer can blame the media

A lot of people were really upset at Jimmy Spencer because of some of the things he said on Speed during the prerace show before last week's race at Texas.
Spencer criticized Kelley Earnhardt Elledge for "keeping" the Earnhardt name and for being a bad negotiator on behalf of her brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in talks over a new contract with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
I've got no help for Spencer on the latter issue. Anybody who doesn't think Elledge has done a first-rate job on her brother's behalf isn't paying much attention.
But I will try to help Spencer out a little bit - just a little bit - on the name issue. It's probably the media's fault that Spencer got teed off about that.
Kelley Elledge doesn't sign her emails or her checks with "Earnhardt" in the middle. When she became prominent in the DEI talks, though, people like me started inserting that name in there to identify her as the driver's sister. It sort of helps tie her role in to the stories we've done on the issue.
Spencer said that Elledge was displaying "ego" by using the Earnhardt name. In my dealings with Elledge, what I've found is precisely the opposite of that. She's not looking to make herself part of this story, at all. She's in it because her brother trusts her and wants her working on his behalf, and that's it.
Of course, this whole thing begs the question of whether you think Spencer is right or wrong in objecting to a woman using her maiden name after being married. I'll let you argue that one among yourselves.
On another topic, Associated Press writer Chris Jenkins wrote a story earlier this week about baseball honoring Jackie Robinson and wondering why NASCAR couldn't do the same for Wendell Scott.
Scott is the only black man to ever win a race in what's now the Nextel Cup Series. That happened at Jacksonville's Speedway Park on Dec. 1, 1963.
As far as I know, NASCAR hasn't officially announced the dates for this year's Cup banquet in New York City. But if tradition holds, it will be on the Friday at the end of the week after Thanksgiving. That would put the banquet on Nov. 30.
With all of the big-time sponsorship folks who'll be in New York that weekend, wouldn't it be nice to have some kind of special ceremony there that Saturday on the anniversary of Scott's win? Let young drivers in NASCAR's diversity programs come to New York, on NASCAR's dime, and meet the people who control the purse strings that might one day allow one of those people to follow in Scott's footsteps.
Just an idea.

Friday, April 13, 2007

One election you shouldn't be allowed to vote in

Just a few musings on a cloudy Friday at Texas Motor Speedway:

I am philosophically opposed to the idea of allowing the fans to vote a driver into the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge. If everybody else wins his way in, I don’t know why somebody should get voted in just because the fans like him.

A couple of years ago the fans voted in Kerry Earnhardt. Nice guy, but on any kind of scale of deserving recipients of such a “pass” he would have been way, way down. Last year Kyle Petty used a campaign aimed at raising money for his Victory Junction Gang Camp to get into the all-star event. Could be worse, but again it goes against the idea of a “winner’s only” race to put him in.

This year, Carl Edwards, Ricky Rudd and Juan Pablo Montoya are among those who might be voted in. I wish I could trust the fans to choose someone of that caliber, but this is me not holding my breath.

The idea is to give the fans a voice in a race that’s designed to entertain them. Fans vote for all-stars in other sports, but the all-star events in those sports aren’t as all-out competitive at the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge is.

I am just not a fan of the idea of having a participant voted in. I once nicknamed this the “pity pass,” and I can’t imagine fans who hate the idea of the “lucky dog” to give a drive a lap back being able to tolerate doling out a slot in a high-profile race just on what amounts to charity.

It’s hard to say anything about the whole Don Imus mess without opening up a can of worms. What I wonder, though, is how anybody can believe that anything has been significantly improved in any real way by what’s happened in the past 10 days? Is the world any better off? Is America any closer to having any kind of real discussion about race and class issues that really matter? If Imus has a job or doesn’t have one, does that matter in terms of the true causes that create the deep divisions in our culture? I’m going to say no, to all of the above.

Somebody sent around an email the other day offering up six photos of the Toyota SUV that Michael Waltrip wrecked in “to the highest bidder.” As long as people like that exist, I’ll know that somebody has less of a life than I do.

I don’t think I would be a very popular person on the racing message boards if I ran a race track. That’s because I would have an absolute ban on outside food and drink in my track.

Coolers? Have fun with them in the parking lot, but when you come in the gates if you want food or drink you have to buy it from me.

I have no problem with people who’re camping cooking or with fans tailgating. Yes, beer and hot dogs and sodas and everything are overpriced at the race track. But how much does a drink and box of popcorn cost at the movies? You can’t carry your own food in to the multiplex, can you?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

How to win a NASCAR race

Greg Biffle is confused. He’s not by himself.

“I don’t know what etiquette is,” Biffle said this week when asked about the finish of the past two Nextel Cup races.

At Bristol, Jeff Burton got the nose of his car to the inside of Kyle Busch’s bumper off Turn 4 on the last lap. Burton, however, chose not to turn right to take Busch out and take the win away.

Then, at Martinsville a week ago today, Jeff Gordon rapped on teammate Jimmie Johnson’s rear bumper around a dozen times in the final five laps. But Johnson managed to keep from wrecking and held off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to win.

Instead of offering applause for the relatively clean racing that still resulted in breathlessly dramatic finishes, however, some people have reacted with derision and accusations that Burton and Gordon displayed nothing more than a lack of willingness to do what it took to get the job done.

Such bloodlust, frankly, is not all that surprising from some NASCAR fans. Until six cars crash across the finish line upside down and on fire one day, there’s a group out there who’ll never quite be satisfied.

What’s troubling, though, is that in the past two weeks I’ve heard criticism of Burton and Gordon from people who, quite frankly, I thought knew better.

One person with a very prominent job in the sport called after the Martinsville race and suggested that I needed to write a column reminding drivers that each victory in the season’s first 26 races is now worth an extra 10 points they’ll carry forward with them into the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

The implication, of course, is that the cost of wrecking Busch and Johnson and potentially doing them actual harm needs to be weighed against the potential value of 10 extra points when a championship is on the line.

Has the sport sunk that low?

“If you can just get to his rear bumper do you just boot him and take the win?” Biffle asked. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I’ll do whatever. If you can…catch him and just wreck him and go, that’s what I’ll do. But there are going to be a lot of people outraged about that, I think.”

Last year at Talladega, Brian Vickers was vilified for winning after he wrecked the two cars leading him on the final lap. Was that because it was at Talladega, a track where the cars go faster than they do at Bristol or Martinsville and therefore perceive it to be more dangerous there? Or was it because one of the cars that got wrecked was being driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

There has to be a standard, one that applies no matter what track you’re at or who you’re wrecking. That standard ought to be that if you have to wreck the guy to beat him, you don’t deserve to win.

“It doesn’t take any ability to crash the guy in front of you,” Biffle said. “That takes no skill whatsoever.”

It takes no class, either.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Opinions vary about Martinsville's future

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – There’s nothing like walking into the middle of a movie.

After sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for one hour, 20 minutes trying to get into Martinsville Speedway Sunday morning, the first thing I heard when I walked into the press box was track president Clay Campbell on an audio feed from the downstairs media center.
He didn’t sound happy.

Taped to the back of the press room door was a sign telling me what was going on. At 10 a.m., Campbell commenced an effort to “address recent, persistent, unfounded and irresponsible stories and rumors about Martinsville’s demise.”

“Unfounded” and “irresponsible” are strong words, and within just a few minutes I was told the flash point for this rebuttal was a column on nascar.com written by David Caraviello. Click here for a link to that story if you want to read it in its entirety.

If you’ll take the time to go to that link and go all the way to the bottom, you will see a tagline on the bottom that says the opinions expressed there are solely those of the writer.

That’s what Caraviello is paid by NASCAR.com to do – express an opinion. That doesn’t give him carte blanche, of course. A good columnist is still responsible and his opinions are founded in fact. But the nature of opinion is that people have the right to agree or disagree, and it’s perfectly understandable that Campbell and the folks at Martinsville Speedway wouldn’t agree with what Caraviello wrote.

That, however, also doesn’t mean Caraviello is necessarily wrong, either.

I don’t agree with some of what’s in the column either. “Compared to most other race tracks in NASCAR, the place is a dinosaur,” Caraviello wrote. “And we all know what happens to dinosaurs. They go extinct.”

Martinsville is not a dinosaur. Campbell and the capable staff who works with him have done a remarkable job of striking a unique balance between the old and new schools. This .526-mile track has grown markedly as the sport has grown around it, but it still also has managed to maintain a small-town charm that makes a weekend here fell as much like the centerpiece event at a county fair. And I think there should be room in the sport for that.

That having been said, though, Caraviello is right on when he writes that the prospect of new tracks in places like the Pacific Northwest, New York City or Denver are bad omens for a track in a market as small as this one is.

While it is petty to try to make it a big deal that Martinsville doesn’t have paved parking lots, it’s not to correctly note that a lot of big-time sponsors don’t bother with hospitality here. It is hard to get people here from any significant distance.

I stayed at the nearest major commercial airport, near Greensboro, N.C., this weekend and drove 42 miles each way each day. You can stay in Danville, Va., which is a little closer, but unless you’ve been doing it for a couple of generations, good luck finding a hotel room in Martinsville itself. It would have taken me maybe half the time it did to get to my parking spot if guards weren’t standing, arms crossed and scowls affixed, across the logical place to enter while hundreds of cars were directed around the posterior to get to the elbow to get to where they should have been going.

“Right now, it's a race track being saved by red tape,” Caraviello writes. If International Speedway Corporation does ever overcome opposition and get a track built somewhere else, especially if that new track is a short track, Caraviello is right to say that the clock is ticking here.

It’s not irresponsible to point out that Martinsville is in a vulnerable spot. You could argue all day that other tracks deserve to lose a date before this one does, but that doesn’t mean that’s what would happen.

Clay Campbell and his staff have a strongly vested interest in keeping Martinsville out of the discussion when it comes to where Nextel Cup dates for future tracks might come from. But their enemy in that fight is not a columnist like Caraviello who effectively presents the opposite argument and backs that up with things that are rooted in his more objective reality.