Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Here's how I feel about Dale Jr.

Over the past few days, I've had a bunch of e-mails about the blog I wrote from the test at Atlanta on Monday about Dale Earnhardt Jr.

One person asked me to simply tell him what I truly think about Dale Jr., since he felt like it was something different every day. So I answered his questions, and thought it would make a decent blog, too.

So here it is:

I really, really like and admire Dale Jr. I think he deserves a great deal of credit for knowing that going to Hendrick Motorsports removes any excuse he might have for not having success, yet choosing to do it anyway.

He KNOWS people think he's over rated. He KNOWS people won't think he's proved himself and won't until he wins a championship. And he is not only acknowledging that by going to Hendrick, he is embracing that challenge and welcoming the pressure he's going to have over there. There's nothing about that I don't admire.

I think he has handled an impossible amount of pressure with as much skill as anybody could have. I think he knows he will never, ever measure up to what some people think he ought to be, which is his dad.

There was only one Earnhardt and he knows that.

He knows that he will never be able to satisfy everybody. So he wants to satisfy himself in knowing that he gave himself every chance to enjoy as much success as possible by going to the team he feels gives him the best chance he has to realize the potential he has.

I think his family situation is tragic. His relationship with his stepmother is something I wouldn't wish on anybody, and I think everybody involved in that contributes to the dysfunction. Teresa Earnhardt is not evil incarnate. He's never said she was. But they genuinely never connected on any kind of true level, and that means they really never leaned on each other when they lost Dale Sr. That's heartbreaking.

If you read me closely, I think when I write things that can be considered critical of him what I am really going after is the hype machine that is built up around him. The only thing critical I think I have written about him recently was when he said that his team wouldn't get credit for how well it has run and that how when it runs well it's at the back of the newspaper. That's absurd. Nobody is covered more.

What happens sometimes is that he believes people aren't writing about him enough, it's because the people around him cut him off from the media and have him off doing all kinds of other dog and pony shows. They tell us he doesn't have time to do interviews, and he doesn't because they line up 400 things for him to do to feed the monster they build around him. I hope that will change when he gets to Hendrick.

Is he better than Kyle Busch? I don't know. There's no way I can know that now, based on what they've done so far. I think Kyle has championship(s) in his future. I think Dale Jr. does, too.

Who wins one first? That's a great debate until it is answered?

Maybe this is the birth of a great rivalry. I sure hope so.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Car of Tomorrow: New meaning in Atlanta

HAMPTON, Ga. - It's really dangerous to draw conclusions based on limited data, but let me offer a couple of quick observations from the car of tomorrow test at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The big story, of course, is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is testing with the team he'll be driving for next year -- Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt Jr. is wearing a white fire suit with the "adidas" logo. The cars he is driving have the No. 5 on them and are painted in a red and white paint scheme to mimic the way the first cars team owner Rick Hendrick ran back when he got into NASCAR in 1984. I will bet you everything I own there will be a diecast version of it available for purchase within six weeks.

There's 20 times the media here than would be here for a typical test. If Earnhardt Jr. wasn't here, I would have pointed the car north after my Sirius NASCAR Radio show went off at 11 a.m.

Earnhardt Jr. came to the media center at noon during the midday break and took questions. He then walked outside and took a few more. He was surrounded by about 25 reporters.

Inside the media center, Bobby Labonte waited patiently for the reporters to come back in. He was the second driver scheduled for interviews. Labonte already has a championship, by the way.

After Labonte was done, I walked into the garage and another knot of reporters was surrounding Tony Eury Jr., who will be Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief. About 50 feet away, there was nobody bothering the guys at the No. 8 team's truck. Regan Smith is testing that car here today. The car he drove to the track was painted primer gray. There's probably no merchandise program planned for that.

Before I walked back into the media center to write this blog, I stopped to talk to Kyle Busch. He's testing with his new team, too. Busch is moving to Joe Gibbs Racing after leaving Hendrick to create the spot Earnhardt Jr. is moving into.

"Yeah, I saw the 5 car out there," Busch said, speaking of the car Earnhardt Jr. is driving that bears Busch's current number. "It was fun passing it."

Bragging? Nope. When I got back to the media center, they were handing out the list of speeds from the morning session. First? Kyle Busch, at 186.190 mph. Earnhardt Jr. was seventh at 184.450 mph.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Where is the love? Dale Earnhardt Jr. asks

HAMPTON, Ga. - Poor ol’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. Bless his heart, he’s just not getting enough attention.

“When we blow a motor and fall out of the race, the story is who won and how exciting the race was,” Earnhardt Jr. said this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “We're lost in the back of the newspaper somewhere and we get no credit for how good we've been.”

Gosh, that’s awful. How could the dazzling success of a team that’s done what Earnhardt Jr. has done all year be overlooked?

I mean, for goodness sakes. The No. 8 car has finished in the top 10 twice in the past seven weeks. It has led 59 whole laps in the past two months. And the team got all the way up to 11th in the points for one whole week early this year, and clings tenaciously to 13th in the current standings.

“As far as handling and running up front, I've never ran up front as often as I have this year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I never have. This year I've been going to the race track and been in the top five 95 percent of the races and I've never been that way before and it's a shame we won't be able to get the credit or the ‘attaboy’ for it."

You know, looking back on how we’ve covered the sport this year, suddenly it becomes apparent that all of us in this business just have not given Earnhardt Jr. enough publicity this year. After all, you hardly ever read anything about him in the paper.

Just to be clear, I do understand his point. Too many times this year, Earnhardt Jr.’s day has started off with great promise only to come to a bad end. Last week at Martinsville, for instance, he ran among the leaders all day until his troubled engine finally gave way on the final restart.

He finished 23rd, and that’s really been the story all year. Despite the fact he’s run well at times, Earnhardt Jr. and his team have not closed the deal. The No. 8 Chevrolet hasn’t won a race since May 6, 2006, at Richmond, and he’s had as many did-not-finishes (seven) as he’s had top-five finishes this year.

“We feel we missed a great opportunity this year with a great chance of winning the championship and challenging for it,” Earnhardt Jr. said of what will be his final season at Dale Earnhardt Inc. “We’re really ticked off about that. ...We feel like we're a top-five team. We've run in the top five every week. I don't think anybody even realizes.”

Earnhardt Jr. seems to have a fast car for Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s won here before, and he’s won at Texas and Phoenix, too, so it’s absolutely possible that he’ll win again before moving to Hendrick Motorsports next year.

“I feel ridiculous going winless this year because we should have won,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I feel pretty gypped.”

As for any lack of attention, though, that’s laughable.

There’s a test Monday and Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with teams working on their car of tomorrow setups for this type of track for next season. Earnhardt Jr. will be testing with his new team, and a lot of reporters who’d normally be heading home after Sunday’s race will be hanging around at least for Monday’s test primarily because of that single fact.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Shav Glick was a gentle giant of a sportswriter

Shav Glick died early Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86 years old, but in experience years, he was more like 286.

Glick was the motorsports writer for the Los Angeles Times from 1969 until his retirement in late 2006. He had been battling cancer for the past year or so, and if I know Shav, he fought the heck out of it.

There’s very little evidence that Glick ever wanted to be anything else besides a sportswriter. Maybe that’s the reason I respected him so much.

He had his first byline in the paper in his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., in 1935 when he was just 14 years old. So for 70 years, give or take, Glick covered sports.

When he retired, he wrote a column about some of the greatest moments in his unbelievable career. He told a story about a baseball game he covered at Brookside Park, near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, in March of 1938.

The Chicago White Sox faced a team of players from Pasadena, and that team included a young shortstop who had two hits, stole a base and played so brilliantly in the field that the White Sox manager said he’d sign the kid in a minute if he could. The thing was he couldn’t, because the shortstop was named Jackie Robinson and he was black.

Glick covered Ted Williams when Williams was still in high school in San Diego. In that retirement column, he wrote this: “You think about all the wonderful things you have seen and been privileged to write about - 35 Indianapolis 500s, Formula One races, Times Grand Prix sports car races, every Long Beach Grand Prix but one, world championship motorcycle events, midgets, spring cars and yes, even drifting. And that's only the motor sports. How about two Olympic Games, a dozen Masters and U.S. Opens, a British Open at St. Andrews, Wimbledon, the World Series, Santa Anita Handicaps and…more Rose Bowl Games than I can count.”

The remarkable thing is that Shav was quite likely was the nicest guy in the press room at just about every one of those events.

Friday, October 19, 2007

With this ring ...

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is just get out of the way.

With that in mind, we present the following release about Greg Biffle's wedding this week to longtime girlfriend Nicole Lunders.


At just around 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday, October 17th, Greg Biffle and his longtime girlfriend Nicole were pronounced husband and wife in a little white chapel at the Palmetto Bluff Resort in South Carolina.

The couple met in the spring of 1998 and began dating officially later that summer. Last Christmas, Greg decided it was time to propose and Nicole happily accepted. Plans were made for an autumn wedding at the southern resort located about 20 minutes from Savannah.

Greg and Nicole exchanged vows with just over 100 of their family and friends on hand for the ceremony. Katie Kenseth served as the matron of honor and Rodger Ueltschi, a childhood friend of Greg’s, served as the best man.

Also included in wedding party were Michele Lunders (sister-in-law of the bride), Kris Rondeau (friend of the bride), Amy Wilson (friend of the bride), Jeff Biffle (brother of the groom), Tony Lunders (brother of the bride) and Matt Kenseth (friend of the groom). The newlyweds also included three other family members, Foster, Gracie and Savannah (two boxers and a rescue dog), in the post-wedding photos.

The bride was escorted down the aisle by her father Russ and wore a custom backless white dress with a Chantilly lace overlay by Bonaparte NY and designer Junko Yoshioka. The bridesmaids wore lavender dresses by Vera Wang.

Following the ceremony, guests were invited to have cocktails on the lawn where the setting could well have been the backdrop for a scene in “Gone with the Wind”. Guests were treated to a six-course dinner at the Palmetto Bluff Inn and a reception with drinks and dancing followed.

The Biffles would like to extend their sincerest gratitude to everyone in the NASCAR family for their best wishes at this joyful time.

Man bites dog at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner came into the media center a while ago to talk about their battle for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

It’s a pretty good scrap, with Hornaday leading Skinner by 14 points. They’ve swapped the lead back and forth a handful of times in the past six weeks, too, and each has won four races this year.

Skinner led 246 of 253 laps in the race here earlier this year, but Hornaday has had the hot hand in the series lately.

So you’d think their fight for the championship with five races left would be a good topic for discussion, right?

Well, maybe not. The third question was about Jacques Villeneuve. The next two were about Dario Franchitti.

Between them, Villeneuve and Franchitti have run a grand total of one race in the Truck Series – Villeneuve ran at Talladedga. Hornaday and Skinner have run in 344, winning 56 times. Hornaday has won two championships and Skinner has one.

Now I understand a "man bites dog" story as good as anybody else. Open-wheel racers coming to NASCAR is the flavor of the month.

But good grief.

Skinner and Hornaday were as polite as they could be in answering the questions. But they were absolutely puzzled by the line of questioning. And rightly so.

To bump or not to bump

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – You know, Jimmie Johnson is in a tough spot.

Think about it. Earlier this year, Johnson was leading the race at Martinsville Speedway and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon rapped on his rear bumper about 20 times trying to move Johnson out of the way to win the race.

Johnson held on and Gordon finished second. There was a lot of discussion afterward about the relative propriety of how they raced each other, and that has been renewed in advance of Sunday’s Subway 500 at this .526-mile track.

The accepted wisdom now seems to be that it’s more difficult to move somebody out of the way with the car of tomorrow, although Johnson says it doesn’t take these guys long to figure how to do what they need to do.

So there’s a level at which a higher degree of contact seems to somehow be more acceptable here. That sort of "do what it takes" attitude is, for some reason, easier to justify now than it might have been before.

For everybody but Johnson, that is.

Think about it. If Johnson is running second behind Gordon in the final laps on Sunday, he’s in a no-win situation.

If Johnson bumps Gordon hard enough to get him out of the way and goes on to win the race, all Gordon has to do is cry foul. Since Gordon didn’t "take" a win from Johnson in that way, Johnson would be in position to take some heat if he did that to Gordon.

If Johnson doesn’t bump Gordon at all, fans will be all over him for not trying hard enough to beat his teammate or for not trying hard enough to win because of the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

To bump or not to bump? Either way, I think Johnson is in a tricky spot. Or at least could be.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ray Cooper will be sorely missed

For some reason, Ray Cooper always seemed like he was being asked to walk through life going uphill into a strong headwind.

Things rarely seemed to go easily for him. Sometimes he'd run into obstacles and every once in while he'd drag a few of them into his own path.

But the thing about Ray was that, no matter what, he always kept going. No matter how steep the hill got, no matter how strong the wind blew, he kept getting after it. And most of the time, he did it with a smile on his face.

So early this summer, when he started feeling bad, for a while he just kept plugging. Finally, though, he had to go to the doctor. And the news he got wasn't at all good.

Coop almost always found ways to beat whatever you threw at him. If you sat with him at the poker table, you knew that even if he had nothing in his hand there was a better than fair chance he'd find a way to at least split the pot with the guy who did.

After winning all kinds of awards as a racing writer, he went to work as a manfacturer's public relations rep. That means he'd go to as many drivers and teams with Chevrolet or Dodge -- he worked for both since I met him -- and record what they were saying in interviews. He'd then transcribe that and put it out for the rest of the reporters who might not have been right there at the time.

Sometimes, a driver or crew chief will say something that the people who wrote Coop's paycheck might not have wanted reporters to see. In most instances, though, Ray didn't care.

He felt that it was his job to help people like me do ours, and since he'd done our job before, he knew what we really needed to get from him. So that's what he did, and sometimes that didn't make him the employee of the month. But it made him somebody we could trust and appreciate.

Coop's doctors tried what they could. While all of that was going on, Ray tried to keep working. He came to Bristol, with a lot of effort, just to see everybody because he missed being around us. We sat there that Saturday afternoon and laughed and told stories, and when I walked away it made my heart hurt even more because that's something we'd become accustomed to doing every week with him.

When the doctors said there wasn't a whole lot more they could do, Ray decied that he might as well go on back to work then. And he tried, too. But cancer just doesn't play fair.

Ray died early Saturday. I really can't come up with anything more profound to say about that than it really, truly stinks that he's gone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

How far can Smith vs. Concord go?

This business about Bruton Smith thinking about building a new track to replace Lowe's Motor Speedway interests me on a lot of levels.

First, it's great theater. Smith has a lot of showman in his soul, and he certainly got racing and his facility on the front page of my newspaper with this week's public relations gambit.

But I think it's crazy for people to think Smith is just trying to sell tickets for the Bank of America 500. I don't see how that works. Are fans sitting around saying, "Gosh, we'd better go see the race at Charlotte next week before they close the track?" I doubt that.

Is Smith already trying to creat a "buzz" about the drag strip he wants to build near the current track? Maybe, but there would be a "newness" to drag racing in Charlotte the first few years and I think drag racing has enough fans to fill up the stands for a National Hot Rod Association event next September if that comes off.

What I keep wondering is what happened? Smith told me this week that he had a meeting in his office six weeks ago where he showed economic development officials connected with the city of Concord his plans for the drag strip that started all of this. He read their names to me off the business cards he collected at the meeting.

The folks in Concord say they had no idea Smith had started moving dirt, though. That's entirely possible, since talking about doing something and actually doing it are two different things. But the people in Concord have been doing business with Smith for years and they have to know that Smith isn't the kind to ease into a project.

But somewhere, somehow, somebody convinced the mayor and the city of Concord to call a special meeting last Monday night and change the zoning rules to speficially prohibit Smith from building a drag strip.

Was it a simple matter of Concord being upset about Smith going headlong into action without signing off on everything with them, or was it because there are people who've built homes near the track in the past few years who have enough clout, for some reason, to back Concord into a corner where it had to take some kind of stand against Smith that now has blown up into the current mess?

Here's where we are now. If Smith builds a drag strip at the current location of Lowe's Motor Speedway, it's going to look like he made Concord back down. If Concord doesn't cave, Smith might be forced to show that he's willing to back up the talk he's done about taking his racing franchise elsewhere in the Charlotte market.

When it gets to that point, egos are a factor. Smith has a huge one, there's no question about that. But don't make the mistake of thinking the people on the other side of this don't have at lot a stake in this, too.

It takes two sides to have an argument, and each side is always going to be convinced that it's the other one that's being stubborn.

The scary thing is that sometimes both sides dig in so far that nobody can really afford to give ground. But eventually, something has got to give.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Time is a fleeting thing, on the track and in real life

I am sitting here on a Friday afternoon, piddling away at stuff with Nextel Cup practice from Talladega on the television, and somehow I got to thinking about how funny time is.

I'll be heading to Talladega early Saturday morning to cover qualifying for Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 at the 2.66-mile track. When that starts, the 16 guys fighting for the eight spots available to those not in the top 35 in Nextel Cup owner points will be fighting for every tenth of a second they can get.

I would guess that the fastest eight in that group will be among the fastest 12 or so cars overall in the qualifying sessions. The 35 exempt cars worked mainly on racing setups Friday, but the other were trying to squeeze out every possible bit of speed from their cars.

A second on a race track like Talladega is forever. But sometimes forever can seem like a second, too. In a couple of hours, I am going to my 30th high school reunion. Good grief, I swear it was like three or four days ago I was sitting in Mrs. Geraldine Johnston's English class trying not to choke while taking a test on whatever we had been reading that week.

They sent us a list of people who're planning to be there Friday night, and as I read through it I saw names of a bunch of people that I went through 12 years - Rhyne Elementary, Highland Junior High and Hunter Huss High School - with. I can't say for sure, but I think there are a handful of them that were in at least one class with me every day from the time I was 6 until the time I went to college.

Somebody asked me how long it had been since I saw some of those folks, and it stunned me to have to say I imagined I hadn't seen them since we graduate in June of 1977. It sure doesn't seem like that.

The reunion is Friday night and Saturday night, but I am only playing hooky from the race track for one night. They'll have to tell lies about me rather than to me at Saturday's gathering.

The other reason I didn't go to Alabama on Thursday, as I normally would have, was that we had Eli's first birthday party Thursday night. His birthday was Wednesday, but it worked out better for everybody to do it a day late, and I was lucky I got to be there to see him.

Eli is my grandson, and he's growing up like a weed. There are million things I could say about him, but it'd just be the kind of paw-paw bragging that nobody really wants to hear.

What amazes me most about him, though, is the sense of wonder he still seems to have about everything you put in front of him. A puppy, a bicycle, a toy with a few flashing lights - anything that catches his eye makes those same eyes light up and dance.

I am guessing, and hoping, there will a lot of that same light in some of the slightly older eyes among my old friends and classmates when we get together Friday night. There were a lot of pretty cool people who graduated with me in 1977, even though when I looked back today at the list of songs that were atop the charts that year I have to admit I was pretty disappointed.

Surely we knew better than that.

Anyway, tomorrow I'll go back to thinking about and writing about the tiny little snippets of time that make such a big difference in the sport I now cover.

Until then, though, I think I am going to see how slow I can make time go. I look forward to seeing what kind of young man Eli will be one day, but I have to admit he's pretty remarkable the way he is right now.

As for my old high school buddies, maybe we'll manage to spend as much time talking about how remarkable things have been in the years since we left each other as we will about how much fun we had back and Hunter Huss.

I sure hope so.