Friday, December 29, 2006

People add up quickly in NASCAR's numbers game

I was up in Mooresville this week and had about 30 minutes to kill before I was supposed to meet up with someone, so I rode down the road where Robert Yates Racing’s shop sits.
When you come into the business park, you go down a hill and then back up it and the shop’s on the left. As you start down the hill, you can see the shop pretty well. The closer I got to it, the more I was wondering if I was missing a big story.
The place was absolutely deserted. I looked like it USED to be the home of Robert Yates Racing. The deal, of course, is that for about the only time on the calendar NASCAR was shut down.
With Christmas Day and New Year’s Day falling on Mondays this year, just about every team in the sport is taking this week off. It’s absolutely well-deserved on all fronts, but it is just spooky to go to a NASCAR team’s shop on a weekday and not see it bustling with activity.
I’ve spent a big part of my time the past couple of weeks finishing up a book that’s going to be called “Half the Battle.” It’s an inside look at Jeff Burton’s team as it went through the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup, and thanks to Burton and all of the guys on his team I think it’s going to be turn out well.
To gather the information to write it, I spent as much time as I could during the season’s final weeks hanging around with the guys on the No. 31 team’s truck and listening to them on the radio as they went through practices and the races.
It’s one thing to know how much work goes into getting a competitive race car on the track each weekend, but it’s an entirely eye-opening experience to see that up close with a focus on one team.
Week after week, I came away amazed at just how much has to be done right and how much has to be dealt with for a team to enjoy any kind of success in the sport.
I walked away after Homestead with a renewed respect for what all of the people who work in the sport do. I was seeing it up close with one team, but it also made me understand that I could walk into any truck up and down the garage and have the same experience if I hung around long enough.
About 25 people, maybe a few more, directly have a hand in getting the No. 31 Chevrolet onto the track for Burton to drive it each week. There are probably that many more back at Richard Childress Racing who don’t necessarily work on preparing that car, but work to make all of RCR’s cars go faster.
And then there’s another entire group who work to make RCR, the company, run so that the cars have a chance to race.
It’s staggering to do that math and multiply it by 43 cars. Even with the crossover work done on multicar teams, hundreds and hundreds of people have a hand in making these cars go.
Hundreds more work in NASCAR, inspecting cars and officiating the races, and each track had another few hundred people working to provide the sport its venues.
Here’s hoping that all of those folks who make a contribution to NASCAR got spend this week with their families and friends, enjoying the little bit of time when the race shops and the race tracks aren’t humming with activity.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bobby Hamilton is still fighting

In August, Rick Minter from the Atlanta paper and I sat in Bobby Hamilton’s motor home at Bristol Motor Speedway and talked with him about his fight with cancer.
All of the reports about his three months of treatment for the cancer doctors had found in his neck were optimistic. The radiation and chemotherapy had taken their toll, but Hamilton was upright and moving forward.
Rick and I both wanted to write stories saying that Hamilton had defeated cancer. We kept wanting Hamilton and his fiancée, Lori, to say he was cured. They would not.
“She’s very careful about that,” Lori said, speaking of Hamilton’s lead physician, Dr. Barbara Murphy. “She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re cured of cancer, you’re 100 percent clean.’”
The scans and everything that could be done from outside Hamilton’s body looked good. But some of the doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville wanted to do surgery to dissect Hamilton’s lymph node to make sure the cancer cells were gone. Some of them didn’t think it was necessary, but Hamilton did.
“I don’t want to go to bed at night,” Hamilton says, “thinking we half-assed it.” Rick and I left and wrote our stories, saying that Hamilton would have that surgery done the following week. I can’t speak for Rick, but I guess I just assumed that no news was good news so I didn’t think about checking in after the surgery to make sure everything was OK.
Then, one day last week, I got an e-mail saying that Hamilton had hired Ken Schrader to drive the No. 18 Dodge in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2007.
Hamilton had said on March 17 when he announced that he was beginning treatments that he wanted to return to drive his truck beginning with the opener at Daytona in ’07. After seeing him in August I knew he had a long road ahead of him to get back behind the wheel. But the Schrader announcement prompted me to send Lori an e-mail asking her how Hamilton was coming along and whether he was going to get to race at Daytona.
Lori answered me quickly, but politely said it’d be a couple of days before they really would have anything to tell us. Maybe I should have been worried by that, but I guess I was still in the wishful thinking mode.
And then, Wednesday afternoon, Amanda Jones sent out a release from Bobby Hamilton Racing.
“In August after extensive treatment from chemotherapy and radiation Hamilton and his doctors were optimistic about findings in his post-treatment CT Scan,” it read. “However, microscopic cancer cells still remained in the right side of his neck. Since that time, Hamilton is continuing his chemotherapy treatment and has gone through several procedures to keep the cancer at bay.”
Hamilton is still fighting. “Cancer is an ongoing battle, and once you are diagnosed you always live with the thought of the disease in your body,” he said. “It is the worst thing you could ever imagine. We are going to continue to search for the best available treatment for my form of cancer. I have flown to several places for other opinions. We know there are some of the brightest minds in the world working on a cure for cancer.
“I didn’t want to be labeled as a victim when I announced it and I sure won’t lie down and be a victim now.”
I hope everybody who reads this will say a prayer for Bobby and Lori and their families, and one for his doctors and another one for all of the smart, dedicated people in this world who’re working every day to kick cancer’s ass.
Everybody who knows Bobby Hamilton would love to see him back behind the wheel for the Craftsman Truck Series season opener at Daytona. But it looks like that won’t happen in 2007.
That’s OK, because 2008 or 2009 works just fine, too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fans will be key ingredient in upcoming radio gig

I am really, really looking forward to Jan. 1.
I hope most of you have heard by now that I am going to be part of the “Morning Drive” show that will air from 7 to 11 a.m. weekdays on Sirius NASCAR Radio channel 128. Our show starts Jan. 1 when NASCAR’s satellite radio rights move from XM to Sirius.
I will be doing the show with Marty Snider, who was a pit reporter for NBC and TNT and will continue to be part of TNT’s team in the new contract. He and I agree on some things and disagree on others, which is about the best you can hope for.
I am going to do that show as well as maintain my job as beat writer for The Charlotte Observer.
It means more work, sure, but I’ve been telling people that I talk about racing all day anyway. I might as well get paid and put some of it on the air.
We want our show every day to be a conversation among ourselves, race fans and the people in the sport. We’re going to talk about whatever the fans want to talk about and about what we think the fans are going to want to know. Some days I hope we’ll get it right, and other days I know we’ll wish we could have done better. But the idea is to have fun and to provide fans with what I think has been missing.
NASCAR chairman Brian France has said repeatedly that he thinks NASCAR is an “undercovered” sport. He has talked about how he wants the sport to be talked about and written about not just on race weekends, but all week long.
Well, that’s where we come in. In some of our meetings leading up to the first show, people have said they just hope we’ll have callers. That doesn’t worry me a bit. I know there are race fans out there with strong opinions they want to express. Read my e-mail or the comments on these blogs and you’ll see that. We want our show to be a home for those fans. If you’re fired up about something that has or hasn’t happened, we want you to know that we’ll be there four hours Monday through Friday talking about it.
We’ve talked about having on guys who work in the sport who fans don’t know yet but who we know work hard and do tremendous jobs. We’ll have drivers on, sure, and I hope any driver in the sport will feel totally comfortable to pick up the phone and call us up if he has something to say about an issue we’re discussing. But we also hope any tire changer or transport driver will do the same thing – as well as any fan.
Marty and I want to try to get to the bottom of things as fast as we can. When we hear a rumor, we’re going to check it out and get the people who’re involved in it on the air as soon as we can.
Of course, that’s not very much different at all from what we do now. It’s just that now we’ll have that four-hour block each morning to get what we find out to the listeners. Maybe we can stop a few bad rumors before they really get started.
One thing I hope fans will know right from the start is that NASCAR does not control what we can and can’t say. Sirius is paying NASCAR for the satellite radio rights, and the name of the channel is Sirius NASCAR Radio. But NASCAR won’t control the content. Like anybody else, they’ll try to spin things their way when news is coming out. But we’re going to call it like we see it. If the listeners think we’re shills for NASCAR, we won’t last on the air long. And I hope to be doing this for a long, long time.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Scribe's efforts benefit Victory Junction Gang Camp

I always hate to go to a movie when I know there are going to be reporters depicted in some way.
They always show reporters hanging around in a big group hollering obnoxious questions at victims of horrible tragedies. The way people talk to me about people who cover NASCAR for a living, they think the only thing we do is sit around and wait for free food to be served.
(Let me say this about that. Yeah, they feed us. But once this year somebody was doing a survey and asked me which track serves the best food to the media. I thought about it a long, long time and could not come up with an answer to the question. It's edible, don't get me wrong, but it's not like we're being hand fed grapes by vestal virgins or anything.)
There are some deadbeats in the racing media, just like there are almost certainly some wherever you work. But there are some pretty good people, too.
One of them is a guy named Al Pearce. Al has been covering racing for a long, long time. Nobody in the media, I'd bet, has traveled to NASCAR races via more diffent modes of transportation than Al has, either. He's taken trains, planes, buses, trucks, cars and motorcycles to get to the track.
He's also been on Kyle Petty's charity motorcycle ride every year he's been able to make it, and he's adopted the Victory Junction Gang Camp as a cause.
Two years ago, Al got a plain, white driver's helmet and went around getting every living Cup Series champion to sign it. Last year, he got every living winner of the Daytona 500 to sign a similar helmet. Once he's got all the signatures, he donates the helmet to Victory Junction, and it's then auctioned off to raise money for the camp.
This year, Al's project was to get every living driver who has won the Indianapolis 500 to sign one helmet. As far as some of the historians at Indianapolis know, there's no other helmet out there with all of those names on it.
Al has one to go -- Kenny Brack -- and he's arranged to get the helmet to Brack this week (UPS and FedEx have helped him ship the helmet to some drivers and then get it back to Al after it was signed). He collected a bunch when the IRL came to Richmond earlier this year and has been working on it pretty much all summer. He's also promising whoever winds up buying the helmet at auction that he'll see to any subsequent winner of the Indy 500 adds his name to the helmet.
Al and a group of family, friends and fans around his home in southeastern Virginia have raised nearly $45,000 for the camp with the helmets and a couple of other projects.
Once Brack signs, Al will give the helmet to the folks at Victory Junction and they'll decide when, where and how to sell it to raise the most money for the camp.
It's a really cool thing that Al has done, and there has to be some Indianapolis 500 memorabilia collector out there who's willing to pay top dollar for the helmet Al has put together.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

New York: If you can't make it there ...

Sorry to be a little late about commenting on this, but with all of this “idle” time I have on my hands this “offseason” I sometimes let the hours just slip away.
(If you can’t detect the sarcasm, trust me, it’s there. There is no offseason any more.)
The announcement earlier this week that International Speedway Corporation has bailed on its plans to build a speedway on a site on Staten Island is certainly not great news for that company. ISC invested considerable time and money into getting those plans off the ground, and it’s a shame to see that come to nothing.
I know ISC and, by extension, NASCAR want to have a track in the New York City market. Goodness knows the folks who run stock-car racing desperately want New York to love them.
What I’ve never really understood about the idea of building a track there, though, is where’s the demand? Does anybody really get a sense that there are people living within, say, an hour of midtown Manhattan who are “underserved” by NASCAR?
Pocono and Watkins Glen are certainly within a reasonable drive of New York City. Race fans in other parts of the country routinely drive several hours to see a race. If there are fans who want to see racing living in the five boroughs, are they somehow deprived of that right?
ISC wanted to build a three-quarter mile track with about 80,000 seats on Staten Island and use ferries and helicopters and buses to supplement the bridges that might carry fans to and from events. One of these days, mass transit may play a major role in moving fans on race days. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Can you imagine a few thousand motorcoaches and RVs pouring onto Staten Island for a NASCAR weekend? Actually, I don’t see how it could negatively impact New York City traffic because it’s already worse than I thought possible. But still, the thought boggles the mind.
There are tracks in Nashville, Kentucky and near St. Louis that would love to have Cup race. Already built, already up and running. There’s a new track in Iowa that, by all accounts, is very nice, too. ISC doesn’t own any of them of course, so that means NASCAR doesn’t have much desire to go there. (Not that there’s any conflict of interest between NASCAR and ISC, which are two entirely separate companies that just happen to both be controlled by the same family, the Frances, and who just happen to share the same headquarters building in Daytona.)
You know, of course, that a track in New York isn’t about fans at all. NASCAR would give away every one of those 80,000 tickets at a track there in exchange for having a venue in that market. Every seat could be filled by a corporate partner’s fanny and stock-car racing’s governing bodies would be deliriously happy.
I am beginning to think that’s one of the major things wrong with the sport right now. The folks in Daytona and in their branch offices in New York and Charlotte and Los Angeles have done an outstanding job establishing and nurturing relationships with sponsors and other corporate partners. That part of the industry is more robust than it has ever been, and NASCAR should be lauded for that.
But that’s only part of the equation. If NASCAR doesn’t take care of its fans better – the fans who pay to come watch the races, not to come do business at them – the sponsors and corporate partners eventually won’t have any customers to service through the sport.
It’s like watering the leaves of a plant and letting the roots go dangerously dry. Ultimately, that’s bad business.

Friday, December 01, 2006

New York parties go on without me

I am not staying at the Waldorf-Astoria.

NASCAR broke me of that a few years back when they overbooked reservations for championship weekend and I got placed in a room in the Waldorf Towers at about $575 a night. The Observer paid that bill, but they weren't too happy and I don't blame them.

I always try to find something in the neighborhood, and for the past few years I've been in a little hotel down about two blocks that's nice and costs, by New York City standards, a reasonable rate. I won't tell you the name, though. Find your own secret New York City place.

Anyway, Friday I had an afternoon meeting up near Rockefeller Center and decided to swing by the Waldorf to pick up my banquet ticket on the way. As I went into the massive lobby (the Waldorf really is a fabulous place, until you actually go to the closets they call rooms), I started seeing a few NASCAR folks.

Some of them looked OK, but several of them were kind of, well, bleary-eyed. One guy I won't name was asking me if they had a Starbucks in the hotel because he needed coffee, badly, and was afraid it was about to start raining outside. Acutally, there is a Starbucks off the entrance on the Park Avenue side.

This guy, and several others I ran across, had been to Thursday night's big party at a place called Marquis. This is the second year that party has been held, and last year it was by all accounts quite the throwdown. That event, in fact, was the final blow for the Myers Brothers Breakfast that used to be held on Friday mornings. Several people who were supposed to give or receive awards at that breakfast last year had not sufficiently recovered from the Marquis party to do so.

No, I didn't go. Not last year, not this year. I am too old and too married for that kind of foolishness. I don't drink, either, and that pretty much seems to be the whole point of this party, too.

Anyway, initial reports are that while this year's event was wall-to-wall people having a very good time, there were far fewer misbehaving celebrants than last year.

There's another chance, though, after the awards ceremony tonight. The post-banquet party seems to have calmed down some in recent years, too. There apparently still hasn't been one yet to match the 1992 party thrown by Alan Kulwicki, which legend has it included Richard Petty dancing in a Conga line and Kulwicki and several Winston officials digging in their tuxedo pockets for enough money to pay the band, Jack Mack and the Heart Attacks, to keep playing for an extra hour or two.

Sorry, but I won't be able to confirm or deny what happens there, either. I have to file a story after the banquet, and once I am back in my room it'd take an act of Congress to get me to go back to the Waldorf and get in the middle of all of that.

-- Written by and posted for David Poole

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A quick New York story

I went to the NASCAR/NMPA Myers Brothers Awards luncheon today at Cipriani's, a restaurtant in a wonderful old building on 42nd Street just across the street from Grand Central Terminal.
Before today, I would have written Grand Central Station. That's what I always thought it was called. When my friends and I used to run in and out of the house when we were kids, my mom would say, "Hey, this is NOT Grand Central Station." Well, come to find out it's Grand Central Terminal. Says so right there, carved into the building and everything.
Anyway, I was seated at the same table as Jeff Burton and he told us this story.
On Wednesday, he had occasion to be in Saks Fifth Avenue. I think he said his wife, Kim, was shopping but it was a big table and I can't be sure that's right. Anyway, he said he remembered he needed a couple of pair of black socks.
"So I take these two pair of socks over the register and the guy goes, 'That'll be $246.'" Burton looked around to see who the clerk was talking to. There was nobody else there.
"I said, 'There has to be some mistake,'" Burton said.
No mistake, the clerk said. The socks were 100 percent cashmere. They were $120 per pair -- $60 a sock.
"I said, 'Well let me ask you, where are the plain old cotton socks?'" Burton said.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Contests a good time to review season

Tuesday night was the annual fun-with-arts-and-crafts night in "The Annex," the over-the-garage apartment that's now my office in the house we've just moved into.

At the end of each season, I rake up all of the sports sections since the start of the race season and go through them looking for my best stories of the year. (We pause now for all of you who think I am a hack to make up your own joke.)

There are various contests each year for sportswriters to enter. The folks at the Observer hand entries into the North Carolina Press Association (I never win anything there) and the Associated Press Sports Editors (where I've done OK) contests. But I have to do my own entries for the National Motorsports Press Association and the Miller Lite Motorsports Journalism awards.

This process involves cutting out stories and slicing them up to make them fit on 8-by-11½ inch pieces of paper. You have to cut away the pictures and bylines and any kind of publication information.

It also involves a glue stick, which I have a complete lack of ability to use effectively. I usually wind up gluing at least one piece of paper to my desk (and did so again this year) and inevitably wind up with half of a last paragraph to a story that won't fit on the page.

Some of the people in the newspaper business don't like contests. At least they say they don't. I like entering them and like doing well in them, although I never have been able to figure out how the judging might go.

I just finished my 10th year of covering NASCAR for the Observer, and in those 10 years there are three or four stories that I would rank among my favorite ones I've ever done. I liked the topic, I liked the way the interviews went and I liked the way they turned out. And none of them ever won squat.

Halfway through the average race lead -- the story for the next day's paper about a given race -- I am usually either disgusted with how it's going or happily surprised that it's going pretty well. Nine times out of 10, though, when it comes time to pick race leads to enter in the contests I don't pick ones I liked when I was writing them.

The best thing about arts-and-crafts night, though, is that it serves as a way to review the season. Things tend to run together once the year gets cranked up. When you go back to February and look at stories written when the season was just getting started, you sometimes remember how wrong you were about what you thought was going to happen. Sometimes you realize you might have been more right than you thought you were, too. But not often.

A NASCAR year is a long, long time. The season runs from just before Valentine's Day until just before Thanksgiving. The annual contest process is one of the ways I turn the page from one year to another. As soon as next week's banquet in New York is over, I'll start working as a travel agent arranging things for another season in 2007.

And it will start all over again.

-- Written by and posted for David Poole

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The season's end would be a fine time for NASCAR to fix the 'Buschwhacker' problem

Some quick thoughts as Ford Championship Weekend in Miami comes up over the horizon.

  • Ford Championship Weekend is happening in Homestead. Miami is 30 miles north and still has the same roads torn up that have been torn up since the Cup series started coming here.
    Construction? How can be it “construction” unless something “constructive” is being done?
  • If hell has an airport, it’s a Delta Connection hub.
  • I keep waiting for NASCAR to figure out how to fix the “Buschwhacker” problem on its own, but I guess I am going to have to go ahead and give it to them.
    Nobody in the top 30 in this year’s final Nextel Cup Series driver standings gets any points, driver points or owner points for the car owner, in the first five Busch races next year. After those five races, no one in the current top 30 in the Cup series gets points for racing in Busch races.
    Cup drivers can still race all they want to in Busch races. But they’re racing for prize money in races only. They also have to qualify to make the race – no guaranteed spots in Busch fields with no points. Car owners and sponsors decide if they want to run for the Busch championship. If they do, they get a driver who’s on his way up the ladder or who’s decided Cup’s not for him. If they don’t, put anybody in the car you want to and go to town.
    Give that system two seasons and the Buschwhacker problem would fix itself.
  • People who work in NASCAR used to get excited about the end of the season. Those who travel every weekend saw the promise of a real life ahead of them and were gleeful.
    Now? Not so much. Here it is, in depressing reality for my friends and colleagues who do what I do. It’s Homestead, Thanksgiving, banquet week, Christmas shopping, New Year’s Day and then testing. Where’s the offseason in there?
  • When the 2006 season began, I kept asking people how the folks in Dodge’s racing program could let its teams get so far apart and working at such cross purposes that different teams were bringing different cars to the track. You didn’t have to be particularly smart to see that wasn’t going to work out particularly well for Dodge teams this year.
    Now, as the season ends, I am looking at what’s happened to Ford’s racing program with the same degree of confusion. How could Ford let Robert Yates get to a point where he’s even thinking about auctioning off the car owner points for the 88 and trying to field only one team next year?
    How could Ford not step in and make damn sure that there were Ford cars and trucks for Mark Martin to drive in any combination of races he wants to run next season?
    One year ago today, the two biggest stories in Nextel Cup were that Tony Stewart was in command of the Chase and that Roush had done something incredible by getting five cars into that Chase. Now, there’s a game of crew chief musical chairs going on over there and things appear to be in at least mild disarray.
    And people wonder why mechanics and other crewmen might want to look into working with Toyota teams?
  • Speaking of hell, there’s a corner of it saved for the man who invented the magnetic key card that’s used to open hotel room doors. In that corner is all the cold, refreshing water that man could want for eternity. But it’s locked behind a door and the guy’s key card won’t open it.
  • Make sure you check out in the next day or so and look at where things would stand in the WARM system – the “Winning A Race Matters” points system I’ve proposed – going into this weekend.
    I told you it was good.

  • Sunday, November 12, 2006

    It's the points, not the Chase in need of fixing

    I am sitting here in the closet they call a media center at Phoenix International Raceway, four hours before the start of today’s Checker Auto Parts 500, shaking my head.
    A racing writer’s daily ritual, whether they admit this or not, is to check the various racing web sites to see what everyone else is writing about. A NASCAR reporter who tells you he or she doesn’t check, for instance, is just a liar.
    As has been the case for the past couple of weeks, today’s digest of stories on Jay’s site includes a load of people complaining about how the Chase for the Nextel Cup is flawed because Tony Stewart is winning races but isn’t in the Chase.
    I had to be at the track here at 7 a.m. local time to be on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” show to discuss the same topic. In fairness to the ESPN folks, especially reporter Mike Massaro’s piece around which the discussion was built, they at least accurately explored the various sides of the matter.
    On the show, I tried to make the point that the real problem people seem to have with the way NASCAR picks a champion has next to nothing to do with the Chase format itself. The flaw is, as it has always been, with the points system itself.
    Stewart has won three of the past six races but, because he did not make the Chase cut after 26 races, he can’t win the championship. But if there were no Chase, Stewart would have been mathematically eliminated from championship contention DESPITE the fact he won at Texas last weekend and would have been practically eliminated weeks earlier.
    The Chase hasn’t changed that a bit. What the Chase has done is make more people more relevant for more weeks in the championship discussion. Under the old format, by Labor Day the title race usually had been winnowed down to three or four teams, and it was only on rare occasions that more than two teams were really part of the discussion in the season’s final weeks.
    The Chase keeps 12 to 15 teams, at least, in the picture until the end of September and keeps at least a handful of racers in contention until after Halloween. There could, and most likely will, soon come a year when a driver in the Chase has the kind of fall Stewart is having and wraps things up before we go to Homestead. But unless something very odd happens here this afternoon, the Chase is going to be three-for-three in doing what it was designed to do, and that’s carry the championship battle into the season’s final week.
    The argument that drivers who win multiple races should fare better in the points standings is every bit as valid now as it was under the old system. But again, that’s not a Chase issue. It’s a points issue. And until the way points are tabulated is changed, the Chase is going to feel the effects of that issue.
    First place should be significantly more rewarding than second place, and the gap between those two positions should be wider than the gap between any other in the finishing order. Make winning races more important toward winning championships and the racers in the sport will adapt to that system, Chase or no Chase.
    There’s no question that Stewart’s team is one of the best in NASCAR. That’s never been an issue. But that team had 26 changes to make the Chase this year, and it failed.
    It’s like a golfer playing in a major championship. If he shoots 86 on the first day, he can shoot 66 on the second day and still miss the cut.
    The difference in NASCAR, of course, is that the teams that don’t make the “cut” still get to play in the later rounds. The analogy may not be perfect, but the fact remains that a golfer’s bad shots count just as much as his good ones do, and that’s how it is – and ought to be – in racing as well.
    There was a movie several years about starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore called “Disclosure,” based on a Michael Crichton book. Douglas’s character is basically set up to take the fall for a failure with his company’s latest major project, and an anonymous tipster keeps advising him not to worry so much about what’s happening to him and to instead spend his time and energy on fixing the problem that’s at the root of everything to start with.
    “Solve the problem,” is the message Douglas keeps getting from his anonymous source. That’s a good message for NASCAR, too. The problem is not the Chase, it’s the points. Solve that, and the Chase will take care of itself.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    NASCAR garage area isn’t a playground at some elementary school

    OK, and I am really dating myself here, but I am reminded of a line in a song by America called “Sister Golden Hair” about being “one poor correspondent.”
    It has been nearly two weeks since I’ve updated this blog, and that’s bad. I’ve got reasons, which we’ll get to, but that’s still fairly lame.
    But we’re moving. When I way we, of course, I mean my wife is trying to move the stuff we own from one house to another. It’s maybe 2 miles from one place to another, but it might as well be from Charlotte to Phoenix, which is where I am flying today (which is Thursday, in case this winds up being posted for more than week, too).
    I went to Texas last weekend for the race there, of course, and Katy had one of her good friends down to, at least in theory, see the grandbaby. Pam, who’s from Illinois, wound up getting drafted into the moving vortex and we’re hoping that she’ll still speak to us after a respectful cooling off period.
    Moving is about as much fun as…well…I can’t think of a decent metaphor. Working in an asbestos mine? Mucking out pig sties? You fill in the blanks.
    Anyway, while I had a minute before the plane took off I thought I would comment about the incident after the race in Texas in which Kevin and Delana Harvick and a NASCAR official went down after a confrontation with someone on the No. 10 team.
    Whenever there’s some kind of postrace altercation, I usually get feedback from fans who tell me that I overreact when I say NASCAR is right to fine, suspend and otherwise penalize people for such antics. Let these guys show a little emotion, these folks say.
    Well, I am here to tell you that the garage is a very dangerous place right after a race. A lot of people are moving around a lot of heavy stuff in a big hurry, trying to get the gear packed up so they can all race to the airport and brag about how fast they got back to Charlotte.
    If you’re going into the garage after a race, you have to have your head on a swivel and be ready to react to just about anything. You can get run over by all manner of contraptions in there if you’re not careful.
    Now, if you add to that environment someone who’s out of control in anger over something that happened near the end or after a race, you’ve got a mess on your hands.
    I didn’t see what happened Sunday night, but I’ve talked to people who either did or talked to people who did. There’s a ramp that runs down from pit road into the garage area at Texas, and the best I can tell someone pushed Harvick on that ramp and he lost his balance. That set up a bowling-pin effect, with Delana and the NASCAR official going down, and then a crash cart ran over the official’s ankle.
    NASCAR was right to suspend the crew member from the 10 team who apparently pushed Harvick to start all of that. It would have been nice if NASCAR had anticipated the confrontation and taken more measures to keep it from happening, but that’s revisionist history. Sometimes people who’re hot at each other wind up in the same place and there’s nothing you can do to stop that.
    As to what happened on the track to lead to the postrace incident, I will say the same thing about this one that I say about all of them. I don’t care what happened on the track. I don’t care who was right or who was wrong. It doesn’t matter. You can’t bring that into the volatile postrace environment without creating unnecessary risk to people who have no dog in the fight, and there’s no place for it in the sport.
    I’ve heard all the old stories about people chasing each other around after races swinging tire irons or pulling pistols on each other. I could say that’s all part of the sport’s colorful past and times have changed. But that’s wrong. It was just as insane for people to act that way 20, 30 or 40 years ago as it would be today.
    The garage area isn’t a playground at some elementary school where the worst thing that’s likely to happen is a skinned elbow. There’s too much happening after a race to let this kind of stuff go on, and NASCAR was right in moving quickly to address the issue. And the next time it happens, the penalty should be more severe.
    Actually, just like with me moving, let’s hope it’s a LONG time before there is a next time.

    Thursday, October 26, 2006

    It's been a year, and you and I still need to catch up

    Hey Daddy. I dropped by to visit for a minute early Thursday morning before coming to Atlanta for another race. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since that night last October when I didn’t get back before you had to go. Some days it seems like it has only been a little while. Other days, it seems like it has been forever.
    I miss you, like I still miss Mama. A couple of months ago I turned in the relic of a cell phone the paper had me using for a newer model. When I was moving the numbers over into the new phone, I came to yours in the old one. I guess I’d never really reached a point where I was ready to take it out.
    We used to talk about how many times the both of us had something happen and our first thought was, “Wait until Sue hears this one.” I guess it’s sort of like that “phantom pain” people have when a part of them is missing. Or something like that.
    Your grandchildren are growing up. Megan graduated from high school in June, which doesn’t seem possible. On my side of the family, we’ve got a son in the Navy learning to work on nuclear reactors and a daughter who just gave birth to your first great-grandchild. Eli has been with us for 3½ weeks now, and I think I’ve already laid down a pretty good foundation for spoiling him.
    I’ll have to work hard to match the standards you set in that, but everybody needs goals.
    Eli has been a good boy. He fusses a little bit now and then, for the most part he just watches the world go by. I told him the other day as he tried to fight sleep that he should just go ahead and take a nap. “Eating and sleeping and messing up diapers, that’s your job right now,” I said. “It’s not the worst job you’ll ever have, either.”
    Work is a zoo, as always. I know you’d probably be pulling for Mark Martin or Matt Kenseth to win the Chase this year, mainly because they drive Fords. Even though that truck you finally had to give up driving was a Chevrolet, you were always a Ford guy.
    Well, that and an “anybody but Earnhardt” guy.
    I think it’s a shame you didn’t get to go to the track more with me, though, because I am fairly well convinced that you would have liked Dale Earnhardt Jr. if you ever got a chance to know him.
    Travel stinks. They’ve had to ban most liquids from airplanes because the world has gone bonkers. It had been a few weeks since I traveled, so when I left to come here I put this vial of lens cleaner in my carry-on bag. The drugstore near my house used to carry it and I love how it works, but they hadn’t had it in a while. They got some in and I had a bottle and had barely used it. But there it was and I just had to throw it away. It was my mistake, I could have just put it in the checked bags, but I just forgot about it.
    It’s supposed to rain Friday at the track, but maybe it’ll let up long enough for them to get qualifying in. I remember last year that Friday was a very, very pretty day in Georgia. I was driving back to the hotel to pick up my stuff and head home to try to see you before you left, and the leaves were turning and the skies were as blue as they could be. It was way to pretty too turn out to be one of the worst days a son could ever have, that’s for sure.
    They’re doing an OK job keeping up the place where you and Mama are resting. The grass is trimmed up and even though it has turned colder it’s still nice and green. The only reason I don’t cry about you being gone every day is that I know you and Mama are together now, watching me trying to play “Paw-Paw” to Eli and laughing at me when I try to figure out how to hold his little head correctly or know just how hard you’re supposed to rap on his back when he needs to burp.
    Don’t worry. I’ll tell him about you guys. He’ll be sad he never really got to know you, but like I said, I don’t think the spoiling gene skipped a generation. All I can promise is that I’ll do the best job I can, because that’s all I ever saw you do.
    Love you and miss you, David

    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    Come on already, the 'car of tomorrow' isn't a Pinto

    I saw the other day where NBA commissioner David Stern said that he doesn’t care how much players gripe about the new basketball being introduced into the league this year, the decision to use it is not going to change.
    The ball isn’t made out of leather, like the old one was, and some of the players think the new “composite” ball will be too slippery or feel too different or something like that. As far as I know, though, the new ball is the same size and it’s also still round.
    Now you and I both know that every player who’s made it all the way to the NBA has spent his whole life shooting any kind of basketball he could get his hands on into any kind of hoop he could find while he was honing his skills. They’ve played with balls that had too little air in them and too much air. They’ve played with balls that got soaking wet every time they rolled off the end of a schoolyard blacktop into a puddle or got dirt all over them when they were dribbled off a root that worked its way up through after the grass got killed on the backyard court they first started playing on.
    In case you can’t figure out where I am going with this and how I am going to get it over to NASCAR, think of the new NBA ball as the “car of tomorrow.”
    Nextel Cup drivers have almost all raced somewhere in go-karts or midget cars or short-track late model junkers assembled under a bad fluorescent light in some buddy’s garage. They helped spend every dime their parents could muster or went around begging for a car to drive just because they wanted to race.
    Now, they’ve reached the pinnacle of their sport and few of them have the time to touch a car any more. A team of engineers and artisans take cars from a computer screen and turn it into steel and rubber and speed, then paint it up and roll it out for these guys to do what they always dreamed of doing.
    In a way, you can understand why somebody who gets to do that would be leery of the kind of change that’s coming to NASCAR beginning next season. The drivers aren’t stupid. They know how much money, time and sweat have gone into the cars they drive today, and when they hear that NASCAR is going to basically make that car obsolete over the next two or three years, you can’t blame them for not jumping up and down with glee.
    I completely understand the resistance to NASCAR’s plan for implement the “car of tomorrow.” And there’s no way I can tell you right now that the new vehicle, which is taller and wider and boxier than the current car, won’t be a total disaster after it’s rolled out.
    It very well might be too ugly for anybody to love. It very well might do the opposite of what it’s intended to do and make it more difficult for drivers to race in traffic, in dirty air and side by side. I might very well be the kind of mistake that “new Coke” was, for all I know, but there’s no way that I or anybody else can say that right now.
    For the better part of a couple of years now, NASCAR has been telling its teams this car is coming. From the very first time they heard about it, many race teams decided that the car is a bad idea and that NASCAR would eventually “come to its senses” and abandon the project. They decided that it would be a waste of time of effort to worry about it and prepare for its arrival.
    But NASCAR hasn’t backed down, and now some of those teams are in a panic.
    The car of tomorrow is, beginning at Bristol in the spring of 2007, going to be the car of right now. One thing I can guarantee you is that NASCAR will run a race that day, and if teams want to be part of that they’d better be there with a car that fits the templates to NASCAR’s satisfaction.
    NASCAR is going to have to do a much better job than it has of getting the rules for the new car set and let teams start building the cars with confidence they’re not going to have to start completely over at some point down the road. NASCAR also needs to get its inspection process for the new car lined up in a way that makes teams believe things will work with reasonable dispatch when it comes time to put them on the track.
    But NASCAR is also going to have to be willing to listen to withering criticism from people who don’t like change, from inside the garage and from the grandstands, and be willing to stick by this project. At the same time, it also needs to listen to the people who race the cars and make reasonable changes that might need to be made once the car is actually in use. These changes can’t be knee-jerk, either. This project is to important to the sport for it to not to be handled well.
    There are going to be some spectacularly bad races in the first couple of years the new car is being used. Some teams are going to be ahead of others in figuring out how to make the new car work, and the people who’re getting beat are going to scream bloody murder. But you know what, that also happens right now. There are bad races and good races with the same cars the sport has basically been using for, what, 20 years? And there are days when one team whips everybody else’s butt.
    That’s called racing. I will leave you with the answer Jeff Burton gave when he was asked about the “car of tomorrow” at Martinsville over the weekend, because he’s exactly right.
    "I think there's going to be a learning period,” Burton said. “I think there's going to be things that happen with the car of tomorrow that we don't know about. I think some of those things could affect the quality of racing early with the car.
    “But at the end of the day, this is what I truly believe. If you give Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Racing, (Richard) Childress Racing a Pinto and said 'Here's a Pinto. You guys are going to go racing.' There'd be a heck of a race here Sunday. That's what I believe.
    “I believe the race teams will figure out how to make it work. We're all worried about it and talking about it and we're all flipped out about it. A year from now it won't even be a conversation. Is the car safer as intended? I believe it to be. Do I think competition will be better? I don't know. Only time will tell.”

    Saturday, October 21, 2006

    How the suits took Martinsville's hot dog for a walk

    At the risk of releasing the "fat joke" hounds, I come today in praise of the Martinsville hot dog.
    I am not going to pretend these culinary delights have any nutritional value. They are most certainly not good for you, but they are good. And sometimes, that ought to be enough.
    Here’s the Martinsville hot dog deal. Bun, bright-red Jesse Jones wiener (has to be Jesse Jones, with extra red dye coloring), with chili, mustard, onions and slaw. The dogs can be ordered with no slaw or with no onions or pretty much anyway you want one, but the get the full experience you at least have to do the chili and mustard.
    They’re $2 apiece and they come wrapped in wax paper.
    A couple of years ago, soon after International Speedway Corp. bought the track from the family of the late Clay Earles, who had founded it, we got here one Friday and something had changed.
    The hot dogs were being served in little foam boxes. You got them pretty much plain and had to go apply your own condiments. And they weren’t quite red enough.
    It was, quite frankly, an outrage.
    Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers team from nearby Stuart, Va., was fighting mad about it. He found NASCAR president Mike Helton and demanded things be put back the way they were. Immediately.
    Before long, word of the crisis got back to hot dog connoisseur Bill France Jr. and phone calls were immediately made. This was serious business.
    The problem, of course, was symptomatic of what’s happening in our society. Instead of letting the people who’d made the hot dogs here for years keep right on making them, the people from ISC’s concession company, Americrown, came in here and thought they needed to make things "better."
    By the end of that fateful day, the wax paper was back. Personally, I don’t think the hot dogs have ever quite made it back to the quality they were before the Americrown goons got hold of them. But maybe that’s just my imagination.
    Regardless, people still eat them when they come here. In bunches.
    I vividly recall walking into the track one cool, foggy morning several years ago at about 8 a.m. and nodding at Richard Petty as he walked by taking a chomp out of a Martinsville dog.
    As I was standing behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s hauler telling tales Friday afternoon, a veteran of the garage area told the story of a guy showing up one day and having Dale Earnhardt Sr. motion him into the transporter.
    "Here’s $20," Earnhardt said. "Go get as many hot dogs as this will buy and bring them to the side door of the trailer. And whatever you do, don’t tell Teresa."
    Back before the Americrownistas took over, lunch on Friday for the media consisted of someone bringing in several boxes full of hot dogs. This was done as rapidly as possible, with no prior warning, so as the persons making said deliveries might have hope of getting out of the way safely before the locusts swept in.
    Make all the jokes you want about sportswriters and buffets, but watching those hot dogs disappear was better than a Las Vegas magic act. Photographers, who frequently wear vests with all sorts of extra pockets, somehow managed to be particularly adept at cleaning out those boxes.
    I hear from race fans all of the time telling me how NASCAR is being ruined because too many things are changing too fast. I don’t always agree with that, but I will tell you that there are some things that ought not be messed with – like Labor Day weekend racing and the true Martinsville hot dog.

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    Trying to fathom the Ward Burton mania

    There’s an interesting fascination with a driver who’ll be trying to make his first Nextel Cup start in a long time at Martinsville this weekend.
    It has been almost two full seasons, since the race at Phoenix in November 2004, since Ward Burton took the green flag for a Cup race. His last top-five finish came four years ago Friday on Oct. 20, 2002, when he was fifth at Martinsville in the Bill Davis-owned No. 22 Dodge.
    But people everywhere still want to know about Ward. At Daytona in July, I ran into him in the garage area and walked along talking to him about his desire to come back to the Cup series. He said he thought he had a sponsor just about lined up and was looking to find the right team to go with so he could be competitive.
    As we walked along, I told him that there’s hardly a week that goes by without me getting a question either in person on via e-mail about his status. “The fans love you,” I told him.
    About that time, we turned the corner of the garage and began walking along underneath Daytona’ “Fan Walk” area. As soon as people saw Ward, they started yelling at him.
    “Ward, when are you coming back?” they said. “Ward, we miss you.” I looked at him and said, “I told you.”
    I wasn’t at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the start of this week’s Cup test down there on Monday, but I did hear a clip of a media interview with Chase for the Nextel Cup points leader Jeff Burton, who’s Ward’s younger brother.
    Guess what the first question to Jeff was? It wasn’t about his third-place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway or about his lead in the standings. It was about Ward’s “comeback.”
    Jeff Burton said he was glad to see his brother get a shot because he knows how much Ward wants to come back. “I want for him what he wants,” Jeff told the reporters.
    I could overanalyze this phenomenon and come up with all sorts of explanations for the Ward-mania some fans seem to have. But I think the reasons are pretty simple.
    First, I think fans believe Ward Burton is just a good guy. His accent, of course, makes him stand out from the crowd. In college one time, a guy from New England told me “I just love to hear you talk.” I told him that as long as we were in the South, I wasn’t the one with the accent. But no matter how Southern you think you are, Ward Burton’s accent is unique.
    There’s also the fact that Ward has been around a while, and I think fans enjoy seeing somebody who’s old enough to have been able to vote in more than one presidential election get a shot these days. Ward will turn 45 on Oct. 25th, and that’s significant when you consider that his brother, at 39, is the oldest driver who’s won a Nextel Cup race this year.
    The first job for Ward will be to get the No. 4 Chevrolet into Sunday’s race. Martinsville’s a good place for him to try that, since he started second, fourth and sixth in his previous three races there before the two-year hiatus.

    Saturday, October 14, 2006

    Let's stop talking about what's wrong with racing and look at ... well, the racing

    So I am watching the end of the Busch Series race from Lowe’s Motor Speedway at Charlotte Friday night and I find myself wondering about something.
    Every couple of days or so, I get an e-mail from a NASCAR fan or read something on a bulletin board about how the guys racing at the top level of stock-car racing don’t race as hard as people used to race.
    Really? I wonder what races they’ve been watching lately.Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth at Dover? Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega? Casey Mears and Carl Edwards and then Dave Blaney and Kenseth in the Dollar General 300 at Charlotte?
    I think it’s time we stopped talking about what’s wrong with racing for just a minute or two and say a word or two about what these guys have been up to.
    I would suggest we start with "Wow."
    The fact that the first and/or second place cars have wrecked three times in the waning laps in the past two NASCAR races – the Vickers-Johnson-Earnhardt Jr. incident at Talladega and the Edwards-Mears and Blaney-Kenseth ones in the Busch race Friday night – tells me that some drivers in race cars these days care a whole lot about finishing first.
    This is not about saying who did what or who said what or who’s mad at who. Forget all of that middle-school drama. What I want to appreciate for a minute here is the sheer "want-to" factor that has been on display.
    Yes, Vickers made a mistake at Talladega and Mears made one at Charlotte, taking out guys who were leading races. But they both made those mistakes going for wins, and race fans ought to be happy to at least know that’s what they were trying to do.
    Blaney and Kenseth went door-to-door for the win in the Charlotte Busch race, just like Kenseth and Burton did in the Cup race at Dover. Kenseth eventually ran out of gas at Dover and he wrecked trying to hold on to win at Charlotte, but don’t tell me that son of a gun doesn’t hang it out trying to win.
    Let’s also pause a minute to brag on Dave Blaney. He’s been running markedly better in the Cup races lately and his win at Charlotte was an example of things finally falling his way. Here’s a word of warning to those of you who don’t think Toyota’s Cup driver roster in 2007 looks all that formidable. Give Blaney race cars with the kind of financial and engineering support Bill Davis Racing is going to get from Toyota and you might be surprised at how that teams winds up running next season.It’s late Friday night – actually, early Saturday morning – as I write this. The Bank of America 500 at Charlotte could wind up being a runaway snooze fest, but even if that happens it wouldn’t change the fact that race fans have seen some pretty cool stuff in the past few weeks.
    I just thought that was something I should point out.

    Wednesday, October 11, 2006

    What is it about night racing?

    Night racing brings out the beast in race car drivers. At least, that’s what Lowe’s Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler believes.
    "Night brings out an intensity in athletes you simply don't get during the day," Wheeler said. "Possibly this goes back to primitive man whose greater alertness at night often meant life or death.
    "Animal behavior is certainly different in the dark. Sharks, tigers, lions and other big cats hunt primarily at night. Ask anyone who has ever hooked a big shark at night if it wasn't a great deal scarier than the same hookup in the daytime."
    Leave it to Wheeler to equate racing in the Bank of America 500 at his track to caveman survival and late-night shark fishing.
    Saturday night’s race is the only Chase for the Nextel Cup race that will be run completely at night, so Wheeler has spent the past couple of weeks trying to quantify what that means.
    He’s right, based on every conversation I’ve ever had with a NASCAR driver, about at least one thing.
    "I believe drivers can actually see and focus better on properly lit tracks," Wheeler said. "The lights here produce about 120 foot-candles of light on every part of the racing surface. Many high school baseball or football fields only produce 40 to 60 foot candles. And with the light concentrated on the racing surface, everything in the background is blacked out and the driver's eyes can focus on the surface itself."
    Drivers also will tell you that one thing they really struggle with when it comes to night races is the actual waiting around part.
    "On most race days, you're used to getting up at a certain time, eating at a certain time, you go check out the car," said Dr. Bill Thierfelder, a sports performance psychologist and former athlete who’s now president of Belmont Abbey College. "You have your normal flow of what you do and then it's race time and it all sequences together.
    "Sometimes when a race is at night and, in a sense delayed, it can be a little challenging for an athlete because you feel like you're waiting."
    Jimmie Johnson leads this year’s Chase drivers with five night victories in 36 starts – all at LMS – over the past five years. In that span, Matt Kenseth has the most top-10s at night, with 24, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 22. Both have 14 top fives, with Kenseth winning three times and Earnhardt Jr. twice. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton are the only two Chase drivers who don’t have night wins.

    Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    Jeff Burton and the keys to Talladega survival

    I was talking to Jeff Burton about Talladega the other day and he said something that I thought made a whole lot of sense.
    "There's probably going to be at least one big wreck that takes out some cars in a race at Talladega," Burton said. "You understand that going in.
    "The only thing you can do is try to control what you can control. The cars don't start the wrecks there. The drivers do. So the first thing you have to do when thinking about a race there is to try not to start the wreck."
    Burton is not naive. He knows as well as you or I do that wrecks happen at Talladega because cars get into situations there they don't get into at any other track -- even Daytona. But the reality is, as Burton said, those cars don't get into those impossible situations by themselves. Drivers put them there. There might come a point when a wreck is inevitable, but until that point is reached it's still in the driver's hands.
    Burton said the key to survival at Talladega is developing a full, realistic understanding of what your car is capable of doing and not asking it to do anything more than that.
    This, of course, is insanely difficult to do. You see cars coming from the back to the front in a lap or two and know that if you get in the right line with the right momentum, you could do that, too. But the fact is that even though racing at Talladega looks like a high-speed lottery, there are cars that are better than some others and some drivers who're better at restrictor-plate racing than others.
    Get a good driver in a good car and he can set the tone for what's happening behind him. The rest of the cars are reacting to moves that guy (or the handful of drivers who might be in the same position) makes.
    That explains why it seems that sometimes at Talladega a driver will "settle" for staying behind one or two guys all day. You have to know what you and your car is capable of, and the trouble most often starts when somebody goes past either of those lines.

    Friday, September 29, 2006

    Qualifying vs. guarantees and don't expect too much from Chase 'tweaks'

    A few thoughts from a slacker missing a second straight Chase weekend. (Why am I missing Kansas? My daughter’s about to have her first child and I am on standby alert):

  • It sounds like a good plan to let the fastest 43 drivers make each week’s race, doing away with any kind of provisionals.
    But that’s a really, really bad idea.
    If the No. 8 car blows a tire in Turn 2 of its qualifying lap and doesn’t post a speed, how do you tell the ticket buyers who show up on Sunday that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be racing? Or Jeff Gordon, or whoever your favorite driver is?
    Tracks sell tickets weeks and months in advance. There’s an implied promise that the sport’s top stars are going to be competing. That’s one of NASCAR’s selling points, that all of the "best of the best" are going to be there at one time.
    Now a driver could get hurt and miss a race or something, but there’s no control over that. Otherwise, your stars have to race and there needs to be a reasonable way to make that happen. It’s reasonable to ask a team to be in the top 35 (it’d be 30 if I ran things) to have that protection, but the protection has to be there.

  • I am afraid that a lot of people have unreasonably high expectations about changes that NASCAR might make to the Chase for the Nextel Cup format after this year.
    I’ll be stunned if sweeping alterations are made. Remember, the word Brian France used in July when he changes would be considered was "tweaks."
    I’ve proposed my own revamping of the system and so have many others, but that’s not what is being looked at. It’s not going to be a wholesale alteration.
    There seems to be a consensus that winning a race should be worth more points. But it’s not going to 50 more, it’s going to be more like 10 additional points for a win.
    The window to make the Chase might grow from 400 points behind first after 26 races to 500 points, but that’s not that big of a change either and even that might not happen.
    I will be less surprised, but still surprised, if the number of automatic qualifiers grows beyond 10. As for any kind of "wild card" to let in a driver who’s won races and yet isn’t in the top 10 at the Chase cutoff, I think that idea intrigues NASCAR. But I also think they’re worried about how to write a rule that doesn’t wind up biting them in some kind of unforeseen, quirky way.
  • I keep coming back to the idea of double-file restarts for lead-lap cars and wondering why NASCAR doesn’t do it.
    Keep the free pass for a lapped car on each yellow, but all lap-down cars start behind the cars on the lead lap. The leader can choose whether to start on the inside or the outside. Second chooses whether to start alongside the leader or right behind him. Third then chooses and so on. With 25 (maybe even 50) laps to go, all restarts are single-file.
  • As discussed earlier, anybody who believes the test of Indy Racing League cars at Daytona this week was just at test to see if the IRL could test there is beyond naïve.
    Some of the speculation was that the IRL might be looking at a Labor Day weekend date for a race there next year or, more likely, in 2008. There’s also the weekend between the Rolex 24 and the start of Speedweeks for NASCAR, but that’s also Super Bowl weekend and I think the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend is a better idea.
    One reason that might not happen? An IRL race at Daytona that afternoon might be a lot more interesting to watch than that night’s Nextel Cup race from California.
  • I don’t know A.J. Allmendinger at all, but you had to be impressed by what he did in his Truck Series debut at New Hampshire.
    With him and Juan Montoya both in the field for Friday’s Automobile Racing Club of America race at Talladega, there will be a lot more media hanging around for that event than there otherwise would be.
    I could be completely wrong about this, but I just believe Allmendinger is pulling a "Danica" with this whole flirtation with NASCAR. By every indication, he’s an incredibly talented driver and I don’t doubt that he might make it in stock cars given time and the right team. But he doesn’t have a contract with anybody in ChampCar, and using NASCAR as a lever certainly helped Danica Patrick maximize her earning potential.
    We’ll see.
  • Monday, September 25, 2006

    Don't care how often they say them, the TV guys have got these wrong

    Four terms used on NASCAR broadcasts that are either wrong, misleading or just plain stupid:
    1. Mulligan – A golf term misused to describe the concept that a driver in the Chase for the Nextel Cup can afford one bad race and still contend for the title.
    When you use a mulligan in golf, you do is hit a second shot because you didn’t like the first one. If the second shot is better, you play it as if the first one never happened.
    You can’t do that in NASCAR. You don’t get to run that bad race over again and take the better of the two finishes. What happens in the Chase is actually the EXACT OPPOSITE of a mulligan.
    If you have a bad race, you’re stuck with those results and you have to make sure you do everything better in the other races.
    In golf, the equivalent would be accepting the bad first shot and trying to salvage a good score with the rest of your shots.
    In other words, it would be NOT hitting a mulligan.
    2. Happy Hour – The outdated nickname for the final practice.
    When the term was first coined, it made sense. On Saturday in a normal week with a Sunday afternoon race, you’d have second-round qualifying on Saturday morning. Then, as the Busch race or whatever was happening in the midday, teams would change their cars over to race trim.
    The final practice would then be held in the late afternoon. When it was over, it’d usually be about 4 or 5 p.m. and time for sportswriters to end work for the day and head to the bar for “happy hour,” back in the day before some sportswriters realized you eventually have to graduate from college at some point in your life.
    Now, the race practices are almost always held Saturday morning and are over with before noon.
    If you’re drinking before noon on a Saturday and you’re not at a college football tailgate party, you might want to think about how “happy” you really are.
    3. “There’s a $1 million bonus for finishing 11th in the final Nextel Cup standings.” – No. No. No. No. No!
    That’s wrong. No matter how many times somebody says it, it’s wrong.
    The 11th-place finisher in the standings is assured of making a minimum of $1 million from the Nextel Cup points fund.
    The “bonus” for 11th is the difference between what 11th would normally pay and $1 million, and it usually comes out to around $200,000-$250,000. That’s a nice piece of change, but $1 million is not added to the amount that driver would have won anyway, which is what would have to happen if it actually was a $1 million bonus.
    4. Silly season – Another term coined by a sportswriter or 12 that has outlived its accuracy.
    Years ago, the season would end just after Halloween and nobody would give much of a dang about racing until at least late January when things started gearing up for Speedweeks at Daytona.
    Some of the guys who covered racing got most of that time off work, and spent it doing as little as they could get by with. (God love them for that, because it’d be great if things still worked that way.)
    Whenever a driver or a team had any kind of announcement to make about his future, if it was a big enough deal these writers had to come out of the duck blind or off the golf course long enough to write about it. And they thought that was pretty silly.
    There’s nothing “silly” about teams losing sponsors and potentially having to shut its doors, putting people out of jobs.
    There’s nothing “silly” about drivers making decisions that could ultimately make or break their careers.
    What is “silly” about it is that some of us who cover the sport act like when we’re chasing down the speculation and rumors about what might be going on. But that doesn’t make the term “silly season” any less ridiculous.

    Wednesday, September 20, 2006

    Key pieces still missing in the Speed Channel report-NASCAR denial puzzle

    I really don’t have anything new to add to the earlier posting about the Speed report on the purported wheel issue with the 29 and/or 31 cars from Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.
    I met with Hunter Nickell, executive vice president and general manager of Speed, and David Harris, its manager of media relations, as we had previously planned.
    We talked about a lot of things, but first we talked about Bob Dilner’s report Sunday night and the reaction to it since.
    Nickell and I go way back. When I was still working on the copy desk at The Observer and writing about TV/Radio sports on the side, he was at SportSouth and we dealt with each other regularly. He’s a straight-up guy, based on everything I know, and after talking to him I believe he’s backing his reporter and his story because he believes it was based on solid information that was professionally checked before being reported.
    At the same time, I cannot sit here and say I believe that NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing and the people who carry the team’s wheels to the track and the tire guys at Goodyear who mount tires on those wheels are all part of some grand conspiracy to cover up something the 29 and/or 31 teams might be doing.
    The denials that you’ve all heard, too, from NASCAR and from RCR, could not be stronger and more definitive.
    So what we have here is a puzzle, and I think we’re still missing some key pieces.
    The truth is we may never find them. I seriously doubt that Dilner is going to tell anybody exactly who his sources were – I wouldn’t.
    I will bet you a bunch of money that Dilner has gone back to those sources since all of this blew up Monday and said, “OK, did I get it right?” And if they had said no, you’d know it by now.
    The folks at Speed like Bob’s work and they want to keep developing his talents and on-air skills, and he knows that if he’s wrong on this and doesn’t fess up he’s in for a world of professional hurt.
    Friday will be a busy day at Dover. I won’t be there, but Jim Utter and David Scott will be for The Observer and to find out if any of missing pieces to this thing show up.
    I’ll be as eager to hear what’s said and done up there Friday as all of you guys will.

    Dilner's report, NASCAR's denial could come up in visit at Speed Channel

    I am going over to Charlotte later today to see the folks at the Speed Channel, and I imagine there will be lots of conversation about what happened after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.
    My visit doesn’t stem from that incident – in fact, I had to cancel it a couple of weeks ago after my trip from hell to California and back and we’ve just now found a time to reschedule it. But the timing winds up being pretty good.
    Just to review, several hours after the Sylvania 300 on Sunday, Speed’s Bob Dilner went on the air with a report that NASCAR had taking a close look at the wheels off race-winner Kevin Harvick’s car and those from his teammate Jeff Burton’s car.
    Dilner reported that the wheels had been milled in a manner that would allow air to bleed from the tires as air pressure built up in them. He was very specific in his report, saying that a 0.003-inch slot had been laser-cut into the rim. Dilner also reported that NASCAR would take no punitive action against the Richard Childress Racing teams, but that the teams had been told not to bring wheels with that modification back to the track.
    But on Monday, NASCAR officials said Dilner’s story was wrong. Spokesman Jim Hunter’s actual term was that it was "one reporter’s unsubstantiated fantasy."
    Hunter said NASCAR did not have any issues with the 31 and 29 cars and that the team was not told it couldn’t bring anything back to the track. The team denied any wrongdoing as well, but Speed continues to stand by its reporter and his story.
    So what really happened?
    Well, everything that I know for sure I just told you.
    Before even going to see the Speed folks, I will tell you this. I believe that Bob Dilner believes his story was accurate.
    As a viewer, Dilner gets on my nerves with his incessant preening before the camera, and he moves his hands and arms around so much that if you gave him an orange flashlight he’d look like a guy parking planes at the airport. But he does work hard and he does have sources in the garage. His information on this story is very detailed, so for that reason and so many other obvious ones, too, it’s hard to believe he just made it up.
    But I’ve also talked with several people connected with RCR who swear they did nothing to alter the wheels on their cars. Obviously, they have a stake in this. But their denials are very specific, too, in ways that are hard to immediately pick apart.
    One thing that is certain is that NASCAR is paying very close attention to tires, tire valves and wheels to check for teams playing games. On Monday, Hunter said NASCAR has been checking for ways to bleed air for about four months. At a race earlier this month, I personally heard John Darby come over the scanner and tell an official to check the tires on one team’s car after a run. That team’s crew chief came over the radio and told his driver, "They think we’ve got bleeders. That’s funny."
    Maybe what happened Sunday night is that NASCAR thought it had found something and the officials and inspectors started talking about what they might be looking at, and some of that talk made its way to Dilner. Then, after a closer look, the officials realized nothing was amiss, and that word didn’t get to the reporter before the story aired.
    Maybe I will know more when I get back from Speed’s headquarters later today. I will let you all know if I do.

    Wednesday, September 13, 2006

    If you can download songs, what if you could ...

    I finally got around to buying one of those MP3 players that I see everybody with on all of these airplanes that I find myself on in this job.
    It found it interesting as I assembled the music I wanted to put into the little thing. I suppose just about everyone considers his or her musical interests to be an eclectic mixture of styles, but when you transport tracks from the Black Crowes onto your personal portable stash and then notice that The Carpenters are next it’s hard not to wonder about yourself.
    (For the record, not that you care, but far and away the two most heavily represented artists in my Ipod are the Eagles and Willie Nelson.)
    Anyway, the process got me thinking in a way that sports columnists often think. I am sure I’m not the first person to have this idea, but if you could load your favorite sports memories – if somehow you could have access to anything you’ve ever seen – onto something you could carry around with you, what would you include?
    I imagine it’d be a fairly eclectic mix for just about every one. Here, off the top of my head, are some of the things I’d like to have on my sports Ipod.

  • The final 20 laps of the 1998 Daytona 500, along with the immediate aftermath when winner Dale Earnhardt rode down pit road being greeted by every crew in the sport.
  • The final three innings of the 1975 World Series game where Carlton Fisk hit the game-winning home run for Boston and “waved” it fair.
  • The back nine on Sunday of the 1986 Masters, with Jack Nicklaus storming to an incredible victory.
  • The second half of the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, even though the Panthers lost. Great football between two teams that were flat getting it done.
  • The final 15 laps of the fall Talladega race in 2000, Dale Earnhardt’s final Nextel Cup victory with the black No. 3 rallying from 18th to first over the final five laps.
  • The last five minutes of the 1982 and 1983 NCAA basketball championship games, with North Carolina beating Georgetown in ’82 and N.C. State topping Houston the following year in Jim Valvano’s improbable run.
  • Franz Klammer’s Olympic downhill run to the gold medal in 1976. Until you’ve seen it, don’t tell me you’ve ever seen the most exciting two minutes in sports.
  • Five minutes of footage from Chris Evert’s tennis career, when she was about 20 years old, and five minutes of Maria Sharapova in last week’s U.S. Open final. Just for comparison.
  • The entire 1992 Hooters 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway, with Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison battling for the championship and Richard Petty bidding farewell to his driving career. (Heck, I guess I’d have to have that one on DVD.)
  • The final three minutes of the U.S. hockey team’s win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
  • Secretariat beating the field by about a half-mile in the Belmont Stakes to win the 1973 Triple Crown.
  • The final five laps of the 2003 Dodge Dealers 500 from Darlington Raceway, which ended with Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven battling side-by-side for the victory.
  • OK, I know this sounds nuts, but I’d have two sunsets that I saw in there. First, there was one I saw at Fenway Park one night. It had been cloudy all day but a front was clearing out and just about 30 minutes before the sun went down it got under the edge of the clouds. We were sitting down the right-field line, looking back at home plate with the sun behind the grandstands. Just awesome.
    The second was at Phoenix International Raceway in October 1998, the day Rusty Wallace won a rain-shortened race in the desert. After the race had been called and the track was clearing out, the same thing happened. The sun got under the cloud line and the colors were incredible.
    After the race, a couple had arranged to get married on the start-finish line. As they were exchanging vows, I swear that a rainbow formed that had one end behind the grandstands and the other about 20 feet behind where the wedding was taking place.
    How about you? What would you put on your sports Ipod? Leave your list here or e-mail it to me at I might have some space leftover on mine.

  • Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    Planes, pains and automobiles

    I swear, as the great Dave Barry once said, I am not making any of this up:
    Thursday, Aug 31 – 4:30 a.m. (Eastern time) My alarm goes off. Thursday, Aug. 31 – 5:45 a.m. (Eastern) I arrive at Charlotte’s airport to catch a 7:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta. I won’t name the airline. But it rhymes with “Melta.”
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:05 a.m. (Eastern) After making it through security and walking to the gate, I notice that the airline is now posting an 8 a.m. departure for my flight. The crew got in late the night before and needed additional time for required rest. I consider the new posted departure time an opening point in negotiations.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 8 a.m. (Eastern) We board the flight for Atlanta. About 15 to 20 other people on the plane to Atlanta are scheduled to go on to Ontario, Calif., on the same 9:49 a.m. connecting flight I am booked on.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 8:30 a.m. (Eastern) After sitting on the runway for a few minutes because of rain south of the airport and a ground stop in Atlanta due to heavy air traffic, we take off.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 9:40 a.m. (Eastern) After several minutes of being “vectored” to fit us into incoming traffic, we are allowed to land in Atlanta.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 9:55 a.m. (Eastern) After taxiing almost a complete lap around the Atlanta runways, our flight arrives at Gate A6. Upon deplaning, the monitor shows our connection to Ontario had been delayed until 10 a.m. But beside that time the word “CLOSED” appears. There is no agent from the airline there to answer any questions. We scurry to what I am now calling the “customer abuse” desk in the middle of the concourse. We’re told our flight, leaving from Gate B36, is already closed and we can’t get there in time to make it. Despite the fact that this will severely inconvenience about 20 passengers (another word you might consider using would be “customers”), nothing can be done.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 10 a.m. (Eastern) I am told that I have been rebooked on the next non-stop from Atlanta to Ontario, with a scheduled departure of 5:07 p.m. – seven hours from now. There are other options, like flying to Los Angeles or connecting through other cities, but most of them require changing rental car arrangements and still getting to Ontario in the late afternoon.
    I’ve been given a first-class seat on the rebooked flight, so I decide to stay on it.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 10:15 a.m. (Eastern) I go to the airline’s lounge – rhymes with Clown Room – to wait out my unexpected layover. I set up my computer, pay $10 for internet access and spend the day doing work that I needed to do anyway.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 4:15 p.m. (Eastern) I pack up my stuff in the lounge and walk to the gate for my 5:07 departure. Upon arrival, I notice there is no plane at the gate and that the “adjusted” departure time is now 5:35 p.m. Again, I consider this the start of negotiations.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:p.m. (Eastern) The departure time is now listed for 6:10 p.m. But since we’re standing inside the terminal still, I am not optimistic.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:30 p.m. (Eastern) I board the flight and take my seat. It’s 1D, a window.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:33 p.m. (Eastern) The person in seat 2D takes his seat. His name, apparently, is Justin. He’s about 5, I would guess. His mother and baby sister are sharing 2C, with Dad across the aisle in 2B.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:34 p.m. (Eastern) Justin starts kicking the back of my seat.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:39 p.m. (Eastern) Justin begins to multitask. While continuing to kick the seat, he discovers that his baby sister is amused if he says “Num, num, num, num, num” to her. In fact, she repeats it to him and then cackles. It’s very cute.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 6:43 p.m. (Eastern) The “num, num” game officially stops being cute. Nonetheless, it continues. As does the seat kicking.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 7 p.m. (Eastern) The flight takes off.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 7:15 p.m. (Eastern) Justin breaks out the video game he’ll use to keep himself occupied. Apparently, the button that controls the volume is broken.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 7:15 p.m. (Pacific) Justin’s sister begins screaming, apparently testing her lungs and vocal chords. They appear to be in perfect working order.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 8:15 p.m. (Pacific) The baby sister nods off, but Justin’s feet are still kicking that seat.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 8:30 p.m. (Pacific) The flight lands in Ontario.
    Thursday, Aug. 31 – 8:40 p.m. (Pacific) Upon arrival at baggage claim, I discover my bags are already there. While I was unable to make the 10 a.m. connection in Atlanta, my luggage did.
    We now fast forward to Sunday, Sept. 3.
    Sunday, Sept. 3 – 11:50 p.m. (Pacific) I leave California Speedway.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 12:03 a.m. (Pacific) I top off the gas tank in the rental car.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 12:15 a.m. (Pacific) I arrive at the Hampton Inn at Ontario Mills Mall, go to my room and finish the work that must be done for the Tuesday paper before my morning flight home.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 2:23 a.m. (Pacific) I retire for the “evening.”
    Monday. Sept. 4 – 4:15 a.m. (Pacific) My alarm sounds. Monday,
    Sept. 4 – 5:05 a.m. (Pacific) I return the rental car and catch the shuttle bus to the airport.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 7 a.m. (Pacific) My flight from Ontario to Atlanta, remarkably, leaves on time.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 1:45 p.m. (Eastern) The flight arrives 15 minutes early in Atlanta. While that is great, it only extends the five-hour layover for which I was already scheduled.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 7:15 p.m. (Eastern) My flight from Atlanta to Charlotte departs on time.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 8:30 p.m. (Eastern) The flight lands at Charlotte, on time.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 8:40 p.m. (Eastern) At baggage claim, I once again discover that my luggage made an earlier flight that I was told I couldn’t get on. This is the sixth straight trip on this airline in which myself and my luggage have not arrived on the same airplane.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 8:44 p.m. (Eastern) My wife, Katy, calls to say she is on the way to the airport to pick me up. She expects to arrive in 15 minutes.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 8:51 p.m. (Eastern) Katy calls the cell phone again. Slight delay. It seems someone turning left across the road she was on and didn’t see Katy – who’s driving my old beat-up 1993 Ford Thunderbird because her car is in the shop getting an ailing transmission repaired. There’s been a collision. Katy is OK, but she clipped the other car, then jumped a median and then a curb. The car, in which the odometer quit working at 125,487 miles about a year ago, is toast.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 8:56 p.m. (Eastern) I quickly arrange for a rental car and catch the bus go get it.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 9:05 p.m. (Eastern) I get to the scene of the accident. Not pretty, but thank goodness everyone is OK.
    onday, Sept. 4 – 9:06 p.m. (Eastern) It starts to rain.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 9:07 p.m. (Eastern) It starts to pour.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 9:10 p.m. (Eastern) It’s still pouring, but it no longer matters. You can only get so wet.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 9:30 p.m. (Eastern) The flatbed arrives to haul my car away. I retrieve a few items from it. It’s still pouring.
    Monday, Sept. 4 – 10 p.m. (Eastern) We’re about a half-mile from our house, and we notice that it hasn’t rained a drop.

    Saturday, September 02, 2006

    NASCAR's destruction of a Labor Day tradition? Borderline criminal

    I some know people get awfully tired of hearing about this, but the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series is an entire country away from where it ought to be for Sunday's race.
    The only place where the circuit should be on Labor Day weekend is Darlington, S.C. It was an idiotic decision to end that tradition and nothing that's happened in the three years since that happened has done anything to indicated otherwise.
    There's simply nothing special about being at California Speedway for Sunday night's Sony HD 500. It's just another race at another track.
    Southern California could not care less whether the second Cup date here is this weekend or sometime in November, although if it were later in the year it might not be a THOUSAND degrees here.
    I know it's hot in South Carolina this time of the year, and with the humidity it might be more uncomfortable there. But Darlington had traditions dating to 1950, for goodness sake, on its side.
    In 1950 they were still building ships on this site, I guess.
    NASCAR wants to be part of the Southern California scene, desperately. It wants this track to be a roaring success, but it's not.
    The crowd for the season's second race here in Februray was pitiful. There figures to be more people here Sunday, and there will probably be more here than there would be if Darlington sold all of its seats.
    Nobody is saying that California Speedway shouldn't have two dates each year. Well, actually, if the fans in this region continue showing their indifference to this track that might be something worth considering.
    You wouldn't want to bet, for instance, that Las Vegas couldn't sell more tickets for two races than this track has been able to.
    But that's an argument for another day.
    The point here is that there are some things you don't mess with. The Southern 500 was one of the most significant races on the NASCAR schedule for generations, and the fact that International Speedway Corp. let its tradition waste away is borderline criminal.
    I've heard that some of the people connected with the race that does survive at Darlington, now held on the Saturday before Mother's Day, are toying with the idea of naming that race something like the Dodge Southern 500. That would be an absolute travesty, and anybody with a soul who covers that race would have to hold their noses to type that in as the name of race held on any other weekend but this one.
    Darlington has done a good job in the past couple of years selling tickets for that race, and if given a choice for one date a year the track might pick May over September. I think that's sad, too.
    Run the Southern 500 at 6 p.m. on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend and spend the kind of money needed to turn Darlington into a modern, up-to-date facility and you'd have a ticket that fans ought to be clamoring for.
    This is almost certainly a lost cause, but you can fight a losing battle and still be on the right side.

    Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    Does anyone want to win, or just watch their back?

    Bristol was benign, there’s no other way to put it. And I think those who’ve decided to blame that on the Chase are at least partly right.
    What we’re beginning to learn, I think, is that every year things are going to be different. A few weeks ago, everybody from about third to 14th was piled on top of one another in the standings. It seemed like it could be wild coming down the stretch to Richmond when the Chase field was determined.
    But some things happened at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen and gaps started to open up. All of a sudden, the top 10 going into Saturday night’s Sharpie 500 looked at their situations and said, “As long as we don’t do something stupid, we’ll be all right.”
    Now that’s not the kind of thinking that leads to all-out racing. And if the Chase caused that then the Chase takes the blame. I do believe some of the guys in that mess between fourth and 10th were “playing defense” at Bristol, and I don’t blame them because given the system that exists that’s the smart thing to do.
    You can’t blame teams for doing what they have to do to get into the Chase. They’re playing the system. The problem is, therefore, the system. Specifically, the problem is still the same as it always was. It’s the points system. Winning has to be worth significantly more than it is now or the problem is not going to go away. The Chase hasn’t really changed that.
    The Chase is creating some of the problem, though, because more people have to pay attention to points now. If we were under the old system now only Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth would be thinking about and answering questions about points now. Under the Chase, though, you’ve got eight (nine, counting Kasey Kahne) that for the next two weeks have to make every decision in light of where they stand in the points.
    Now if the things that pushed everybody apart hadn’t happened in the weeks leading up to Bristol, the tone of that race would have been different. If there still had been 12 guys really in contention for eight spots, it would have been less possible to play things conservatively. Some years, as long as the points system stays the way it is, Bristol is going to be run under those circumstances. Some years it won’t.
    I don’t think the track has anything to do with it, although it’s true that Bristol’s surface has about had it. It appears that they’re going to resurface it next year, most likely between the spring and fall races, and NASCAR will use the car of tomorrow there next season, too. That means we don’t really have any idea what we can expect from Bristol’s Cup races in 2007.
    I don’t know what NASCAR’s going to do to “tweak” the points system, but I don’t think it’s going to be any kind of major overhaul. It may make winning worth about 10 points more than it is now, which is a baby step in the right direction but a step nonetheless. Maybe if NASCAR awarded a “wild card” Chase spot to the driver outside the top 10 with the most victories, as one fan suggested recently to me in an e-mail, that would be another step. But it’s not one that I see the sport taking.
    Again, if it were up to me I would set up a system that makes it highly difficult to make the Chase without winning a race and impossible to win the championship without winning at least one of the Chase races. It can be done that way, and it should be done that way.

    Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    NASCAR's 'spin doctors' have those in Washington covered

    If anybody thinks Washington, D.C., is the only place where people practice the art of "spin," they’re not paying much attention to NASCAR fans.
    I’ve been laughing hysterically all weekend at the various chat rooms and message boards that I like to check out. They’re replete with apologists insisting that Dale Earnhardt Jr. did nothing wrong in Saturday’s Busch Series race at Michigan.
    "THAT’S RACIN’" someone averred on the forum on the site I work for that bears the same name. "Junior had no choice," read another one.
    Had no choice? Sure he had a choice.
    He could have chosen to wreck Carl Edwards or he could have chosen not to wreck him. That’s a choice. Maybe he wouldn’t have won the race if he’d chosen the latter, but he certainly had a choice. As long as there’s an accelerator AND a brake pedal in a race car, the driver has a choice in a situation like that.
    I was laughing, too, at all of the commentators who talked about Edwards’ car "getting loose" in front of Earnhardt Jr.
    OK, let’s say perfectly stable is zero percent loose and spinning into the wall is 100 percent loose. What percentage, on that scale, was Edwards’ Ford at the precise moment Earnhardt Jr. "had no choice" but to hit Edwards? Maybe 5 percent? Maybe 10?
    OK, then what’s the allowable limit? What percent loose does a guy need to be before it’s OK to knock him out of the way?
    Here’s what I suspect. I suspect most of the fans I’ve been chuckling at all weekend would give you very different answers to that question depending upon whose car is getting turned and whose car is doing the turning.
    Remember back when Jeff Gordon knocked Matt Kenseth out of the way to win at Chicago? I asked the question back then whether views on that incident would be different if it had been Earnhardt Jr. doing the knocking. I suspected, strongly, the answer was yes and this weekend pretty much proved that right.
    For the record, my view on the whole deal is that deciding what he’s willing to do to try to win a race is a decision every driver has to make for himself. There are all kinds of sliding scales involved in that decision-making process. How much does NASCAR let you get away with (and the answer there pretty much seems to be anything goes in the last few laps)? How much can you do and still be able to live with yourself? How much are you willing to lay down as the baseline for how you want other drivers to treat you?
    I don’t drive race cars. I can’t tell you whether a driver hits another guy on purpose or by accident. I can ask the parties involved afterward and almost always come up with the same answers.
    "I didn’t mean to wreck him," the hitter says.
    "Nobody ever means to wreck anybody," the hittee says.
    Lest the Earnhardt Jr. fans flip out on me, I will say that Edwards didn’t exactly bathe himself in glory with his reaction to the bump. He had no business using his car as a weapon in retaliation after the incident. I actually don’t have a problem with Edwards going to find Earnhardt Jr. after the race to express his displeasure. Earnhardt Jr. said something about how it’s bad form for a driver to come into another driver’s victory lane, but that’s where Earnhardt Jr. was – and where Edwards felt like he had a right to be.
    I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I think Edwards and Earnhardt Jr. are both excellent drivers and their long-term success is important to the sport. I also have no doubt those two guys will work things out pretty quickly between themselves.
    But I do want point out how hypocritical the fans are who want it both ways.
    Your favorite driver is good enough to avoid multicar pileups or make split-second decisions running inches away from other cars at 180 mph. At the same time, he’s not good enough to keep from ramming into the rear end of a car in front him when doing that would greatly suit his purposes?

    Sunday, August 20, 2006

    Listen - carefully this time - to what Mark Martin is saying

    It amazes me how people don’t pay attention to what they hear and, subsequently, what they write.
    I wasn’t at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, but I did read a lot of the stuff that came out of there. Time after time, I read about Mark Martin "waffling" on his plans for the future in Nextel Cup racing or about how he was "changing his mind, again" about coming back in 2006.
    Look, I’ve talked to Mark Martin to a significant degree about this subject maybe a dozen times over the past two seasons. Never, ever, in any of those conversations has Martin ever said anything about "retiring" from Nextel Cup.
    Let’s back up a year. Early in the 2005 season, he had every intention of making that his final full-time season in Cup. But situations involving Roush Racing played out in a way that meant car owner Jack Roush asked Martin for another year.
    Martin agreed to come back for 2006, reluctantly. He didn’t do it because he wanted money from a second "farewell" tour. He didn’t do it because he knew he’d miss the attention paid to a Nextel Cup driver. He did it because Roush, his longtime friend and somebody with whom Martin has gone to racing war with year after year, asked him to.
    As much Martin respects and cares about Roush, his return for this season was not an easy decision for him to make. That’s because he knew some people would regard it as going back on his word about ’05 being his last full Cup season. Martin’s word means something to him, but in the end his loyalty to Roush won out.
    This year, people keep talking about how Todd Kluever isn’t ready to take over in the No. 6 Fords next year. For that reason, many of these folks assume Martin will come back in that car again in 2007. It might happen. Roush talked Martin back into the car this year. But that’s not what Martin says he wants to do.
    For as long as he’s been talking about the end of his full-time Cup career, though, Martin has been quick to correct anybody who uses the word "retirement." He has consistently said that he would be available to run Cup races if, say, another Roush driver got injured and need a fill-in driver. Martin has also said he’d love to run a number of Cup races, 12 or so, held in conjunction with Truck Series races provided the right kind of deal – from both a sponsorship and potential performance standpoint – could be put together.
    That’s is precisely what Martin is saying now, too. He pointed out last week at Watkins Glen that if Kluever does drive the No. 6 next year, that likely means Martin can’t drive for Roush Racing in those select races next year. That fact complicates the scenario, but it doesn’t mean that Martin is "waffling" on anything.
    Mark Martin shoots about as straight anybody you’ll ever find inside the gates of a NASCAR track. People simply just need to listen to him a little more carefully.

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006

    Mayfield sounded sincerely excited at Daytona back in January

    I think we’ve discussed the whole issue of whether I have a "favorite" driver or not before, but in case I am wrong I’ll begin here with a quick review.
    I pull for the best story. Good stories sell newspapers and get people to look at, which is pretty much the whole point of what I do. They also make this job easier, and after the kind of day I had Monday getting back from Rochester, N.Y., to Charlotte (thanks a pants-load, Delta) anything that makes it easier is fine by me.
    Having said that, I am a human being (despite what some of you might think!), so there are some guys you wind up developing better relationships with than others.
    One of the guys that I’ve really come to enjoy talking to a great deal over the years is Jeremy Mayfield. I think he’s a good guy and a good racer, and it’s always nice to see somebody like that have success.
    In January of this year at Daytona testing, I walked up to Jeremy in the garage and asked him if he was OK with the changes that car owner Ray Evernham had made to his No. 19 Dodge team.
    Not only was he OK with it, Mayfield said, he was enthusiastic about it. He told me I’d be wrong, dead wrong, if I didn’t predict his team would make the Chase this year.
    "I’ve got a better race team right now than I had last year," Mayfield said at Daytona in a news conference after he and I had talked. "…Look at average finishes, average starts, laps completed. We didn’t lead the most laps. We made the top 10 running like that. If we made the top 10 last year running like that, what’s going to happen this year if we get just a little bit better? That’s where we’re at.
    "I understand what David said. Yeah, we switched teams and a lot of people are different, and this, that or another, but from my point of view it’s as good or better as it’s ever been. The 9 and 19 are closer than they’ve ever been. They’re working together. They’re helping each other. Our cars are the same. It’s a tight-knit group right now. …I know we’re quiet and don’t say a whole lot, but Ray Evernham and Dodge and myself and everybody on the 9 and 19 and 10 car, we’re going to win races and we’re going to be in the top 10 in points.
    "I told David I just didn’t want to make him look bad. I’ve done it two years in a row and I can do it again. I’d hate to see you (speaking about me) picking odds at Vegas. If you worked out there you’d be in big trouble. I’m just joking, but I’m trying to make a point. We’re a better race team and this year we’ll show you."
    Now, Jeremy is saying that he didn’t have any say-so in the changes that were made to his team late last year and that didn’t say anything bad about it earlier this year because he knew it wouldn’t do any good.
    One thing about this job is that all I can do is go talk to people and ask them about what’s happening. Sometimes you know people are talking in code, but Mayfield seemed sincere in January and I bought it.
    Maybe I was naïve, but I though he was really excited about his team and its chances. Or maybe he really was excited, and then got slapped with cold reality when the season started and things started to not work.
    Mayfield’s fans are really upset right now at what’s happened to their driver at Evernham Motorsports. I get that. But when Mayfield spoke up at Chicagoland, questioning Evernham’s commitment to the team, he had to know there would be consequences from that. Mayfield says he wasn’t trying to get Evernham to cut him loose, that Evernham had already suggested Jeremy might want to check out his options before that. Whether that’s true or not, Mayfield is now out of the 19 car and free to look for another ride. It didn’t play out, perhaps, exactly the way he wanted it to, but in hindsight it has played out exactly like it was destined to do from way back in January, when all of that optimism was at best misguided and, at worst, delusional.