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 thatsracin.com, 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.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Tim Richmond: Without a doubt, one of NASCAR's best on a road course

Seventeen years ago today, Rusty Wallace won the Winston Cup race here at Watkins Glen International.
Early that morning, from his hospital room in West Palm Beach, Fla., Tim Richmond called his mother, Evelyn.
Evelyn Richmond had spent more than year sitting day by day by the side of her ailing son, whom she loved so dearly. She was sleeping when Tim called and told her that he wanted her to come to the hospital so he could talk to her.
Evelyn hung up the phone and dialed the number back. Tim didn’t answer, but one of his nurses did. Evelyn was told that Tim had gone back to sleep and that when he probably wouldn’t even remember calling his mom when he woke back up.
Evelyn decided that she’d wait until daylight to make her daily trip to the hospital to sit by her son’s bed.
About an hour later, Tim Richmond passed away.
Evelyn was haunted by her decision not to come when Tim asked her to, but nobody who knew how much of her energy, her very life itself, she gave to her son would ever blame her in any way.
By that morning, about 20 months after Richmond first learned that he had AIDS, the family knew the end was coming. It was, in many ways, ironic that the NASCAR world was in upstate New York when the sad day came.
Three years earlier, Tim Richmond had one of the greatest days of his life at Watkins Glen International. On Aug. 10, 1986, the Winston Cup circuit returned to this historic road course to race for the first time since 1965, and Richmond scored a victory during a streak that made him the biggest story in the sport that summer.
In the previous seven races, Richmond had won three times and finished second three more. He and crew chief Harry Hyde had finally figured out how to communicate with each other and their No. 25 Chevrolet was suddenly scary fast.
When Richmond won the pole here, it was the ninth straight time he’d started in the top 10. He’d extend that streak to 20 races by season’s end, and in the final 27 races of that year he started in the first two rows 22 times.
Richmond won The Budweiser at the Glen that year, beating Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt to the finish line. Afterward, he and Hyde and the team retired to the bar at the nearby Seneca Lodge to celebrate, reviving a tradition that had long been part of racing at this historic venue.
When Richmond won the Southern 500 at Darlington and the next race at Richmond later that year, he’d won six times and finished second four times in a remarkable 12-race stretch.
But at the end of that year, after fighting several bouts with what he thought was a bad cold or the flu, Richmond learned he had something far more serious. The world was just beginning to understand AIDS, and the diagnosis at that time was still considered a virtual death sentence.
Richmond missed the first half of the 1987 season, recovering from pneumonia that had led to his actual diagnosis. He won his first two points races back, at Pocono and Riverside, but by August of that year he was fighting the physical, medical and emotional battles that came with his illness.
When he showed up late for the drivers’ meeting at Watkins Glen on the morning of Aug. 9, some of his fellow drivers felt he was in no condition to race. The race was rained out that day, however, and Richmond ran all 90 laps and finished 10th in the race on Monday.
The next weekend at Michigan, Richmond nearly slept through his turn at qualifying and left the race early with a blown engine. He drove the No. 25 car straight to the garage and was gone to his motor home by the time most of his team got there.
He never raced in another NASCAR event.
Tim Richmond would have been 51 years old. He might have won a couple of championships. He almost certainly would have cemented his place in the sport’s history as one of its most talented and most popular drivers. He very well might have moved on to a career in Hollywood, something he always wanted to do. Maybe he would have found a wife and had a son who’d be growing up to be as charismatic and as talented as his famous father.
No one who ever saw Richmond race anywhere will ever forget seeing what he could do with a race car. And for certain, nobody who ever saw him run a road course, here or at Riverside, will ever doubt that they got to see one of the best at that discipline to ever compete in NASCAR.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It’s time for Bill Weber to stop bringing up the Hendrick plane crash when Johnson is about to do something special

I know for a fact that NASCAR fans sometimes see exactly what they want to see, especially when it comes to television coverage.
Over the years I’ve received dozens of e-mails from folks who watch and/or listen to the same broadcasts I do but who see and/or hear something completely different. They’re convinced, for instance, that one network favors a particular driver or group of drivers over another.
Drivers complain, too.
Remember Kyle Busch after he won at New Hampshire, getting in a shot at TNT because he hadn’t been interviewed after the previous couple of races?
Sunday at Indianapolis, I had my radar up about how NBC was going to marry its return to the NFL fold with the first NASCAR race it had broadcast in what will be the final season of its deal for racing.
I used to write about sports on TV and radio on a regular basis before taking this job in 1997, so I’m a little predisposed to pay attention to such matters anyway.
I think I am smart enough to know that a certain amount of cross-promotion is not only inevitable, but perfectly legitimate. One of the great things for NASCAR about being on Fox and NBC since 2001, in fact, is that NASCAR coverage gets promoted in entertainment shows and other sports coverage on those networks.
It struck me, though, that NBC went to a promo/preview of the Hall of Fame Game from Canton, Ohio, right after Jimmie Johnson’s victory lane interview following the Allstate 400. And I wrote a comment about it that appeared in the Charlotte Observer and on thatsracin.com.
On thatsracin.com, a headline said that NBC showed no replays of the last lap incidents during Sunday’s race. That’s not right, and it was my fault for implying that in what I wrote so that the person writing the headline drew that conclusion.
I was still in the Indianapolis airport Monday afternoon when my cell phone rang. It was Dick Ebersol, the man behind the success of NBC Sports for so long, calling to talk about what I’d written.
Now I can be a pretty stubborn son of a gun when I am arguing with somebody who I am convinced doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But it has been my experience with people like Ebersol and his counterpart at Fox, David Hill that I can count on them knowing what they’re saying when it comes to something that’s aired on their network.
Ebersol had been in Ohio for Sunday night’s preseason game between Oakland and Philadelphia and he wanted to give me his side of the story.
He’d been in the truck at Canton when the NASCAR race ended, he said, and decided immediately to extend the postrace coverage from the planned 15 minutes to 20 minutes.
"They had a lot of stuff to cover,” Ebersol said.
He read off a list of people who were interviewed before Johnson made it to victory lane, and then ticked off those who made it on camera after the football promo. He said analysts Benny Parsons and Wally Dallenbach spent three minutes reviewing replays of the last-lap incidents. And he told me that in 21 minutes of postrace coverage, there was only one 30-second commercial (a Chevrolet spot congratulating Johnson).
In what I wrote after the race, I suggested NBC would use NASCAR coverage later this year to hype its return to the NFL. Ebersol told me that he and NASCAR have talked about how much cross-promotion there will be and vowed that it will be a two-way street – that NASCAR will continue to get promoted on NBC’s other programming just as it has through the first five years of the six-year deal that ends this year.
Ebersol was direct, but as he has been every time I’ve spoken to him in this job or my former role as a sports TV/radio columnist, he could not have been nicer. He disagreed with what I wrote, and he wanted to tell me why he thought I was wrong, but he did it the way I wish I could do it when I feel that way about something.
I still don’t think NBC had a great day at the races on Sunday. I like Bill Weber, both as a person and a broadcaster, but it’s time for him to stop bringing up the 2004 crash of a Hendrick Motorsports team plane when Johnson is about to do something special.
I like Wally Dallenbach and Benny Parsons a great deal, too, and I know there were replays of the last-lap crashes. But when the broadcast went off I still didn’t have a good idea of what had happened and why, so I reckon the fans at home didn’t, either.
But just about every time I go back and read one of my stories about a race, I think of three or four things I should have done a better job of explaining or describing. And people aren’t reading that story as I am writing it, either. Television doesn’t have a backspace key, and sometimes it’s too easy to forget that.
I know race fans pretty well, I think, and I know that this fall if NBC runs NFL scores across the screen during races some of those fans will scream bloody murder. But I also know what NBC is paying for NFL rights, too, and I know I’d probably make some of the same decisions that Ebersol and his people will make if I were in their shoes.
At least, I hope I’d be smart enough to.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Catching up as we head to Indianapolis

Catching up as we pack up to head to Indianapolis:

  • You almost have to catch yourself after you hear news like we heard last week that Benny Parsons has lung cancer. Parsons is such a genuinely nice human being, your immediate reaction is, “Man, why does that have to happen to a guy like Benny?” Then, you realize that what you’re almost saying is that somebody else “deserves” to have to fight the fight Parsons is fighting, and that’s not what you mean, either.
    I talked to Parsons the day he went through his first treatment and he was amazingly upbeat. I talked to Bill Weber over the weekend, too, and he was saying that if good wishes and a good attitude have anything to do with it, nobody’s got a better chance of winning this fight than BP does.
    I think that’s about right.
  • From where things stand right now, it looks like Robert Yates Racing will send Stephen Leicht and David Gilliand out to race in the Nextel Cup Series next year. They’ll have new crew chiefs and, it would stand to reason, a lot of new crew members backing them since RYR seems to be starting from a clean sheet of paper.
    One thing the Chase for the Nextel Cup format has done is that it has changed the NASCAR calendar. If you’re not in the Chase, the 2007 season begins in mid-September at New Hampshire. You get what you can get this year, but once you’ve missed the cut you’re really already working on next year.
    But it would not be a simple thing for the Yates team to take Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler out later this year and put next year’s drivers in place to give them a head start on 2007.
    For one thing, Leicht and Gilliand have each already run a Cup race this year. Leicht will try to make another race this week at Indianapolis. If they’re going to run for rookie of the year next year, they can’t run more than seven races this season.
    There are sponsor issues, too. Remember, UPS is going with Jarrett to Michael Waltrip Racing. UPS wants to be on the track and most likely wants that to happen with Jarrett. It’s entirely possible that Yates could put Leicht in a handful of races in a third team car down at the end of the year, but don’t look for him to drive in Jarrett’s place.
    If, as expected, M&M’s stays with Yates and backs Gilliland, it’s possible Sadler could go ahead and go where he’s going to go if the situation with whatever team he’s going to works out as well. But Yates also has a Busch car that can be used to get the new guys some seat time, too.
  • There are supposedly more than 200,000 seats at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I am pretty sure that there’s not one from which a fan can see the whole race track. The best word to describe the historic venue, from a physical standpoint, is vast.
    But I tell fans all the time that they owe it to themselves to see a race there at least once in their lives. If they built Fenway Park today, it’d have wider seats and aisles and about half the seats would be turned a little so they actually point to where you want to be looking. But that’s not the point of seeing a Red Sox game there. If you’re a sports fan, you have to get to Fenway at least once in your life.
    That’s the exact same thing about Indy. On race day, the frontstretch is a canyon of humanity.
    A racer with any kind of soul has to get goose bumps when he walks out of Gasoline Alley onto pit road for the start.
    IndyCars are always going to be better suited to race there than the wider, heavier stock cars.
    But NASCAR is richer, far richer, because it goes once each year to one of the true cathedrals of American sport.
    It’s a honor to drive through the tunnel, and I look forward to doing that later this week.