Saturday, February 24, 2007

Slams against Petty and NASCAR fans by Washington state lawmakers sidetrack legitimate debate

International Speedway Corporation tried last week to make some headway toward getting a track built near Seattle, but that’s not exactly how things worked out.

ISC had Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Greg Biffle travel to Washington state to talk to legislators and try to drum up support for a bill that would help create the public funding portion of the track project.

There’s plenty of resistance to the idea of public money being used to pay for any sports facility, whether it be in Washington state or anywhere else. And many of the newspaper editorial writers in the Seattle area seem steadfastly opposed to the bill in question because they question its fiscal wisdom.

All of that is completely fair game. So, too, is opposition to the track project from the folks in Kitsap County, where the site ISC prefers is located.

Some of them don’t want a major sports facility built close to where they live. They don’t want their lives upset by the crowds that would come in and by development that might be spawned by having the track in their area.

That’s the kind of public debate that’s completely warranted when a project the scope of a NASCAR track is proposed. What’s troubling, though, is how tawdry the debate grew thanks to words that came out of the mouths of two elected officials during the racers’ visits to their state.

First, House Speaker Frank Chopp referred to Petty, the seven-time Cup series champion, as “that guy who got picked up for a DUI.”

Uh, no. Not only has Petty never been picked up for driving under the influence, he has never allowed his race teams to be sponsored by any form of alcoholic beverage because he promised his mother he never would.

Chopp said he “wasn’t sure” Petty was the guy he was thinking of, so I guess he thought that made it OK. Later, he apologized and called the remark “inappropriate and wrong.”

Well, at least he got that part right.

Then there’s House member Larry Seaquist (who, for the record, is a Democrat as is Chopp).

Mr. Seaquist offered the following opinion when the idea of having NASCAR fans in the state came up: “These people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They'd be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law.”

Hmmm. That sounds like a stereotype, doesn’t it? That’d be sort of like stating that anyone who lives in Seattle has webbed feet (because it rains so much there, you know) and puts double-caff, half-fat lattes in their babies’ bottles (since the only thing they drink there is coffee).

That would be silly of course. But there’s one judgment here that I can make based solely on what was said this week on this topic, and that’s that Richard Petty has forgotten more about class and respect than at least two pinheads in the Washington state legislature.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

NASCAR isn't always like other sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some leftover thoughts and opinions from Speedweeks:
– I sometimes get criticized by longtime NASCAR fans for making analogies to "stick and ball" sports when I write about racing. The comparisons don’t work, they say.
Sometimes I think they do. I think there are aspects of big-time racing that compare nicely with the other major professional sports. But there are also times when you have to be careful to consider the differences. I think the final lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500 is one of those instances.
Some of the national, nonracing columnist guys were saying on Monday’s talk shows that letting Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin race to the caution flag with cars wrecking behind them was OK. They compared it to a basketball game, where a player might be going for an uncontested layup and an official won’t call a foul off the ball to prevent that. Or to hockey, when a penalty call is delayed until one team completes a scoring opportunity.
The points have some validity, I guess. There’s also the fact that referees "swallow the whistle" late in close games, declining sometimes to make calls that could swing a final score. Let the athletes decide things, not the officials, the thinking goes.
But the racing equation differs in two ways, I think.
First, there’s the safety issue. By holding off on the yellow Sunday night, NASCAR required drivers to keep going wide open as they headed into a patently dangerous situation.
This business about how the cars were all going toward the apron is silly. NASCAR couldn’t have known that would continue to a point where the track would be safe for racing. Remember, these guys will throw a yellow for a ball of tape on the track – the hated "debris caution" – if they think it’ll pick up the pace of a race. How do you justify that on the basis of safety and then let action continue through a 10-car pileup?
You either race back to the checkered flag or you don’t. That’s what a rule is. You can do this or you can’t do it.
Second, there’s the fact that the drivers who were not in front of the wreck are competing, too. Teams won and lost a lot of money and points based on whether they got through that wreck, and the teams that didn’t also had expensive cars torn all to heck. Every competitor deserves a safe track to run on, not just two guys who happen to be racing side-by-side to win the Daytona 500.
– I learned something Monday that I didn’t know.
NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston was on "The Morning Drive" on Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128, and Marty Snider and I asked about the finish of the truck race Friday.
Johnny Benson went below the yellow line and passed Travis Kvapil for second in the three-wide finish with winner Jack Sprague. Callers and e-mails had asked us about that, so we asked Poston.
He said the yellow line rule includes a caveat. "When the drivers can see the checkered flag, you can get all you can get," he said.
That was news to me. He’s saying that once the flagman has the checkered flag in his hand and is waving it, the area below the yellow line is not out of bounds.
– There might be ways to explain why the rating for ESPN2’s first Busch Series race were down 26 percent from the same race on TNT last year. But any way you slice that, it’s not good news.
ESPN had its hype machine going full blast for weeks leading to Saturday’s race. I don’t think it’s television’s fault. NASCAR, as evidence by lower ratings for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, has some real issues to face forthrightly. And the Busch Series is in real, real trouble of further losing its identity and, thereby, its appeal.
– Having said that, ESPN has assembled a great staff of people to contribute to its racing coverage. Marty Smith, Terry Blount, Tim Cowlishaw and Angelique Chengelis are first rate. If they’re allowed to do their jobs the way they know how, everybody else is going to have to work a little harder to keep up.
– Speaking of other people in my business, I don’t know how often this happens, but the Daytona Beach News-Journal ought to win a bucketful of awards in Florida’s respective newspaper awards contests for how it covers Speedweeks. My own employer, The Charlotte Observer, does a good job for our readers, too, I think. But if you’re ever down there for Speedweeks, make sure you buy the local paper every day. Those folks get it done.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

So, do we understand you to say that a certain level of cheating is acceptable?

Sights, sounds and observations from Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway:

NASCAR chief executive officer said in his "state of the sport" speech on Tuesday that when you have 120 cars at a given track you’re bound to have a certain number of them who try to beat the rulebook.

That’s sad, isn’t it?

Counting all the Nextel Cup, Busch and Truck cars here this week, it’s more like 140 cars. Let’s say that "only" seven of them are found to be violating the rules. That’s a conservative estimate, since we already know about five for sure, but let’s just keep the math simple.

If there are seven cars out of 140 that can’t be counted on to play by the rules, and if France and NASCAR find that percentage acceptable that means that it’d be 5 percent of the cars here. So, by that accounting, it’s acceptable for the people in racing to be honest 95 percent of the time.

OK, now let’s say you’re a father. You’ve got a son who’s about 6 years old and he’s beginning to ask you all of those questions you never quite know how to answer.

"Daddy?" he says. "If I play fair 95 percent of the time, if I tell you the truth 95 percent of the time, if I obey 95 percent of the law, will I be OK?"

Which is the right answer?

a) Yes, son. That’s about the best I should expect.

b) No, son. You need to be honest 100 percent of the time.

It was very windy during Wednesday’s practices. There were whitecaps in Lake Lloyd in the track’s infield and, at one point, a wheeled beer cart in the Fan Zone was blown around several revolutions by the wind. Fortunately, since crowds weren’t as big on Wednesday as they will be later this week, the cart was empty and no beers were lost.

I said this on our Sirius Satellite NASCAR Radio show Wednesday morning and I will say it again here. The only racing that Evernham Motorsports should be doing this weekend should be seeing which of its three transporters makes it back to the shop in Statesville first.

I really respect Ray Evernham. I think he’s trying to build a championship quality race team and I know, without a question, that he works as hard as anybody in the sport at trying to reach his goals.

But there’s no way to sidestep the fact that having all three of your crew chiefs – or team directors, in the Evernham lexicon – suspended in the same weekend looks awfully bad.

It’s always interesting to look at how the two 150-milers sort out, and this year certainly follows that pattern.

The first three starters in Thursday’s first race – David Gilliland, David Ragan and Boris Said – have never raced in a Daytona 500. Johnny Sauter, who starts fourth, has one career start in the race.

So there’s a total of one Daytona 500 start among those in the first two rows. And who starts next? The defending champion, Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson has Hendrick Motorsports teammate Casey Mears in that 150, while Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch are in the other. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his teammate Martin Truex are also in that race, as are Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin and both Kyle Petty and Bobby Labonte from Petty Enterprises.

But Reed Sorenson is flying solo – his teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and David Stremme are in the second race. All three of Ray Evernham’s Dodges – Elliott Sadler, Scott Riggs and Kasey Kahne – are also in the second 150.

Filling the field for the Daytona 500 is really a process that takes several steps.
You have the top 35 from last year and they’re all in. Then, you have the top two finishers from each of today’s 150-mile qualifiers. Those drivers will start in the first 39 spots on Sunday.
David Gilliland starts first on Sunday. Ricky Rudd starts second.

Take everybody from the first race that was in the top 35 – David Ragan, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jeff Green, Greg Biffle, Kyle Petty, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, Ken Schrader and Jeff Burton – and add the top-two finishers from that race who’re not in that group. That will be 19 drivers. They will start on Sunday on the inside of the next 19 rows behind Gilliland in positions 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and so on down to 39 in the order they FINISH in today’s first race.

Now, go to the second 150. David Stremme, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, J.J. Yeley, Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Tony Raines, Kurt Busch, Scott Riggs, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne are the drivers guaranteed spots in that race. Add the top two finishers from outside that group. Those 18 drivers fill positions 2, 4, 6, 8 and so on behind Rudd in the starting lineup.

Now, we have four more slots to fill.

The next three go the three drivers who were fastest in Sunday’s qualifying who’re not guaranteed spots. Boris Said, Sterling Marlin and Johnny Sauter are in those spots for now, but if they make the race through the 150s those spots could pass to, in this order, David Reutimann, Jeremy Mayfield and Mike Skinner.

The 43rd spot goes to a former champion otherwise not qualified if there is one. Dale Jarrett is the first one eligible for that spot, followed by Bill Elliott. If neither needs that spot, the next person in line on speed would get it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

David Poole's 'state of the sport'

On "The Morning Drive," the Sirius Satellite NASCAR Radio show he co-hosts, David Poole played the role of NASCAR chairman Brian France and gave the following speech as what he would say in the "state of the sport" speech that France will give this afternoon in Daytona:

Good afternoon and thanks for coming.
Today I want put aside the normal platitudes and doublespeak you might expect and speak honestly. Our sport faces too many critical issues for today. We are at a cross roads, and beginning today we will chart a new and, I believe, proper path that will buttress our foundation and allow us once again to start growing a sport that, today, faces a number of crises.
We face, for starters, a crisis of integrity.
For too long, we’ve asked our fans to swallow inconsistent officiating and capricious enforcement of rules that seem to shift like sand on the beach where cars once raced under my grandfather’s aegis.
We’ve treated cheating like a family might treat weird Uncle Fred – pretending like everything’s OK because nobody’s really getting hurt. That’s not how a professional sport should be run.
If we are to have any integrity at all, we have to establish a system of rules that can be followed by teams who are eager for a chance to compete fairly and evenly. We have to enforce those rules fairly and without regard to the economic impact of sanctions or other actions on our part.
Every team, no matter how many T-shirts its driver sells, must be treated the same way. It’s hard for us to do that when we have people in our tower on race day who’re also involved with the marketing of our sport. Even if they intend to be fair in every instance, they’re human beings. They can’t help but be influenced by what their actions might mean in the marketplace, not when our company has made that the over-riding priority in how they’re judged in terms of how well they do their jobs.
We’re taking those people out of that impossible situation. Beginning today, we will spend whatever money we have to recruit and hire independent officials with experience at race tracks all across this country to come in and join our officials in forming an independent agency to officiate our races. NASCAR will pay this agency a lump sum each year to pay salaries and expenses and keep these officials trained. This agency will write our rulebook and enforce it and NASCAR will have no influence on that process.
We will, however, insist that beginning with the 2008 Daytona 500 any team caught with a major rules violation before qualifying will be denied the right to race in that week’s event. Any team found to have committed a major rules violation in postrace inspection will lose all points and money earned in that event and will be prohibited from entering the next event on the schedule. This rule will apply evenly, to all teams.
Earlier today, I ordered the creation of a traveling medical team that will attend all of our events and co-ordinate care center operations with local personnel retained by each track. We actually will have two teams, with each team alternating at a given track for a given race. While one team is at a track, the other team will be at the next venue coordinating with local personnel and conducting extensive safety and medical meetings with the people they will be working with when our competitors arrive.
Our sport also faces a crisis in competition.
Let’s be honest with one another. Side-by-side racing has largely become a cherished memory in our sport. We have to get that back. So I have ordered our competition department to call a meeting in Charlotte at which every team member interested in attending can sit down and hear the following message. Beginning in the 2008 season, we will run 10 to 15 percent slower at every track where our cars compete in Nextel Cup, Busch and Truck series events. On July 1 of this year, we will have another meeting at which our teams will present to us their plan for slowing the cars down. If the teams are unable to agree on such a plan by that date, we will formulate our own plan and deliver it to the teams by Oct. 1. But hear this and hear it now, we will go slower in 2008. We can do it the way the teams want us to, or we’ll do it the way we decide to do. But we will do it.
We also have a crisis of emphasis on our hands.
For too long, we’ve been obsessed with television ratings and the image that our sport has with people who don’t even care about it. We’ve tried to cater to people who don’t care about us long enough. That stops, today.
We will no longer, as a company, talk about the championship 365 days a year. We will still crown champions in our top series each year. But the champions will receive trophies and checks for $1 million in Nextel Cup and $500,000 each in the Busch and Truck Series. Money now earmarked for points funds will be redistributed as part of a new formula for determining purses. Television money will also be reallocated in this formula in such a way that performance on the track each week determines how much money a race team and its drivers win.
The minimum purse for every Nextel Cup race, beginning in 2008, will be $7.5 million. No Nextel Cup race winner will be paid less than $1 million for winning any Cup race. The winner of the Daytona 500 next year will earn $5 million, and several other major events on our schedule will pay $2.5 million for first place. There are no more car owner plans or winner circle plans that subsidize the haves at the expense of the have nots. You want to make money in racing?
Race for it.
We face a crisis today, as well, in diversity. Our sport does not look like America, and we know that. We’ve known it for years, and so far we’ve made only pitiably token efforts to change that. Again, that stops today. Beginning in 2008, 5 percent of every purse will be designated to go to fund a program that provides opportunities and, most importantly, a clear pathway of progress for people of color and female drivers to be supported as they move steadily toward competing at the sport’s top levels. We hope our current fans will embrace these efforts, but we say here and now to those who don’t that we will sorely miss them but that we will go on without them.
And finally, but most importantly, we face the crisis of losing the most valuable asset we’ve ever had – our connection to our fans. We’ve stopped thinking about them. We talk about them a lot, but we don’t do much for them – not for the people who support us.
Increasingly, we’ve taken the access to our competitors that once served as our greatest attribute and turned it into a revenue stream. You want to meet a driver or even see one up close? Come on down to the Fan Zone, but it’s gonna cost you an extra $75 bucks. No more. We can’t "upsell" what our fans are entitled to, but at the same time we can’t simply throw open the gates to all fans while our competitors are trying to work.
So, beginning Thursday when Daytona International Speedway opens for the Gatorade Duels, no track will be allowed to sell garage passes. Only people who are working in our garage will have access to this area during times the track is hot. But, beginning one hour after the end of every qualifying session, each track will be allowed to sell for $10 per ticket a pass that entitles any fan access to a two-hour autograph session in the garage. All proceeds from the sale of these tickets will go to create a disability fund to benefit former NASCAR competitors who need financial assistance because of sickness or other hardship. Every driver entered in each week’s race will be required to remain in the garage for this autograph session. This will be the only time during a race weekend when a driver is allowed to sign autographs.
We have a great sport, and it has grown to a point where there is plenty of money to go around. We just need to stop trying to see how much money there could possibly be to make and start trying to see what would make our sport better. That’s how we got as far as we have today, and there’s no reason to go backward any further than we’ve already let things slip.
Today is a new day in NASCAR. I am happy you where here to see this new day come.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

How can you not pull for a guy like Boris Said?

Sights and sounds from Saturday at Daytona International Speedway:
It’s hard not to pull for a guy like Boris Said, who’s among the drivers who’ll be fighting for the final few available spots in the Daytona 500 field in today’s qualifying and Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying races.
Said was talking this week about how hard it is for him, as a part-time driver with a part-time team, to work his way into Nextel Cup races when 35 (or 36, with a former champion’s provisional) are guaranteed to full-time teams.
“I’ll go back to Indianapolis last year, which was probably the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever gone through,” Said said. “I was the bubble for a little while and it came down to the last guy, who had been faster than me in practice.”
Said said the mood in his trailer at that moment was like the movie “My Dog Skip,” which is sad enough to wring a tear from even the hardest of hearts. But the last car didn’t go faster than Said, meaning his car was in the Allstate 400.
“In 15 seconds it turned into ‘Brokeback Mountain’ with guys slapping each other on the butts and hugging and kissing each other and telling them we loved each other” Said said. “It was such an emotional swing that day.”

The more I think about it, the more the simplicity of what Dale Earnhardt Jr. is doing in his contract negotiations with Dale Earnhardt Inc. emerges in my mind.
I am sure Earnhardt Jr. has some problems with how DEI is being run as a racing company by his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt. I am sure he has concerns about the company’s future as a racing enterprise.
But I’m also convinced that this is as much about how Earnhardt Jr. believes he was treated when he was a boy, when he was shipped off to military school, as it is about anything else.
Basically, he feels like Teresa Earnhardt didn’t want him around. Now, he’s got a chance to let his stepmother see much that hurts.

You can’t make stuff like this up, I promise you. Tums is an associate sponsor on Reed Sorenson’s No. 41 Dodges this year, and it’s trying to be a little bit “different” in its marketing.
Next week, it plans to put out a list of favorite restaurants near tracks, presumably ones that might encourage people to use more of its product.
This weekend, Tums has released results of a Harris Interactive poll that asked male and female NASCAR fans which drivers “make their hearts burn and which ones give them indigestion.”
Not surprisingly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped the list of those that make fans’ “hearts burn.” He was picked by 48 percent of all fans and 55 percent of female fans. Jeff Gordon was second, Tony Stewart third and Kasey Kahne fourth.
Gordon, conversely, was first in the “indigestion” category, with Stewart second, followed by Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and then Earnhardt Jr.

Sometimes, qualifying order is a big deal at a track. That’s usually true, for instance, if qualifying starts when the sun is out and goes into darkness. Later is usually better in that circumstance because the track cools off and, usually, gets faster.
Qualifying at Daytona takes FOR-EVER. Time trials begin at 2:10 p.m. Sunday and it might be 6:30 or so when it’s all over. That means it could cool off as the day goes along, but what seems to impact qualifying more here at Daytona is the wind – direction and velocity – so it’s hard to know whether earlier or later will be better Sunday.
For what it’s worth, Brian Vickers, Joe Nemechek, Kenny Wallace, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the first five scheduled to run Sunday afternoon. The final five scheduled are Kevin Lepage, Elliott Sadler, David Reutimann, Carl Edwards and Tony Raines.
Ricky Rudd, fastest in practice on Saturday, is slated to go out 49th. Teammate David Gilliland goes out 26th. Sterling Marlin, also fast in practice, is 15th in the qualifying order. Juan Pablo Montoya is 30th and Jeremy Mayfield is 42nd.

During Speed’s practice coverage Saturday, Darrell Waltrip was talking about what a great accomplishment it was for Toyota to have any of its brand-new cars in the top 10 in practice speeds in its first outing – Jeremy Mayfield’s No. 36 was fourth fastest. Whether you agree with that or not, the fact that he has appeared in about 40 commercials touting Toyota’s entry into the sport, that he has driven Toyotas in the Truck Series and that his brother, Michael, owns three Toyota Nextel Cup teams makes it hard to take anything DW says about Toyota anything other than an advertisement.
…Everybody’s talking about how many cars there are here this year, but while checking on something else I found out there were 58 entered in the Daytona 500 last year. That’s only three fewer that this year’s “glut.”

Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday's sights, sounds and so on at Daytona International Speedway

Sights, sounds and observations from Friday’s activities at Daytona International Speedway:
Last year, Miller tried to get Budweiser to make a bet about whether Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 2 Miller-sponsored Dodge, would finish ahead of Bud’s No. 8 Chevrolet, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving.
The stakes were that the loser would have to run a race in the other beer company’s colors. Budweiser didn’t take the bet.
This year, Miller says it will change the name of the baseball stadium in Milwaukee from Miller Park to Budweiser Park for a 2008 regular-season series between the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals if Earnhardt Jr. beats Busch. If Busch wins, the Cardinals’ home (Busch Stadium) will be rebranded as Miller Lite Stadium for a Brewers-Cardinals series.
"It's too bad for Anheuser-Busch that they didn't take us up on our challenge last year, when Kurt and the team were dealing with the first-year 'new team' transition,” said Tom Long, Miller’s chief executive officer.

Workers have been tinkering with signs at the end of the road leading to Roush Racing’s headquarters at the Concord Regional Airport this week, in preparation for next week’s announcement that the Fenway Sports Group is buying into ownership of the team.
The announcement is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at Daytona Beach’s minor league baseball park, Jackie Robinson Stadium. Look for the team’s new name to be Roush Fenway Racing.

One thing my media brethren seem to be doing a lot of this preseason is asking drivers their opinions about two of the sport’s top issues – the Dale Earnhardt Jr. contract negotiations and Juan Pablo Montoya’s arrival in the sport.
Patience with such questions, in some camps, is beginning to wear a little thin.
“It’s funny,” Michael Waltrip said on media day Thursday. “I raced for 15 or 20 years and all I heard was ‘How’s Darrell?’ and ‘Where’s Darrell?’”
Darrell, of course, is Waltrip’s brother. “Then I went to race for DEI,” Michael Waltrip said, “and I always hear, “How’s Junior doing?” Pardon me if I don’t choose to answer questions for him.”

It’s hard for everybody to keep up with all the changes that go in NASCAR, even somebody who’s literally inside the race car. During Friday afternoon’s Shootout practice, Kasey Kahne came over his radio with a question. “Who’s in the 44 car?” Kahne said. The answer is Dale Jarrett, with his new Toyota team at Michael Waltrip Racing.
There’s absolutely no way anybody who covers the sport regularly will make it through the first five races without, at some point, typing in that Jarrett drives the No. 88 Fords. Habits like that are just really hard to break.

Best line I wish I had come up with: Ken Willis, the East Coast distributor for wry wit in his columns in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, noticed that a lot of people employed by ESPN seem to be walking around the premises this week. “There are so many ESPN folks on property this week,” Willis wrote, “you’d think Terrell Owens was doing sit-ups in the Fan Zone.”

Man, it’s only the season’s first weekend and the race for this year’s Emmy Award for sports television coverage already seems to be over. Ray Dunlap’s reporting on why the Daytona track’s tunnel is painted yellow (it’s Nextel’s color) and his first-hand reports from a speedboat in Lake Lloyd locked it up.
…Speaking of television tom-foolery, Thursday night’s draw for the Budweiser Shootout was shown “live to tape” beginning at 8 p.m. What that means is that the draw actually happened about 7 p.m. and was recorded for broadcast an hour later. Television calls that “live to tape” because they don’t bother to edit it. Otherwise, the whole thing might have taken about 15 minutes. In English, “live to tape” means “taped.”
…NASCAR chairman Brian France will give a “state of the sport” report to the media on Tuesday. The Observer has learned that France will reveal the state of the sport is “just peachy.”

Thursday, February 08, 2007

NASCAR Media Day sights and sounds

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sucked the air out of the tent in which media day was held Thursday, saying he wants “majority ownership” in Dale Earnhardt Inc. as part of his ongoing contract talks with the company.
There was more to his 24-minute session with print reporters, though. Earnhardt Jr. once again commented about what his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, said in the Dec. 14 Wall Street Journal about Dale Jr. needing to decide whether he wants to be a race car driver or a celebrity.
“I don’t make a habit of seeking out attention all the time,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “She portrayed it as I was out there waving a flag saying, ‘Look at me, I can dance and I can sing.’ …What she said was a low blow there.”
Earnhardt Jr. also talked about how the media coverage to Teresa’s remark had helped him solidify the position he has decided to take in the contract talks.
“Everything that has been written…I’ve taken that stuff and helped form my position and opinion,” he said. “You don’t like media opinion to sway your decision most of the time. In this case, I have a bad habit of being too modest. A lot of people helped me understand what I’m actually worth, what the situation is.”
How important to DEI is Earnhardt Jr.? On his Sirius Satellite Radio show Tuesday night, Tony Stewart said it best. “Without Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” he said, “DEI is a museum.”

Earnhardt Jr. also talked about how the talk about him needing to win a championship to “validate” his career is something he’s had a hard time coming to terms with.
“I never though I’d be good enough to race full time or hold down a job as driver,” he said. “I never thought I would win a race at the Cup level.
“I look around at people that have followed in their father’s footsteps and had limited success. I never counted on it. I had no goals set as a driver. I’ve accomplished more than I’ve thought I would. I’ve gone places that I thought I would never see. I’ve got lot of years left to in the championship.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he’s far less nervous to go 200 mph in a race car than he is to appear on the “Tonight” show with Jay Leno or present an award at the ESPYs.
“When we go do things like the (music video) with Jay-Z, I wonder how the hell I got there,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve driven a race car at 200 miles an hour, flipped and crashed, and seen some really bad things. But, the most scared I’ve ever been in introducing a band (Linkin Park) on stage at the MTV Awards. I never want to do that again.”

Speaking of Tony Stewart, he’s apparently adjusting well to his new role as a member of the media now that he has his own radio show. Stewart hung around on media day as long as just about any driver, holding at least two additional informal chats with media members after his scheduled session was over.
Stewart said he’s lost about 20 pounds, total, but is down about 30 pounds of body fat but having added back 10 pounds of muscle mass. But he swore he’s not trying to slim down to get back into an Indy car.
“Don’t get that started again,” he said. He also took some ribbing about rumors he might be the next big-name driver to head down the wedding aisle. Stewart said that’s not imminent, but he did say he’s given some thought to the kind of wedding he’d want.
“I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’d kind of like to get married on the beach there, with just family,” he said. “Then, we’d come back and have a big party/reception and while we eat dinner we’ll have somebody record the wedding and play it while everybody’s there, so it’s kind of like everybody’s there.”

The prevailing wisdom among the drivers I talked to Thursday is that Richard Childress Racing is ahead of everybody else when it comes to being ready for the “car of tomorrow” races.
Jeff Burton wouldn’t say he agreed with that, but he said that when you look at 2007 you’d better be ready to run the new cars. “Take out the plate races and the COT races are half the season – 16 and 16,” Burton pointed out.

Mark Martin said he’s not sure about the new car. “I’m not even sure we’ll be able to drive on the track at Bristol at the test without knocking the splitters off,” he said.
…Kevin Harvick took some heat for calling Teresa Earnhardt a “deadbeat owner” a couple of weeks ago, but he’s not backing off from commenting about the DEI situation. “Dale Jr. is really the only person in this deal who has the bargaining power,” Harvick said. “He's got it all on his side and deservedly so. He’s the most popular driver. He’s been successful and…he deserves the respect of being treated like a grown man and not being treated like he’s 15 and somebody's stepson.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed that NASCAR holds its annual media day festivities in a tent that looks like it could be the site where the Cirque de Soleil might break out at any moment. Furthering the theme this year, there was circus-themed paintings and decorations scattered about.

Friday, February 02, 2007

There's more to it than simply trying to sell papers or drive web traffic

On the final weekend before we embark on a new NASCAR season, let’s talk a little bit about objectivity.
One of the questions I am asked most often is whether or not I have a favorite driver. The truthful answer to that question is almost always yes. But it changes a lot, certainly from week to week and sometimes from lap to lap.
Allow me to explain.
When you’ve worked nights at newspaper offices as often as I have, the one comment you can barely keep from laughing at is "All you guys want to do is sell newspapers!" Why, as a matter of fact, that’s true. I’ve always wondered if anybody ever called Domino’s and, in trying to register a complaint, said "All you guys want to do is sell pizzas!"
When people level that "sell newspapers" complaint, usually they’re complaining about the tone or approach to some facet of coverage, and of course there’s more to putting out a good newspaper than merely trying to pander for the sake a few more copies being sold.
But, for the most part, it’s good for newspapers when there are good stories to cover. The Observer does better, from a sports section perspective, if the Carolina Panthers are winning or the Charlotte 49ers or an ACC team like Duke or North Carolina makes the Final Four in men’s basketball. The paper and also benefit when there’s compelling news on the NASCAR front for us to report.
For that reason, every race day I am pulling for the best story. Some days, that might be your favorite driver winning. Some days, though, it might be a better story if your favorite driver loses in heartbreaking fashion. When I have a rooting interest, it’s almost always for the best story.
Certainly, there are some drivers with whom I have a better relationship than others. I find some guys more interesting than others, and I am certain the same can be said from the drivers’ perspectives. Undoubtedly there are guys who don’t think I’ve done them right and therefore I am not on their lists of favorite writers. That’s part of the deal when you’re entering your 11th season on the beat.
Later on this spring, a book will be coming out that I did with Jeff Burton and his team during the Chase for the Nextel Cup last year. Burton and his guys were good enough to let me hang out with them during the Chase race weekends and I was able to get to know a lot of guys on that team a little bit. Does that mean I will pull for the No. 31 car over the rest of the cars in races this year? No, but that doesn’t mean some people won’t see it that way.
I used to kid around that I should change my email address to to save people time when they wanted to send me hate mail. You could put Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or several other drivers’ names in there, too, because I’ve been accused to favoring them at times, too.
One of the things I’ve never claimed to be is objective, at least not in the strict definition of that word. According to, objective means "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased."
Reporters are human beings, and feelings, interpretations and, yes, even biases are part of everything we see and hear. My job is to filter out as much of that as I possibly can, but my confession to you is that nobody can do that completely.
The best anybody doing this job can promise is that he or she tries to be fair. And so, before I pack up the suitcase to start another season on the road, let me promise to try to do that one more time.
Let’s go racing.