Friday, November 30, 2007

Awards, parties set my mind reeling

Thursday 11:15 p.m.

NEW YORK CITY -- The strangest stuff gets me thinking.
I'll bet I walked two miles today. That's a lot of for an old fat man like me. I walked to the Sirius studio before sun up, then back to the hotel. I did take a cab over to the Myers Brothers luncheon because I was running late, but I walked back. Then I walked back to Sirius for "Tony Stewart Live," then down past the Waldorf-Astoria to a party (more about that in a minute).
On the way back from there, I walked about eight or 10 blocks and everywhere you looked there was trash. Not stuff strewn about, but stacks of bagged garbage waiting to be picked up.
On the street where my hotel is, the trucks were starting to make their pickups and I started wondering how many people spend pretty much every night of the week just collecting and removing trash and taking it off this island.
I told you it was strange.
I hate I missed the start of the Myers Brothers Awards program because I wasn't there in time to see Robert Yates get the Buddy Shuman Award. That award recognizes someone for long-time contributions to racing, and the folks who pick the winner each year have a knack for making outstanding selections.
Yates was a tremendous choice. The former engine-building genius who retired after the 2007 season as a car owner gave much of his heart, much of his life and much of his soul to the sport.

It was also great to see my friend, Don Miller, win the inaugural Home Depot Humanitarian Awards.
Miller started Stocks for Tots in 1989 and, with a lot of help from a lot of great people, more than $400,000 and 40,000 toys have been raised on behalf of the Stop Child Abuse Now network in the history of the event held each December in Mooresville.
How does Miller get dozens of NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs, officials and other people connected to the sport to give up a night each year to sign autographs for fans and help assemble huge amounts of memorabilia to be auctioned to raise money? He asks, and people respect him enough to say yes.
The award came with a $100,000 check, which will go a long way toward helping a cause Miller feels passionately about.
By the way, Stocks for Tots this year is set for Dec. 11.

Betty Jane France graciously accepted the Myers Brothers Award that was given to her late husband, Bill France Jr., and that got me thinking, too. This has to be hard week for the France family. Having the awards ceremony in New York City was Bill Jr.'s big idea, and he loved having it here. He thought it gave the sport the kind of recognition it deserved.
I saw Lesa France Kennedy for a minute at the luncheon but didn't get to speak to her. It's the first time I've seen her since her husband, Bruce, was killed in a plane crash this summer. I know she misses him every day, but being here as the holiday season begins must be very difficult, too.
I understand NASCAR has asked the drivers who'll be speaking at the awards ceremony tonight to address any condolences they make to the France family, rather than having 10 drivers specifically mention Bill Jr. and Bruce so the family has to sit through that all night. I think that's smart. There will be a tribute to the folks the sport lost this year built into the program, I hear.

After the "Stewie Awards" show at Sirius, I walked to a club that Dale Earnhardt Inc. rented for a reception for the media. I finally found the place after walking down the wrong street for several blocks and walked over to get a soda.
While I was waiting on it, I saw Karen Bruce, the wife of NASCAR Scene writer Kenny Bruce, sitting down. So when I got my soda, I walked toward her. She was talking to someone who had her back to me, so I tried to lean in and shake Karen's hand and sort of brushed past the person sitting with her.
Teresa Earnhardt.
OK, so after apologizing for that and feeling like an idiot for about 15 minutes, I worked my way back through the crowd to speak to Teresa again. She couldn't have been more gracious. The entire evening was "off the record," and that was fine. I asked her about her daughter, Taylor, whom I haven't seen for several years. Taylor and my stepdaughter, Emily, are about the same age. It's the kind of thing that happens during banquet week in New York that makes it worth coming up here.

I left to come back. Most people who came by the DEI party had another stop to make. Sprint hosts a big, BIG party late Thursday night each year at a club called the Marquis, and it's rapidly becoming quite legendary. It usually doesn't really get started until around 11 p.m., but I've got a radio show in the morning at 7.
Speaking of which, good night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No one knows how many New Yorkers are watching

Wednesday afternoon, 4:15 p.m.

NEW YORK CITY - The first order of business for NASCAR on Wednesday in New York City was to see how many people 10 stock cars could annoy at one time.

OK, maybe that's not quite fair. There were a lot of fans, far more than I would have ever expected, wearing NASCAR gear and braving the cold to see the top-10 drivers in the final Nextel Cup standings take their "Victory Lap" through and around Times Square.

ABC gave the event really short shrift on its "Good Morning America" show, spending most of the last half-hour rehashing Helio Castroneves' win in the "Dancing with the Stars" competition instead.

But as the drivers went about 1.5 miles around the normally busy streets right in the heart of New York City's midtown, a lot of people were watching. Many of them were, at least apparently, NASCAR fans because of all the stuff they were wearing. Many more were just curious onlookers, wondering what in the heck was going on.

Somebody from NASCAR said that 150,000 people watched the cars drive on such famous streets as Broadway and Madison Avenue. I don't know how you would begin to estimate a crowd for that event. I completly accept the fact that at least that many - probably a lot more - were in the general area as it all was happening.

People who actually were in or around what amounted to a parade said lots of folks dressed in normal business attire were stopping to take photos with their cell phones. At least some of those photos, I'll bet, were taken to serve as excuses as for why someone was late for work.

I cannot even begin to imagine how many permits and excpetions and whatever you want to call them it takes for NASCAR to pull that thing off.

The "Victory Lap" was followed by a breakfast event inside the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. NASCAR is trying to involve the fans more in Champions Week activities, and that's good.

It ought to do a lot more in that regard, though.

It doesn't matter to me where the awards ceremony is held as much as it does that the way its staged now send the wrong message.

The banquet itself is Friday night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, and if a fan off the street tried to get in there he'd be wrestled to the ground.

The banquet, with its black-tie dress code, comes off as being all about who can and can't get in.

It absolutely ought to more about letting fans - the people NASCAR tells everybody make the sport what it is - be a part of the celebration of the year that just passed.

And why aren't the Busch and Truck series champions being honored along with Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on Friday night? Why do those series have their own banquets, events that don't get nearly as much attention?

Shouldn't Carl Edwards get more attention for winning the Busch Series than somebody will for finishing 10th in Cup points? I certainly think so.

Anyway, after the deal at the Hard Rock, more media gathered at the 21 Club for a luncheon with champion Jimmie Johnson.

He was telling me the story of what happened to him Thanksgiving weekend when he went to see the Oklahoma Sooners play a football game. Johnson's wife, Chandra, is a big Sooners fan and they know people who are connected to the football team.

So after the Sooners beat Oklahoma State, Johnson follows the team off the field through the cheering crowds into the locker room. The players are celebrating the big win that got them into the Big 12 championship game and having a great time. Johnson is just taking all of this in until someone introduces him to the team.

"These guys go nuts," Johnson said. "I just sort of gave them a thumbs up and one guy, No. 25, came over and grabbed me by the arm."

According to a roster on internet, that would be senior defensive back D.J. Wolfe.

"He pulls me into the middle of their huddle and they're all jumping up and down and I am in there getting all banged around," Johnson said.

"It was awesome."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Presidential suite or bust!

NEW YORK -- Jimmie Johnson is off and running during Champions Week.

He appeared on "LIVE with Regis and Kelly" on Monday, because he's a NASCAR driver and apparently that's the law. I actually don't any stock car driver who sets foot on the Manhattan island is allowed to leave until he goes on that show.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus also rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange Monday afternoon. That's fitting, because the whole reason for having this event here is commerce, and Wall Street is the mother church of commerce.

Tuesday, he's supposed to be on a bunch of other shows including Rachel Ray's show. Of all those types of shows, I think Rachel Ray's show is the most grounded in reality. You can watch her cook something and actually conceive of the remote possibility that you might be able to come relatively close to making yourself.

I made it to my hotel room about 12:30 a.m. I was in one of those 11-passenger shuttle vans and myself and one other young lady were the first two picked up. After about six more stops we were fully loaded. I offered to let the lady take the front seat but she declined, so I jumped all over it.

As we were going to all of those stops, we kept passing these impossibly long lines for taxis. I was glad I'd made the choice I made. Apparently my flight wasn't the only one delayed for three hours or so.

It was raining and a really nasty night. But our driver was remarkably sane and safe, for which I was thankful. He actually let a couple of people in line ahead of him.

I was also incredibly grateful that I was the second one who got dropped off. Goodness knows how long it was before that 11th person got to where he or she was going.

It was nice this morning. The rain had moved out and it was breezy, but it was in the upper 50s at 6 a.m. as I walked over toward the Sirius studios to do the radio show this morning. I expect it will cool off as the day goes on, but what do I know about weather?

My goal for the rest of the day is simple. I want to get inside the presidential suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, where Jimmie Johnson gets to stay this week. This is the 11th year I've been to the NASCAR awards ceremony activities and I know a lot of people who've been invited into what's a very historic place. I've never gotten that nod, and as of now I am openly campaigning for it.

At LaGuardia with my guard up

11 p.m. Monday.

Ah, the glamor of air travel.

I was due at LaGuardia at 7:45 p.m. Right now, I have just got to the shuttle line to go into the city.

Fog everywhere. I came close to rebooking for Tuesday, but it's a better story for later this way.

Can't wait for the ride in. I'd say it's 50-50 my room hasn't been given away. More Tuesday.

Monday, November 26, 2007

If you can make it there

I am supposed to be in New York City for NASCAR Nextel Cup Champions Week by about 8 p.m.

I say supposed to be because there were big delays at LaGuardia airport because of low ceilings this morning, as well as some delays in Charlotte, too. Maybe some of that will be worked out by the time I am supposed to leave at 5:45 p.m., but we'll see.

Every year when this week comes, I try to make sure my patience chip is pushed all the way in as I head toward New York. I try to arrive late afternoon so I can go into the city when most people are coming out, but there's only so much room on the Manhattan island.

I never really expected to be in the hotel much before 10 p.m. anyway, and I just hope it's not too much later than that.

There are many things about New York that I do enjoy. It's a fun place to be this time of the year, once you actually get where you're going. I dread the trip in and the trip out, though, probably a whole lot more than I should. I reckon that's the small-town guy in me reminding me how out of place I am in a place so big.

I'll try to do at least a blog or two each day this week about the stuff that goes on during the week leading up to Friday's banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. Who knows, there might actually be some news coming out of what goes on between now and then.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ray Evernham says he will cut back and change his course

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – A few minutes before the final practice session of the 2007 Nextel Cup season begins, Ray Evernham is standing behind Elliott Sadler’s hauler, leaning on a stack of tires.

Over the long, rich history of stock-car racing, a lot of profound and important things have been said by people leaning on a stack of tires. It’s not quite like a confessional booth or a psychiatrist’s couch, but it seems to have a similar affect.

Very early this year, I found Evernham late one afternoon in the garage at Las Vegas and asked him about a man named George Gillett. I’d heard that Gillett was interested in buying a piece of Evernham’s team and wanted to see whether that was true or not.

Some car owners (many of them, truth be told) would have acted like I was speaking Chinese and pretended they knew not of what I was speaking. Publicity might kill a deal, they’d worry.

So they’d either dodge the question or outright lie about it.

Not Evernham. He told me that he and Gillett were talking, that Gillett would be coming to the track that weekend and that he hoped he and Gillett would be able to make a deal.

Several months later, they made that deal. The team was renamed Gillett Evernham Motorsports, and Evernham started telling everybody that meant he was going to have less and less to do with running the team he bought from Bill Elliott. He would, instead, go back to spending more time working on the team’s cars and trying to make them go faster than they have been during what has been a difficult season.

He won three championships by figuring out things like that back when he worked with Jeff Gordon at HendrickMotorsports, and he missed that part of it. What he has found, however, is that not even that has been enough to fill up the hole he has been feeling.

“I am burned out, I guess,” Evernham said. Everybody’s burned out at the end of a long NASCAR season, even a car owner with three teams who hasn’t been able to get one to victory lane after Kasey Kahne won six times last year.

But this is different. This is Ray Evernham, the man who lived and breathed racing when he ran Gordon’s No. 24 team. The man who left that job and started his own team, his own major league sports franchise, and helped Dodge come back into the sport. The man to whom Chad Knaus, who has emerged as the sport’s most highly regarded crew chief while working with Jimmie Johnson, is most often compared.

“I am going to cut way back next year,” he said. How far back? “I don’t know if I will be at more than 10 races next year.”

Evernham glances at his watch. He’s waiting for a telephone call. His father is sick and in the hospital and his mother is upset. Evernham has decided to fly home tonight to be with his parents.

He’s got people to run the teams. Gillett has people who’ll run the business. Evernham will be around, but his plan is to cede control in away that never seemed possible for a man who has always been considered the prototype of a “control freak.”

“I will probably tell them what I think is wrong,” Evernham said.“But I don’t plan on caring whether they listen or not.”

Evernham said he wants to spend more time with his son, Ray Jr. This week, he went to Mexico and watched the Baja 1000. He flew back to South Florida with Robby Gordon and said they talked about the race non-stop for hours.

“Robby’s truck in the Trophy Truck class is an engineering marvel,” Evernham said. “Over there, if I can invent a shock absorber that’s better, there isn’t a rule that says I can’t. Maybe I’ll go work on Robby’s truck next year.”

The point is that right now, Evernham doesn’t know what he wants to do. He doesn’t know whether he’ll miss what he’s doing right now so badly that he’ll come right back.

But he has decided it’s important for to him to find out.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What a long, strange year it's been

MIAMI - I had to write this somewhere, and I am probably going to be wrong about it. But here goes.

To me, the only thing that's logical is for Jeff Gordon to win this year's championship. I know, it would take something really bizarre for that to happen. But have you been watching this Nextel Cup season?

When has the most bizarre thing possible NOT happened this year?

Go all the way back to Daytona. You couldn't swing a tire iron without hitting somebody who NASCAR was fining or suspending. Then, the race ended with half the field crashing and wrecking while NASCAR tried to decide if a caution flag might be in order sometime after Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line a few feet in front of Mark Martin.

The teams were all whispering about what a disaster the car of tomorrow was going to be when it finally got on the track. Then, the car got on the track and what we saw was, well, a race. Kyle Busch won it, then got out of the car and told everybody how he hated the car that had just won him the race.

We went to Texas and Busch wrecked. He left the track but the team wasn't through racing. So Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumped in the car for a few laps. People were making a big deal out of it, because Dale Jr. was quite likely going to be looking for a new ride. I thought it was just a coincidence.

Jeff Gordon won back-to-back races to tie and then pass Dale Earnhardt on the all-time victory list. Gordon carried an Earnhardt flag around to mark the occasion at Phoenix and one Internet writer compared that to "dancing on Earnhardt's grave." I thought that was a curious analogy.

Earnhardt Jr. then announced he would, indeed, be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. That night, driving in my car toward Darlington, somebody called me to tell me it was being reported that he'd signed a deal to go to Richard Childress Racing. I knew better. So I wasn't wrong about everything.

ESPN kept breaking news that other people had written about weeks earlier. People kept running out of gas, or having more gas than anybody thought they possibly could.

One race, at Pocono, got rained out just as a leader was about to get passed. Another race at Michigan got rained out, then got rained out again. Some people thought it might get rained out a third time and actually reserved hotel rooms for Thanksgiving weekend. In a Marriott, of course. You've got to have those points.

Yet another race, at Kansas, got stopped because of rain, then restarted. And that changed just about everything in the Chase.

Clint Bowyer won the first Chase race and everybody decided he was going to upset everybody and win the championship. Jeff Gordon won two straight races and everybody decided he had the championship wrapped up. Then Jimmie Johnson won four in a row and now he's considered a shoo-in.

But how? Didn't you see how the race at Kansas ended, when Greg Biffle won but some people who think NASCAR can't do anything right decided that Biffle was out of gas and NASCAR made him lie about it?

Didn't you see the Atlanta race, where gas fouled by excessive water pumped into Denny Hamlin's car Friday morning finally made his engine sputter late Sunday afternoon to cause a big wreck and help Johnson extend his winning streak?

Didn't you see the Texas race, where points racing strategy would have told Johnson to settle for second but old-fashioned competition took over?

Has anything that has happened this year made any sense to you? Why should it start on Sunday?

Maybe a seagull will swoop down, get stuck in Johnson's grille, cause his engine to overheat and lead to a 39th-place finish. I don't know.

But if it's weird, it'll happen this year.

Unless it doesn't.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Penske points shuffle should not be allowed to happen

AVONDALE, Ariz. - It's just after 2:30, local time, here in the Valley of the Sun and the engines for Saturday's Busch Series race have just fired at Phoenix International Raceway.

As I sit here, I don't know what Roger Penske is planning to do with the car owner points Kurt Busch has amassed in the No. 2 Dodges this year.

I haven't personally had a conversation with anybody affiliated with Penske Racing about that subject yet. That will likely change tonight when I go to a reception at Penske's museum in nearby Scottsdale, but that doesn't mean I'll walk out of there with a definitive answer.

There's talk, though, that the team plans to transfer the owner points from Busch's car to the No. 77 Dodges that Hornish will drive next year. That would guarantee Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion, a starting spot in next year's first five races.

Busch would be protected for those races by the fact he'd be the most recent champion without a guranteed spot.

According to how the rules are written, apparently, there's absolutely nothing to stop the team from doing that. It certainly makes smart business sense for the team to give Hornish and what would be a brand new team a safety net, too.

But just because it can happen doesn't mean that it should. It's certainly not fair of me to expect Penske not to do it simply because I don't think it's what a true "sportsman" should do. I think Hornish should have to earn his way into those races just like anybody else, but that's me spending Roger Penske's money and Penske didn't become as successful as he is by letting things like that happen.

It is fair, though, for me to expect NASCAR to step up and say, "Folks, this just ain't gonna happen."

I know that NASCAR has allowed points swaps before. I know that Paul Menard got a spot in the top 35 in the Nextel Cup Series as the result of a business transaction and not racing competition earlier this year - when Dale Earnhardt Inc. purchased Ginn Racing.

But let me ask you this. If you hit yourself in the head with a hammer 12 times, should it be a rule that you have to keep banging away after you realize that if you stopped it wouldn't hurt as much?

NASCAR should have realized it was getting into a mess when it started letting people sell points and slide car numbers on and off cars willy-nilly. It didn't, and that's a shame.

But even if some of the cows are already out of the corral, that doesn't mean it's not smart to shut the gate before they all get gone. And the idea of letting Sam Hornish Jr. have a free pass for five races next year when other guys who've worked all season this year but failed to make the top 35 stinks.

Yes, I know that happens other ways. I know Dario Franchitti, for example, is going to have top-35 status in the No. 40 Dodges because of what David Stremme did in that car this year. But Chip Ganassi Racing took Stremme out to put Franchitti in, and it's not using up another spot by playing games with provisionals to do so.

NASCAR sometimes acts as if it's powerless to stop something stupid from happening. We all know better. NASCAR can do pretty much what it wants to, and most of the time it shows no lack of willingness to do precisely that.

Step up, boys.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Gordon fans ought to be fired up

PHOENIX - For the sake of a good championship battle over the final two races of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, I hope Jeff Gordon and his race team are as fired up as his fans are these days.

The Gordon faithful seem to be pretty stirred up that some of us who cover NASCAR are simply pointing out that it seems that Jimmie Johnson and his team are behaving pretty much like Gordon and his team did during the pinnacle of its success.

Matt Kenseth said after Sunday's race at Texas what a lot of us had been talking about.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have taken on the role as the sport's standard by which other teams measure themsevles. Most teams go to the track now thinking that if they want to win the race, they're going to have to beat the No. 48 Chevrolets to do it.

Now nobody is saying that Gordon and his No. 24 team, led by crew chief, Steve Letarte, are bums.

A lot of my colleagues declared Jeff the presumptive champion after he built a 68-point lead halfway through the Chase. And it's absolutely true that it has taken a Herculean effort by Johnson to erase that margin by winning the past three races.

But Johnson has won those races and he is the current points leader.

Johnson has won those races the way Gordon used to win them, taking two tires one time and four the next and winning either way, or rallying back when it seemed like he'd be no factor for much of the day. That stuff is straight out of the Jeff Gordon-Ray Evernham playbook from 1995 through 1998, when they put together one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport by winning three championships in four years.

I covered the final two years of that run, including the remarkable 1998 season when Gordon won 13 races and just destroyed the rest of the field in the title race. Back then, I used to joke to people that I should just change my e-mail to to save people some time when they were sending their invective my way.

Now, apparently, that address is due for a little tweak. Maybe I need to be

Don't get me wrong. I like the fact that Gordon's fans are stirred up. They ought to be.

Their guy is having a tremendous year. He's got as many top 10s this year as he had in his 13-victory season, and twice as many as he had two years ago when he missed the Chase. He roared through the regular season and won back-to-back Chase races to build the 68-point lead that three weeks ago looked pretty darn good.

But if he's going to win this year's championship, he's going to have to beat Johnson and the 48 team twice, here at Phoenix and again at Homestead.

Gordon's average finish at Phoenix is 8.2. Johnson's is 7.2, but Gordon did win here earlier this year while Johnson finished fourth.

It's not being critical of Gordon to say that he needs a differential like that again this week to really have a shot at Homestead. If Johnson leaves here leading by 40 or 50 points, he's an odds-on favorite to repeat as champion. If Gordon had a lead that size, he'd be just as big of a favorite.

I can hear the Gordon fans screaming at me right now, telling me he DID have a big lead after 26 races, but that the Chase wiped that out. That's precisely right on both parts. He DID have a big lead AND the Chase wiped that out. Those points no longer exist.

It's like Gordon made a perfect 1,600 on the SAT to get into college. That's great, but that doesn't help his grade-point average. The first 26 races get you in the playoffs, but it's what you do from there on that determines a champion.

You don't have to like that, but that doesn't make it any less real.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Trying to tell why one is a bad guy and the other so good

FORT WORTH, Texas - I will say this for Bob Bahre. The guy sure is one heck of a skater. My first year covering NASCAR for The Charlotte Observer was 1997. The fall before that, the Cup Series went to North Wilkesboro for the last time.

A whole lot of people were just fighting mad about losing that track from the schedule. I understand why people who live in and around Wilkes County would be upset, since it was a big deal to lose those races. I understand why fans hated to lose what they considered an old-time short-track, too.

What I never did understand, though, was how Bruton Smith came to be the devil in that whole deal. Maybe I don't know the whole story, because I did come in near the mdidle of it, but my understanding is that Smith and Bahre each bought 50 percent of North Wilkesboro.

So Smith took one date to Texas, Bahre took one race to New Hampshire and North Wilkesboro closed. Everybody seemed to awfully upset with Smith, but nobody seemed to be particularly worked up about Bahre.

Didn't they do the same thing? Weren't they equally to "blame" for harvesting the corpse of a dying track that time and progress had passed by? Am I missing something there?

I went to New Hampshire for the first time and when people up there said Smith's name, it was like they were spitting out something that had a horrible taste. But butter wouldn't melt in their mouth when they were talking about Bahre.

It was like Bahre had done the sport a service, while Smith had poked it in the eye with a really sharp stick.

Which brings us to what was announced Friday - Smith's purchase of Bahre's track for $340 million.

The general speculation is that Smith will take one of New Hampshire's dates and move that to Las Vegas. That may not wind up being what happens, but if it is you can bet your butt that the race fans in New England will put the blame for that right squarely on Smith's shoulders. And that Bob Bahre will skate on it once again.

Don't get me wrong. I completely understand that Bob Bahre is the man who brought NASCAR racing to those fans. I also understand that he has helped dozens and dozens of racers with his support of series like the Busch East (formerly Busch North) and the modifieds.

But things are going to change, one way or another, over the next few years at New Hampshire.

Either one (probably) or both (unlikely, I think) of the track's dates are going to be plucked away, or just about everything from the number of suites to the size, shape and characteristics of the track itself is going to be altered. In fact, it's likely that some combination of all of that will happen.

Every change the fans don't like will be because Smith screwed it up, and everything the track "used to do" will get better and better as it fades into the past.

And Bob Bahre, with $340 million in his bank account, will skate off into the New England sunset.