Saturday, April 26, 2008

It is not really a question of loyalty

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Let's talk about loyalty a little bit.

There's already talk out there that Tony Stewart shouldn't even be thinking about leaving Joe Gibbs Racing when his contract ends after 2009 - or before. That's because, this reasoning goes, the Gibbs team has been extremely loyal to Stewart over the years.

There's no arguing that team owner Joe Gibbs has had Stewart's back any number of times when the driver has had some difficult moments in his NASCAR career.

But let's be honest here.

The relationship has certainly been mutually beneficial. Stewart is one of the best race car drivers alive today and he's helped, in a major way, the Gibbs team become one of stock-car racing's elite operations.

Let's be clear, too.

The last time Stewart's contract was coming up for a new deal, he could have signed for more money with another team. He didn't do that because he was loyal, at least not entirely.

All things considered, Stewart felt his best opportunity to continue to be successfull was right where he was, and he and the team have both enjoyed the benefits.

There are a lot of people working at Joe Gibbs Racing who've been there for a long time, and loyalty is clearly valued at that company.

But let's also not get all misty about that.

Bobby Labonte? J.J. Yeley?

When it came time to make the tough decisions that sometimes need to be made in a business, they got made.

It won't be easy for Stewart to leave Joe Gibbs Racing, if ultimately that's what he chooses to do.

But if he looks at all of the options that are going to be presented to him and chooses to go elsewhere, he won't be turning his back on anybody or anything.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A fine idea that will never happen

A guy named Jerry who listens to “The Morning Drive” on Sirius NASCAR Radio emailed Friday morning with a suggestion for the Sprint All-Star Race. His idea will never happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.

Here’s his suggestion. Once you have your group of eligible teams for the all-star event at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, you introduce them before the race on a stage with three doors.

Behind the first door, you line up the pit crews based on a random draw. Behind the second door, you line up the crew chiefs, again in random order. Then it’s drivers, again in the order their names are drawn by random, behind the third door.

Each door opens and you’ve got a team for that night’s race. It might be the No. 16 with Chad Knaus as the crew chief and Ryan Newman as the driver. For the all-star event, those guys work together and try to win.

It’d never work, of course, because of all of the sponsorship issues. You couldn’t have Kurt Busch driving the Budweiser car, or a Ford crew working on a Toyota during pit stops. Maybe that’s one of the things wrong with the sport these days – it’s so complicated from a business and financial standpoint that a fun idea like that has no shot.

But it sure is intriguing to think about, isn’t it?

* * *

I suppose that some might consider it my duty to inform you that voting to select the driver who will get a spot in this year’s all-star event through a fan vote is now open. Since, however, I vehemently oppose the existence of this “pity pass,” I will leave it at that.

Besides, any day now some driver with access to fans via television will start some sort of cockamamie campaign to secure this spot and you’ll find out how to vote for him soon enough.

* * *

Let me go ahead and get out in front on this one.

Somebody who qualifies among the 10 fastest cars might very well miss the race next weekend at Talladega.

It’s an impound race so the go-or-go-home cars will put in qualifying set-ups and most of them will be faster for a single lap than any of the cars exempt under the top 35 rule, which all will be in race trim.

This does not mean that the top 35 rule is wrong. If there was a rule that said the fastest 43 cars made the race, there’s about a 2 percent chance anybody who’s not in the top 35 right now would be among the 25 fastest cars in a do-or-die qualifying situation.

The goal should be to have the BEST 43 cars in the race, and that’s what will happen next week at Talladega, just like every week.

* * *

You know, for years people have been suggesting that NASCAR should divide its teams into two divisions and run two races each week, one at one track and one at another. Then, at the end of the year, you’d bring the top teams from each division together for some kind of championship series.

This, of course, is a spectacularly bad idea.

Don’t think so? Tell me, then, how much sense does what’s happening in open-wheel racing this weekend make? The teams from the Indy Racing League are in Japan, racing at Honda’s home track at Motegi. Meanwhile, the teams from the soon-to-be-history Champ Car World Series are in Long Beach, racing among themselves.

Points for the re-unified open-wheel series will be paid for both races. This came about because the IRL didn’t want to disappoint Honda and Champ Car wanted one last fling at Long Beach, which was the one successful race it had left on its schedule. Next year the schedules will be worked so the two events don’t conflict.

As a one-year stopgap, the Motegi-Long Beach double-dip isn’t the worst thing in the world. But the idea of having half of your best teams one place and half in another just doesn’t make any kind of long-term sense.

It took open-wheel racing more than a decade to figure that out, and let’s hope NASCAR is never dumb enough to fall in such an obvious trap.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Baseball fans and race fans ended up angry

OK, NASCAR fans, before you even start.

Fox Sports tried to keep everybody happy Saturday afternoon and evening and wound up pleasing nobody. The people who work for the network will be the first to tell you things didn’t turn out as Fox hoped it would when a rain delay pushed the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox baseball game back into the start of the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix International Raceway.

Fox was actually trying to do the right thing. I know how NASCAR fans are, believing that a race – including the prerace – should take precedence over any other sport being broadcast. But that’s just not how things work in the real world.

The Yankees-Red Sox game was on in the afternoon and the Sox led 4-3 in the top of the eighth. Alex Rodriguez was coming up with a chance to tie the game or put the Yankees ahead, but the rain got there first. Two hours later, the tarp came off and the game was about to resume.

Fox had actually switched to the race at Phoenix at 7:45 p.m. Eastern, 15 minutes early, when coverage of the other baseball game it had on was complete. But word came that the Yankees and Red Sox would resume about 8:25 p.m.

NASCAR agreed to push the start of the Phoenix race back from 8:45 p.m. to 8:53 p.m. to try to allow Fox to show the conclusion of a game that a lot of people have an interest in.

Yes, it’s April and early in the baseball season. But even the most ardent NASCAR-or-nothing fan has to understand the New York-Boston baseball rivalry is special.

The game actually didn’t resume until right at 8:30. The Sox got A-Rod out and held the lead, and then were in the process of completing the win in the top of the ninth. With two outs and a 3-2 count on Robinson Cano kept fouling off Jonathan Papelbon pitches and extending the game.

Fox’s contract with NASCAR required it to show the race from the start. NASCAR tried to help, dallying until 8:55 p.m. Eastern time, but a moment after the green flag flew Fox switched from baseball to the race with cars coming up to speed on the first lap.

Now when the baseball game came back on, announcer Joe Buck told fans the game was also being shown on FX cable and that the Fox network feed would have to switch to racing at 8:53 p.m., leaving the baseball game on FX only. Two pitches after the switch was made, Cano grounded out and the baseball game ended.

Fox wanted to show the end of the baseball game and the start of the race to everybody on the network. What it wound up doing was showing neither. You could be cynical about it and say the network was trying to have the best of both worlds, hoarding as many viewers as possible for its network ratings by going for a gamble that failed.

Or, you could say Fox’s heart was in the right place as it tried to give everybody what they wanted and they just got unlucky.

Fans on both sides of the fence were irate.

The New York Daily News compared the decision to switch to NASCAR to the famous “Heidi” incident in1968 when NBC switched from a football game to show a movie version of “Heidi” only to miss a furious late-game rally.

Some NASCAR fans, typically, had zero perspective on the spot Fox found itself in. Some fans actually complained they didn’t get to see the national anthem, flyover and prerace command to fire engines. They didn’t feel baseball should be even allowed to infringe for a moment on the race telecast.

Turn that around. What if a race had started at 3 p.m. and, after a two-hour rain delay, had been resumed. Then, because of contractual obligations, a network would have had to switch away from the final two laps of a race to show the first pitch of a baseball game? Wouldn’t that have sent race fans into a tizzy? Sure it would have.

Fox’s mistake, in hindsight, was putting the baseball game back on Fox to start with. The network should have merely put a crawl across the screen saying the baseball game had resumed and was being shown on FX, and the NASCAR commentators could have mentioned that, too. It would have avoided the awkward, last-second switching that satisfied nobody.

But, to the network’s credit, the effort that was made was one of trying to serve viewers. It didn’t work out like Fox or the viewers would have wanted it to, but shouldn’t there be some credit for even trying?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Nuances and NASCAR drug policy

I think I might have finally figured something out about life. I'm within a year of my 50th birthday, so I imagine you might say that it's about time.

There's always the possibility that I could be dead wrong, but in this case I really don't think that's true. In fact, the realization that there will undoubtedly be people who think I am dead wrong is a big reason I think I am right.

I figured this out while thinking and talking about racing the other day, but I really do think it has universal application.

Here it is: The principal conflict in the human condition is the search for absolutes when balanace is the best we can ever hope to acheive.

Let's start out with some simple examples connected to NASCAR, since this is primarily a NASCAR blog.

Take the car of tomorrow. There are fans who believe it should be abandoned dead in the water because it has not proved to be an instant panacea for competitive ills. Since the car did not immediately solve the aero push issue, it is of no value and must never be used again.

On the other side, there's the argument that absolutely no changes should be made to the car because if one or two of five teams have an advantage with it they've earned it. If you pull the trigger on any changes, the fans of the team that's ahead at that moment in time feel persecuted.

Or, take drug testing. Most fans think drug testing is a no-brainer. Some think drivers ought to have to submit samples before every race or after every wreck. You're either clean or you're not.

Both issues, of course, are far more nuanced.

The new race car is no different from any car NASCAR has ever used. A perfect balance between safety and competition might never be found. Neither will any car ever make it possible for a team with $1 million to compete on a consistent basis with a multicar team that has $100 million.

ut that doesn't mean that NASCAR should not strive to make the cars safer or built in such a way that dollars aren't always a trump card in competition.

The part of drug-testing that is a no-brainer is that NASCAR needs a policy that does beyond testing at its discretion. But the idea that it's easy to decide what's in bounds and what's not is absurd.

Prescription drugs, steroids and alcohol, for starters, all create tough decisions that would have to be addressed by any coherent and effective policy.

No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit on, this same principle applies.

Whatever you think the right answer about Iraq is, for example, it's not that either that we should pull out tomorrow or that we should continue to fight there indefinitely without figuring out what's the right way to conclude that effort.

Gun control is not a yes or no question. There's no yea or nay when it comes to figuring out what should be done about health care, the housing crisis or Social Security, no matter how much we'd like for there to be.

There is room for absolutes in sports. A ball is fair or it's foul, a player is in bounds or he's out of bounds and a race car either passes inspection or it doesn't (at least, that's how it should be).

But those instances where you can draw a line and say that's it are a lot more rare than most people want them to be.

Friday, April 04, 2008

If it could happen to Earnhardt ...

FORT WORTH, Texas - Let's be clear about this. Dale Earnhardt saved Michael McDowell's life Friday.

There's no reason to parse words about what happened in Samsung 500 qualifying. When McDowell's No. 00 Toyota slammed headlong into the Turn 1 wall as he began his second qualifying lap, anybody who was paying even the slightest bit of attention had to have his or her heart go up in the throat.

The car got over on its top and started flipping, and you know that's supposed to be a good thing because it dissipates energy. Still, as you're watching it's hard to keep from cringing.

When the car finally came to rest, after what seemed like forever, you just hoped for the best.

When McDowell climbed out and walked to the ambulance, you had to be amazed, relieved and I really don't know what all at the same time.

A lot of people have worked very hard on developing and installing the steel and foam energy reducing barriers that line the walls now at NASCAR tracks. A lot of smart people have worked on improvements to the seats and other features inside the car that make drivers safer.

And NASCAR deserves credit for keeping safety as a primary focus as it developed the cars now used in Sprint Cup racing.

All of that might very well have eventually come to NASCAR's top series had Earnhardt not died in the 2001 Daytona 500, but it was Earnhardt's wreck that completely changed stock-car racing's attitude about safety.

If it could happen to Earnhardt, it could happen to anybody. Drivers might not have said that out loud - some did - but they all felt it. So safety stopped being something that "scared" drivers discussed and became a priority.

I don't think NASCAR was ever callous about safety. The early stags of the "car of tomorrow" project and "soft-wall" research began before Earnhardt died. But the death of the seven-time champion gave safety matters a priority they otherwise simply would not have had.

SAFER barriers have been up everywhere for about three years now and the more times they're hit the more the people who make them learn about how to make them better.

Everything - the wall, the car, the in-car safety features - had to work together Friday to keep McDowell from being seriously hurt.

So, quite frankly, did good fortune (or, depending on what you believe, divine intervention).

Every bit of the development and improvement and innovation that's been done since 2001 contributed to what happened - or what didn't happen - here Friday.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

But Sidd Finch said it was so

Texas Motor Speedway on Tuesday announced "plans" to spend $900 million to put a 3.7 million square-foot roof over the 1.5-mile track, making it the first major domed speedway in motorsports history.

The fact that Tuesday was April 1 -- April Fool's Day -- was the most significant part of the press release.

The contractor for the "project", the release said, will be AFD Construction of Fort Worth (note the acronym). The project manager, it said, will be Sidd Finch. Those who know their April Fool's pranks recognize that name as the same as an outrageously talented New York Mets pitcher once featured in a Sports Illustrated issue dated April 1.

"The Houston Astrodome was known as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World,' so it is only fitting that Texas - and Texas Motor Speedway - will be the future home of the Ninth Wonder of the World,'" track president Eddie Gossage said. "This will be a massive undertaking."

The release said it would take crews of more than 1,000 workers more than 24 months to complete the work. The plans call for elaborate heating, air conditioning and exhaust systems to remove fumes and smoke generated by the cars.

A 1.3 million square-foot portion of the roof would be retractable. A new stadium being built -- no really, that actually is being built - for the Dallas Cowboys has a 745,800 square-foot retractable roof.

"It's only appropriate that we announce such an outlandish project like this on the first day of April," Gossage said. "We'd be foolish to think it would be possible."

Which, of course, it isn't.