Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tony Stewart was absolutely a pro postrace

LOUDON, N.H. -- In the immediate aftermath of the Lenox 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it needs to be pointed out that Tony Stewart handled what happened to him Sunday about as well as any human being could have done it.

Those of us in the media are criticized, sometimes fairly, for piling on a driver when he handles himself poorly after a race. So when somebody does it right, we should note that, too.

Stewart sat in his car before the race was finally called because of rain and talked about having led until he made a final pit stop and then never got a chance to try to rally back from that misfortune.

Stewart probably couldn't have come back to win after restarting 14th with 22 laps to go. But he should get credit for driving his backside off to keep Jimmie Johnson behind him before that last pit stop.

Strategy wasn't going to work in his favor anyway, but for Stewart to walk away with a 13th-place finish was simply unjust. But it's not the first time this year he's had impossibly bad luck.

He had the Coca-Cola 600 all but won before having a flat tire with less than four laps left. He was on his way to a certain top-five finish last week at Infineon Raceway before getting hit by a car that ricocheted off another.

Stewart answered TNT reporter Ralph Shaheen's questions patiently and eloquently. Clearly he was frustrated, and he expressed that frustration in an entirely professional manner. He got it 100 percent right, in my view, and it's worth taking a moment immediately afterward to acknowledge that.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Fans want to know and Tony Stewart wants it to stop

LOUDON, N.H. – Tony Stewart was back at work Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, telling the media how to do our job. You’d think he’s an expert or something.

Stewart actually is an ad hoc member of the racing media, since he hosts a weekly radio show on Sirius. But the driver of the No. 20 Toyota would probably rather be called any other name than you can think of than “media.”

Last weekend he chastised a television reporter during a live interview. This, of course, made him eligible for sainthood in some fans’ eyes.

Friday, he told another gathering of media that he’s tired of being asked about where he’ll drive next year. He said it’s like having kids in the backseat on a long car trip constantly asking “are we there yet” When he gets there, Stewart said, he’ll let us know.

Sorry, bud, but that ain’t how this works.

Stewart apparently holds the perception that reporters should work with him – or even for him. That’s not the deal, unless of course you’re Matt Yocum.

Reporters work for their respective outlets, but our primary purpose is to represent the fans. We’re here to find out the answers to questions the fans are asking. I do four hours of live radio on Sirius each weekday, so believe me when I tell you that fans want to know what Stewart is going to be doing next season.

The fact that fans do want to know is the reason Stewart has the opportunity to do whatever it is he’ll be doing next year. Stewart is one of the best drivers who has ever been in any kind of car, and a lot of fans care about where he’s going to race. That fact gives Stewart the very bargaining power he’s using – as he absolutely should – to cut what he thinks is the best deal for him and his future.

That and the fact that Stewart’s decision is the critical domino in up to a half-dozen drivers’ decisions about their futures, makes the weekly questions to the two-time champion entirely appropriate and relevant.

Not all reporting, of course, is going to break new ground.

“STEWART NEGOTIATING WITH SPONSORS!” one online report screamed this week. Well, duh. If he’s going to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to become a driver and at least partial owner with another team, such as Haas CNC Racing, Stewart is going to need sponsors. Even if Stewart decides to stay where he is for another 10 years, the process of considering his future is going to involve talks with potential sponsors.

Clearly, most signs point to Stewart leaving the Gibbs team even though he’s got a contract for 2009. Everybody keeps talking about that contract, but those things rarely seem to offer any real entanglement. That’s especially true when the team a driver wants to leave has options, and the Gibbs team certainly has those.

Here on Saturday, young phenom Joey Logano said all the right things about how it’s up to Joe Gibbs and J.D. Gibbs when Logano will move up to Cup.

Then, I asked Logano a question. (Oddly, Logano didn’t tell me it was none of my business. But he’s young. He’ll get the hang of it.) I asked Logano what he’d do if it was all up to him. Would he rather have a full season in the Nationwide Series, or would he just as soon move on up now?

“Let her rip,” Logano said.

Is Logano ready to drive the No. 20 Toyotas if Stewart leaves? There’s really only way to answer that question for sure, and we’ll see if that’s what winds up happening.

Meanwhile, we now know for sure that Greg Biffle is staying at Roush Fenway and that Clint Bowyer has a new deal with Richard Childress Racing.

We also know, for sure as of Friday, that Casey Mears is not coming back to the No. 5 Chevrolets at Hendrick Motorsports next year. Stewart, when he wasn’t teaching journalism class, did say Friday that opening might complicate his thought process since any driver would have to at least look at an opening at Hendrick. But team ownership seems to be such a big part of Stewart’s thoughts about leaving Gibbs, it’s hard to believe simply moving to another team as a driver really appeals to him.

Anyway, we think we know that it will be Mark Martin taking Mears’ spot. One person in the garage told me Friday that Martin had offers to run a full schedule in 2009 for as many as four different teams.

We know, also, that RCR has a fourth car to fill for next year. We know, too, that Ryan Newman is not locked down for 2009. But Newman’s name has been mentioned as a possible for teammate for Stewart at his new home. Does that put Mears in line for the open slot at RCR? Or is there another level to this, one that involves Martin Truex Jr. if he can get out of a contract option with Dale Earnhardt Inc?

We could guess. But we get paid to go around and try to find out for sure. If we don’t ask, we get accused to making things up. When we do, we’re accused of badgering.

That’s OK. I know some of the same guys who criticize me for living at the buffet and never leaving the media center’s air conditioning are safely ensconced in their $2 million motor home playing “Guitar Hero.” But when you sometimes know you’re not going to get many straight answers, you’ve got to keep trying.

The fact that it irritates Tony Stewart is just a bonus.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Coverage and Carlin and cars

Just a few thoughts and observations:

NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer Brian France made the keynote speech at the Associated Press Sports Editors convention Thursday in Minneapolis.

A decade earlier his father had addressed the same group at a convention in Richmond. Bill France Jr. told the nation’s sports editors that they should devote more attention and space to NASCAR because its popularity was growing.

This time, Brian France had a similar message from a different perspective. A lot of newspapers did ramp up their coverage of the sport in the early part of this decade, but in this world of staff and travel cuts fewer and fewer papers are assigning reporters to a NASCAR beat.

France urged sports editors to send their reporters to more races, and he was dead right to do so.

NASCAR is supplying more statistical services and things like video highlights for use especially in the growing online coverage of the sport. But coverage generated or backed financially by the sport itself is only going to go so far.

Fans will tell you they dislike the media and a lot of them were nearly giddy when Tony Stewart went off on TNT reporter Marty Snider after last week’s race. But Marty was simply doing his job, and his job is to ask the questions fans want to know the answers to.

With more good reporters covering NASCAR in the past 10 years, fans know more about the workings of the sport than ever before. That’s not always pretty, but it does serve the fan.

As the numbers dwindle, the ones who’re left are still working hard to do the job but there will be stuff that doesn’t wind up being reported. Ultimately, that’s bad for the sport.

* * *

People who’re my age or a little older got a big jolt earlier this week when George Carlin died.

If you ever got into Carlin’s comedy, he had an impact on how you looked at the world. That’s especially true if you love the English language. Carlin had a way of taking the things people do with the language and calling them on it, and I know he made me do the same thing.

Perfect example. Thursday I flew to Boston and went to pick up a rental car to drive on up to New Hampshire. They gave me a Subaru Legacy, which is neither here nor there, but on the back it has initials identifying it as a PZEV. That stands for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle.

Partial Zero? Good grief.

Carlin could have done five good minutes on that alone.

* * *

People laugh at me because I get worked up about why more people don’t serve crushed ice, and that’s fine. I can’t help it that I am in tune to the big ideas in life.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t be turned on to something new myself. That has happened to me recently, and I will share it with you now. I’m that kind of guy.

Ready for it? OK, here it is.

Go to Panera Bread. Get a plain or cinnamon crunch bagel, your pick. But whatever you do, get the honey walnut cream cheese.

Thank me later.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting back in the car while in the grasp of sorrow

Scott Kalitta was not one of the people who made a living in drag racing that I've crossed paths with in my limited crossings into that world.

I will be spending more time with the National Hot Rod Association stars later this year as the opening of the new dragstrip at Lowe's Motor Speedway approaches. But some guys I've already met, like Gary Scelzi, spoke eloquently about Kalitta on the coverage I saw Saturday afternoon after the crash that took Kalitta's life.

Scelzi told a story about getting stuck in the Charlotte airport with his son and with Kalitta, spending several hours killing time by swapping stories and generally having a great time.

So I won't try to act like I can understand the depth of the sorrow that Kalitta's fellow NHRA competitors felt as they came back Sunday to race at Englishtown. I will, however, express my empathy for how tough that must have been.

Kalitta's wreck was horrifying - anybody who has seen the video knows that. If there's anything to be learned about what happened to cause the incident or to improve the runoff areas at drag racing's major league tracks, those steps need to be taken.

In May, John Force visited the site where the new dragstrip is being built at Lowe's Motor Speedway. During a lull in that appearance, I got the chance to talk to Force about safety in his sport in light of the crash that took his young driver, Eric Medlen, last year.

From that conversation, I know Force is serious about making drag racing as safe as it can be, and I sense that everyone else in that sport shares those feelings.

I suppose there are some people who wonder how a driver can see a wreck like Kalitta's and then get back in a car that goes well over 300 mph the very next day. But anybody who asks that question probably wonders why anyone would drive a nitro-powered dragster to start with.

The drivers went back to work Sunday in part to honor their fallen brother and in part to assauge their own grief. By going back to work and doing what they do, they bring a little normalcy back to their lives right after having that normalcy shattered by Kalitta's death.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A celebration ... or choreography?

So now we’re hearing from some Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans who believe NASCAR should have allowed the team to put gas in the car following his victory in the LifeLock 400 at Michigan so Earnhardt Jr. could have done a post-race burnout.

Supposedly, these folks feel cheated in some way that they didn’t get to see Earnhardt Jr. smoke the tires or do some other form of victory celebration.

Good grief.

When I first heard about this I thought people were kidding me. The race was over and Earnhardt Jr. made his last load of fuel last to end a 76-race winless streak and some of his fans feel deprived that they didn’t get to see a burnout?

Look, I am not a fuddy-duddy about postrace celebrations. Some people don’t like them at all, the way they don’t like hitters who pose after hitting a home run or a wide receiver choreographing a post-touchdown dance.

I am in favor of any expression of elation after athletic success as long as that expression is genuine and spontaneous. I love to see people react. I am not nearly as big of a fan of seeing them perform, however.

When some kind of celebration turns into your “trademark” it doesn’t bother me either as long as it doesn’t come off as contrived. Every time Tiger Woods does a fist pump, for instance, you get the feeling that it comes from real excitement or emotion. If he stopped and put on a glove with a Nike swoosh before doing them, that’d be too much.

Carl Edwards does backflips off his car after he wins. He’s giving his fans what they want, and there’s something to be said for that. But wouldn’t the backflip, or Tony Stewart’s fence climb, mean more if it only happened when those guys REALLY got pumped up.

Stewart first climbed the fence after a win because he hadn’t won in a while and was elated that he did.

When he won at Indianapolis, finally, what he wanted to do was drive over to where his family and friends were in Turn 2 and celebrate with them. So he did. When he got back to the start-finish line, though, people wanted him to climb the fence. By that time, the joy and adrenaline were gone and what he wound up doing looked perfunctory. Perfunctory is dull.

If Edwards is going to do a backflip when he wins a Nationwide race at Milwaukee, what would he do if he won the Daytona 500 or the championship? Does he have to do a double flip, or add a twist to show he is exceptionally happy?

The late Alan Kulwicki is known for his backward victory lap, what he called the Polish Victory Lap. He didn’t do that every time he won, though. He did it after his first win and nobody knew what he was up to. It was very cool, but NASCAR flipped out. As soon as the race ended before that, cars and people started moving at race tracks to start the egress process. Kulwicki was actually going against the flow of that and it caused some anxious moments.

NASCAR asked Kulwicki not to do it again. He agreed, but added that if he won a Daytona 500 or the championship that’d be a different story. So when he clinched the 1992 title in the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, he did the backward lap again and that made it special and memorable.

Television already messes up a winner’s normal reaction. The race winner drives to victory lane and sits there until TV gets back from commercial. The winner gets a cue to climb out and then a celebration ensues. It often comes off awkwardly.

NASCAR should not be making rules telling drivers how they can and can’t celebrate. That’s the last thing I want. But the next to last thing we need is some kind of “accepted” level of postrace frivolity that would mean a driver’s team needs to refuel his car so he could meet some expected level of celebration.

When a driver wins for the first time, or when he wins for the first time in a long time, or when he wins for the ninth straight week, that driver should react in accordance with his emotions at that moment. It needs to be a reflection of that driver’s personality and his emotions.
In other words, it needs to be real.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The pace car pandemonium shall pass

I get asked all the time why NASCAR won't sell its Sprint Cup rulebook to anybody who wants a copy.

I think part of the reason is that NASCAR knows its fans would sit there with the rulebook every Sunday and try to read every line on every page and find someway to claim that somebody is getting unfair treatment or an unfair advantage. Golf fans do that to the point of nausea - some poor guy kneels under a tree to hit a shot and puts a towel down to keep from ruining his pants and 200 nerds call the USGA to say he's "building a stance!"

This is relevant today because of what happened near the end of Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr., trying to save fuel in his Chevrolet, was hitting the accelerator to build up a little speed and then cutting off his engine to coast as far as he could.

In doing that, he surged ahead of the pace car that had the field in tow behind it. And people lost their minds.

I do not know the specific language in the rulebook about passing the pace car because, to be brutally honest, I have somehow managed to misplace the rulebook I got at the start of the season. It's here somewhere, but you know how that goes.

But I do know there's a rule that says you can't pass the pace car. I also know, though, why that rule is there. It's to keep somebody from making up a lap he doesn't deserve. Let's say a guy comes off pit road just a little bit late and is pretty much alongside the pace car. He could speed up and pass the pace car to try to stay on the lead lap.

That's why the rule is there. It's not there to set some imaginary force field through which no car shall pass.

If Earnhardt Jr. had been running ninth and doing the same thing to try to save fuel, he would have pulled to the apron and done the same thing. He might have passed two or three cars in front of him momentarily, and there's a rule against that, too, at least technically. But if he goes right back to his spot when he's done coasting, there's no advantage gained.

I've been known to be a stickler for rules and someone who believes penalties for violations should be clear and, to some, harsh. For the most part, that's true.

But if you read carefully what I've said on the topic, you'll realize that in almost all cases I've talked about NASCAR dropping the hammer only after a violation has been called.

NASCAR officiates the sport. Where they get in trouble with me is how they penalize people after finding violations. I've never said NASCAR doesn't have the job of calling the violation, and part of that is deciding how certain things are called.

In baseball, a shortstop doesn't always have the ball in his hand when he tags second on a double play. Heck, sometimes he doesn't even tag the base. But consistently that "phantom tag" is called as an out. If umpires one day just started calling that the other way with no explanation or warning, that'd be wrong.

Last year at Kansas, Greg Biffle was fighting fuel issues while leading the race late and some fans didn't like how NASCAR officiated that. They freaked out then, too, to be honest.

But NASCAR reacted the same way there as they did Sunday. NASCAR did not determine the winner of a race based on some literal, overly technical reading of a rule, and I still think that was the right no-call. I feel the same way about what happened Sunday at Michigan.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Accentuate the positive - or else

BROOKLYN, Mich. - There’s a great phrase in the Southern vernacular that you have to be careful about using. It might rub some people the wrong way, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not perfect to describe what happened here Friday morning.

Whenever someone is called on the carpet or brought in to have his attitude adjusted, people where I’m from sometimes refer to that as a “Come to Jesus meeting.”

The phrase refers to the fervor with which a preacher might make his altar call at the close of a service. It’s not meant to be sacrilegious. When you go to such a meeting, you don’t get advice. You get admonition.

NASCAR president Mike Helton, in this instance, delivered the message. He told the drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, by what few accounts we were able to get throughout the rest of the day, that NASCAR is getting fairly tired of hearing complaints about the new car those drivers are racing this year.

There are various ways you could take that.

It doesn’t exactly send the right signal to your fans if the people who’re competing in your sport get out of the car and talk about how bad the racing is, how much they hate their race cars and how frustrated they are at what’s going on.

One of the points apparently made at the meeting and reinforced after it by other NASCAR officials was that fans are paying $4 a gallon for gas on top of what they have to pay for their tickets and hotel rooms to come to a race these days. If people stop coming or don’t watch on TV, sponsors stop paying the bills and drivers don’t make millions doing what they love to do.

All of that is true, to a point. On the other hand, however, it comes off as pretty heavy-handed for the drivers to be told, basically, to shut up and race.

NASCAR officials said the meeting was something they do from time to time, but nobody remembers the last time the drivers showed up for a day’s work and were summoned to a meeting. Drivers were told the meeting would happen at 11 a.m. and practice opened at 11:30, so it was clear that it wasn’t going to be the kind of meeting where there was a free-flowing exchange of ideas.

Naturally, word of the meeting spread quickly to the media. It lasted less than 10 minutes and drivers walked out declining to comment. The signal was they’d been told more about what not to say.

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter afterward encouraged the media to talk to the drivers about what was said, but after the practice ended at 1 p.m. some of the drivers clearly felt like the less they said the better off they’d be.

So it comes off that NASCAR’s message was “We make the rules, we’re not going to change the rules and we don’t want to hear you complaining about them or talking about how the racing needs to be improved.”

What that implies, though, is that there are things that need to be changed but that NASCAR isn’t going to change them because the drivers haven’t toed the line and kept their mouths shut.

Drivers weren’t the only people who got a talking to Friday. I was told that similar messages were delivered to the sport’s television and radio “partners.”

NASCAR has a problem handling criticism. I know this from personal experience. A lot of the people very high up in that company believe anything that’s not positive is meant to tear down the sport.

What NASCAR doesn’t realize is that the very fans they’re trying to “protect” know when they’re being fed a line of malarkey. They don’t like being told by a TV announcer that the racing is great when it’s half a mile from the first-place car to the second-place car. They know that it’s phoney baloney when guys sit around on a stage and talk about how wonderful things are.

They’ll notice when a driver swallows his tongue for fear of being called to the NASCAR hauler instead of voicing a complaint or criticism that the driver quite likely means to be constructive in hopes of making things better.

After Friday’s meeting, they’ll know if for sure.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Cup effort and team should come first

What Kyle Busch did over the weekend in NASCAR's three national touring series was unprecedented. If you ask me, it should have stayed that way.

Let me say right up front that I know I don't run the 23-year-old driver's life or career. I also understand that the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing signed on off Busch driving in the Truck race Friday at Texas Motor Speedway and the Nationwide Series race Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway before running in Sunday's Pocono 500 in the Sprint Cup Series.

The Gibbs folks have a lot more at stake than I do, and if they were OK with it then maybe I don't have a right not to be. But I think I do have a right to an opinion about running three races in three states in less than three days.

I'm against it.

I know Busch loves to compete, and that's a big reason he's having such a tremendous year. I also would have felt the same way I do right now if Busch had finished in the top five - or even if he had won - all three races.

If you're looking for a pattern, you could argue that since Busch finished second on Friday, 32nd on Saturday and 43rd on Sunday the"triple" wore him down. I don't know that's true.

Circumstances are different in every race and Busch came out on the wrong side of them in the Nationwide and Cup races. He may well have wrecked his primary car in practice at Pocono, started from the back of the field in a backup car and then wrecked in the race and finished last even if he hadn't run at Texas and Nashville, or even at Texas or Nashville.

I am not a proponent of a Cup driver running for the Nationwide Series title, no matter who that Cup driver is or where he is in the Cup standings. During this portion of the season, running the Nationwide and Cup races at different tracks on the same weekend requires a lot of back-and-forth travel that just seems awfully unnecessary to me.

I really have no patience with the explanation these drivers usually make, saying that they're 100 percent focused on their Cup effort. That's just untrue on the face of it. All of the logistics are worked out so the driver can leave the track where the Cup team is to go to the track where the Nationwide cars are. The effort goes into making the secondary race happen, not the first.

Busch, however, went a step further. He added a Truck race into the mix at yet a third track. Even though he had backup drivers in place at Texas and Nashville for practices and qualifying runs, Busch traveled and raced at three different places in about 48 hours.

If the order had been reversed, maybe I'd have no problem with it. If Busch had run the Cup race on Friday and then followed it up withNationwide and Truck events, that would have been different. But Busch's primary job is to compete for this year's Sprint Cup championship, and he has by any objective measure a real shot at winning that. The members of the No. 18 team are committed to that effort.

If a member of the over-the-wall crew decides to run a marathon on Saturday and then comes up a step or two slow when he comes to the track on Sunday, is that fair to the rest of the team? I don't think so, and I think the driver should be held to the same standard.

Maybe it was good for the Nationwide and Truck series to have Busch try to make it to and compete in all three races in the same weekend. I am not convinced that's true.

Ron Hornaday won the Truck race and Brad Keselowski won the Nationwide race. But in some quarters, it's a bigger deal that Busch didn't win either. How does that help those two series?

Having Busch in the Truck certainly was good for Billy Ballew's team, and I am sure Braun Racing was happy to have one of the sport's top stars in its Nationwide Series car, too. But Busch is a star primarily because of how he's performing in the JGR car in Cup races this year.

That's the team that deserves not just 100 percent of the effort Busch has left at the end of a busy weekend, but 100 percent of the talent he can bring to a race car when he's 100 percent at his best.