Friday, October 31, 2008

Changing the Chase format would change nothing that matters

FORT WORTH, Texas – This is me. About to SCREAM!

I thought I was weary of election talk. And I am. But I would rather be forced to watch campaign ads on a continuous loop for the next three days that listen to one more Sprint Cup driver be asked how the Chase for the Sprint Cup ought to be changed.

Actually, I would rather have somebody poke me in the eye with a sharp stick than listen to more Chase questions.

OK, I am going to try this one more time. Because I am a patient man, I guess.

There is nothing you can to do ANY championship format that will change the fact that Jimmie Johnson and his team have been money in the championship bank the past three years.

In 2006 Johnson rallied from a big deficit with a streak of five races in which he finished second four times and first once. Last year, he won four in a row. This year, he has seven top-10 finishes in seven tries while everybody else in the Chase has had at least one stumble.

Johnson has 23 straight Chase race finishes of 14th or better, with 21 of those being top-10 finishes. If you can run like that, you SHOULD be the champion.

The 12-11-10-9-8 system? It doesn’t change anything. The idea of throwing out your worst finish? Changes nothing. The idea of a shorter Chase – five races instead of 10 – would make it closer after two races but if it was a five-race Chase people would gripe about that not being a fair representation of how to pick a champion. Somebody would STILL want to put a road-course race in the Chase, which is a spectacularly bad idea.

Greg Biffle said Friday he’d like to see Talladega pulled out of the Chase because it’s too much of a wild card. Let me ask this. Does everybody in the Chase have to race Talladega? I thought so.
Sports Illustrated’s Lars Anderson wrote this week that the 12-11-10-9-8 system would have Carl Edwards 19 points behind Johnson right now, meaning Edwards would “still be in the hunt.”

Well, 19 points certainly sounds closer than 183 points, which is Edwards’ current deficit. But, for the 90th time, it’s an illusion. In that system, if Edwards won here Sunday and Johnson finished 43rd, he would still be eight points behind Johnson. In that system, that’s eight positions with two races to go.

But as it now stands, if Edwards wins and Johnson finishes last year then Johnson is only 22 points back. That’s no more than five positions, and that’s counting everybody in the race. To make up ground in the 12-11-10-9-8 system, Edwards would have to beat Johnson and seven other Chase drivers to catch Johnson at Phoenix.

The way it is now Edwards could catch up by beating Johnson and just four other drivers – anybody. Or he could win and have Johnson finish as high as THIRD at Phoenix.

As would be the case in the “mulligan” system, Edwards is closer to Johnson in the current format than he would be in the 12-11-10-9-8 system.

When is an idea a bad idea? When it makes the situation you think is bad even worse than it currently is. And there’s no way to fix a bad idea by talking about – no matter how much you talk about it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Here's an idea:Quit worrying about the points format and get back to work

HAMPTON, Ga. - So maybe you've heard that Jack Roush proposed his own variation on how to Jimmie-proof the Chase for the Sprint Cup after Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After one of his drivers, Carl Edwards, won the race, Roush said he thinks NASCAR should allow each driver in the Chase to throw out his worst finish in the 10-race playoff and count only the other nine. The thinking would be that would not penalize a driver too much for having one bad race.

OK, first, if a driver can go 10 straight races without having a finish worse than about 10th, why shouldn't he get credit for doing that over a guy who doesn't? Why shouldn't everything count?

But even if you don't buy that, this is yet another example of somebody not understanding that no system you can think of is going to help you beat a team that's beating you as bad as Johnson and his team are beating his Chase rivals.

Let's do the math.

If we had a one-race forgiveness system, Johnson would now throw out a 143-point race.

Edwards would throw out his 64-point race at Charlotte. Greg Biffle would lose 96 points. Jeff Burton would throw out a 109-point race.

OK, that would leave Johnson 104 points up on Edwards right now. He'd be 138 ahead of Biffle and 184 up on Burton. And that would be closer than it is now (Johnson leads Edwards by 183, Biffle by 185 and Burton by 218).

As always, though, where these things fall through is in how fast you can make up points.

Let's say next week Jimmie Johnson finishes 43rd at Texas and Edwards wins the race and leads the most laps. Under the current format, he'd gain 161 points and be 22 points behind.

But under the system Roush advocated, Johnson would throw out the 34 points he'd get at Texas and get back the 143-point race that's now his lowest. So Edwards would get 195 points and Johnson, in effect, would get 143 from Texas.

So Edwards would pick up 52 points and would be 52 back.

In other words, he'd be 30 points further back Roush's way than he would be the way things are now.

Look, what teams in the Cup series ought to do instead of worrying about how to change the Chase system is to figure out a way to beat the 48 team more often.

Johnson and his team come to the track and do their job. They got a lap down Sunday and fought all the way back to second place. A bunch of teams could have come in for tires with eight laps left in Sunday's race and tried to pick up positions. Johnson's team did, and Johnson moved from 11th to second in those eight laps.

The Chase system didn't give them those points. Johnson and his team earned them. Every last one of them. And every last one of them should count, too.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cale Yaborough and the coach

One good thing about the fact that Jimmie Johnson has a chance to match Cale Yarborough’s record with a third straight Cup championship is that it provides a good opportunity to tell Cale Yarborough stories.

Yarborough was a car owner by the time I started covering the sport full time, but I certainly remember watching him race. In my mind, Cale was leading every lap I ever saw him race. He just wanted to be up front more than he wanted to breathe, it seemed.

When I was sports editor of the newspaper in Gastonia, N.C., my hometown, we had a lady who worked in the business office named Charity Tignor who was without question the biggest Cale Yarborough fan I knew. Charity would have walked barefoot across a mile of broken glass to see Cale race. She might have walked half of a mile through a blizzard just to see him read a newspaper or clip his fingernails.

Anyway, NASCAR had Yarborough on a conference call the other day and he started telling the story about how he chose racing over football. Clemson fans will get a kick out of the story.

"I had a scholarship to Clemson, a football scholarship, playing under Frank Howard,” Yarborough said, speaking about the legendary coach as the South Carolina university. “I was racing during the summer. I was just about to win the track championship.

"I went to Coach Howard and told him I needed to go home to race one more race and then I'd be through with it. He said, ‘If you go back, pack your clothes, don't come back. You either go and race or play football.’ ”

So Yarborough packed his clothes and left Clemson.

“Of course, he kept calling,” Yarborough said. “I told him, ‘You told me to pack my clothes, and that's what I did. I'm going to make racing my career.’

“He says, ‘Son, you'll starve to death.’

“I said, ‘Well, I may.’ ”

Yarborough did all right, of course. He won 83 Cup races and three championships and had career earnings of over $5.6 million dollars.

He also had legion of fans – fans like Charity Tignor ... and like Frank Howard.

“In the end, Frank Howard is one of my biggest fans,” Yarborough said. “He used to love to go to races and stand in my pits.

“I'll never forget that he was at Talladega when I won a race there. He was in the winner's circle. He walked up to me and put his hands on my shoulder. He always called me boy. He said, ‘Boy, I ain't never been wrong many times in my life, but I want you to know I was wrong this time.’ ”

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Helping doesn't always have to be about marketing

How could NASCAR set up a driver development program that would work?

Easily, provided the people who run stock-car racing get over two major phobias.

The first hurdle is the willingness to spend its own money. NASCAR likes to cash checks, not write them. But to do driver development the right way, that won’t work.

The second fear is about having NASCAR itself pick out and support some drivers whereas others are told they have to make it on their own. There are legitimate concerns there, and any program operated and supported in a real way by NASCAR will have to be run properly. But before we start worrying about how to make such a program fair, we first have to overcome the resistance to having one in the first place.

I would take what’s now known as the Drive for Diversity program and expand it greatly.

Every January, drivers from around the country would apply for spots in the developmental program. The same kind of people who now pick candidates for the D4D program would select 50 candidates from these applications. All drivers, not just women and minorities, could apply, but at least some of the 50 candidates would represent all facets of the applicant pool in terms of race and gender.

Those 50 drivers would be brought to Irwindale Speedway in California in January for a two-week evaluation session in the weeks leading up to the annual Toyota Showdown at that track. The candidates would drive individually and in groups, in qualifying and racing scenarios, so their talents could be evaluated as fully as possible.

From that group of 50, the top-30 candidates would be selected to participate in the upcoming season. They would be teamed with current or future team owners who agree to participate in the new program, with each getting the same amount from NASCAR to support the team for a season of competition.

The selected drivers would be divided into three groups of 10. One group would run tracks primarily in the Southeastern United States at tracks like Hickory and Concord that have long supported NASCAR-sanctioned racing at the grassroots level. Another group would focus on tracks in the Northeast and Ohio Valley. The third group would race in the western portion of the country.

The groups would travel to several tracks within their own area and compete against the drivers who race at those tracks each weekend. This would give short tracks events where drivers who’re identified as potential future stars could be marketed, boosting the short-track industry.

At various times throughout the season, all 30 drivers would come together to compete in a race that would be paired with a Sprint Cup race at a nearby track. During Charlotte’s May race week, they would compete at Concord. During Daytona’s July race week, they’d be a Volusia County. They could run at Oxford, Maine, along with a race at New Hampshire or back at Irwindale when the Cup guys are at California.

The season would conclude in September, the week after the 26th race of Sprint Cup season. This would be an open date on the Cup schedule and the season-ending race for the developmental series would be held on Sunday afternoon and broadcast as part of the NASCAR network television package as a showcase event.

The driver who scores the most points during the season – with all of the races where all 30 compete counting double – is the developmental series champion. What that driver wins is a two-year driving contract with a NASCAR Truck or Nationwide series team, with NASCAR guaranteeing that team with the financial backing it needs to compete.

The idea of NASCAR directly sponsoring drivers and teams might sound radical to some, but if done right the process of determining who gets that backing would be based on ability and performance on the track. Instead of hearing about things like marketability we’d be hearing about lap times and victory totals. It could be more about driving cars and less about driving products off the shelves.

And it could work.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It matters who the messenger is and who pays the messenger

CONCORD, N.C. - So now photographic proof of Thursday's scuffle between Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards is out there for everyone to see.

It's not that there was ever any doubt that what was reported actually happened. Too many people saw the two drivers pushing and shoving for that. They also saw photographers standing there, taking pictures of the whole thing, too.

Why weren't those photos immediately available on news wires and Internet sites?

Well, the sad truth is that most of the people shooting pictures in the NASCAR garage these days aren't there working - at least primarily - for news organizations.

Yes, they've got press credentials. But most of them are working in one form or another for NASCAR, for the race track, for one of the manufacturers or for one of the teams or their sponsors. That means they've got conflicts of interest.

As soon as word spread of the Edwards-Harvick incident, the rumors also started spreading that representatives from the teams those drivers represent were exerting influence to have the pictures withheld from distribution to the media.

I know for a fact that at least one person working for Lowe's Motor Speedway had images of the scuffle, and I also know that there was a discussion about whether or not those images should be supplied to The Associated Press so that newspapers and web sites everywhere might have access to them.

As I said in Saturday morning's paper, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if Humpy Wheeler had still be president and general manager of this track there would not have even been a question about them being released. Wheeler would have taken the pictures down to the closest Walgreen's himself to have them process had that been necesary.

But Wheeler is gone and there's a new regime in charge. I don't know for a fact that the man who replaced Wheeler, Marcus Smith, was called in personally on the decision whether to sit on the photos or not. But if Wheeler still worked here I promise you he would have made sure anybody who hadn't heard about scuffle did so as quickly as possible.

Look, if you run the race track you might decide not to let the photos get out because you want to make sure your relationships with the Cup teams are good. If you decide that it's more important to make nice with a race team than to try to stir up controversy surrounding your race, that's a question of philosophy.

But as a fan, it ought to worry you that the rest of the photographers who got pictures of the scuffle didn't race each other back to their computers to get them sent out over the wires. That's the way things used to be, when you had professional photojournalists who were here to see and document the news and not primarily to shoot promotional pictures than can be billed to some corporate client.

The media can be a popular whipping boy these days, and we don't always get it right. But we are here so that the whole story - and not just what NASCAR and the tracks and the teams want you to hear - gets told and gets shown.

When it isn't, and when business decisions start trumping good journalism, that is when the media will let you down.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good is probably better than perfection anyway

CONCORD, N.C. - I can’t go into my e-mail box without somebody telling me how many fans NASCAR is losing these days.

But then, I go places and I see fans like the ones I saw Friday morning at Joe Gibbs Racing and I have to wonder what they’re talking about.

The first people in line at the annual fan fest to get wristbands for autographs had been there since 10:45 Wednesday night. They wanted Tony Stewart’s autograph, and even Stewart himself told me he can’t understand why anybody would be that loyal.

I got there at 6:30 a.m. and there were already hundreds of people there. I left about 11 and a lot of them were still there, and had been joined by hundreds more.

There were open houses and things like that at several places around the Charlotte area Thursday and Friday, and I assume the stories were similar at each one.

Maybe the fans I’m seeing are the ones who have a little bit more passion and a little bit more dedication to the sport. I know that at the test at Lowe’s Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago there were people who drove from Florida just to see testing. I know that there are people who send e-mails three or four times a week asking me about a driver who you might think has only a handful of fans - wanting to know why I don’t do more on a particular driver or asking me about whether some driver who has been crowded out of the sport has a chance to get back in.

Sometimes your first reaction is “Why do you care?”

But the answer is that they’re fans.

One guy wears me out about how Steve Letarte is ruining Jeff Gordon’s life.

One guy used to call my voice mail at work about four times a week and tell me what an idiot I am. For the longest time I kept a copy of one of his messages saved and would call up on my cell phone and play it for friends. In a two-minute message, the guy probably used 500 words you can’t say on television. Not 500 different words, mind you, a lot of it was the same word over-and-over again.

If “fat” were a swear word, the count would have been closer to 1,000.

I read the comments posted when I write one of these blogs and wonder what would happen if I ever did something that really had a real impact on these people’s lives.

That’s OK.

For all the little annoyances that crop up during a race weekend in Charlotte I also get to write at least a little bit about things like Jeff Gordon’s Foundation helping to raise $310,000 in one day for bone marrow research, or Brienne Davis’ friends getting $100,000 in one evening for the scholarship fund that honors Davis, a NASCAR official who was killed in an automobile crash earlier this year.

Fans paid to get autographs at Joe Gibbs Racing Friday, but that money will go to the Mooresville Soup Kitchen, which provides more than 20,000 meals each year to people who otherwise might not have anything to eat. That’s a very good thing.

More than 1,000 motorcycle riders are expected to ride to the Victory Junction Gang Camp to raise money and honor their friend, Click Baldwin, who was killed in a motorcycle wreck in Montana a few months ago. They’ll leave from the Harley-Davidson dealership Baldwin ran in Gastonia.

They’ll tell stories, laugh a lot and maybe cry just a little bit, and then they’ll go help make the magic that the camp founded by the Petty family manufactures here in North Carolina and, soon, in Kansas at a second camp that will be built there.

Things might not be perfect, either in racing or in the world we live in. But they surely aren’t as bad as we sometimes let ourselves believe they are.

I am going to try to work harder remembering that.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Intermittent rain goofing up track schedule

CONCORD - The early news from Sprint Cup qualifying day at Lowe's Motor Speedway is that rain is bedeviling efforts to get things going.

It hasn't rained much here since about lunchtime, but it has rained just enough to keep Nationwide Series cars off the track for most of their practice that was supposed to begin at 1:15 and run until 2:50. As of 2:30, cars had only been on the track for about 10-15 minutes, but the cars are going back out as I write this.

The news of the day so far wasn't really news, just confirmation that Ryan Newman's No. 39 Chevrolets at Stewart-Haas Racing will be sponsored by the U.S. Army next year. The Army sponsorship moves over from Dale Earnhardt Inc. The Army will be on Newman's car for 22 points races plus the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Challenge.

Stewart said the team is working on sponsorship for the other 14 races and is narrowing the list of candidates to serve as Newman's crew chief.

On a side note, the photo opportunity following that announcement featured Newman's car in front of a vehicle from which shoulders can launch missiles. I have to admit the idea of Stewart having access to a missile launcher is disconcerting.

Stewart said to me - in jest, just to make sure everybody gets that I am joking - that he'd much rather have access to a tank because he'd like to use it to clear some property he has in Indiana.

In the time it took me to write those last three paragraphs, the red flag came out again because of more raindrops.

This could be a long day.

Racing photographer-craftsman Thomas Taylor Warren dies at 83

Two eyes who helped shape and record the history of racing in America are now closed.

Thomas Taylor Warren, a photographer who captured thousands of enduring images during his brilliant career, passed away Wednesday night. The man known throughout the NASCAR garage as T. Taylor was 83.

Warren’s most famous image was taken at the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Earlier this year, Warren shot photos at the 50th running of that race. He never missed one in between.

In 1959 he was positioned on pit road to shoot the winner’s car as it came to the finish of the first Daytona 500. But three cars wound up in his viewfinder. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were battling side-by-side on the final lap. Petty had Beauchamp to his inside and the lapped car of Joe Weatherly to the outside.

Petty and Beauchamp both thought they’d won, but NASCAR called Beauchamp to victory lane. Petty immediately lodged a protest.

Warren took his cameras and film to NASCAR’s offices on South Peninsula Street in Daytona Beach and went into the darkroom.

“I started looking through my negatives for some reason, I don’t know why,” Warren recalled in an interview in February. “I saw a frame from the finish and made a print. I ran it through the chemicals real quick and looked at it.”

Uh-oh, Warren thought. The image showed Petty’s No. 42 car a hood ahead of Beauchamp’s No. 73 just a few yards short of the finish line. Warren took the still-wet print upstairs to the office and found Pat Purcell, NASCAR’s executive director and Bill France’s right-hand man.

“I said, ‘Pat, we’ve got a problem,’ ” Warren said.

Three days later, NASCAR reversed the ruling and named Petty the race winner.

Warren was born July 4, 1925, in Wyoming, Delaware. He lived in Florence, S.C., at the time of his death.

Warren started shooting photos as a boy and studied the craft at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. His brother bought a Midget race car and Warren went with him to the track. Once he started taking motorsports photographs, Warren never stopped.

He worked in Milwaukee and Kansas City before getting a job with a Kodak lab in High Point. There, he made friends in the stock-car world and was hired part time to shoot photos at a race on the old Daytona beach and road course in 1952. He eventually got fired from his regular job because he spent so much time at race tracks, but it worked out just fine for him.

Warren, who almost always had on a fisherman’s-style hat with a Goody’s logo and a khaki photo vest, was in 2006 given the Henry T. McLemore Award for achievement in journalism from the International Racing Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. He was the first photojournalist to receive that honor.

A memorial service will be held this Sunday at 4:00 p.m. at the Trinity United Methodist Church, 126 Pearl Street in Darlington, S.C. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the National Motorsports Press Association, P.O. Box 500, Darlington, S.C. 29540. Kistler Funeral Home will be directing the service.

In addition to being one of the most respected people in the NASCAR garage, Warren was also one of the most likeable. It is not enough to say that he will be missed. T. Taylor is a man who can never be replaced.

Monday, October 06, 2008

NASCAR got the call right at Talladega

It's hard to come to NASCAR's defense when it makes the right call on something because it's like somebody throwing darts at a board. Eventually some of them have to wind up sticking.

NASCAR got the call right Sunday at Talladega by penalizing Regan Smith for passing under the yellow line. It might not be popular to say that, but that's how I see it.

Here's why. If you're going to have a rule that says you cannot improve your position by going under the yellow line, then a battle between the first- and second-place cars on the final lap of a race should be the time when that rule in MOST in effect, not when it's suspended. A pass for the lead on the final lap would be the single most important pass of a race. If there's a rule, why would that NOT be covered by the rule? That doesn't make any sense.

Now this is where NASCAR shoots itself in the foot -- and the ankle, the shin, the knee and the thigh.

In February 2007 you had Ramsey Poston saying that when a driver can see the checkered flag he can "get all he can get. Sunday night, Jim Hunter said that's not the rule. Later Sunday night, Robin Pemberton apparently told an Associated Press reporter that you CAN pass under the line on the last lap but only if you can see the flagstand -- not the flag.

Now Poston, Hunter and Pemberton all work for and, when they are dealing with the meida, speak for NASCAR.

Wow, glad they cleared that up.

It's ridiculous to have a rule that's the same except for the lap it matters most. But with all the confusion I can't tell you what the proper call, by rule, would have been.

(UPDATE -- NASCAR president Mike Helton issued at statement Monday saying that, going forward, passing under the yellow line will not be allowed at any point during races at Talladega and Daytona -- even on the last lap. It's a day late, but at least NASCAR's on the record about what the rule actually IS now.)

But I can say it's my opinion that Smith gained an advantage by going out of bounds to make his pass Sunday at Tallaadega, so NASCAR did the right thing by penalizing.

I don't blame Smith for trying -- in fact, I applaud him for it. He could have setteled for second, which would have bettered his best career Cup finish by 12 spots. He made NASCAR make a call and the sacntioning body has been known to swallow its whistle in cases like this one before.

But I don't want to hear that Smith didn't "improve his posistion" until after he'd come back above the yellow line. Some are saying that Smith was still in second place when the got back above the line, but that's nuts. He was behind Stewart's car when he went out of bounds and beside it when he came back up. He'd improved his position and his chance to pass Stewart by going out of bounds.

Was Smith forced below the line? I don't think so. Stewart blocked him, absolutely. But some fans are saying Smith had only two choices -- go below the line or wreck Stewart and maybe himself. Well, there was a third choice and that was to do neither. He had to know that Stewart would make a counter-move to the low side trying to protect his line. So if he makes a move where his only "out" is to go below the line, that was his mistake.

Did you expect Stewart to simply give way, to not go back to the inside and try to use the line to his advantage? Of course not. That's not how it's done in today's restrictor plate racing. If Smith had been beside Stewart when Stewart moved left, that would be one thing. At best -- at best -- Smith had the first few inches of the nose of his car beside the Stewart's rear bumper. But Stewart closed the door, doing exactly what the leader has to do in plate races these days.

NASCAR needs to get its story straight and -- for the 97,458,457th time -- it needs to apply its rules the same way everytime the same issue comes up. But, as hard as it is for the people who don't like how things turned out Sunday, this is how the call SHOULD be made every time.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Fans of racing at Talladega? Count me out

TALLADEGA, Ala. - It's not that I don't get why people love to watch races at Talladega Superspeedway.

That's obvious. It's absolutely heart-stopping to watch drivers run at over 190 mph a foot or two from a car in front of them, one on either side of them and another one behind him.

I've never been one who believes that NASCAR fans want to see drivers get hurt. There are fans who don't want to see wrecks, even, and the ones who do consider wrecks a part of the game want to see a driver cheat danger, not fall victim to it.

I have also heard it argued that a race car driver knows the risk he's taking when he straps in, and if you're going to race in the Sprint Cup Series you know that you have to come here twice each year. The way that line of thinking goes, it's part of the bargain.

I suppose you have to concede that point, but still I have to tell you that I am never going to be a big fan of this race track. Not as long as the racing here looks like it does.

It's entirely possible that nobody will be injured in a crash in today's Amp Energy 500. It's even theoretically possible there won't be any wrecks. I've actually seen a caution-free race here, as a matter of fact.

But that doesn't mean my stomach won't be in knots when the green flag flies, and the longer the race goes without a big wreck happening the tighter that knot will be twisted.

It's a fact that no Cup driver has died in a race here since the beginning of the restrictor-plate era. Larry Smith died in a crash here in 1973 and Tiny Lund was killed in 1975.

But even though it has been 33 years since a driver died in a Cup race here, I don't want to wait until after another one is lost in a wreck here to express my concerns about what goes on here.

I hope it never happens again, not here or anywhere else. And if people want to flame me for having concerns the way they will no doubt do in the comments that are on this blog, I can take that, too.

But I am not going to pretend that I don't think racing at Talladega is over the line, that I would much prefer the racing here be less entertaining and more sane.

I am also not going to tell you that if when it's all over and everybody walks out of here unscathed, I won't most likely be shaking my head in wonder at what happens here today.

It's more likely that today's race will have a memorably thrilling finish that people will be talking about for weeks than it is for there to be the kind of problem that I dread so much. I concede that point.

And I deeply hope that's exactly what happens.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Street cars and NASCAR stars have a big night out

Boys with toys. (Yeah, there were girls there, too, but that doesn’t rhyme.)

Wednesday night was NASCAR Night at zMax Dragway @ Concord, an evening for guys from the stock-car world to bring their hot rods out of the closet.

The only rules were the cars had to be street legal, and some guys were pushing that. For example, I doubt very seriously Greg Biffle puts ice bags on the engine and rides around on racing slicks when he’s got his black Mustang Shelby on the streets.

Marcus Smith, the president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway who, along with his father, Bruton, built the joint made several passes in his Ford GT and beat most comers. But Biffle’s 10.146-second elapsed time on one run was about as fast as anything I saw. Later, he ran a top-end speed of 136.50 mph on a run that had a 10.225 elapsed time.

Matt Kenseth made a bunch of runs in his red Mustang with several passengers going along for the ride. Kyle Busch was there in his girlfriend’s yellow Corvette.

Several hundred fans came out to watch the action, and their favorite seemed to be the Rat Ride, a pick-up truck body that acted as camouflage for a Winston Cup chassis with a monster motor under the spackle-painted hood. I was told the driver, who works for a Cup team, has a laptop computer on board with him to help it go down the track in great haste.

Ray Evernham was there in a Viper that Rick Hendrick gave him for winning the Cup championship in 1995. Hendrick actually told Evernham that it was a good-looking car before Evernham reminded his former boss where it came from.

Speaking of Hendrick, he made some runs in his red Ferrari and also had a yellow Corvette on the grounds. Somehow that ‘Vette ended up in the sand trap at the end of the runoff area when it’s driver – in this case, not Hendrick – just kept getting it well past the finish line and sort of forgot about the slowing down part.

There was another pickup truck, one that Doug Rice joked looked like it was being held together by rust, that would get on down the road, too.

It was all a lot of fun, but if they keep on doing this somebody’s going to make a lot of money selling performance parts and racing slicks. It stunned me, in fact, that Doug Herbert wasn’t here with a truck full of parts and a credit card machine from his high-performance shop in Lincolnton. He could have made a mint.

Biffle probably ran 10 miles, a quarter of a mile at a time, before he finally packed it in for the night. I was sitting in the media center toward the end of the evening when somebody came in and asked if some track prep could be done – they wanted somebody to put down some TrackBite to make it easier to go faster.

I can’t swear that Biffle put them up to it. But I wouldn’t bet against it.