Sunday, December 29, 2013

Auto Racing’s Top Winners of 2013

Despite seven wins, Kenseth came up short in comparison
Sebastian Vettel.  Won 13 of 19 Formula One races, nine in a row and his 4th straight world championship.  Easily racer of the year.

Jimmie Johnson.  Won six races, including the Daytona 500, on the way to his sixth Sprint Cup championship.  A “best of” type year, if it wasn’t for Vettel.

Scott Dixon.  Four wins and the IndyCar championship.

Tony Kanaan.  By winning the Indy 500, he won the biggest race of the year.  Also landed him a pretty good ride for next year.

Matt Kenseth.  His seven Cup race wins was tops.  But he couldn’t win the the biggest prizes.

Dario Franchitti.  He didn’t win a single race during 2013, but Franchitti’s still a winner.  His Houston crash and subsequent retirement ranks as one of the top stories of the year.  His four IndyCar titles, three Indy 500 wins, 21 total victories and his star power will be tough for IndyCar to replace.

Chase Elliott.  By winning the All-American 400 at Nashville, the son of Bill Elliott became the first driver to win the Grand Slam of short track racing.  Elliott is 18.

Bubba Wallace.  It’s not just that he was the first African American to win a NASCAR race in nearly 50 years and only the second ever.  At 20, he ranks along with Elliott as one of the future stars of the sport.

Allan McNish.  Won his third 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Others have more Le Mans wins, but no one has been faster, year in and year out, than McNish,who retired at the end of the season.

Max Angelelli and Jordan Taylor.  “Mad” Max, 47, proved an able mentor for Taylor, 22, as the pair teamed to win five of the 12 GrandAm races and the final three events of the season to capture the series’ last title. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What's Right With Racing

Mike Helton, part of what's right about racing
I recently wrote about racing being at a crossroads.  How anybody who loves the sport has to be concerned about the current state of affairs.  I asked if all was lost.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, there’s so much that is right about racing.  Mostly it’s the people.   Some of the things right about racing includes: 

Jimmie Johnson and Sebestian Vettel.  Some people think Johnson and Vettel are an example of what’s wrong with racing.  Not me.  How can being the best be wrong?  I already devoted a column (Nov. 20) to these two, so there’s no need for a rehash, other than to say they set a standard of excellence on a par with names like Petty, Earnhardt, Fangio and Clark.

Mike Helton.   Can’t help but believe if NASCAR just turned things over to Helton and his team and let them run the sport, it would be much better off.  One of the remaining holdovers from the Bill France (Big and Little) eras, he has the respect of all those involved to do what’s right for the sport.   Probably not gonna happen.  In fact, NASCAR has just brought in a new Chief Operating Officer from outside the organization.  The new guy is a consultant who worked at GM and takes an “analytical approach” to the business.  Great.  I just hope Helton doesn’t decide to cash in his chips and retire.  I worry about NASCAR with Helton.  I really worry about NASCAR without Helton. 

Derrick Walker.  As much as Helton provides hope for NASCAR, Walker, the IndyCar president of competition, provides hope for open wheel racing.  He’s a racer surrounded by businessmen (the third management team in five years) and if the sport is to succeed, those businessmen need to listen to him.  He took over in the middle of last year and so far it has been an uphill battle for him.  The Houston race was a debacle and he took much of the blame.  But he deserves a full season at the helm.  Like Helton, not sure if he can pull it off, but there still is hope.

Brad Keselowski.  Despite his nonsensical objection to concussion baseline testing, Keselowski is one of the keys to the future of NASCAR.  He’s still a new face, not afraid to speak his mind and most of all, he’s fast.

Kimi Raikkonen.  Word is he raced for free last year at Lotus.  Gotta appreciate that.  One of the few drivers to have challenged Vettel, he’ll be at Ferrari in 2014.  If anyone can stop Vettel from winning a fifth straight world championship, it’s Raikkonen.

Jeff Burton.  I wrote early in the year that it was time for Burton to retire.  Although it wasn’t exactly his idea, and he will be running some races for Michael Waltrip Racing next year, I’m happy he’s pretty much retired from driving.  I’m even happier NBC has announced he’ll be an analyst when the network begins broadcasting races in 2015.  NASCAR’s television broadcasts are in need of new life and I hope NBC and Burton can provide it.

Kyle Petty.  I wrote it several times during the season.  NASCAR television broadcasts need more of Kyle Petty.

Dario Franchitti.  Losing Dario as a driver is a serious blow to IndyCar racing.  Hopefully they can find a role for him on the television broadcasts.  Always found him a good interview with interesting insights and forthright answers.  And who can resist that Scottish accent.

NASCAR’s Young Guns.  The Sprint Cup series is in need of an influx of new talent and they’re waiting in the wings, perhaps more than at any other time in NASCAR history.  Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte have been gently moved aside.  The future hopes rides with the likes of Ricky Stenhouse, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillion, Jeb Burton, Ryan Blaney, Parker Kligerman, Ross Kenseth, Dakoda Armstrong, Ty Dillion and Ross Chastain.  Then there’s the “Kiddie Korp,” drivers so young they’re not old enough to go to the prom, let alone drive a Cup car.  Led by Chase Elliott and Erik Jones.  You could probably add a dozen more to the list. 

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.  Wallace gets a shout out all his own.  His popular win at Martinsville this year was the first for an African American since Wendell Scott nearly 50 years ago.  At 20, Wallace certainly qualifies as a young gun, and as a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, he’ll have all the backing he needs to continue moving up the ladder.  

New F1 One Engine Formula.  There’s a host of new F1 regulations for 2014, none more important than the switch from V8 engines to turbocharged V6 engines.  There a new emphasis on innovation.  The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and several new similar systems are a link to passenger car hybrid systems many fans can relate to.  The cars also will look different, with new rules requiring a lower nose.

New NASCAR Engine Regulations.  NASCAR says it is looking at new engine configurations, a sort of engine of tomorrow.  It needs to take a big swing at it, just as F1 has.  Make it relevant.  Sure the costs will be high initially, but what the heck, the series has $8.2 billion in the bank.  Invest a little in making the series relevant again before it’s too late. 

Short Track Racing.  One thing that seems to resonate with readers is the strength of short track racing.   The Eldora truck race was certainly the most visible, but short tracks across the country are experiencing a renaissance as race fans return appear to be returning to their roots. 

NASCAR road races.  Who would have thunk two of the most exciting Sprint Cup races of the year would take place on road courses?  After rumors that NASCAR would add a third road course to the schedule and move one to the Chase for 2014 proved groundless, we can only hope they’ll make the move for 2015.

Tudor United SportsCar Championship.  It remains to be seen if the series can work out its rules package to balance the competition between the LMP2 cars of the old American Le Mans series and the DP cars of GrandAm.  That’s a HUGE question mark.  The initial tests saw DP cars started flying through the air, a good indication of the challenge.  But let’s hope so, because you gotta love the schedule they’ve put together for 2014.   Daytona, Sebring, Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Mostport, Indianapolis, Road America, VIR, Circuit of the Americas and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.  It’s the golden age of road racing all over again. 

WEC.  Big brother to the Tudor series is the World Endurance Championship that will feature LMP1 entries from Audi and Toyota again in 2014 and along with newcomer Porsche.  Ferrari has hinted it might be interested in the series in a year too, along with another old name in the sport, Ligier.

Formula E.  I’m intrigued by this new FIA series for electric open wheel cars.  I’m not all that excited about what will virtually be spec cars (at least initially) streaking silently around city streets.  I tend to agree with Vettel who says, “Formula One needs to scream, needs to be loud, there needs to be the vibration."  But I am excited about the potential and the attempt to bring innovation back into the sport.  The first race won’t be until September of 2014 and the “season” will run through the middle of 2015.  The events will be held in major cities including Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Miami, Monte Carol, Berlin and London.  Already saying they will compete in the series are Andretti Autosport and Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing from the U.S.; Audi Sport from Germany; Super Aguri from Japan; China Racing; e.dams, a French team that includes four-time world champ Alain Prost; Virgin Racing from the UK with the backing of Richard Branson; and Venturi Grand Prix from Monaco with backing from Leonardo DiCaprio.  Huge questions remain, but as I said, I’m intrigued.   

That’s just a little bit about what’s right with racing and something to look forward.

Happy Holidays , everyone.  I’ll be back in 2014.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Seth Meyers on Patrick, Gordon and Mohr

Jeff Gordon on Saturday Night Live
It seems to be open season for comedians on Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon.  It's not just Jay Mohr.  Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers, appearing on Monday's Dan Patrick Show, was asked about athletes who have hosted SNL. 

“We had Andy Roddick and Jeff Gordon," Meyers said.  "I would describe them as an excellent tennis player and an excellent race car driver.   I played celebrity poker with Jeff Gordon.  He bluffed and I called him.  He asked ‘how did you know I was bluffing?’  I said I spent a week with you, watching you try to be an actor.  I know when you’re faking it.” 

Personally, I thought Gordon was pretty good on the show.

Meyers was then asked about Mohr's "up front" Patrick (Danica) joke at the NASCAR banquet, which was played several times on the Patrick (Dan) show, to increasing snickers. 

“It’s not a terrible joke, but you have to weigh whether or not it’s worth telling,"  said Meyers, who has hosted the ESPYs and the notorious White House Correspondent’s Dinner .  

He warmed to the joke after he heard it several times.  "It seemed like Jay knew that was going to get a groan, 'cause he had ‘it’s a comedy show’ ready.  So then it’s fine.  I like having a few groaners whenever I do anything.  Those are the most fun.  You always go in with two or three (jokes) that are for you.  Jokes I’m really happy I told.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Auto Racing At A Crossroads

Stewart's dirt race was one of the few success stories of 2013
Our sport of auto racing is at a crossroads.

If you’re an auto racing fan – and if you’re reading this blog you must be – you’ve got to be concerned about the future of our sport.  You probably have been for the past couple of years.   

NASCAR, IndyCar, sports car racing, drag racing, Formula One; take your pick.  There is not a major racing series in the world that is in a good place right now.  Attendance is down.  Television viewership is down.  Sponsorship is down.  IndyCar and is looking for a title sponsor for the 2014 season and Nationwide has already informed NASCAR if won't be back as sponsor of the secondary series when its contract is up at the end of next year.

The NASCAR season was dogged with controversy from start to finish.  A smoldering engine sitting in the grandstands alongside fans after the Daytona Nationwide race had people asking if the Daytona 500 should go on.  A racer was fined for saying there wasn’t enough racing.  Then Spingate took attention away from the Chase.  The most successful NASCAR race of the year was a throwback event on a dirt track.  Daytona and Talladega, once the crown jewels of the series, are in danger of becoming a family embarrassment.

IndyCar may be staging the best races right now, but has so alienated fans, no one sees them.  The series is being led by its third management team in five years.  At the moment, that team is circling the wagons around its most valuable component, the Indianapolis 500.  The reality is, outside of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which is more of an event than a race, there is no IndyCar series, at least as far as fans are concerned.  The IndyCar “series” is in danger of becoming an irrelevant, made for (cable) television, sideshow.

The 2014 IndyCar schedule jams 18 races (including three doubleheader weekends) into a five month period, designed to wrap up by the end of August to avoid conflict with football.  Mario Andretti has vowed to fight the new leadership over the schedule, saying “it’s not plausible” and that the attempt to avoid football is “diminishing the series.”  Losing Dario Franchitti, one of the biggest names in IndyCar racing, isn’t going to help. 

In drag racing, there is no bigger name than John Force.  Joined in recent years by his daughters, the family has dominated the NHRA and he captured his 16th championship this past year.  Yet the team’s two biggest supporters, Ford and Castrol, have both announced they won’t be back next year.  Ford is pulling out of drag racing altogether.

In American road racing, a peace treaty has been signed, uniting previously competing series under the control of NASCAR, bringing an end to the civil war.  But it remains to be seen if reconstruction will be successful.  With less than two months until the first race at Daytona, new regulations designed to level the playing field for DP and LMP2 cars are still being written in pencil.  Only a handful of entries turned out for pre-season practice sessions, which had to be curtailed when two DP cars went flying through the air at Daytona.

In Formula One, the corruption trial of czar Bernie Ecelstone continues.  McLaren, long one of the sport’s premier teams, lost $5 million last year and has lost both its engine supplier and primary sponsor for next season.  At least two drivers drove without pay last season and a 19-year Russian is making the jump from GP3 to F1 thanks to petro-dollar sponsorship.  "There are only five teams which are financially secure and the rest of them are all struggling,” said former driver and current TV commentator Martin Brundle.  “So they are following the money and not the talent.”

Are you beginning to see a trend here?  The root of the problem with racing right now is – not surprisingly – money.  But it goes deeper than that.

Many in racing’s leadership circles blame the Great Recession for the problems the sport is facing.  If they really believe that, they're fooling themselves.  It started before recession, back when racing, led by NASCAR, was literally the Golden Sport.  In an effort to make even more money and protect what they had, however, major racing series and car owners banded together to write rules so narrow, innovation was all but eliminated.  The COT and rules establishing team franchises and protecting starting positions were designed to limit outside competition and put in place well before the recession.  NASCAR (and GrandAm) was the first to go down that road.   IndyCar quickly followed suit.  After all, if it was good for NASCAR, it had to be good for IndyCar – right?  Meanwhile, the cost for fans to attend races skyrocketed.

This lack of innovation and competition, along with the high cost of going to a race, began driving fans away from the sport before the recession.  The recession only exasperated the situation.  Five years later, with the economy ever so slowly beginning to show some improvement, many fans have found other things to do with their money.

There’s still plenty of money to be made in the sport, however.  Lots of it.  NASCAR’s staggering, 10-year, $8.2 billion television deal is just the latest example.  Most series, tracks, drivers and team owners are making good money.  NASCAR races are still cash cows for hotels and restaurants in places like Bristol and elsewhere.

I wrote before that NASCAR and its partners (drivers, owners, tracks) should reinvest some of its newfound billions back into the sport.  So far, there is no indication of a willingness to do so.  NASCAR has already resisted major changes for next year.  IndyCar owners have successfully delayed the use aero kits in the series, designed to introduce some innovation into the series and give the cars a distinctive and varied look, until 2015 at the earliest. They say it's too expensive.  Meanwhile, grandstands sit empty.

So all is lost?

No way, not by a long shot.  There is hope.  There is much about racing that is right.  There’s a reason we still tune in every weekend and search for those elusive cable channels that are showing whatever the race of the day is.

Next week I’ll look at what I see as right in racing and why there is still hope for the sport we love.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Two Of A Kind: Johnson and Vettel

Six Time
Race fans in America had a rare treat last weekend.  They were able to watch two of the very best racers ever compete back-to-back: Sebastian Vettel and Jimmie Johnson.

But not the very best ever.  Not yet anyways.

Occasional race fans who refuse to rise early to watch the live broadcast of Formula One races or waste valuable space on their DVR, were in for a treat if they tuned into the U.S. Grand Prix from the Circuit of Americas track in Austin.  No, the race wasn’t very good.  They saw complete domination as Vettel drove away from the field at the start.  But there’s a point where complete domination can be fun to watch – and that point reached a peak on the last lap of the Austin race.  With an insurmountable lead and his team begging him to slow down, Vettel turned the fastest lap of the race.   

It was Vettel’s eighth straight win and 12th of the season.  He’d already clinched his fourth straight World Championship the previous race.   No one has ever won eight consecutive F1 races in a single season (Alberto Ascari won nine straight, but it took him two years to do it, Schumacher had won seven).  Only Schumacher has won 13 races in a season and Vettel can still match that mark.  In a little more than six years, Vettel already is fourth in career wins.
Four Time
When people talk about the best F1 drivers ever, Vettel has clearly joined the ranks of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jimmy Clark, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.  Only Fangio and Schumacher won four straight titles.  No one else has more than two in a row.  Vettel can surpass that mark next year.  Fangio won five titles before retiring at the peak of his career, and Schumacher has seven; so Vettel has a ways to go to become tops in that category.  
Johnson, after challenging for the lead early in the Homestead race, survived car-to-car contact before cruising to his sixth Sprint Cup Championship.  If you’re any kind of race fan, you know that puts him one back of NASCAR’s other best ever drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Johnson, who often is greeted by boos when he’s introduced, seemed genuinely surprised to be cheered by the crowd who had remained behind for the award ceremony in Florida.  Vettel, who has grown used to boos in Europe, was appreciative of the more positive reaction he received in Texas. 
And there’s the rub.  Fangio and Schumacher, Petty and Earnhardt, are typically mentioned only with reverence and respect.  Johnson and Vettel are often ridiculed for their success.  The Johnson and Vettel haters have been out in force on social media outlets since winning the most recent championships.
That both are focused and driven to be the best goes without saying.  You don’t accomplish what they’ve been able to do without that drive.  They both work hard to be physically fit for the stress and strains of a race car.  They both provide key input in helping to set up their cars.  The detractors say the reason they’re winning is because of their cars and their teams.  It’s more likely their teams are winning because of the feedback and input they provide.
While many NASCAR drivers have struggled through three generations of race cars and numerous changes in tire configuration during the past 10 years, Johnson has made each transition flawlessly.  Vettel also has easily adjusted to F1 rule and tire changes during his reign.
It is extremely difficult to compare drivers from different eras.  Yet there seems to be something special about seven championships.  Petty, Earnhardt and Schumacher all won seven.  A. J. Foyt has a record seven IndyCar titles.  Johnson can match that number next year.  Vettel has a bit further to go, but at 26, has plenty of time to get there.
Eight titles.  Now that would be something.  Best ever.

Monday, November 11, 2013

NASCAR Prepares For Changing Of The Guard

Labonte's career included Brickyard win
When the checkered flag falls on the NASCAR season this coming Sunday at Homestead, it will mark more than the end of competition for 2013 and the crowning of a new Sprint Cup champion.  It will also mark the end of the careers for several of the sport’s future Hall of Famers and the beginning of an influx of new blood into the series.

It’s about time.  NASCAR is in desperate need of new talent, new names and new faces.  One of NASCAR’s stated goals in recent years has been to attract younger fans to the sport.  They’ve tried to do it with rock bands and social media, without much success.  It’s a tough sell.  The target audience – males 15-25 – has a hard time relating to drivers often twice their age.  But that’s about to change.
The Cup career of Bobby Labonte, 49, may already be over.  Phoenix was his last race of the season and he has no ride at this point for next year.  He’s expressed interest in racing in some truck series events and there’s even talk he might run for Congress.  I’d vote for him.
Mark Martin, 54, and Jeff Burton, 46, will be running their final race for their current teams at Homestead.  Martin says this is it.  Then he says he might be willing to help out a team in need, just as he did for Stewart/Haas Racing this past year.  We may see him again in a car some day.
Burton says he’ll be racing part time next year, but can’t say where yet.  Could be at Michael Waltrip Racing, which now indicates it will run a third car in selected races, perhaps as a development team.  Burton might be a good fit for that role, provide backup for Brian Vickers, and give the team some badly needed respect.  It also would provide a nice transition for Burton into a potential role as a television commentator when the new TV contracts take effect in 2015. 
Also presumably running his final NASCAR race at Homestead will be Juan Pablo Montoya, 38, who is returning to IndyCar racing after being pushed out of his seat at Ganassi Racing.
Replacing Labonte is A. J. Allmendinger, 31.  Burton is being moved aside by Austin Dillion, 23, the grandson of Richard Childress.  And Kyle Larson, 23, will be running Montoya’s No. 42 next year.  Larson, a sprint car graduate, is a can’t miss according to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Most of NASCAR’s current Cup stars are best described as being in their mid-30s.   The group includes Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurry, Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex, Jr.  A few are in their 40s, including Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle. 
Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are both 28.  There’s David Regan and Aric Almirola, but I’m not sure many would put them in the same class as the first two.  Trevor Bayne, 22, is still looking for a fulltime ride.  After that, not much.   The door is wide open.
We actually saw the transition begin this year.  Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 26, replaced Kenseth, 41, when he jumped to Joe Gibbs Racing.  And Joey Logano, still only 23 even though he’s been around six years, moved ahead of Sam Hornish, 34, at Penske Racing.   
Waiting in the wings is a host of drivers who have shown they deserve a crack at the next level.  They include Parker Kligerman (23), Joey Coulter (23), James Buescher (23), Jeb Burton (21), Austin’s little brother Ty Dillion (21),  Darrell “Bubba” Wallace (20), Ross Kenseth (20), Ross Chastain (20) and Alex Bowman (20).  Then there’s the Kiddie Korps – perhaps the most talented bunch of them all – teenagers Ryan Blaney (19), Chase Elliott (17) and Erik Jones (17).
Many of the youngsters have contracts as development drivers for major teams.  It remains to be seen, however, how much longer those teams will be to keep these drivers down on the farm after they’ve had a taste of Sprint Cup action.  Blaney, a Penske development driver, will move up to Nationwide next year as Roger makes the tough decision to bump Hornish yet again. Chip Ganassi had to make a similar call with Larson and Montoya. 
We’re liable to see more of those tough decisions in the next couple of years.  Elliott is tied to Hendrick Motorsports and is seen by many as Jeff Gordon’s replacement.  But what happens if Gordon isn’t ready to move on with Elliott is ready to move up?  Hendrick would no doubt stand with Gordon.  But some of the others, I’m not so sure. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Another Chase To Watch

Chase Elliott Ready To rock
While most auto racing fans in the U.S. were watching the Chase race in Texas last weekend, another Chase continued to emerge as something they’ll be watching in the future.

Chase Elliott, the son of NASCAR champion and fan favorite Bill Elliott, won the All-American 400 Saturday night in Nashville.  In doing so he became the first driver ever to win the unofficial “Grand Slam” of late model short track racing.  He’d previously won the Winchester 400 (2010), the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. (2011) and the World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga. (2012).

Call it the “Chase Slam.”  Much as Tiger Woods has the Tiger Slam, winning all four golf majors (although not in the same year), Elliott now has the “Chase Slam.”

No one has ever done that before.  Not Darrell Waltrip, not Dick Trickle, not Mark Martin, not Matt Kenseth or any other driver with their roots in short track racing.  No one.

And Chase Elliott is only 17 years old.

"I can't believe it,” he said afterwards.  “To be in position at the end of these races is the biggest thing, and just to be around is so hard to do.  I was really a little worried about our car.  I didn't think we were where we needed to be in practice, but we made some good adjustments and we were able to be in position at the end.  That's what counted."

Elliott accomplished the feat in style.  After qualifying on the pole, he was forced to start from the rear of the 36 car field after making unapproved changes to his car.  It took him 270 of the 300 lap race to fight his way to the front against a field that included Ross Kenseth, but once he did, he coasted to victory.

“I really don’t know what to think. To have won all four of these big races — I just can’t tell you how much it means to me,” Elliott said. “It was just a lot of hard work. We put so much effort into this and it means a lot to have it pay off.”
As a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott has the best of equipment.  He’s run a handful of Camping World Truck Series races this year, winning in Canada.  He’s also won in ARCA in addition to his short track success.  At the current development pace, don’t be surprised if Elliott is ready to move into the Sprint Cup ranks about the same time as Jeff Gordon is ready to step out of the No. 24 car.

Monday, November 4, 2013

No Time To Relax For Rick Hendrick

Championship trio: Hendrick, Knaus and Johnson
With 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and 218 Cup race wins for Hendrick Motorsports, you’d think owner Rick Hendrick would be able to relax a little bit after Jimmie Johnson’s crushing victory at Texas on Sunday.

No way.

“I think it’s just more tension,” he said afterwards.   “I don’t know how it could get any harder than it is right now.  It's nerves.  It's not going to end.  I think it's going to be the last lap at Homestead, unless one of them has a major failure early in Phoenix, and then the other guy’s just got to finish in the Top 10.  But I don't see that happening.  I think this is just going to be a dog fight there.  The teams are that close.  We qualify close together.  We race close together.”

The team heads to Phoenix with the same seven point lead it held in 2012.  Last year problems for the No. 48 in the final two races opened the door for Brad Keselowski to win his first championship.  Hendrick thinks his team is better as a result of that experience.

“Last year we were in this position and we didn't do it.  It fired us up.  It fired Jimmie and Chad (Knaus) up.  But they can't work any harder.  I think they're as good as they've ever been and maybe better because they're seasoned.  Now they've lost it a couple of years in a row and they want it bad this year.  They're doing everything in their power, preparation, cars at the shop, at the track, engine guys, everybody is working as hard as they can.

“I think we're in the position.  Now we only have to not make a mistake and hopefully we can just race without any kind of failure.”

And if the team does make a mistake and Matt Kenseth wins the championship?

“I'm just thankful we're competitive and we've won races.  I think you do the best you can and you show up.  If we don't win, I can handle that.  I mean, we did the best we could.  We weren't searching for speed.  We weren't searching for horsepower or handling.  We were right there, led laps with everybody and anybody.  

“So at the end of the day, I just accept it and go on and get ready for next year.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

Keselowski Needs His Head Examined

When NASCAR finally announced last week that it will require concussion baseline testing for all drivers prior to the start of the 2014 season, it met with a great deal of support from drivers.    

By making the tests mandatory, NASCAR joins virtually every other professional sport, college and high school programs and even many little leagues.  IndyCar and sports car racing have long required the testing.

“If you care about your well-being and your health and quality of life, it’s a smart move to embrace,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  It was Earnhardt who brought the question of concussion testing to the forefront in NASCAR last year after he ran several races with concussion-like symptoms that he kept to himself.  Only after getting his bell rung a second time did he bring it to the attention of a doctor, who sidelined Earnhardt for two races, eliminating any chance he might have had in the Chase.

But not everyone agrees with Earnhardt.  One voice in particular has stood out against the testing and it’s a loud one, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

"Doctors don't understand our sport," Keselowski said.  "They never have and they never will. Doctors aren't risk takers. We are. That's what makes our sport what it is and when you get doctors involved, you water down our sport. I'm trying to be open-minded to the possibility that they can help us, but past experience says no."

Keselowski has been criticized in the past by some of peers for being a little too outspoken at times.  I’ve defended him in those instances, but not this time.  Keselowski needs to have his head examined.

In some ways Keselowski does have a point.  The science of baseline testing is far from fool proof.  NFL players have talked openly of gaming the tests, dumbing down their response times and other factors to make it easier to pass during a game.  And the tests are open to interpretation by the administrator. 

It remains to be seen how NASCAR will handle the at-track testing if needed during a race or practice session.  To do it right, there should be one person responsible for the testing that remains consistent from track to track throughout the season.   But unlike IndyCar and Formula One, NASCAR does not have a dedicated safety team.  Each track is responsible for supplying the safety crew.  Let’s hope they make an exception for concussion testing.   

Keselowski also tweeted “my health = my responsibility.”  What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the doctors are worried about more than just his health.  They’re also worried about the safety of the other 42 drivers sharing a track at 200 mph with someone suffering from a concussion that may impair their judgment. 

Earnhardt, who gave Keselowski his first big break in NASCAR, just shakes his head when told of his friend’s reaction.   

“I don’t understand any concerns like that. Going through what I went through I don’t understand that.  I think that you have to know how the test is taken and how the test is scored and how you are evaluated in the retest. It’s not two plus two equals four and ‘oh well you chose three you are out.’  There is no right or wrong answers…when I was concussed, my grade was dramatically lower, not just a few points.  It’s not a guess for a doctor when they see an individual that is concussed on the test results.  There is no gray area.”

Dale's right.  Come on Brad, take the test.  It's a no brainer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chevrolet Playing Hardball

A new No. 3 should join Chevrolet ranks in 2014
Forget hot dogs, baseball or apple pie.

Chevrolet is playing hardball.

We saw it at Charlotte, with Chevys qualifying in eight of the top 10 spots.  Four of the top six were the Hendrick cars.  Only a fluke caution kept Jimmie Johnson and the bowtie brigade out of Victory Circle.

At Talladega, Chevys were running 1-2-3 down the backstretch on the last lap and finished one-two.  No fluke this time.  With just four races left in the Chase, Chevrolet is showing its muscle.  Johnson took the driver’s championship lead and Chevrolet extended its margin as manufacturer’s champion.  Chevy has won the NASCAR manufacturers championship 36 times and now seems well on its way to 37.  Even if Matt Kenseth recovers to win the driver championship, it is unlikely Toyota will be able to catch Chevy.

Chevrolet already has its sights set on next year.   Stewart-Haas doesn’t add a fourth team, no matter how deep the pockets of Gene Haas, without an okay from the General.  And Germain Racing doesn’t make the move from Ford to Chevy and Earnhardt Childress Racing engines without the same nod.  JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 appears headed from Toyota to ECR.  And now it appears Jeff Burton will join Tommy Baldwin Racing, making it a two-car Chevy entry.  Meanwhile, there appears to be no teams ready to move to Ford and Toyota.  And of course Michael Waltrip Racing is down to two cars.

It goes beyond NASCAR.  Despite winning a driver’s championship for Scott Dixon, Ganassi Racing will be flying the Chevrolet colors next year in IndyCar, trading in the Honda engines it used this year.  And don't be surprised if Ganassi is running a Chevy a in the new road racing series, dropping BMW.

It's been an impressive couple of months for Chevrolet.  The Division's latest advertising theme is Find New Roads.  Maybe they should consider switching to Find New Teams.