Monday, June 24, 2013

Return of the Dinger

The Dinger Is Back
Eighteen months ago, I was just starting out with this blog and A.J. Allmendinger was on top of the world.  He had signed a contract to race in Sprint Cup for Roger Penske and had just driven a dramatic three-hour stint to close out the 24-Hours of Daytona sports car race and help win the first big event of the year. 

This “Could be the Year of the Dinger” I wrote.

We all know how that worked out.  Allmendinger started the NASCAR season with promise, but then the team seemed to lose its way.  Not only that, Dinger ran afoul of the NASCAR substance abuse policy.  It was handled poorly, he was slow to respond and when he did, it was with excuses that most people didn’t believe or ignored.  On the other hand, car owner Penske reacted quickly, cutting Allmendinger loose even after he had entered NASCAR’s rehab program.   

From the top of the heap to the bottom in less than a year.  But while most people figured Allmendinger's career was over, a hand reached out from a most unlikely place.  Roger Penske.  He called just to see how Dinger was doing.  Then he checked in again.  And again.  And finally he called to offer Allmendinger a ride in a couple of IndyCar races, where the Dinger had made an impressive start before moving to NASCAR.  The results have been mixed.  But even before he led the Indy 500 for a few laps, Penske offered another opportunity in a couple of Nationwide events.

Allmendinger's win in Saturday’s Road America Nationwide race was dominating.  He qualified on the pole and led more than half the event.  He did it with class and style.  After being punted out of the lead by Billy Johnson, Allmendinger came back with just the right amount of nudge that allowed him to regain the lead and coast to the win.

Afterwards, an emotional Allmendinger made it clear who deserved credit for the victory. 

“What Roger has done for me, career wise, is great,” he said.  “But personally, it’s meant a lot more to me, just making sure, that even after it happened last year, just making sure I was ok.  I wouldn’t have thought twice if he would have just wrote it off and not called and went on.  He’s got so much going on in his life.  But he just kept checking up on me.  I didn’t expect anything from it.  It was just nice to have a friend, somebody I could bounce ideas off of, life ideas, and just figure out where I was going. 

“Everybody on this race team, this organization, from top to bottom, they’ve never looked down on me, or put me aside or treated me differently or anything like that.  When I came back, I felt like they wanted me back, and the IndyCar side, they wanted me back.  And here (Nationwide), as soon as I showed up for the test at VIR, everyone seemed excited.   It’s just meant the world to me and this is the only way I could repay him.”

Allmendinger has got himself caught up in an ugly situation with the No. 47 Cup car, the team bouncing between him and regular driver Bobby Labonte for a “second opinion” on why the car has struggled this year.  Most agree Labonte is at the end of the line, but it will still be tough for Allmendinger to replace him, as Labonte is one of the most well-liked drivers in the garage.

But regardless of what happens with the 47 car, it’s nice to have the Dinger is back.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mr. Roush, Tear Down Those Walls

How smart is Brad Keselowski?
Depending on whom you were listening to last weekend following Brad Keselowski’s complaints that other teams were “stealing our information” by hiring away crewmen from Roush Fenway Racing and his Penske Racing team, Keselowski’s comments were (choose one):

a)      Misinformed (Hendrick Motorsports);

b)      Misguided and irresponsible (Joe Gibbs Racing); or

c)      Misfortunate (Roger Penske).
Actually, it’s a trick question.  The answer to the question is “d,” none of the above.  Maybe I’m reading too much into Keselowski’s comments.  And maybe I’m giving Keselowski too much credit.  But I think he knew exactly what he was saying last week.

Keselowski is a student of the sport and knows that crew members jumping from team to team is an old racing tradition.  The best chassis man in NASCAR history, Jake Elder, was nicknamed “suitcase” because he was constantly on the move.  Manufacturers have been known to lure an entire team away (sound familiar?).  And Keselowski himself asked out of his contract with Hendrick so he could drive for Penske.

Keselowski wasn’t even asked about teams stealing crewman.  He was asked how Roush and Penske were getting along.  Fine, he said, then he started dropping bombs.

Hendrick and Gibbs have this nasty little habit of going to our teams and outbidding different people and taking those employees and stealing our information.  When that happens, that kind of puts up walls between camps, because you're giving up more than one company's information, you're giving up two company's information.''
That’s what prompted the swift reaction from Hendrick and JGR.  Over-reaction would be more like it.   Rick Hendrick even seemed a little embarrassed by it all come Sunday.
But Keselowski wasn’t trying to stop other teams from pilfering backup left tire carriers.  Read between the lines and his message was clear: the flow of information between the Roush and Penske teams isn’t what it should be.  He was trying to tear down the “walls” between Roush and Penske by calling attention to them, at Ford’s headquarters no less.
Once of the big questions prior to this season was how Roush would play with Penske, which was moving to Ford after winning a championship for Keselowski in a Dodge in 2012.  The whole idea of Penske leaving Dodge for Ford was to have another team to share information.
However the Ford teams have been off the pace this year.  Even though Greg Biffle won Ford’s 1,000th NASCAR race Sunday at Michigan, there were at least five cars faster than his, including three Hendrick Chevys.  The Penske cars have yet to win and haven’t really been in contention to win. 
Jimmie Johnson, for one, seemed to understand what was really bugging Keselowski
"He raised up a valid point as far as the Roush aspect of sharing information there,” Johnson said.  "I think the real truth in what he's saying is relative to the Penske-Roush relationship. I fully understand that. I'm sure both sides are protecting something. We're all racing each other for Chase slots and championships and race wins.  
It’s not the first time Keselowski has used a bit of pit road psychology.  Last year he called out Hendrick Motorsports in general and the No. 48 car in particular for its rear-end configuration.  Again the reaction from the Hendrick camp was swift.  But I wrote at the time I didn’t think his target was Hendrick.  The real target was his own team; he wanted them to start pushing the envelope.  It may have been the turning point in the season for Penske Racing.
By the end of the weekend another voice had weighed in on Keselowski’s comments.  Perhaps the most important voice of all.  The voice of Jack Roush.   After acknowledging that his and Penske’s team had held just one joint wind tunnel test (one!), he noted, "We had a summit meeting with the Penske guys last week, and talked about some of the strategies.  We just scratched the surface. It will be great to have someone to share information with."
Roger Penske, after weighing on Keselowski, also spoke about the meeting with Roush.
“We made great progress,” he said.  “We checked the boxes of where we were. I think Jack and I are on the same page — our people are. We’re a new organization.  We’re both separate but coming together, it doesn’t happen overnight. I think there’s been a lot gained and we’ll see a lot more.  I’m a business man, Jack’s a business man. I think we understand that. We see the benefits of the Chevrolet people working together, the Toyota people and we have to play the same game. We’ve all got to do better.”
More than halfway to the Chase and the two lead Ford teams have just “scratched the surface"!?!  No wonder Keselowski was speaking out.
So did Keselowski’s comments help tear down the walls or was it just a coincidence?  Can Keselowski really be that smart?
Obviously I think so. 

But maybe it’s just an example of another conspiracy theory hatched on the fringe of blogosphere.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jim Brown Should Stick to Football

Football great Jim Brown
The following column was prepared prior to word of Jason Leffler's death in a Wednesday sprint car accident.  Combined with the death a track worker last Sunday at the Canadian Grand Prix, it is a stark reminder that, despite many improvements in the past 15 years, auto racing remains a dangerous sport and requires continued vigilance to make it safer. 

So Jim Brown thinks NASCAR is safer than the National Football League.


The former Cleveland Browns running back, now 77, was at last Sunday’s Pocono race as a guest of Richard Petty Motorsports (Brown is an associate of RPM co-owner Andrew Murstein).  It was his second NASCAR race.  After a quick tour, Brown told ESPN that when it comes to safety, “We (the NFL) are way behind.

"NASCAR stepped up their safety concepts, and I think the drivers feel NASCAR is doing everything that can be done.”

You could see the NASCAR officials, who have been taking some hits on safety recently, doing cartwheels down the length of Pocono’s pit road.

Now I realize Brown’s comments were meant more as a criticism of the NFL than an endorsement of NASCAR.  He’s especially concerned about football’s concussion situation and was impressed by the advancements NASCAR has made in head and neck safety, especially the HANS device. 

Still, it makes you wonder.

I wonder if Brown knew that NASCAR is the one professional sport in America that doesn’t require concussion baseline testing.  Although it appears to be getting closer.  NASCAR met with drivers back in May between Charlotte race weekends for a discussion of baseline testing.  Indications are the testing will be required beginning next year.

That would finally bring NASCAR in line with guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology, reinforcing what has become common practice for athletes in recent years, the need to establish a baseline for comparison in diagnosing a possible concussion.

Still, that seems like a long time to wait for a sport that travels at 200 mph.

I wonder if Brown was aware of Jeff Gordon’s recent comments on safety when he said, “I think the drivers feel NASCAR is doing everything that can be done.”  After a bad crash at Charlotte left him with a sore neck, Gordon said, “I had no idea there was no SAFER Barrier at that dogleg on the front straightaway.  That blew my mind that there wasn’t one.

“That kind of shocked me.”

Gordon has been critical of NASCAR for failing to require safer barriers everywhere on the track.  He had a similar incident at Las Vegas a few years back and earlier this this season Danny Hamlin broke his back at California when he hit a wall not covered by a safer barrier.

Why aren’t barriers everywhere?

“There’s only one reason,” Gordon says.  “Cost.”

I wonder if Brown was aware of Charlotte's Cameragate and the fact we’re still waiting for an explanation on what happened and why.  NASCAR turned it over to Fox.  Fox turned it over to COMCAT, the company operating the camera.  COMCAT said it expected to have an explanation shortly.  That was nearly two weeks ago.  Notice we haven’t heard a word about it and apparently nobody’s asking.

Jim Brown may be the greatest running back in NFL history.  Heck, he’s probably the greatest player in NFL history.  I loved watching him drag himself slowly to his feet and limp back to the huddle as if he was hurting, only to run over three defenders on the very next play.  Some say he is the greatest professional athlete ever—and I wouldn’t argue with that.

And I even loved him in The Dirty Dozen.

But an expert on NASCAR safety he’s not.  He should stick to football.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mythical Chevy SS Moves Closer to Reality

The mythical Chevy SS
General Motors moved the mythical Chevy SS a step closer to reality last week, announcing the car will have a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $44,470 when it goes on sale sometime “in the fourth quarter” of this year.  The General refused to be more specific regarding an on-sale date.

That’s right, there’s a chance you won’t be able to buy the car that has been dominating NASCAR since its debut at Daytona in February, until after the season has ended.   Fourth quarter means somewhere between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31.  My guess is it will be closer to the New Year's Eve.

But if I was a smart Chevy marketing guy (and there are a few), and Jimmie Johnson is on his way to winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship at Homestead and Chevy its 11th straight manufacturer championship--both during the Ford Championship Weekend--I'd do everything possible get the car launched that weekend.

The SS, especially in the hands of Johnson, has been simply mystical on the race track.  Johnson led a parade of four SS in the top five and six of the top 10 Sunday at Pocono.  If it started today, half of the cars in the Chase would be Chevys while Ford and Toyota would be relegated to three each.  Including All-Star weekend, the Chevy SS has won five straight races.

About the only place the SS hasn’t been out front is in dealerships.  Chevrolet has started a new adage: Win on Sunday, sell in the Fourth Quarter.

Once upon a time, NASCAR required that a car actually be sold in dealerships before it (or at least its namesake) could appear in race.  Five hundred of them back in the ‘60s.  Of course back then it was also pretty easy for a manufacturer to find 500 dealers willing to step up and buy a Dodge Charger Daytona or Ford Torino Talladega as their personal driver if the “incentive” was right.

Both Toyota and Ford have struggled at times this year.  The Toyotas have been fast, with five wins, but fragile. Their engine reliability problems have been well documented.   Matt Kenseth has three wins and probably should have a couple more, but he’s been knocked out of several races by car troubles.

The Fords haven’t been very fast, with just two wins so far this year.  And Talladega doesn’t really count.  Speculation continues that the nose of the Fusion is the culprit.  Ironic, because the company asked for a special dispensation from NASCAR to alter the grille of the car so it would look more like the production model.  Still, it is supposed to have the same aero numbers as the Chevy and Toyota.  Thanks to consistent finishes, at least Carl Edwards has his Ford second in the points.

Things got so bad last week, the head racing honchos at Ford and Toyota called their drivers together before the Pocono 400 and assured them things would get better.  Just not in time for the Pocono 400.

At more than $44,000 (not including the destination charge or the gas-guzzler tax), the Australian-built SS has twice the starting price of its on-track competitors, the Fusion and Camry.  But for the money, you get a 415 hp V8 engine and rear-wheel drive car compared to the puny under 200 hp 4-bangers from the Ford and Toyota front-drivers 

In fact the, neither the Fusion or Camry are showroom competitors with the SS.  The Dodge Charger SRT8 with 470 hp is a much better match. 

Yup, another car you can’t find on the race track.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Montoya In The Chase? Now That's A Wild Card

JPP -- Chase Contender
He’s still got a long, long way to go, but Juan Pablo Montoya is looking like a possible Chase contender.
Talk about a Wild Card.
Montoya has always been one of the hardest guys in NASCAR to pass (along with Ryan Newman).  Pass at your own risk.  Bump him once and he’ll bump you twice – only harder. 
It’s still not easy to pass Montoya – and it shouldn’t be – but he’s finally getting better at playing the game.  During the Dover race, Montoya was bumped and passed first by  faster Kurt Busch and later by Jimmie Johnson.  Each time everyone held their breath and waited to see what would happen.  Montoya let them know he wasn’t happy with a nudge back, but in a way that didn’t wreck both cars, as often happened in the past.  Newman still needs to learn that lesson, as we saw at Dover.
Montoya also seems to have learned after eight years that he’s not going to win every race.  It used to be if the car wasn’t right, he’d try to carry it, often crashing.  Dover race winner Tony Stewart has noticed a difference.
“I think he’s come a long way in this series,” Stewart said.  “There’s people that you enjoy racing and that you hope you have that battle with when it comes to racing for a win. Juan is on that list of guys that I respect and would want to be in that scenario with.”
Montoya’s new driving style comes at the same time the Ganassi Racing cars are benefiting from the off-season switch to Hendrick Motorsports engines.  He already has three top 10 finishes this season, one than he had in all of a disastrous 2012.  He was a contender to win at both Dover and Richmond, two tracks where you would never think to put him your fantasy team.  He seems on the verge of winning his first oval track race. 
Montoya is still 22nd in points, so his best hope to make the Chase is to win at least one race, two would be better, while moving into the top 20 in points.  And with the two road course races still on the schedule, where he has his two career NASCAR victories, he has chance, I think a good chance. 
Montoya back in the Chase.  That would be something to look forward to.