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.”