Tuesday, February 25, 2014

All Is Right In NASCAR’s World – Almost

No safer barrier where Patrick hit is unacceptable
The Daytona 500 began with the No. 3 on the pole and ended with an Earnhardt in Victory Lane.  Could there be a more perfect start to the NASCAR season?

Dale Earnhardt  Jr.’s uncontained joy in victory was impossible to ignore and contagious.  On Tuesday he compared his victory to the 1979 Daytona 500 that is often credited with making NASCAR a big time sport.

“I think we turned on a lot of people Sunday,” he said in the midst of several days of media stops.  “I think that race was destined to do that for some reason.  It had kind of that feel, that '79 Daytona that was first live flag-to-flag broadcast that really turned the world on to what we were doing through network television.

“My race might not have had that kind of impact, but it's comparable, I think, in some ways.  Yeah, hopefully this is going to be a solid year.  NASCAR made some changes to try to kick start some energy and boost awareness and excitement in what our series can do.  I think we got a great start to the year, for sure.”

Earnhardt car owner Rick Hendrick summed it up.  "It's good for NASCAR.  It's good for all of us."

Jeff Gordon, booed loudly by fans of Earnhardt Sr. when he first came up for having the nerve to stand up to “Intimidator,” suddenly found himself a hero on social media for pushing his teammate into the lead on the final restart.

Not even a rain delay of nearly six and a half hours could dampen the euphoria.  In fact, it probably contributed to the race as it provided for better handling race cars and the emphasis to be up front in case a race shortening shower hit.

Dale Jr. is even on Twitter.

Can it get any better?

Well, yeah, it could.

In the midst of this all this celebration, I hope NASCAR doesn't overlooked a couple of things that need to be addressed.

There were four “big ones.”  The threat of more rain and the urgency to be up front probably contributed to more big accidents than normal for a Daytona or Talladega race.  But if NASCAR thinks it has found the right car formula for its superspeedways, it needs to think again.

The third “big one” could have gone terribly wrong as Danica Patrick slammed the wall on the front stretch.  Incredibly, the wall at that point is not covered by a safer barrier.  If there is anything we have learned – and NASCAR should know it better than anyone else – if there’s a wall around a track, a car will eventually find a way to hit it. 
There’s no excuse for the wall not to have been protected.  Every inch of wall at Daytona and Talladega – inside and out – needs to be covered by a safer barrier.  With taxpayers paying hundreds of millions of dollars of the renovation going on at Daytona, it’s time for the track and ISC to dip into some of those billions of television dollars and complete the safer barrier process.  Now.
And don’t forget that a car got up into the catch fencing during practice and tore a couple of small holes in the fence.  Speedway officials were quick to say the new fencing did its job, but that’s another area NASCAR needs to continue to evaluate.
Finally, we can forget about a Richard Petty vs. Danica Patrick match race.  I can’t think of anything positive that would come of it. It’s a lose/lose proposition.  Which would be worse, Petty winning, or Petty losing?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Daytona 500 Still NASCAR's Super Bowl?

Daytona is a "Major," but longer NASCAR's Super Bowl
The Daytona 500 may be The Great American Race, but is it still NASCAR’s Super Bowl?

"It's the 500, the biggest race of the year, the biggest event," 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said recently. "It's our Super Bowl, and it's our first race out of the gate and the Super Bowl is always the most exciting."
Sorry Brad.  Not anymore.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t set up a NFL style elimination playoff like the one NASCAR has put in place and still call the first race of the year the Super Bowl.  Just won’t work.  The Daytona 500 has become just another one of 26 play-in games.
The new Chase format was been compared to the NFL playoffs, but it’s much closer to the FedEx Cup in the golf.  Now I like golf, watch the majors and some other tournaments on Sunday when the competition is close, but the FedEx process remains vague to me. Suffice to say that near the end of the season, a certain number of golfers are knocked our each week until the Cup winner is decided in the final tournament of the year.  In golf, however, the Cup is secondary.  The “Majors” are what count, The Masters, British Open, US Open and PGA Championship.   
NASCAR’s Super Bowl now takes place in Homestead, Florida, in the last race of the year.  But like golf, maybe NASCAR also has four “majors.”  The Daytona 500 would be one.  The World 600 is another.  Then comes the Brickyard and the Bristol night race.  A fifth major (golf announcers like to say the Player’s Championship is a fifth major)?  Could be Darlington, the fall Talladega race, one of the Martinsville events, Richmond fall race, or a couple of others. 
Any thoughts?
500 Prediction:  Joe Gibbs Racing has won just about everything so far in Speed Week and I don’t expect that to change.  Matt Kenseth would seem to be the favorite, but he's hit everything except the pace car this week.  I like Denny Hamlin.  It's beginning to look like his year.  Surprising that Kyle Busch is the third pick on a three-car team.  If one of those three win, it will be Toyota's first Daytona 500 victory

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Auto Racing's Mount Rushmore

Foyt one of four on racing's Mount Rushmore
LeBron “King” James started it, saying he expects to be on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore when his playing days are over, as one of the four best players in NBA history.  

For the record, James put Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in rock and, for the time being, Oscar Robertson.  Obviously, James isn’t exactly a student of NBA history, leaving Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabber and Jerry West, among others, off the hill. 

Not so sure about his choices.  But it started me thinking over President’s Weekend.  Who belongs on auto racing’s Mount Rushmore?  For argument’s sake, auto racing’s Mount Rushmore is for competitors only.  That means no Tony Hulman or Bill France, both of whom deserve consideration otherwise.  And oh yeah, since Mount Rushmore is for American presidents, this is for American racing drivers only.

So who are the four best drivers in American auto racing history? 

A. J. Foyt gets George Washington’s spot on the mountain.  He raced and won in virtually everything on wheels except Formula One.  All-time leader in Indy car wins with 67.  All-time USAC race winner.  Winner of four Indy 500s, the Daytona 500, seven NASCAR races, the 24 hour races at Le Mans and Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.  Two-time winner of the International Race of Champions (IROC).

Mario Andretti.  OK, Andretti was born in Italy.  But he’s been a naturalized American citizen since 1964, when his career was just getting started.  So he’s eligible on my Mount Rushmore.  Only driver ever to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and F1 World Championship.  Two-time Indy car champion.  Along with Foyt, only driver to win the Indy 500 and Daytona 500.  Driver of the year in three different decades.  IROC champion.   A total of 109 major race victories. 

NASCAR’s Richard Petty.  Strictly a NASCAR driver, but his 200 Cup wins are nearly twice as many as everyone else.  Seven titles.  ‘Nough said.

Now here’s where it gets tough.  Only one spot remaining.  It’s not like the Hall of Fame where you can vote someone in next year.  This guy’s head is gonna go in granite. 

There are a number of drivers from NASCAR that deserve consideration.  Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough.  From Indy car there’s Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser.  Don Garlits and John Force from drag racing.  Dan Gurney and Tony Stewart for their all-around accomplishments.   Steve Kinser.
Here’s a wild card.  Ray Harroun.  Winner of the first Indy 500.  Seems fitting.
But on my Mount Rushmore, Earnhardt gets the fourth spot.  Others have won more races, but only he and Petty have seven titles.  Like Foyt, Andretti and Petty, he meant as much to auto racing off the track as on.  And he still dominates the sport nearly 13 years after his death.  Look at the commotion over the return of the No. 3 to Daytona.  The mustache might be a little challenging to carve into rock, but it will look good.
What about Jimmie Johnson?  Not yet.  Not even enough wins; not enough titles – yet.  But if that time comes, they need to get ready to make some changes.  
Then the question becomes, who would you remove?  Or as King James put it, “Somebody got to get bumped. That’s not for me to decide. That’s for the architects, to chisel somebody’s face out and put mine up there.”
We’ll leave for another day.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Best Daytona Field Ever? Hard To Beat 1964

Richard Petty dominated the best field In Daytona 500 history to win in 1964
The best field in Daytona 500 history?  It would be hard to top the 46 drivers and cars that started the race fifty years ago in 1964.
In addition to the NASCAR regulars, the starting lineup included Indy car regulars A. J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman, Johnny Rutherford and Jim McElreath; Dan Gurney from Formula One and Dave MacDonald, winner of the ’63 national road racing championship.  There was even one of the leading European sports car drivers of the day and a favorite of Carroll Shelby, Jo Schlesser, making his one and only NASCAR start.  
Even in an era when drivers often jumped from one series and to another, and one type of car to another, the ’64 Daytona 500 stands out as one of the best fields in history – and arguably – the best ever.
The battle for performance leadership between the Big Three car companies had shifted to a one-on-one competition between Ford and Chrysler, General Motors withdrawing from direct racing sponsorships following the ’63 season.  There was a few independent Chevrolet and Pontiac teams entered at Daytona, but the real battle was between Ford and Mercury vs. Plymouth and Dodge.  And while Chrysler relied primarily on its NASCAR regulars, Ford recruited drivers from throughout its vast motorsports empire.
Petty Enterprises, Plymouth’s top team, was back with Richard Petty, joined by Buck Baker.  Ray Nichels had shifted from Pontiac to Plymouth and had three cars for former motorcycle champion Paul Goldsmith, Larry Thomas and Bobby Issac, making his first Daytona 500 start.  Jimmy Pardue was in a single car entry.  The Dodge boys had Jim Paschal and David Pearson driving for Cotton Owners, while Junior Johnson and car owner Ray Fox had made the switch from Chevrolet to Dodge.
Ford pulled out all the stops for its namesake brand.  It had all of its big guns back for ’64, led by Holman-Moody, where Fred Lorenzen and Larry Frank were joined by joined by Fireball Roberts (moving over from Pontiac) and Marshman, who had spent most of the off-season testing a Lotus-Ford and developing the company’s new Indy car engine.  Marvin Panch, recovered from burns suffered the year before, was back in the Wood Brothers Ford, along with Dan Gurney, who had won early for the team at Riverside.  Bondy Long fielded cars for Ned Jarrett and Schlesser, while Foyt drove for Banjo Mathews’ one car team.
The Ford driver lineup was so strong, ’63 500 winner, Tiny Lund, who had driven for Holman-Moody as a substitute for Panch after pulling him from the burning car, was relegated to a private Blue Oval team. 
The Mercury lineup was nearly as impressive, with Bill Stroppe entering cars for regular Darrel Dieringer along with Jones, McElreath and MacDonald.  Bud Moore entered a pair of Mercs, for Billy Wade and Rutherford.
Among the independent drivers, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough were both back for their second start in the 500 after missing the race in ’63.  On the other end of his career, Ralph Earnhardt was making his last start in the race.
Tragically missing from the field was Joe Weatherly, two-time defending Cup champion.  He’d been killed earlier in the year in a crash at Riverside.
Unfortunately the great field didn’t lead to a great race.  Chrysler, anxious to avenge Ford's 1-5 Ford finish in  1963, stunned the racing world with the introduction of the Hemi engine.  Richard Petty dominated the race, lapping the field and leading a one-two-three Plymouth finish. 
There was no repeat of the impressive field in ’65. Pardue, Marshman and MacDonald had all been killed in racing accidents.  Chrysler ordered its Plymouth and Dodge teams to boycott NASCAR events after rule changes outlawed the hemi engine.  As a result, Ford saw little need to import additional drivers as it swept the top 11 positions.  The manufacturer wars would be renewed in '66, but the Speedway never again saw the likes of the field in the ’64 race.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What to Expect From the Gen 6.1 Car

The Gen 6.1 car may be faster by itself; slower in a group
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how the new Chase format is going to make for a more exciting 2014 Sprint Cup season.  Not nearly as much talk about how the racing on the track will be more exciting.

NASCAR and its teams have spent a fair amount of time during the short offseason testing and developing the Sprint Cup race car that was all-new last year.  Call the updated car Gen 6.1.  Last year drivers complained the Gen 6 car was too hard to drive.  The new car features more downforce, which means they’re easier to drive.

The Daytona tests were disrupted by rain, but indications are the car may be faster on its own, but slower in a pack.  And with NASCAR focused on avoiding the two-car tango and bump drafting seemingly at all costs, it remains to be seen how those packs will shape up. 

"The cars were just a touch slower," Brad Keselowski admitted following the test.  "For the season there will be a lot of different technology, a whole different rules package which should shake things up yet again. It mostly has to do with the ride heights of the car and the front suspension is quite a bit different.

"It should make the cars faster. The intent, from an industry standpoint, is to make the cars race better in traffic.

“That’s the intent."

Other things to look for at Daytona: 

The Chevys will be fast – again.

Among the Chevys, Richard Childress Racing seems to undergoing a revival.  Not only was Austin Dillion – and the No. 3 – the fastest in preseason testing, teammates Brian Scott and Ryan Newman were next in line. 

Despite a revised front end and grille for the Fusion, the Fords aren’t showing much, if any, improvement.  If the Blue Oval suffers through another year like it did in 2013, the future of Jack Roush as the lead Ford team might be in question.

All of Toyota’s eggs are apparently in Joe Gibbs’ basket.  Michael Waltrip Racing is putting on a brave face, but is closer to needing life support than getting into victory lane. 

One thing for sure.  If NASCAR decides further changes are necessary, it won’t hesitate to make them, right up to the start of the race.