What a difference a year makes for 2010 Daytona champion
By Rick Minter/ Cox Newspapers
In a heart-warming turn of events, last year’s odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing has become the hottest property of the early 2010 NASCAR season.
Jamie McMurray, who was left without a ride when Roush Fenway was forced to drop from five to four teams to meet NASCAR’s maximum number of teams per owner, languished in limbo for a time before securing a job driving the No.1 Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, the team he left when he moved to Roush.
And on Sunday he gave the Ganassi team its biggest moment ever in NASCAR by surging to the front and scoring a win in the Great American Race, the 52nd annual Daytona 500.
McMurray used a drafting boost from his old Roush teammate Greg Biffle, then held off a fast-closing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get his second straight win in a restrictor-plate race. He also won last fall at Talladega in a Roush Ford, and he won another plate race, in July 2007, at Daytona.
In winning at Daytona, McMurray set a record for the least laps led by a winner, two. It was also one of the race’s longest events, running eight laps past the scheduled distance to accommodate two green-white-checkered-flag attempts. And the race was delayed two times for a total of two hours and 25 minutes so track workers could repair holes in the track. But when the cars were running, it was good racing, with 53 lead changes, the third most at Daytona, among a record 21 drivers.
When McMurray climbed from his Chevrolet in Victory Lane, he was overcome by emotion, pausing to collect himself and wiping away tears as he spoke to a national audience about his triumph.
“Coming off of Turn Four, seeing the checkered flag, knowing there’s not going to be another ‘green white checkered’, you’re going to be the Daytona 500 champion, I can’t explain to you,” McMurray said. “It’s very emotional. I don’t know that I’ve cried like that. I kept trying to compose myself. I couldn’t get it back.”
McMurray’s father, Jim McMurray, who has been a familiar face around the NASCAR garages since his son became a racer, missed the celebration by leaving the track early.
But McMurray mentioned him often in his post-race interview.
“My dad, that’s who I grew up racing with,” he said. “We still race together. He’s literally my best friend probably. That’s just who I hang out with….
“I’m really fortunate that my dad’s cool and I like hanging out with him. He drives me crazy sometimes. I won’t lie to you. We go at each other. But I love him.”
McMurray said it’s no big deal to him that his father missed the Victory Lane celebration.
“I almost kind of laugh at it because I know he’s fired up that he left,” he said. “I got something to yell at him about now. So it’s good stuff.”
Another person who put on a stirring performance but wasn’t smiling at the end was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was as low as 22nd in the running order when the green-white-checkered-flag finishes started but soared to second place at the end.
“I don’t really remember much about it. It was all a blur,” Earnhardt said. “I was just going wherever they weren’t. I really don’t enjoy being that aggressive, but if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best.”
Earnhardt and McMurray both said they didn’t think the lengthy delays for repairs to the track would have a lasting effect on fans, even though many left the track before the end of the race.
“Track surfaces are going to have problems from time to time,” Earnhardt said. “This wasn’t a fault of NASCAR. It wasn’t a fault of Daytona’s. It was probably more or less everybody’s cars beating on the race track with trailing arm mounts and tail pipes.
“That’s going to knock a hole in some asphalt, I don’t care where you are.”
Do what it takes
New enforcement policy suits Keselowski just fine
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s new policy of loosening the reins on drivers, letting them be a little more aggressive on the track without incurring penalties, shouldn’t have too much effect on young Brad Keselowski. He already races that way.
That fact was evidenced by his stunning win over Carl Edwards in last year’s Spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, a race that ended with Edwards sailing into the catchfence after contact with Keselowski, who slipped by to take his and his car owner James Finch’s first Sprint Cup wins.
“I actually did those things already last year,” Keselowski said with a smile during last week’s media session at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m not sure how much that I can change. I’m already right there for the most part.”
The question for Keselowski and a lot of others on both sides of the catchfence is how other drivers in NASCAR will react to the shift in enforcement policy.
“When I met with NASCAR [officials] in Phoenix last year, they pretty much told me that’s the way the sport was pretty much going to go, and they were going to be OK with it,” he said. “So I didn’t see it as much of a surprise. I’m more interested in seeing the actions of other drivers versus myself.”
But Keselowski, who comes from one of the sport’s old-time families, isn’t about to label himself just as an aggressive driver.
“My attitude towards racing is to do what it takes to win,” he said. “I’d prefer to win honorably. I can’t always say that I’ve done that. Hopefully we can put together strong enough cars this year to where we can win without drama.
“A goal of mine is to win a race and look back and nobody say, ‘He screwed me over to do it.’ That’s the way race car drivers are…we never get beat fairly, just ask us. That’s part of the sport. The approach is to go out there and win and do the best that we can every week. We’ll see where that takes us.”
Among those not complaining about Keselowski is his new teammate, Sam Hornish Jr. Keselowski has moved from Hendrick Motorsports to Penske Racing, where he’ll run full Nationwide and Sprint schedules.
“I think that Brad’s very fast,” Hornish said. “I think he’s definitely got an understanding of the car. He’s spent a lot of time over there at Hendrick trying to make himself better and to learn from the guys he’s around. All in all, there are some things that I can learn from him and I think that it’s a good addition to the team.”
Although he probably needs to become friends with Hornish and with Kurt Busch, his other teammate at Penske, he’s not worried about making other friends, at least on the track.
“Anytime your competitors are happy with you is when they’re beating you…” he said. “A lot of the established drivers don’t like young drivers coming into the sport because there is an upset to that balance. Before, that ride wasn’t a ride that they had to worry about and now it is. Realistically, it’s that they don’t want to race that guy.”
Even though Keselowski has acquired a reputation as being aggressive, he said that perception isn’t the same as reality.
“I feel like that, objectively, if you step back and watch my in-car camera tapes and stuff, I feel like I give when it’s the right time to give and I take when it’s the right time to take,” he said. “For the most part I always do that.
There have been a few races during the season where I step back and say, ‘Whoa, I did a terrible job of not giving right there.’
“There have been a few (races) where I’ve given too much. But at the end of the day, when I look my team in the eyes, I want to be able to look at them and say that I took more than I gave. I want to be able to look at them and for them to know that when I got out of that race car, I left nothing on the table. I never gave up a spot that I shouldn’t have…
“If you have to make a few competitors mad along the way, that’s just part of it.”
Soaking In The Win
A bold move by a rookie crew chief pays off for
reigning Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
During the recent Preseason Thunder media event at Daytona International Speedway, Matt Kenseth was introduced as the reigning champion of the Daytona 500. With his dry Midwestern sense of humor, he acted as if the host had welcomed the “raining champion,” a reference to the fact that Kenseth got his, and his Roush Fenway Racing team’s first Daytona 500 victory by taking the lead just as rain halted the race 112 miles shy of the advertised 500.
To the casual observer, Kenseth’s win was largely a fluke, a giant reward for being in the right place at the right time when a Sprint Cup race suddenly turned into a game of musical chairs at 200 miles per hour.
But in a recent interview, his then-rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer told the tale from his side, and it sounds more like a traditional racing victory than a stroke of luck.
The scenario that put Kenseth in position to win started during the Budweiser Shootout the week before.
“We were actually running second with one [lap] to go, got booted out of the way and kind of shuffled back and ended up wrecking our race car, so that was wreck number one,” Blickensderfer said.
Then it was on to Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying race, where another good race car was collected in a crash.
That was when Blickensderfer, in his first race as a Cup crew chief, had his first real test.
Kenseth wanted to run the repaired Bud Shootout car in the 500, but Blickensderfer vetoed the veteran driver and chose the back-up car sitting up top in the team’s transporter.
“That was the point when I knew I was the leader,” Blickensderfer said.
But it was a tough call, as Kenseth implored him to run the Shootout car.
“[Kenseth] said, ‘That’s a terrible decision. That car hasn’t been on the race track. Our Shootout car was just fine. Get it fixed and bring it back up here,’” he said.
Blickensderfer held his ground, knowing the team’s data showed the backup to be as good as any car they could run.
“I made that decision,” he said. “But I remember going home that evening saying, ‘Oh no, I just made Matt mad. He’s a superstar in the sport and a champion, and I’m this rookie crew chief that just put his foot down the first week of the year. This might be a long year.’”
On the Sunday afternoon of the 500, Kenseth had to start in the rear because of the car switch, but the team overcame that by pit strategy and soon had Kenseth among the top 10.
The way Blickensderfer saw it, there were only three or four cars that were faster than Kenseth, and all of them wound up getting wiped out in a wreck that Kenseth barely missed.
“So late in the race when we were running in the top three, the cars around us weren’t as fast as we were and I knew it,” he said. “I knew it was just a matter of time before we could take off.”
But with rain imminent, they still had to time it just right, and not get caught making a pit stop just before the rain started.
The rookie crew chief handled the situation like a veteran.
“We came and got tires towards the end of the race because we knew the rain was coming,” he said. “The last two or three cautions we stayed out knowing it was coming. They were quick cautions.”
At that point, all Kenseth really had to do was pass the leader, Elliott Sadler. And third-running Kevin Harvick, knowing Kenseth had the faster car, agreed to stick with him in the draft.
“So with a single-file restart it was just up to Matt to make the right move on Sadler,” Blickensderfer said.
Kenseth did, and the race was over.
Blickensderfer’s only regret was that he didn’t take time to soak in the win a little more.
“Six months later I kept thinking to myself, ‘I wish I could have Daytona back again,’” he said. “You want to grasp Victory Lane and winning the biggest race of your life over again.”
Mark Martin still chasing, The last trophy.
51-year-old recharged by strong full-time return in 2009
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Several years ago, when Mark Martin was nearing the end of his years of driving for Roush Racing, he invited members of the media to his personal shop near Daytona Beach, Fla.
After lunch was served and the tables cleared, there were still several media types hanging around, and Martin asked if they would like to see some of his racing and personal memorabilia.
Martin walked the reporters through the building, pointing out the significance of the items there.
There was a handwritten note from his father, telling Mark the finer points of flying his twin-engine airplane. Most would have provided a pilot with an official manual but the hand-written note was more in tune with his father’s style. There were trophies and fire suits and such from his days racing in the American Speed Association, and there were similar spoils of victory from his years in the Cup and Nationwide series.
But Martin confessed that day that he didn’t really see the trophies as he walked past them. He was still too busy chasing the next one. His time for reflecting on his career would have to come later, in another phase of his life.
Martin went on to run a partial schedule for two seasons, then returned full-time in 2009, posting remarkable results.
After a dismal start, he bounced back to win five races including one in the Chase, lead the standings for a time and ended the season as runner-up to Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Recently, Martin was asked if his time off made him look at his trophies in a different light.
He said he still doesn’t really see them, but the brief respite has made a big difference.
For much of his Cup career, he sometimes seemed like the unhappiest and most pessimistic driver in the garage. Now the opposite is often true.
He attributes much of the change to the time he took to recharge his batteries, so to speak.
“What it did do was really make me appreciate the time, the thrill, the excitement, the experience I had, the enthusiasm and electricity I felt for my race team, not only in Victory Lane, but every day I got to work with them,” he said. “It’s all those people that I got to work with, all the good times.”
He said people may have tired of hearing him say how happy he was last season, but he makes no apologies.
“I used to be Mr. Not So [Happy and Optimistic],” he said. “People complained about that too. But my life is good. Everything is good. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.
“I love being at the race track and working with people. I’m excited to get to Daytona and see all the competitors and see the fans again.
“Those two years were critical in me fully appreciating all that.”
Now, at age 51, in what is most certainly the twilight of his driving career, he’s poised to win the Cup championship that has always eluded him.
“I am more ready today than I was a year ago right now,” he said. “I know that my race team is more ready than they were a year ago right now. I know our pit stops are faster than they were a year ago right now. I know that we have a better understanding of our race cars than where we were a year ago right now. … We hadn’t even run a race yet a year ago. …
“Those things I do know. I’m not Mr. Optimistic, I’m not Mr. Pessimistic, I’m Mr. Realistic. And realistically speaking, I can’t tell you what the result will be in 2010, but … we are better than we were a year ago. I just don’t know how much better our competition is.”
Junior Nation looking for a Change of luck.
Earnhardt teammates think his
fortune is turning around
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s “Junior Nation” — that large chunk of the sport’s fan base that is so loyal to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and has been fairly quiet for a season or so — may be about to rise again.
Based on comments from Earnhardt himself and from his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, there are reasons to believe that Earnhardt’s surprising slump is nearing an end.
It couldn’t come too soon for Earnhardt and his supporters. His 2009 season was a nightmare.
His longtime dream of racing at the top levels of the sport with his cousin Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief came to an end because of their lousy results. Even with the midseason switch to Lance McGrew, he still finished the year 25th in points with just two top-5 and five top-10 finishes while his Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon swept the top three spots in the standings and combined to win 13 races.
The general thinking among Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fellow drivers, especially those at Hendrick, is that Earnhardt is overdue for a change of luck.
Martin, whose No. 5 Chevrolet is prepared under the same Hendrick Motorsports roof as Earnhardt’s No. 88, said Earnhardt’s luck is bound to change soon. He said Earnhardt ran better than many realized last year, even though the final results indicated otherwise.
“They ran better than the [No. 5] car in numerous races, but nobody really noticed because they got wrecked or something broke or whatever happened, happened,” Martin said. “They had a lot of things happen and go bad for them when they were faster than we were in the [No. 5] car. … It won’t take an enormous amount of performance to get them in the hunt.”
But it will take a change of fortunes.
“Everybody’s luck turns around,” Martin said. “Nobody has got the horseshoe forever either. It goes both ways. And certainly Dale Jr. is due for some good days.”
Earnhardt said he senses some real change at his race shop, and a lot of it has to do with stability, especially when it comes to his crew chief Lance McGrew.
“It really wasn’t that long ago when we didn’t know what was going to happen with Lance,” said Earnhardt, referring to the “interim” label that McGrew carried until last fall at Talladega.
But that’s not the case anymore. Earnhardt said that based on his own observations and what he hears from McGrew, he has reason to believe that the newfound stability at the shop will translate into better results at the race track.
“Lance is telling me, being the guy that’s there every day, that it’s completely different, and he seems far more enthusiastic about the beginning of the season and what our chances are than I anticipated him feeling, if I had to guess at the end of last year,” he said. “I knew we would make some changes, and I knew we would try again at Daytona this year, but I feel even better now after just hearing him and understanding how much has changed, how much has really changed.
“It helps my confidence that we’ll be where we need to be.”
Jeff Gordon said that just getting Earnhardt’s mojo back will fix a lot of things for his teammate.
“The [Hendrick] organization puts so much effort into every team and every car that the ingredients are certainly there,” he said. “I think that probably what’s left is just to get that confidence up. It happens with everybody. If the driver is confident, then the crew chief is confident, and if the crew chief is confident, the pit crew is confident. It just trickles all the way down.”
Reed Sorenson gets Back to basics
Hopes ‘little step back’ to partial schedule leads to ‘big step forward’
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
For most of his 23 years, Reed Sorenson’s story was a textbook lesson on how to groom an aspiring young race driver and propel him to a ride on the elite Sprint Cup Series. But the latest chapter in his career, one in which he’s having to step back to the Nationwide Series, may be the most interesting yet.
The story started when Sorenson was just six years old and began racing Quarter Midgets. His father, Brad, a top Late Model driver in the Southeast at the time, parked his own driving ambitions to steer his son’s career. Reed’s mom, Becky, cranked up a public relations machine that spread news of the youngster’s progress far and wide, especially to the movers and shakers around the NASCAR hub in Charlotte.
Young Reed excelled in Quarter Midgets then moved to Legends cars as soon as he reached the minimum age. He continued right on winning races and championships. He took the step to Late Models as soon as he was allowed to race them and then was on to the ASA circuit, then the highest profile stock car circuit short of ARCA and NASCAR.
By the time he was old enough to race in NASCAR, teams were lining up to court him. He chose Chip Ganassi and rewarded him with two wins in the Nationwide Series in 2005, his first full season out.
By 2006, at age 20, he was a Sprint Cup regular. But the upward career movement stalled out there. In 145 career Cup starts, Sorenson’s best result has been five top-five finishes. His best points finish has been 22nd in 2007. Sensing his career at Ganassi had reached a plateau after the 2008 season, Sorenson moved to the Gillett Evernham team that soon morphed into Richard Petty Motorsports. That turned out to be not the best choice. By the middle of the 2009 season, he was a lame duck there. He finished the season 29th in the standings, with just one top-10 finish.
Now, just a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday, he’s preparing to run a partial, 23-race schedule for Braun Racing in the Nationwide Series, sharing the ride with Cup driver Brian Vickers.
In a phone interview last week, he sounded upbeat and confident about taking a job that some might look on as a demotion.
“I look at it as taking a little step back so I can make a big step forward,” he said, explaining that he believes the Braun team and promising young crew chief Trent Owens are plenty capable of providing him cars that can carry him to Victory Lane and build back his stock’s value.
“It’ll be nice to get back that feeling of being one of the cars to beat every time out,” Sorenson said. “I haven’t had that in a few years.”
Sorenson said that after working with Owens at Gateway International Raceway and at Phoenix last year, where he finished second and third respectively, he believes he and Owens can be a winning duo.
“He’s dedicated,” Sorenson said. “He gives all he’s got to make the car the best it can be.”
Sorenson said that he’s found his new team to be hungry to show the Cup-affiliated competitors in the Nationwide garage that they’re as good as any other outfit.
“Most of the guys at Braun have been together a few years, and they feel like they have something to prove. They’re the best stand-alone team.”
But Sorenson’s enthusiasm about his upcoming Nationwide schedule isn’t a sign that he’s surrendered any hope of returning to the Cup circuit full-time. He said the timing may have worked out just right as far as he’s concerned. He believes that the current economic woes are making it tough for any driver to get a good Cup deal right now. But he doesn’t believe that will still be the case a year from now.
“If we run good this year, I’ll be in a better position next year, especially if we can win some races,” he said.
And he’s pretty sure that he’ll get a few chances in Cup this year.
“We’re working hard on it,” he said.
David Ragan: Looking forward with new crew chief!
David Ragan: Looking forward
With new crew chief, No. 6 driver excited about 2010 season
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
As the 2010 NASCAR season approaches, one of the stories to watch will be the performance of David Ragan and his No. 6 Ford team at Roush Fenway Racing. After nearly making the Chase in 2008 and showing tons of promise, Ragan started the 2009 season with a solid sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, then dropped like a rock, finally finishing 27th in the points standings with just two top-10 finishes (the other a seventh at California in the fall) and four laps led.
And when one’s driving one of the premier cars for one of the sport’s premier owners, that’s not good for the long-term employment prospects.
But Ragan says he’s used to that kind of pressure and ready to go to work to right his team’s listing ship. His dedication to racing was evident in his New Year’s Day schedule. At an hour when most were sleeping off a night of revelry, Ragan was at his personal shop, working on a Late Model car that he plans to race in his home state of Georgia at Lanier National Speedway on Saturday and Sunday.
Still, his primary focus is on his Cup efforts, so he took the time to grant an interview about his NASCAR efforts while his friends and cousins continued work on the car.
With impact wrenches hammering away in the background, Ragan talked about the upcoming season.
He said he’s optimistic, based on some recent conversations, that his new crew chief, Donnie Wingo, can help him achieve the success he couldn’t find in ’09 with his former pit boss Jimmy Fennig.
“It’ll be good for our team to have Donnie and me working together,” Ragan said. “We’ve talked some, and we’re thinking along the same direction on a lot of things …
“It’ll be a lot of fun to go to Daytona with a new group and a good attitude.”
?Ragan said his preseason goals are pretty much the same as the ones he had this time last year – make the Chase and win some races. He said that at this point, he doesn’t consider himself, or his team, championship material.
“I don’t know that any team is except the 48 [Jimmie Johnson’s team],” he said. “We just need to be consistent, and not have a lot of failures.”
He pointed out that last season started good enough, but he soon was struck with a series of misfortunes. He was 17th in the second race of the season, at California, and was eighth in points heading to the third race, at Las Vegas. He blew an engine there then lost another one in the seventh race of the season, at Texas. He left there 29th in points.
“We never were able to dig ourselves out of the hole,” he said, adding that he hopes history doesn’t repeat itself.
“We just can’t afford any DNFs [Did Not Finish] in the first five or six races. If we’re in the top 15 in points through Atlanta, Bristol will be good.”
When Ragan laid out the road map for success in 2010, it seemed pretty straightforward and simple, but it’ll have to be followed with the burden of pressure that comes with the territory.
But Ragan said he’s ready for that too.
“I’ve always raced like I had the heat on me,” he said. “It’s been like that since I was 12 and driving for my father. When I got out of high school and was trying to get a ride, I had heat on me.”
He said that’s a better approach than to be overly sure of himself, like some drivers who have more confidence than their on-track results justify. And he has others to think about too.
“I need to perform for my fans, for [sponsor] UPS, for my father, for everyone,” he said. “And I feel confident that I can do it.”
A lot of that confidence comes from two major victories in the Nationwide Series last year – at Talladega and Bristol. They were his first two in a major NASCAR series, and they also were the first for his then-crew chief Mike Kelley and for most of the people on his team. But with the departure of sponsor Discount Tire, Ragan currently has no Nationwide races on his schedule. That’s something he’d like to change.
“I want to run some Nationwide races, but I want to run them for Roush,” he said. “Hopefully something will happen so I can run a limited schedule, but my primary focus is on getting the Cup program going.”
And his work with his Late Model car is a first step of the year in that direction. With limited opportunities for testing in his Cup car due to NASCAR’s restrictions on testing, he’ll use his time behind the wheel to sharpen his skills for the upcoming season.
“Any time you can get in a race car helps you,” he said. “You get to use muscles you haven’t used in a couple of months, and you get to do some restarts and run two-wide.”
And maybe get that boost that comes from being first to the checkered flag.