Through ups, downs beloved racing scion always class act
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Throughout his career, through the winning times, the losing skids and even the loss of his father, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has gained a reputation of showing an inordinate amount of class, even in the most disappointing situations.
Two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he was a couple of turns away from breaking a 105-race losing streak, but ran out of fuel. He took the loss in stride, even as his fans reacted in disbelief and disappointment. He said that if he’d won under the circumstances of a gas-mileage strategy gamble, the victory would have been “a gift.”
On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, he was again poised to win, but his fuel-mileage strategy didn’t work out because Brad Keselowski, also in fuel-conservation mode, beat him to the finish line.
After both races, Earnhardt praised his team and moved forward, just as he has time and again in the past.
During his regular pre-race media appearance at Kansas Speedway, NASCAR’s most popular driver talked about how he handles himself and how important it is to him to ensure that he never does anything to tarnish the Earnhardt name.
“I don’t want to disappoint anybody,” Earnhardt said. “My father raced in this sport for a long time, and he raced in front and worked and talked and worked with a lot of people that I work with today – a lot of people that are in this room and a lot of people in that garage.
“Being his son, I don’t want to disappoint anybody. I don’t want to say anything that’s going to make anyone ashamed of me. I just want to run good and I want to run well, but I want to act right too.”
He said it’s important to him how he’s perceived both now and in the future.
“In the end, I want people to say that I was a good person and I was honest – when I don’t race anymore or whatever – that I was a good guy to be around and a good sport about things,” he said. “Mainly, I just don’t want to humiliate what my dad did for the sport and what he did for himself, what he did for our family name. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to tarnish any of that.”
He went on to explain that showing class in tough spots doesn’t mean he doesn’t care, that he doesn’t want to return to his winning ways. And he said he can sympathize with his fans, who expressed their disappointment in many ways, including in YouTube videos. He said he’s the same way about his favorite sports team, the Washington Redskins.
“When you’re passionate and you care – it’s a cliché – but when that’s all that matters you’re ticked until things get right or you’re upset until things get right no matter what,” he said. “I can definitely relate.”
Earnhardt said the one thing he sees that needs fixing to get him back to Victory Lane is his and his team’s performance during qualifying.
“We need to work on qualifying to not make the day so long and so hard on us,” he said. “We need to start in the top 10 so we ain’t gotta work the first three-quarters of the race trying to get within sight of it.
“That’s about it.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
As part of the All-Star weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR chairman Brian France held a question and answer session with members of the media. Here are excerpts of France’s remarks.
On the on-track competition this year:
“I would go back not only to the first part of this year, but really go back to most of last year where you saw a rise in the competition level, lead changes, new winners, very competitive Chase down the stretch between Denny [Hamlin] and Jimmie Johnson and so on. That’s carried on to this year.
“You’ve seen some resurgence by some of the drivers who mean the most to the NASCAR fan base, and obviously that would be Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., who is fourth in points now, contending for wins. And it looks like he could contend for a championship if he continues to improve with his team.
“There’s been a lot of excitement … Things are tighter, the competition level is higher, emotions are higher.
“So a good part of that is exciting and great for the sport. Obviously there are limits to what we think how far that can go, and we’ve shown those limits recently.
“If you look at the Kevin Harvick incident [at Darlington], which was not even a racing incident, it was after the event, you saw us take action and step in. You saw us take action as well with discussions with Juan Pablo [Montoya] and Ryan Newman. So there are always limits, but on balance, the most important thing is how tight the competition is.”
On maintaining control while still allowing the boys to “have at it” on the track:
“I think there are limits. You saw one of the limits is that if you put anyone in danger, like what happened with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch [at Darlington], where it was after the race …
“[I think it’s important to note if you look through NASCAR’s history – [such as] the famous finish at Daytona with Richard Petty and David Pearson where they obviously hit each other and spun out in the grass – you go through our history and that’s part of it: contact, emotion, particularly late in the race.
“We can over-officiate and over-regulate in some circumstances over a 60-year period of time. And I think our point was, a couple years ago, we thought we might be in a pattern of that, and we wanted to put it more in the drivers’ hands.
“We never said there were no limits to that. You just can’t go around with a missile and a weapon out there …
“We’re going to remain, obviously, a contact sport, and we’re going to remain with the basic philosophy that we’re putting more of it in the drivers’ hands. If they go over a line we think is there, we’ll deal with that.”
On the overall health of NASCAR’s Home Tracks short track program:
“The home track area of the business has improved in the last couple of years, in particular the regional events like the K&N Series.
“One of the things that’s happened with our regional series in our home tracks is we’re starting to get … some of the drivers in our diversity program … one being Darrell Wallace, who I know is winning in some very competitive situations. He is going to, I’m sure, be in a national series, one of the four national series, shortly. And if that happens, and if he’s successful – I hope he is – it would be a tremendous boost for us, and a tremendous accomplishment for him.
“Other drivers like Sergio Pena and others who are coming from the home tracks, coming from the regional series, are getting opportunities and showing their skills, and that’s going to be a good thing.”
On declines in attendance at some Sprint Cup tracks, like Dover International Speedway:
“We certainly don’t like to see empty seats. We like to see as many fans enjoying this great competition as possible, but we’re also realistic that some things are going to take time. There are not many sports that aren’t being affected in one way or the other in attendance.
“We have high gas prices that are upon us, and that is certainly another factor for our fans to consider. We certainly don’t want to see empty seats. We’ll be working with tracks to get the best dates possible, and we’ll go from there.”
On whether the new rules that prevent Sprint Cup drivers from earning points in the Nationwide Series are enough to give the series its own identity:
“I think you’re going to see us take a slow, steady look at making sure that we’re getting the most out of the Nationwide Series, which needs to be analogous to college football and being able to build some stars that come from Saturday to Sunday for us.
“This [rules change] was a big step, but it’s not going to be the only step, and we’ll be looking at ways to enhance the young drivers and their talents, and new owners in the Nationwide and other national series, that don’t just get the proliferation of Cup drivers to the point where it just homogenizes Sunday and Saturday and doesn’t deliver the benefit that we like to see with showcasing young drivers and young talent and young owners, new owners.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Jeff Gordon is getting a different line of questioning in his media appearances these days. For a time, he had people asking him when he was going to win again. Then after he broke a 66-race losing skid with a win at Phoenix International Raceway in the second race of 2011, the questions shifted to how many races he’ll win before he retires.
How that turns out will have an impact at the top of NASCAR’s career-win list.
Richard Petty leads with 200. David Pearson is second at 105. Most historians say Bobby Allison is third with 85, but the official record shows he’s tied for third with Darrell Waltrip, who has 84. Then come Cale Yarborough and Gordon with 83 apiece. Since Gordon is the only one of the group still racing, and still racing competitively at the relatively young age of 39, it’s pretty certain he’ll keep climbing the chart.
‘This is what I love,” Gordon said, when asked the career-win question. “You go for 66 races and don’t win a race and you’re like, ‘Are you ever going to get to 83?’
“Now I win one race and everybody’s, ‘Oh, you can get to 105 now.’
“That’s a big number. I’ve always said anything’s possible. And when things are clicking and the chemistry’s there with the team, you can click off a lot of wins. I certainly feel like I have it in me to be able to go out and put multiple wins together this year.”
But he stopped short of saying whether he can wind up No. 2 on the list before he retires.
“All I can say is I’m looking to get to 84, then try to look at going to 85,” he said. “You can’t look ahead to what Pearson has done. That’s too far out there to even be thinking about right now.”
Gordon did appear to have been doing some thinking about what might come for him after he’s done driving. Somewhat surprisingly for someone who has made regular appearances on TV talk shows like “Live With Regis and Kelly,” he seemed to be leaning toward a behind-the-scenes role and one that involves racing.
“I love racing,” he said. “I love the business of racing. I love the driving.
I love the team aspect of it. Racing is first and foremost for me.
“I’m certainly comfortable in front of a camera, and I’ve had a lot of experience being in front of a camera [but] I’ll be honest, most of the things I think about I’d prefer to be behind the scenes, orchestrating, organizing and directing.”
Gordon didn’t rule out a second career in another form of motorsports, such as sports car racing, where the various series generally run far fewer races a season than Gordon is used to running.
“I like driving, but, even more, I like being competitive,” he said. “If there was something I feel like I could still be competitive at, yeah, I would do it.”
He said he also has a passion for his foray into the wine business and for the work he does with his charitable foundation, but there’s one job he puts above them all.
“The most important thing is being a father to two kids,” he said. “My next career might be seeing them pursue whatever their dreams are. That could be racing or it could be gymnastics or who knows.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s season of surprises continues even though Carl Edwards’ win in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway wasn’t unexpected given his recent performances on the intermediate tracks and Ford’s strength at Las Vegas.
But on down the finishing order at Las Vegas – and the Sprint Cup points standings after the first three races – there are some unexpected names showing up.
Among the biggest surprises to date is the strong start by Paul Menard in his first year at Richard Childress Racing. Menard came to RCR with backing from his family’s home improvement company of the same name, but so far he’s proven to be much more than a driver with money behind him.
After three races Menard is ahead of his fellow RCR drivers in the points standings. He’s in sixth place, 17 points behind leader Tony Stewart, who finished second at Las Vegas after leading the most laps but also drawing a penalty for removing equipment from his stall during a pit stop.
Menard also had the best Las Vegas finish of any of his teammates. He finished 12th, while Clint Bowyer was 15th, Kevin Harvick was 17th and Jeff Burton was 21st.
Menard told reporters at Las Vegas that one of the main keys to his success of late is that he and his crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe have been made to feel at home in the RCR camp.
“Everybody has been good to work with, from all four crew chiefs working well together to all four of us drivers working well together,” he said. “I’ve been really well received in the whole group, and that’s neat for me personally and professionally.”
Another surprise is over at Hendrick Motorsports, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has moved from fourth to first among his teammates.
He finished a Hendrick-best eighth at Las Vegas, and is a team-best 10th in the points standings. Mark Martin is 11th, Jimmie Johnson 12th and Jeff Gordon 19th.
Earnhardt told reporters at Las Vegas that his success so far is due in large part to his crew chief Steve Letarte and Letarte’s crew, which spent the last few years working with Jeff Gordon but took on Earnhardt in a big off-season shift at Hendrick.
“It’s a fun team, a great group of guys,” Earnhardt said. “I’m proud to be a part of it and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well.”
He said that even though he qualified poorly (33rd) at Las Vegas, he wound up with a good car at the end of the race.
“I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments,” Earnhardt said. “I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong, and he was hitting on it every time.
“We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up.”
Earnhardt said that it’s imperative for him to make things work with Letarte and to do it right away.
“Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I’ve got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work,” he said. “If it doesn’t work with him, I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony [Eury] Jr. and those guys.
“But I want this to work. I want to be in a [Car of Tomorrow] the rest of my career as long as I can, and I want to be successful and so I’m just trying to work hard.
“We’re getting better. It feels like it’s working.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
It’s no real secret that NASCAR has lost some of its spark in the 10 years since Dale Earnhardt, its biggest star, died in a crash during the Daytona 500. TV ratings have dropped along with at-track attendance. Some of the most disgruntled fans seem to be the old core audience, who long for the days when NASCAR was a Southern sport, racing at tracks in the South with drivers and teams from the South competing for wins each week. Now there are more Sprint Cup drivers from California than from any state in the South.
But after Sunday’s Daytona 500, the old core crowd ought to be happy.
For starters, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a North Carolina native, won the pole for the 500 and was a contender for a time.
Then, as the laps wound down in the 53rd running of the Great American Race, two sons of the South were running first and second, and the second-place car belonged to the iconic Wood Brothers, who once dominated the superspeedways but hadn’t won a race since 2001.
Unadilla, Ga.’s David Ragan, driving for Roush Fenway Racing, had the lead, and Knoxville, Tenn.’s Trevor Bayne, who turned 20 the day before and was running in just his second Sprint Cup race ever, trailed him in the Wood Brothers Ford, which was painted in the same scheme as the Mercury that the legendary South Carolinian David Pearson drove for the Woods back in the 1970s.
Ragan dropped out of contention after he was penalized for changing lanes too soon on a restart, leaving his one-time drafting partner Bayne to fend for himself in a green-white-checkered-flag dash to the finish.
But Bayne got a mighty drafting push from veteran Bobby Labonte, a Texan, who was in contention for the win for the first time in quite a while, and held the lead as the leaders took the white flag.
Then Carl Edwards closed in and gave Bayne just enough of a push to send the youngster and his 61-year-old race team to Victory Lane in NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
And for the sentimental fans in the crowd, there was nothing more heartwarming than to see Glen Wood, the 85-year-old patriarch of the Wood Brothers race team, being escorted to Victory Lane by none other than his team’s one-time rival Richard Petty.
“I walked in Victory Lane with Richard Petty and Edsel Ford and my dad,” said Eddie Wood, Glen Wood’s son and one of the current co-owners of the team. “I don’t know how much better that can get.”
With his victory, Bayne joins A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Tiny Lund and David Pearson as drivers who have won the Daytona 500 in the Woods’ No. 21 car. But his win is the first in the 500 for the Woods since Pearson’s victory in 1976, which was 15 years before Bayne was born. And he seemed humbled to be a part of such an elite group of drivers.
“That’s a cool list,” he said. “It’s incredible to be a part of this group, it really is.”
But he wasn’t just looking back.
“To be added to that list, period, is crazy, especially at our first attempt,” he said. “That’s just insane. It sets the bar for this team. We don’t expect to win them all, but we know we can now, that’s for sure.”
For Ragan, who recovered to finish 14th after serving his penalty, the setback was tough to take. And he said he’s not convinced he broke any rules.
“I know what the rules are,” he said. “I felt like the leader had the start of the race. I felt like we fired, and I started to move down right before the start-finish line, but I don’t think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and the bottom …
“It’ll take us a long time to forget this one, but we’ll move on to Phoenix, and the sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”
And he pointed out that without Bayne pushing him, he wouldn’t have been in the lead to start with. “Trevor did a great job,” he said.
Veteran Terry Labonte, who wound up one spot behind Ragan, summed up the feelings of many in NASCAR with his comments about the Wood Brothers and their big win. “I’m so happy for those guys,” he said. “That’s just a great family, and they’ve done so much for the sport. I sure am glad to see them in Victory Lane.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
For most of the 2010 Sprint Cup season, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team looked vulnerable despite the fact that they were riding a streak of four straight championships.
Throughout the season and in the Chase, they admittedly didn’t show the pure speed they have in recent seasons. But when the title was on the line in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson and his team looked more invincible than vulnerable.
While Denny Hamlin, the points leader coming into the Ford 400, was involved in an early fender-banger with Greg Biffle, and third-place Kevin Harvick was caught speeding on pit road, Johnson and his team simply made their car better when it counted and finished a strong second to secure a record fifth straight Sprint Cup title and become the first champion to have entered the final Chase race without the points lead.
So much for being considered vulnerable.
“They are spectacular,” said Carl Edwards, who won the last two races of the season but finished a distant fourth in the standings. “It just looked like they didn’t make any mistakes today. They steadily made their car better and they let the other guys make mistakes…
“That is probably what they do best. They toe the line and keep progressing forward without too much emotion or too many mistakes. I think that is the thing that all of us are trying to do, be that good … I believe we really are all witnessing something that is nothing short of spectacular.”
But Edwards wouldn’t go as far as saying Johnson is invincible. “No, I feel like I’m better than him,” he said. “I mean, everybody feels like that. That’s why we race. If you get a driver out there right now that’s driving that says, ‘Oh no, Jimmie is a lot better than me,’ you don’t want that guy on your team. Obviously, they have proven that they are able to win more races and more championships than the rest of us, we just have to figure out how to do that.”
Johnson’s latest championship also was the 10th for his Hendrick Motorsports team, breaking a tie with the old Petty Enterprises team.
And his fifth title is being compared to championship streaks in other sports, such as the Boston Celtics’ streak of eight NBA titles in a row back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the New York Yankees that won five World Series from 1949-1953, and the Montreal Canadiens who captured four Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960.
Now, only two drivers, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, have more championships than Johnson. They have seven apiece, which were won using a season-long points formula, while Johnson’s came in a 10-race Chase format.
Among the obvious questions in the aftermath of Johnson’s fifth title are just where he stacks up among the sport’s all-time greats and when and if he’ll move up from his current position – third on the all-time championship list – to first place.
“I don’t know if it’s in reach,” Johnson said in his champion’s interview at Homestead. “I know we are going to have chances to win championships, but you just don’t know how the year is going to unfold. You just don’t know what is going to take place. It is so tough to win championships, and it’s easy to look at us having five in a row and say, naturally, just keep doing it.
“Next year is a whole new year. There’s no telling what the challenges will be, with what we are going to face, strengths of the other teams and where we are going to be at. We are closer. There’s six and seven out there ahead of us, and we’ll work as hard as we can to do it.”
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus said he believes his driver is as good as Earnhardt or Waltrip or Pearson or any of the great ones who have come before him.
“The guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, the guys like that; you hear a lot of what they say about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do,” Knaus said.
“I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy [Johnson] can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He’s been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He’s put his nose in places that other people would not do and not be able to pull off.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide Series championship, which he clinched two races early with a third-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, was his first major NASCAR championship and also the first for his car owner, Roger Penske. The longtime owner and former driver has 12 championships in other forms of racing, but Penske had none in NASCAR before this, despite 63 Cup race victories and 10 on the Nationwide side.
But in many ways, Keselowski’s and Penske’s championship was too familiar for many in the NASCAR world. It was the fifth straight year that a full-time Sprint Cup driver won the championship in the second-tier series that once was looked upon as a developmental series and one where non-Cup teams would be competitive. And Keselowski’s triumph continued a streak of 10 straight years in which either a Cup team, or one closely affiliated with a Cup team, won the Nationwide title. The last independents to win the Nationwide crown were driver Jeff Green and owner Greg Pollex back in 2000.
The dominance of the Cup teams in Nationwide has officials at NASCAR pondering rules changes that would give the independent Nationwide teams a better chance in races and the championship hunt. With two races left to run this year, full-time Cup drivers hold four of the top five spots in the drivers standings and six of the top 10.
Cup drivers or Cup-affiliated teams have won every Nationwide race but one. Boris Said won at Montreal driving for Robby Benton.
In some aspects, the Nationwide Series is serving as the developmental series some would like it to see. Cup teams often put young Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series to help them gain experience, which is at a premium since private testing is banned at tracks that host Cup races.
But some experienced drivers, like Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, continue to compete in Nationwide and often dominate the races. Busch has won 12 Nationwide races this season, Edwards three and Keselowski six.
Edwards told reporters at Texas that he’s against limiting Cup driver participation in Nationwide or not allowing them to run for the championship.
“I hope we can run for the championship,” he said. “It seems odd to make rules that keep certain drivers out, based on where they race …
“Right now Brad is doing very well, but I am not dominating or anything like that. I hope we can run for the championship and do what has been done historically. To me the greatest achievement in NASCAR would be winning both championships in one year … I don’t know if it will ever happen, but it would be a neat opportunity.”
Keselowski said in his champion’s interview that gaining experience and doing things to make him a better Cup driver were arguments he used in convincing a skeptical Penske to let him run the undercard circuit full-time while also running every Cup race.
“Coming to Penske Racing, I told Roger I wanted to do this Nationwide deal,” Keselowski said. “I think he looked at me like I was crazy and was looking at this like it would only take away focus from the Cup program.
“But I said we’re building a foundation for success on the Cup level. It’s here that we’re building cars and people and attracting sponsors that will make the company stronger as a whole and give us a better shot at winning a Cup championship.”
Penske’s question about taking away focus seems to have merit. It wasn’t until the second Martinsville race this year that Keselowski got his first top-10 finish in Cup, and although he followed that 10th-place finish with another at Talladega the next week, he’s still 25th in the driver standings.
But he got to give his fellow Michigan native Penske, who can afford most anything he might ever want, something really special – a NASCAR owner’s champion trophy.
“It’s hard to give a billionaire something,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
And Penske appreciated it.
“We’ve been in NASCAR a long, long time,” Penske said. “To me, this championship is like winning the Indy 500 for the first time.
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The Talladega wild card has been played, and there’s still a close battle for the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. After the top three drivers in the points standings all finished in the top 10 in the Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the series heads into the final three events with Jimmie Johnson leading Denny Hamlin by 14 and Kevin Harvick by 38.
That’s the closest points margin among the top three with three races to go since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, and it’s exactly what NASCAR officials were looking for when they instituted the 12-driver, 10-race season-ending method of determining a champion.
And as Harvick said, while sitting next to Johnson in the press room after the race, it opens the door for something that many of the sport’s fans badly want to see – a different champion.
“No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win,” Harvick said, looking over at Johnson.
“Says who?” Johnson replied, laughing.
Then Harvick laid it out, laughing at times but completely serious otherwise.
“Everybody but [Johnson and his team] wants somebody else to win,” Harvick said. “I like Jimmie as good as anybody. But for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us [Harvick or Hamlin] needs to make something happen. I can promise you that.”
But Harvick said it won’t be easy to knock off a team that has won four straight titles and has finishes of first, second, third, third, fifth and seventh in the past six races.
“When these guys have done what they’ve done over the last four years … the Chase started, they’re right back on track, it was important for the two of us as teams – speaking of the 29 and the 11 – to go out and knock those top fives off and not make any mistakes,” Harvick said. “When you go back and look at the stats over the last four years, top 10s do not cut it. You got to be in the top five and being up front every week.
“It’s the same pace that [Johnson’s] had this year, it’s just the two of us have done a lot of the same things … It’s important to continue to do that over the next three weeks.”
Johnson said he’s not surprised the points race is shaking out like it is.
“The way [Harvick] ran through the first 26 [regular season races], I would definitely have picked [him],” Johnson said. “A lot of people argued the point that us and [Hamlin’s No. 11 team] were kind of out of sorts when the Chase started. I think inside the garage area, we all expected the 48 and the 11 to be where they needed to. We ran good the last couple races to show that before the Chase started.
“These guys have been so consistent all year, didn’t matter if it was a short track, big track, superspeedways. I’m not surprised to be racing these two.”
The way previous championship battles have gone, it looks like there’s a good chance the title won’t be decided until the final lap of the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it looks like the three now at the top of the heap are the only ones left with a realistic chance to win the title.
The 12th-place driver in the Chase, Clint Bowyer, got the victory at Talladega, one that took officials some time to determine as the race ended under caution for a wreck in Turn One on the last lap, but he’s out of the title hunt after being docked 150 points for a problem on his car following his victory in the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
His win didn’t even move him out of the 12th spot in the standings.
Fourth-place Jeff Gordon is 207 points out of the lead, and fifth-place Kyle Busch is 230 back. From Tony Stewart in seventh on down, the rest of the Chasers are more than 300 points behind.
“We really have been out of it the last few weeks,” Gordon said. “So I feel like you are going to have guys like us trying to win, and then you are going to have those three [Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick] really battling it out.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The points standings at the top of the Chase chart are as close as they’ve ever been with four races to go, and now it’s time to play the wild card in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sunday’s Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway is viewed as the “wild card” in NASCAR’s 10-race run to the championship, since the track and its restrictor plate racing tends to lead to a Big Wreck that could bring about a big scramble in the points standings with just three races left to run – after Talladega – this season.
Right now, Jimmie Johnson leads Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin by six points, with Kevin Harvick, in third place 62 points back, the only other driver who is heading into Talladega with a reasonable chance of taking the points lead.
The Talladega race also is seen by many as a last chance to ratchet up interest among fans and TV viewers, who haven’t taken to this Chase as many in NASCAR had hoped.
Johnson, who is on pace to win a record fifth-straight championship, is among those who view Talladega as having the potential to drastically change the complexion of the Chase in a matter of seconds.
“I still can’t stress it enough that Talladega can equal this whole thing up, and it’s an eight-car race or a 10-car race for the championship,” Johnson said. “After we get out of Talladega, there will be more of a clear strategy that will kind of unfold, and we’ll know who we really need to race and what to do from there.
“Hopefully we are in a position to protect. That’s the position I want to be in … I want to go to Talladega and win that race, but you just don’t know … After Talladega, I’ll know what I need to do then.”
Hamlin, whose recent runs indicate he’s a serious threat to dethrone the four-time and defending Chase champion, said last week that one strategy for him could be to keep Johnson in front of him all day at Talladega, so that if one gets swept up in a wreck, so will the other.
“If I’m around him or right behind him, if I’m going to be in a bad spot – say I’m 15th and get caught in a wreck – then I make sure that he’s around me, then more than likely he’s going to be in, or put himself in, a bad spot, too,” Hamlin said.
But Hamlin also pointed out that he believes he can race for the win at Talladega.
“That’s not saying that I’m going to follow him around for 500 miles or whatever next week, because honestly I feel like we have a better Talladega package than what those guys [Johnson’s team] have had,” he said.
Harvick – the points leader for much of the 26-race regular season and still right in the thick of the championship battle – pointed out that for drivers, racing at Talladega is as much about what those around you do as it is about what you do yourself.
“When you get to Talladega you’re kind of at the mercy of a lot of things that can happen around you,” he said, adding that he agrees with his fellow drivers that the Chase picture will be much more clear after the checkered flag falls Sunday afternoon. And he’ll know better what he and his team need to do strategy-wise to make a run for the title.
“I think after you get done with Talladega you’ll kind of know where you stand as far as what you need to do over the last few weeks,” he said. “I think the last few weeks are really good race tracks for us, and Talladega is a good race track for us as well.
“They can all flip you upside down and turn things around and have things turn at any given week, but it seems that Talladega is definitely the biggest wild card as far as what’s going to happen and who is going to get caught in a wreck and who isn’t.
“So, I think everybody is waiting for that particular race to see where you stack up from there.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Right in the middle of a Chase that doesn’t seem to be exciting fans as much as the NASCAR powers that be had hoped for, along comes a heart-warming story involving a popular non-Chase driver.
Jamie McMurray, the odd man out at Roush Fenway Racing last year, sped away from Chasers Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway and grabbed his third Sprint Cup victory of an improbable comeback season. He’s already won the sport’s two biggest races, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, plus a Nationwide Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car.
In Victory Lane, McMurray took time to talk about what winning races means to him these days, and to explain more about why he was in tears and almost unable to speak after winning the Daytona 500 back in February.
But first he talked about how much it meant for him that his dad Jim McMurray, a regular fixture around the tracks who somehow missed seeing his son take two checkered flags this year, was finally able to see his son take the checkered flag.
“It’s very special,” McMurray said. “My dad and I are really good friends, and he is certainly what got me involved in racing. We still race go carts together, we fish together, we do all kinds of stuff together; and he is really one of my best friends. It’s important to have him here.”
He also talked about being able to dedicate his win to the family of Shane Hmiel, gravely injured in a dirt-track race the week before.
Hmiel’s father Steve, a longtime NASCAR crew chief and team manager, is one of the key players on McMurray’s Chip Ganassi-owned team.
“Shane Hmiel had a terrible racing accident, and our team is thinking about him,” McMurray said. “We’d certainly like to dedicate our win tonight to him and the whole Hmiel family. I wish Steve could’ve been here; he is a huge part of our success.”
And then he talked about his emotions back at Daytona in February.
“I don’t think I ever really got to explain that and why I cried and what was going on there,” he said. “I had a tough year last year; I found out the power of prayer and what that can do for you. When you get to Victory Lane and you get to experience this, it just makes you a believer. And it’s something that is obviously very important to me and my family.”
Later, in his post-race session with the media, McMurray, who is now married and expecting a child, expanded even more on his faith and what it means to have prayers answered. He also said that he considers it selfish to pray for success on the race track ahead of other things in life.
“Certainly it’s not the first thing that I pray about every day,” he said. “But everyone wants to be successful and you want to do well in life, so when you feel like that’s been answered, it’s emotional.”
He said he was pondering those comments as the laps wound down at Charlotte.
“I was like, ‘If I win this race, Lord, if you don’t throw a caution … and I win this race, I’m going to explain to people my feelings and why I felt that way,’” he said.
“And I think that’s important.
“I watch other professional athletes – whether it’s bull riders or basketball players or motorcycle riders – you hear them get out, and you hear them thank God and talk about the power of prayer, and I just think that that’s important for people to understand, and understand why my feelings were the way they were.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
There’s probably no bad time to be named president of a NASCAR race track, but for Marcus Smith, taking over at Charlotte Motor Speedway two years ago did present some challenges. For starters, he was following H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, the man many consider the greatest racing promoter ever. And then there’s the economy that is hammering auto racing about as hard as any part of the economy.
But Smith, the 36-year-old son of track owner Bruton Smith, was mostly smiling and upbeat recently as he talked about this weekend’s races at Charlotte.
“We’re really focused on making the race better every single time the fans come back, where they’ll really enjoy it as a thing you go to with friends or with family,” he said.
Part of making the races more enjoyable is making the tickets more affordable. And it’s not the easiest thing to do for a person like Smith, who also is responsible for delivering profits to his dad’s company and to its shareholders.
These days in racing, the strongest market for tickets seems to be the individuals who buy from two to four tickets at a time. In NASCAR’s recent boom times, corporations bought tickets by the stack and distributed them to their employees, associates and customers. But not lately.
“Corporate ticket sales have been soft, but we’re starting to see that come back a bit just now,” Smith said. “They really fell off the cliff with the recession. It’s tough times.”
And he’s responded appropriately, he said.
“We’ve lowered prices in a lot of areas,” he said.
“And we offer extra amenities for people who buy a lot of tickets or season tickets. We’ve also lowered prices for people that are just looking to come in for the least amount. That’s good for the fans and in the long run it’s good for NASCAR.”
But will that policy paint him in a corner where he’ll find it difficult to raise prices when the economy recovers?
“It’s no different than any other business, whether you’re selling cereal or race tickets, you have certain expectations of what a fair price is,” Smith said. “We still have tickets that are expensive, $100 or more, but they come with a lot of benefits. And we still have great tickets that used to be $79 and now they’re $49. Sure we’d like to charge more, but at this time we have to charge a fair price for the times we’re in.
“We’re very happy to be able to lower prices in a way that will be responsible to fans and to our company.”
Smith also argued that the media attention on empty seats at NASCAR races, attention that largely comes because of the sport’s successes in the past, is unfair today.
“If you flip on ESPN and see empty seats at baseball or football games, you don’t see stories about attendance being in the toilet,” he said. “We have a history of tremendous sellouts … but on a bad day we’re still bringing in 120,000 or 100,000, and that’s more than a baseball stadium gets in five or six games during regular season.
“It’s a bad economy, but thankfully some people are starting to see it level off and turn around. As things turn around, we’ll start back getting great big crowds.”
Smith also is making strides to emerge from the shadows of his predecessor, Humpy Wheeler. His biggest project to date is a Humpy-like improvement on the backstretch of the track.
That’s where he’s building what he describes as the world’s biggest HD video screen, one that will be 200 feet wide and 80 feet tall.
Construction is expected to begin after this weekend’s races.
“He’s been talking about that since the first day he took over,” said track spokesman Scott Cooper.
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Jimmie Johnson came away from the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway with the points lead after posting a strong second-place finish. But the big winner, from a manufacturers’ standpoint, was the Ford Motor Company. Its cars dominated both the qualifying – as Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard swept the front row – and the race as Greg Biffle won for the second time this season, the second time at Kansas and the 16th time in his career.
It was just the second win of the season for Ford, and it came largely as a result of some information sharing among the Ford teams, according to Jamie Allison, director of Ford North American Motorsports.
“What a great feeling for everyone at Ford,” Allison said. He pointed to the fact that Fords driven by Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard and Carl Edwards were also in the lead pack for most of the race proves that the Ford team isn’t just a one-car wonder.
“Running one, two, three Fords with 50 laps to go shows you that it is deeper than just one team,” he said. “I am very proud of everybody at Roush, [Richard Petty Motorsports] and Wood Brothers. It is a ‘One Ford’ effort.”
Biffle agreed that his victory was more than a one-team effort.
“I am so glad, not only for [team owner Jack Roush] but for all the Ford guys and Roush Fenway guys,” he said. “Everybody has worked so dang hard, and it makes it even more rewarding and exciting for us.”
Roush said it was one of those races where Ford had several chances to win, unlike many events earlier this year where Fords were outclassed by the Chevrolets, Toyotas and Dodges.
“We had a whole bunch of cars that could have won the race,” Roush said. “All of our Fords were good out there today.”
The Kansas win will be even more special than usual for Biffle’s crew, according to teammate Carl Edwards.
“Ford told us right before the race that they were giving us an extra incentive to win the race,” Edwards said of the $100,000 bonus – to be split among driver and team – that was put up by Ford for a race-winning effort.
“They had some extra money in a fund that they weren’t using, so Greg is going to be handing out checks to his pit crew.
That is really cool. Ford wanted us to step it up, and Greg did that.”
Edwards didn’t do so badly himself. He finished sixth and gained some ground in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I was frustrated with sixth, but I found out we are only 53 points out of the lead, so that is huge,” he said.
While Edwards is fourth in the standings, Biffle is eighth, 85 behind Johnson. The other Ford driver in the Chase, Matt Kenseth, is mired in 11th, 149 points out of the lead despite a seventh-place finish at Kansas.
Biffle said he’s still looking at the Chase like he can win it, and he said the best way to do that is to do what he did at Kansas.
“We want to win these races,” he said. “We want to have the trophies. They’ve been talking about all the other guys, so we’ll give them something to talk about for the next couple weeks.
“Hopefully in California and Charlotte we can run decent and make our way up there into the points, maybe get up in the top five.”
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Along with his successes on Sprint Cup race tracks this year, Denny Hamlin also stands out because he has become one of the few drivers who doesn’t mind speaking his mind.
And even though his outspokenness over NASCAR’s alleged use of “debris” cautions to liven up races has cost him a $50,000 fine from series officials, he weighed in heavily about Clint Bowyer’s penalty for an illegal car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, something most other top drivers declined to do in detail.
During his weekly media session at Dover International Speedway last Friday, Hamlin offered his insight on the situation that led to Bowyer being docked 150 points, which dropped him from second in the standings to 12th. And his comments likely weren’t what NASCAR officials wanted to hear. They also didn’t go over well with Bowyer’s teammate Kevin Harvick, who bumped into Hamlin in practice then had a heated exchange with him afterward.
Hamlin started it off by saying there was a good reason his second-place car at New Hampshire passed the post-race technical inspection while Bowyer’s winning car did not.
“Our car came back and it was correct, but it wasn’t built incorrectly and … [Bowyer’s] car was built incorrectly,” Hamlin said, adding that the fact that the difference between a passing height and a failing height on Bowyer’s car was just 60 thousandths of an inch doesn’t mean it didn’t create a big advantage on the track.
“You can talk about how small the thing was off and you can really try to say that 60-thousandths didn’t help him perform any better … that is a crock,” Hamlin said. “Let me tell you something, that helps a lot.
“I know when we gain five points of downforce, our car runs a ton better …
“NASCAR has been very, very lenient, I feel like, on this car, and they’ve given those guys chances. … I think that [Bowyer’s team] should just be happy that they’re in the Chase at this point. They were warned and they were warned before Richmond. Everyone in the garage knows that. They’re the ones who wanted to press the issue and get all they could to make sure they got in the Chase.”
And Hamlin said the Bowyer car has been wrong for a lot longer than it might appear.
“In the garage, everyone has known it for months,” he said. “They’ve been warned for a long time, way before Richmond. … They wanted to get everything they could. What did they have to lose really? You almost can’t fault them for that.”
NASCAR apparently didn’t say anything to Hamlin about his comments, but an ESPN report indicates his team president, J.D. Gibbs, did tell Hamlin to tone it down.
For their parts, Bowyer and team owner Richard Childress continued to say their car was legal when it arrived at New Hampshire, and they say the reason it failed to pass inspection was that the car was damaged either during the race or when it was pushed to Victory Lane by a tow truck.
They’ll make their case in an appeal scheduled for Wednesday.
And Bowyer didn’t hold back when airing his thoughts on the issue, saying among other things that the NASCAR rumor mill forced series officials into issuing such a hefty penalty, one that he’ll find difficult to overcome.
He said that it makes no sense for a team that knows it’s under scrutiny to try to slip something past the inspectors.
“Who in their right mind, knowing that [inspectors] are going to take that car, wouldn’t have made triple sure that thing was right before it went to the race track?” he said, while also raising questions about the inspection process that officials used to check the car once it was taken back to Concord, N.C..
“They take the car apart, completely apart to measure this thing, and in my opinion that’s not the way the car was raced on the race track,” he said. “I think that’s something to be said.”
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