2011 Daytona 500, Smooth Sailing?

In just a short time the 2011 Daytona 500 will be on us. Will NASCAR get a break from the weather? Will the drivers really stay with two car drafts? Michele Rahal of Motorsports Unplugged and http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com thinks the possible dynamics interesting enough to watch.

Martin Plans To Press On, But There’s A Job To Do

I’m guessing Mark Martin knows when to quit – apparently it’s just not going to be any time soon.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Jan. 9, is in his last year with Hendrick Motorsports. He will be replaced in 2012 by Kasey Kahne.

When that happens Martin will have completed his 25th season as a NASCAR driver. Seems a good time to move on to something else.

Right now, however, Martin isn’t going to do that. He said during the Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway that he intends to continue to race.

“I am absolutely, without a doubt, going to be driving race cars next year,” he said. “I’m just not going to be in any hurry to worry about that.”

Martin announced five years ago that he was ready to retire. He would bring to an end a 19-year tenure with Jack Roush, which produced, by far, Martin’s greatest successes.

With Roush, Martin won 35 Cup races and finished second in the final point standings four times.

But Martin changed his mind about retirement. Instead, in 2007 he accepted a ride for a limited schedule with owner Bobby Ginn. Dale Earnhardt Inc. absorbed the Ginn operation later in the year and Martin stayed on to compete in 24 races in 2008.

It surprised some that Martin agreed to race full-time for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. As far as Martin’s career goes, it was a very good move.

He had one of his best seasons with five wins and another second-place finish in points. It was abundantly clear that was a lot of life left in the old boy.

Many felt Martin would be a title contender in 2010 and could, at long last, win his first career championship.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Martin failed to win a race, finished among the top 10 only 11 times and wound up 13th in points – out of the Chase.

This bit of adversity is nothing compared to what Martin has overcome in his past.

His first full-time foray into NASCAR in 1982 went bust and he was forced to return to short-track racing in the Midwest, where he had been vastly successful.

He didn’t return to NASCAR until 1988, when Roush formed his team and gave Martin his long-awaited chance – provided he no longer took another drink.

Obviously, Martin made the very most of his second opportunity.
I’ve always felt drivers retire for several reasons but the most common appear to be:
Racing is no longer fun, it’s a grind.
Because he says he’s going to return in 2012, Martin obviously does not consider racing a grind.
A driver no longer feels he’s able to perform at the level he once did.

Despite his 2010 season, which was an off-year for him, Martin clearly feels he’s able to perform at a high level and wants to raise that in 2011. No one is going to argue with that.

A driver faces the fact opportunities have dried up for him.

They certainly haven’t for Martin over the years and, despite the fact this is his last year with Hendrick, do you really believe an opportunity won’t arise for Martin in 2012?

A driver is no longer physically able to perform.

Unfortunately, this has been the situation for several drivers over the years. Martin, however, has thus far avoided any serious malady, both on and off the track. Hopefully, that will continue.

And he’s one of the most physically-fit individuals in the garage area, having long since substituted body building for booze.

Martin has evolved into one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. In racing his age does not matter – obviously he doesn’t think so – and if he’s got the right equipment and personnel he can compete with the youngest of them.

When it comes to sorting out his future, Martin’s got it right. He’ll deal with that much later in the season.
Right now he’s got a job to do – again.

Good Results Will Be Payoff For NASCAR’s Changes

Much has been said and written about NASCAR’s new points system for 2011 – you know, the one in which 43 points will be awarded to the winner with one-point increments thereafter, all the way down to one point for last place.

Plus, two “wild card” drivers will be added to the top 10 in points to compose 12-man field for the Chase conducted over the last 10 races. They will be the two competitors among the top 20 in the standings with the most wins.

Three bonus points will be awarded for a win, leading a lap and leading the most laps.

The system, of course, has been praised and criticized. Frankly, I don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference. Other than being simpler – I like the one-point increments – it’s not all that different from the points method that has been used before, and since, the Chase was created in 2004.

The “wild card” concept has potential for excitement, and, at the same time, it offers an incentive for winning.

I don’t think drivers need incentive to win. That’s their job. That’s the mindset. It’s in their blood. Points be damned, if they can pass another driver, even a teammate, to win that’s what they are going to do.

Still, the “wild card” can act like a cattle prod. There could be one driver, or more, who might need a win at Richmond in September, the last race before the Chase, to make the “playoffs.”

Such a scenario would be riveting. Betcha the folks at Richmond have already thought about that.

But, really, who knows? All manner of situations can arise in 2011, just as they did under the traditional points system and the Chase.

But, to me, the appeal of the new points system is its simplicity. Not every one agrees with it, and some may never, but it’s widely accepted that it’s not hard to understand.

Sure can’t say that about NASCAR’s points formats in the past.

I’ve already written about one of them. In the early 1970s NASCAR had a convoluted system that awarded a certain amount of points to the winner based on race length.

Then it added bonus points, or fractions of them, for laps completed based upon the size of the speedway.
While many were scratching their heads trying to figure all that out, they were pulling their hair out in 1974.

In that year NASCAR made its fourth change in the points system over eight years. Now, if the 43-1 adaptation for 2011 was the fourth in the last eight year, we’d all be convinced NASCAR didn’t know what it was doing – and rightly so.
The ’74 system was based on prize money, of all things. Here’s how it was set up:

Money winnings from track purses only were multiplied by the number of races. Then that figure was divided by 1,000. The result was the number of points earned.

Got that? No one in ’74 did.
Turns out the system over-rewarded drivers who ran up front in big money races. If they won a bundle in one race they’d recap the benefit by merely starting the next.

Through this process, Richard Petty was able to run away with the championship. He fed off his sizable financial reward for winning the Daytona 500.

For example, Petty crashed early in Darlington’s Southern 500 on Labor Day. He finished 35th. Darrell Waltrip finished second.

But when the figures were compiled, Petty’s point lead increased by 160 points while Waltrip’s rose only by 95. In fact, Petty received more points that 33 of the 34 drivers who finished in front of him. Huh? Inconceivable.

Even Petty couldn’t understand it. “This points deal has got me confused,” he said.

Petty won the championship, his fifth, by 567.45 points over Cale Yarborough – who finished second in the Daytona 500, by the way.

If a driver won a title by nearly 570 points today we wouldn’t hesitate to declare the system a disaster. Kind makes the Chase look pretty good, doesn’t it?

NASCAR knew what it had put in place was indeed a disaster and the next year it installed the system that stood through 2010.
OK, enough about past points systems. That’s done.

It’s time to anticipate what might happen with the system now in place. As the season moves on we’ll see what’s right or wrong about it – as well as the new Chase format.

NASCAR made the switch to improve competition and increase fan and television appeal. Its reasoning is sound.
Good results will provide proof of that. But, of course, they have yet to be determined.

Points? Racing To Win Is How It’s Done

Junior Johnson 1985Junior Johnson is an iconic figure in American motorsports. After years of hauling illegal liquor across the Southeast as a young man, he pursued a NASCAR driving career in which he won 50 races. Later, as an owner, his teams won 132 races and three championships. He was named one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR and in 2010 was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of its inaugural class.

Junior’s contributions to motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

There’s always talk about drivers who strive to be consistent and even run for points instead of wins – and the funny thing is, fans want to see NASCAR reward drivers who win with more points.

When I raced points didn’t concern me. I raced for the wins because that’s where the money was. I never dealt with an owner who told me to race for points.

And when I became an owner, I won championships, but it was never any of my drivers’ styles to race for points.

The idea was to try to win every race. The more you won, the more points you got and the more championships you earned.

Just about every driver I employed was a leadfoot.

There was Bobby Allison in 1972. We had a battle with Richard Petty for the championship, which would have been Bobby’s first.

We won 10 races. But the reason we didn’t win the championship happened at Talladega. Bobby ran about 10-12 laps and then we burned an oil line. We brought the car in to get it fixed.

We had the car ready to go again in just 12 laps. Now, this was in the day when NASCAR paid 1.5 bonus points for every lap completed. We were ready to go out and get those points, and there were a lot of them out there. I think there were 150 laps left in the race and that meant a lot of points.

But we couldn’t find Bobby. Turns out he had gotten into his car and driven home.

Heck, I got into the car myself. I was ready to drive in relief. But the rules said a driver had to practice before he would be allowed to relieve.

I hadn’t done that. Even though I was ready to race NASCAR wouldn’t let me. We lost the championship by 128 points.

In 1973, Cale Yarborough came on board. He had a very heavy foot, just as I had when I raced.

We won three consecutive championships (1976-78) using Cale’s style.

But, to support a driver like Cale, you had to have a better car than others – make that you had to have a car twice as good as the others.

I had really good people working for me, but I also worked on the cars myself. I could do anything that was needed. I’d lay some work on others, show them how to do it, and then go on and do something else.

I always wanted to be certain we had the best possible cars for Cale. We had to.

Darrell Waltrip joined me in 1981 and we won three championships (in 1982, ’83 and ’85). Where Cale was wide-open and hell-bent to win races, Darrell was a bit savvier on the track.

You might say Darrell was a more psychological driver. He could figure out how to win a race without taking a chance of getting into a wreck and stuff like that. If he had to go, he certainly could go. But he didn’t want to do that just to be doing it, although he still wanted to win every race.

Bill Elliott’s first year with me was 1992. He had already won a championship and I thought he was just the kind of driver who could win another with me.

We had a real shot in ’92, but we lost it when Alan Kulwicki led one more lap than we did at the last race of the year in Atlanta. Alan won the championship by 10 points.

Really, it was our fault. Bill came into the pits early when he wasn’t called. I remember we had radio problems.

Tim Brewer, the crew chief, wasn’t looking after what he was supposed to be looking after. He was doing something else. To tell the truth, we lost the championship by not doing our damn jobs.

After 1995, I got out of the sport. There was just too much politics for me. I was also doing all the negotiations with sponsors and other business and that wore me down.

I’m glad I got out, but now that I’m back in it helping my son Robert with his racing career, I can see how everything has changed and what the sport has become.

Racing is more of a rich man’s sport than it used to be. It takes a lot of money to get into it. You need big sponsors and things like that and I don’t know if that’s good or bad for the sport.

It’s grown so much it’s now up against football, baseball and all that stuff. That sort of thing was never a part of racing while I was in it.

NASCAR has the top motorsports in the world. It’s gotten bigger and bigger – but it has taken more and more money to get it to where it is today.

If a single person with a small budget wanted to get into it today, well, that’s impossible.

The Digital Age And NASCAR

NASCAR’s Brian France’s press conference laid out new rule changes for 2011 but the real story may be the push towards digital media. Videos, articles and social media. Steve Waid, Tom Higgens and Ben White of www.motorsportsunplugged.com have captured that directive and are running away with it.

When Sabates Speaks His Mind Everyone Listens – Or Should

Felix Sabates, co-owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (now there’s a mouthful) is never shy about expressing his opinions.

He is one of the most outspoken people in NASCAR. He unabashedly says what he feels. If you listen to him and don’t get his point, well, you’re not really listening.

Sabates is not only informative, he’s also entertaining. He can be very funny and often is. But make no mistake. He’s from Cuba and has displayed the quick temper associated with the Latin heritage.

Following an incident involving one of his drivers, I’ve seen Sabates throw down his headset, stalk down pit road to the offending competitor’s stall and heatedly speak his mind – with finger waving.

Much more often, however, Sabates is downright engaging and is quick to flash his singular smile.

Sabates’ natural talents have obviously served him well. He started to build his fortune decades ago as a car salesman – and I’m sure you know how verbally persuasive those guys can be.

He’s still selling cars. But he’s long since moved from Dodge to Mercedes. Oh, and he can tell you how to acquire a handsome new yacht, if that’s your wish.

Sabates broke into NASCAR in 1989 with a new Winston Cup team called Sabco Racing and driver Kyle Petty.
As time passed he and Ganassi became partners and then merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Sabates is, as you might suspect, a media magnet. He knows the value of a good relationship with the press, to which he’s always been accessible. I’ve been doing this a lot of years and Sabates is the only team owner who has not only given me his cell phone number, he’s also always – always – returned my calls.

Being who he is, a couple of days ago Sabates was a target at the Sprint Media Tour Presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Surrounded by reporters and their digital recorders, Sabates was in his element.
He was asked about various subjects. And he responded in true from. Here are some of his comments:
— About the new point system NASCAR will, reportedly, enforce in 2011:

“If NASCAR changes the point system, I think that’s great. The system we got now, well, Einstein couldn’t figure it out. If anyone says they understand it that’s b.s. They’re lying.

“I think 43-1 in points is great. But I also think NASCAR needs to throw away a driver’s four worst races of the year so all that count to the Chase are 22 instead of 26. That would change the whole dynamics of the Chase.

“Say, if you have a wreck or the driver does something stupid in the car or the crew chief makes a bad call and you lose a lap. One bad situation or call shouldn’t make a season.

“As for paying extra points for winning, I have a theory. If you pay 10 points for first place and five for second and third, so they pay something, I think you’ll see different and better racing.”

— On the impending 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500:

“I think Dale Earnhardt getting killed has forced NASCAR to make a lot of improvements in safety, but then, it was going in that direction anyway. But after the accident NASCAR put in some systems that are pretty darn good today.

“Dale and I had a good relationship away from the track. He would stay with me on my yacht at Daytona and we’d wake up at 5:30 every morning and have coffee.

“He would be so pissed off over the changes today. He wouldn’t have liked any of it. He was from the old school and probably would have driven without seatbelts if they’d let him.

“To him a race car had four wheels and it was up to you to drive it. He would probably say the cars of today drive themselves but, of course, they don’t. You still have to have someone mashing the gas. I think he would have a hard time adjusting to the things we have today.”

— Sabates did, at times, go chin-to-chin with the late Bill France Jr., the former CEO of NASCAR with whom he was friends. His son Brian has taken over and made many sweeping changes.

“The big difference between today and the days before Brian is that Bill Jr. was a benevolent dictator. It was his way or the highway.

“Brian has always tried to get input from a lot of people and he does. I don’t know if that is good or bad but I like the way he does things. I also liked the way Bill Jr. did things – you don’t like it, get the hell out of here. You don’t have to race.

“But, to be honest, the whole economic situation has changed over the last four or five years. It was nothing Brian did wrong, the whole world went to crap.

“Over the last two years I think the economy has been the culprit for all that has happened in NASCAR. I really do. I don’t think it had anything to do with anyone in NASCAR, it was just that the economy put the sport behind the eight ball.

“It’s a different situation for different teams. Rick Hendrick has a large network of auto dealerships. If he never made a dime in racing it doesn’t matter to him.

“I think if he had to pull $20 million out of his own pocket that wouldn’t matter to him. I don’t think there are a lot of owners who put their own money into their teams, especially over the last two years. Jack Roush hasn’t done it because he can’t afford it.

“As I’ve said, what’s happened has nothing to do with Brian. But in the next two or three years we will be able to tell if the changes he’s made will hold up.”

Feel free to agree or disagree with him, but you have to admit Felix Sabates makes, without reservation, his opinions known.

Richard Petty: The King Is Back

Richard Petty Motorsports went through a trial by fire….the Petty name was in jeopardy of defeat. Petty took on all odds and emerged as an intact, progressive, funded, talent rich team. A. J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose won big, thanks to the King. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com


A New Ford GT? The Ford GT and GT40

The resurrection of the Ford GT40, in the skin of a brand new car, was part of a long history between Ford and Ferrari. They competed both on and off the track. Will it have a successor? It sounds as if Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO, is dropping strong hints. http://www.thedrivechannel.com takes a look.


At The NMPA Hall Of Fame The True Message Was Delivered

This time, at the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame ceremony on Jan. 22, it seemed everyone realized what it is all about.

The capacity crowd at the Hilton in Charlotte seemed to recognize, and appreciate, those from NASCAR’s past, their contributions to the sport and their suggestions that what happened years ago helped bring the sport to what it is now.

In other words, they got it.
There were many times they didn’t. They would socialize, have dinner, listen to a few speeches, offer cursory applause and leave.
But this year they were enraptured by the words they heard; by the messages they were sent. I believe they left with a keener sense of days gone by and the contributions of men who competed when racing was far more a sport than a corporate entity.

I think much of that was a result of the inductees, and others, who spoke so passionately – not about themselves or their accomplishments, but about how they lived, played, worked and shared in a bygone era.

The inductees were Dale Jarrett, the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup champion and winner of 32 races, including three Daytona 500s and two Brickyard 400s.

Waddell Wilson, the long-time engine builder and crew chief whose cars won 109 races, 123 poles and three championships.
Tom Higgins, who covered motorsports for the Charlotte Observer for nearly 40 years and is the winner of too many writing awards to mention. He is also the recipient of the NASCAR Award of Excellence.

All of them did much more than say a string of “thank yous.” They told tales. They verbally painted pictures of the past. They told everyone how it was during a time when you worked hard, didn’t make much money and yet shared with rivals.

A couple of them spoke at great length, which in the past could have had folks nodding off or heading for the door. Not this time.
“I could have sat there all night long and listened to those stories,” said Ford’s Dan Zacharias. He wasn’t alone.
The erudite Kyle Petty, who inducted Wilson, stressed, that while Wilson the man deserved the honor for his accomplishments, he did so much more.

“You have to understand what he brought to others and the sport itself,” Petty said. “He was a teacher. He brought innovation to racing. His skills made those who worked for him, and others, better. He helped grow racing, which today, without men like Waddell Wilson, wouldn’t be what it is.”

Jarrett gave an example of that.
“When Waddell would be testing with his teams he would invite me to join them when I had a Busch Series team,” he said. “I didn’t have to pay a cent.

“Whatever he could do for me, he did. I learned so much from him. He didn’t have to do that.”
Wilson, always shy of attention, admitted he never thought the day would come when he would enter a hall of fame.

“When I started out with Holman-Moody (in the 1960s) I had to have a job to put food on the table,” he said. “I worked from eight in the morning until 10 at night. I got paid $1.50 an hour and took all the overtime I could get.

“All I wanted was having the fastest car possible and I pushed the envelope to do that.”
By pushing the envelope Wilson meant that there were times when he would build, and rebuild, an engine – by himself, late into the night – until he got what he wanted.

The goal was to beat the other guys. But Wilson added everyone knew they were in racing together as something of an extended family.
“I remember throwing away some parts,” he said. “Wendell Scott (the late African-American driver who is also a member of the hall of fame) asked me not to do it.

“They were good parts that he could use. I gave them to him, certainly. Everybody liked Wendell – and that’s what you did back then.”
Higgins’ recollections of his most memorable moments in racing included tales of the great, Dale Earnhardt, and the not-so-great, Johnny Ray. They were funny and poignant.

Higgins also reflected on how the media operated in the past. There weren’t that many of them and they certainly didn’t work in as nearly competitive, or high-tech, age.

“I understand how it is today,” Higgins said. “It’s always a scramble not to get beat on a story and that’s difficult.
“But while we tried to do the same thing, we were somewhat protective of the drivers. If you were sitting there with a gin and tonic in front of you and saw a driver doing the same thing, you couldn’t rightly or fairly report that you saw a driver drinking – or any other thing you were doing as well.”

Yes, I fully understand NASCAR isn’t remotely like it used to be. And it can’t be. It had to grow; to change with the times and technology if it was to survive.

I fully understand the new, expanding media – I have been around a long time and have my own tales to tell – but, hey, I’m still part of it.

I think that on that night in Charlotte, a trio of men so vividly reminded us all of how it used to be and how the achievements and sacrifices of many, who often interacted, raised NASCAR to what it is today.

They said far more than “Thank you.”
Higgins summarized it best:
“Today’s drivers, with their motorhomes and jets, every time they see any hall of fame member in this room they should hug them around the neck,” he said. “Then they should say, ‘Thank you for making all of this possible for me.’ ”

Everyone fully understood that on a night when no one nodded off or bolted for the door.

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NASCAR: On Restriction

NASCAR’s Preseason Thunder tests start this morning and may run into Sunday if the rains come in on Friday, as predicted. Michele Rahal of The Motorsports Channel and http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com thinks that NASCAR may actually reduce the restrictor plates even more after today’s test.


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