Nelson Piquet, Jr didn’t find what he was looking for in Formula One. He chose to come to America and try NASCAR. His aggressive style and technical feedback caught the eye of Kevin Harvick who hired him to drive in the Camping World Truck Series. Motorsports Unplugged caught up with him in Daytona
— Obviously, for Jeff Gordon, it was a welcome relief to win for the first time in 66 races. The last time he went into victory lane was at Texas in the spring of 2009.
Some suggested that at his age, 39, and with a family Gordon had shrunk into a shell of what he once was competitively- although Gordon and I would argue with that. He has four Sprint Cup championships and a decade ago seemed destined to quickly earn a fifth. He didn’t.
He hasn’t won a title since 2001.
Now, I suspect his many fans will say he’s on track toward another title and he may well be. But it’s far too early to tell, of course.
At the very least Gordon has accomplished something he hadn’t in nearly two years. That’s a start.
And his victory helped him overcome a very mediocre Daytona 500, where he was involved in an incident and finished 28th.
He’s now fifth in points. OK, that is indeed on track for a title, for now.
The Hendrick Motorsports personnel switch that took place over the off-season showed signs of good results – but not much more. Gordon now works with crew chief Alan Gustafson and the crew formerly part of teammate Mark Martin’s group.
That they were able to win in only their second start of the season gives evidence that the alterations just might work – for Gordon, anyway.
We have yet to see how it might pay off elsewhere.
If you ask me, most fans won’t concur the changes have worked until Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to competitiveness with Steve Letarte, Gordon’s former crew chief, and the bunch once with the No. 24 team. That, to them, will provide the ultimate proof that the Hendrick swap worked.
By the way, Letarte was one of the first to congratulate Gordon for his Phoenix victory.
— Gordon ran down Kyle Busch and passed him with just eight laps remaining and then pulled away to win at Phoenix.
Busch had already won the Camping Word Truck Series and Nationwide Series races at Phoenix. He led all 200 laps of the Nationwide race.
Busch missed the Phoenix sweep by just one position. Had he done so it would have been for the second time in his career. He did it at Bristol last year.
With top-10 finishes in the first two races of the season Busch has moved into No. 1 in the point standings. Again, yes, it is early but there are many who contend the only world left for Busch to conquer is to win a Cup championship. To many, he has already established himself as the best all-around driver in NASCAR.
I won’t argue with that.
— Wrecks and other incidents have been a big part of the first two races of 2011.
At Phoenix the most prominent crashfest affected 13 cars, some of which were considered as pre-race favorites.
The mishap also had another effect. It placed some drivers considered championship contenders in a position where they have to make up significant ground as quickly as possible – if for no other reason than to lessen a sense of urgency.
They include Carl Edwards – considered by many the driver most able to end Jimmie Johnson’s championship streak at five – Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray.
Of the group Edwards is highest at 12th in points, 21 points behind Busch.
Oh, and Kevin Harvick did finish fourth at Phoenix, but that, coupled with his 42nd-place run at Daytona following a blown engine, puts him 22nd in points.
Denny Hamlin, another anticipated to make a title run, was 11th at Phoenix and 21st at Daytona. He’s in 14th place.
As for Johnson, a third-place run at Phoenix was decidedly better than his 27th at Daytona. He’s always been something of a slow starter and he’s 13th in points.
Again, please, it’s early. But the point is that some of the expected contenders have some catching up to do – not that this is anything entirely unusual after two races in any season.
— Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had a whirlwind week leading into Phoenix as he received phone calls from the White House – he also spoke with Vice President Joe Biden – was on the set of the Ellen DeGeneres and George Lopez shows and made personal appearances, along with videos, almost from coast to coast. The 20-year-old driver even received wedding proposals.
I’m not surprised. Those who should know say that the personable, good-looking Bayne has really fired up the ‘tweeners. Incidentally, that’s great for NASCAR.
But at Phoenix things came crashing to reality as Bayne wrecked his Wood Brothers Ford after just 49 laps to finish 40th.
OK, let’s be frank. In Cup competition Bayne is a raw rookie. He won at Daytona because of his talent, certainly, but also because he had an excellent car.
And he evolved into one of the best drafting partners in the race – not to mention in a 150-mile qualifying event in which his idol, Gordon, insisted he hook up with him.
Bayne wins at Daytona. His idol then wins at Phoenix. A bit ironic, don’t you think?
But the point is that Bayne, as a rookie who will compete on most tracks for the first time, is likely to have far more experiences such as that at Phoenix than what happened at Daytona.
I don’t think the ‘tweeners will mind a bit. They’re already in his camp.
Well, let me clarify. We didn’t care so much that there would be a race – big news at the time. What mattered to most of us was that we would get to travel to Phoenix. This was giddy stuff.
Understand, this was in an era when the hardcore motorsports journalists, those who covered NASCAR on almost a weekly basis, were based in the Southeast.
While we indeed enjoyed trips to Michigan, Pennsylvania and even California, many of our travels were to Charlotte, Atlanta, Richmond and Daytona Beach – admittedly the somewhat more cosmopolitan locations in the still growing Dixie of that time.
We also got to attend the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York. Can’t get more cosmopolitan than that, which is the way the sanctioning body wanted it. We gladly took every advantage.
But there were also Bristol, North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Darlington and Rockingham. Not exactly the hubs of excitement. While we always had fun at each of them we pretty much had to make it for ourselves.
To have Phoenix on the schedule simply meant more adventure, which we relished. We intended to be parts journalist, tourist and, as much as possible, hedonist.
The tourist in us was satisfied by the Arizona countryside, so different from what we knew. It consisted of dirt, scrimpy trees, cacti – they were everywhere – and towering rock-laden mountains in the distance.
At home, we were used to green grass, trees and more trees, so many that the mountains were covered by forests.
Of course, we knew that in Arizona we were in the desert, so far removed from our home country. Naturally, there were no deserts in the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida although you could find a swamp or two. It didn’t take us long to appreciate The Valley of the Sun’s singular beauty, so different from what we knew.
As for the hedonist in us, that was satisfied by a visit to a bar. There, we learned that we could not only drink, eat and dance, but we could also gamble on events constantly broadcast through banks of televisions – right there on the premises!
Hot damn, we thought. You can’t even gamble in ol’ Charlotte, Atlanta or Richmond – and especially not in a bar!
At that time, even the lottery didn’t exist in the South. Suffice it to say it does now. But if you can gamble in a bar I haven’t found one yet – no, I haven’t looked for it – although I suspect it’s out there somewhere.
As much as I have gone on about all of this we were, foremost, journalists with a job to do. And given the importance of that first Phoenix race, we certainly were going to do it.
Among many other things, we wrote about the history of the track, which had been built for Indy Car racing but had also staged what was known as NASCAR Winston West events won by the likes of Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, among others.
To cover the race was, ultimately, easy because NASCAR history was made.
Alan Kulwicki, the mercurial, maverick driver/team owner, won the first NASCAR race of his career. He did it after Ricky Rudd, driving for Kenny Bernstein and dominating, blew an engine while leading late in the race.
That allowed Kulwicki to take the lead and eventually win by 18.5 seconds over Terry Labonte, driving for Junior Johnson.
To write about Kulwicki’s victory, to recount how he came south from Wisconsin with a makeshift team to compete in NASCAR, how he won the rookie of the year title in 1986 and how he steadfastly refused to give up unless he could succeed on his own terms, was indeed an easy task.
Nor was it hard to report his “Polish Victory Lap,” in which he went around the track clockwise so all the fans in the grandstands could get a better look at him and he could acknowledge them.
“I always thought,” Kulwicki said in our missives and in the many memorials about him since, “that if I ever won a race I would do something special for the fans. So this was it.”
We had never seen anything like it but we would again. Sadly, it wasn’t always by Kulwicki. Others, in respect for him, would do it repeatedly after he perished in an airplane crash in Tennessee on April 1, 1993.
I suspect Phoenix doesn’t have the singular appeal it held for all of us who lived beneath the Mason-Dixon Line 25 years ago. Today, most have been there time and again – as have I. Doesn’t mean the city, and its surrounding area, has lost a bit of its appeal.
But for all of us, and I suspect many fans, one thing that will remain special about the track is that it was the place at which one of stock car racing’s most unique and respected drivers – and the man who would become NASCAR’s 1992 champion – won his first race.
I indeed remember that first visit to Phoenix and all that I, and others, experienced and enjoyed.
And I will never forget the man who won his first NASCAR race there.
I suspect many fans won’t either.
Junior tried every way he could to get more speed out of the car but to no avail. He thought about pulling out of the race but his team owner, Ray Fox, asked him to stay. Fox said he’d work on the car to get more power.
Junior went back on the track and decided to follow one of the faster cars. To his surprise, he discovered that he could keep up, unlike earlier.
Junior had uncovered the secret of the draft.
Junior’s contributions to motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
I can understand why we saw all of that two-car drafting in this year’s Daytona 500.
With the way the cars are configured today one car can easily latch on to the rear bumper of another, which creates the draft. But when there’s a third car it just doesn’t work.
The third car gets the wind off the first two cars but the wind can’t stay over the third car. It just comes down on the windshield. That creates so much drag the third car can’t stay in there.
So two cars work better than three – and we saw plenty of evidence of that in the Daytona 500.
The draft has been a big part of racing at Daytona almost from the start.
The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and everybody thought it was all about horsepower at that big place. Nobody wanted to follow anyone else. They wouldn’t stay behind anybody.
They never really hooked up. They’d always pull out and try to pass. That’s the main reason no one had any idea about the draft in that first race.
But it was different in the second race in 1960. And I had a lot to do with that.
At the start of the season I didn’t have a ride since Paul Spaulding, my team owner in 1959, had gotten out of racing.
Then I got a call from Ray Fox, a car builder and crew chief in Daytona Beach, Fla. He had gotten what was a spur-of-the-moment sponsorship deal from a guy named John Masoni, who owned the dog track in Daytona.
Ray asked me if I would drive his Chevrolet. I’ve always liked him so I told him I’d come down and see what we could do.
At that time Pontiac had the fastest cars and several good drivers, among them Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith. Since Ray had a Chevrolet, I knew we were going to have our hands full.
That might be an understatement. We were 30 miles per hour slower than the Pontiacs.
I was ready to come home. I didn’t want to stay down there and watch the Pontiacs lap me every 10 or 11 laps.
Ray asked me to stay. He made some adjustments to that Chevrolet and I went back on the track. This time I decided to run along with Pontiac. Maybe I could learn something.
Cotton Owens came by and I got behind him; I got right on his rear bumper. I thought he might pull away, but to my surprise, I stayed right there.
When we got off the track Cotton told me that I really had that Chevrolet hummin’. What he didn’t know was that I had discovered the draft – quite by accident, I might add.
Just to be certain, I went back on the track and, sure enough, the car was very slow. I came to pit road and waited for some Pontiacs to come by. I got in with them when I took to the track and I stayed with them.
I knew then that what was happening. We were creating a slipstream type of thing in which a slower car could keep up with a faster one.
I started ninth in the Daytona 500 and once the race started I got to the Pontiacs ahead of me as fast as I could. I stayed with them and did everything they did. When they pitted, I pitted.
In the closing laps of the race Bobby Johns had the only competitive Pontiac. The others had experienced various problems.
Bobby was getting a push from Jack Smith’s Pontiac – Jack was down and had no chance to win – and got around me. But then, with 10 laps to go, something happened that I had never seen before.
The back glass popped out of Bobby’s car and flew into the air. With the speed and traffic situation I reckon we had created a vacuum that sucked that glass right out.
The change in the airflow around Bobby’s car caused him to spin into the grass along the backstretch. By the time he got himself back on the track I was long gone.
I won the race by a good distance over Bobby. And I know for a fact I never would have if I hadn’t figured out the draft.
And, as you know, the draft has been a part of Daytona ever since.
Nelson Piquet, Jr. tells Motorsports Unplugged about coming to America, racing for Kevin Harvick and embracing the NASCAR style of competition. This, part one in a series of two, gives you some insight on what it takes to switch driving disciplines. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com
And, believe me, the sanctioning body is thinking the same thing.
Bayne’s victory in the Daytona 500 was stunning and heartwarming. He won in only his second Sprint Cup start and became, at 20, the second-youngest driver ever to win on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
His victory captured nationwide media attention and was accomplished in front of a much larger television audience than saw last year’s 500.
All of this, certainly, is good for NASCAR. But perhaps Bayne can do more.
One thing NASCAR needs to do is recapture the youth market. As I understand it, the sport’s appeal in the 18-34 demographic has slipped.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in marketing, but I don’t think it takes one to figure out that should NASCAR successfully cultivate young fans, it has the opportunity keep them for life. That’s the goal of every professional sport.
Bayne could be just the right man for the job.
Yes, Joey Logano has already laid the groundwork. He was 19 when he won at New Hampshire in 2009 and remains the youngest driver to win a Cup race.
His presence in NASCAR, with Joe Gibbs Racing, is now well-established and I have to think he’s admired and followed by younger fans. Certainly he has been a magnet for them – and that’s helped NASCAR.
Logano is already a star and could well become much more in the future. I have to think he appeals to young people. But when compared to Bayne, at least for now, there is a big difference:
Bayne unexpectedly won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race, earned vast media attention and thus gained quick, wide notoriety. That is the big difference at this point.
At 20, Bayne, like Logano, is a catalyst to snare the market NASCAR wants. I suspect it wouldn’t be hard for young people to identify with Bayne as they may have with Logano. Bayne is personable, unassuming, innocent, good looking and a young man of faith. He’s the latest new and fresh addition to the NASCAR world.
And he’s already attracted a wealth of positive attention for stock car racing with his Daytona 500 victory.
He’s all about racing. It’s all he’s wanted to do. We’ve already read stories about how he was racing go-karts at age five and moved alone from his home in Knoxville, Tenn., to Mooresville, N.C., at age 15 to pursue a career.
His father Rocky traveled to Mooresville often to be with his son, who had a job driving for a lower-tier circuit for Dale Earnhardt Inc. His crew chief drove him to work and back until Bayne got his driver’s license.
Bayne quit school but got his GED diploma online.
Seems to me that all of this is a positive example of how a young person’s dedication, and the family sacrifice, is the way to reach his or her goals.
And Bayne, like Logano, personifies it. Coupled with Bayne’s other attributes – and a Daytona 500 victory – NASCAR has a near-perfect link to the youth market.
I think others realize that. I wouldn’t be surprised if, because of what he’s done, Bayne may receive endorsement offers from companies that provide products targeted for young people. It could happen.
Obviously, all would work best for NASCAR if Bayne’s Cup career is sustained and he, at the least, has the opportunity to experience more success.
Bayne elected to run for the Nationwide Series championship because he was scheduled to run in only 17 Cup races, with Wood Brothers Racing, to which he was loaned out by Roush Fenway Racing.
However, we already know that NASCAR, which has declared a driver can only run for one title in its top three series, has told Bayne he can change his mind and compete for the Cup title. He still gets no points for this 500 victory, but the win itself will count toward a run for The Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Which means the Woods are going to have to compete on the full Cup schedule, something the team hasn’t done since 2008, for Bayne to have any chance at a top 20 spot in points before the Chase cutoff.
It’s the Woods goal to run a full schedule. But that will require sponsorship, more than has been given them from Ford, which, along with technology from Roush Fenway, has helped the team raise the bar.
It will also require cooperation from Roush Fenway, which has signed Bayne to a Nationwide deal but has yet to acquire sponsorship.
If the Woods did get funding for a full ride for Bayne I doubt Roush Fenway would stand in the way – at least for this season.
Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood said a couple of days ago that he’s already received text messages from potential sponsors and he’ll likely get more.
I think it would be ideal if Bayne and the Woods got the opportunity to make a run at the Chase. Not only would it allow them the chance for more success, it would also grant Bayne more exposure.
And more exposure would certainly benefit NASCAR in its quest for a market it covets – and needs.
Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 on Sunday on his first try and only his second Sprint Cup race with the Woods Brothers, the oldest team in NASCAR. Bayne credits his and the teams Christian faith for the surprise win. Bayne is donating a portion of his winnings to various ministries. Steve Waid interviews Len Wood just days before the Daytona 500. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com
— Wood Brothers Racing will not go away.
I suspect many of you felt the same as I from time to time – the NASCAR organization which has been in existence for over six decades was something like a worn-out thoroughbred whose glory was long past and then put out to pasture.
What the thoroughbred had accomplished would never be forgotten, to be sure, but its future would be humble until the end of its days.
It seems that the future for the Woods might well be anything but humble.
In one of the most improbable Daytona 500 finishes ever, if not the most improbable, the Woods won for the fifth time with a kid named Trevor Bayne as their driver. He made only the second Sprint Cup start of his career.
A kid who turned 20 just one day before the race, who wears a retainer and can’t drink victory lane champagne for another year, and who got the ride with the Woods for reasons too many to list here, wins NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
And he did it with a team that, as mentioned, seemed to be a shadow of itself. Because of a lack of sponsorship that forced it to make the most of the dollars it had, it has run only a limited schedule for the past two seasons.
I had a conversation with Len Wood, who, along with brother Eddie, now runs the team formed by their father Glen and his brother Leonard, and he said, among other things, that the goal was to enter 17 races this year with Bayne if sponsorship could be found.
I admit a part of me thought this was, at best, a very lofty goal.
Now, however, given Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory it might well happen – or even more. There’s a fair amount of logic to invest money in a venerated team with an obviously talented young, and personable, driver whose future seems bright.
The victory was no fluke. Bayne had been impressive throughout Speed Weeks. He was Jeff Gordon’s ally of choice in a Gatorade Duel race – and performed admirably – until Bayne was taken out by an accident.
Word quickly spread through the garage area that Bayne had the chops to compete in the 500’s new style of racing.
It evolved that he was the leader on the second of two green-white-flag restarts and, with a push from veteran Bobby Labonte, was able to prove he was just as able as the guy out in front as he was the one who gave the shove.
It was the fifth Daytona 500 victory for the Woods. But it was easily the most unexpected since Tiny Lund’s win in 1963 when he substituted for the injured Marvin Panch. Their other winners are A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson.
They were all superstars. Trevor Bayne isn’t – yet. But then, his victory might prove to be the most rewarding ever, in more ways than one, for the Wood Brothers, who aren’t out to pasture yet.
— Speaking of improbable, accolades are due to drivers whom most of us thought wouldn’t be factors in the Daytona 500.
They include David Ragan, who might have won the race had he not been penalized for moving out of position before he reached the start-finish line during the first green-white-checkered flag restart, and Labonte, who finished fourth in his first start with JTG/Daugherty Racing, a team he feels will put him back into prominence.
David Gilliland, the Cinderella kid of a few years ago when he beat the big guys in a Nationwide Series race that directly led to a Sprint Cup job, would up third after a crackup.
Regan Smith, another driver who turned heads for his ability to negotiate the two-car Daytona draft, finished seventh, again after a mishap. In his debut with Richard Childress Racing, Paul Menard finished ninth after a couple of his teammates were sidelined by engine failure.
Yes, I know several of the top contenders left the race because of incidents not of their making. But, as they say, that’s racing. This sort of thing has happened before and will happen again.
— I admit there was plenty of drama and excitement in the Daytona 500. I think it was good stuff for racing fans and, especially, television.
The new “June bug” style of drafting is appreciated by some and loathed by others. By now you know some of the scenarios it can create.
For example, there’s potential overheating (and thus engine failure), the fact that the driver pushing can’t see a thing and is at the mercy of the one in front of him, and spotters, and that the cars, rubbing front and rear bumpers, are so close that if the one in front checks up for any reason, all hell can break loose.
I have difficulties with a couple of things.
At Daytona, drivers no longer communicated solely with their crew chiefs or spotters, as it used to be. They do so with just about everyone on the track.
It’s done so they can, among other things, create favorable drafting situations. A driver can ask another if they can hook up. If turned down he can ask another.
Even in a two-car draft drivers can tell each other what they should do, such as the time to make the “swap” so the one doing the pushing can pass to gain fresh air.
Maybe I’m wrong but it appears to me that to be able to work with a rival whom you are supposed to beat is out of sorts in a sport where it is every man for himself and to work solely with his team.
Yes, I know teams have communicated for years. But it was done crew chief to crew chief, or spotter to spotter, and then transmitted to the driver.
Drivers simply didn’t talk to each other, much less reveal what each should do.
I can only surmise that this year’s Daytona 500 made it that way.
— There were a record 74 lead changes in the Daytona 500. It will go in the books.
But, I ask you, if a driver who is leading makes the “swap” with the guy behind him and he’s the one who crosses the finish line first, did he really take the lead?
Seems to me he was GIVEN the lead. He didn’t TAKE it. We saw a lot of that in Daytona.
I know it seems trivial. But to me there’s a difference between being given something rather than earning it.
Those are just a few of my thoughts. Yours, by all means, are most certainly welcome.
I knew he wanted to chat.
This has happened, I’m privileged to say, several times over the years. We’ve had pleasant conversations about everything from politics to football. We seldom talked racing.
Instead of his usual greeting, which is, “Watcha doin’ bud?” Petty said, “What are you doing now?”
I understood his intent. He knew that my long career in motorsports print journalism had come to an end.
“Well, Richard, although I have been part of it for a long time, I’m now fully in cyberspace.”
Then he looked at me and said, “I don’t even own a computer.”
That didn’t completely surprise me. While some senior citizens – and others – have embraced computers, many don’t care to know a thing about them.
Petty, 73, may not have visited cyberspace, but he was well aware of its impact.
“I know about the Internet,” Petty said. “Because of the Internet people now get their news instantly. When you read a newspaper what you are really reading is history. It’s stuff that happened 24 hours ago. Everyone already knows about everything.”
I told him something I think he had already realized. Newspapers, magazines and other publications have struggled because they have lost readers and advertising to the Internet.
“That’s not surprising,” Petty said. “The deal is even newspapers have gone to the Internet. They don’t have a choice because that’s what everyone uses to get their news.
“Our little paper in Randolph County (N.C.) has done it. But I still get it at home and read it. Well, make that I read the funny pages.”
As much as Petty realized the power of the Internet, he also knew how modern technology has evolved to the point where gadgets and gizmos unimagined years ago have become a part of people’s everyday lives.
“I stand around and watch fans wave their little cell phones around, taking pictures,” he said. “You couldn’t envision a cell phone a while back, not to mention one that took pictures.”
As if to emphasize his point, a couple of groups of fans walked up and asked Petty to pose for pictures, which they took with cell phones.
He willingly posed for all of them flashing his famous smile.
Along with the Internet, gizmos and gadgets aren’t part of Petty’s life, although some have tried to change that.
“I read a lot,” Petty said. “I don’t read fiction. I like biographies and history. I like to read about the lives of people, their ups and downs. I like to read about where we came from.
“My daughters bought me, what’s it called? A Kindle? It’s supposed to let you read thousands of books.
“The girls told me I could take the Kindle on the bus or the hauler and read whenever I wanted. When I finished one book I could push a button and get another one.
“I don’t even know how to turn it on.”
He does know how to turn on his television. But, of course, technology has created sets that are far removed from those old boxes with “rabbit ears” – or even basic cable.
“I have a satellite TV,” Petty said. “Sometimes I hit the wrong buttons and it will go blank. So I call the six-year-old grandkid and ask what buttons to punch. I’ll get the answers, press some buttons and then the TV turns back on.”
Petty realizes what most do – that the younger generation has a quicker and fuller understanding of technology and the personal products it creates.
“And it all advances so fast,” he said. “I’ll bet if I did buy a computer, by the time I got it home it would be out of date.
“I’m glad I came along when I did. But if I came along later, like many of today’s drivers, I would be part of an entirely different society.
That’s what all of this has become.
“Take Kyle, for example. He’s crazy about all this computer stuff. He goes to something called ‘tweeter’ or ‘twinner’ or something like that.”