Menard’s Indy Victory Adds To Season’s Competitiveness

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has established itself as one of the most unique in many years for a couple of reasons:

It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.

This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?

Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.

The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.

Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.

Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.

After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.

They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?

The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.

Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.

Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.

While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.

Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.

Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.

They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.

If a team can utilize creativity only to a certain point it often cannot gain a sizable advantage over another. That, many suggest, is what we have now.

Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.

There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.

But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.

Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.

Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.

Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.

It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.

Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.

In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.

This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.

Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.

That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.

That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.

Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.

 

** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.

His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.

It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.

These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.

Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.

If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.

 

** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.

The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.

Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.

Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.

With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

Brickyard A Critical race: Nationwide A Mistake

No doubt that the Brickyard 400 is an important race this season. This race will weed out more contenders for a Chase berth. Nationwide at the Indy Speedway is not a good idea. 50,000 people in the stands looks like 5,000 at a track Indy’s size.

Another Title Year, But Along Came “Jaws”

After the successful 1976 season, in which he won his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship, Junior felt his team had finally reached its stride. He had no doubt 1977 would be another banner year.

There was reason for Junior to be optimistic. His team and driver remained intact and would campaign a new car approved by NASCAR.

It was the slope-nosed Chevrolet Laguna S-3, judged by nearly everyone to be the car to beat on the superspeedways.

Of course, Junior Johnson & Associates wasn’t the only team that would race the car in 1977. Another was the fledgling DiGard Racing Co., which had Darrell Waltrip as its driver.

Waltrip won two short-track races for DiGard in 1975 and 1976. But he was far from happy. His team failed to finish 16 of 30 races in 1976.

That did not sit well with the ambitious, brash Waltrip, a Kentucky native who had never shied away from expressing his opinions.

Crew chief Mario Rossi was gone before the season started. Replacement David Ifft lasted a month and the job was handed to Buddy Parrott.

As much turmoil as there was at DiGard, all went smoothly for Junior’s team – for the most part, anyway.

For the first time there was discord between Junior and Cale. Also, despite its internal problems, DiGard became a NASCAR force.

It and Junior Johnson & Associates won the most races.

It was just a matter of time before the teams, and their drivers, were at loggerheads.

 

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

 

My faith in Cale and the team was rewarded just as the season began.

We won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race and followed that with a victory at Richmond one week later.

Then we went on our usual short-track blitz, winning at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville. To be honest, everyone thought our team was the one to beat on half-milers, but that didn’t happen often.

Then we went on to win at Dover and Michigan. Cale led the point standings for the first 17 races of the season and, to tell you the truth, I was feeling pretty cocky.

But at Daytona on July 4, we suffered a broken transmission and finished 23rd, 14 laps down, to winner Richard Petty, who had been dogging us in the points all season long. Cale’s lead shrank to 17 points over Petty.

Twelve days later at Nashville, Cale finished a respectable fourth as Darrell Waltrip won. Waltrip, by the way, had been steadily improving – and piling up victories – with DiGard.

We came out of that race with a 12-point lead over Petty.

Then we lost our advantage at Pocono. Cale finished sixth and Petty was the runnerup to Benny Parsons. We lost the points lead for the first time that season as Petty swept into an eight-point lead.

As disappointing as that was I knew it was a lead of little substance. We could get it back in the very next race.

Which we did at Talladega after Cale finished second to Donnie Allison, who had to get out of Hoss Ellington’s Chevrolet after the heat got to him

His relief driver? Waltrip. A bit ironic don’t you think?

Everyone on our team was happy that we had retaken the points lead by 32 over Petty. That is, everyone but a single individual – and that was Cale.

For some reason he thought our Chevrolet was junk. He sounded off about it afterward. He said he had the sorriest Chevrolet in the race and that if he had won, “I’d be in court Monday morning for stealing.”

I thought to myself, “What the hell?” Here we finish second, retake the points lead and Cale has the audacity to criticize our Chevrolet? I admit I was pretty steamed.

I told the media, “Here we are in the middle of a championship battle and if Cale starts to running his mouth, he’ll be looking for another car.

“We don’t have to listen to a bunch of lip from him.”

And I meant it. I wasn’t going to tolerate any of Cale’s guff. I know for a fact he was never one not to speak up when things bothered him. But he knew I meant what I said.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Cale would lead the points standings for the remainder of the year and win a second consecutive Winston Cup title.

For us, that was the end of the verbal confrontations, but not those on the track.

In the Southern 500 at Darlington, Cale and Waltrip went head-to-head, and lip-to-lip, for the first time.

They staged a terrific battle for position until, on lap 277 of 367, they finally crashed. Waltrip tapped the rear of D.K. Ulrich’s car, sending him into our Chevrolet. Terry Bivins became involved in the four-car melee. Everyone suffered extensive damage.

Afterward, Ulrich went up to Cale and asked, “You knocked the hell out of me. Why did you hit me?”

Cale told him the truth. He said he wasn’t the culprit, Waltrip was. “I didn’t touch you. Ol’ Jaws hit you.”

“Who?” Ulrich asked.

“Jaws,” Cale heatedly said. “It was ol’ Jaws Waltrip.”

Cale had given Waltrip his lasting nickname – that of the famous movie shark.

I thought that was pretty funny. But I knew Waltrip well enough to know he wasn’t going to take it. He would, somehow, retaliate.

At Martinsville in intense, searing heat, Cale won. But he was completely physically spent. He was red-faced, drenched in sweat and, to be honest, looked like a prisoner of war.

He told the media the length of Martinsville’s races should be cut from 500 laps. It had gotten to the point where driver fatigue was more dangerous than actual racing.

He added that, as far as physical punishment, Martinsville was the absolute worst.

If Cale had asked my opinion, I would have told him to shut up. I knew that the track’s bulldog president, Clay Earles, wasn’t going to stand for his remarks.

He didn’t. He said he would not reduce the length of his races and if drivers didn’t like it, they could stay away.

A week later at North Wilkesboro, Waltrip got his chance. He outran Cale to win and promptly fired the next shot in the verbal war.

“I’d have to say this was a one-and-a-half or two on the ‘Cale Scale’,” he said. Everyone knew what he meant.

“I think Cale’s problem could be his years. I know I’m finding out I can’t do the things I did 10 years ago.”

They weren’t that far apart in years. Cale was 38 years old, Waltrip 30.

Me? I thought the whole thing was funny. I could see where Waltrip was coming from. Cale was on top of the heap and Waltrip did everything he could to knock him off, one way or another.

I got a few chuckles but I stayed out of it. I could easily afford to. After North Wilkesboro we had a 293-point lead over Petty. We won the championship three weeks later at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season. Cale won nine races that year.

Waltrip finished fourth in points with six victories, his best season with DiGard. I knew he was going to be a force in the future.

What I didn’t know is that within a short time, I would become more involved with him than ever I could imagine.

Swapgate: Parrott, Berrier, Erwin, Pattie


With the brief summer break for Sprint Cup the crew chiefs of several high profile teams were replaced. Why? To take a big swing at the fence in order to make the chase or win a race. Todd Parrott, Brian Pattie, Greg Erwin and Todd Berrier all were replaced.

Nationwide To Indy In 2012: Short-Track Tradition Takes A Hit

Lucas Oil Raceway, which was known as Indianapolis Raceway Park when it opened in 1961, will play host to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this Friday and the Nationwide Series on Saturday – for the last time.

Next year, the Nationwide Series will move to nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway as companion event to Sprint Cup’s Brickyard 400.

Regardless of the reasons for the change of venue, that it is going to happen is another step toward the demise of a NASCAR tradition – perhaps even an era – for the Nationwide Series.

The series, considered as a feeder circuit for the elite Sprint Cup tour (and often called the hackneyed “Triple A league of stock car racing”), has, by one name or another, been in existence almost as long as NASCAR.

And for so many years it competed primarily on short tracks. Its schedule consisted of many stand-alone events, seldom anything that could be considered a supporting show.

After this year, when the 0.686-mile IRP (we’ll stick with the name most familiar to fans), drops from the schedule, it will mean the Nationwide Series loses another half-mile facility which once formed the circuit’s backbone.

What is now the Nationwide Series began in 1950, when it was known as the NASCAR Sportsman division.

By 1968 it became the Late Model Sportsman tour and it really hit its stride during the 13 years it went by that name.

Drivers who competed on the LMS tour didn’t necessarily do so because they wanted to advance their careers. Rather, they found it a relatively inexpensive tour on which to compete. They could make a living – something they knew they couldn’t do in the costly world of what became known as Winston Cup competition.

These drivers raced among themselves for several years, built up rivalries and became familiar to fans, which, as fans will do, chose their heroes and villains.

Competitors like Butch Lindley, L.D. Ottinger, Sam Ard, Jack Ingram, Tommy Houston, Bosco Lowe and several others were LMS stalwarts who never strayed from the circuit.

In 1982, Anheuser-Busch was signed as a sponsor and two years later the tour became known as the Busch Grand National Series.

That name lasted 10 years before it was changed to Busch Series, Grand National Division and then, in 2004, simply the Busch Series.

All Nationwide Series records today are traced back to 1982, the year decreed as the beginning of the circuit’s “modern era.”

But things began to change. Younger drivers with ambitions – Dale Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine, Phil Parsons, Dale Jarrett and others, began to join the ranks.

In time others accompanied them. Soon the “newcomers” began to win all the championships. The number of series regulars dwindled.

Most likely because NASCAR wanted to give Busch, and its series, maximum exposure in front of thousands of fans at large venues, races were more often conducted as companion events at established superspeedways.

Even so, the short tracks remained the circuit’s foundation. When Anheuser-Busch first came on as a sponsor in ‘82, 23 of the 29 races run that year were on short tracks.

They included such relatively unheralded speedways as South Boston, Orange County, Hickory, Caraway and Asheville. Half-milers already part of the Winston Cup circuit were also in the mix, including Martinsville, Bristol and Nashville.

Not to mention IRP, which staged its first Busch Series race in 1982, won by Morgan Shepherd, who had been a regular for almost a decade.

As time passed and NASCAR’s top circuit began to add races at new tracks in large markets from coast to coast, the short tracks began to fall by the wayside for the Busch Series.

It just made good business sense for NASCAR to present its products in its largest markets with its largest crowds and the added maximum television exposure.

Even so, IRP remained. There had to be a reason why. Maybe it was because Nationwide Series events always drew good, enthusiastic crowds. I know that was especially the case after the first Brickyard 400 came to Indy in 1994.

Many members of the media stayed at what was then the Howard Johnson Motel on High School Road, not far from the 2.5-mile Indy track.

Early Saturday night a few left the motel for dinner. They were amazed to see bumper-to-bumper traffic on the road in front of them.

They were told folks were inching their way to IRP for the Busch Series race. It was a rare sight, indeed.

Where one might think nearly three decades of established tradition and fan appreciation might be good enough to keep the Nationwide Series at IRP, that’s not the case.

I understand that the track is, in many ways, sub-standard in terms of fan, competitor and media amenities. It could use a repaving, among many other things.

It’s representative of how many – not all – short tracks once were. Progress has been slight and the past has seemingly held ground. That’s no longer good enough for NASCAR.

And I also understand the move to Indy on the weekend of the Brickyard 400. It’s on to bigger and better things. It’s progress with the idea that if a Nationwide Series can draw 40,000 to IRP it might double for Indy.

It’s also a move to provide more hype for Indy’s racing weekend; more fodder for marketing, promotion and ticket sales, which, they tell us, have been slumping for the Brickyard 400. It’s designed to regain what has been lost.

That might be, but I suspect fans are going to see a much different style of Nationwide Series racing in 2012. There will be more speed, sure, but forget all about short-track beating, banging, rubbing and gouging.

I’d be willing to bet many fans are going to truly miss that.

For many years now NASCAR has attempted to keep a balance between expansion to bigger tracks in bigger venues and its short-track roots and traditions.

But in 2010, of 32 Nationwide Series races, only six were held on short tracks.

Kinda makes you think tradition is losing.

Next year there will be one less short track on the Nationwide Series schedule. Tradition takes another blow.

The Points System Has Provided Intrigue, With More To Come

Maybe I’m wrong and you may disagree, but if nothing else, NASCAR’S new points system has, to date, made the season intriguing.

As I understand it, the modified system awards a winner 43 points. He gets three more points for winning and another for leading a lap, which means a minimum of 47 laps.

If the winner leads the most laps that means another bonus point. The total is now 48, the most any driver can earn in a single race.

The most points the second-place finisher can get is 44 points, 42 for second, one for leading and one for leading the most laps.

Putting bonus points aside – NASCAR wanted to maintain the race winner reward – the system is pretty basic. There’s only a one-point difference between each position, from the base of 43 for first place to just one for last place.

The unique change NASCAR made for this season, in addition to rewarding consistency of performance, was to allow the top 10 after 26 races to qualify for the chase. Spots 11 and 12 would go to the drivers who have compiled the most victories and rank among the top 20.

OK, that’s enough. I’ve dwelled long enough on something you already know.

But what I find interesting about the new points system is that it has kept things fairly undecided as we enter the final six races before the Chase.

While there are a few drivers who seem safe when it comes to the Chase, there are others whose status is very much uncertain.

And Carl Edwards, the points leader, by no means has a lock on the top spot. He’s just seven points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Among the top 10 every driver except one has a victory. Kevin Harvick, fourth in points and eight behind Edwards, has three victories, as does Kyle Busch, who is fifth in points, 13 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have two wins each – and are ranked sixth and seventh in points, respectively.

I would think all four drivers are pretty much guaranteed spots in the Chase.

I’d say the same for Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch (third in points), Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who each have a victory and are among the top 10.

OK, here’s where the situation becomes a bit tense for some drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks ninth in points largely because he’s been in a competitive swoon. He was once as high as third in the standings.

But he does not have a victory. Which means two things if he wants to make the Chase: He has to hang on to the top 10 over the next six races, or, at the very least, earn a victory, something he hasn’t done since 2008.

Tony Stewart faces a similar situation. He’s tied with Hamlin for 10th in points, but unlike Hamlin, he doesn’t have a victory.

So if the Chase started immediately, Hamlin is in and Stewart is out.

But it doesn’t start immediately so Stewart has a chance to secure his place. Most likely he would prefer to do it with a victory. He hasn’t had a winless season in a career that dates back to 1999.

Other notables, such as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, pretty much have to rely on winning to make the Chase.

Bowyer is 12th in points, Kahne 14th and Biffle 15th. They are 110 points or more behind the leader. Bowyer is 28 points out of 10th place. He can certainly make up the difference but the odds are quickly stacking against him.

It’s the same for Kahne and Biffle, who are each 47 points out of the hunt.

For these three guys, a victory would be the tonic. The last time Bowyer went winless happened in 2009. He won two races last year.

Kahne has had two consecutive winless seasons. Between 2003-10, Biffle had only one year without a victory, 2009.

I don’t think there’s much doubt any of them can win this year. The question is can they do it in time to help them make the Chase?

They are not alone. It’s going to take a win for several others who rank 11-20th in points to make NASCAR’s “playoff.”

They include A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.

Fact is there’s only one driver out of the top 10 who is assured a position in the Chase – for the time being, anyway.

That’s David Ragan, who won at Daytona on July 2 to earn the first victory of his career. He’s presently 13th in points.

He’s 46 points out of 10th place. That’s not insurmountable, just as it is for Bowyer, Kahne and Biffle, and I’m sure that, like the others, gaining positions is what he’d like to do.

But he’s the only one with the luxury of a victory.

As it stands right now, the only other driver who has a shot at the Chase is Brad Keselowski. He has a victory but, in 23rd place, ranks out of the top 20.

He’s going to have to scrap his way in. He’s 25 points behind 20th-place Martin, again certainly not an insurmountable margin. He has six races to do it.

The next half-dozen races are worthy of our attention. For some drivers it’s obviously going to take victory to make all the difference.

Can they win? Certainly. The 2011 season has already produced 13 different winners, including three who won for the first time.

Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, the all-time record for most winners in a single season is 19 and the record for most first-time winners was five twice, in 2001 and 2002.

We’re on a pace to have 25 winners this year, including six who won for this first time in their careers.

I don’t know if that will happen, but the point is this season’s variety of winners would indicate that anything could happen over the next six events – and thus alter the starting field for the Chase.

“Brooksie” Was Symbolic Of The NASCAR Driver That Once Was

Many years ago, when NASCAR was much younger, far more informal and not nearly as popular or wealthy as it is now, the competitive environment was different – needless to say.

Most guys who raced acted on a whim and competed only when they thought it might be fun or somewhat profitable.

Sure, the sport had its heroes, guys who got the backing it took to compete for championships and earn the glory and the headlines.

But they were always in the minority.

NASCAR got a bit more sophisticated in the 1970s when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. came on board and established the Winston Cup Series, which included a championship point fund that grew steadily, and impressively, over the years.

As for the competitors, they remained pretty much the same. There were the stars, of course, like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison – but the majority of the drivers they beat were still a rag-tag bunch.

Like their predecessors most came around when it suited them. Others competed regularly in hopes of making a profit through the points system.

They came and went. They had names like Eddie Yarboro, Dean Dalton, Henley Gray, Walter Ballard, Earl Brooks, George Althedie, Joe Frasson, Travis Tiller, Carl Adams, David Sisco and Alton Jones.

I daresay you haven’t heard of most of them.

As mentioned, there were regulars – guys out to make a buck by competing on a full schedule and hope to finish as high in points as possible.

Among this group were the more familiar names of Richard Childress, James Hylton, Buddy Arrington, Cecil Gordon and Frank Warren.

There was one other – and he was unique.

The late Dick Brooks was an anomaly. First, he was far removed from the Southern “good ol’ boy.”

He hailed from Porterville, Calif., of all places, where, as he would tell us all, he led a pretty hardscrabble life with a family that learned how live off the land.

Brooks would tell tales about killing bear for food. The meat would be stuffed into a jar, which was then placed in a running creek to keep cool until it was eaten.

Brooks drove fast cars hither and yon until he came to NACAR in 1969 at age 27. He did well enough, with 13 top-10 finishes in 54 races, to earn rookie of the year honors.

But it wasn’t so much his driving skill that drew folks’ attention. Brooks was, well, different.

Forget the crewcut and T-shirt with the rolled up sleeves. Brooks had long, styled hair and a decent wardrobe – although that often gave way to bib overalls.

He was good-looking, so much so that many figured that since he was from California, he was a product of Hollywood. Certainly he never lacked for female companionship.

Brooks was down-to-earth. He was quick to smile, had a terrific sense of humor and could make friends with just about everybody – including the media.

He was very accessible to the press. Brooks and several media guys became pals. They did things together, including attending horse races.

Brooks tried to compete regularly in his own cars but it wasn’t easy. By 1972, he entered only 14 of 31 races.

By 1973 Brooks was often looking for work. Then something happened just days before the Talladega 500 on Aug. 12.

Jimmy Crawford, an Eastern Airlines pilot, had entered his Plymouth in the race. But NASCAR determined that Crawford did not have enough superspeedway experience to tackle the massive 2.66-mile Talladega track.

Three days before the race Crawford struck a deal with Brooks, who was, obviously, available. Brooks would drive the Crawford Plymouth in the Talladega 500.

Brooks produced one of the biggest upsets ever in the history of what was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Unbelievably, he won the Talladega 500. It was a stunning triumph. Think of the scenario – a journeyman looking for a job gets a one-race break and whips ‘em all.

Brooks was triumphant in one of Talladega’s strangest, and most tragic, events.

A crash that didn’t look very serious took the life of 1972 Rookie of the Year Larry Smith.

Bobby Isaac, the 1970 champion, radioed car owner Bud Moore and told him to find a relief driver. Isaac came down pit road, exited Moore’s Ford and walked away.

A voice had told him to get out of the car.

“Something told me to quit,” Isaac said. “I didn’t know anything else to do but abide by it.”

Isaac never again got a competitive Winston Cup ride.

While Brooks’ victory might have given him the opportunity to get a competitive ride, that really never happened.

In 1975 he hooked up with owner Junie Donlavey’s middle-of-the road team. They remained fixtures at every race. If nothing else, Brooks had a regular job.

It seemed Donlavey, now a member of the National Motorsports Hall of Fame, and Brooks were liked by everyone. They were very popular.

Donlavey was so gracious and polite was nicknamed “The Southern Gentleman.”

The outgoing Brooks was known by most as simply “Brooksie.”

Their union lasted until 1997. Brooks tried his hand elsewhere until 1983, when he and Donlavey reunited and promptly finished fifth in the Daytona 500.

It all came to an end after the 1985 season. While Donlavey continued to compete with other drivers for years afterward, Brooks called it quits after five events.

He didn’t leave racing, however. For many years he served as a pit reporter for MRN Radio, most often doing interviews from victory lane, where his signature phrase became, “There sure are a lot of happy people here.”

He also became a successful businessman who owned car dealerships. He never failed to hook up with, and entertain, old racing buddies.

But he had his problems. His wife left him. He was in a motorcycle wreck that left him severely physically and mentally debilitated for a long time.

As if that wasn’t enough, he suffered more complications from an airplane crash, which contributed to his premature death of pneumonia on Feb. 1, 2006. He was 63 years old.

Other than for his upset Talladega win Brooks’ name won’t be in the record books. He’ll never be remembered for his achievements on the track. Maybe, in time, he won’t be remembered at all.

That should not happen.

What should be known is that he was, now and forever, one of the true characters that added so much what was once the carefree spirit of NASCAR.

Earnhardt and Montoya: Can They Make It?


Dale Earnhardt, Jr and Juan Pablo Montoya have the same problem. They get no respect and they’re both in danger of missing the Chase. Eranhardt is sliding back and Montoya is stuck. Will a crew chief change help Montoya? Will Letarte and Jr.start making progress?

Thoughts On Two Drivers With Opposite Fortunes

Observations on a driver who is a multiple champion – and has made a good effort for another title in 2011 – and a very popular competitor who hopes to, finally, be at the top of the points for the first time in his career.

The former driver, as said, is right in step. The latter, however, has slipped competitively in the last several weeks and is in danger of not making the Chase – again.

Jimmie Johnson is a five-time Sprint Cup champion who has parlayed his talent, the savvy of his crew chief Chad Knaus and the strength of his Hendrick Motorsports team into record-setting success in NASCAR.

He’s after a sixth consecutive championship in 2011 and, at this point, he’s in pretty good shape. He’s second in points, just seven points behind Carl Edwards, with just seven races to go before the Chase begins.

Given that he’s also earned a victory, which gives him a measure of insurance under NASCAR’s new “playoff” entry system, there seems to be little doubt that Johnson will again contend for a championship.

But many have said Johnson hasn’t been quite the force he was in the past. He seems vulnerable. He started the season in very good form but many times since has often been plagued by atypical problems.

There have been pit road miscues and at times he’s competed in a car that is clearly not the class of the field, as it has been many times in the past.

But Johnson and team have pressed forward with the kind determination and tenacity almost championship-caliber teams share.

They have, for the most part, overcome a myriad of problems to earn high finishes, and consequently more points, than most could have expected.

Instead of languishing back in the pack or sitting helplessly in the garage area, Johnson and the Hendrick team have overcome. So much so that it’s been asked, “Where the heck did they come from?”

A very good example of this came at New Hampshire. In that race Johnson had so many difficulties that he should have been down and out instead of doggedly pushing his way into a fifth-place finish.

He didn’t qualify well, settling for the 28th position. But he moved into the lead and hovered around the top-five until, while running second, he fell victim to a pit miscue – something, oddly, not all that uncommon for him this year – on lap 217.

He had to come back down pit road with a loose lug nut, which sent him back to 35th place with well less than 100 laps remaining.

Still, he rallied. He moved into sixth position by lap 241. Then while scrapping with Juan Pablo Montoya for fifth place there was contact between the two. Johnson’s No. 48 spun and was once again sent to the rear of field.

It’s not likely Johnson is going to invite Montoya to dinner any time soon.

Rather than accept an unkind fate Johnson showed he’s a competitor of true grit. Somehow – rest assured, it was mystifying to many – he was in fifth place race’s end.

What could have been a disastrous day in New England was avoided, and then some. Johnson, who has 54 career victories, overcame. He said, given the circumstances, he and his team did it the hard way.

Imagine the kind of day they might have had if things had been easy.

I’ve seen this type of thing many times before and have come to the same conclusion as other veteran NASCAR observers.

All teams face adversity. It’s the good ones that overcome it and the great ones do so routinely.

New Hampshire offered a good example of how great Johnson’s Hendrick team has been, and still is.

A sixth title is possible – in fact, very much so. Don’t think for a moment Johnson and team don’t believe that and have clearly demonstrated their desire to earn it.

 

** For quite a while it seemed Dale Earnhardt Jr. was well on his way to a spot in the Chase, which he’s failed to make in three of the last four seasons.

Earnhardt Jr., who is Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick, rose to as high as third in points until he went into a summer swoon. In the four starts before New Hampshire, he plunged to ninth in points.

Presently he’s only seven points within the top 10, just ahead of a resurgent Tony Stewart, second at New Hampshire, and Denny Hamlin, who are tied for 10th.

Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver among the top 10 without a victory, which makes things even more precarious for him.

The Hendrick driver averaged a 28th-place finish during his four-race free fall prior to New Hampshire, where he finished 15th.

That wasn’t great – yet another finish out of the top 10 – but under the circumstances and how his car ran, Earnhardt Jr. will take it.

But if he wants to make the Chase, which begins on Sept. 18 at Chicagoland, he cannot afford to run out of the top 10. Fact is, his situation would greatly improve with a series of top-five runs. Oh, and a victory – he hasn’t won since Michigan in June of 2008 – would well serve his cause, obviously.

It’s been suggested that the media makes too much of Earnhardt Jr., particularly now. But given his heritage and his massive popularity among NASCAR fans, it’s very hard to ignore him.

Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver more excited or brimming with confidence than Earnhardt Jr. was when it was announced he would race for Hendrick starting in 2008.

In his opinion, he joined a team with which he could win races and championships. Many agreed.

However, now in his fourth season with Hendrick, there’s been only one win and one year in which he was a title contender.

His standing in points through most of the year suggested he was going to be in the Chase – and that certainly that encouraged his fans.

But in the passing few weeks things have become grim.

For Earnhardt Jr., however, they are by no means hopeless. He may be hanging on by his fingernails now, but there is time – not much of it – for him to get the firm grip he once had.

Loudon Cup Race and Waltrip Sues Williams F1

The Cup race at Loudon, NH yesterday produced a badly needed win for Ryan Newman. The competition has tightened. Michael Waltrip has filed suit against Williams F1 Engineering for hiring away Mike Coughlan, the designer caught up in the F1 espionage scandal.

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