Al Unser, Jr. has a serious substance abuse problem. He’s had it for years with multiple arrests but IndyCar’s Race Control still kept him on board making decisions. It’s time to sweep IndyCar’s Race Control Team out of the door and start the 2012 season off correctly. Unser’s arrest recently should be the final straw.
Although some analysts claim that any driver who starts the Chase for the Sprint Cup with at least two decidedly poor performances has no chance to win a championship, I’ve maintained that, yep, the odds are against him – but nothing is impossible.
I simply think that the completion of a couple of races is too early to determine who is going to win a title or who is already eliminated from contention.
However, there is this truth: It does give us a much better idea of who is going to remain in the running and who’s got to beat some heavy odds to get back into it.
That’s pretty much the situation after the opening Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire. We have a good sense of which drivers are comfortably in contention, which might feel a sense of urgency and which are hanging by a thread that could snap very quickly.
Not to belabor the obvious here, but how the competitors are sorted in points after two races reflects on their on-track performance. Those who are off to good starts are higher in points than those who have stumbled – hey, that makes sense, right?
Tony Stewart came out of nowhere and won twice in the opening two weeks of the Chase. He vaulted from ninth to first in points. He did the absolute best any driver could do and his reward, for the time being, is to be in the ideal position to win his third career championship.
Kevin Harvick was second in points when the Chase began and held it after his runnerup finish at Chicago. He might still be the leader if he hadn’t stumbled a bit at New Hampshire, where he finished 12th and opened the door for Stewart. Still, Harvick remains No. 2 in the standings, only seven points behind Stewart. Right now Harvick is comfortable.
So are these drivers:
** Brad Keselowski, third place in points, just 11 behind Stewart. Keselowski is the biggest surprise of the Chase, if not the season. He has won three times this year, which earned him entry into the Chase as a “wildcard” and in 11th in points.
He’s been propelled forward by two excellent finishes in the Chase – fifth at Chicago and second at New Hampshire.
** Carl Edwards, fourth in points, 14 behind Stewart. Edwards, to date the top dog in the Chase for Roush Fenway Racing, is another example of what consistency can do. He has finishes of fourth and eighth to date and thus has gained one spot in the standings.
** Jeff Gordon, fifth in points, 23 behind Stewart. Gordon has dropped two positions since the start of the Chase but that would not have happened if he hadn’t stumbled at Chicago with a 24th-place finish. He rebounded at New Hampshire, where he finished fourth. If he hadn’t done that it’s very likely he would be in a more difficult situation.
** Kyle Busch, sixth in points, 26 behind Stewart. The younger Busch came into the Chase seeded No. 1 based upon his four victories this season. But he was 22nd at Chicago and 11th at New Hampshire. His failure to crack the top 10 is the reason for his tumble. However, it could be worse.
** Matt Kenseth, seventh in points but, like Busch, 26 behind Stewart. Kenseth is another example of the benefit of a rebound performance. He was 21st at Chicago (and fell from fourth to 10th in points) before a beneficial sixth-place run at New Hampshire. It’s the same for him as it is for Busch – it could be worse.
Things are considerably more problematic for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, eighth through 12 in points, respectively.
Interestingly, only four of the group – Earnhardt Jr., the older Busch, Newman and Johnson – have a top-10 finish in the Chase, and all were achieved in the first race at Chicago.
At New Hampshire, they were 17th (Earnhardt Jr.) or worse, which, as you can easily determine, has put them on shaky ground.
Nearly everyone has suggested that Hamlin, who finished 31st at Chicago and 29th at New Hampshire, is already cooked. He is 12th in points, 66 points in back of Stewart, and it will take a near miracle for him to recoup.
Some have said that Johnson, the five-time defending champion, is also out of the competition. But I don’t think being 29 points out of first place entirely displaces him. Johnson has been known to make up plenty of lost ground in the past – he was 136 points behind in 2006 when it paid 175 points to win. Thus, percentage-wise, he’s not as far in arrears this year.
But he faces a tough task. He’s not alone.
It’s not an impossible one, however. Johnson and Hamlin are certainly capable of winning – even two races in a row. For that matter, so are all the drivers in the Chase.
Given that, starting at Dover this weekend, things could get topsy-turvy.
But it won’t make any difference for those drivers who continue to do what all racers who strive for a championship should – win races if possible; otherwise, be consistent.
Sounds logical, obvious and ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? But it’s an absolute fact. We’ve seen evidence of it in the Chase already and there will be more in the weeks to come.
He begins to tell stories. You can’t stop him. It’s one right after the other about the people he knew, the characters he met and the experiences he had. He makes it clear it was an enjoyable period of his life and one that, obviously, he has not forgotten.
But, for all that NASCAR was to him, Bernstein is first and foremost a drag racer.
Actually, he’s much more than that. He’s one of the greatest competitors the sport has ever known. The list of his accomplishments is so long, so distinctive, that it must be condensed – significantly – here.
He is the first racer to surpass 300 mph in the standing quarter mile, a feat he achieved with a speed of 301.72 mph in a National Hot Rod Association meet on March 20, 1992 in Gainesville, Fla. By the way, he has gone faster since.
He has won 69 National Events, 30 in Funny Car and 39 in Top Fuel. He has earned six NHRA championships, four consecutive in Funny Car from 1985-88 and two in Top Fuel, 1996 and 2001.
He is the first driver to win championships in both the NHRA’s Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions.
He is the only team owner who has won races in the NHRA, NASCAR and Indy Car.
He is a member of the Don Garlits Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich., and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
He was ranked No. 6 on the list of NHRA’s top 50 drivers, announced in 2001, the circuit’s 50th anniversary.
There’s more, much more, but certainly you get an idea of Bernstein’s well-deserved notoriety in the world of racing.
Today Bernstein heads up the Copart NHRA Top Fuel team for which his son Brandon drives. The younger Bernstein – who, as you might imagine, has won several races – has been in the cockpit since 2003, which was a truncated season due to a back injury.
“But he came back in 2004 and he’s been going pretty well since then,” said the 67-year-old father. “It doesn’t seem all that long to me.”
What is long is Bernstein’s competitive career, which began in drags full-time in 1979 in Funny Cars. It was a year later that he acquired sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch and its Budweiser brand, an association that would eventually identify Bernstein as the “Budweiser King” and last for 30 fruitful years.
It was in the early ‘80s that Bernstein got his indoctrination to NASCAR. At that time, the NHRA was sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston brand of cigarettes, which was also the major financial backer of NASCAR’s elite Winston Cup stock car racing tour.
Reynolds officials, most notably the effusive Ralph Seagraves, the head of its motorsports program, wanted to introduce Bernstein to NASCAR and its media – among other things – in an well-planned marketing move.
Suffice it to say that NASCAR folks and Bernstein got along famously. He fondly talks about recollections of his first encounters with stock car racing and its people.
“I can’t begin to tell you about the good times and the hilarious experiences I had,” he said. He makes a good attempt at it, however.
If you ever have the opportunity, ask Bernstein about his time in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at the National Motorsports Press Association’s convention in the early ‘80s. You will laugh as much as he does.
By the middle of the 1980s Bernstein was a successful, established drag racer and owner. Being the ambitious type he wanted to expand his operations.
He formed a NASCAR team in time to compete on the Winston Cup circuit in 1986 and, at the same time, he began his Indy Car operation. Both went under the name of King Motorsports.
Bernstein, whose NASCAR team was located in Huntersville, N.C., first employed driver Joe Ruttman, a Californian with a rich family motorsports heritage.
That association lasted only a year before Morgan Shepherd, a recognized star on what was then known as the Busch Series, was hired.
Things got better in 1988 when Ricky Rudd came on board. With him King Motorsports got its first victory at Watkins Glen. Rudd stayed on for another year and won again, this time at Sonoma – which, like the Glen, is a road course.
The first, and only, oval-track victory for Bernstein’s NASCAR team came at North Wilkesboro in 1990 with driver Brett Bodine, who stayed for five years.
By 1995, Bernstein had enough. The NASCAR program came to an end with a record of three wins, 40 top-five finishes and 99 among the top 10.
He admits that to operate three teams on decidedly different racing circuits was a strain that took its toll.
“It wore us out, I can tell you that,” Bernstein said. “But I have to admit it was great.
“We had the drag racing team with Dale Armstrong as crew chief and it was on autopilot. It was running and winning every time I went out there, so that’s what I mean about autopilot. I didn’t have to worry about it.
“The NASCAR team was much more difficult, but then, I had a lot of great people. We held the program together for 10-12 years because of all the people around me. I’m not a real good absentee owner to begin with, so it was harder for me. But the people made it happen and that was key for me. Without a lot of great employees across the board I couldn’t have done it.”
One of Bernstein’s employees was crew chief Larry McReynolds, who went on to become pit boss for Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt and is today, as you know, a NASCAR television analyst for Fox Sports.
Bernstein has only fond memories of McReynolds, whom, he said, “was always walking around with his yellow pad and pencil, taking notes” and whom Bernstein calls “my hero.”
Despite the efforts of his employees Bernstein learned he could no longer endure the multi-circuit grind.
“After 12-13 years I looked up and said, ‘I’m done, I’m cooked, I’m history and I want to go home,’ ” said the native of Clovis, N.M. “I wanted to go back home and drag race and the opportunity presented itself to do just that. So we bowed out at that time.”
He again won races and championships.
Today Bernstein’s role in drag racing as changed. He is now strictly an owner who campaigns for his son.
He has a one-car team that is an anomaly in NHRA just as it is in NASCAR. That, Bernstein notes, is significantly different from the way it used to be.
“I don’t think anyone today could do what I did years ago,” he said. “Especially in this day of multi-car team owners. If you don’t have a multi-car team, which means a lot of people, a lot of engineers, and lot of equipment to have the ability to do it all – in either one of the organizations – you are going to have a tough time.
“We’re the only single-car team in the Countdown To One this year. All the others are multi-car teams. You have the same situation in NASCAR. You have Childress, Roush, Hendrick and others. While everyone else is good, these teams seem to dominate.
“So to come in today in NASCAR and NHRA with a one-car team would be a very difficult deal. I don’t think it could be done.”
Bernstein readily agrees that, over the years, much has changed in both NASCAR – which he follows when he can on TV and professes to know pretty much what is going on – and the NHRA. He understands why they have happened and the similarities between the two.
“The NHRA isn’t on NASCAR’s level by any means,” he said. “But then, it’s always the same when team owners are trying to get the edge on each other.
“In our case, the edge was always trying to take care of the sponsor; to sell their products. And we wanted quality on the race track. If we didn’t sell the sponsors’ product they weren’t going to be there. If we win, well, that’s icing on the cake.
“So we kept pushing to develop things that work. The hospitality areas and such that are prominent in NHRA and NASCAR today are part of what it’s all about, in addition to the race programs. It’s a package deal. Heck, in my day, it was racing, baby, just racing.”
Having experienced both Bernstein knows the competitive differences between NASCAR and the NHRA. He also concludes that to succeed on either circuit boils down to just one thing.
“In competition, in NASCAR, it’s a little bit different because you can work on the cars during the day and during pit stops to make them better,” he said. “In our sport you have to make them good from the git-go.
“But when it gets right down to it all, the driver has to be on his game, and the crew chief and crew have to be on theirs.
“That’s the way it is and always will be.”
There can be no argument that Kenny Bernstein should know.
Tony Stewart won the second round of the Sprint Cup Chase Sunday moving up into the points lead while Jimmie Johnson, the odds on favorite to win the championship fell to tenth. Dale Earnhart Jr slides back down.
It was three weeks ago that Tony Stewart, winless for the season and in danger of not qualifying for the Chase, told us he believed his Stewart-Haas team wasn’t good enough to participate in NASCAR’s “playoff.”
He used words like “struggling” and “miserable” and was understandably surly when asked why he hadn’t won and what would he have to do in order to finally achieve victory.
I daresay any of us would be surly, too, if we were asked the same question week after week.
But now in the Chase, which will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion, so far we’ve seen such a dramatic change in Stewart’s performance level it’s hard to imagine he’s racing with the same team – you know, the one that was “struggling” and “miserable.”
With his victory in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart has now won the first two of the 10 races that make up the Chase.
He has risen to No. 1 in the point standings in his bid to win a third career title. When the Chase began after Richmond two weeks ago, Stewart was in ninth place, 12 points behind first-place Kyle Busch in the reconfigured standings.
I don’t think anyone thought Stewart could make such a turnaround. Fact is, he wasn’t mentioned in most championship predictions. He was a non-entity – which, incidentally, he may have also thought of himself.
He’s hardly that now.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Stewart said after his victory, achieved when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps remaining in yet another fuel-mileage race. “The last four weeks have been awesome. So this is the best scenario we can have going into Dover.
“Our guys are pumped up and I am proud of Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and these guys. They never give up. So we are going to keep digging for these next eight weeks.”
Which is exactly what Stewart and his team should do. They have a real opportunity now – just a couple of weeks after nearly everyone else thought they would not.
What has brought about Stewart’s turnaround? It’s not likely that it is any one thing other than the result of a dedicated effort to improve by whatever means possible.
It might have snuck up on a lot of us, but that improvement was obvious over the four weeks of which Stewart spoke.
He was ninth at Michigan and then 28th at Bristol during his efforts to win a race and make the Chase.
Then another ninth-place run at Richmond assured him a berth in the “playoff.” It was followed by his first victory of the season, at Chicagoland where he vaulted to second in points, just eight points behind Kevin Harvick.
Now comes the win at New Hampshire. It means that in the last five races, Stewart has four top-10 finishes, including two victories.
The driver from Columbus, Ind., has always been known to get hot competitively in the second half of a season, but seldom, if ever, has that occurred as late as it has in 2011.
And, during the first part of the year, Stewart dropped to as low as 12th in points when he had a five-race string of finishes no higher that 12th and as low as 34th.
Now, however, Stewart and his team have reached Nirvana – and, it might be added, at just the right time.
Stewart stressed that misfortunes have contributed to the negative results he and his team have experienced.
But, he added, they found a way to overcome that.
“The one thing I think our organization is really good at is taking what we’re doing day-to-day,” Stewart said. “I mean, we don’t lose sight of where we’re at today, worrying about two weeks down the road.
“We focus one day at a time. Obviously, stuff like the chassis that we’re going to run through the end of the year, Darian has those planned out, but we really just focus on the day that we’re on, what we can do to make the most of that day.”
Stewart also said that racing, NASCAR style, changes week-to-week. He’s proof of that.
He also knows it can change for the worse – and quickly.
“I wish I could say you could predict it,” Stewart said. “I wish you could see it coming in the future. The hard thing is, as much as it turned for us, you never know what’s going to happen. We hope the next eight weeks go this way.
“The reality of it is you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they’re guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five, top three in the points right now. It shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick.
“As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we’ve done, and we are proud of what we’ve done these first two weeks, we got eight hard weeks to go.”
He’s right, of course.
And in those eight weeks, there’s plenty of opportunity for scenarios to change.
For example, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished 18th after a mediocre day and bumping incidents with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, has time to rise from 10th in points – his worst position ever in the Chase – and claim yet another title.
The road could be wider and easier for Harvick, 12th at New Hampshire, and Brad Keselowski, the runnerup, who rank second and third, respectively, in points and are within 11 of Stewart.
In fact, there is a chance any driver currently among the top 12 in points to win the title.
OK, maybe Denny Hamlin, who is 12th in points and having a dreadful season when compared to 2010, doesn’t have much of chance.
Still, any one of them can do what Stewart has done in the Chase’s first two races.
Stewart did it when he needed it most.
It seems likely that when he talks about his team over the next eight weeks we won’t hear the words “struggling” and “miserable.”
Tony Stewart’s win at Chicagoland coupled with the bad luck of Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch shook up the points considerably. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a good run that places him in fifth. This weekend at New Hampshire could further turn the points over.
The final year together was a good one although another championship was not attained.
That was something of a bother for Junior but he had a bigger problem. In Cale, he was losing one of NASCAR’s top drivers of the 1970s – in fact, ultimately one of the best of all time.
He would be hard to replace.Junior had a good idea of the competitor he wanted and that
driver also wanted, desperately, to join Junior. By the end of 1980, Junior and Darrell Waltrip, once Cale’s archrival, would unite. But it was not easy – and it involved arrangements never before seen in NASCAR.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.
While Cale and I were trying to win a fourth championship, which we would lose by just 19 points to Dale Earnhardt, another driver and team were making headlines in NASCAR.
But they weren’t making them on the track.
Seems Darrell Waltrip was pretty much fed up with DiGard Racing Co., even though his greatest achievements had come with the team he joined in 1975.
Darrell made it pretty clear he wanted to leave DiGard. But in order to do that, he had to break his contract, which was originally structured for several years.
It was on Sept. 9 of 1980 that Cale announced he was going to leave Junior Johnson & Associates to join M.C. Anderson’s team and run a limited schedule.
It wasn’t long after that when things began to heat up. I knew that once Cale made his intentions known it wouldn’t be long before I’d hear from Darrell.
I was certain he wanted to drive for me. And to tell you the truth, I had already figured that, some day, I would like to have him do that – if I could afford him.
Sure enough, Darrell came by to see me later in the early fall. He wanted our ride. He might have been under contract, but he sure wasn’t getting along with his team owner, Bill Gardner.
I told Darrell he would have to negotiate his way out of his contract, which, I learned, had three years remaining.
Let me add something here. The type of contract Darrell had with DiGard was something very new to NASCAR.
I remember that drivers used to be hired with a handshake. Sure, in time there were contracts, but most of them were for one year only – and were pretty simple stuff, to tell the truth.
But it appeared the contract Darrell had was for an extended period of time and was very complicated. It’s the type of thing that is routine now. Back then, however, it was almost one-of-a-kind.
Late in the 1980 season, when it came to Darrell and Digard, things got ugly.
On Oct. 2 Darrell told the press he had to get away from DiGard. He said the team would eventually ruin his career. Those were pretty harsh words.
The next day Gardner said he would hold Darrell to the contract. He added that he would add a second driver, and give Darrell junk to drive, if it came to that. Those were pretty harsh words.
Then I got involved. Well, let’s say Gardner got me involved.
Team owner Bud Moore and I got letters from Gardner’s lawyers telling us to stay away from Darrell. Gardner said he would not only hold Darrell responsible for breaking the contract, he would also hold anyone else involved responsible.
I reckon I don’t have to tell you this didn’t sit well with me – not at all. I responded. I had my lawyers send Gardner a letter. I told him to refrain from trying to hire some of my people right out from under me.
He had tried to get three or four of them earlier in the year. As far as I was concerned, Gardner had been a troublemaker ever since he got into the sport.
I hoped Darrell could get out of his contract. But I was far from certain that he would.
But it happened less than a month after Darrell’s Oct. 2 gathering with the press. He and Gardner met for two straight days, Oct. 28 and 29. Then Darrell announced he was a “free man.”
He would run the last two races of the season with DiGard and then be free to race somewhere else.
There was a catch, however. Darrell had to buy his way out of his contract. It was the first such a deal in NASCAR history. At the time I had never heard of it, and I’m sure no one else had, either.
But I got right in the middle of it all. Darrell and I, and our lawyers, met in North Wilkesboro and hammered things out so he could race with Junior Johnson & Associates in 1981.
The financial arrangement Darrell made with DiGard was never disclosed. Rumors said he had to pay anywhere from $320,000 to $500,000. Most folks believed he paid a little more than $300,000 and Darrell never denied that.
But I’m going to bust a bubble here and re-work some NASCAR lore. Darrell never paid that much. The amount was about half that.
How do I know? Because I paid it. I loaned Darrell the money. I did it because I knew he had talent. I had seen him race many, many times and he was one of Cale’s primary rivals during his championship years.
Yes, he was cocky. I once called him “That mouthy little ol’ boy from Tennessee.” But I always felt he had the talent to back up his talk and I wanted him to do that with me.
Which is what Darrell also wanted. He said that he always wanted to drive for me. He added that when he was a kid he watched me drive and that I was his hero.
I signed Darrell to a three-year contract. Yes, it was something I had never done, or thought I would, but I accepted the fact that it was good for the team and the sponsor – which was going to be Mountain Dew in 1981.
When all was said and done, at the start of 1981, it was up to Darrell to help us get the job done.
And, let’s face it, I needed a good return on my investment.
When the year began I had no idea just how good that return would be.
Disappointed and frustrated for most of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in a fruitless search for victory, Stewart finally won his first race of the year in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The race was the first of 10 in the Chase and Stewart’s victory propelled him to second place in the point standings, just seven points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.
Since Stewart came into the Chicagoland race ninth in points – after sweating out several weeks of doubt that he would make it at all – finishing first was indeed a good move.
Stewart’s late-race strategy also proved to be a good move. The Geico 400 was yet another fuel mileage race. As usual, most of the competitors were doing their best to save gas, but many of them ran out anyway.
On the last lap, several of the lead-lap cars bailed, the victims of empty gas tanks. Had they been able to run the distance the final standings would have looked much different.
Stewart, however, followed his preservation strategy perfectly – another good move – and it paid off handsomely.
“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago, obviously,” said Stewart, who has now won at least one race in each of the last 13 seasons, his entire Cup career. “We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year that we let some get away from us. But we have struggled.
“We’ve had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it. We had a really good run in Atlanta. Good solid run last week at Richmond.
“Then to come out this weekend, I don’t think Darian (Grubb, crew chief), or either one of us, thought that we had as good a car as we needed to win today. But it didn’t take long in the race to figure out that we were pretty solid.
“It was just getting the track position.”
Stewart got that position. Afterward it was a matter of saving fuel.
The final scenario was set up on lap 213, when a caution period began after debris was found on the track. The leaders pitted. Martin Truex Jr. stayed out on the track and was in first place when the race restarted.
Matt Kenseth was second and Stewart third.
Ten laps later Kenseth passed Truex Jr. to take the lead and 10 laps after that, Stewart moved into first place after dueling with Kenseth.
Truex Jr. pitted on lap 254 with just 13 laps left in the race. From that point on it was obvious none of the leaders was going to pit. The plan was to finish the distance and in some cases, it would be a huge gamble, as some crew chiefs felt their drivers would come up as much as three laps short.
“At the end you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” Stewart said. “But that’s just the way the caution came out. And we came in and got fuel and Darian told me we had to save a lap’s worth of fuel.
“So we had a whole run to do it. But we kept a lot of pressure on Matt and finally got by him and once we got out to a second and a half, two-second lead we could start backing off the pace and start saving fuel.
“And I felt like I’d saved enough to get us to the end. But we came off of Turn 2 after we got the checkered and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flag stand. We didn’t do any wild burnout or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road.
“So we were closer than I wanted to be. But we didn’t have anything to lose. Where we’re at in The Chase right now, we had to press.”
Virtually everyone in the Chase still in contention for a top-10 finish pressed, too – it’s expected of them in the “playoffs.”
But it didn’t pay off all around. On the last few laps, especially the last, so many cars turned toward pit road or fell off the pace it looked like a fleet of commuters on the freeway backed up at an exit ramp.
Among those who ran out of gas were five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kenseth.
Newman finished eighth, Johnson 10th and Kenseth 21st. All are championship contenders.
Their misfortune helped other competitors gain position at race’s end. Harvick, last week’s winner at Richmond, moved into second place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had a good run most of the day, wound up in third place. Carl Edwards moved up to fourth and Brad Keselowski was fifth.
Earnhardt Jr., another driver concerned about making the Chase, soared from 10th in points to fifth, one position behind Kurt Busch. Edwards moved from fifth to third and Keselowski took a hike from 11th place as a “wildcard” entry to sixth.
Seventh through 12th in points are, in order, Newman, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and .
The Geico 400 certainly made an impact on the Chase. For some drivers, it was bad and for others, very good.
For Stewart it was perfect.
But it must be noted, again, that the race was the first of 10 that will determine the champion.
There is a long way to go. And a lot can happen.
I had just finished one more go-around – lay down on a table, face and head covered with a contraption that made me look like the “Man In The Iron Mask” and listen to the hum of a machine shooting invisible rays into my neck.
The treatment never hurt but after a while the side effects were intense.
This time, for some reason, the procedure wasn’t as routine as it had been.
As usual my throat was sore, it hurt to swallow and my mouth was dry. But, unusually, my spirits were low. I was depressed where once I had been upbeat and confident.
I thought to myself, “How did it come to this? Why me?”
I took the elevator up to the first floor – they poisoned me in the basement – and my eyes caught the words, “Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital.”
I had seen them before, many times in fact, but never paid them any attention. Why would I?
I paused for a moment before I felt the strange compulsion to see that place. I was lured like metal to a magnet. I really don’t know why.
I took the elevator up a flight, stepped off and found my way to the facility. It was modern and well appointed. If I hadn’t known what it was I would have never thought it was a place where sick children received treatment. It looked more like the offices of a high-priced law firm.
I looked around a bit and then something compelled me to be an interloper. I ignored any rules about visitors as I sauntered down a hall and stole quick glances into a couple of rooms.
I’m sure I was noticed. But no one seemed to mind.
It took only those few peeks to tell me why I had come. It wasn’t simple curiosity or to comfort children by any means. It was to comfort myself.
“You gutless wonder,” I said to myself. “What do you have to worry about? You think you have it bad? These kids are just getting started in life and have to overcome a hell of a lot more than you do.
“And think about what their parents must be going through.”
When I left, I resolved to do a couple of things. I would no longer feel sorry for myself – which I never did – and I would learn more about the hospital that bore the name of the four-time NASCAR champion.
I learned that the hospital was part of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, which was created in 1999 with the mission to support children battling cancer by funding programs that offered treatment, with the goal of improving the patient’s quality of life.
The hospital, located in Concord, N.C., was opened in December of 2006 to serve children in the community with a high level of primary and specialty care, regardless of their ability to pay.
Beyond the hospital, the foundation has donated $10 million to the most recognized children’s health and support organizations. Among them are the Children’s Oncology Group/CureSearch, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Speedway Children’s Charities and the Victory Junction Camp.
Cancer is the leading disease-killer of children in the United States. Nearly 13,500 children are diagnosed with it each year.
I didn’t know that, either.
But I do know Gordon. And I thought I would talk to him about his foundation. Yes, several drivers have foundations for which, I am sure, many people – and animals – are grateful.
But why a hospital? Gordon’s foundation could have invested in just about anything it deemed worthy.
“We wanted to focus on children and pediatric research and treatment,” Gordon said. “Those are our primary goals as well as caring for children who are battling any type of injury or illness.”
Gordon said the opportunity to lend his name and the foundation’s support to a children’s hospital arose when he was approached by Carolinas Medical Center Northeast in Concord.
“It happened in a roundabout way,” he said. “Basically, Northeast came to us and said, ‘We are building a children’s hospital. We are looking for sponsorship and for people who want to be involved. We know you have a children’s foundation and would you be interested?’
“We told them we would be very interested. It all came together and allowed us to make it the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, which is something we are very, very proud of.”
Gordon is involved in several charities as are many other NASCAR competitors. But the hospital bears his name, which certainly can provide it positive attention.
Suffice it to say the public, especially the racing public, is well aware of it.
“Because of its location a lot of our team members as well as members of other teams in our community who have had their children there, come back and say, ‘We had our children treated like gold and thank you so much,’ ” said Gordon, who is in contention for a fifth career title.
“I get letters all the time from people saying thank you for building this hospital. Not that I built it but it’s nice to know that I played a role in it.
“It’s the ones who work there that are doing a terrific job. That’s what it is all about.”
Gordon was not a father when he formed his foundation nor when the children’s hospital was created. But one gets the sense, through what he accomplished, that he always wanted to be.
He is now. He and wife Ingrid have two children, Ella and Leo. Like any other father, he now is more cognizant of what can happen to kids.
“I think to be that way is important,” Gordon said. “I think it is important to know how precious life is and to enjoy every moment of every day with your children.
“You also have to make sure you are doing everything you can to keep them healthy. But looking at the world today you have to know that sometimes you can’t control it. Something can happen to anyone at any time and you don’t have an explanation.”
Gordon lends much more than his name to the facility. As befits all celebrities who deal with foundations and charities, he is personally involved – and then some.
“One of the greatest things the hospital has provided me is that I took Ella over there last Christmas and we handed out bags of goodies, toys, books, markers and things like that to children who were there prior to Christmas,” Gordon said.
“It was an unbelievable experience. Watching her take on that responsibility and recognizing how much it meant to the children, at just three and one-half years old, brought a tear to my eye. I was so proud.
“We plan on doing it again this year.”
It is obvious that as much as sick children and their caring parents can gain, physically and emotionally, from the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, others can, too – including the driver himself and his family.
And even a guy who once felt sorry for himself.
The event is the first of 10 that are part of NASCAR’s “playoff” system that will determine the 2011 season champion.
I’m sure you know this, but already the question has been asked, repeatedly, “Who will win the title?”
Attention media, bloggers, fans and all other interested parties: Let the predictions, prognostications and outright guesses begin.
And why shouldn’t they? Motorsports fans and media are just like those in other sports. At the time a championship is on the line, that’s usually when interest reaches its highest level.
So folks have their opinions on which individual or team they think will win – or, let’s face it, on which individual or team they WANT to win.
I suspect there are many NASCAR fans who do not want to see Jimmie Johnson win a sixth consecutive title. They want to see something new. They want to see someone different pose with the championship trophy.
Besides, to see one guy win championship after championship is downright boring. Many fans are tired of it and have said so.
It might be boring but you really can’t blame Johnson. The goal of every driver – and they are all highly competitive – is to win races and championships. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports have used their formidable resources and talents to do just that for five years running.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that they intend to stop doing so. They will race hard for a sixth title and if they don’t get it this year, there’s always the next … and the next.
That said, I am one of those who also would like to see someone else win the championship. No knock against Johnson, but I think it would be good for NASCAR to have a new winner. I think it would enliven the sport and promote more interest.
But who might it be?
There’s Kyle Busch, for example. He heads into the weekend No. 1 in points with four victories for the season. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for the highest number of wins this year.
Busch certainly has a penchant for winning races in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. Now if he can keep that up over the next 10 races, he’s in.
The key word is “if.” Last year Busch didn’t win and finished 13th or worse in six of the 10 races. That ain’t going to cut in. He finished eighth in points in 2010.
Should he win the title, Busch would perhaps be one of the least popular champs ever. I’m thinking he doesn’t care.
A lot of people figured Carl Edwards would be the man to unseat Johnson this year and, eventually, that may well be the case.
I think many folks thought he’d run a little better this season, but the truth is he has as many wins and top-10 finishes as Johnson. He also has one more top-five.
However, Johnson is having something of an off year – for him, anyway – which, to many, means he’s vulnerable in the Chase. He is seeded sixth in the “playoffs” where Edwards is fifth.
Harvick, the lone Richard Childress Racing representative, also has four wins on the year and has earned a reputation, during this season, as a driver who pulls out wins with his proficiency in the closing laps. He’s the No. 2 seed.
Jeff Gordon, ranked third, seems to be a man on a mission. His performances over the last eight races – one win, six top-10 finishes – have put him on a roll that could lead to a fifth career title.
You know, it might be fun to see Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom struggled to make the Chase, win the championship.
It’s the same for Denny Hamlin, who hung on to earn a “wildcard” entry. And you have to admit it would be a real stunner if upstart Brad Keselowski became the champ.
I think I would enjoy any of those scenarios and I suspect you might, as well. But, personally, I think the best shots to upend Johnson are Gordon, Edwards, Harvick and Busch.
However, let’s be real, folks.
It might not sit well with everybody, but everybody has to admit, if grudgingly, that Johnson has the best career Chase numbers.
He’s the only driver to qualify for every Chase since the format made its debut in 2004. He’s finished worse than second only once, in 2005 when he was fifth, since the beginning of the “playoffs.”
Johnson has 21 wins in 70 Chase races. He’s had at least one win in each of seven seasons.
Johnson finished 25th last year in the Chase’s first race at Loudon. He then reeled off nine straight top-10 finishes, including a win at Dover and runnerup finishes at Kansas and Homestead.
It’s obvious no one does it better than Johnson, who, obviously, is greatly assisted by crew chief Chad Knaus and the Hendrick team.
And your prediction is ….?