2012 NASCAR Season Had Surprises, Of Course, And More Are Ahead In 2013

Certainly one of the most surprising developments of 2012 was Brad Keselowski’s (right) first career Sprint Cup championship. The title was also the first for his team owner, Roger Penske.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, like all others that have preceded it, had it share of elation and frustration, success and failure and a good measure of surprising developments.

Also, 2012 had a thing or two none of us had ever seen before, and are unlikely to see again. Juan Pablo Montoya’s fiery encounter with a jet dryer at Daytona comes to mind here.

It was mostly in competition that we saw the unexpected, the unusual, success and failure – well, perhaps not entire failure but certainly performances that did not live up to expectations.

And we also saw performances that soared past our expectations.

There are at least two examples of this and my opinion is that the most notable is the overall, breakout performance by Michael Waltrip Racing.

MWR has never been considered a championship caliber team (I’m sure team members will disagree). So for it to place two drivers in the Chase and have one enjoy a “comeback” season to finish second in the final point standings is something very much unanticipated.

Clint Bowyer came over to MWR from Richard Childress Racing, a move necessitated by a lack of sponsorship and which ended a seven-year relationship.

Bowyer will be the first to tell you that he really had no idea what he was getting himself into.

He knew hardly anyone at MWR and no sense of which direction the team would go.

Bowyer had won five races during his tenure with RCR and made it into the top 10 in points in three of five seasons.

Therefore, it was only natural that he wondered if he could approach such performances as the new man at MWR.

Well, he did – and then some.

Bowyer won three races, easily made the Chase and at Homestead, the final event of the season, he finished second to Jeff Gordon.

That allowed him to ease past Jimmie Johnson to take second place in the point standings. That was not only his career-best finish, it was the highest ever achieved by a MWR driver.

To compliment Bowyer’s achievement, MWR teammate Martin Truex Jr., also made the Chase.

Perhaps one of the most disappointing performances of 2012 was given by Tony Stewart. The 2011 Sprint Cup champ never contended for a title in the past season.

He was disappointed that he did not win a race or finish higher than 11th in the standings, but he did qualify for the 10-race “playoff” for the first time since 2007 and the first time with MWR.

MWR’s performance in 2012 clearly indicates it is a team on the rise. More than that, it overcame much of the rather shallow opinions most observers had expressed over recent years.

For 2013 the team’s task is simple: Gather the momentum and use it to create a better season.

I am one of many who suggested that team owner Roger Penske and driver Brad Keselowski would not be a championship contender in 2012.

After all, despite all his efforts with those who drove and worked for him, he had never claimed a title.

And Keselowski? He was in only his third full season of Sprint Cup competition, all with Penske.

As I’ve said more than once maybe we should have seen it coming. By that I mean, Keselowski’s credentials as a driver had steadily improved since his union with Penske.

In 2011 Keselowski won three races and accumulated 14 top-10 finishes to power his way into fifth place in the final point standings.

What he did in 2012 was simple: He got better. He won five times with 23 finishes among the top 10. He was constantly among the point leaders and sealed the championship in Homestead.

Although few thought it would happen, Penske won his first Sprint Cup title and Keselowski became only the third driver to win a championship in his third full season. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were the others.

Even though Penske has left Dodge for Ford, no one will overlook Keselowski in 2013. As it is for every team in a coming season if Penske Racing can adapt quickly to the new Ford, there’s no reason to think Keselowski can’t make it two in a row.

Seems odd to say, but by its standards, Hendrick Motorsports could have had a better season.

Don’t get me wrong. What it accomplished was significant. It put all four of its teams in the Chase, had one driver, five-type champ Johnson, finish a single point out of second place and all four drivers won races.

But with a little touch of fortune here and there, it could have been better for Hendrick.

Kasey Kahne, for example, was expected to flourish. He did win two races but that was fewer than most expected. However, he finished a career-high fourth in points.

Kahne put together a solid second half to earn one of two Chase wildcards. He then rallied from 11th to fourth in the 10-race playoff.

With that strong finish, Kahne might be a contender next season.

But of all the Hendrick drivers – or almost any driver, for that matter – Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a most dramatic 2012 season.

He had to be frustrated over the conclusion. A pair of concussions sidelined him for two races, eliminating any title hopes. However, Earnhardt Jr. had his best season at Hendrick and his best in eight years.

Prior to the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. not only easily made the field but was a serious championship contender.

He won for the first time in four years and was in the top three in points most of the season and led the standings for two weeks in August.

The “Junior Nation” recognized Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence in 2012 and I have no doubt it hopes for better things in 2013. Frankly, I would not be surprised if it got them.

Other things that might have raised our eyebrows in 2012 were the lackluster – by their standards – performances by Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, the 2011 champ. Count on them as two guys looking for redemption in 2013.

As it has always been, NASCAR fans are always eager to see what might evolve in a coming season.

There’s plenty on the menu: How will teams, and NASCAR, adapt to new 2013 models? Can certain drivers, like Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth, adapt with new teams? Is there yet another upstart contender out there? Will we some of the veterans return to winning form?

There’s more, of course, a lot more.

In the end, anticipation and expectation are two things that make NASCAR fun – pure and simple.

On a personal note, thanks to all of you who have visited Motorsports Unplugged over the years. Hopefully you have been entertained and informed.

New content resumes at the first of 2013. Until then, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Hunter’s Long, Dedicated Career In NASCAR Earns His Place In NMPA’s Hall

Jim Hunter enjoyed a long and successful career in many roles with NASCAR and a couple of its speedways. He has been elected to the NMPA’s Hall of Fame.

Before I tell you about my friend, the late Jim Hunter, who is one of the newest members of the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame, I would like to offer a brief history lesson.

There was a time – before my time – when regular NASCAR media coverage was almost non-existent.

Unlike today, when it came to coverage, newspapers held sway. Radio was intermittent and television didn’t care. And, as you can easily determine, cyberspace was unheard of.

So fans garnered most of their news from the hometown newspaper’s sports section. Well, let me amend that – that’s how fans south of the Mason-Dixon line got their news.

Thus a Southern motorsports writer – one who obviously didn’t work for an Indianapolis newspaper – was a valuable guy, not only for his readers, but also for NASCAR.

There were few of them. Most often the news they reported was about their hometown tracks. Any account of NASCAR events elsewhere was presented, tersely, by wire services.

In the 1960s newspapers that considered NASCAR coverage vital were located in Daytona Beach, Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, Florence, Spartanburg, Roanoke, Greensboro, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Birmingham, Greenville, and Bristol.

Their motorsports writers diligently covered the local events, wrote features and offered commentary. But they didn’t roam very far.

Their papers didn’t care to pay for extended coverage.

Hunter came out of the University of South Carolina, where he was a scrawny football wide receiver, and emerged as a sports writer for the Columbia paper.

In his days as a motorsports journalist, Hunter was a familiar figure in the garage area who could claim friendship with such legends as David Pearson (right).

Among other things he was part of the motorsports beat. I am not sure how he accepted that at first but I know he became one of Columbia’s most enterprising writers.

He didn’t believe in anything other than giving his best. How do I know? As I said, he was enterprising. For him, covering a race was one thing – but to report on NASCAR and its people was another, and equally important, part of the job.

Hunter once spent the night in Darlington’s infamous infield to file a piece about the experience.

“As I remember, I didn’t do a particularly good job,” he said.

Well, that is somewhat understandable if you are not prepared for all-night partying, which, I might add, Hunter was. Nevertheless, he did it.

As time pressed on Hunter became a working partner with the late Joe Whitlock. Together they formed a working “corporation” that provided, as a tandem, more than sufficient news and entertainment – especially for the readers of their time.

Everyone in the garage area knew them.

No, they were not the pioneers of NASCAR coverage. Instead, they were innovators.

When I first met Hunter in the mid-‘70s he had moved on to Atlanta.

I was new, but he never regarded me as an upstart. Rather, I was his equal. He offered advice, told stories and never suggested that perhaps I was in over my head.

I listened to every word he said.

Hunter, along with the late Dick Thompson, the public relations director at Martinsville Speedway, counseled me more than once that the best stories in racing didn’t come from the events. They came from the people.

Hunter moved on, and, I might add, to the benefit of his career. He became the public relations director at Darlington, Talladega and NASCAR itself.

He evolved into a role as president of Darlington and then rose to become the vice president of public relations for NASCAR, his position when he passed on Oct. 29, 2010 after a yearlong battle with cancer.

His entire professional life was imbedded in NASCAR.

But it didn’t matter what position he held. He was always himself. There was no sense of self-importance, no air of superiority.

A member of the media was, to him, someone of importance. Why? Simple. He had been one. He knew what the job entailed; what the broadcaster/writer needed.

So he was readily available. He was always a source of information. I know of countless times when he would come into media centers, sit down and answer every question asked of him – and he did so well into the era of the Internet and social media.

He once flew from Daytona Beach to Concord, N.C., just to provide me with an interview.

I once drove to Darlington for another interview and he insisted that we have lunch together – which was at a hot dog stand. But to his unpretentious self, it seemed the natural thing to do.

He always took his calls from the media when he could. When he couldn’t, he returned them.

As a long-time friend I could always banter with him – and I was not alone. I was among the few who called him “Great White Hunter.” Yeah, it was nonsense. But, among us, we knew what it represented.

My fondest memory of Hunter happened several years ago at his headquarters in Daytona.

I was there with a couple of individuals who were in search of NASCAR’s help for a motion picture project, which, I might add, is still in progress.

When they consulted Hunter he told them something I considered to be obvious. He said, “We know you can make this movie with us or without us. We would rather have you do it with us.”

Then he said:

“You are very fortunate to have Steve Waid on board with you. I can assure you this is a good thing. Everybody knows him. Everybody likes him.”

Yes, it was PR. Yes, he was doing his job. However, when he said it there was a significant difference – he looked me straight in the eye as if to tell me he meant every word.

I have never forgotten those words.

Nor, from the days when I searched for my legs as a journalist and to those when I became one, will I ever.

The NMPA has made an excellent choice for its Hall of Fame.

Why?

Not because Jim Hunter was my friend and one to many others.

Rather, it is because it has elected a man whose ultimate lifetime work and dedication were to the sport itself.

And it is so much the better for it.

 

 

 

The 2013 Models Present Teams, And NASCAR, With Wealth Of New Challenges

Matt Kenseth not only faces the challenge of competing in a new car, a Toyota, in 2013, he’s also the newest member of Joe Gibbs Racing.

In 2013 it will be sort of a clean slate for NASCAR. An entirely new fleet of car models will compete on the Sprint Cup circuit, the Toyota Camry, the Ford Fusion and the Chevrolet SS.

These cars are intended to be very fast, of course, while at the same bear a more similar appearance to their street counterparts – which, among other things, is intended to help fans more closely identify with each model.

Gone from NASCAR is Dodge, which, ironically, claimed the 2012 Manufacturers Championship with Penske Racing and driver Brad Keselowski.

That said, there is always uncertainty when teams adopt new car models. Changes and adaptations, some big and some small, are always present.

I might add that has been the case every time NASCAR has made any competitive alterations, be they in car models, engine displacement, aerodynamics, wheelbase size and so forth.

So it follows that the team, or teams, that make the quickest adaptations to the new cars, and the rules that come with them, will be the first to gain a competitive edge.

Boy, I have a great grasp for the obvious, don’t I?

But it is a fact.

We’ve seen it countless times. It happened as recently as the coming of the “Car Of Tomorrow” a few seasons ago.

That diabolically different car – which only vaguely resembled anything we saw on the street – had the vast majority of teams bamboozled.

They didn’t know what to do with it. They kept fooling around with various setups and things of the sort – which put some of them in hot water with NASCAR – until, slowly, a few began to solve the mystery.

It seemed one team, Hendrick Motorsports, found an advantage and for a period of time put a very competitive COT on the track.

But, as it almost always happens in NASCAR, its rivals caught up and were a competitive match.

Brad Keselowski (right) the 2012 champion, will drive Fords next season after Dodge’s pullout from NASCAR. He’ll also have a new teammate in Joey Logano.

Since that time teams have been, for the most part, relatively equal. Now I’m not saying one didn’t have an edge here and there because it did. But I do believe that where it did have an advantage, its rivals held sway elsewhere. So things were reasonably balanced.

I remember that when the COT was introduced I said it would be only a matter of weeks before the teams had it figured out.

Turns out it was a matter of months.

But I think there is ample evidence that, indeed, they did it. And I think they will also get the measure of the 2013 models. Uh, I think I’ll refrain from saying how long it may take.

As said, teams have always had to find a way to adjust to NASCAR changes, whatever they may be. But it’s highly likely that an entirely new car model, which we’ll see in 2013, is going to present a myriad of challenges.

NASCAR has already provided organizations opportunities to adjust, the latest being the test sessions at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Dec. 11-12.

So far teams have been very cautious. They have proceeded slowly and, to me, have tried to be very precise when it comes to analyzing the information they’ve gathered – and it hasn’t been all that much.

They will learn more during added test sessions scheduled into 2013.

For more than one team testing will provide clues to something beyond just a new car. Champion Keselowski, for example, will have to deal with an entirely new manufacturer.

So will Matt Kenseth. He’ll have a different manufacturer but, because he has ended his long tenure with Roush Fenway Racing, he will also have to amend to a new organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, and a new crew and crew chief.

Keselowski will race Fords in 2013. Kenseth will compete in a Toyota.

They are fully aware of the challenges.

“It’s hard to get a great read on the whole manufacturer change because, obviously, it’s a different car,” Keselowski said. “But I think all the signs are there that we have the potential to be just as strong, if not stronger, than we were last year, which is very, very encouraging. We still have to work for it and make it happen.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re only a half-a-day into two really important days, not only for Penske Racing but for the sport itself and, hopefully, we can
continue to show progress.”

Keselowski will have a new teammate in 2013 as Joey Logano moves over from Gibbs. That, too, will require adjustment.

Keselowski is confident.

“I think Joey has the ability to unload at a place and just instantly be fast and that’s not my style,” he said. “It’s something that I would like to add to my arsenal because there are times where that’s really, really helpful, so those are some of the things I look
at.”

As for Kenseth, the 2004 champion, he will readily admit that his adjustments are going to be obviously plentiful. They not only include a new car, but also an entirely new team.

“A lot of the guys have been around for a long time so I know who they are and I’ve spent a little time over at the shop,” he said. “I certainly don’t know them as good as I’m going to or want to and all of that.

“So, yeah, it was different. I’ve got to be honest, it was probably the first time I’ve been nervous in a race car – getting in there and going out for the first time – in as long as I can remember.”

As for that new car, a Toyota, Kenseth takes a cautious approach, as do many others.

“I don’t know what the rules are going to be for sure,” he said. “I don’t have any idea how much they’re going to change or not change. That’s more of a NASCAR call than ours.

“They haven’t really had us testing anything yet and so I’m not sure how different they will be when we come back.”

At this admittedly early point in the development of the 2013 cars, it is reasonable to say teams are not certain of what they have, or of what they many eventually have.

Some will find that sooner than others, for whatever reasons.

In time, these teams will be the ones to move to the forefront and gain a competitive edge.

But, if we look to the past, it doesn’t seem likely NASCAR will let them have it for very long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR’S Accolades For 2012 On The Mark, For The Most Part

Clint Bowyer joined Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2012 season and while good results were uncertain, he won three times and finished second in points, the best year of his career.

NASCAR has compiled its list of the top performances of the 2012 Sprint Cup season and I have to admit I agree with most of them. Well, make that nearly all of them.

I don’t think anyone can argue with its choice for Comeback Driver of the Year.

In 2011, Clint Bowyer earned just one win and missed the Chase in his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Had adequate sponsorship been found, Bowyer might well have stayed with RCR.

Instead he joined Michael Waltrip Racing. This was, many assumed, a backward step. After all, MWR’s record of achievement could not match RCR’s.

Even Bowyer wondered what he was getting into. He admitted he didn’t think his union with MWR would produce immediate success.

However, Bowyer won three times in 2012, all on different tracks – the road course at Sonoma, the short track at Richmond and the intermediate, 1.5-mile layout at Charlotte.

He made the Chase easily and as the 10-race “playoff” wound down, Bowyer’s steady performances helped him leapfrog over a stumbling Jimmie Johnson to take second place in the final standings.

It was easily Bowyer’s career best season and it came with a team that previously didn’t have much of a pedigree. Comebacks don’t get much better than that.

Let’s also consider that Bowyer’s teammate, Martin Truex Jr., also made the Chase, winding up 11th in the final point standings.

Yes, Truex Jr. did not win a race. Yet he finished seven times among the top five – just one short of his last four seasons combined – and 19 among the top 10, as many as the last two years combined.

But in 2011 he had only three top-five finishes and 12 among the top 10. He finished 18th in the point standings.

If you ask me, I think Truex Jr. had a pretty decent comeback season of his own.

Martin Truex Jr. also raced for MWR in 2012 and he too enjoyed a good year, finishing 11th in points to help give his team its best-ever overall performance.

I think what Bowyer and Truex Jr. did in 2012 is going to put MWR in an entirely different light in 2013.

—- NASCAR’s choice for Breakthrough Driver of the Year was a simple, and obvious, one.

Although many of us didn’t see it coming, Brad Keselowski rose in the ranks steadily – well, perhaps for one season – before he powered his way to stardom in 2012.

He raised some eyebrows in 2009 when he won at Talladega driving for maverick team owner James Finch.

In 2010, his first year with Roger Penske Racing, Keselowski did as most newcomers have done in the past with a record highlighted by only two finishes among the top 10.

Needless to say, no eyebrows were raised.

That changed in 2011. Settled in with his team, Keselowski won three races, finished 10 times among the top five and 14 among the top 10. He finished a solid fifth in the point standings.

So when the 2012 season began Keselowski was indeed a person of interest.

But, as I’ve said before, I don’t believe many considered him a championship contender. While he was certainly a member of a good Penske team, it wasn’t the match, for example, of the juggernauts Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing.

In addition he was in only his third full year of competition at NASCAR’s highest level.

But Keselowski roared into prominence quickly. As a contender, he simply would not go away. He won five times in 2012, but more important, he did not fade in the Chase.

Two of his wins and eight of his 13 top-five finishes came during the Chase, a string of steady performances that allowed him to take full advantage of challenger Johnson’s misfortunes over the final two races.

Keselowski’s worst finish in the Chase was a 15th at Homestead – exactly where he needed to finish to assure a championship.

Keselowski joins Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the only drivers to win a title after only three years of competition.

And I would not be surprised, not a bit, if Keselowski wins as many “Driver of the Year” awards as there are out there.

 

—- Among other things, NASCAR listed its Top Team for 2012. Here’s where I disagree somewhat.

The sanctioning body selected Hendrick Motorsports as its top organization and readily admitted the honor usually goes to the championship team.

However, NASCAR said it simply could not ignore Hendrick’s history-making year. It won its 200th race and captured victory in two of NASCAR’s most prestigious races, the Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400.

Hendrick earned a season high10 victories. Johnson led the way with five; Jeff Gordon had two, Kasey Kahne two and Dale Earnhardt Jr. one.

All four drivers made the Chase.

Impressive. I’m not about to argue about that.

But I would suggest that the team that overcame Hendrick; the one that earned the most glory by earning a championship, might have the edge.

No, Penske did not win a 200th race but Keselowski did win five times, as many as Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Penske has been a part of NASCAR since 1972 and competed on a full-time basis for more than two decades. Although he came close a time or two when Rusty Wallace was his driver, he never won a championship – this despite tremendous success in many other forms of competition.

He finally found the Holy Grail in 2012.

Maybe that alone is not enough to make his team the best in 2012, but then, consider this:

Hendrick Motorsports has earned 10 championships. Johnson has won five of them – in a row, no less – in the last seven years.

Heck, Hendrick is expected to win titles. Why not? Over the last decade a season hasn’t passed in which Hendrick was not considered a title contender.

It has always had the equipment, leadership, money, personnel and talent to do so. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that.

So when such a powerhouse gets knocked off, not so much by fate but by the efforts of a lesser team, then I have to think the victor is due the proper recognition.

Certainly Hendrick has gotten its share of it, especially in its championship years.

I don’t think that should be different for Penske.

My point: I think that the “David” that beat “Goliath” is due the same recognition for 2012.

 

 

Brad Keselowski, MWR Two Examples Of The “Unexpected” In 2012

The success of Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 was a surprising development. Clint Bowyer (left) who joined team owner Waltrip in 2012, led the surge with a second-place championship finish.

As it has been for every NASCAR season, the 2012 Sprint Cup campaign had its share of the unexpected, unpredictable and unusual.

For example, we saw Jeff Gordon’s display of on-track, unsportsmanlike frustration, which we had never seen from a driver long known for his rational behavior.

There was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s failure to win a championship when it was generally assumed he had his best opportunity ever in 2012.

Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t derailed by anything on the track. A concussion caused him to sit out for two races in the Chase – the right thing to do – which effectively wiped out his title hopes.

Kyle Busch has been touted as a title contender for a few years now. After all, he had won 104 races in NASCAR’s three national series coming into 2012.

But this year Busch won only one race. He lost his shot at the Chase in the season’s 26th race, despite the fact he four second-place finishes, four thirds and three fourths.

I don’t think anyone thought Busch, who had won 19 races in the four seasons leading to 2012, would win only once and fail to be a title contender.

I certainly don’t think he thought his year would be what it was.

There are several other examples of similar surprising events and I’m sure you can provide many of them.

To me, there are at least two developments in 2012 that are, perhaps, the most unexpected – and both center around achievement rather than failure.

Brian Vickers competed in eight races for MWR and contributed to the team’s overall success with five finishes among the top 10. He was finished three times among the top five.

One involves a brash, young driver who helped bring his long-suffering team owner a first Sprint Cup championship.

The other is the surprising surge to elite status by a team that once was considered mediocre at best and, at worst, inept.

Brad Keselowski won the Sprint Cup title in only his third season with team owner Roger Penske, who had campaigned in NASCAR for decades before he claimed the crown.

It’s hard to believe that Penske, whose cars have won 15 Indianapolis 500s and several championships across various series, needed over 20 years to reach the NASCAR pinnacle.

Prior to 2012, his best years came with driver Rusty Wallace, a man whom many thought would surely bring Penske a title.

Their union lasted from 1991-2005 and it was successful, as evidenced by 36 victories.

Through all those years Wallace finished out of the top 10 in points just three times. The best season was in 1993, when Wallace won a whopping 10 races and finished second in points to friend and rival Dale Earnhardt.

But as good as the Penske-Wallace association was it did not produce a championship.

I don’t believe many folks tagged Keselowski as a potential champ before the season started. Maybe we all should have seen it coming. In his first full season with Penske, Keselowski didn’t win, had just two finishes among the top five and three among the top 10. He was 25th in points.

For a young driver in his first season with a successful team, none of that was out of the ordinary.

But in 2011, Keselowski made his presence known – and then some. He won three times, had 10 finishes among the top five and 14 in the top 10. He was fifth in points.

In two years with Penske Keselowski rose to contender status.

Still, in 2012, he wasn’t widely recognized as such – passed over by the likes of Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.

He fashioned his championship with five victories, 13 top-five finishes and 23 among the top 10.

The title was in doubt until the final two Chase races in which Johnson, bidding for a sixth career title, saw his hopes implode with a series of misfortunes.

“It feels really good,” Keselowski said at Homestead, where he finished 15th to seal the title.

“I can’t believe how everything just came together over the last – what’s it been, three years?  “Three years Paul (Wolfe, crew chief) and I have been together.

We’re two for three, Paul, I was just thinking about that.

Two for three.  That’s, what is that, a .666 average?  That’s pretty good.

“And you know what?  I feel like the best is yet to come.  I really do.”

As a colorful figure, Keselowski is likely to be a colorful champion.

He’s outgoing, outspoken, opinionated, animated and even controversial. He’s a far cry from “vanilla,” an often used, if unfair, description of Johnson.

Perhaps until his championship, Keselowski achieved his greatest notoriety as the driver who tweeted during a red-flag period in the Daytona 500.

It brought him 100,000 followers.

NASCAR said it didn’t mind at all – nor should it have.

But afterward it quietly told competitors that electronics were not longer permitted on board during races, and that included cell phones.

When Keselowski was nabbed with a cell phone in his car two weeks before the end of the Chase, NASCAR fined him $25,000.

Hey, if nothing else, Keselowski goes into NASCAR history as the first driver punished for using a cell phone.

In 2007, which marked MWR’s first attempt at a full Sprint Cup schedule, the team made headlines at the Daytona 500 – for all the wrong reasons.

NASCAR slapped it with heavy fines and suspensions after it discovered a fuel additive in a MWR Toyota. Some said it was some mysterious concoction while others were convinced the car was loaded with rocket fuel.

It didn’t matter. For MWR, the damage was severe. It was immediately put into a bad light, as was Toyota. Afterward, it’s fair to say few had high expectations for the organization.

In fact, many suggested the team was no more than a very expensive hobby for the effusive Waltrip, whom, it was said, attracted sponsors because he was the ideal pitchman for any company.

I agree with that and I admit I was among several to suggest MWR would not be among the contending teams.

I was wrong – but not about Waltrip as a pitchman, you understand.

For several years MWR dwelled in mediocrity. It got its first win in 2009 with David Reutimann on board. Reutimann also posted its best championship finish, 16th.

But 2012 was the team’s breakout season and established it as one with noteworthy credentials.

The season was the first with Clint Bowyer, who came over from Richard Childress Racing, as one of MWR’s drivers.

Bowyer proved to be an ideal fit. He won three races, finished 10 times among the top five and had 23 finishes among the top 10.

He wound up second in points after Homestead and, obviously, put up the best numbers in MWR’s history.

“We exceeded expectations in 2012 at MWR,” Waltrip said. “So, you know what you do then?

You reset your expectations. So, we’ll have to say we’ve got to win something next year – maybe the championship.”

It must be pointed out that Bowyer was not the lone contributor to MWR’s successful season.

Martin Truex Jr. had 19 finishes among the top 10 and made the Chase. He finished 11th in points.

Veteran Mark Martin ran a 24-race schedule and finished 10 times among the top 10. He also won four poles, which tied him with Johnson and Kasey Kahne for the most in 2012.

And Brian Vickers, whose career was somewhat

derailed by illness, competed in eight races for MWR.

Astonishingly, he finished among the top 10 in five of them – three times among the top five – which suggested to many that Vickers deserved a full-time Sprint Cup ride.

As said, 2012 had plenty of unanticipated developments, something it shares with every previous season.

Stick around. There will be more in 2013.

 

 

 

 

In The Holiday Season, NASCAR Folks Recognize Simple Joys – Part Two

For Kyle Busch, that the season is over and he can spend more time with his wife Samantha is his simple joy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today we continue with the simple joys of those who make NASCAR races possible. Enjoy!

Brian Z. France, CEO and Chairman of NASCAR:

“That’s a really good question. Family; I have four children. Spending Thanksgiving with my family, that’s my simple joy.”

Richard Petty, The “King,” NASCAR Hall of Famer:

“Solitude. I just want people to leave me alone!” And then Mr. Petty flashed me his famous smile and swatted me on the tushy!

Brent Brush, Business Manager, Justin Lofton Racing:

“Sarcastic answers: The phone not ringing, Saturday morning, a one-way ticket, a beer on a Mexican beach, laughing when someone trips! Real answers: Success to all parties, an honest day’s work, winning a race, kind people, a day at the race track.”

Regan Smith, 2012 winner of the Ecoboost 300 Nationwide race in the No. 5 of JR Motorsports

“Snowboard, video games, animals and family.”

Andy Delay, creator and host of “Burning Rubber Radio:”

“Spending time with my son “Buster” (Robert), playing guitar, iRacing, and sitting on a bench watching my little eclectic town (Dunedin, FL).”

Todd Bodine, driver of the No. 11 NCWTS truck for Red Horse Racing:

“Under an umbrella on a beach drinking beer, doing nothing, watching TV – anything funny – and go to a bowl game for Notre Dame, maybe the Rose Bowl!”

Darrell Gwynn, The Darrell Gwynn Foundation:

Snowboards and video games are parts of driver Regan Smith’s simple joys.

“Feeling healthy with no pain and family.”

The Homestead Police Department – Andres Vergara, Gunnar Pedersen, Enrique Merblonado:

“Family, driving on a nice day by myself with nowhere to be, racquetball, movies, and cars.”

Darrell Wallace Jr., NASCAR K&N Pro Series and development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series:

“Photography at the races.”

Sergio Pena, NASCAR K&N East driver for Shigeaki Hattori:

“Basketball, outdoors, hunting, time at the cabin.”

Dakoda Armstrong, driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing truck:

“Watching football – the Colts – playing fantasy football and a week or time off with my family.”

Jack Baber, NASCAR official:

“Quiet Sunday at home with my wife reading the newspaper over breakfast and coffee.”

Johanna Long, driver of the No. 70 ML Motorsports car in the Nationwide Series:

“Spend time with my family and being at the track!”

Juan Carlos Blum, driver of the No. 41 Rick Ware Racing car in the Nationwide Series:

“Racing and playing golf.”

Rico Dominguez, intern, Media Relations:

“Motorcycle out on the road, wind bathing my skin, engine below me, going nowhere.”

Eddie Williams, marketing director, Homestead-Miami Speedway

“Escape schedule, deep introspective thought, on the beach, listen/be near the ocean, at one with my thoughts.”

Timmy Hill, driver for the No. 41 Rick Ware Racing car in the NNS

“Having a good time, best time racing, and iRacing!”

Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford:

“My two children.”

Paul Bergstrom, photographer:

“Red Bull in the morning, getting my photo on the front page of the sports section of a major U.S. city newspaper, and missing a class and not getting called out for it.”

Greg Minnick, premium services manager:

“Seeing my four-year-old daughter via Face2Face on my iPhone. Helping others for those who help themselves.”

Brendan Gaughan, driver of the No. 33 car in Nationwide Series and the No. 2 RCR truck:

“Watching your two-year-old do something new and peace and quiet!”

Chris Madigan, director of motorsports PR:

“Laughing. And that quote from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it.’”

Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 car for Joe Gibbs Racing:

“That this year is over! Yeah, that’s it. I guess I look forward to being back home with my wife unpacking boxes.”

Chris Buescher, 2012 ARCA Champion:

“Racing, bury my F250 in the mud, and motocross.”

Coach Wayne Deloriea, pit crew coach:

“Family.”

Chris Winchell, tire changer for the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team:

“Life.”

George Winchell, Chris’ dad:

“Family.”

Getty Cavitt, jackman for the No. 55 MWR car:

“Family, my two lovely little girls.”

Jason Jones, mechanic for the No. 55 MWR car:

“My wife and our 18-month-old little boy. Vacationing at home.”

 

Leonard Wood of the legendary Wood Brothers and 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee:

“Family life and gatherings, racing, building engines that perform beyond expectations.”

Jack Roush, team owner Roush-Fenway Racing for No. 6, 16, 17, and 99 cars in the NSCS

“Sleeping, aviation, and helping young people realize their dreams like I did when I was young.”

Scott Wood, gasman for the No. 11 JGR car:

“Mountain biking.”

Andrew Nabb, second race simulation engineer for the No. 2 Penske Racing team:

“I love cars. I am working on a 442 fix up. I race go-karts. I enjoy power boating. I am a private pilot and have an ER Coup.”

Justin Reissmann, gasman for the No. 16 RFR team:

“Xbox, working out and time with family.”

David Green, 1994 Nationwide Series champion:

“Ten years ago I would have said, ‘Racing, racing, racing!’ Now I’ll tell you family.”

Stevie Reeves, spotter for the No. 27 RCR car:

“Family and scuba diving!”

Grant Hutchens, engineer for the No. 27 RCR car:

“Family and racing.”

Collin Pasi, tire carrier for the No. 17 RFR car:

“Friends and lake life.”

Brad Pickens, gasman for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports car:

“Spending time with my three kids and my wife.”

Travis Gordon, back-up gasman for the No. 24 HMS car:

“Beach. Dogs.”

Bob Pockrass, NASCAR journalist for Sporting News:

“Sitting on the coach watching television – politics.”

Jeff Fender, jackman for the No. 18 JGR car:

“Week off, time with family and friends and good food!”

Rob Lohr, fire department/pit road supervisor from Daytona International Speedway:

“Riding my Harley and fishing.”

Roy Wilkie, fire department/driver/operator of Scooter-1 from Daytona:

“Traveling in a motorhome and going in a hot air balloon.”

Ed Watkins, gasman for the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing car:

“Time with my kids, my daughter who is three and my son who is two.”

Greg Engle, NASCAR media, Fox News/Examiner.com:

“My simple joys come from knowing my friends and family are happy and my greatest joy comes from seeing a soldier return home safely and into the arms of those they love…”

Dale Inman, NASCAR Hall of Famer:

“Watching football, time with my family, and getting ready for Daytona!”

Claire B. Lang, NASCAR media, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

“Appreciating the time I spend with my family.”

NASCAR once again proves that family is the heart of the sport.

Wishing you all a very Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving and Simple Joys all along the way!

 

 

 

In The Holiday Season, NASCAR Folks Recognize Simple Joys – Part One

When it comes to life’s simple joys, team owner Richard Childress is quick to point out that his are his grandsons, Austin and Ty, who is shown here.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has been crowned at Miami-Homestead Speedway after the running of the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Brad Keselowski gave his team owner something no other NASCAR driver heretofore could produce, a championship season. It is the top prize that the man known as “The Captain” has coveted for decades.

Only two seasons ago Keselowski earned Penske’s first NASCAR championship by winning the Nationwide Series title. The Sprint Cup must be all the sweeter.

Now, the off-season is upon us. It is a long wait until Daytona. As I roamed the garages, pit stalls and grounds at Homestead, I gathered responses to a question that wasn’t racing-related, which caused most to grin widely.

I asked NASCAR Hall of Famers, champions, drivers, team owners, crew chiefs, crewmen, track personnel, police officers, firemen, caterers, interns, journalists and more the same question:

“What are your simple joys?”

Responses were varied, in fact, they ran the gamut. Nobody rebuffed the question and most enjoyed answering.

As you settle in to take part in your Thanksgiving weekend, please enjoy reading about the simple joys of your favorite NASCAR personalities and people who work together to make races accessible to the fans.

Champion Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge:

“My phone!”

Champion team owner Penske:

NASCAR Hall of Fame member Rusty Wallace says he takes joy from aviation, boating and being with his family.

“Being with my grandchildren.”

Richard Childress, owner, Richard Childress Racing:

My grandsons!”

Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 RCR car in the Nationwide Series:

“Racing, hunting and fishing and being in the out of doors.”

Ty Dillon, driver of the No. 3 RCR truck in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

“Racing, being outdoors and spending time with family.”

Brandon McReynolds, Turner Motorsports driver in Trucks/ARCA/KNN and son of Larry McReynolds

“Racing, faith, family, friends and racing. Notice I put racing on the list twice!”

 

Jessica Green, NCWTS driver Joey Coulter’s girlfriend and a driver in her own right:

“Family, Florida, ocean, beach, racing.”

Cole Whitt, driver of the No. 88 JR Motorsports car in the Nationwide Series:

“Fishing out on the water.”

Bruce Cook, crew chief for the No. 88 JR Motorsports Nationwide car:

“Golfing.”

Justin Lofton, driver of the No. 6 NCWTS team for Eddie Sharp Racing.

“Yelling at people! No, no, no, I’m just kidding! Mountain cycling, video games, basketball, J6 Ink Vinyl Co. I’m a visual person. Weekend Warriors Productions – country music, sports marketing, film industry with Brett.”

Brett Bortle, crewman and business partner of Justin Lofton, No. 6 NCWTS for ESR:

“Filmmaking and Chicago Bears football.”

Kerry Tharp, NASCAR Senior Director, Communications/Competition:

“Having a nice quiet dinner with my wife, a strong cup of coffee on the deck with the sports page, tailgating at a SC football game, and, in five weeks, holding my first grandchild. That will go up there with my wife.”

Kris Cook, cameraman for the Speed Channel:

“Seeing my daughter.”

John Luzzi, field producer for the Speed Channel:

“Getting paid to travel!”

Rusty Wallace, Class of 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee:

“Aviation, boating, and family. I really enjoyed that, thank you!”

Kenny Wallace, driver of the No. 99 Nationwide car for RAB Racing and on-air personality for Speed Channel:

“Running well in competition, any competition, even practice! Baseball, Bud Lite and a bag of peanuts.”

Mike Wallace, driver of the No. 01 Nationwide car for JD Motorsports

“Get on my Bobcat and, using different attachments, cleaning up the grounds and moving dirt around.”

Tomorrow, I’ll offer more of the simple joys from your favorite NASCAR people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnson Falters, Again, And Keselowski Cruises To Championship

Brad Keselowski (right) accepts congratulations from NASCAR CEO Brain France at Homestead after Keselowski won his first career Sprint Cup championship.

It might not have been a dramatic, exciting finish to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season – hardly – and neither was the tussle for the championship.

What could have been, and for some a much anticipated, duel between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson evolved into virtual no-contest.

Johnson, who came into the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead seeking his sixth career championship, saw his hopes go up in smoke, literally, when his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet suffered a burnt rear end.

He sat out the final 34 laps of the race and finished 36th.

He was 20 points behind Keselowski when the race began, but when it was over, he dropped to third place in the standings, one position behind Clint Bowyer – who overtook Johnson with his runnerup finish at Homestead.

Keselowski avoided any such problems. Instead, he cruised to a 15th-place finish – which brought him the title regardless of what Johnson did – to win the first title of his career

He accomplished the feat in 125 Sprint Cup starts, second only to Jeff Gordon, who won his initial championship in 93 starts.

Speaking of Gordon, he made the race more palatable for Hendrick by taking his first victory at Homestead and the 87th of his career, third on NASCAR’s all-time list.

Keselowski, 28, claimed the championship in only his third full season in Cup competition, which ties him with Gordon, who won in 1995. Dale Earnhardt, in his second year in 1980, earned a championship faster than any other driver in NASCAR history.

If the Homestead race was relatively devoid of drama, it had more than its share of interesting, if not fascinating, story lines, along with some irony.

Jeff Gordon gets a kiss from wife Ingrid after he won the Ford Ecoboost 400 for his first win at Homestead and for the 87th time in his career.

For example, Keselowski brought veteran team owner Roger Penske, who has been part of NASCAR for 23 years, his first stock car championship.

It seems hard to believe, given that Penske has won 15 Indianapolis 500s and 23 championships in several forms of motorsports.

The title was the first for Penske and, perhaps, the last for Dodge. Ironically, the manufacturer announced earlier this season that it would end its NASCAR participation after the 2012 season.

Dodge, once a stalwart in competition, had not won a title since 1975 when Richard Petty, by far its marquee driver, won what was then known as the Winston Cup championship.

In a Dodge in ‘75, Petty won 13 races and had 21 top-five runs in 30 races. He won the title by a whopping 722 points ahead of Dave Marcis, who also drove a Dodge.

Interestingly, Penske was a NASCAR car owner in 1975, although his full-time participation wouldn’t begin until a few years afterward.

Penske fielded – of all things – an American Motors Matador, which Bobby Allison drove to three victories.

In 1975, Keselowski was nine years before being born. After a fledgling 17 Cup starts with four different team owners from 2008-2009 – Keselowski won with James Finch in ’09 – the driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., hooked up with Penske in 2010.

Keselowski won the Nationwide Series title that year which gave Penske his first NASCAR title of any kind.

And in 2011, Keselowski gave strong notice that his star was on the rise with three wins and a fifth place in the final point standings.

This year Keselowski made good on that notice. He won five races and was No. 1 in points for five of the eight weeks leading to Homestead.

He surged into the lead after uncharacteristic misfortunes struck Johnson.

After consecutive wins at Martinsville and Texas, Johnson crashed at Phoenix, which helped Keselowski enter Homestead with a double-digit points lead.

Certainly that helped his cause, but Keselowski felt supremely confident he could pull it off.

“I felt good about where we were coming into this race, but you never know,” Keselowski said. “Still I knew we could do it.

“I’ve got the best team in racing and I’m just so thrilled to be a part of it. From the top down, Roger, Paul Wolfe (crew chief), everybody else, the crew guys and my family, that means so much.

“I couldn’t do it without the support of everybody on the team. They are why I was so confident and they deserve the credit more than I do.”

Johnson, who held a seven-point lead over Keselowski until his crash at Phoenix cost him 13 points, could only wonder what might have been if a pit error (again, uncharacteristic for his team) and mechanical failure had not decided his fate.

As a result, Keselowski needed to finish only 15th to win the title, which, of course, he did.

“I said at the beginning of the week 15th isn’t a lay‑up, and I certainly had him in position,” said Johnson, who, near the end of the race, had positioned himself to take the lead by fuel mileage strategy. “He made it really interesting there at the end of this thing.

“If we could have not had the mistake on pit road and then the gear failure at the end . . . Didn’t really catch exactly what happened but I know there was oil under the back of the car.

“So again, disappointing, and we were right there in position and putting pressure on like we needed to.     “But I have a lot to be proud of this year and so does this race team, and I need to thank everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.”

Although the winner of a Homestead race often gets less notice than the new champion, Gordon received due attention for his victory because he won over Bowyer, whom he deliberately wrecked a week earlier in Phoenix.

That incident prompted a scuffle between the Bowyer and Gordon crews and resulted in fines, the loss of points and probation for Gordon.

“I knew we had a great race car going into the race,” Gordon said. “At times I didn’t think we had a winning car, but you know what, we played the strategy perfectly. This is a great way for us to end this season.

“Last week, the thing that I regret and the thing that I messed up on is that I allowed my anger and my emotions to put me in a position to make a bad choice.

“I felt like that Clint needed to be dealt with, but that wasn’t the right way to go about it, certainly not the right time. And what I hate most about it is that other guys were involved with it and it affected their day.”

Bowyer’s second-place run was his 10th among the top five, which also includes three wins in what has been a stellar first season with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Bowyer finished second in the championship race, 39 points behind Keselowski and one point – along with several thousand dollars – ahead of Johnson.

Many fans welcome Keselowski’s championship for several reasons: They were tired of Johnson’s championship dominance; they disliked his personality and, in some cases, disdained his team’s perceived propensity for bending the rules.

But there is also the feeling that Keselowski brings a breath of fresh air into NASCAR. He’s new, he’s outspoken and has clearly displayed racing talent. This could well be the first of many titles.

Keselowski likely prefers to take it all a step at a time, and for good reason.

“It’s that commitment that’s taken me from ground level to get up to here,” Keselowski said of his determination to succeed.  “I don’t know, maybe here is where I’ll top out or maybe I’ll fall down.

“I want to be the best and that’s what makes it so tough, but that’s what also makes it so great and such an accomplishment.  When you do have success you know all those other guys don’t want to see you be successful.

“To to some extent, to be the best is a validation of everything you’re doing and why participate in a sport.”

 

Rabid Jimmie Johnson Fans Turn Up In Most Unusual Place

Jimmie Johnson (right) and Brad Keselowski will go head-to-head for the championship at Homestead. Johnson will have some unlikely, loyal fans in his corner.

While waiting to board my flight at Newark Liberty International Airport, bound for Miami to cover the NASCAR championship races this weekend, I was drawn to a family of five.

I, too, have a family of five so that may have been enough to attract my attention. The children were adorable so that was reason enough to stay fixated on them. I am traveling alone so I had time to notice them.

But really what struck me was the dad and one of the sons each had on a No. 48 Lowe’s hat perched on their heads.

New Jersey is not known for being a bastion of NASCAR racing enthusiasts, so my curiosity was peaked. Before I could engage the dad in conversation the plane began boarding.

As luck would have it, the family was seated directly behind me on the plane. I inquired if the family was off to the championship races at Homestead-Miami and was shocked with the answer.

“No,” the pretty wife said as she attended to all three of her children simultaneously. “We are on our way to a vacation.”

“You’re kidding,” I mused, incredulous that such obviously devoted NASCAR fans were heading toward the venue of the last race of the season, with Jimmie Johnson in contention for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title, and this family was going to miss it.

I had to get the story – the whole story – and, being direct like I’ve always been, asked the dad to write his name and family’s names down so I could include them in a story. I gave him a notepad and pen.

Keselowski holds a 20-point lead over Johnson going into the final race of the season. All Keselowski has to do is finish 15th to win his first title.

Half an hour later, the dad handed back to me my official NASCAR Sprint Cup notepad, I had gotten from my time in the media center during second Pocono this year, filled with a ton of information. I am compelled to share it with you.

Scott Nied and his wife Vanessa are the parents of Sydnie (8), Jake (7), and Jaxson (2). They are from Holmdel, NJ. Scott and his boys are avid NASCAR fans who root for Johnson and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports stable.

Vanessa admits she is not a fan, yet she asks every Sunday how the No. 48 team did and has a strong plethora of NASCAR information floating around her head.

She has even designed racing-themed undergarments for her business – they do really well much to her surprise and delight.

Nied attends four or five races per year and takes his boys. He has met Johnson personally four times in the last 15 months. Scott beamed about this, something that warmed my heart.

Recently I had heard many fans complain that the drivers were largely inaccessible. Nied doesn’t feel that way at all about his favorite driver.

Nied let me know that he is a NASCAR fan who spends a lot of money at the NASCAR.com Superstore. In every picture he has on Facebook, Nied is wearing apparel featuring the No. 48 team colors and logos.

Nied’s son even has the six-foot tall Johnson “Fathead” in his room. Clearly this family loves their NASCAR.

Nied told me that Pocono and Daytona are his “home tracks.” He has, in fact, his 2013 tickets for Daytona for the Thursday through Sunday events. Nied explained he goes to every Pocono race and tries to attend the Dover races as well. He hopes to take his boys to Bristol or Martinsville next year.

Nied has high NASCAR aspirations for his oldest son.

“I am grooming my seven-year-old son to be a crew chief,” he said. “His mom doesn’t want him driving.”

Nied told me he watches every race from start to finish and begins his race days with the television coverage on Speed and ESPN. He also loves to Tweet such NASCAR media stars as Kyle Petty, Bob Pockrass, Jeff Gluck… and now, me.

Nied said that while on vacation this week, “We will be watching on Sunday from the pool in St. Kitts with my 48 gear on! We even brought our toy 48 hauler for good luck!”

When I asked Nied about the championship this year he replied, “I am dying right now thinking that the 48 may not win!”

Nied said, “I have been doing a prayer every night this week for the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) to spin, blow a tire or wreck on Sunday. His bad luck is the only way for the No. 48 to make up 20 points.

“I believe this will be the No. 48’s most epic victory of his soon-to-be six Cups!”

Nied is so passionate that even “the guys at work are following NASCAR now because I’ve been giving sporadic NASCAR lectures to a few.”

Curious as to Nied’s thoughts about the situation surrounding Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon he said, “Bowyer deserved it! ‘Mr. Jokester,’ No. 15, has been rubbing the No. 24 all year.”

Of course, Nied and his family are all HMS fans.

“The No. 48 is No. 1 in our house,” he said. “Nos. 5 (Kasey Kahne), 24 (Jeff Gordon) and 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr., are all tied for second.”

These are, of course, the opinions of one NASCAR fan. What makes it a story to me is that I found this family of fans in the most unlikely of places – New Jersey.

When I assumed they would be at the races, I was wrong.

I loved Nied’s passion, his willingness to share the sport with his family and friends, his staunch views of the NASCAR world and his willingness to talk about it all with me.

There are no better fans in the world than NASCAR fans – and that certainly includes the ones from New Jersey!

JUNIOR JOHNSON: 1991 – Bodine, Marlin Unite With High Hopes

In 1991, Junior Johnson returned to a two-team operation when Sterling Marlin was brought on as second driver with Maxwell House Coffee as the sponsor.

At the end of 1990, after Geoff Bodine helped Junior Johnson & Associates have its best season since 1986, it was decided to give Bodine another season behind Johnson’s Fords.

But big changes happened for 1991.

In the highly competitive, and more expensive, world of NASCAR Winston Cup racing, teams were scrambling to find the type of sponsorship that would allow them to keep pace with advancing technology, among other things.

As others had done before him, Johnson decided to form a second team in order to curb expenses. He had done the same thing in the mid-‘80s with drivers Neil Bonnett and Darrell Waltrip.

Johnson found a sponsor for his second team. He knew which driver he wanted – the one that had refused him two years earlier.

Johnson sincerely believed that particular driver could achieve superstar status with Junior Johnson & Associates. So he made many handsome offers.

They didn’t work.

So for 1991, Johnson had to rely on his second choice, Sterling Marlin, and see just how well he and Bodine would perform.

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

I’ve said more than once that, unlike my previous contractual practices, I signed Geoff Bodine to a one-year deal in 1990.

I had my reasons and, yes, Geoff’s reputation as headstrong and contrary had something to do with it.

But together we had been productive and in 1990. We won three races and finished third in the point standings. That was the best Junior Johnson & Associates had done since Darrell was with us in 1986, his last championship season.

So I decided to give Geoff another year.

But there would be big changes.

I was going to return to a two-car operation. I felt I had to do so.

After one season as Johnson’s only driver, Geoff Bodine was required to be one of two in 1991, a situation that he didn’t like at all.

I was having a problem with a few things. It had reached the point where a one-car team was difficult to finance. By that I mean it was difficult to do everything you had to do to keep up in racing.

You had to test extensively, you had to do research and development. You could not do that with one team.

There were just so many things you had to do, however, one car could not afford to do them.

I reasoned that with two cars expenses could be contained. One team could perform research and development work and report the results to the other, for example.

That would give both teams all the benefits at the cost of one.

It had to be the way to go. And I admit I had seen it work pretty well with Rick Hendrick’s teams.

Ironically, it was a Hendrick two-car arrangement that Geoff left to join me. I knew darn well that he wasn’t going to be happy.

At that time few drivers wanted to be a part of a two-car team. I know things have changed over the years but back then, it was strictly a no-no for a go-go.

Even with cost sharing a two-car team needs an additional sponsor. I had Budweiser but I had to have additional funding.

I got it when Maxwell House Coffee agreed to back a second Junior Johnson & Associates team.

Now I needed a driver.

I knew who I wanted. I had tried hard to get him just a year earlier.

Like so many others I remained intrigued by Alan Kulwicki.

When I offered him a ride before the 1990 season he refused because he wanted to continue to own, and drive, for his own team.

He wanted to keep up what he was doing and see it through to success. He said then that if he joined me it would make him feel like a quitter.

So Alan kept doing his thing and he did it quite well. In 1990 he won his first career race and finished ninth in the point standings.

I had seen him achieve success with an under-funded team. Given that, I knew he was a hard-working, determined young man.

You take that and give him a little time off from everything he had to do and, well, you’ve got a superstar.

I felt I had an excellent chance to bring Alan to Junior Johnson & Associates. At the end of 1990, he was struggling to find sponsorship and his team was going to be in trouble if the money for 1991 couldn’t be found.

I made several handsome offers to Alan. So many, in fact, it reached the point where I had to look at my sponsorship and figure how much money I could pay a driver.

There was a limit I could pay. So I had to reluctantly give up on Alan and I signed Sterling Marlin.

Ironically, one of the reasons Alan refused me was that he was certain he had a sponsor lined up for 1991, with which he could continue his independent ways.

When he told me that I had to be honest. “No, Alan,” I said, “you do not have that sponsor.”

Alan insisted he did.

I tried to persuade him that he didn’t. That sponsor, Maxwell House, had already signed with me. I had a contract with them. I’m not sure Alan ever believed me.

But I understood Alan’s position. He felt he had the money he needed and wanted to do his own thing – perfectly logical.

Alan did get a sponsor and continued to race in 1991.

With Geoff and Sterling on board I was hoping for good things in the ’91 season. Well, there were some good moments, but certainly the numbers indicated Junior Johnson & Associates had anything but a good year.

It can’t be a good season when my highlight was being accused by NASCAR, once again, for racing with an oversized engine at The Winston.

How could I have had an oversized engine when our Chevrolet finished 14th in a 20-car field?

NASCAR suspended crew chief Tim Brewer and me for four races.

It was a farce.

That, and the results of the 1991 season, made me feel that perhaps I was coming to the end of the line.

Productivity wasn’t as high as it had been. Costs were higher. Politics, to me, was rampant. And it wasn’t any fun.

But then I made some changes at the end of 1991 that allowed Junior Johnson & Associates to have a key role in what has gone down as one of the greatest, and most remarkable, seasons in NASCAR history.

Junior Johnson’s commentaries will return in 2013.

 

 

 

 

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