On Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, The All-Star Race And More

Carl Edwards may have had a slow start to his 2012 season, but the author believes he's going to be a threat to win the championship - again.

There are so many topics flying around in the world of NASCAR that I feel compelled to add my two cents.

Hey, with inflation that really isn’t enough, is it? So I’ll rescind the two cents and offer up $1.38.

**** Dale Earnhardt Jr. has quietly and systematically become the best performing driver at Hendrick Motorsports this season – well, so far, anyway.

He’s firmly in third place in NASCAR Sprint Cup points. In my opinion, it’s evident he’s focused, working hard, and, hopefully for all of his teammates and fans, determined to parlay his driving prowess into victories once again.

But until Earnhardt Jr. does win races – we’ll talk about championships later – I can’t call him the premier Hendrick driver. I don’t think anyone can.

With Jimmie Johnson in ninth place in points he is obviously far from out of contention. “Five Timer” will strike again. He’ll win races and – OK I’ll say it – more championships. He really is that good.

Jeff Gordon, a veteran with four championships and 85 career wins, still has something left.

Gordon is after his fifth championship and, whether or not he earns it, he will certainly be able to get more wins for his No. 24 team.

Which leads to this conclusion:

When your teammates have nine championships between them and you have none, well, you can’t be known as the “premier driver” in your stable.

And Earnhardt Jr. knows it.

But that does not mean I alter my opinion one bit. At least for this moment that is what he is.

***** Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing is currently atop the leader board for a third week.

He’s won championships in the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series and he’s anxious to add Sprint Cup champion to his resume.

Possibly, it could possibly be this year, but my money is still on Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth to bring home the trophy to “The Cat in the Hat,” team owner Jack Roush.

Presently, Edwards seems in a bit of a slump after the first five races.

I can’t help but wonder if last year’s disappointing finish, in which he lost the title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker – Edwards had fewer wins – has affected Edwards more than he has let on.

Coming into Martinsville Edwards is 12th in points. That’s enough for me to consider Edwards a valid contender for the championship – at least at this stage.

Kenseth started strong this season with a win in the Daytona 500. He’s currently fifth in points, a two-spot drop from last week.

Still, Kenseth, the man they call “The Silent Assassin,” is also a contender. In 2011 he had decent runs at tracks where he normally did not do well. If he can do that again it will show he is ready to put up a solid fight for the championship.

***** Defending champion Tony Stewart is living up to his nickname, “Smoke.” He is on fire right now. He’s won seven of the last 15 races, two of five this season.

That Steve Addington is on board as crew chief after Darian Grubb was let go doesn’t seem to have affected Stewart’s mojo.

If anything, he’s more fired up than ever this early in the season. But, I can’t help wondering, for a driver who was notoriously better in the warmer weather, will he be able to keep this domination throughout the 2012 season? Will he peter out as the season drags on?

There have been some alterations to the rules for the Sprint All Start Race at Charlotte, but expect the event to again be a highlight of the season.

I doubt it. I don’t know of another racer who drives as often as Stewart. He drives anything with wheels wherever he can – no matter what the purse.

Stewart may just be a repeat champion.

***** Bruton Smith has decided to “fix” Bristol Motor Speedway. There are many who rejoice in this news, but there are those who are disappointed.

The racing at Bristol, though not wreckfest-inducing lately, has routinely been the best on the circuit. But not everybody sees it that way. So Bristol will be mended.

Will it be for the better? We will have to wait and see.

***** Also reconfigured is the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race.

Segment winners will benefit. They will be the only ones in contention for the top four starting positions when the shootout begins.

For me, for decades the highlight has been this theatrical, dynamic, fun-infused All-Star event NASCAR holds each year in Charlotte.

This non-points race offers bragging rights and is a momentum builder for the Coca Cola 600 the following week. The announced new incentives should lead to altered strategies.

Which, in turn, could well lead to an overall a more exciting race with unpredictable results.

I admit it. I can’t wait to see what happens.

I don’t think I’m alone.

For Brian Vickers, Great Start At MWR May Be The Launch To Better Things

Brian Vickers' Sprint Cup career was derailed because of health issues and the demise of the Red Bull Racing team. But this year, and so far, he's made the best of his new chance.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It’s been said very often that if someone – team owner, driver, crewman, media member – departs NASCAR for whatever reason, the only way he can hope to return, should he desire, is to be visible.

Which means: Come to the races. Go into the garage areas. Shake hands and say hello. Engage in small chat. Simply put, let ‘em see you. Let ‘em know you still exist.

The reasoning is that if you aren’t seen you will be quickly forgotten. In NASCAR circles, well, you will cease to exist.

Don’t take my word for it. You’ll hear the same thing from virtually everyone in NASCAR.

Brian Vickers certainly heard it. He was advised more than once to make his presence known after his Sprint Cup career was somewhat derailed by circumstances beyond his control.

The 28-year-old Vickers, tagged as a rising star in his days with Hendrick Motorsports, was driving for Red Bull Racing in 2010 when he was physically struck down by what was determined to be blood clots.

Any doctor will tell you they cannot be ignored. Vickers spent time in the hospital and subsequently competed in only 11 of 36 races in the 2010 season.

He returned in 2011, ran the full schedule for Red Bull, but was left hanging when the team folded late in the year.

The timing could not have been worse. Vickers was out of a job at a time when all the top-flight rides in NASCAR were occupied.

To add to Vickers’ problems, almost any driver who has endured severe injury or illness can be considered “damaged goods.” It’s not necessarily true, or even fair, but it’s a reality.

It was a reality not lost on Vickers.

“Yeah, and I wonder at what time of many did I think that?” he said. “I’ve had that conversation with myself many times over the last couple of years.

“I thought about it when Red Bull shut down and through the off-season when I was talking to other teams, or even when I was laying in a hospital bed two years ago.

“I just tried to focus on the parts I could control and do the best I can.”

Vickers caught a break – no, make that earned an opportunity – when he was hired by Michael Waltrip Racing to compete in six races this season as a replacement for Mark Martin.

The first of those events was at Bristol. And the result was, in a word, incredible.

MWR put all three of its cars among the top five, something it had never previously done. Martin Truex Jr. finished third, Clint Bowyer fourth and Vickers fifth.

“Bristol, obviously, might be the highlight of our existence with all three cars racing up front with a chance to win,” Waltrip said. “I can’t tell you what it meant to me to see Brian lead 125 laps and have our car up front.”

For Vickers the Bristol race proved personally rewarding.

“It was a really special weekend and it meant a lot to me personally,” he said. “Right now, I’m just thankful to be back and to be in a race car.”

The obvious question is, has Vickers attracted more attention, perhaps even some potential consideration for employment, after his Bristol performance?

Let’s face it. At Bristol he was visible in the garage area. By the time the race was over, he had been visible to an entire nation.

This draws attention.

“I definitely heard from some people after the races and it was great to have those phone calls and text messages again,” Vickers said. “It’s overwhelming after you get a great run.

“To be a part of all three cars to finish among the top five and just to be a small, contributing factor to that and to lead those laps was very special for me.

“It was especially so in my first race back.”

And the Bristol race may have validated Vickers’ standing as a competitive driver. He had, at the least, planted the seeds for such with wins at Talladega in 2006 and Michigan in 2009 during his tenure with Hendrick.

“Obviously, it mean a lot to me to have that validation,” he said. “Really, in this sport you need validation every week. I think the industry has proven that.

When Vickers finished fifth at Bristol as part of a MWR sweep of positions three through five, it helped to validate his return to NASCAR competition.

You can fade away very quickly.

‘It’s a long road. It’s not easy. I know that because I was involved with a team that was started from scratch at the same time Michael started his team from scratch.

“The validation has to come every week.”

His second race back with MWR will be Sunday at Martinsville in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500. Two days before the race, Waltrip announced that Vickers will now run eight races for his team instead of six.

Vickers will compete on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Why?

“Because Mark said he didn’t want to run them,” Waltrip deadpanned. “Me, being the owner I am, decided we needed to get someone else to do it.”

Vickers, ever the logical sort, reasoned that to compete in two more races could be good for him.

“It’s better than six and six was better than none,” he said. “Given the circumstances, I couldn’t ask to be in a better situation.

“For me, personally, I really feel like being in a competitive car and being up front, even if it was only once or five or eight times a year, is way better than being in all the races and not running as well.

“Yeah, we have seven races to go but I feel like it has already turned out that way for me. But remember what I said. We have seven races to go.”

And for Brian Vickers, having seven races to go is far better than what could have been – to have no races at all and with little hope for the future.

Make No Mistake, For Jimmie Johnson And Others “Luck” Plays A Role

In five races, Jimmie Johnson has gone from oblivion to ninth place in the point standings in his quest for a sixth career championship. Among other things, good and bad luck have played their part in his season.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Call it fortune, call it luck, call it whatever you will. But there is no doubt it plays a role in racing – sometimes a big role.

Luck, good or bad, can determine everything from a race victory to a championship and everything in between. There isn’t a single NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who has not had it play a part of his race, his season or even his career.

Here’s a simple sample of bad luck: A driver is on the track minding his own business when he suddenly gets swooped up in a multicar wreck caused by others.

His car is so damaged he has to fall out of the race. What could have been a good day is spoiled.

We’ve seen that a lot, haven’t we?

Here’s a sample of good luck: A driver fights for position and finally works his way into the top 10. Then, suddenly, something rips into his oil line causing a significant leak.

Then, almost miraculously, a caution period begins because rain is falling. Like the others, the driver stays on the track, but he knows he is ultimately going to have to go to the garage area.

However, before he does so, NASCAR throws the red flag that halts the race. The driver goes to the pits with the others.

If the race restarts, the driver knows full well he cannot re-enter until repairs are made. His only hope to hold his top-10 spot is for the rain to continue and force NASCAR to end the race – which, by the way, will be official because it has gone beyond halfway.

Indeed, NASCAR does call off the race and the very fortunate driver retains a top-10 finish.

If you think that’s a far-fetched example of good luck, you should know that’s exactly what happened to Jimmie Johnson at the Auto Club 400 at Fontana last Sunday.

When the first, and only, caution period of the race began on lap 125 of 200, Johnson developed a serious oil leak in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He was in 10th place at the time.

If the race restarted, Johnson would meet competitive disaster. Repairs to the broken oil line would have cost him several laps off the track.

He would have finished well back in the field instead of 10th place and lost a huge chunk of points.

“We don’t know what it was,” said Johnson during the subsequent red-flag period. “Either a piece of debris hit an oil line and knocked the fitting off or split the line or snagged a line.

“I was just idling along and my friends pulled up alongside of me and were pointing. They said ‘You’re smoking.’

Johnson's season started poorly at Daytona. Before the race his Chevrolet was declared illegal and sent to the garage for reconfiguration. In the 500, Johnson wrecked on the first lap and finished 43rd.

“I could see and smell it, but I don’t know what really caused it.”

Johnson readily admitted he would be the recipient of ill fortune – or, say, bad luck – if the race restarted. He knew he would inevitably lose positions and points.

“This is a wild change of events,” Johnson said. “The last time I came on pit road and took on four tires I wanted it to dry up real quick.

“Now I’m sitting here praying for rain. I’m sending these signals to the man upstairs and he’s really confused as to what I have been asking for in the last three or four minutes.”

Apparently the man decided to let it rain and allow Johnson to salvage a good finish.

After Fontana Johnson settled into ninth place in the point standings. He’s fully in the hunt for a sixth career championship after he started the season in a black hole, points-wise.

Now, before anyone suggests that Johnson is the luckiest driver who ever turned a wheel consider that he’s already had a dose or two the bad stuff.

At Daytona, before he ever got on the track, NASCAR nabbed Johnson’s Hendrick team for improper C-posts on its Chevrolet. Punishment would be announced two days after the Daytona 500.

Now, I don’t know if that was bad luck or bad judgment on Hendrick’s part.

However, in the 500, Johnson was collected in a multicar accident on the very first lap. Through no fault of his own he finished 43rd – dead last.

For that finish he received a grand total of two points.

It was a classic case of bad luck.

Oh, it gets better. When NASCAR announced the Hendrick penalties, one of them was the loss of 25 driver points. Johnson went from 37th in the point standings to somewhere in the nether regions with minus 23.

Again, I’m not convinced this was solely due to poor luck. Perhaps it’s more a result of poor judgment.

After the next three races Johnson lurked in 17th place in the standings with 96 points. Then comes the startling announcement that NASCAR Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook overturned nearly all of NASCAR’s penalties – including the loss of the 25 driver points.

Instead of 96 points, Johnson now has 121 and his 10th-place Fontana finish added 35 more. He now has 156 and, as said, is ninth in points.

Think of it – in just five races Johnson has gone from chump to contender and luck, both good and bad, has played a role in it.

If you don’t believe in luck and choose not to include it in your interpretation of this scenario, that’s fine. Regardless, it has been a fortuitous turn of events for Johnson. There’s no doubt about that.

In the end it might make all the difference in his quest for yet another title.

But it is very early in the season. The path to the 2012 championship remains a long and arduous one.

Certainly Johnson is going to experience, again, good and bad luck. So is just about every other driver.

How much, or how little, of either will ultimately help determine the outcome.

Ye Olde Paper Clip Driver- Fantasy Insight Martinsville 1

Jeff Gordon

It takes a special skill to race old school in NASCAR. Martinsville Speedway is a trip back in time and it takes special skills to race the paper clip. Over the years we have seen some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR show just how fantastic they were by their conquests of races at Martinsville. Our current crop of drivers has quite a few great olde paper clip drivers.

 

Fourteen of the last fifteen races at Martinsville have been won by the same four drivers. Jimmie Johnson has five of those wins. Denny Hamlin has won three times. Tony Stewart has won twice. Jeff Gordon has won twice. In these days of parity in NASCAR no other track has seen four guys dominate the racing like Martinsville. It takes a special driver to handle the paper clip. One of those guys is my pick this week…Jeff Gordon. While Gordon has not won since 2005 he has been one of the most consistent drivers since the current model of Cup car has been used with an average finish of 5.8.

Good luck with your fantasy racing picks this week and don’t forget to send in your pick for “Whiteboard Fantasy Racing” this week for Martinsville.

 

Send in your pick to win this week’s Cup race to dennis@racetalkradio.com for a chance to win a copy of the National Speedway Directory from SpeedwaysOnline.com.

 

Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Winner Last Week

Gertie picked Tony Stewart

 

Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Top Ten After 5 Weeks

Jimmie Johnson

 

Pos

Player

Total

1

Gertie

10

2T

Grainger

9

2T

LAM

9

4T

Chris U

8

4T

Mike N

8

4T

Pops

8

7T

RA

7

7T

Aaron C

7

7T

Shari P

7

7T

Carbon

7

 

Weather Report

Partly cloudy with a high near 75F

 

http://raceweather.net

 

Fantasy Racing Question of the Week: Steve in Kentucky, “Does winning the pole really matter?

 

Answer: Qualifying does matter and each track has a built in factor of how important qualifying is to the result on the track. At Martinsville 102 of the 130 race winners have qualified in the top 10 positions. Unfortunately many Fantasy Race games require that you set your lineup before qualifying. Fortunately the power ratings do a good forecast of how well a driver will do based on track and track type ratings.

 

If you have a question about Fantasy Racing send it to dennis@racetalkradio.com and get it answered next week.

 

NASCAR by the Numbers- Lubricated by TheOilMedics.com

 

Using a proprietary race analysis technique we take the fans inside the numbers every week. DMIC’s rating system has been in use since 2002 and has proven to pick the contenders from the pretenders!

 

Consistency is King (Last Five Races)

G Biffle

94

K Harvick

93

D Earnhardt Jr

91

M Truex

91

T Stewart

89

M Kenseth

89

J Johnson

89

D Hamlin

89

C Bowyer

87

C Edwards

87

 

Ryan Newman

Horses for Courses (Track Rating)

D Hamlin

96

J Johnson

94

J Gordon

93

K Harvick

90

J Logano

90

D Earnhardt Jr

88

Ky Busch

88

C Edwards

87

R Newman

86

J Burton

85

 

Type Casting (Track Type Factor)

T Stewart

93

K Harvick

92

C Edwards

92

G Biffle

91

J Gordon

90

B Keselowski

89

D Hamlin

89

AJ Allmendinger

87

J Johnson

86

R Newman

86

 

Power Rating (240 Minimum to Qualify as Contender)

K Harvick

276

D Hamlin

274

J Johnson

270

C Edwards

267

G Biffle

265

T Stewart

264

D Earnhardt Jr

264

J Gordon

262

R Newman

259

J Logano

258

Ky Busch

256

B Keselowski

256

M Truex

254

J Burton

253

M Kenseth

252

JP Montoya

252

C Bowyer

249

Ku Busch

247

AJ Allmendinger

245

P Menard

242

J McMurray

239

D Ragan

236

R Smith

235

K Kahne

232

B Labonte

231

D Reutimann

230

M Ambrose

230

C Mears

229

A Almirola

228

T Kvapil

223

D Blaney

220

D Gilliland

216

L Cassill

214

 

DMIC’s Fantasy Picks

 

Each week we will take you beyond the numbers to handicap the field from top to bottom to help your Fantasy Racing team succeed. You are also invited to join Lori Munro and I on “White Board Fantasy Racing” every Monday night on “Doin’ Donuts” at 8pm ET on RaceTalkRadio.com. Win fun prizes by picking just the race winners in our unique format. Send your picks to info@racetalkradio.com to enter.

 

Top Pick (Last Week 16th)

 

Jeff Gordon- Winless here since 2005 but super consistent

(8 to 1 Odds)

 

Best Long Shot (Odds of 20-1 or More) (Last Week 12th)

Ryan Newman- Qualifying up front gives him a chance

(25 to 1 Odds)

 

Top Dogs (Group A in Yahoo) (Last Week 10th)

Jimmie Johnson- One of his best tracks and that is saying a lot

(5 to 1 Odds)

 

Second Class (Group B in Yahoo) (Last Week 6th)          

Dale Earnhardt Jr- Fear the Beard! (http://www.juniorsbeard.com/)

(15 to 1 Odds)

 

Middle Packer (Group C in Yahoo) (Last Week 25th)    

Bobby Labonte- Don’t expect better than 20th from anyone in this group

 

Crazy 8s for Martinsville

Each week Lori Munro and Dennis Michelsen battle in the most unique racing game around! We pick one driver each from each 8 driver group using the current points’ standings. Our picks can help you round out your fantasy racing lineup!

 

Last Week at California: Dennis won the matchup 4-1

 

Season Record: Lori leads Dennis 3-2

 

Martinsville Group 1: Dennis Picks Tony Stewart and Lori Picks Kevin Harvick

 

Martinsville Group 2: Lori Picks Jimmie Johnson and Dennis Picks Ryan Newman

 

Martinsville Group 3: Dennis Picks Jeff Gordon and Lori Picks Kurt Busch

 

Martinsville Group 4: Lori Picks Kasey Kahne and Dennis Picks AJ Allmendinger

 

Martinsville Group 5: Dennis Picks Brian Vickers and Lori Picks David Stremme

 

Do you have what it takes to handicap the races? Join Lori and Dennis every week and play in the Whiteboard Fantasy Racing Series! Send your pick for the Cup race to info@racetalkradio.com to e

Furman Bisher Made Racing Motors Sound Like Mozart

Furman Bisher, the long-time writer, editor and columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, gained a deserved reputation as a master wordsmith. Before he died at 93, he covered all sports, including NASCAR.

There was a logjam of fans near the top of the steep steps leading to the main grandstand at Atlanta Motor Speedway a quarter century or so ago.       Georgians were mobbing the place in the hope of watching their home state hero, Bill Elliott, outrun the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip and Ricky Rudd.

Suddenly, the crowd parted.

Relatively, it reminded me of the scene in the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” when Moses, played by Charlton Heston, parts the Red Sea.
Only on this occasion at the track near Hampton, Ga., “Moses” was a sports writer.

Not just any reporter, but Furman Bisher, sports editor and columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Out of the utmost respect, the fans stood aside to allow Bisher to make his way to the press box.

With what seemed to be an ever-present smile, Bisher nodded as he passed along, obviously pleased that the public liked him so.

I’m writing this in remembrance of and tribute to the man that for years I fondly called “Uncle Furman.” I’ll relate how that nickname came about a bit later.

Bisher passed away several days ago in Atlanta at age 93.

I join a chorus of others in his praise, and I am confident in asserting that there never will be another sports columnist like him – and if so, certainly not many.

I rate Uncle Furman and the late Jim Murray of the L.A. Times as the best ever.

What Bisher could do with the written word was a thing of beauty. He could turn the rumble of a racing motor into Mozart. His perceptions were as pointed and sharp as Excalibur. He saw and sensed things beyond the grasp of others, including me.

So it was flattering in the extreme when Uncle Furman occasionally would drop by my spot in the press box with a question at the races he covered in Atlanta, Charlotte, Darlington and Talladega.

“I never thought I see drivers like Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson again,” he once commented, “but Dale Earnhardt has proved me wrong.”

Bisher loved to write about Richard Petty and Earnhardt, who, like himself, were native North Carolinians.

And the competitors loved it when he wrote about them – if the column was a positive one. But if Bisher took someone or something to task, well, they knew they had been impaled.

The latter rarely happened.

“I’ve never known anyone who handled things with as much humility and grace,” said Ed Clark, the president of Atlanta Motor Speedway. “Coming from someone as famous as him and with a giant talent like his, that made knowing him very, very special.”

I had known Bisher since the late 1950s, when I was a relative rookie sports reporter covering golf for the Winston-Salem Journal-Sentinel.

The National Lefthanders Golf Association was bringing its championship to Greensboro, and a real uncle of mine, Jack Swofford of North Wilkesboro, was heavily involved. An avid golfer, Uncle Jack pelted away from the portside.

At a breakfast preceding the tournament, Uncle Jack introduced me to a distinguished-looking man with a whimsical smile. He was Furman Bisher, himself a lefthander on the links.

Bisher kindly asked about my young career in newspapers and complimented my sports editor at the time, Mal Mallette, a former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher.

A few months later I had a blind date with a student at Women’s College of North Carolina, now UNC-Greensboro.

“Tom, my uncle is a sports writer in Atlanta,” the young lady said. “He is Furman Bisher.”

I was surprised, but then it connected. She was from little Denton, N.C., Furman’s hometown.

Bisher was the only writer ever allowed an interview with "Shoeless Joe" Jackson of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and part of the notorious "Black Sox" betting scandal.

We dated a couple more times.  Then, best I recall, she became interested in another guy. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to see Bisher again.

The chance came at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga.

I approached the great columnist in the press tent, introduced myself again and called him “Uncle Furman.”

He looked at me as if I was nuts.

I explained about dating his niece and he threw back his head and laughed.

Over the next four decades I never addressed him in any way other than as Uncle Furman, and he never failed to delight in it.

And I never failed to read a Bisher column every time I could.

There are three that I remember best. The first was about Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax at the peak of his career. The second was a heart-wrenching account of Bisher sitting at the bedside of a dying son. The third was a tribute to Ben Hogan after the golf great had died.

Now, the tributes to Furman Bisher are of avalanche proportions.

And I fondly recall what he often said (jokingly, I hope) of me dating his niece:

“The best thing that girl ever did was not to bring a Higgins into the family!”

Rest in peace, Uncle Furman. It was an honor and privilege to share a press box with you.

This ‘New’ Tony Stewart Quite Different From The ‘Old’ Of The Past

With two wins in five races, Tony Stewart is off to perhaps the best start of his NASCAR career. He credits that to the skill of many of the people working with his Stewart Haas Racing organization.

I remember that, a while back, there was a driver named Tony Stewart who competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.

He came around in 1999 as a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. Not many folks in NASCAR knew all that much about him but he did have an impressive background.

He had been racing since he was a kid and won in just about everything he drove. A Midwesterner, it was assumed he would move up to Indy Car on a permanent basis but, instead, he chose to hook up with Gibbs and pursue a NASCAR career.

He was good right off the bat – very good, in fact. He won three races in his first season, six in his second and two more in 2001, the year he finished second in the final point standings.

Incidentally, he never finished worse than fourth in points during his first three NASCAR seasons.

You can bet that by 2001, everyone in NASCAR knew who Stewart was. He had become, in a very short time, one of the best drivers in Sprint Cup competition.

He reached his pinnacle in 2002, when he won three more times and earned the Sprint Cup championship. It took him a mere four years to achieve it.

Indeed, Stewart had more than matched his pedigree. His reputation as a driver who could race, and win, in anything was enhanced immeasurably.

But despite his accomplishments, this Stewart was not nearly as popular or respected as you might think.

There was another side to him that he exhibited often – and it wasn’t very pretty.

Stewart had trouble controlling his emotions, especially anger. Sure, competitors don’t like it when they lose because they they’ve been wronged. But Stewart took it a step or two further.

Fact is, he didn’t have to be angry to act like a surly smart aleck in front of the media or anyone else. But when he was upset things got worse.

He got into heated confrontations with fellow drivers. He angrily blasted them to the media.

When he was particularly livid Stewart was especially hostile. He once slapped a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand.

He forcibly shoved a photographer out of his path.

There were times he was so hostile Stewart was unapproachable. Truth be known, many members of the media didn’t bother to approach him at all. To their way of thinking they could do their jobs without have to interview a jerk.

Stewart’s attitude and hostility got him into trouble. He was chastised and penalized more than once by NASCAR. His sponsor even got into the act as it once matched a $50,000 fine the sanctioning body slapped on him.

Seemed like after every episode Stewart would become contrite and apologetic. He seemed so angelic that some thought he had become a changed man.

Actually, he was trying to save his job.

It wasn’t long until there was yet another confrontation, flare-up, tantrum or insult.

For the fans and media, there might have been some disdain for, and disapproval of, Stewart the man. But the skill of Stewart the driver could not be denied. He went right on winning races.

Don’t know what happened to that Tony Stewart. Haven’t seen him around for a few years now.

Now there’s another Tony Stewart in NASCAR who looks like a clone of the old one. I mean, he’s an identical twin.

He races like that old Stewart, too. He has won 11 races in the last four years and hasn’t finished lower than seventh in the final point standings.

In fact, this Stewart won five of the 10 races in the Chase last season to roar to the championship.

All the while, the new Stewart hasn’t thrown a tantrum – at least not in public – berated a reporter or questioned the ancestry of a fellow driver.

He certainly hasn’t knocked a tape recorder out of a writer’s hand or shoved a photographer.

There’s one major difference between this Stewart and the previous one. While both are talented drivers, the “new” Stewart seems far more mature, grounded and responsible.

There’s a big reason for that. While the Stewart of yesterday concerned himself only with racing and adding to his reputation as a vastly successful, good old Midwestern boy driver, the Stewart of today doesn’t seem nearly as concerned with that.

Instead, he’s displayed a talent for business, personnel management, on-track strategy and operational logistics.

Today’s Stewart has been able to do this because he owns his own team. So he’s been faced with an entirely new set of responsibilities that, up to now, he’s met ably and successfully.

Last year Stewart claimed his second NASCAR Sprint Cup championship - his first came in 2002. He was the first driver/owner to win the title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Stewart has been an owner since 2008, when he had a great opportunity to form Stewart Haas Racing.

It wasn’t entirely something new for him. He owned successful Sprint Car and USAC operations. His cars won 13 titles in those series. It appeared Stewart knew how to build a team and support it with good people in both management and in the shop.

That all carried over to his Sprint Cup operation.

And, as an owner, Stewart has made personnel changes – some of which have been very difficult.

For example, he dropped Bobby Hutchens as competition director in 2011 and then, near the end of the season, announced that Darian Grubb had been released as crew chief.

This was done is spite of the fact that with Grubb, Stewart won 11 races in three years, including five in 2011, the season in which they claimed a title.

But, given what Stewart has done lately, as tough and even controversial as those changes might have been they have proven beneficial.

Steve Addington is now the crew chief and Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s pit boss at Gibbs, is now the competition director.

Stewart normally starts a season painfully slow. However, this year he has won two of the first five races. Last year he was winless after 26 events.

He’s fourth in points where he barely made the Chase last season. At the time, he declared he didn’t think his team was good enough to participate.

“It’s been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have,” Stewart said. “In the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts in the first third of the season. It’s nice to have at least a top-10 car everywhere we go.”

Stewart is quick to praise Addington, Zipadelli and co-owner Gene Haas. He noted that Addington made great off-season adjustments, learned the system and quickly emerged as a leader of a new group of people.

Hass was given the nod for his cooperation in allowing changes when needed.

I’m not sure the “old” Stewart would have been so willing to praise others – unless he thought it might take some heat off him.

But then, I haven’t seen that guy in quite a while. Hope I never do.

Frankly, I believe a lot of folks feel the same way.

Kyle Busch Hopes To End Early Season Roller Coaster Ride

Kyle Busch would like to get back into victory lane, which has eluded him so far in the 2012 Sprint Cup season. Through five races Busch's finishes have been up and down.

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

Toyota, continues his roller coaster start to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
When it comes to finishing positions, he’s been up and down and this week, he was back up among the top-five at the checkered flag.
The Las Vegas native finished 17th in the season-opening Daytona 500, then finished sixth at Phoenix, 23rd at Vegas, his hometown track. At Bristol he fell to 32nd after being involved in an early-race crash. Then on Sunday, he added a second at Fontana.
“I just thought our car was really good at the onset of the race,” Busch said. “Once the track really rubbered in, every lane was black, our speed fell off a tick, where (Tony) Stewart kept digging and was still mowing them down.”
In Busch’s best finish thus far, he dominated at Auto Club Speedway by leading twice for a race-high 80 laps. Just before storm clouds ended the race after 129 of 200 laps, Busch couldn’t hold off the hard charges of eventual race winner Stewart.
Even though disappointed that he didn’t roll into victory lane, Busch decided to dwell on his runnerup finish. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 15 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana.
“We had a great race car with our Interstate Batteries Camry right from the beginning of the race,” Busch said.” I got the lead from (teammate) Denny (Hamlin) after the first lap and led a lot of laps. I just wish we led 30 more and we’d be in a different position right now.
“I can’t say enough about those guys, Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and everybody, for putting together a really good car this weekend. Wish we would have been able to race the whole thing on one hand, but on the other hand I’m kind of glad we’re not because we kind of have a little bit of damage that slowed us down there about 20 laps before the end.

“All in all, it was a really good day. Glad we were able to run that way and up front like we’re supposed to and to our potential, that we had a day where we didn’t have something else out of our control get in our way.”
Busch’s pit stops were fast and flawless but Stewart, driving his own Stewart-Haas racing Chevrolet, was Busch’s closest rival and proved to have the superior car, especially in traffic.
Finally, Stewart worked his way around Busch on lap 85. And just one lap later, Busch made slight contact with the outside wall off the second turn and caused come concern among his crew.

Fortunately for Busch, the rain began to fall on lap 124 and the caution waved on lap 125. The rain became too heavy for the race to resume.

The weather was a blessing. It secured Busch’s finish instead of dropping through the field and maybe even a trip to the garage.
“We were racing hard with some lapped cars and got bottled up, and Stewart got by me for the lead,” Busch said after logging his first top-five finish of the season. “I was trying too hard to catch back up to him and see if I couldn’t run him back up and figure out what kind of race car we had.

“I slipped and got in the fence. We just were super-tight since then.
“We have to rebalance our car and try to figure out how to do that with the aerodynamics the way they are. We tore up a couple things on the back half of the car that are important to make it turn.

“So with that happening, I’ll take the second and move on to Martinsville with a good points day.”
Teammate Joe Logano won the Nationwide race this past Saturday in a JGR Toyota, but the team has found it tought to win a Sprint Cup win at Fontana.
Busch cites the strength of all Sprint Cup organizations as the reason why JGR hasn’t found victory lane there.
“I think the biggest thing is how many good teams there are here in the Cup Series,“ Busch said. “You have a lot of good teams: Hendrick, Roush, Stewart-Haas, Gibbs, RCR (Richard Childress Racing. We just haven’t quite found it yet.
“Why it’s been this long that JGR hasn’t won at

all, I have no idea. Bobby Labonte and Tony, through the ’90s and 2000s, would destroy everybody at Michigan, Atlanta, fast places like that, but never had

Bad luck, like his wreck early in the Bristol race, is one reason Busch has had some poor finishes this season. He thinks his team can turn things around quickly.

much success here, whether they finished second or third, I don’t know how many times, but they never won.”
So is Martinsville Speedway, next on the Cup schedule, a good track for Busch? He has six top-10s including a third-place finish there last March.

“I didn’t used to like Martinsville, but ever since I started working with Dave we feel like we get better every time we go there and we’re getting close to finally winning one,” Busch said on his website last October.
“I’ve had some decent runs there, where I’ve felt like we’ve had a car to win and had a shot to win.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the track position toward the end of the race. Jeff (Gordon) is so good there, and Jimmie (Johnson) and Denny are also good there. They are probably the three most difficult guys to pass there because they know the place.

“They know how to get off the corner and how to roll the middle of the corner there. Everything is timing, and their stuff just works, whatever it is.”
Leaving Fontana, Busch is in 14th in points, 52 behind leader Greg Biffle. It’s still early in the season and a win or good finish Sunday at Martinsville will add precious points lost at Daytona, Las Vegas and Bristol.

He’s certainly hoping for a strong resurrgence in the coming weeks.

Fontana: Rain Means Good Results For Stewart, Earnhardt Jr., Johnson

Dale Earnhardt finished third in the rain-shortened Auto Club 400 at Fontana, a turn of events that allowed him to move into third place in the point standings. He's having an excellent start in the 2012 season.

The rain-shortened Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. – only 129 of 200 laps were completed due to inclement weather – provided some interesting, even intriguing, scenarios for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

To wit:

Tony Stewart was the leader when the race was called. He has now won twice in just the first five races of the year when it took him 27 events in 2011 to earn his first victory.

Dating back to 2011, Stewart has won seven of the last 15 races. Five of those victories came during last season’s Chase, which propelled Stewart to the championship, the third of his career.

Stewart now has 46 victories in his NASCAR career and is tied with Buck Baker for 14th place on NASCAR’s all-time list.

Yes, but would all of this be so if the race had been able to complete its entire distance of 200 laps and 400 miles?

Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. He performed well from the very beginning at Fontana and, when the rain came, he was comfortably in third place.

Thus, he earned his third top-10 finish, and second among the top five, in five races. He has displayed remarkable consistency.

He has moved from sixth to third in points and is only 17 points behind Greg Biffle, who held on to the No.1 position with a sixth-place finish at Fontana.

Kevin Harvick, fourth in California, is second points, just seven points in arrears.

Earnhardt Jr. has already shown more promise this early in the season that he can win than he has in the past several years.

His legion of fans has to be delighted. But then, he still has to come through in order to fulfill their hopes.

However, we don’t know if Earnhardt Jr. would be in his fortuitous position had the Fontana race gone the full distance.

Talk about fortuitous; Jimmie Johnson may have received the greatest amount of good fortune than anyone.

When the first, and only, caution period of the race began when rain began to fall, Johnson suddenly developed a serious oil leak as the field circled the track at slow speed.

A red flag was flown to stop the race for what turned out to be permanently.

Had the race restarted Johnson would have met with competitive disaster. To repair the broken oil line, or whatever the problem was, would have cost him several laps off the track.

He would have finished well back in the pack and lost many, if not all, of the 25 points he regained after Hendrick Motorsports’ successful appeal of the punishment it received at Daytona.

Instead he finished 10th and is now ninth in the point standings – well in the hunt for a sixth championship.

There’s no need to say anything more about what might have happened for anyone if the race had gone the distance.

It went past the halfway mark. It’s an official event and goes into the record books as such. And as for all the scenarios and repercussions within, they are what they are. It’s that simple.

But it’s still intriguing.

Consider the case of Johnson and his Hendrick team.

They were nabbed by NASCAR at Daytona for having improper C-posts, that area of support on a car between the rear and side windows.

After the 500 the team was slapped with six-race suspensions for crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, the loss of 25 driver points for Johnson and 25 owner points for Jeff Gordon, a $100,000 fine for Knaus, who, with Malec, was also placed on probation.

You know well what happened afterward. The Hendrick organization lost its appeal to the NASCAR commission but then, in a stunning turn of events, won its second before NASCAR Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook.

Middlebrook revoked the suspensions and the loss of driver/owner points. He let the fine and probations stand.

That vaulted Johnson from oblivion to 11th in points. As said, he’s now ninth. He’s had a pretty darn good week, wouldn’t you say?

But the debate over the entire Johnson/Hendrick/NASCAR episode continues. The issue will not go away.

That’s because so much uncertainty has been created over NASCAR’s inspection process, its motives for its actions against Hendrick and, indeed, its overall legislative credibility.

After all that has transpired over the past month, the question is, what are we supposed to think?

Are we to interpret that since Middlebrook rescinded the suspensions and loss of points, yet let the fine and probations stand, there was, indeed, an infraction?

Middlebrook hasn’t told us he thought there was. He hasn’t told us anything. He does not have to.

Now, can teams expect to receive only a fine and probation if they, too, mess with the C-posts?

Jimmie Johnson's car began smoking due to a loss of oil just as the caution flag appeared for the rain that would eventually end the race. Johnson was able to hold on to 10th place and thus improve his chances for a sixth championship.

It seems obvious that Middlebrook thought Hendrick had been punished too harshly. Perhaps he thought the ruling didn’t fit the crime. Maybe he felt that Hendrick didn’t get fair judgment because it was not allowed to alter the No. 48 Chevy to make it legal before the Daytona 500 when other teams were permitted to do so.

Or, perhaps, he felt the same as many of us. NASCAR issued the severe penalties because it has had more than enough of Knaus, who has operated outside the rules – and been suspended – more than once.

Maybe NASCAR felt that by coming down hard on Hendrick, Knaus might, at last, learn a lesson. It could be that Middlebrook thought this head hunting was unreasonable and unjust.

Middlebrook’s decision does not make NASCAR look good. Normally, NASCAR’s head policemen, Sprint Cup Director John Darby and Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton are thorough and spot-on with their inspections and investigations.

In this case it appears something went awry.

NASCAR stands behind its inspection process and maintains the No. 48 car was not within the rules.

Well and good, but it does need to examine the process to determine if it can be improved.

It must make certain that, in the future, there isn’t a shadow of doubt. Else it sets itself up to lose more appeals – and again lose face.

In recent years NASCAR has ruled with an iron fist. We’ll have to wait until the next penalty and next appeal to see if it continues to do so.

We can’t say if Hendrick got what it deserved or if NASCAR’s judgment was clouded by its desire to “throttle” Knaus once and for all.

Middlebrook doesn’t have to tell us what he thinks.

In reality, I don’t think we know much more about the situation than we did when it all went down at Daytona.

Johnson has said he will agree to disagree with NASCAR. He said the successful appeal clearly established Hendrick’s innocence. The team’s car was legal.

Really? Then why do the huge fine and probation remain intact? Do they not indicate there was something about the car that didn’t fit the rules?

Middlebrook doesn’t have to tell us.

I admit I’m somewhat confused – and I’m not alone.

But I am certain of one thing. No matter that Johnson and Hendrick think that the appeal has vindicated them and shown that NASCAR is not infallible.

Regardless, they are tarnished. Many fans now think that Knaus is an unrepentant cheater and that all five of Johnson’s championships were acquired by chicanery. They were not achieved legally.

Of course, that could be completely false and it likely is. But you will never convince every fan of that.

I think Johnson and Hendrick are well aware of this. They will just have to accept it as a cross they have to bear.

Right now, with all that has happened it the last week and how it has brought them back from an abyss, they probably don’t mind in the least.

Dear NASCAR: On The Top 35, The Chase, Infractions And More

Many NASCAR fans say they still like to watch races on TV, or attend them in person at tracks like Phoenix, but add they would like to see NASCAR make some policy changes in certain areas to enhance their enjoyment.

Dear NASCAR,

After polling my readership I have found that the same topics keep surfacing – and that prompts me to make them subjects of my articles.

Some of these have to do with monetary issues, others with leadership, and still more deal with an overall dissatisfaction with perceived facts about the sport we all love.

My goal is to present these topics, in no particular order, to start a dialogue but also to allay fears and suspicions, bring back an overall joy to the sport and generate some honest-to-goodness debate, all healthy and good-natured.

First, it’s apparently time to do away with the Top 35 Rule; long past due, really. The system is inherently flawed, frustrating, and quickly undoing NASCAR’s fandom’s trust.

The fans want the teams to race to qualify, line up, pit, and make their way onto the grid. “Funny business” of extending a position to a team whose driver did not qualify raises the ire of most NASCAR fans.

The Chase is another factor of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing that leaves many cold. Creating a “playoff” system when there are 43 teams vying for wins each and every week, working toward improving their station, and attracting hard-earned sponsorship dollars seems wrong.

If a team is not in the Chase it does not get the media coverage and, therefore, may not get the exposure necessary to keep or attract advertisers/sponsors.

Let all the drivers have at it for the entire season; no separation of 12 drivers with 10 races to go. No clearing of points. Let the entire season play out over 36 races. If history has shown us showed this can lead to boring championship, then fix the points structure, but get rid of the Chase.

Be strong but be fair. Too often in the recent past there have been instances of rulings handed out for infractions that were not applied to similar misdeeds. Or, in some cases, others were treated more harshly. NASCAR is the governing body and what it says goes, period.

But consistency is key for all to understand and thus play by the rules. Like parents must constantly and consistently set rules and boundaries for their children to follow, so must NASCAR. By not doing so the “children” (drivers & their teams) become unruly and unmanageable.

Fans realize NASCAR's at-track management team is responsible for enforcing the rules, but add they would like to see it be equal across the board.

Bring the joy back to the sport. Too often fans are complaining about yesteryear or the state of the economy.

NASCAR is about escapism, entertainment, and good ol’ fashioned fun! Let’s recoup some of the exuberance of the past and mix it with the fun-filled sensibilities of the present. NASCAR fans, old and new, must be able to agree on what exactly good racing is.

Let the drivers do what they are so dang good at week in and week out without sucking the fun out of the fans’ enjoyment.

NASCAR began as a way to make money by entertaining the crowds with fantastic racing. Let’s get back to that!

There are more topics that surreptitiously dripped out of the mouths of fans I canvassed, but these were the primary ones that crossed the board.

NASCAR has a Herculean task to put on 36 entertaining, lively, and watchable races both live and for the fans at home. It is criticized, scrutinized, thrown under the bus, and lambasted regularly.

But, for all they may get wrong or not wholly right, they certainly give all of us a sport to which we follow religiously, care for passionately, and clamor for desperately in the off season.

And as for entertainment value, I’ve been getting mine for well over twenty years. I have had my fandom reinstated after the fateful blow of losing my one and only driver in 2001, and have come full circle embracing all of the drivers on the field.

NASCAR gets a passing grade from me, but I still have to stuff the “suggestion box” with the preceding information.

With total respect I am sincerely yours,

Candice Smith

NASCAR fan since 1990

Follow Candice Smith at www.chief187.com

JUNIOR SAYS: Good Runs, Luck Bring Turnaround In Points – And Darrell’s Mouth Helped

Driving the Budweiser Chevrolet for Junior Johnson & Associates in 1985, Darrell Waltrip staged a late-season rally to overtake Bill Elliott atop the point standings. But as he did so, the championship was still up for grabs.

Junior wasn’t in the best of moods after the Southern 500 at Darlington.

        His Junior Johnson & Associates team with driver Darrell Waltrip had a miserable day. It was so bad, in fact, that almost everyone said that Waltrip was so far behind in points, with just eight races left in the season, there was no way he was going to win the 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup title – unless points leader Bill Elliott collapsed.

        That didn’t’ seem likely, especially after Darlington, where Elliott emerged victorious and earned $1 million for winning three of four selected races in the inaugural Winston Million program.

        Junior knew that he and Waltrip had at least one chance to make up some ground. The events following Darlington were on short tracks, at which Waltrip was always a master.

        For them to do well on these tracks, if possible, was one thing. For Elliott to stumble was something else; something far from certain.

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

I have to admit that, after Darlington, I thought there wasn’t going to be another Winston Cup championship for Darrell and Junior Johnson & Associates.

Bill made NASCAR history at Darlington. He won the race and earned the very first Winston Million bonus – a cool $1 million.

Meanwhile, we had a bad day. It seemed that whatever could go wrong with our Chevrolet did. Darrell wound up in 17th place, 12 laps down.

Neil did respectable. He finished fourth.

But I was so disgusted I admit I hardly remember it all.

All I knew was that Darrell was 206 points behind Bill with eight races left in the season.

As I’ve said before, Bill was having one of those once-in-a-lifetime seasons. He was whipping us all on the superspeedways. His win at Darlington was his 10th on a big track, which tied David Pearson’s single-season record.

I remember that a lot of folks said the only way Darrell was going to win another championship was with the help of a miracle.

I have to admit that, with a 206-point deficit and just eight races left for the season, I agreed. At the very least I knew we couldn’t win the title unless, somehow, someway, Bill got derailed.

Darrell, however, never doubted he could get the job done. He made that very clear.

I once called him “that mouthy boy from Tennessee,” and there was a reason for that. As good as he could drive, Darrell might have been even better at colorfully speaking his mind.

And he sure didn’t have a problem with firing verbal potshots, now and again, at folks.

He made Bill a target.

His verbal salvos started calmly enough.

After Darlington, Darrell said: “We’ve been here before. We know how hard the pressure gets late in the season. Bill, heck, he ain’t gone through that yet.

“Yeah, he’s going to have to have some trouble along the way. But we’ve got three short-track races coming up and I think we can make a dent in his lead.”

Darrell made a point. If we, or anyone else, was going to get the better of Bill, it was going to have to be at a short track.

Sure enough, Darrell won at Richmond a week after Darlington. Bill finished 12th and thus lost 53 points. Not bad. Not enough.

Darrell’s verbal offensive went up a notch.

“It ain’t no fun needling the Elliott boys,” he said. “They don’t say anything. They just stand there and look at you.”

Oh, boy.

We came to the next race, at Dover, 153 points down. Harry Gant won that race and Darrell finished second. Bill had a broken axle, spent 69 laps in the pits, and finished 20th.

We left there, with just six races to go, 86 points behind.

For most of 1985, Johnson was concerned that neither of his two teams with drivers Waltrip and Neil Bonnett was achieving as well as expected. But as the year progressed, things improved.

Darrell kept up his “psyche” job. When the race was over, he made that chomping Pac Man motion with his hand. You know, the one where that video game thing gobbles up whatever is in front of it with its mouth – at least I reckon that’s what it is. I never paid any attention to that stuff.

But that was his way of telling Bill he was eating into his points lead.

You know, that Pac Man business would have gotten to just about anybody. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone in the Elliott family had busted Darrell one.

Darrell finished second to Dale Earnhardt at Martinsville the next week and Bill had a rough race. He spun once and finished 17th.

Darrell was now just 23 points behind Bill with four races left. Hey, the sun was breaking through the clouds.

I thought we could win at North Wilkesboro a week later. It had been one of the strongest tracks for Junior Johnson & Associates for years.

But it wasn’t to be. We had to replace the distributor and that cost us seven laps in the pits. Darrell finished 14th.

Now I admit we got lucky. Bill broke a transmission and he finished 30th, just one position from dead last.

We were back on top of the points. Darrell left North Wilkesboro 30 points ahead of Bill.

On the short tracks, we achieved exactly what we had hoped.

Darrell took that a step further.

“If we hadn’t had problems of our own we could have driven the nail into Bill’s coffin today,” he said after North Wilkesboro. “I am proud that we have made up more than 206 points in less than a month.”

I was, too.

But a 30-point lead was by no means a safe one, especially with four races to go.

And three of those races were going to be held on superspeedways – where Bill had been almost unbeatable.

We hadn’t yet nailed anyone into a coffin.

In fact, I wasn’t certain if Bill was even in one yet.

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