Jeff Gordon Remains Best Stand-In for Earnhardt Jr. At Watkins Glen

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Not that I yearn for Jeff Gordon to make a full comeback, but the storied four-time NASCAR Cup Champion surely has a lot left in his tank.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. having missed three races as he carefully recovers from concussion-like symptoms, Jeff Gordon has already covered for Earnhardt Jr. at two races in admirable fashion, ensuring the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy delivered a solid finish of 13th at Indianapolis. This past weekend at weather-shortened Pocono Raceway, Gordon finished 28th after suffering a seat belt malfunction, having worked his way up to 8th on the final restart before the race was called.

Several reporters have carped on having Gordon sub for Earnhardt Jr., but, in fact, this tag team make perfect sense. Critiques have centered around the one-year delay of Gordon’s hall of fame eligibility (no doubt he is a first ballot Hall of Famer) or that Hendrick Motorsports should concentrate on using a development driver to build its talent pipeline.

Still, approaching the upcoming weekend at Watkins Glen is a different beast altogether. The Glen is a mecca of North American road racing and extremely popular venue among both fans and drivers; a swift road course that can produce challenging side by side racing as well as violent crashes. And, with wrecks that have the potential for head-on barrier impacts, The Glen would surely not be a good match for Earnhardt Jr. to return even if he is medically cleared of concussion symptoms.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

“The difference between Sonoma and Watkins Glen are tremendous,” says Jeff Gordon, who has nine wins across the two road course on NASCAR’s schedule. “Watkins Glen is very high speed, much faster overall average speed, so you’re carrying a lot more speed through the corners. You rely more on the downforce there than at Sonoma.”

For Gordon, the timing sequence of his jumping in the car is right in his sweet spot of both his experience and past successes. Just consider Gordon’s career victory statistics:

  • Indianapolis: 5 wins at the Brickyard (1st among active drivers)
  • Pocono Raceway: 6 wins at the Tricky Triangle (1st among active drivers)
  • Watkins Glen International: 4 wins (2nd among active drivers)

Likewise, NASCAR gets a much needed boost, even if fleeting, by having the #88 Hendrick Chevy filled with an iconic all-star driver of Gordon’s caliber, rather than a development driver. The power of having Gordon in the #88, as compared to Alex Bowman who subbed at New Hampshire, is evident in the TV ratings for the Brickyard 400.

With Gordon back on the track, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 scored a double-digit ratings increase over last year, with viewership up 11%. Even more surprising, the Brickyard 400 broadcast was the highest rated program in the history of the fledgling NBCSN cable network. For the upcoming weekend, NBCSN yet again can promote the continuation of Gordon’s stellar career, as he would achieve yet another milestone with 800 career starts (having retired last year with 797 starts)

And, just to put the icing on the cake, there are compelling driver and team benefits of having Gordon in the #88 Chevy.

Gordon’s knowledge of the race car is priceless, and he can contribute to the Hendrick organization more intangibles than any other available backup driver. Jeff is also the right driver in terms of not putting extra pressure on Dale Jr. to return too quickly.

With Gordon having previously swapped his helmet for a microphone during the first half of the broadcast season for TV partner FoxSports, being in the car gives Gordon relevant knowledge of how the current NASCAR downforce package is playing in the car, which only ups his ability to share that fresh insight with fans as NASCAR kicks-off the 2017 season.

For the #88 crew chief Greg Ives, he gets to work with an iconic driver of the sport, a perfectionist who can help push along Hendrick Motorsport’s efforts to improve the #88 car’s performance and remain in contention for the NASCAR owner’s championship.

Earnhardt Jr. encapsulates the opportunity for his team, commenting “Getting a different driver in there that thinks differently, feels things differently, is a great way to get new information. I was excited for Greg and I think this is really helping our team, as unfortunate as this situation is, we need to try to gain something out of it. I think our guys are excited about the opportunity to work with Jeff.”

Of course, both fans, as well as team owner Rick Hendrick are looking forward to having NASCAR’s most popular driver back racing “soon.” Of course, road course racing is unique on the NASCAR circuit, and you never quite know what you will get. With Gordon in the race seat, the guy that Hendrick already has in the car is pretty darn good.

For a true racer, it is tough not to look back on getting out of the car with no regrets. Gordon even admitted that he “jumped” at the chance to get back in the car when he got the text from Rick Hendrick, who he has spent his entire career with. And sponsors surely can’t complain about having a four-time Champion as a replacement driver in the car.

At the Glen, fans will be treated to one more opportunity to gaze upon Gordon’s unrivaled talents in the car. Own it, Jeff Gordon was born to race.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Sonoma Proves Road Racing Deserves Chase Berth

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart masterfully won the Sonoma Road Race

Tony Stewart’s return to the winner’s circle at Sonoma Raceway was the feel good story of the season for many fans, as the world of Twitter went crazy with shots of Victory Lane, the last lap pass, and burning rubber. Many fans remained in the grandstand after the race to salute Smoke on his victory lap, instead of racing to the parking lots.

Most remarkably, the win virtually made Stewart a lock to earn a Sprint Cup Chase sweet sixteen playoff spot, such that he will be able to pursue a potential fourth NASCAR championship in his final season before retirement.

We saw the fire of Tony the competitor, who took an ordinary kind of car for the day, added a little bit of luck, and a final lap drive with grit to earn his 49th career Sprint Cup race win. Capturing the imagination of many, IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti tweeted after the race “Give a champion a sniff of a win and see what happens!!! Nice job, @TonyStewart.”

Upon reflection, Sonoma Raceway showcased even more critically the importance of adding a road course into NASCAR’s Chase Playoff, which is often critiqued for including too many “cookie cutter” 1.5 mile ovals where the cars are still heavily dependent on aerodynamics.

I’ve heard the excuses before, but sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and make it so. NASCAR needs to make it happen and move this schedule change to its front burner. Road course racing is popular, and NASCAR needs to capitalize on this resurgence we’ve seen across other racing series.

Road courses are rousing for the close quarters’ side by side racing, the inevitable bump and grind of taking different lines to get around your competitors, and the need for crew chiefs to make timely strategy calls. Drivers can really showcase their talents on courses that are less aero-dependent.

Considering Sonoma in particular, this lush Northern California trip to the wine country offers the opportunity to connect with flush tech companies that dominate Silicon Valley. No doubt many global brands headquartered locally were closely measuring the relevance of the NASCAR brand and the platform that the sport could offer for showcasing technology and eyeballs. Microsoft is currently a key affiliate partner with NASCAR in terms of providing technology and communications for teams. As NASCAR expands it use of technology, video streaming, and social media, securing a premier tech company as an Entitlement sponsor to replace Sprint over the next 10 years could definitely offer a boost to NASCAR’s national image and cash flow.

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

Road Racing most certainly deserves a berth in the Cup Chase

From a competitive standpoint, today’s road courses at Sonoma Raceway, along with Watkins Glen International 2,700 miles to the east, are inherently unpredictable where an underdog can win (not just relying on the usual suspects), which opens up wider fan interest in the race outcome. At Sonoma, Tony Stewart took an ordinary car and achieved an extraordinary outcome. Similarly, AJ Allmendinger, who qualified on the front row, and showed strength to win the race, had his pit crew blow the final money stop, thereby basically cost him a shot at the win.

Road course racing features the importance of strategy, with a gusty off-cycle pit call by Stewart’s rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz positioning Stewart to chase the checkered flag over the final 24 laps. Stewart may not have had the best car, but he was given the chance to win by timely strategy.

Sonoma Raceway has been on the NASCAR’s premier schedule since 1989, so many of the current generation of drivers have grown up learning how to craftily handle these cars on such circuits. Spiritly, many NASCAR drivers, such as Allmendinger, Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. having trained their skill sets in other road course series. The days of a Road Course “ringer” showing up in a part-time ride to steal the show has not happened in a decade.

As part of NASCAR’s grooming ladder, the NASCAR XFINITY Series showcases three road courses for NASCAR’s young guns to earn their chops. With career progression across NASCAR’s ladders, its seems shortsighted to only have two road course races in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series.

Prior to the current Chase elimination format, NASCAR determined its champion based on consistency in earning points, which perhaps supported the argument of not having a Chase road course. However, with the current “win and advance” Chase playoff format, a road course fits perfectly in amping up the excitement of a dramatic finish in crowning NASCAR’s champion.

No doubt that much of NASCAR’s schedule is “locked in” and would require substantial effort to shift around. But from my standpoint, forget the excuses, NASCAR needs to do everything to spice up the show, and a road course in the Chase would be a great start. Perhaps the idea will grow on NASCAR’s Chairman, given his taste in fine wines, such that we can raise a glass during a future October harvest.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano


 

NASCAR: With 2 Wins, Jimmie Johnson Marches towards 7th Title

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he's going to take a 7th title?

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he’s going to take a 7th title?

NASCAR may be typecast as a blue collar sport; then again, based on the first five races of the 2016 season, its fans are part of the privileged class, with the latest race at Auto Club Speedway delivering another Hollywood ending. So far, so good.

Once maligned as perhaps the least exciting “cookie-cutter” circuit on the schedule, Auto Club Speedway continued its resurgence of sensational finishes over the past five years, with “superman” Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s #48 Chevy, snatching an electrifying overtime victory from Kevin Harvick in the final restart.

At the start of 2016 Auto Club 400, anticipation was sky high that the worn, wide track with multiple grooves and long sweeping corners would deliver compelling theatre, and the race did not disappoint.

Jimmie Johnson soared to the front on the final restart with a power move, but he sowed his victory seeds much earlier in the race. Qualifying 19th, Johnson spent most of the day working up through the field, searching around the race track to uncover incremental speed.

Conversely, I studied Kevin Harvick’s line throughout the race, where he stuck to the high side near the wall, thereby carrying great momentum out of the turns while leading a race-high 142 of 200 laps. Harvick’s car was locked on rails and rock steady on long green flag runs, such that he did not have to vary his line much given the speed he was carrying.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

On the final restart with the front contenders all sporting fresh rubber, Johnson restarted third — on the inside row — and pushed Kevin Harvick into the lead and then dove low to take the top spot and hold off Harvick in the high line once he completed the pass. Not surprisingly, Johnson last lap time was his fastest of the race.

Aside from the surprising finish, the supreme takeaway is that fans are discussing what happened on the track, rather than being relegated to discussing off-track drama (such as restart rules or post-race UFC sessions in the hauler lot).

Why was the day so good? Because auto racing enthusiasts, including those in the packed grandstands who were on their feet for a majority of the race, got most everything you could ask from a race:

  • 26 lead changes among 8 different drivers. But that was only part of the story. Many cars raced side by side for several laps as drivers who were passed looked for opportunities to return the favor. We had comers and goers throughout the field, and FOX Sports actually put its split screens to use by showing simultaneous races for position during course of the TV broadcast.
  • Despite immense effort, TV doesn’t always do justice to capturing all the action on the track as compared to being in the stands. Early in the race, one sequence I found fascinating was the back and forth battle between Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch for position within the top 10. Over the course of several laps, Busch would pass Almirola by drafting low off the front straight before the entry to Turn 1, while Almirola would return the favor by passing Busch with a sweeping arc out of Turn 4.
  • As another illustration, with 38 laps to go and 3 laps into a restart, we had six top drivers (Harvick, Johnson, Logano, Edwards, Keselowski, and Hamlin) still fanning out with different lines through the middle of Turn 4 and within three car lengths of each other. Listening to the in-car audio, you could hear drivers gingerly feathering the throttle throughout the corners while fighting for grip, showing they had their hands full with the low downforce package.
  • Many cars had a “Darlington” stripe on the right side from scraping the wall, except for the fact that they were running at Fontana. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. delivered a solid 5th place finish (his best finish since Bristol last spring), but his sponsors might request a credit given that he rubbed their logos off the right side of his car from working the fence.
  • Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne will likely no longer swap pleasantries after their scuffle during the race. Kahne made contact with the rear of Patrick’s car after swerving down from the high side of the front straight, sending her hard into the outside wall. Patrick questioned the authenticity of the move, given she was completing a pass and generally holding her line into the upcoming corner and the fact that Kayne was a lap down by position, while Kahne contended he had no illicit intent. Kayne, for what it’s worth, seems to have lost his way out on the track, and has become the opaque horse in the Hendrick team stable.
  • Joey Logano, driver of the Team Penske #22 Ford, continues to not make any friends in the Toyota camp. Adding to his previous dust-ups with Toyota drivers’ Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 as well as the on-track theatrics with Matt Kenseth last year, Logano allegedly took the air off the rear bumper of Martin Truex Jr. on the rear straight on lap 151 while both were inside the top 10, loosening him up and sending him into the wall. It was unclear whether there was contact between the two, but each driver had their own viewpoint. Regardless, add Truex Jr. to the growing list of drivers stating their intent to race Logano “differently” from now on.
  • Kyle Larson had a violent wreck on the backstretch on Sunday, reminding us of the ever present risk of this sport, with a straight-on impact that crushed the front end and lifted his #42 Chevy off all four wheels after a tire went down. While dramatic, the benefits of recently installed SAFER barriers along entire length of the Speedway’s front stretch & back stretch walls was evident as Larson walked away from the crash.
  • Rookies showcased a bright future. Chase Elliott ran as high as 2nd prior to the final caution flag, while still managing to finish 6th after slipping during the final restart. Ryan Blaney also ran in the top 10 until a blown tire ruined his day.

Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1997, Auto Club Speedway has not required a repave, having aged to be one of the gems of NASCAR’s Spring West Coast swing. One can only dream that track owner International Speedway Corporation never needs to repave Auto Club Speedway. With strong momentum, NASCAR now heads to the heart of several short tracks in April, resuming in Martinsville on April 3rd after the Easter break.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Phoenix: Finally NASCAR is Worth Watching Again

Harvick celebrates his 8th Phoenix win. There's a reason they call him "The Closer".

Harvick celebrates his 8th Phoenix win. There’s a reason they call him “The Closer”.

I know, villagers, pitchforks and all that. However the truth is, at least for me, is that NASCAR over the past decade has been a once popular child that had lost it’s way. A victim of group-think.

It never seems to amaze me just how hard it is for large corporations to change their processes, marketing or product to suit what the consumer want’s and needs.

For me, I just sat in amazement years ago, or rather disbelief, as they rolled out the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ and steadily tried to make an Edsel into a Ferrari. All those wasted years. No matter, they seem to have turned the corner, at least so far in the 2016 season.

The lower down-force cars have certainly been a step in the right direction if Phoenix is to be used as the barometer de jour for a functioning formula.

I watched the Phoenix race yesterday and sat back in amazement at how long it took NASCAR to get to this point. Over a decade to recover the hard on-track battles that had been the norm pre COT. Incredible.

However, the past is the past and looking too far back on it does no one any favors. Lets just hope NASCAR will build on the platform it has. Translation: Don’t be afraid to take more down-force off of these cars.

Phoenix was the one race I had looked forward to seeing simply because it’s a flatter and more challenging track in many ways than the 1.5 milers. To me that was to be the first of several tests that would reflect the success or failure of the new aero platform. Fontana is the next.

I don’t think anyone could argue that to date Phoenix was the best race for both the fans in the seats and the television viewers. Multiple passes, Kyle Busch’s early dominance not withstanding, were the norm throughout the race.

Edwards did everything he could to beat Harvick. Just .01 seconds made the difference.

Edwards did everything he could to beat Harvick. Just .01 seconds made the difference.

A few bugs here and there were the tires that left Newman, Menard, Stenhouse and Keselowski in the outhouse, but not something that Goodyear can’t work with for the upcoming one milers and shorter.

No one should be surprised that even though the drivers wanted less down-force, the teams will and should try to add back as much of the invisible grip as they can. The only cure for it is to mandate, albeit slowly, less down-force.

There is a point where removing down-force will end and we’ll be looking at a locked in spec series. One could argue that it is now, but in this case what we’ve had in the past will make the newest platforms brilliant by comparison.

Some detractors might say that it’s the same old group of teams and drivers up at the front so it’s business as usual. To that mindset I have to say: What do you expect? It wouldn’t matter what rules you handed Hendrick or Penske, they are going to be at the front along with the hand picked drivers they employ. That’s why they are who they are.

We may be looking at a point in NASCAR where growth could come back to the sport, although that is going to take more time than folks might imagine. It’s always difficult to cultivate new fans all the while trying to keep the ones you have. Remediating lost fans is almost impossible.

However from what I’ve seen so far this season, they have my attention and I’m looking forward to the Auto Club race. High speed, flat track and low down-force. I’m sure that the fans who make the trek to Fontana will get their money’s worth.

 

Is NASCAR in Viewership Free Fall Again?

Martin Truex, Jr. may have a well-deserved 2016 season.

Martin Truex, Jr. may have a well-deserved 2016 season.

Yes, NASCAR is in free fall once again. Before you break out the pitchforks or water-board, it’s happening to motorsports all across the globe. However, for the purpose of this writing, I’ll restrict it to NASCAR.

To date, which is only two races in, the racing itself seems to be good. The low down-force package that I witnessed at Atlanta made for good solid racing. Those of you expecting to see passing for the lead on every lap will be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be, it’s never been that way.

It will undoubtedly be four to five races in before a verdict can be reached as to whether or not NASCAR has achieved what it set out to do. Make the racing better. In the meantime, expect to see the old familiar faces at the front and why not? They should be, they are the best and they have been the best for the past few seasons whether they’re your favorite driver or not.

The big surprise for me, and a pleasant one, is that Martin Truex was able to be competitive at the front in both Daytona, a restrictor plate track, and Atlanta, a fast slick and difficult track. If he stays on that pace at Las Vegas, it will be real. Hopefully we see that same attack at Phoenix.

NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from Atlanta earned a 3.7 overnight rating on FOX Sunday afternoon, down 27% from last year (5.1) and the lowest overnight for the second race of the season since FOX began airing races in 2001. That’s not good.

As long as Earnhardt, Jr. remains in the sport, it will remain popular. Even he may not be capable of keeping it going at present levels.

As long as Earnhardt, Jr. remains in the sport, it will remain popular. Even he may not be capable of keeping it going at present levels.

It appeared last season that the bleeding had been slowed to a mild hemorrhage, but that’s not the case. People are not responding to NASCAR as they did in the past and probably won’t in the future. Is it a sport in decline and doomed to fail? No.

My opinion is that we can expect that it will fall to a level that the hardcore fan will keep close to it’s chest. Does that mean it’s doomed to fall back to a regional Southern sport? Again, no. But it will retract to a point where certain demographics may become more dominant than we had seen in it’s hey day. It may not be a true National Sport within a decade.

So what to do? Absolutely nothing. NASCAR has to keep a solid product and remain as hands off as possible in order to keep the fans interest. Tinkering with it any more than they have will be to their detriment.

Moving to a ‘detrimental to the sport’ type of rules packages involving drivers criticizing the sanctioning body only minimizes more of the very thing that made NASCAR unique in the first place and that was out-spoken, bigger than life drivers who were daredevils and rough and tumble, take no prisoners competitors.

That’s gone and that’s too bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

NASCAR: Will Danica Patrick and Stewart Turn It Around in 2016?

Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart

The crew chiefs in NASCAR have begun to rival the drivers when it comes to silly season rumors, but unlike F1, you tend to know earlier who the crew chiefs will be. Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have brought in new crew chiefs for their respective cars.

Danica:

Patrick, who brings a whack of cash to the SHR organization is often vilified. On the other hand, there seems to be a reason as she changes crew and chiefs like red lights in Shanghai. She’s hard to work with is what most of my sources say. My sources who were close to her at one point tell me it’s the IndyCar effect: Most of the IndyCar drivers are used to working with engineers rather than old school crew chiefs.

Patrick has seemingly developed the attitude of the Diva. It’s a common occurrence in open-wheel: ‘It’s the car, not me.’ That’s something the drivers in IndyCar can get away with for only so long as everything they do in their cars is captured on software, so you can run, but you can’t hide from the dreaded software. It tells all.

Her former crew chief, Daniel Knost is heading for a new position in the SHR camp as manager of vehicle dynamics, Knost will oversee a number of the organization’s technical efforts, with a specific focus on track simulation and racecar performance.

The 36-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, has been a crew chief at SHR for two years, spending 2014 with the #41 team of Kurt Busch and 2015 with the #10 team of Patrick.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick

Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Childers remains as crew chief for the #4 team of Harvick and Tony Gibson remains as crew chief for the #41 team of Busch.

Don’t expect the dynamics to change as Patrick has a reputation for being the “Alonso” of the Cup Series. All one has to do is listen to her radio in snapshots from all of the races and you begin to see where the difficulty lies.

Maybe Billy Scott, the replacement for Knost, will have a better experience as the problem seems to lie in the chemistry department. Knost joined SHR in 2008 when it was Haas-CNC Racing after earning Master of Science and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The 38-year-old from Land O’ Lakes, Florida, comes to SHR from Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) where since 2014 he was the crew chief for the No. 55 team.

Stewart:

It had to be a very difficult season for Stewart with injuries and legal battles all the while trying to remain relevant as a team owner. It was a hard road for Stewart who unlike Patrick blames himself and not the car. Stewart has always been a driver who would look from within to seek the answers as opposed to calling the car out.

That’s a rare quality, how many drivers do you know who would say: ‘It’s my fault, not the car’. It’s very rare in all types of motor racing, but an admirable quality nonetheless.

Look for Stewart to try and capitalize on the 2016 package which should see the cars as tough to handle given the new low-downforce rules. However Stewart has to buckle down and try and develop the chemistry with his new crew chief, Michael Burgarwicz.

Michael Bugarewicz has been promoted from race engineer on the #4 team to crew chief for the #14 team of Tony Stewart. The 33-year-old from Lehighton, Pennsylvania, replaces Chad Johnston, who has left SHR to pursue a new opportunity. Bugarewicz joined SHR in 2014 where in his role as race engineer, he helped Kevin Harvick secure his first Sprint Cup championship.

You have to wonder how Kevin Harvick let him go, but Tony has the final say and seems to know what he’s doing. Uncle Gene, not withstanding.

There’s not much to say about Tony Stewart except one has to hope that he can emulate Jeff Gordon’s retirement year. If the 2016 low-downforce cars suit him, he will be a factor for the Chase. Well, if the Chase does have an eraser change before Daytona.

Let’s hope the best for Tony as the, hopefully, looser cars will suit his driving style.

He needs a spark and a good performance to motivate him as the 2015 season took a toll on Smoke.

But Hey, Smoke rises-right?

 

 

 

 

 

Jeff Gordon Will Be Champion. Why? Hendrick Want’s It.

Never underestimate the taste of blood in your mouth. Jeff Gordon won't.

Never underestimate the taste of blood in your mouth. Jeff Gordon won’t.

All of the talk and trending news for NASCAR is centered on Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano’s altercation at Martinsville this past weekend. Unfortunately the fact that Jeff Gordon has locked himself in the final showdown at Homestead has taken somewhat of a backseat. It shouldn’t as I believe he has the best chance of taking his fifth title at Homestead.

I have to point out that the incident of Logano and Kenseth shouldn’t be minimized. The fact that Kenseth’s actions were premeditated and potentially life threatening should be enough reason for NASCAR to place an intense amount of scrutiny on the crash. However, is there really anyone, including NASCAR, that didn’t see that coming?

Will NASCAR hand down a suspension to Kenseth? Probably not as they depend, now more than ever, on the rivalries of drivers and altercations to give the fans, and yes those of us in the media, something to talk about. It is an atmosphere of NASCAR’s own creation and there’s no doubt they are reveling it.

They will have to hit Kenseth with something to avoid slipping down into WWE territory, in other words: “The Fix is In” conspiracy.

The fan base cries for better racing but in lieu of that not happening until 2016, when lower down force comes into play, they’ll opt for the sensationalism of on-track retaliation. It brings out the fans and helps to deliver eyeballs. The jury is out on whether Martinsville delivered or dropped.

Rick Hendrick has a plan and expects it to be followed.

Rick Hendrick has a plan and expects it to be followed.

No matter. Gordon is locked in and hi teammates are not. Team orders are not allowed and that means nothing. Papa Hendrick has delivered the message to the rest of his stable that they are to do everything they can to push Gordon to the Championship, and they should. How do I know this? Hendrick wants Gordon to go out on the highest note possible. He can’t be thinking any other way.

It’s metaphorically like professional cycling; the riders protect the team leader and sacrifice themselves in order to position the lead rider for the final stint. They are there to protect and serve. Hendrick, no stranger to NASCAR success, can’t think any other way.

Radio code-speak, pre-race strategies, you name it and they will think of it. Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne surrounding Gordon to keep him out of crashes and then making their cars wide to hold off the hordes. It’s the Tour de Homestead and everyone else on the Hendrick team are expected to be Gordon’s domestique’s.

Recall the last race of the IndyCar season when all Ganassi cars were up front at Sonoma for Scott Dixon? It happens all the time despite the feigned outrage against team orders. It’s going to happen. They will serve Jeff Gordon.

Gordon has a record at Homestead that makes this possible. 1 win, 6 top fives and 5 top ten finishes and all with no real team support. He has the ability, the strategic sense and the teammates to make this a reality.

Logano and Keselowski may be factors, but the Hendrick train will seek to minimize them and any of the three other drivers that Gordon will have to face.

Will the hero go out on top. We think he will, but we’ve been wrong before.

 

 

 

 

Why NASCAR Road Races Matter

Could this be Danica Patrick's best chance of 2015 to take a win?

Could this be Danica Patrick’s best chance of 2015 to take a win?

Since NASCAR’s inception road racing has been an integral part of the stock car sanctioning body’s DNA.

Big Bill France had always intended for the series to a mix of ovals and road racing, although through the years the ovals took the lion’s share of the schedule. Why? Americans could sit in one spot and watch the war from one place without having to move around.

In an effort to further separate it’s brand from that of the European style road racing, NASCAR embraced the ovals as a way of imitating the games of football and baseball. All the action, concessions and seating in one place. But was that the right course of action for the modern era?

In my opinion, no. Road racing shows who really are the best overall racing drivers no matter the weight or style of car used. Everything a racer learns is employed in a road race.

Decades ago it was no rare thing to see the Unser’s, the Andretti’s, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney take a crack at the road races on a regular basis, however we now live in the age of specialization. It’s almost impossible for a NASCAR driver to be competitive in a professional level road race that’s open wheel or of the sprint variety.

Last year it was Carl Edwards riding over the curbs to take a Sonoma win.

Last year it was Carl Edwards riding over the curbs to take a Sonoma win.

Endurance racing isn’t as demanding on the driver as an hour and a half road race, which is why you see many NASCAR drivers run the 24 Hours of Daytona.

However, turnabout is fair play . It’s almost impossible for a Formula Car racer to come in and win a NASCAR oval race. They are unbelievably hard and ultra-competitive.

No matter, the regular Cup series drivers should be capable of driving these very heavy cars on road courses if they are to claim they are among the best drivers in the world.

After all, you don’t drive to work in a circle, do you?

Now we have Sonoma coming up this weekend where we find out who can handle these cars that don’t stop like they should, have very little traction and can easily spin the tires under acceleration. Good. That’s how it should be.

In fact, there should be at least 4 road races on the already absurd schedule and no fewer than two road races in the final rounds of the Chase. Heresy!

No matter whether you love ovals and hate road courses, there are plenty of fans who happen to enjoy both. On a road course you have an entire infield to navigate from one side of the course to the other taking in each corner as you go, it’s a complete experience.

Sonoma, being wine country, has to be one of the tougher road courses on these cars as they have to brake so heavily and then accelerate for long straights. It’s how auto racing was designed, to turn left and right and still be able to out-think the rival who is just in front of you.

It’s very much like a chess match that has a violent streak. On one level of the drivers thinking he or she must be capable of hitting the same marks on different turns every lap all the while having to think strategically about how they can set someone up for a pass while defending your position, all at once.

Let’s stop being dogmatic about ovals when road races bring out full fan attendance and some of the best action this side of Bristol.

I’ll have an old vine Zinfandel thank you.

NASCAR and VW: “Ze Germans” May Show up to the Party

France is once again floating the new foreign manufacturer balloon.

France is once again floating the new foreign manufacturer balloon.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard NASCAR talk openly about other manufacturers entering the sport, 2009 to put a date on it, most likely due to no one expressing interest. Now, Brian France is weaving this prospect of new blood coming into what is truly American style auto racing, IndyCar notwithstanding.

France has begun to integrate this possibility into his new narrative, just before the 2016 rule changes that are being bandied about. Why now, after a very long time of rumors of Volkswagen, Dodges return, Honda and Nissan?

Either France sees a hole in the global anti-American sentiment that NASCAR isn’t real racing or one of the foreign manufacturers has come to the realization that despite China’s braggadocios’ display of new found wealth, it doesn’t have the staying power to overcome sales in America.

You can strike Honda right now as their return to Formula One is proving to be much harder than they calculated, particularly with the absurd complexity of the new F1 ‘Power-Units’. If you didn’t get the memo, F1 uses ‘Power-units’, no longer engines. So who does that leave to burn up Daytona’s phone lines? Not many.

Nissan and Renault's Carlos Goshn has no apparent interest in NASCAR..

Nissan and Renault’s Carlos Goshn has no apparent interest in NASCAR..

Whether NASCAR makes it easy or difficult for them to participate isn’t really the issue. Do any of them really want to make that investment? According to France’s statements on Sirius radio: . “We’re generally open to figuring out how to make a new manufacturer work in NASCAR,” he said. “We have those discussions. Obviously, it’s complicated how a manufacturer might enter the sport. It goes back to the original points.

They want to make sure they have a fair and balanced playing field. If they line up talent, that they can have a shot to compete and do well. … Every single thing, and this is the beauty of NASCAR, leads back to the same path: How do we make sure that, as a sanctioning body, we lay out a plan and path where drivers, teams, manufacturers and sponsors all feel they can come into NASCAR if they compete hard and their talent allows them to do reasonably well? That’s an ongoing mission and serves everybody well when we get it right. That’s our mission.”

The VW Passat makes the most sense of any of the possible phone calls that France claims to have 'fielded'.

The VW Passat makes the most sense of any of the possible phone calls that France claims to have ‘fielded’.

Hyundai, with virtually no experience in auto racing would only do so if it had a compelling reason to build a push-rod V8. It can be done, but even the lessor cost of the push rod engine, it’s still a considerable expense to compete at the level required in NASCAR and it doesn’t make business sense not to have multiple teams to help cover the costs. Hyundai is developing it’s reputation in America as a very strong alternative to Toyota. It can brand elsewhere.

Nissan is involved in motorsports in a very different way, it, or should we say Carlos Goshen, Nissans CEO, doesn’t view NASCAR in a positive light. His world view includes running Renault and is additionally the Chairman of Russian automobile manufacturer AvtoVAZ. His Renault company is heavily mulling over taking over an existing Formula One team, Red Bull is the logical choice.

Don’t think the Russians are going to come to NASCAR. Picture WWIII is the grandstands.

It really only leaves a few, the most logical being VW. Yup, there’s that name again. Right now VW is being courted by F1. Will they cave, doubtful. They NEED to have a greater sales record in the U.S. The Japanese are beating them, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, the list goes on.

VW cant rely on it’s other companies, Porsche, Audi or, obviously, Lamborghini. They are deeply entrenched in European and Japanese style road racing. This only leaves the parent company to take up the American challenge.

VW is the 17th best selling car in the U.S. and that’s not a very good number from a company with this much financial horsepower. Why hasn’t VW sold more? Poor marketing, poor automobile offerings for the American market and expense. Have you priced a German car lately? It’s out of proportion for what you get. Priced a well appointed Passat? Not cheap.

On the other hand, the Passat is a great car, is the right size and VW can easily afford to run a NASCAR effort making it U.S. specific. An effort in NASCAR to raise it’s profile.

Let’s face it, NASCAR no longer can use the tagline “Win on Sunday Sell on Monday.” Entering NASCAR is a branding exercise to place the manufacturer in your head. This is exactly what VW needs.

Mazda has almost completely taken control of grassroots racing in America, but creating series just for VW wont work, it has to bring the Passat into the American publics view as a true competitor not just on-track but it has to translate to sales. NASCAR may be the quickest and most cost effective way of doing that.

The problem lies in the “Dodge Effect”. Not enough teams willing to take the plunge with new Chrysler leadership that is constantly distracted by it’s other companies that all are micro-managed by Sergio Marchionni. How many teams would actually entertain the VW brand? Who knows, it depends on what the Germans offer them.

Yes VW builds V8’s but not of the pushrod variety. They face the same challenges as Dodge, who is going to build those engines? Probably a third party, although Porsche or Audi could do exactly that. A pushrod engine isn’t rocket science, although there is quite the case to be made for a pushrod engine over a DOHC engine.

Our bet that this issue has resurfaced because VW is making forays into lifting it’s brand in the U.S. by whatever means necessary.

Will the 2016 rules, if implemented, actually help a new manufacturer in? That’s an unknown, what is know is that VW has all the cash, expertise in engineering and truly a need to be seen and heard by the American buying public.

Despite growing anti-American sentiment in Germany, cash is king and VW may need to spend some to make some.

Our guess is that the “Peoples Car” is on the phone in an effort to live up to it’s name.

 

 

 

Jimmie Johnson or Harvick Will Win The 2015 Cup Title

These two drivers have everything it takes to go head to head in the Chase.

These two drivers have everything it takes to go head to head in the Chase.

So Jimmie Johnson nails his fourth win of the year and everyone hates him, and lets face it, people hate others for a myriad of reasons. In this case it’s because he wins races.

What has been missed is the fact that this season in Sprint Cup has become unbelievably competitive. They are the same cast of characters that have provided the entertainment for the past few seasons.

There’s a reason for that. They are the best drivers in Cup and they drive for the best teams. Period. When you have a series where the teams run virtually the same equipment it comes down to two things putting that car in the winners circle, talent and money.

That could be said about any form of motorsport, but in Sprint Cup it’s a spec series, which makes it harder to win. No detail can be missed and every little trick they can think of has to be tried.

Johnson appears to have a handle on psychologically running block on his competition as the Chase looms later this season. I don’t care who you are, when drivers of this caliber see someone win four races and that driver has 6 Cup Championships, it gets inside your head. Harvick would be the one driver that it probably excites.

Ultimately I believe that’s who this Chase will come down to, Johnson and Harvick. I could be wrong, it is auto racing where anything can happen, but Harvick is still atop the points heap and remains consistent all the while Johnson creeps up in the standings.

Johnson fourth win this season is propelling him to the top of the standings along with Harvick.

Johnson fourth win this season is propelling him to the top of the standings along with Harvick.

Only four races remain until the ‘Race to the Chase’ begins and no one on the horizon appears to have quite the tiny little edge that these two drivers have. Johnson and his team know how to recover from bad weekends and Harvick knows how to play this game.

The racing in Cup has never been better but you can’t deny that these two drivers have the edge, the determination, the strategies and the sheer talent to drive at the limit for extended periods of time.

The fans all have their favorites but you have to consider that these two drivers, even at this still early stage, have the ability to overcome whatever is thrown at them, accusations of cheating aside.

Of course, in Sprint Cup, you never know what might happen, but history can be telling. Johnson and Harvick both know that when the points are reset, so are they. Their teams have been planning for it and will have a completely different strategy for the actual Chase than they did getting to it.

Stewart Haas have two drivers all but locked in, that is where the main team efforts will go. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick with, perhaps, a little more influence on Harvick, It won’t be Tony Stewart or Danica Patrick.

Johnson’s team has always been on another planet when it comes down to the big fight and they learned long ago that they are the top Hendrick team. They will spare no expense or many nights using their brain-trust to execute every possible scenario to win this Championship.

Johnson wants that 7th title and Harvick now makes Pavlov’s Dogs look like a drooling Pomeranian.

Whoever wins the title this season it will have been well deserved, hopefully a clean and entertaining victory.

If I were a betting man, however, I would have to say Johnson will take the honor. Or maybe Harvick?

 

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