With Victory, Jimmie Johnson Adds To Hendrick Glory At Indy

Jimmie Johnson won the Brickyard 400 for the fourth time in his career. He and Jeff Gordon have combined to win eight races at Indy for Hendrick Motorsports.

SPEEDWAY, Ind-The list of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who have won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past 19 seasons is short. But it is composed of some of stock car racing’s most iconic stars.

Two are from Hendrick Motorsports, the Concord, N.C.-based powerhouse organization that has dominated the win column at IMS with eight victories in 19 years.

Hendrick’s success dates back to the race’s inaugural running in 1994, when Jeff Gordon drove to victory lane in the Brickyard 400, the second most prestigious NASCAR race, behind on the season-opening Daytona 500.

Gordon went on to win at Indy three more times for a total of four victories.

Jimmie Johnson, another of Rick Hendrick’s championship drivers, is now another four-time victor at IMS with his strong, winning performance in the 2012 Brickyard 400.

Johnson won what was officially known as Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at The Brickyard by a staggering 4.758 seconds over Kyle Busch. The victory was Johnson’s third of the 2012 season. He is fourth in the point standings.

Johnson joins Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears, Michael Schumacher – and Gordon – as four-time winners at Indianapolis

“To come here and win is a huge honor, then to have four wins – I’m at a loss for words,” Johnson said. “I can tell you this, I’m so proud of my team. I’m so proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.

“(Crew chief) Chad Knaus gave me one heck of a race car today and pit road was awesome, too. It was a total team effort and we put it on them today that was nice.”

Johnson was especially appreciative of Gordon, what he has accomplished at IMS, and memories of coming to the track as a child – with a dream to win at the track in an Indy car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth at Indy and that, along with Matt Kenseth's accident early in the race, has moved Earnhardt Jr. into first place in the point standings.

“I looked up to him (Gordon) and it’s really wild for me to get my start driving a Cup car for him,” Johnson said. “To tie (Gordon and hero Mears) and what they’ve accomplished, again, I just hoped to come here and race. I had no idea this would turn out.

“I can remember how I watched the Indianapolis 500 with my grandfather and my dad sitting on the couch. My grandfather told me stories about Indy and that he came here and was at the race track.

“I’m glad to have my own memories here for my family and also I must say I couldn’t do it without the support of my wife and daughter. It’s a total team effort on all fronts.”

Finishing third was Greg Biffle, followed by Hendrick Motorsports drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon. Pole position winner Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 10.

The impressive top-five finish propelled Earnhardt Jr. into the Sprint Cup points lead. It’s the first time he has been in that position since 2004 at Talladega Superspeedway.

“We were looking forward to this race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We wanted to run well here and wanted to win this race. We want to get a trophy here and go to victory lane. One of our teammates was able to do that so we are proud for the company.

“We’re happy with the finish. We are ready to start seeing a little bit more materialize for us. We’re really happy with what we are doing and trying to keep our minds focused on what is working for us.”

Matt Kenseth, driver of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford, fell to second in points after dropping to 35th in the race.

Kenseth was involved in a multi-car crash with Joey Logano and Bobby Labonte on lap 132 as he attempted to go high to move around the crash. He held the points lead since June 10th at Pocono Raceway.

Kenseth is considered a lame duck of sorts, having previously announced he will be leaving Roush at season’s end to drive for another team. He hopes to give team owner Jack Roush a championship before he leaves.

“Yeah, it is frustrating,” Kenseth said. “I got hung out on the restart which is one thing. I was trying to get through there and Tony Stewart wiped the whole side off my car in the straightaway for no reason and that kind of made me mad.

“I was in front of the Marcos Ambrose and saw he had a run, so I went down to block and he went across the grass and shot me up out of the groove there.

“It is crazy there at the end. You could see the wreck happening and I was just hoping I wasn’t going to be in it.”

Gordon ran strong throughout the 160-lap race. The former resident of nearby Pittsboro would have loved a fifth win at IMS, but was happy for Johnson and the No. 48 team he co-owns with Hendrick.

“I don’t think we could have passed Jimmie,” Gordon said. “Those guys were definitely the class of the field today and had the track position. They’re a strong team. They deserve that win today.

“I’m pretty disappointed really. It’s always nice to finish in the top five but at this point in the season, the way our season has gone with so many missed opportunities that we’ve had, I feel like it was a little bit of a missed opportunity today. We needed track position there at the end and we didn’t get it when it counted most and it cost us.”

Considering all the frustration and disappointment Earnhardt Jr. has been through over the past few seasons, Gordon was happy to see him take the point lead.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Gordon said. “It’s really awesome that they’re out front. They’ve been consistent and if they can keep that consistency up and maybe even take it up a notch when the Chase starts, they’re going to be a real threat for the championship. So, they’re running good.

“It’s good to see it. I’

NASCAR Drug Testing: Drivers Have Concerns, Questions, Uncertainty

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of several drivers who have concerns about how NASCAR drug testing is conducted by a third party and how results are achieved.

Since news broke at Daytona International Speedway that driver A.J. Allmendinger tested positive for a banned substance, there have been plenty of questions.

Many competitors seem concerned over the situation, especially since what Allmendinger tested positive for has not yet been disclosed.

Tara Ragan, Allmendinger’s business manager, stated that Allemdinger tested positive for a stimulant. There’s still no word as to what type of stimulant surfaced in the test.

Allmendinger constantly works out, rides bikes, lifts weights and follows a very healthy diet. Thus, to some, a failed drug test simply doesn’t make sense.

Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he has been concerned about what would happened if a false positive test result would come his way.

Sadly, being tagged for a suspicious substance abuse gives any driver a tag of guilt by association.

“I’m more nervous about the agency making a mistake and it being a big problem for the sport,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Just knowing all the guys that I race against, I wouldn’t have never guessed that Allmendinger tested positive.

“I don’t look at anybody in the sport and have any worries about them or any curiosities about anybody’s activities away from the race track.

“It’s just you don’t know how that could happen.  It’s just hard to wrap your head around a driver making a mistake or the agency making a mistake, you just don’t know.”

Earnhardt Jr. says he has always felt comfortable talking with NASCAR officials about any of their policies.

“I go ask questions,” he said. “If you are curious about anything I think to be able to go up in that hauler and ask anybody what you want to know is been always pretty good for me.

Jimmie Johnson says that for his assurance, he provides NASCAR with a list of stimulants and prescription drugs he takes to get full approval and avoid problems.

 

“I’ve never been turned away, never felt like I didn’t get an honest answer. I feel better when I walked out of there.”

Matt Kenseth, driver of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford, said he is also in the dark as far as what happened with Allmendinger. He thinks that, in time, the entire story will come out. Safety at high speeds is crucial.

“I don’t really know any details about it,” Kenseth said.

“I think it’ll become probably more clear one way or the other once we hear the rest of the details from his side and from NASCAR’s side – if we ever find out.

“It’s hard to comment on taking him out right before the Daytona race because I don’t know what it was. You don’t want to be out there with somebody if there’s something wrong with them.”

As is the case with the majority of those in the garage area, Kenseth chooses to wait for all the facts before passing judgment.

“I think you withhold judgment,” Kenseth said. “But seems unbelievable that somebody would do something or put something in their body that they don’t know about and take that risk.”

Kenseth expressed the same concerns as Earnhardt Jr. Not to know how the test is treated after it is shipped to a third party seems a bit unsettling.

“You take a test and they ship the stuff away and you hope not to hear about anything later,” Kenseth said.

“I think you always wonder and you’re never really sure until it all comes out – or if or when they ever come out and say what they did or didn’t do, or how it happened. I think you’d feel better, so I think you’ve got to let some time pass until everything comes out.

“They get the B sample done and maybe A.J. talks and you hear what it was, maybe that will clear everything up and, then again, maybe it won’t.”

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says he takes supplements, but follows NASCAR’s rulebook to the letter to make certain nothing he is taking will be deemed unacceptable.

“I’ve never had a sample questioned,” Johnson said.

“Prior to taking supplements, I worked out the list that I wanted to take and submitted it and four or five days later I heard back that everything was approved. It’s just stuff you buy at GNC anyway, so I don’t think there’s a ton of concern.

“But on the medical side, again, at the start of each year when we get our physicals, I make sure I lay out everything. I think I’ve had some prescription changes mid-season, and I make sure that I file those as well. And that’s been it. I’m not all that familiar with the process.

“Initially I thought the issue was from the Daytona weekend. I didn’t realize that it was Kentucky, and it took that long to get the results back. So, I’ve just been trying to get up to speed on the whole process myself.

“I guess when you’re not in question you just go about your day and don’t worry about it. But we’re all paying attention now and wondering.”

 

 

For A.J. Allmendinger, Drug Scenario Is Unfortunate No Matter The Outcome

When it was announced that A.J. Allmendinger was suspended from NASCAR following a positive drug test, Penske Racing immediately flew in Sam Hornish Jr. as his replacement for the Daytona race.

Ninety minutes before Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona the announcement came that A.J. Allmendinger had failed a random substance abuse test and had been suspended.

It’s fair to say that among fans and media members there was a strong feeling of disbelief. The announcement, made by Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, was brief and shocking. No questions were addressed.

Among the media cell phones and laptops were put into high gear in hope of reaching assignment editors at newspapers and websites.

The subject of drug testing is all too familiar given the sad demise of Jeremy Mayfield, a former NASCAR star who failed a drug test in 2009 – and went straight downhill to bigger legal problems.

Allmendinger was asked to take part in a random drug test after the race at Kentucky on June 30. His A sample tested positive. The type of drugs and amounts in question were not disclosed.

Under established NASCAR rules, Allmendinger has the right to request that his B sample be tested within 72 hours. Should he refuse to have that sample tested, or if that test is positive, he will be suspended indefinitely.

In a last minute, dramatic substitution, Sam Hornish replaced Allmendinger in the No. 22 Dodge at Daytona and is scheduled to drive the car again at New Hampshire this weekend.

In an article in USA Today on July 8, team owner Roger Penske said, “You know it’s a disappointment at this particular time, but we’re going to wait and see what the second test results are before we make any comment or decisions.

“I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think as you look at sports, things happen like this. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t really want to make a statement pro or con right now. I’m counting on another test being proper for him within 72 hours, and at that point we’ll make a decision.”

To be fair to Allmendinger, it is possible that the test was a false positive. Until conclusive evidence proves he is guilty, none of us should rush to judgment.

After Mayfield’s very public fall from grace and the years of court battles that followed, NASCAR has been very cautious and thorough about drug testing – and about every aspect of Allmendinger’s suspension.

I do believe NASCAR officials would rather not have to travel this road with any of their competitors.

The only other high-profile NASCAR driver implicated in a drug abuse scenario has been Jeremy Mayfield, whose suspension from NASCAR has led to several legal situations that have virtually ended his career.

Still, once again, a top driver is in the news for substance abuse and is the subject of negative press.

The saddest part of this story is that Allmendinger is truly one of the nicest guys in this sport who had worked hard to get to NASCAR’s top level.

For years, his parents made huge financial sacrifices to help him race, to the tune of several home mortgages to keep his dream alive.

He is a commoner that came up the hard way and a driver with whom fans can relate.

Allmendinger reached the pinnacle of his career when the call to drive the No. 22 Penske Dodge came prior to the start of the 2012 season. He was tapped to replace Kurt Busch, a driver who had displayed his hot temper one time too many and lost one of the premier rides of his career.

Allmendinger has been a breath of fresh air for Penske since January. He’s helped put bad publicity aside, been great with fans and was considered a driver for whom success was merely a matter of time.

It may well come. Let’s get one thing straight. Allmendinger is involved in a very difficult, and career threatening, situation.

But as of now, he has not been proven guilty of anything. That may never happen.

However, right now he is still a high-profile driver implicated – implicated, mind you – in a drug abuse scenario.

Nine drivers who have competed in the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series have been suspended for failed drug tests since February of 2002. Crew members from those divisions have also been suspended over the past decade.

Allmendinger is only the second driver in Sprint Cup competition to be suspended, following Mayfield.

Even if Allmendinger emerges as “clean” following a second test, it may be that, however unfairly, he is tainted.

Today in NASCAR, many winners of the biggest and most prestigious events can’t find full-season sponsorship.

Given that, it seems virtually impossible for a team to sell a driver with any hint of substance abuse, real or otherwise, to, say, a Fortune 500 company.

One question remains: Why do NASCAR competitors partake in such behavior?

During the vast majority of NASCAR’s six decades of existence drug testing was never a consideration.

Make no mistake there has always been substance abuse. For example, I think it’s accurate to say that over the years many hungover drivers came to a track on race day.

But as the times changed and all of professional sports were plagued by cases of drug abuse – ranging from alcohol to steroids and everything in between – NASCAR felt a policy needed to be put in place.

Demands are huge for any individual who competes in any of NASCAR’s top divisions. Everyone is watching, listening and scrutinizing every move a driver, and team, make.

There is pressure in any professional sport and sometimes the need to do well can overtake common sense.

That may be true, but it is not an excuse. If drugs are used to relieve that pressure, that does not make it right.

If they are used recreationally, let’s just say for the hell of it, well … there are no excuses whatsoever.

I would like to think that perhaps NASCAR could offer some counseling or intervention before positive drug results make the headlines and ruin careers.

I doubt that will ever come to pass.

But I would also like to think that A.J. Allmendinger will emerge unscathed – with a lesson learned.

 

 

 

 

 

Going Into Daytona, Happy 75th Birthday To “King” Richard Petty

Known as stock car racing's "King," Richard Petty is celebrating his 75th birthday and this weekend will be back at Daytona, his favorite track and on which he's accomplished so much.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams roll into Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, stock car racing’s greatest star will have something very special to celebrate at his favorite track.

Richard Petty, who has long since been a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series team owner, turned 75 years old today.

Rest assured plenty of birthday cake and Paydays (his favorite candy bar) have been consumed at his Level Cross, N.C., home.

Once he gets to Daytona we know there will be more cake and candles because of publicized celebrations.

He’ll also receive many goodwill wishes as he moves through the garage area smiling, waving to fans and signing autographs.

It’s a bit ironic that Petty’s birthday always comes around the week that NASCAR visits DIS for the second time each season. Some of his greatest successes have come on the famed 2.5-mile, high-banked speedway.

Petty raced for 32 years before he retired in November of 1992 following the race at Atlanta.

He won an incredible 200 races, which included seven Daytona 500 victories, more than any other driver in the track’s storied history.

Petty also won three 400-mile races at DIS in the July events of 1975, 1977 and 1984 – the year he won in a photo finish over Cale Yarborough to record his historic 200th victory with President Ronald Regan in attendance.

To go back 53 years, to 1959, when Petty first saw the mammoth 2.5-mile Florida speedway, it was a bit much to take in.

It was an incredible sight for a country boy who had previously raced on a variety of much smaller dirt tracks – and a few paved ones – around the country.

The biggest track raced on up to that point was the 1.3-mile Darlington Raceway. It was NASCAR’s only superspeedway for a decade, before Daytona opened for the inaugural 500 in 1959.

All of the stars of the era, such as Richard’s father Lee, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts – to name a few – simply shook their heads at the sight of such a mammoth speedway.

That they had to race their Plymouths, Buicks and Thunderbirds around such an incredible track caused more than one driver to question how they could complete a full 500 miles.

Petty’s first outing was less than remarkable. In the inaugural race he finished 57th in the 59-car field and collected mere $100.

Father Lee was, finally, named the race winner three days later after a controversial photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp. Lee received the winner’s check and trophy in the living room of the small frame house where he and wife Elizabeth raised their sons Richard and Maurice.

Petty ran in the first Daytona 500 in 1959 and has won there several times since, which includes a handful of victories in the July race, upcoming this weekend and known as the Coke Zero 400.

It took five years for Richard to win his first Daytona 500, in 1964. He also won his first of seven career championships that year.

He was to win six more titles, in 1967, ‘71, ‘72, ‘74, ‘75 and ‘79. The only other driver to win seven championships in a career was the late Dale Earnhardt.

In 1966, Petty became the first driver to win the 500 twice. He won his third in 1971 when he beat teammate Buddy Baker.

In 1973 Petty muscled by Baker again to win his fourth 500. A year later, Petty won the race again en route to his fifth championship. It was probably the strongest Daytona outing of his career.

Petty came off major stomach surgery to win his sixth 500 in 1979. He did so only after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the backstretch on the final lap.

Emotions and angry words into a fistfight among Yarborough, Allison and his brother Bobby – still talked about today.

The unexpected brawl, which was captured on TV, helped NASCAR to become a nationally recognized sport.

In 1981, Petty won because of pit strategy. Crew chief Dale Inman called for fuel only on a late stop. It got Petty off pit road ahead of his closest competition and on to victory lane.

After his retirement 20 years ago, Petty could have elected to wave to the crowd and, many think, disappear.

But NASCAR has been a part of Petty’s life longer than he can remember.

“Racing is all I’ve ever known, you know what I mean?” Petty once said with a broad smile. “OK, the thing is, I really don’t know much about anything else. Racing is all I’ve ever done.

“So when I quit driving I decided to stick around and try to contribute wherever I could. I’ve always enjoyed my friends in the garage area and all the fans I visit with every week.

“Being in the garage area and being at the track is just part of the deal. Racing is something I really enjoy.”

Adds Inman, Petty’s cousin, “Richard has tried to stay home at times but he just doesn’t feel right unless he’s at the race track.

“His entire life has been about NASCAR from the time we were kids racing bicycles, playing football together and turning wrenches on Lee’s race cars. He’s still involved with Richard Petty Motorsports. We did so much together over 60 years of racing.”

Petty has been one of NASCAR’s greatest ambassadors, always touting the sport.

He, along with numerous stars of eras gone by, has worked hard to build interest in the sport, and more.

In recognition of that, we at MotorsportsUnplugged wish a very special 75th Happy Birthday to you, Richard.

You have been, and always will be, NASCAR’s greatest treasure in the hearts and minds of so many.

 

Hamlin’s Fiery Crash Good Example Of NASCAR Safety Efforts

Denny Hamlin escaped unscathed from his fiery accident at Michigan largely due to the safety measures taken by NASCAR and some prompt assistance from crewmen along pit road.

Safety has always been a NASCAR concern from the day it was officially incorporated in Daytona Beach in February of 1948.

Early on, doors on race cars were strapped shut, right front wheels were re-enforced and, even though a bit primitive compared to current standards, liquid fire extinguishers were available at trackside during every race.

Fire has been a real concern from day one – even more so after the death of star Fireball Roberts.

The Florida native, who was dubbed the Dale Earnhardt of the 1960s, succumbed to pneumonia resulting from severe burns suffered six weeks after a horrible, fiery crash during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte.

His tragic death prompted the development of fireproof driver suits and rubber-lined fuel cells.

Sixty-four years of NASCAR racing has helped to make today’s cars incredibly safe. Lessons have been learned that help give each driver a measure of peace of mind during every lap he turns.

Sunday’s race at Michigan included a few stressful moments – especially when a fire on pit road erupted in Denny Hamlin’s Toyota after his spin on lap 132 of the 200-lap race.

Hamlin battled for position and, while coming off the third turn, his car dropped to the bottom of the track and went into the grass, causing a good bit of body damage to the driver’s side.

Hamlin briefly came to a halt at the end of pit road. However, it was believed that during the crash the oil cooler may have broken loose and caused a huge fire in the engine compartment and underneath the car.

Hamlin was unaware of just how big the flames had erupted, but since he was on pit road, there was plenty of help getting the Chesterfield, Va., driver unstrapped, disconnected and to safety.

Hamlin was momentarily lost in the thick cloud of smoke but stepped away as firemen on pit road jumped into action. Even though the fire was quickly extinguished, it did cause a few anxious minutes for nearby crewmen.

Hamlin was interviewed shortly afterward. Even though he lost precious Sprint Cup points due to his 34th-place finish, he was still able to smile.

“There’s a lot of good safety stuff and I’ve got to thank all of the crew guys that hauled ass over there and got me out,” Hamlin said. “It was just a tough day.  We just didn’t have the track position and got caught twice with those cautions when we pitted.

“It was just a tough day for our car.  I thought we had a car that could run top-three or four at times, but just didn’t have a great day and on fire is not a good way to end it.”

Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was one of NASCAR's biggest stars in the 1960s. His death following a fiery crash in 1964 led to vast improvements in driver safety.

 

According to Hamlin, it was Ryan Newman who got him out of shape on the track. It should be noted that Newman’s Stewart Haas Racing crew also helped get Hamlin out of the car when his life was in danger.

“One good thing at least is that Ryan’s guys came and got me out and so did a couple of the 18 (Kyle Busch) guys,” Hamlin said. “NASCAR is a family and any time anyone is trouble, everyone is going to go try to help.  It’s good that those guys were around and were willing to take a chance.”

When asked to describe what it’s like to be strapped inside a burning race car, Hamlin said it was a new experience for him.

“I’ve never actually been in that position before,” he said. “I’d seen it with other guys, but I’ve never known what it’s actually like, but it gets hot.

“I thought for a second there I was OK. It was just in the back and then something exploded in the front and it caught on fire.

“Thankfully we got everything that we have safety-wise. I messed up Greg Biffle’s pit box. It was just one of those days. I’ll be glad to get out of Michigan.”

Hamlin also described what put him in a position to get into the wild spin.

“We were all scrambling on restarts – everyone is doing everything they can to get position,” Hamlin said. “Unfortunately, with the tire change we had, it forces everyone to be aggressive like they were on restarts.

“We were four-wide and I was on the bottom line, but Ryan tried to stick it right there in the very, very low line and there just wasn’t any grip down there.

“There’s not any rubber down there so there was no way his car was going to stick. I knew I was in trouble being on top of him.

“When he slid up into us, it just spun us around.  Evidently it knocked something off with either the oil or the fuel, it caught on fire and that was OK, but when I stopped – I don’t know why – it completely engulfed the whole car.”

With speeds at the newly paved Michigan track reaching 210 mph in the turns, the decision was made to make a change to a harder tire compound, again as a safety measure for the drivers.

Of course, any unexpected changes during a race weekend can present real challenges to drivers and teams. Fortunately, there were no multi-car wrecks and no hard crashes suffered by any drivers.

Hamlin attempted to put his day into perspective.

“Part of it was frustrating, but you’re going to have days like this,” Hamlin said. “Unfortunately, NASCAR and Goodyear were put in a tough spot yesterday and had to change tires.  I thought our Camry was great until they changed the tire and then we just struggled.”

NASCAR should be commended for its steady efforts to keep every competitor safe.

There is evidence those efforts have paid off – especially during those heart-pounding moments when a potential crisis develops quickly.

 

NASCAR Drivers Must Remember Their Privileges And Control Emotions

One of the perks that comes with becoming a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver is fan appreciation. A competitor has to learn how to respond to that and how not, because of his actions, to push it away.

It’s fair to say today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors are the very best stock car drivers in the world.

Only 43 starting positions are filled during 36 race weekends per year on a variety of race tracks throughout the United States.

Racers spend years trying to build their resumes in an effort to gain a top Sprint Cup ride. It can be a lifelong mission that takes a huge financial toll.

If they make it, they become the best in the business. They become drivers who can adapt to a variety of track configurations, meet media obligations, and become comfortable with public and sponsor appearances.

They also deal with all the pressure involved in qualifying for, and competing in, a NASCAR race.

The vast majority of today’s drivers in all three of NASCAR’s top division are very happy and honored to be where they are.

But at least outwardly, it seems a few are not – or at least they need to evaluate their situations.

Kurt Busch’s tirade against motorsports reporter Bob Pockrass at Dover begs the question: Why do some drivers show so much anger toward against other drivers, NASCAR officials or media members?

It’s simple. Their passion for success and their competitive nature produce, at times, verbal or physical assaults that can be difficult to harness.

Competitive people tend to lash out when they think they have been wronged – or have failed to meet the goals through no fault of their own.

This can be especially true after a long day of racing. It’s hot. The competition is extremely close. Radio chatter has caused one whale of a headache and to top it off, what should have been a win has transformed into a disappointing sixth or seventh-place finish.

It happens. It’s part of the reason why it happened to Busch, again, at Dover. But I make no excuses for him.

It’s time that all drivers who are privileged to have a place in NASCAR’s elite circuit never lose sight of the fact they have a sweet deal – a very sweet deal.

Fact is, today’s drivers are pulling in incredible amounts of money, even before they sit in the car or turn the first lap of practice.

Their multiyear contracts are worth many millions of dollars. They get to drive cars that are built and maintained by some of the most talented crew chiefs, engine builders, engineers and fabricators in the business.

Even those drivers who race with lesser-funded NASCAR teams are millionaires, for the most part, by the end of their first season.

In most cases large corporate sponsorships fund the operations. With that money, team owners pay the bills and mechanics take all the responsibility for providing competitive race cars each week.

Drivers fly in on private jets and have team personnel escort them to their $1 million motorhomes.

As mentioned, an army of people presents them with pristine race cars to drive for practice sessions, qualifying and the race itself.

If the driver gets in the wall his crew pulls another car off the transporter that’s as good or better than the one just waded up.

With success in NASCAR comes rapt attention from the media, either in press conferences or at the track during - or after - competition. To serve themselves and others well, drivers must learn how to conduct themselves.

Now, how many family-owned short track operations would love to have that luxury?

Busch was suspended Monday by NASCAR for the threat of bodily harm at Dover. He has apologized.

We’ve all said things we shouldn’t have. Emotions at times get the best of us all. When it happens there’s no taking it back and there are consequences.

All public figures, as NASCAR drivers are, very often have a camera and microphone in their faces. It comes with the job.

Drivers have known it – and once wished for it -since their street stock days back at the Saturday night short track.

Sprint Cup racing is a high stakes game played under an international microscope, where every action and every word is scrutinized live, on video or in print.

No driver should ever forget that. There’s no escaping the spotlight during a race weekend.

There are 10,000 short-track drivers who raced over this past weekend who would gladly take Busch’s ride this weekend at Pocono Raceway.

There are millions of race fans that would love to make the money drivers do and enjoy the lifestyles they have. I also know a motorsports journalist or two who would love to experience such, at least for a day.

When another blatantly puts a driver in the fence, the natural reaction is to retaliate. I get that.

But that’s where drivers need a system of checks and balances. They need someone to pull them aside before they speak – and if they don’t have that, they must contain themselves.

By whatever means, drivers must never forget to control their tempers in public. That includes pit road when members of the media are gathering information.

Certainly it is not always done. After all, given the intensity of a race and the natural competitiveness of the drivers, that is understandable.

However, it is still a job requirement. It serves the team, the sponsor – and let’s face it, the driver himself – very well.

It would appear that given the wealth and notoriety that comes with achieving a lifelong, coveted dream, it should not be difficult at all.

Even though, at times, it is.

 

 

NASCAR Driver Denny Hamlin’s Tale Of A Friendship With Masters Champion Watson

An accomplished NASCAR driver, Denny Hamlin has had the good fortune to become friends with another outstanding pro athlete, golfer Bubba Watson. The union has been rewarding in more ways than one.

Professional athletes are obviously incredible at what they do, be it on the track, the court, the field or the course.

They’ve worked since childhood to hone their craft and when they finally reach the dream of becoming one of the best in the world, the pressure to continue perform can be a bit nerve-wracking.

All, including NASCAR’s biggest stars, often have opportunities to do some amazing things beyond their sphere of competition.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, enjoyed the chance of a lifetime a few days prior to the 78th Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on April 8.

During his time among golf’s greats, Hamlin worked as a caddy for his close friend, Bubba Watson,  in a par-three tournament held before the Masters began.

Watson went on to become the winner of the 2012 Masters.

Believe it or not, Watson has own style and has never had a golf lesson. His swing is rather odd but he has never changed it.

Watson’s Sunday outing was memorable as he birdied four straight holes on the back nine to force a playoff. Subsequently, his shot out of the trees on the 10th, and second, playoff hole was simply incredible.

Among golf enthusiasts Watson has been on the radar over the past few years. He had a top-five at he 2007 U.S. Open and came close to winning the 2010 PGA.

His fans love him because he plays it his way and is incredibly successful at beating the odds. After all, he just won the Masters.

Watson bested Louie Oosthuizen, one of the world’s best players, for the title. Oosthuizen won the 2010 British Open and then came within a shot of winning the Masters. His incredible double eagle on the second hole will go down as one of the greatest shots in tournament’s storied history.

While at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend Hamlin enjoyed talking about his visit to professional golf‘s biggest event.

Hamlin joked about Watson’s ability to get himself out of trouble – taking all the credit for it as he smiled broadly.

“Of course, that trick shot I taught him on Wednesday paid off on Sunday in the playoff,” Hamlin said. “It’s just one of those things where it was an amazing accomplishment for him and his family.

“I know he struggles with getting nervous down at the end. I could see it even in the par-three tournament.

“You step on the first tee and you see the nerves start. So for him to overcome that, battle through it  and obviously have a win at the end, was great for him and obviously good for me and my storytelling.

“It’s not too often you get to caddy for the 2012 Masters champ.”

Hamlin was Watson's caddy in the par-3 tournament prior to the Masters. Just days later, Watson won the prestigious event, much to the delight of the driver who has become his close friend.

Hamlin met Watson for the first time in 2010 at Phoenix International Raceway. Their meeting came after one of Hamlin’s practice sessions.

“We went and played nine holes together,” Hamlin said. “My agent and his agent know each other really well. They felt we would like to play and, obviously when he’s not playing competitively, Bubba is  out on the golf course somewhere.

“He doesn’t take lessons or anything like that. He just plays golf.

“He came to the race that weekend. Ever since then, we just kind of kept in touch and when our paths cross, we link up and do stuff. That’s how we kind of met and that was it.”

Hamlin pointed out that he and Watson, in some ways, are opposites.

“I think a little bit is I’m right-handed, but I play golf left – which is probably why I’m so bad,“ Hamlin said. “We’re both lefties. And we both obviously like racing.

“I grew up loving the ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ and he obviously does as well. I don’t know what it is about our personalities, but we seem to get along. It was right from the ‘get go.’

“We met on a golf course and we’ve played 10 rounds together, probably, since then. I learned a lot about him and the way he does things.

“I was just generally nervous for him on Sunday. It was just one of those days where you are proud to be someone’s friend.

“It’s no different than when I was watching Jason White in a truck race with two laps to go with a chance to win. I’m nervous because he’s my friend and you hope that the guy does well. It’s just a great feeling. I felt like I won it myself.”

Watson, who is the owner of the famed “General Lee” Dodge Charger from the “Dukes of Hazzard,” joked about his need for a suitable helmet and fire suit. Hamlin accommodated his wish.

“Basically, he expressed that he was looking for a fire suit and a helmet to match his car. And I said ‘Well, I can work on that and get that done,’ ” Hamlin said. “So he went and got his measurements done and I sent that fire suit to him. And, obviously, he was very excited about that.

“He’s still waiting on his helmet. I think that’s coming. He said if he’s going to drive around in the ‘General Lee’ he’s got to have the full outfit. He’s not going to do it halfway.”

Could it be possible that Hamlin may have Watson come to a NASCAR track sometime in the future to handle the pit board or maybe pass a cup of water through – or something else?

You know, it may very well be during a weekend when Hamlin wns one of NASCAR’s biggest races – just like the Masters is in golf

 


It’s Early, Yes, But Do We See A Rise In Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had a strong start to the 2012 season and has fostered talk that he might well be on his way toward turning his fortunes around and become the type of competitor he was expected to be at Hendrick Motorsports.

With only three Sprint Cup races completed in 2012, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a contender.

Yes, it’s early. But there’s talk – perhaps whispers – that NASCAR’s most popular driver is beginning to create hope that his winless drought, now at 132 races, is just about to end.

But wait. We’ve been down this road before.

This potential storyline has been in the headlines and on websites several times since Earnhardt Jr. joined Rick Hendrick’s powerhouse team in 2008.

When the announcement was made that Earnhardt Jr. would occupy a Hendrick Chevrolet, it was expected that wins and championships would be the driver’s to collect. It wasn’t a matter of if but of when.

Soon, reality began to set in. While other Hendrick teams, such as those of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, would define the meaning of success, Earnhardt’s existence was merely rise and fade, rise and fade and maybe even rise again.

Consistency hasn’t been part of his program in any of the past four seasons.

Based on past performances, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that a turnaround is in the offing for Earnhardt’s Concord, N.C.-based team.

The vast majority of motorsports writers have taken a wait and see approach, especially after what has transpired in the past.

Although Earnhardt Jr. has been here before, there just might be a reason to think he and crew chief Steve Letarte may be on to something.

Let’s give this a chance.

During Speedweeks at Daytona, leading up to the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team were billed as having one of the stronger Chevrolets in the field.

He ran strong in the Bud Shootout, in his Gatorade 150-qualifying race (good enough to start fifth) and finished second just behind race winner Matt Kenseth in the 500.

At Phoenix, he struggled in qualifying and started 29th but after some adjustments to the car, finished a respectable 14th.

In race three at Las Vegas on Sunday, he qualified fourth, led 70 of 267 laps and finished 10th. His Las Vegas outing, in which he led more laps than he did all last year, was impressive – but came up short.

Earnhardt Jr. thought he had a car capable of winning but blamed himself for falling so far back in the closing laps. At the end of the race he was frustrated.

But earlier he was happy with the positive vibes felt throughout the weekend.

“Well, when we were fast leading the race the car was really tight,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew by the end of the race, especially with all of those cautions we had at the end, that it was going to be a really tight race track and we needed to free the car up.

In his Hendrick Chevrolet, so far this year, Earnhardt Jr. has scored two top-10 finishes in three races, including a second place in the Daytona 500. He is currently fourth in the point standings.

“I didn’t get Steve enough information throughout the day to really give him the idea of how tight the car was. The track sort of went past us as far as our handling goes.

“The Chevrolet was really good all weekend. We had good speed. Hopefully we can keep bringing cars like that to the race track and we will get some opportunities to win.

“We had good speed, led some laps. This is a tough series. When you get back in traffic, it gets very competitive.”

Earnhardt Jr. seemed confident and upbeat, feelings that he hasn’t enjoyed much during his tenure with Hendrick.

He might not have had quite enough at Vegas, but he felt good enough to be optimistic about upcoming races – if for no other reason than he knows how he can improve his contributions.

“We weren’t bad, we weren’t terrible and the car was great at the start of the race but it was tight then, even when I was driving away from guys,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was like, ‘Man, we are going to have to free it up’, because the track was going to get way tighter.

“You know that from years and years of driving and I should have known how it drove that first run. We should have worked on it and I should have told Steve more about it. I should have let him understand what was going on more.”

Talent, horsepower, sponsorship dollars and state-of-the-art chassis and race cars have always been a staple at Hendrick Motorsports. Every employee wants for absolutely nothing.

It’s the chemistry between driver and crew chief that can’t be bought. That’s something that must be constructed over time through a great deal of trial and error.

In 2012, Earnhardt’s strength and confidence continues to grow with Letarte in only their 39th race together.

Could it be possible that an important crossroads has been reached between Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte? Have they found something that gives them new confidence each time they unload at the track? Are they close to reaching that place where consistency is part of their weekly game plan?

It’s possible. Perhaps very possible.

But again, we’ll have to wait and see how well they perform in the coming weeks.

Kurt Busch Has Another Day At Daytona To Ponder His New Adventure

Kurt Busch now drives for Phoenix Racing, an organization much smaller than those that have employed him in the past. Busch, however, thinks the team has potential and has become accustomed to what he calls a "simpler" type of racing.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Heavy downpours postponed the Daytona 500, for the first time in 54 years, until noon today, giving drivers and teams an opportunity to reflect on the 2012 season – should they care to do so.

While hanging out during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway leading up to the first of this year’s 36 races, Kurt Busch did just that.

Specifically, he pondered his new role as the driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolets owned by James Finch.

Busch came to Daytona with a new outlook after his mutual parting last November with Penske Racing, the powerhouse organization with which he won 12 of his 24 career victories.

Busch is excited about driving for the smaller, but productive Finch organization, as well as a new Nationwide Series opportunity as teammate to younger brother Kyle.

Everywhere the Las Vegas native looks, he sees work going on on the handful of red, white and black cars scattered about in the team’s small Spartanburg, S.C., shop.

“Everyone is working three times as hard and it’s great to see the youthful exuberance and excitement,” Busch said. “This is different. It’s a small group and we are hoping that we are the little team that can.”

The team is so small that when Busch comes to visit and talk with crew chief Nick Harrison or Finch, he wears jeans and T-shirts just in case someone on the team hands him a wrench or an air sander.

“Yeah, I jump right in there with the guys,” Busch said. “We have been mounting seats which has been the primary focus. I’ve even helped string the car or bump steer it.

“I was there when they put it on the pull-down rig, just to see how they do their sequence of set-ups. It is so refreshing to see that the steps they are taking are the same steps all the big teams are doing.

“You can say our pull down-rig doesn’t cost as much as the ones the big time teams are using, but it is there; it’s efficient and it’s easy to use.”

Busch was involved in some testing before the season began in part to become familiar with those on the team and to hear Harrison’s ideas about the cars.

“We were here in Daytona of course, then we went over to Nashville Superspeedway for a two-day test. We burned up a good 10 sets of tires,“ Busch said. “Finch is like, ‘Come on. Tires? Really?’

“I learned Finch does not like the Goodyear tire bills. It is going to be fun all year long asking him for an extra set of tires.

“I was getting off on too much of a sarcastic tone there.

“Harrison is a guy from Tennessee from the days of Sterling Marlin. It’s not really grassroots. It’s just old school and everybody knows everybody, they work really hard and at the end of the day they crack a beer and talk about what has to happen the next day.”

Busch mutually agreed to part ways with Penske Racing and team owner Roger Penske (left) at the end of last season. With Penske, Busch earned 12 of his career 24 Sprint Cup victories.

Even though it’s early in the season, Busch said he plans to be with Finch and brother Kyle in 2012 and see where things stand in 2013 and beyond.

He and Finch do not have a contract and will rely on a pleasant relationship and success to chart the future.

“There is that opportunity,” Busch said. “I mean the future doesn’t have a definition for me other than 2012 is going to be a lot about fun.

“I’ve got Finch’s Phoenix Racing. I’ve also got Kyle’s KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) program to work with and the Monster Energy group of guys and I’ll run probably half the Nationwide schedule over there.”

Busch feels very good he’ll have something to celebrate this season.
“I said to the guys I want to get kicked out of the garage,” Busch said. “They said, ‘What the heck does that mean?’ I said, ‘We’re going to win a race this year and I want to be sitting at the back of the hauler on top of our coolers, drinking beer when NASCAR tells us we have to go.’

“I hope we get kicked out of the garage that way.’”

Leading up to the 500, Busch lost some good race cars to crashes in practice and the Budweiser Shootout and had to make repairs to a third car when he struck a seagull in final practice.

But his car for the 500 seems good and is equipped with a strong Hendrick Motorsports engine.

“There is the quantity of cars that are on the floor. The quality of cars, the Hendrick chassis’ that we have that we want to work with, hose are limited,” Busch said. “Over time we will get some more.

“I hope we win the Daytona 500 because that means we will have more of a budget to buy more cars. It is that old school, you have to do well and protect the car, so you have it the next week.”

The Daytona 500 has had its share of surprise winners throughout its five-decade history, the latest  being rookie Trevor Bayne in 2011.

So what would it mean to Busch to win the Daytona 500 in Finch’s lesser-funded Chevrolet?

“I’ve finished second three times,” Busch said. “I’ve pushed a teammate to win, Ryan Newman, back in 2008. I remember back in 2005, when I had a move to make on Jeff Gordon on the outside going into turn three, I looked in the mirror and saw everybody cutting to the inside to go by me in the draft. I’m like, ‘Man, I just got to block to the inside and take this second-place finish.’

“It kind of eats at me a little bit that I should have taken that risk to go to the high side and see what could have happened off the fourth turn.

“It’s really the race that can define a driver’s career,” Busch added. “It is a big priority, the prestigious value of winning at Daytona and what it does for a driver’s career long term, what it can do for the immediate impact. This race is our spectacle. It is the most important stock car race of the year.”

No matter for whom he races, you have to admit Busch as a shot a victory. He is one of the best at drafting on Daytona’s high banks.

No doubt a win in the 500 would certainly be an improbable, even incredible, comeback story.

 

The Latest Chad Knaus Episode Should Again Show NASCAR’s Intolerance For Tampering

At Daytona, when the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet was found unacceptable for competition after inspection, the blame fell on the shoulders of crew chief Chad Knaus.

Before the start of yet another Sprint Cup season, Chad Knaus, crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports and driver Jimmie Johnson, is again in the news leading up to NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. But it’s not a story about the glory of winning on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway in storybook fashion. It’s about trying to find ways to make a car go faster outside of NASCAR’s rules. Once again, the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet failed inspection and once again, team owner Rick Hendrick and his officials have to explain what went wrong with their most successful team. Knaus is ultimately responsible for every car used on the 36-race schedule. The Daytona Chevrolet was found illegal by NASCAR officials last Friday when it didn’t meet body specifications, specifically those around the pillars at the space between the rear window and the side window. Body modifications are pretty high on NASCAR’s list of villainy – especially at Daytona. This is not the first time Knaus has faced NASCAR judgment. He was accused of disregarding the rulebook after Johnson’s 2006 Daytona 500 qualifying run. Knaus made an illegal adjustment to the rear window, which resulted in his suspension for several races. Despite the loss of his crew chief, Johnson won the 500 that year, as well two of the first three races overall with interim crew chief Darian Grubb, who is now Denny Hamlin’s crew chief. Knaus was again at the center of controversy during the road race debut of NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” on June 23, 2007 at Infineon Raceway. He and Steve Letarte, then crew chief for Jeff Gordon, brought cars that fit the templates, but NASCAR officials questioned the shape of the fenders in between the template’s measuring points. Johnson was not allowed to qualify the car, and he started at the back of the field. Knaus was fined $100,000 and was suspended for six races. Knaus faces penalties and possibly another suspension; but that decision will be made Tuesday after the winner of the 500 has been crowned. Knaus will be able to call the shots atop of the pit box Sunday – but he may not need to pack his suitcase for upcoming events. After NASCAR determined the C-posts on Johnson’s car were modified outside of legal measurements, websites were abuzz in disbelief. The C-posts are the body panel of the car that runs from the rear of the roof to the deck lid. NASCAR officials had the C-posts cut off the car during inspection Friday and the team fashion new ones and replaced them. Even though frowned upon when teams search for advantages in what’s known as “gray” areas of the car, some may fall into a “questionable” category. But the pieces confiscated off of Johnson’s Chevrolet were not under scrutiny of template rules, which makes the violation seemingly even more blatant.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have won five straight championships together. But Knaus has been severely punished more than once for rules infractions.

When NASCAR officials begin the inspection process, they have a routine they follow. It goes over a car from top to bottom through numerous top templates joined together that have been dubbed, “the claw.” The C-pillars, the areas between the top and rear deck lid, were not part of the template process but were measured nonetheless and discovered to be in violation. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby addressed the situation with media members assembled at the rear of the NASCAR hauler in Daytona’s garage area. It wasn’t he first time Knaus has been Darby’s topic of conversation. “There were obvious modifications that the template inspectors picked up on and did some additional inspections with some gauges and stuff and found they were too far out of tolerance to fix so they were removed from the car,” Darby said. “It falls in line with other body modifications we’ve seen in the past. We’re pretty serious about the body configurations of the cars for all the right reasons, and this was a modification that had been made to the car that put it outside that box.” Darby said the infraction would be treated like other body modifications. In the past, penalties for body infractions could be as much as the loss of 25 points under the current point system. The question that millions of race fans, as well as those in the garage area have been asking, with NASCAR so incredibly strict about following its rulebook to the letter, why would any team, especially a championship-caliber team, take such a risk that is clearly in violation? Additionally, some longtime NASCAR mechanics have questioned what modifications to the C-pillars would offer. The change would supposedly add down force but at this point, all it offers is a certain fine, a possible suspension of Knaus and more – not to mention bad press. The parts were on display Friday afternoon at the NASCAR transporter, something done any time illegal equipment is removed from any of the teams. The No. 48 team was allowed to repair the area to make it conform to requirements, but the illegal parts were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., for further review. Interestingly, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon all passed inspection. The cars are built individually by the direction of the crew chief and are not identical. Each of the three other cars was allowed to race. There are some in the sport who feel the NASCAR rulebook is a place to start as a baseline for bending the rules in hopes of finding some type of advantage. Their argument is that with the competition so incredibly close it’s the only way to finish at the front. But the bad press generated when caught does nothing but shame the team, shame the driver – who most likely doesn’t know his car is illegal – and most importantly, shame the corporate sponsors who spend incredible amounts of money to support them. Sadly, the reputations of everyone associated with the specific team caught for infractions are tainted. Some believe sponsors associated with the organization condone such behavior – which couldn‘t be further from the truth. Fans may also wonder about the legitimacy of past wins and championships when rules are clearly broken. And, using the No. 48 team and Knaus as an example, there will always be questions as to how honestly a team operates after being caught for infractions time after time. In short, no one wins when established rules are deliberately broken. It’s a bad practice that, obviously, shouldn’t be accepted. Thankfully, we know, and have known, that NASCAR doesn’t tolerate tampering with its rules. And it has applied stringent punishments to let us all know that is, indeed, the case.

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