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

 

NASCAR: Tony Stewart Racing Into Retirement, Stars Hanging It Up Sooner

It seems the star NASCAR drivers are all considering earlier retirement than in the past.

It seems the star NASCAR drivers are all considering earlier retirement than in the past.

The changing of the guard is upon us in NASCAR. Behold the Iron Man swan song of Jeff Gordon this year, and the announced retirement of Tony Stewart for next year, which exposes just the tip of the impending wave of future retirements NASCAR will witness during the next five years.

The Sprint Cup garage is full of popular veterans that have crossed the 40 year age threshold. Gordon will retire at the age of 44, and Stewart will be 45 years old when he steps out of the car in 2016. Six-time Champion Jimmie Johnson just turned 40 this year, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be 41 on October 10th. Additionally, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are 43 and 45 years old, respectively.

Markedly, only 4 of the 16 drivers (Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano) in this year’s Chase are under the age of 35. Remaining Chase contenders Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex, Jr., Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer are all within five years of 40 year watermark.

Arguably, these renowned masters are at the top of their game with the best rides in the sport and the most fan support. Still, the back-to-back hits that four-time Champion Gordon and three-time Champion Stewart are retiring has shaken many core fans who have admired these drivers’ contributions both on and off the track.

Stewart seems to have made the right decision for him and his team's future.

Stewart seems to have made the right decision for him and his team’s future.

The daily grind of the NASCAR circuit wears on these athletes more than we see in the public eye. The pressures for on-track performance are grueling in seeking both purse winnings and sponsorship. The revamped Chase Championship format only has escalated the pressure to perform. Sprint Cup Drivers now have two intense seasons: First, the 26 week run needed to qualify for The Chase, and second, the 10-week playoff format of four successive elimination rounds to determine the Cup Champion.

When you layer on a competitive NASCAR season that spans 70% of the calendar year, constant media appearances, and the never-ending quest for sponsorship dollars, we can surely expect to see more driver hanging up their helmets as they approach the 40 year age threshold, particularly given the “playbooks” that Gordon and Stewart have laid out for their post-career transitions to either the broadcast booth or team ownership.

Additionally, there is the money angle, which is better today than it ever has been.

For perspective on how the sport has transformed from a wealth perspective, I compared two groups of legendary NASCAR drivers with a distinguished tenure in the sport based on their career race winnings (as a proxy of success, which assuredly does not capture sponsorships and other income sources):

  • Six current Sprint Cup Stars in the 40 year club (while not all have titles, these six racers have amassed 14 Championships, along with an average career spanning 18 seasons at NASCAR’s highest level)
  • Six legacy NASCAR Hall of Famers, all champions with 22 titles between them. These Hall of Famers competed 28 seasons on average (with none less than 25 seasons) and their careers mostly carried into the early to mid-50 year age range

 

CURRENT STARS

Driver

Career Earnings

 

Seasons

Avg Per Season

       

Jeff Gordon

$107,773,252

 

24

$4,491,000

       

Jimmie Johnson

$89,317,023

 

15

$5,954,000

       

Tony Stewart

$85,880,271

 

17

$5,052,000

       

Matt Kenseth

$84,961,167

 

18

$4,720,000

       

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

$75,554,199

 

17

$4,444,000

       

Greg Biffle

$58,381,819

 

14

$4,170,000

       

Average

$83,600,000

 

18

$4,805,000

       
                 

HALL OF FAMERS

Driver

Career Earnings

 

Seasons

Avg Per Season

       

Rusty Wallace

$39,248,705

 

25

$1,570,000

       

Dale Earnhardt

$25,761,905

 

27

$954,000

       

Darrell Waltrip

$15,906,606

 

29

$549,000

       

Richard Petty

$6,820,052

 

35

$195,000

       

Bobby Allison

$6,147,980

 

25

$246,000

       

David Pearson

$2,433,166

 

27

$90,000

       

Average

$16,053,069

 

28

$601,000

       

Jeff Gordon need not work another day in his life, but he will.

Jeff Gordon need not work another day in his life, but he will.

The career winnings differential is striking, with the current Cup Stars earning a multiple of 5X what the Hall of Famers amassed, in spite of the Hall of Famers generally staying in the sport an extra decade. Compared on a Per Season Average, the current Cup Stars average close to $5 million per year in winnings, which is 8X the Hall of Famers. Even after adjusting for inflation, the Hall of Famers’ average per season winnings only rise to around $900,000, which still leaves a 5X disadvantage compared to the current Cup Stars.

The timeless proverb that “racing costs the same as it did 30 years ago; it takes every penny you have” remains true for many seeking success in the sport, but the current Cup Stars at the top echelon of NASCAR are able to amass a tidy fortune much sooner in their careers. This is critical, as today’s stars like Stewart, Gordon and Johnson began their driving careers almost as early as they enrolled in grade school.

My point is not to suggest that the iconic Hall of Famers were shortchanged, but to recognize that NASCAR drivers today can attain a successful earnings stream and build a comfortable golden egg for retirement, while transitioning into complementary roles within the sport at an early stage of life. Many of the current crop of stars are already well coached in publicity and media appearances as a necessity of securing sponsors. One only needs to revel in the classic advertisements spots for Mobil1 that Stewart has filmed over the course of his career to appreciate such talents. Drivers such as Bowyer, Edwards, Harvick and Gordon have already joined the Infinity Series broadcast booth as guest commentators as they groom themselves for the next stage of their careers.

So, with dramatic income potential, expanded post-retirement career opportunities, and the relentless grind of the season schedule, we will most assuredly undergo a surge of driver transitions as one era now comes to an end and another begins.

My suggestion for racing fans is to stay committed to the sport that you love, and start scanning now for an up-and-coming driver so that you are not stunned when your established veteran hangs up his or her helmet. Love the sport as our drivers have and stay engaged through the inevitable transitions.

As one generation retires, the next stars will emerge. Whether you choose the son or daughter of an established veteran such as John Hunter Nemechek or Chase Elliott, or a surprise upstart like Cole Custer or Erik Jones that emerges on the scene, you can rekindle your passion for the next crop of stars.

Alternatively, stay within your preferred auto manufacturer, or find a driver whose personality traits you admire. Take a rookie fan to the track, and root for the driver that they gravitate to (perhaps based on the paint scheme or the driver’s social media persona). If all else fails, play the lottery and draw car numbers from a hat. But stay engaged, and don’t be dazed by future driver retirements over the balance of this decade.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

Why Should Dale Earnhardt Jr Retire?

retiring? Not so fast.

Retiring? Not so fast.

Lately the rumor mill has been churning regarding Dale Earnhardt Jr retiring after 2015 or 2016.

Why should Dale Earnhardt retire when he has two wins and sits third in the driver standings? Is he going to be a 7 time champion? No. There’s only one driver who has a chance at that in the current field for at least 6 years and that’s Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt has been hammered every day of his life since his Father died by those who blindly hate him for not dominating every race of every year since that tragic day. That is the real tragedy.

No one should have to be judged on the accomplishments of their Father. Were that the case, the children of every famous world leader, racing driver, astronaut and start-up king would be doomed to a life of deafening silence and reclusivism.

Earnhardt has shown that he has the ability to compete at the highest level at virtually any track he has visited.

It’s really a disturbing trend to espouse hate behind the curtain of the Internet where any fat bellied, underwear-in-the-basement loser can paint him or herself as someone they are not.

It’s a clear sign of low self-esteem, self-loathing and a drive by mentality.

Prior to the Internet those fans who have a penchant for vitriol had to sit alone with themselves because no one face to face wanted to hear that type of hate.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, practices for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 14: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, practices for the 57th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

There is a clear cut distinction between those fans who prefer one driver over another and those who pick one driver to use to vent their anger at having been a flat-liner or failure in their own lives.

Earnhardt makes a boatload of money, has a smoking hot fiance’ and he’s competing week in and week out for wins. On the other hand if it were me I might consider taking the money and his soon-to-be-wife and run. Who needs this kind of bashing?

But, so far, he hasn’t been satisfied to take the money and run. He wants to win and compete. He’s doing just that.

The current evidence dictates that he seems to have no intention of retiring just yet. He’s outperforming Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson, not to mention Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Seems like a top dog season to me. Why even think about quitting?

Should Dale Jr win the Championship, and he just might, he’s likely to go for at least two more seasons before buying his own island, or North Carolina.

Far too much money, prestige and self-esteem have been gained to quit now or in the foreseeable future.

If you absolutely hate Dale Earnhardt Jr, you might consider just how much you hate yourself.

Dale Earnhardt Jr Haters Should Shut Up

He's ranked 8th going into the 2015 season. The haters should take that into account.

He’s ranked 8th going into the 2015 season. The haters should take that into account.

To all the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. haters out there: Wake up from your self important, uneducated and, no doubt, boring dreams, no matter how many small farm animals are involved.

Earnhardt Jr. is one of the best drivers in NASCAR and that’s that. Is he the best? No. I’ll defer to Brad Keselowski’s assessment that Carl Edwards probably takes that top honor as we go into the 2015 season.

When you can win 4 races in 2014, finish in the top ten 22 times, the top five 12 times and are ranked 8th out of over 40 drivers, you can easily say he can get the job done. Some seasons he hasn’t.

What if you had inherited the passion and desire to follow in your Fathers footsteps only to discover what a huge, and sometimes inflated, shadow you had to walk in?

It would be hard to be compared to a guy that didn’t care what anyone thought, did or wanted him to do. Dale Sr. marched to the beat of a different drummer. NASCAR doesn’t work that way today. He would, most likely, have lost more races on penalties than he could have won. Let’s not forget that he would also have had the Jimmie Johnson juggernaut to contend with.

Dale Sr. would not have been happy with the atrocious things said about his son.

Dale Sr. would not have been happy with the atrocious things said about his son.

Comparing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his Father is complete folly. Dale Sr. would not have fared much better than anyone else in post 2001 NASCAR. The competition is far too great.

In Sr’s day the competition wasn’t nearly as great as it is today. There is more funded talent than there are seats now and that simply wasn’t the case in the 1990’s.

Dale Jr has had to live with his Fathers death, a man who was creating a small empire for his him to own, a step mother that I, with all due respect, refer to as Cruella de Vil, and the usual chemistry afflictions that ALL racing drivers/teams contend with.

Earnhardt Jr never overstates his importance, he always takes the high road and bears down when things are tough. On the other hand, he does have a problem communicating with others, mainly his team. Not everyone in racing is Ronald Reagan.

He’s not an MBA or even a college undergraduate. So what? Neither was Steve Jobs. So let’s not overstate the importance of having a college degree as a measure of your chances of success. Earnhardt keeps racing because it’s what he loves to do and no one should deny him that.

Now he has a new crew chief: Greg Ives. Everyone wonders whether the same momentum can be carried into 2015 that Little E had in 2014. The same can be said for any driver in the field right now who are operating under the new rules, but it looks promising.

According to Rick Hendrick: “Greg was our number-one choice,” he added, “This is a talented guy who already has a terrific rapport with Dale Jr. and is a fit with the organization. He and Chad had a lot of success together, and all of our crew chiefs think the world of him and what he’s accomplished. Greg’s proven that he can win races, and he has all the tools to do big things.”

If they already have a good working relationship then it only makes sense that they can put a season together that will rival 2014. Ives has worked as a crew chief for JR Motorsports and has wins with Chase Elloitt.

He obviously knows how to communicate with Earnhardt and that is the key. If Ives and Earnhardt can translate the relationship from owner/crew chief to driver/crew chief, then we should expect good things to come from the 88 camp.

It makes no sense to me that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seems to be so polarizing. People either hate him or they love him. Maybe it’s his jewelry phobia.

No, he hasn’t won a Sprint Cup Championship.

But then, neither has Carl Edwards, yet.

 

 

 

For Earnhardt Jr., Martinsville Victory Is Great Personal Achievement

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth race of the season at Martinsville. It was also his first career victory at the historic speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth race of the season at Martinsville. It was also his first career victory at the historic speedway.

Sometimes disappointment is overcome by achievement.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to be disappointed when he was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after six of 10 races.

It wasn’t a big surprise, really. Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports team had not really been on top of its game since the beginning of the 10-race “playoff.”

Earnhardt Jr. had only one top-10 finish in the first five races and it was that fifth event, at Kansas, that did him in.

Tire problems helped send him to a 39th-place finish. That tumbled him to the bottom of the pile of 12 drivers still in the Chase.

He had to win at either Charlotte or Talladega. He finished 20th at Charlotte, which did not help his cause.

And despite a noble effort at Talladega where he led 31 laps and remained at the front of the pack most of the time, he lost position late in the race and couldn’t make it up.

He finished 28th – and was eliminated from championship contention.

Earnhardt Jr. was having one of his best seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but failed to make the Chase. The Martinsville victory was a tonic - and very personal.

Earnhardt Jr. was having one of his best seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but failed to make the Chase. The Martinsville victory was a tonic – and very personal.

It must have been hard for Earnhardt Jr. to take. He was having a particularly good season. Before the Chase he won three races, including the Daytona 500.

He also won at Pocono twice. Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t won three races in a season since he joined Hendrick in 2008.

On top of that, he was third in points after Richmond, the last race before the Chase began. He was comfortably in title contention.

He had reason to be confident, for sure.

The only thing predictable about racing is that it is unpredictable. Given his record and momentum, I doubt there were many who thought Earnhardt Jr. would be out of the hunt after just six races.

Every driver in Earnhardt Jr.’s situation will say the same thing: If a championship can no longer be attained, the goal now is to win as many of the remaining races at possible.

Earnhardt Jr. was no different. One big reason he wanted to win was to prove that the Chase may have been one thing, but the season-long performance by his Hendrick team was quite another.

And there was only one way to prove it.

Earnhardt Jr. did just that in the next race after his disappointment at Talladega.

He won at Martinsville, a speedway steeped in history and tradition. By doing so, Earnhardt Jr. achieved a goal that was more personal that professional.

Simply put, he won at Martinsville – at last.

“You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of like all the pictures on the wall at Martinsville,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.

“I’ve been coming here so many years, I’ve been coming here since the early ’80s, watching races here. Dad won and brought home several Grandfather Clocks. 

“I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs.  Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network.”

A combination of a strategic pit stop and Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to gain ground quickly was the reason for the victory at Martinsville.

“We just put tires on it, said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. “Luckily we had a lot of lap-down cars between us and fourth and fifth.  As long as we had a decent stop, we thought we would maintain some decent track position. 

“Then Dale went out and did what he did.  That makes the pit call look good, which I appreciate him doing.”

Earnhardt Jr. assumed the lead on lap 497 and led the final four circuits.

Earnhardt Jr. has won bigger, more prestigious races in his career. But he was notably ecstatic over the Martinsville victory.

It was one he had coveted for so long. Add to that it was one that, as far as Earnhardt Jr. was concerned, emphasized his Hendrick team’s solid, season-long performance.

“I think the win reminded the team and the guys what they’re capable of,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Yeah, we’ve had some bad breaks with the tire at Kansas and just some poor runs where we got outrun. 

“Everybody knew it was very disappointing where we were at in the Chase coming into Martinsville.

“But now, we know we can accomplish some really good things and win more races.”

As for Earnhardt Jr., the Martinsville victory is more than just another victory. It’s a personal milestone.

“I couldn’t believe I won,” he said. “I still really can’t believe it.  The clock seems so hard to get, so this is so special. 

“I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win at Martinsville.”

 

Talladega: Every Lap Could Be Heaven Or Hell

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

By virtue of the storied Alabama mega-track´s existence as the sole restrictor plate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Talladega’s fall date has been circled twice on many fans and teams calendars this year-and for good reason. Talladega is, after all, a track where fortune and dismal fate consistently collide with regularity at over 200 miles per hour, taking hopes and dreams of glory and leaving twisted sheet metal and bent emotions. After last weekend’s shenanigans following the closing laps of Charlotte, the inherent drama Talladega provides will only be exponentially multiplied. Heaven or Hell.

Adding to the normal blood pressure spike, four drivers are going to be eliminated from Championship contention following the 500 miler this weekend and, absent a miracle, those four are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. It almost seems heretical.

In a way, racing at Talladega has always been a race of nail biting decisions. Talladega’s wide racing surface makes handling and tire wear less an issue than at the high banks of Daytona and the use of horsepower-robbing restrictor plates virtually levels the field putting the race in the drivers’ hands. Or their minds.

Glorious victory or smoky demise depends on making the correct decisions at the correct time. Imagine a 200 mile an hour chess match against 42 other hungry opponents with the same goal: Victory Lane. Chase or not.

The "Big One" always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The “Big One” always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The first, and truly only, decision a driver can make before strapping into the race-car is strategy during the first half to 3/4 of the race. More specifically, the car must have some vital components intact to complete the event, so keeping the fenders intact and the toe (alignment) correct means avoiding the big one (unlike years past, the question now isn’t ‘when’ the big one occurs, but ‘how soon’). So the possibility of some teams ‘laying back’ towards the rear of the field is a distinct possibility, although a strategy that will be employed by very few, if at all.

In fact, the savvy and experienced drivers who can and need to win at Talladega know that most wrecks occur in the middle of the field, and will attempt to stay up front for the duration of the race.

Racing up front means clean air and fewer obstacles, so a vital decision is choosing who your dance partner is going to be. Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have proven to work well together at this track, and both have the same amount to gain or lose, so they will no doubt find each other early and attempt to stay together towards the front. They will both be early and strong contenders for this event, and they are two of the most capable and experienced drivers at this monster track.

Another pair of drivers whose decisions could impact the Chase field on every lap of this event, are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, both of whom are locked into the Eliminator round of the Chase by way of victory in the Contender round. Much like the popular girls at a middle school dance, they are being and will be courted frequently by the rest of the Chase field.

"Roller Girl"

“Roller Girl”

Case in point: Logano may be Keselowski’s sole hope to consistently run up front, as Brad may find trouble keeping a partner with him to maneuver through the field after last week´s dust-up. The 22 doesn’t have to win, he just has to start to advance, so they will almost surely team up and stick together through the entirety of the event. Roger Penske, legendary team owner, might have “suggested” that already.

Harvick has the luxury of going with who he chooses and when he chooses. Harvick´s #4 has arguably been the best team week in and week out this season, and “Happy” has both the equipment and experience to find himself with more suitors than he can please. More like “Boogie Nights” than “Talladega Nights”. Whatever decisions these two drivers make have Chase implications on every level, on every lap.

However, just because the bottom four are carrying the most pressure heading into the Geico 500, that doesn’t mean that rest of the Chase field shouldn’t be concerned. Jeff Gordon has competed in, and won, many of these restrictor plate races. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch know what it takes to get it done, as well. Those drivers, along with Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman know that each lap, each decision they make – and when they make them — could keep them in the Chase for the next 3 races, or suddenly place them on the outside looking in.

Think about, for a moment, the Talladega races we had in NASCAR before the Chase, where even a casual fan could tune into the race and know within a half a lap of watching how early or late in the race was. What fan, and even TV announcer has watched a particularly daring move and not said ‘No,no,no, that was way too soon’!!

Those days are long past. With every position important, every lap, the type of racing that was saved for the final laps of the race will now be the standard. The trick is to be aggressive, but not aggressively stupid. A fine line, which many drivers will either ignore or completely forget.

Decide well, and be rewarded.

Decide poorly, and Talladega will allow someone else to make the decision for you.

 

 

Earnhardt Jr. Thinks He, Team Are Ready For First CMS Victory

Dale Earnhardt has not won a points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, something he hopes to change in this weekend's Coca-Cola 600.

Dale Earnhardt has not won a points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, something he hopes to change in this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

CONCORD, N.C. – It wouldn’t be difficult, not at all, to surmise that Dale Earnhardt Jr. badly wants to win at Charlotte Motor Speedway – and to do so this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 would achieve a personal goal.

After all, for all of his talent and technical support, Earnhardt Jr. has not won a points race at CMS. His only victory was in The Winston, the predecessor to the Sprint All-Star Race, in 2000.

At that time Earnhardt Jr. drove a No. 8 Chevrolet for his father’s organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“This is definitely a race I would love to win,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to win a points race so bad.”

Earnhardt Jr. recounted how some of his first racing memories came at Charlotte. The track is located only few miles from his Kannapolis home.

“Being we were from right up the road, we always came here,” he said. “I remember watching a lot of races from the condos in 1982, 1983.

“It’s frustrating that I haven’t won a race here other than the All-Star Race. I’ve never really felt I had a car here that could win.

“They were always good cars but we always seemed to get outrun.”

In a somewhat acrimonious split from DEI, supposedly created when Earnhardt Jr. could not get a sizable ownership percentage of the team from Teresa Earnhardt, his mother-in-law, the driver tore away from his roots and joined Hendrick Motorsports.

He’s had his ups and downs with Hendrick through the years. He’s not won a championship, something he felt would happen when he joined the team.

And, of course, he has not won at CMS.

But this season Earnhardt Jr. has been in top form. He’s been more competitive, week in and week out, than he’s been in the last several years.

Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate, Jeff Gordon, has five wins at CMS and he will move into a four-way tie for first all-time with a  600 victory.

Earnhardt Jr.’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, has five wins at CMS and he will move into a four-way tie for first all-time with a 600 victory.

He opened the season with a victory in the Daytona 500. That win accomplished at least two things: First, the mixture of Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick returned to excellence on the restrictor-plate tracks.

Second, and this is most important, Earnhardt Jr. all but assured himself a spot in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Any driver who wins at least one race has the inside track to the Chase, which was re-formatted to allow 16 drivers – hopefully all winners – to compete.

Earnhardt Jr. has not faded since Daytona. In fact, he’s been very competitive.

He’s fourth in points with seven top-10 finishes in 11 races.

Among those finishes are seconds at Phoenix and Las Vegas – the two races following Daytona – and Darlington.

He earned a fifth-place finish at Kansas, a week before the All-Star race and the last points race prior to the 600.

Earnhardt Jr. was solid in the All-Star Race, finishing fourth.

But he said that was a better finish than his Chevrolet should have earned. He added that there was work to be done before the 600, the longest race in NASCAR.

“We need to improve before the 600,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We know that. Some of the guys in the (All-Star) race had trouble at the end and that’s why we gained a couple of spots.

“We have to find speed and grip. We know what we have to do and I am confident we’ll get it done.”

Earnhardt Jr. admitted that the “sprint” that is the All-Star race is all about money. But he contends there is more to it than cash.

“You try to pay attention to what you are doing and what you are feeling in your car so you can use those notes next week in the 600,” he said. “You try to look at what your teammates are doing, learning what they are doing, that you might want to do this week when you are going through it all.  “There is a lot to be learned and hopefully we will get our car going pretty quick.”

Studying his teammates might be a good strategy for Earnhardt Jr. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson has won at Charlotte six times, which ties him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip as the all-time leader.

Jeff Gordon has won five times, Kasey Kahne four.

Johnson, however, has yet to win this year and is seventh in points, 28 behind Earnhardt and 54 behind leader Gordon.

“I think they’re just kind of searching with the new rules and where to get Jimmie comfortable and fast and find the speed,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve seen them have speed and then sometimes they just don’t, for whatever reason.

“And when they get in traffic or something they’ve had a little trouble in traffic. I don’t think it’s a big deal, man.

“They are obviously still kind of searching for what they’re looking for. They’re still searching for some speed.”

By his own admission, that is exactly what Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick team is doing.

And it would be good to find it by the Coca-Cola 600. That would give Earnhardt Jr. a better chance to win a points race at CMS for the first time in his career.

“The All-Star race was a great opportunity to really be at the race track and get some laps in race condition to try and give yourself the best opportunity to win the 600-miler,” he said. “I feel like we will do that.

“I think we will be ready.”

      

      

Hot Dale Earnhardt Jr. Shows How New Format Creates Risky Strategies

Brad Keselowski won the Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas to give him a sweep at the 1.5-mile track. He also won the Nationwide Series event.

Did a radio show the other day with Ricky Mast, son of former driver Rick Mast, one of NASCAR’s greatest characters, and Ricky asked me what was driving the increased interest and enthusiasm for NASCAR this season.

The answer is obvious and Ricky knew it – and so do you.

I told him a story to emphasize how much interest in, and knowledge of, NASCAR has grown this early in the season.

I have a friend who is only a casual NASCAR observer. He watches on TV only rarely and, as far as I know, has never spent money on a race ticket.

“Why does there seem to be such a buzz about NASCAR right about now?” he asked.

I started to answer him when he interrupted me.

“Wait, I know,” he said. “It’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.”

Of course he was right. When a casual observer reaches the same conclusion as every fan and media member, well, all is very obvious, isn’t it?

There’s good reason why Earnhardt Jr.’s accomplishments – a win in the Daytona 500        and two subsequent runnerup finishes – have revitalized NASCAR.

He’s easily the sport’s most popular driver with a legion of fans that mightily cheer his accomplishments and suffer disappointment over his shortcomings.

His visage has been so widespread via television and other media that people who know nothing about NASCAR recognize him. It was the same for his father.

An anecdote if you will: Years ago Dale Earnhardt was a guest on the Tonight Show. Jay Leno came onstage and didn’t even bother to do his monologue.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a gamble to win at Vegas but he ran out of fuel on the last lap to finish second. He’s been hot with one win and two runnerup finishes.

Instead he simply said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Dale Earnhardt!”

The audience went nuts in a standing ovation.

Now, how many of those mostly Californians knew much about NASCAR? They sure knew Earnhardt.

It’s the same for his son, perhaps more now than it ever has been.

Earnhardt Jr. has been racing in that “take no prisoners” style that so exemplified his father. At Daytona he was flawless – he probably drove the best restrictor-plate race of his life.

But it was at Las Vegas that Earnhardt Jr. did the one thing NASCAR wants more drivers to do – take a chance; go for it.

Earnhardt Jr. was leading the race on its final laps. But he was in danger of running out of fuel. He put the danger aside.

“As much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We weren’t going to run in the top five if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy.

“If we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors we would have probably run just inside the top 10, where we were all day.”

What Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte decided to do was gamble. If the fuel held out, they would win. If not …

“We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad (Keselowski) get there,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we’d win the race.  If we weren’t, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least get to the end.”

Earnhardt Jr. came up less than a full lap short. He finished second to Keselowski.

However, Earnhardt Jr. displayed the type of strategy dictated by NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

The “playoffs” are open to winners only. And when a driver wins a race he’s got the satisfaction of knowing he’s in the Chase.

Which means, as a winner, when a gamble might be necessary he can take it. He can go for the victory rather than play it safe and hope for a top-10 or so finish.

“I think everybody has seen that over the last couple of weeks that this format has definitely allowed teams to gamble like we have,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You know, it did pay off.  Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second.

“Would we have done it without the new format? Absolutely not. I can say that without a doubt.”

Keselowski, who swept the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at Las Vegas, knew what Earnhardt Jr. was trying to do. And he admitted that if put in similar situation he’d do it too.

“The chance that Dale and Steve took with the No. 88 car was way out there and it was a good risky move on their part, because they had nothing to lose because of this format,” he said. “So I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days.

“I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities because, believe me, I’m not scared to take them.”

All of this bodes well for NASCAR because it clearly indicates that its new format has the potential to create bold, risky strategies.

They aren’t reserved solely for winners. Any driver searching for that first, important victory may have to gamble to get it.

As for Earnhardt Jr., he may not be able to keep up his torrid pace. He’s first in points but only by one over Keselowski.

But it would seem that, this season, he’s ready to challenge for the championship.

That’s one reason why he’s jolted NASCAR like a cattle prod.

5 Best and Worst of NASCAR 2013: Pre-Chase

Dale Earnhardt Junior is the face of NASCAR. His popularity never wanes. He looks to be in the Chase and the hunt.

5 Best:

(1) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Say what you will, positive or negative about Junior, one irrefutable fact remains. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the face of NASCAR. He’s consistently been the single greatest human asset that NASCAR has had since his Father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. perished in the Daytona 500 of 2001. He’s a fan favorite in a motorsport genre’ that, rather uniquely, relies on it’s personalities to drive it forward. (In Formula One it’s nationalistic.)

He’s sitting in 7th place for the Sprint Cup Chase and could be locked in at Richmond. He has a lifetime career in NASCAR even if he decided to drive a Yugo.

(2) The Generation 6 Car

The Gen 6 car has produced more competitive racing and an excellent base in which to grow the platform.

Were it not for the advancement of the Gen 6 car, we would have to be chained like pit bulls to a double wide in order to ever watch an entire NASCAR race. Taking as many years to develop a car that could have, and should have, been a solid car right out of the box, the COT may have scarred many fans for life.

The new Gen 6 car is fast, handles more like a racing car should and, coupled with the introduction of the “Frankentire, it has the potential to make the series more competitive than it already is, if that’s possible.

(3) Stewart/Haas Racing

Stewart does what Stewart wants. Haas seems to do the same.

In an announcement that everyone expected, Kurt Busch managed to close down a deal that will make this team the ultimate ‘Bad-Boy’ show of 2014. Stewart, Harvick and Busch should prove out the theory, mine of course, that volatile personalities and talent will make for some of the more interesting moments in the coming season. Welcome to Formula One, American style.

(4) NASCAR’s Brilliant Television Deal

It looks like a play ripped straight out of Bernie Eccelstone’s ‘Satanic Journal of Deal Making’, though I doubt they had to go the Faustus route. The NASCAR deal is worth a whopping 8.2 Billion dollars over a 10- year period with NBC and Fox. Let that soak in. In this present economy, and don’t kid yourselves-it’s flatter than Danica Patrick’s…..performances to date,

NASCAR has managed to ink media deals that ensure it remains relevant in the public’s eye. At least it’s placed itself squarely in front of the ever-evolving fan base. It’s up to them now.

(5) NASCAR Digital Media

When NASCAR reacquired its digital media rights from Turner, it had anticipated that the fan base would be more reliant on digital media than in the past. That fan base has done just that. NASCAR has and is creating an NFL-like structure for controlling what is and is not said about them in the media.

From purely a business perspective that’s exactly what they should have done. It’s their sandbox and they can do with it what they choose. It does, of course, have one potential caveat. That’s in the next section.

 

Stewart-Haas Racing wont be in the Chase this year.

5 Worst:

(1) Tony Stewart

It is Stewart/Haas Racing, but the fans and particularly the sponsors, wanted to see Tony Stewart climb into the Sprint Cup Chase and bring a fight to Johnson and rest. It isn’t going to happen due to his extended recovery from a crash suffered while racing Sprint Cars.

Of course this isn’t news. What may very well be news is the displeasure of the sponsors that he has put into jeopardy. These sponsors have merely paid the entry ticket into what sponsorship really is. They call it “activation” and that means millions of dollars worth of promotions, public relations, corporate appearances and the value of television staying focused on the twelve drivers who will comprise the Chase. Stewart wont be attending, no RSVP.

Tony Stewart has earned the right to do whatever he wants, however, when a professional driver jumps into a sport or sports known for their danger of injury or risk of death, that driver should question whether they really wanted it bad enough, ownership aside.

More and more contracts are being crafted that limit the driver’s extracurricular activities in an effort to protect their investment. I expect an addendum of some sort may be in the works with Stewart’s major sponsors. He may not go along and still get away with it, but his posse of unlikely team-mates may not be immune.

(2) NASCAR Digital Media Consolidation

While it’s true that the consolidation of digital media in NASCAR is a distinct positive for NASCAR, will they allow the press to pontificate, as we tend to do, or will they cherry pick those media outlets that won’t oppose them? This is the potential caveat.

Look at the NFL, NBA and MLB for guidance. Those sports squeeze their assets harder than the African Rock Python, now plaguing South Florida. The biggest risk to NASCAR is that they hold them too tightly. The bloggers of the world do have something to say, whether it’s gibberish or not is up to the reader.

It appears to me, as Motorsports Unplugged deals with NASCAR Digital on a professional basis, that so far they have been friendly to those digital publications who have something meaningful to say. In short, it means one has to produce great content in order to have a seat at the table.

We can only hope that the seemingly stabilized NASCAR will allow those with points of critique to be represented. This sport is not as accessible to the average fan on the street as sandlot football, baseball or the pick up game. It has to be a spectacle that grassroots fans talk about.

Jimmie Johnson shows the challenges of road racing. This discpline should be in the Chase.

The under forty demographic sports fan lives life in 140 characters. This is the fan that NASCAR needs to grow.

(3) Another year, no road-race in the Chase

Bill France Senior, or ‘Big Bill’ as he was called, felt that open wheeled and sports cars needed to have a healthy base in order for NASCAR to do the same. Too much of one style was detrimental to the attention span of America’s gear-heads.

I couldn’t agree more. If you truly want to represent NASCAR as sport that can turn left and right with top dog drivers, you cannot exclude this highly difficult disciple from the big event. Notice the international attention that takes place when Nationwide hosts its road races.

If you’re going to have a playoff system that has flair and inclusion of beautiful skill, you need to have a Road Race in the Chase. Personally I think Mid-Ohio.

(4) The decision, or indecision, not to reduce the number of seats at the larger tracks

It’s impossible to convince a tough audience that there are more people in these stands than an NFL game.

Let’s face it, they overbuilt. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then times were good. ISC is, of course, a public company that owns a number of the tracks as well as Bruton Smith.

Both have to realize that the perception of empty seats on television has an effect on a casual fan or someone whose just been introduced to the sport.

I stood in the infield with the late Jim Hunter. We were friends, but he was friends with everyone, though I did catch his ire at least once. In 2003, I stood in the infield with him. I asked how much more expansion they would do with that style track, his reply: “There’s no damn way we can build anymore like these, they’re 250 to 300 million dollar each.”

The economy isn’t going to roar back anytime soon and bringing down seats is expensive but you simply can’t have one hundred thousand fans attend a race and the facility still look empty. The perception is devastating. That one act alone might very well make good, and more, on the $8.2 billion dollar television deal. That is if NASCAR and ISC can agree.

The consumate competitor leaves NASCAR unfulfilled. Unless he doesn’t leave.

(5) Juan Pablo Montoya

If anyone had the credentials to make a go of it in NASCAR, JP Montoya was it. He had won in every series he’d ever participated in. But after 7 years it became painfully obvious he was not going to make it stick. The reasons can be debated forever: He never had the equipment. He had horrible luck. His temper made him no friends in the garage. He lost his passion. My sense is that it’s a combination of all and that in 5 years no one will remember the whole experiment. Whether he goes to IndyCar or, as I believe he should, go to LeMans Prototypes, it wont make a difference as he still exited with little fanfare.

Time To Chase Is Short, So Night Race At Bristol Looms Large

With time growing short before the Chase begins, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski will be looking for a win at Bristol to help his cause.

It’s time for Bristol racing at night.

I’ve known this is the week for that race for many years, even before I started to memorize the schedule. I know because second Bristol always occurs around my birthday.

Bristol is NASCAR Mecca for many. The most infamous of short tracks in NASCAR’s season, second Bristol is run at night under the lights. It was one of NASCAR’s most sought-after tickets.

At this track downforce is no longer an issue with this modern car; Bristol levels the playing field making man far more important than the machine.

Short-track racing inherently brings out the fierce competitor always at the surface. Egos flex, tempers flare, and the need to win is in over-drive.

Add to the mix the tightness of Bristol, the loudness, and the proximity to the Chase and all emotions culminate to a fever pitch.

This race could very well be the one to put Kyle Busch into Championship contention. He’s great here with a sweep of all three Bristol NASCAR contests in 2010.

He currently has three wins this season and is aching to close the gap between him and Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Busch is flying under the radar and is definitely a competitor to watch closely. Last year he was denied entry into the Chase at Richmond and does not want to be turned away again.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. still has a spot in the top 10 going into Bristol, but he’s slipped lately and can ill afford a bad race.

On the flipside, current reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski is fighting to stay afloat. Bristol is a track Keselowski has tamed in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012. He needs this victory to stay alive before the Chase becomes out of reach.

Kasey Kahne captured the win at Bristol in March so he’s hoping for a return victory. That would put his tally of wins to three for the season, a nice tidy sum of bonus points.

Of course Johnson and Carl Edwards have earned wins at this track so they are anxious to buffer their points in this competition.

And then there is Kurt Busch. He has a five wins at Bristol, most recently in 2006. He has been poised to win all season and this could be his breakout track.

With the media attention surrounding the elder Busch this week with rumors of a job at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 – a “rumor” that both parties are currently refusing to acknowledge as fact – a win here would catapult Busch. To where, I’m not exactly sure, but it would be huge.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a win at Bristol in 2004. It’s been nearly a decade but all of “Junior Nation” hopes the memory muscle is still taut.

Earnhardt Jr. has slipped in points in recent weeks with tough luck finishing races. He’s currently sitting in seventh place but wants to secure his spot in the Chase.

Matt Kenseth was the winner at Bristol in 2006. Currently his rival is Johnson and a win here would once again upset the balance of power in Kenseth’s favor.

Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, and Jeff Gordon also have wins at Bristol so they are certainly contenders here.

Of course, the 2013 season has shown that there is no given. “Underdogs” have won, surprise names have fought their way to the front and earned a victory, and this weekend could be no exception.

The race falls on my actual birthday this year – Aug. 24. I’ll be tuning in to watch my birthday race and look forward to a rollicking good time.

Who do you see winning this event?

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