Numbers Tell Us The Competition Ain’t Bad, For Now

As the 2011 season heads into Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the Samsung Mobile 500 tonight it is interesting to note how, competition-wise, the preceding six races have provided excellent storylines.

This is NASCAR’s opinion, you understand, not mine – but I must say that I agree with it.

“Storylines” might be the wrong word here. Let’s just say that what has transpired so far are simply facts that deserve our attention.

Why, you might ask. It’s because some of what we might have expected so far this season has not happened – and some of what we did not, in many ways, has.

I use as evidence of all this information provided by NASCAR; information that puts its competition in a good light. But when it comes to competition, the sanctioning body is all about promoting the quality therein whenever possible – which is its job, after all.

The facts and figures are accurate. They are not manipulated. They are what they are, and, to be honest, they are intriguing.

We’re told that two of last year’s top winners, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, remain winless going into Texas. I’m not sure about you, but I’m one of those who thought either one of them would have been victorious by now. Heck, if nothing else, they were the hands-down favorites at Martinsville.

And you knew that, didn’t you?

Interestingly, lead-change records have fallen in three of the six Sprint Cup races so far, at Daytona, Phoenix and Martinsville.

There has been, NASCAR tells us, an average of 31.5 lead changes per race, the most after six events in series history.

Now I would be one of the first to say this is nothing but the result of racing circumstances. But I would quickly add that races that have produced record lead changes at such a high average are, if not great, certainly compelling.

After all, which race is better – one in which several drivers swap the lead or one in which a driver dominates to the point of boredom? I think you know.

NASCAR tells us that, through six races, there has been an average of 13 leaders per race, the most in series history.

Again I would say this is the result of circumstances. But I would also say that, as far as fan and media appeal, it beats the hell out of anything else.

We know that prior to Kevin Harvick’s win at Martinsville, his second in a row, there were five different winners in the first five races of the season. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2005.

Once more, it’s all about circumstances.

But then, given what has happened so far, consider this: You tell me, if you like real competition, what is more appealing – that one or two drivers dominate or that several win – and in some cases we are ultimately greatly surprised when they do?

Case in point: Face it, when Trevor Bayne and Wood Brothers Racing won the Daytona 500 was that not a big, pleasant surprise that ultimately captured national attention?

Headed into Texas, seven different teams occupied the top seven positions in the point standings. They were Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hey, I like it. To me it’s a more intriguing scenario than oh, say, for Roush to have four teams among the top seven and Hendrick the other three – unless you’re a big fan of either team, or both.

Finally, NASCAR pointed out that the top four drivers in the point standings all run different manufacturers.

If I had to guess, the sanctioning body revels in this statistic more than any other. It’s proof, somewhat, that its ongoing efforts to create a level playing field for all its participating manufacturers are paying off – for now, anyway.

I know all of this is NASCAR tooting its own horn. But why not? There have been seasons in the past when it didn’t have a horn to toot.

Tooting aside, the numbers do tell us the competition in NASCAR, so far, ain’t been bad at all.

Starting at Texas tonight, we’ll see if stays the same, gets better or gets worse.

 

Phoenix A Comeback For Gordon And Other Musings

A few quick observations on the Subway 500 at Phoenix International Raceway:

— Obviously, for Jeff Gordon, it was a welcome relief to win for the first time in 66 races. The last time he went into victory lane was at Texas in the spring of 2009.

Some suggested that at his age, 39, and with a family Gordon had shrunk into a shell of what he once was competitively- although Gordon and I would argue with that. He has four Sprint Cup championships and a decade ago seemed destined to quickly earn a fifth. He didn’t.

He hasn’t won a title since 2001.

Now, I suspect his many fans will say he’s on track toward another title and he may well be. But it’s far too early to tell, of course.

At the very least Gordon has accomplished something he hadn’t in nearly two years. That’s a start.

And his victory helped him overcome a very mediocre Daytona 500, where he was involved in an incident and finished 28th.

He’s now fifth in points. OK, that is indeed on track for a title, for now.

The Hendrick Motorsports personnel switch that took place over the off-season showed signs of good results – but not much more. Gordon now works with crew chief Alan Gustafson and the crew formerly part of teammate Mark Martin’s group.

That they were able to win in only their second start of the season gives evidence that the alterations just might work – for Gordon, anyway.

We have yet to see how it might pay off elsewhere.

If you ask me, most fans won’t concur the changes have worked until Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to competitiveness with Steve Letarte, Gordon’s former crew chief, and the bunch once with the No. 24 team. That, to them, will provide the ultimate proof that the Hendrick swap worked.

By the way, Letarte was one of the first to congratulate Gordon for his Phoenix victory.

— Gordon ran down Kyle Busch and passed him with just eight laps remaining and then pulled away to win at Phoenix.
Busch had already won the Camping Word Truck Series and Nationwide Series races at Phoenix. He led all 200 laps of the Nationwide race.

Busch missed the Phoenix sweep by just one position. Had he done so it would have been for the second time in his career. He did it at Bristol last year.

With top-10 finishes in the first two races of the season Busch has moved into No. 1 in the point standings. Again, yes, it is early but there are many who contend the only world left for Busch to conquer is to win a Cup championship. To many, he has already established himself as the best all-around driver in NASCAR.

I won’t argue with that.

— Wrecks and other incidents have been a big part of the first two races of 2011.
At Phoenix the most prominent crashfest affected 13 cars, some of which were considered as pre-race favorites.

The mishap also had another effect. It placed some drivers considered championship contenders in a position where they have to make up significant ground as quickly as possible – if for no other reason than to lessen a sense of urgency.

They include Carl Edwards – considered by many the driver most able to end Jimmie Johnson’s championship streak at five – Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray.

Of the group Edwards is highest at 12th in points, 21 points behind Busch.

Oh, and Kevin Harvick did finish fourth at Phoenix, but that, coupled with his 42nd-place run at Daytona following a blown engine, puts him 22nd in points.

Denny Hamlin, another anticipated to make a title run, was 11th at Phoenix and 21st at Daytona. He’s in 14th place.

As for Johnson, a third-place run at Phoenix was decidedly better than his 27th at Daytona. He’s always been something of a slow starter and he’s 13th in points.

Again, please, it’s early. But the point is that some of the expected contenders have some catching up to do – not that this is anything entirely unusual after two races in any season.

— Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had a whirlwind week leading into Phoenix as he received phone calls from the White House – he also spoke with Vice President Joe Biden – was on the set of the Ellen DeGeneres and George Lopez shows and made personal appearances, along with videos, almost from coast to coast. The 20-year-old driver even received wedding proposals.

I’m not surprised. Those who should know say that the personable, good-looking Bayne has really fired up the ‘tweeners. Incidentally, that’s great for NASCAR.

But at Phoenix things came crashing to reality as Bayne wrecked his Wood Brothers Ford after just 49 laps to finish 40th.

OK, let’s be frank. In Cup competition Bayne is a raw rookie. He won at Daytona because of his talent, certainly, but also because he had an excellent car.

And he evolved into one of the best drafting partners in the race – not to mention in a 150-mile qualifying event in which his idol, Gordon, insisted he hook up with him.

Bayne wins at Daytona. His idol then wins at Phoenix. A bit ironic, don’t you think?

But the point is that Bayne, as a rookie who will compete on most tracks for the first time, is likely to have far more experiences such as that at Phoenix than what happened at Daytona.

I don’t think the ‘tweeners will mind a bit. They’re already in his camp.

For Earnhardt Jr. The Season Is Yet Another Opportunity

If I was Dale Earnhardt Jr., I would have long since been very tired of NASCAR observers, fans, pontificators and pundits – like me – commenting on his professional and personal life.

Over the past few years Earnhardt Jr. has probably heard or read everything out there. He may have long since quit doing so, I don’t know, but it’s likely he’s done enough to learn, in abundance, what everyone has to say.

You know, stuff like the fact that he’s mired in a 93-race losing slump, or that he hasn’t been able to succeed with a dream team like Hendrick Motorsports, which indicates he’s no more than a mediocre driver despite promising performances in his early Sprint Cup seasons.

Or that his heart really isn’t into competition because he’s content to be a “name” driver who has, financially and otherwise, anything he wants in life.

Then there’s talk that Earnhardt Jr. succeeded only under the guidance of his father – and while driving for the team bearing the name Dale Earnhardt. The son hasn’t been much of anything without the presence of his dad.

I haven’t had the opportunity to visit with Earnhardt Jr. in quite some time. So suffice it to say I haven’t spoken to him personally and don’t know what he thinks of any of the above.

What I know is only what he has revealed to the media through various press conferences, including the one given during the Sprint Cup Media Tour.

I have a very hard time believing Earnhardt Jr. does not have the desire to race, to win again and eventually establish what ultimately will become a stellar career.

I think he has borne burdens not shared by any of his fellow competitors – and those burdens, accompanied by unsuccessful changes, have made things much harder for him.

He is the son of Dale Earnhardt. The name is burden enough. So it has been in the past for Kyle Petty, Davey Allison, Dale Jarrett and others. Believe that and also believe the second generation or third generation, while highly successful in its own right, rarely eclipsed the first.

Initially, it appeared that would not be the case with Earnhardt Jr. He won two Nationwide Series championships and 17 of his 18 victories while driving for his father’s team. He quickly rose to stardom and, so it seemed, had been properly groomed to assume the family mantle.

But his father perished at Daytona in 2001. For the son it had to be emotionally devastating. How could it not be?
To have a father die in a race in which his son also drove has to be one of the most crushing blows ever delivered to a young man.

When Earnhardt Jr. told us, that because of what happened, he thought about giving up his racing career that was certainly understandable.

It might have been a blow to his career, but ultimately, he withstood it nicely.

Afterward, even though he won races with the team called Dale Earnhardt Inc., there came a time when he obviously thought he could do better elsewhere.

Or, perhaps, he thought that the operation and direction of the team could be better handled under his guidance. Either way by 2007 he made it clear he wanted majority control. He thought it best if he held superior ownership over his stepmother Teresa.

That was not about to happen. So, for the 2008 season, Earnhardt Jr. signed a pact with Hendrick to be its driver. It seemed a matchup decreed by the gods. NASCAR’s most popular driver would race for, arguably, its best team.

Earnhardt Jr. said at the time that with Hendrick he had his best opportunity to win races and championships.

As you know, that has not been the case. Earnhardt Jr. has won once in his three years with Hendrick and has never made the Chase. In 2010, he was again winless, finished among the top five only three times and eight among the top 10. He wound up a distant 21st in points.

But he was named NASCAR’s most popular driver for the eighth consecutive year. I think that tells you how much the father’s name and
legacy have been attached to his son.

I would think that’s another distraction for him. He said otherwise – about that and anything else.

“I’ve owned up to my issues and performance in the past,” said Earnhardt Jr. who now has a new crew chief in Steve Letarte. “I wouldn’t put up with the things I have if I didn’t think I wanted to go win races and be successful.

“We are making efforts to fix things and get better. I know we can do it.”
If he and his team don’t fix them this year, well, they will face an all-too-familiar situation the next.
If they do, perhaps the time will come when the pontificators and pundits – like me – will rightly praise them and then shut up.

And those who have voted Earnhardt Jr. the most popular driver in NASCAR for the past several years will, at last, feel justified beyond their own personal feelings. They will be rewarded by his accomplishments, as they should be.

We all know what Earnhardt Jr. must do this year.
He does, too.

Is 2011 The Year Of Gordon’s Redemption?

By this time many of us might have thought Jeff Gordon would have already won perhaps 100 races and matched Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven career Sprint Cup championships.

After all, he averaged over eight wins per season during the first five years of his career and, at one time, was so singular in his performances on the track that many thought he might well eclipse anything NASCAR has ever known.

Think of it. From 1994, just one season after he first competed on the full schedule with Hendrick Motorsports, until 1998, Gordon won a remarkable 42 races and three championships. In the year he did not win a title, 1996, he finished second to Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte.

He was so astonishing on the tracks, and at such a tender young age, he earned the nickname “Wonder Boy,” given to him by the late Dale Earnhardt. Don’t think Gordon was overly fond of it.

I remember Gordon’s unheralded debut in Atlanta in the fall of 1992. It was the race in which Petty made his last career start and Alan Kulwicki ultimately won the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Gordon finished 31st.

I also remember the first time I saw Gordon away from the track. It was at a cocktail party in downtown Charlotte thrown by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Tom Higgins, then with the Charlotte Observer, and I were standing at one of the many bars. A baby-faced Gordon, with his wispy moustache, walked in somewhat wide-eyed.

He stepped up to the bar and ordered a Coke – as you might expect. When served he asked, “How much?”

Higgins and I knew we had just seen someone who had never been invited to a cocktail party.

“There’s no charge,” we said.
“Good evening, Mr. Waid and Mr. Higgins,” Gordon said.
“Son, Mr. Higgins is my father,” Higgins said. “Call me Tom. This is Steve.”

At that time, which was well before Gordon made his victory and championship runs, neither of us had any idea of what he would achieve – or did anyone else, for that matter.

As Gordon accomplished what he did during the first half-dozen years of his career some fans grew to resent him.

They felt he was a driver simply handed everything needed to succeed. He hooked up with one of NASCAR’s best teams, armed with top equipment and personnel. Anyone with a modicum of talent, they said, could win in such a situation. He was a driver who had a silver spoon shoved into his mouth. He never paid his dues.

This is balderdash, of course.

Gordon’s talents were honed from the time he was barely able to walk. With the guidance of his family he raced open-wheel and Sprint Cars all across the country – and very successfully.

It was only after team owner Rick Hendrick, who has always had an eye for talent, saw him drive the wheels off a Nationwide Series car that Gordon got his break to enter the top echelon of NASCAR.

Let’s move forward in time. Gordon is now 38 years old. He hasn’t been called “Wonder Boy” in years. He’s an established NASCAR star. He won his fourth, and to date last, title in 2001.

But as quickly as his career soared early it has since fallen back to earth.

Other than in 2007, when he won six races and finished second in the Chase, his career has been far less productive than it once was. He didn’t make the Chase in 2005. His last victory came at Texas in the spring of 2009, which means he’s won just once since 2008.

Mired in a victory drought, Gordon undoubtedly views the 2011 season as one of redemption. He’ll compete with a new crew chief, Alan Gustafson, who came aboard after an off-season Hendrick shuffle. Gustafson was formerly Mark Martin’s pit boss.
Gordon hopes to find chemistry with Gustafson but nothing is guaranteed.

Gordon also feels there is nothing seriously wrong with his team. It doesn’t need sweeping change. He thinks with some small alterations; some tweaking, it will get better. And he knows it needs to be. The competition is stronger than ever.

Gordon maintains age has not diminished his skills nor has fatherhood dulled his competitiveness. He feels he still wants to win as strongly as he did in his youth.

But, as he said during the Sprint Cup Media Tour, he can’t make things better by himself – nor can his crew chief.

“We have to capitalize on opportunities to get wins, to create chemistry and confidence and keep that going all year long,” Gordon said. “That’s going to take teamwork.”

There was a time when we’d never hear those words from Gordon. But things change.
And every top driver has gone through a slump. The great ones break out of it.
It’s very likely Gordon looks at 2011 as his chance to do just that.

Martin Plans To Press On, But There’s A Job To Do

I’m guessing Mark Martin knows when to quit – apparently it’s just not going to be any time soon.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Jan. 9, is in his last year with Hendrick Motorsports. He will be replaced in 2012 by Kasey Kahne.

When that happens Martin will have completed his 25th season as a NASCAR driver. Seems a good time to move on to something else.

Right now, however, Martin isn’t going to do that. He said during the Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway that he intends to continue to race.

“I am absolutely, without a doubt, going to be driving race cars next year,” he said. “I’m just not going to be in any hurry to worry about that.”

Martin announced five years ago that he was ready to retire. He would bring to an end a 19-year tenure with Jack Roush, which produced, by far, Martin’s greatest successes.

With Roush, Martin won 35 Cup races and finished second in the final point standings four times.

But Martin changed his mind about retirement. Instead, in 2007 he accepted a ride for a limited schedule with owner Bobby Ginn. Dale Earnhardt Inc. absorbed the Ginn operation later in the year and Martin stayed on to compete in 24 races in 2008.

It surprised some that Martin agreed to race full-time for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. As far as Martin’s career goes, it was a very good move.

He had one of his best seasons with five wins and another second-place finish in points. It was abundantly clear that was a lot of life left in the old boy.

Many felt Martin would be a title contender in 2010 and could, at long last, win his first career championship.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Martin failed to win a race, finished among the top 10 only 11 times and wound up 13th in points – out of the Chase.

This bit of adversity is nothing compared to what Martin has overcome in his past.

His first full-time foray into NASCAR in 1982 went bust and he was forced to return to short-track racing in the Midwest, where he had been vastly successful.

He didn’t return to NASCAR until 1988, when Roush formed his team and gave Martin his long-awaited chance – provided he no longer took another drink.

Obviously, Martin made the very most of his second opportunity.
I’ve always felt drivers retire for several reasons but the most common appear to be:
Racing is no longer fun, it’s a grind.
Because he says he’s going to return in 2012, Martin obviously does not consider racing a grind.
A driver no longer feels he’s able to perform at the level he once did.

Despite his 2010 season, which was an off-year for him, Martin clearly feels he’s able to perform at a high level and wants to raise that in 2011. No one is going to argue with that.

A driver faces the fact opportunities have dried up for him.

They certainly haven’t for Martin over the years and, despite the fact this is his last year with Hendrick, do you really believe an opportunity won’t arise for Martin in 2012?

A driver is no longer physically able to perform.

Unfortunately, this has been the situation for several drivers over the years. Martin, however, has thus far avoided any serious malady, both on and off the track. Hopefully, that will continue.

And he’s one of the most physically-fit individuals in the garage area, having long since substituted body building for booze.

Martin has evolved into one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. In racing his age does not matter – obviously he doesn’t think so – and if he’s got the right equipment and personnel he can compete with the youngest of them.

When it comes to sorting out his future, Martin’s got it right. He’ll deal with that much later in the season.
Right now he’s got a job to do – again.

Hendrick’s Bold Move May Be The Best One Yet

The best NASCAR Sprint Cup teams never rest on their accomplishments, no matter how great they may be.

They strive to improve; to rectify problems big and small. Many times they do and that’s why they continue to be successful and rank among the best.

Case in point: Hendrick Motorsports.

Today, it is considered as the top team in NASCAR. It has won a historic five consecutive championships with driver Jimmie Johnson. It has 10 titles overall, the most of any team since “official” stock car racing began in 1949.

In American professional sports, Hendrick is one of only four teams to win five consecutive championships. The others are the Boston Celtics, New York Yankees and Montreal Canadiens.

Even with all of its achievements – and more – team owner Rick Hendrick firmly believes his organization can get better.

There are a few things that concerned him. Two of his teams did not make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2010 after three of them did a year earlier.

During the 10-race playoff Johnson seemed vulnerable. He had to come from behind to earn the championship at Homestead.

Jeff Gordon, ninth in the final standings, did not win a race. Neither did Mark Martin, who slumped to 13th in points, nor Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drifted to 21st in points.

As you know, Hendrick’s bold move has been a massive crew chief change. Martin now has Lance McGrew. Gordon is paired with Alan Gustafson. Earnhardt Jr. has been teamed with Steve Letarte.

The tandem of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus remains intact – as it should.

Hendrick said the changes will improve his organization across the board. He added that, while a championship was won in 2010, his four teams weren’t where they needed to be.

He insisted that the changes were not made solely to raise Earnhardt Jr.’s sagging fortunes.

Maybe not, but the feeling here is that Hendrick has made another change that might, just might, give Earnhardt Jr. his best opportunity to return to winning form – something he desperately needs to do.

The No. 5 and No. 24 cars of Martin and four-time champion Gordon will be fielded out of the same facility that will be known as the 5/24 shop.

The No. 48 and No. 88 cars of Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. will be fielded out of the 48/88 shop. Gordon’s No. 24 team had previously been united with Johnson’s No. 48.

The 48/88 union is, in one man’s opinion, a stroke of genius. This pairs Earnhardt Jr. not only with Letarte, certainly a proven leader in his years with Gordon, but also with Knaus – a crew chief who has already earned a solid reputation as the man who directed Johnson to five titles and all of his 53 career victories.

Knaus’ influence could prove tremendous. He is a no-nonsense perfectionist who has demanded much of Johnson and will do so with Earnhardt Jr., with the goal of getting the driver physically fit and mentally ready. There will be no coddling.

Hendrick split Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and brought McGrew aboard in mid-2009. That didn’t work. Nor did a restructure of the 5/88 shop in 2010, which gave Earnhardt Jr. several of the key personnel that helped Martin finish second in points a year earlier.

Something else needed to be done.

Hendrick is not about to directly unite Knaus with Earnhardt Jr. because that would disrupt the highly successful association Knaus has with Johnson. If it works – and boy does it work – why change it?

But he’s done the next best thing. He’s put Knaus in a position, with the able assistance of Letarte, to positively influence Earnhardt Jr., both personally and professionally.

When Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick in 2007 the team owner said that making the driver a champion would be a huge challenge. He also said that if Earnhardt Jr. won it would be expected. If he didn’t fans would believe that Hendrick was not providing him with the best equipment and personnel.

The feeling here is that Hendrick has made the boldest and most promising changes yet.

In fact, the crew chief and team swaps could benefit the entire Hendrick organization.

But if it all does not help Earnhardt Jr., well, what then?

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