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

 

Kyle Busch Crowned Champion in Candyland Chase, What’s Next?

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

Kyle Busch finally reaches the top by winning his first Sprint Cup Championship.

With a season that began in a hospital room and a fear that he might never race again, Kyle Busch stood tall as King Kandy at Homestead-Miami, with the final lap call that “The checkered flag goes to Kyle Busch, and the Sprint Cup Championship goes to Kyle Busch!”

Sidelined for the initial 11 races of the season because of a broken right leg and left foot sustained in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Daytona race crash in February, Kyle Busch finished off one of the most remarkable comebacks in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, with it, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after eleven seasons in the sport.

Busch, piloting the M&M’s Racing Crispy Camry, delivered a plethora of “firsts” by winning the season finale. In additional to his inaugural Championship, Busch brought home his first win ever in a Chase playoff race, the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing, the first title for his long-time sponsor Mars/M&M’s after 25 years in the sport, and the first title for his rookie crew chief Adam Stevens.

Shrewdly, Kyle Busch matured this season and realized that he could not get it done on his own, proclaiming “I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we did if it wasn’t for this injury.” During Busch’s comeback, he showered accolades on his crew chief Stevens. “He’s obviously a great leader of this team,” Busch said. “I love him to death. He’s done a really good job, and obviously we’re having fun doing what we’re doing.” That’s stellar praise from a turbulent driver who hasn’t always a solid rapport with his previous crew chiefs.

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David  Graham)

Jeff Gordon, right, congratulates Kyle Busch after Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race and the season title, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Many were surprised by Busch’s resurgence and patience to overcome the turmoil and physical challenges of his comeback. Given his prior success in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series and his self-proclaimed boast that he was “King of the Minors”, the only question mark that remains is how many future titles Busch will capture now that he has finally delivered on the promise of his wheelman talents and demonstrated an appreciation for the collective contribution of his team and partners to his success.

Remarkably, NASCAR closed out a drama-laden second year of its contemporary elimination-style Chase playoff, with the four surviving Championship contenders once again battling up-front in the final laps and facing the necessity to finish first to both close out the season-ending race and capture the Sprint Cup crown. As reigning 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick finished second 13 times this year, including the final race at Homestead, and that still was not enough to secure the title.

The NASCAR Chase Championship playoff seems to have elevated the engagement of fans, with the both of its last two races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami being sold-out; as well, the Homestead TV ratings delivered the highest overnights since 2005. So will the storybook finish leave NASCAR fans wanting even more in 2016? As the sport heads to the offseason, NASCAR must continue its metamorphous into a more exhilarating product, inculcate its emerging young stars, and showcase innovative technologies to help revitalize its aging fan base, by attracting new (read younger) fans with shorter attention spans. Amid a plethora of entertainment options, NASCAR remains at a critical inflection point to stay relevant as it looks towards the 2016 season by resolving several thorny matters:

  • Acquiring a New Title Sponsor for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Sprint, and its merged predecessor Nextel, have been the entitlement sponsor of NASCAR’s top series since 2004, so this selection entails a monumental investment and long-term commitment, and is critical to the sport’s continued vitality in staying relevant to its mainstream audience.

Whoever the NASCAR Series title sponsor will be, substantial time will be required to develop customer activation programs, establish corporate on-track hospitality, and build a collective marketing/branding campaign, so NASCAR must move quickly to vet and secure a new partner. At the same time, the dollar investment by a Corporate partner is nothing to sneeze at; only a finite number of companies have the financial resources to be willing to spend anywhere from $75 million to $100 million per season. Ideally, a forward-looking technology company (Apple, Google, Amazon – are you listening?) flush with cash would be a great partner, particularly to showcase the integration of technology into the sport.

  • Success in Implementing the Low Downforce Aero Package. For 2016, NASCAR has adopted a new low downforce aero spec with the expectation that the racing will be tilted back in the hands of drivers. Now, as race teams prepare for 2016 and build a strong baseline of data, the fan anticipation is that the racing will be even better (meaning closer with more passing).

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

NASCAR CEO, Brian France.

Moreover, with the upfront lead time, the new low downforce rules should allow Goodyear to dial-in tire combinations for each track that complement the new package and produces more fall-off, which hopefully leads to more passing. A softer tire, like the one built for Darlington, required drivers to manage their tire while slipping and sliding all over the track. If the new Aero package does not deliver better on-track competition, the Chase drama itself will not sustain the growth of the NASCAR franchise.

  • Elevating Brand Identity for XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. Both series are struggling with attendance and sagging ratings, particularly at stand-alone events not partnered with a Cup race. This weekend, with Roush Fenway Ford driver Chris Buescher only needed to finish 14th to clinch the second-tier XFINITY Series Championship, we got a mostly ho-hum race as Sprint Cup drivers dropped down to whip up on the rest of the field.

Both of these Series have already slashed allowable entries in each race (from 43 to 40 in XFINITY and 36 to 32 in Trucks) to weed out uncompetitive, poorly funded teams and ideally improve the on-track racing and available purse money.

In both the XFINITY and Truck Series, a champion is still determined via a season-long points system. Might it be a time for a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship type of system to decide the Champion in these series? Apparently, NASCAR thinks so, with its Official Fan Council of 16,000 members receiving an opinion survey in the past two weeks to float this idea, including a suggestion of restricting regular Sprint Cup Drivers from participating during the playoffs in these two series.

  • Promoting Future Stars and Technologies to Capture the Youth Demographic. NASCAR has a bright crop of talent coming up through the ranks, but now more than ever Sprint-cup rides are limited by sponsorship dollars. Nevertheless, several drivers are breaking through this coming year, including Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both of whom come with renowned racing pedigrees and are proving to be the total package.

Elliott, 19, is stepping into the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports ride vacated by Jeff Gordon, while Blaney, 20, will run for the Wood Brothers (with support by Ford Performance and a technical alliance with Team Penske). These two young guns have both won races in NASCAR’s lower divisions and present a perfect opportunity for NASCAR to showcase a meaningful battle for the 2016 Rookie of the Year, as well as a potential breakthrough berth in the Chase.

As well, to broaden its appeal to technology savvy fans, NASCAR is exploring ways to digitally deliver its product, taking fans more into the cockpit and chatter, with the 2016 introduction of the “digital dash”. This customizable dashboard of 16 preset screens is a great way to immerse fans in the driver experience, and the sooner the better. In a sport where it is hard to connect to what the driver is experiencing in the cockpit, fans will benefit from deeper access to more comprehensive real-time data, along with expanded digital platforms to access in-car race broadcasts. The NBCSN HotPass simulcast this weekend was a great starting point, offering a four way split screen of each Championship contender, along with live race communication between drivers and crew.

On our holiday wish list, we hope that NASCAR leads the way in reinvigorating its product with an improved level of on-track competition, promoting new stars with an uncompromising and fresh mindset, and capitalizing on emerging technologies to inclusively bring fans into the cockpit. Otherwise, the waning interest in America’s showcase racing series does not bode well for the fortunes of any of America’s besieged racing series, including the Verizon IndyCar and TUDOR United Sports Car series.

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

NASCAR and Formula One: Are You Man Enough To Succeed?

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

“They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

One more race at Homestead, Florida will decide who will be the 2015 Sprint Cup Champion. Was it a year to remember or a year to forget? It’s a little of both. Will NASCAR actually do what it takes in 2016 to succeed?

The NASCAR fan base is as polarized regarding the Chase format as Formula One is regarding it’s hybrid powerplants. In modern motorsports the wedges that have been driven between the fans has been to the determent of the sport regardless of what discipline it is.

In NASCAR, what started as a small problem, how to make the sport more interesting, resulted in the Car of Tomorrow debacle right through to the wholesale change of normally aspirated engines in Formula One to bizarre, unmanageable hybrid powerplants.

The world of motorsports has become tantamount to a plane crash: Something goes awry and then the pilots keep pushing buttons until the plane crashes.

2015 is a year to put behind us in both NASCAR and F1. 2016 will be a transitional year for NASCAR in that we will move to low down-force cars that are actually harder to drive from an aero point of view rather than hip-hop style camber being required to make the car turn.

For Formula One, 2017 couldn’t arrive too soon. The outrageous costs associated with these Frankenstein hybrids have damn near driven the sport to the brink. No independents can keep up under the current rules which have to be endured until 2017.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want's more.

A brilliant driver whose only competition was his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Hamilton want’s more.

In NASCAR The Gen 6 car proved worthy, but also too good on sticking to the track, so moving towards the low down-force set-up is a great thing. But is it too little too late? We won’t know until 2016 is mid-season and moves along towards 2017. Darlington’s viewership was down 17% over 2014. That’s very bad, very, very bad.

Redemption wont come overnight, it’s easier to keep fans you have than to gain new ones, but that NASCAR’s challenge. One issue in it’s favor, besides the low down-force, is the new influx of younger drivers. Perhaps they and their social skills can bring along a new group of viewers and fans, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

So, the NASCAR season will end up this weekend either crowning an outgoing champion in Jeff Gordon, or possibly an upset victory for Martin Truex, Jr. In Formula One Lewis Hamilton has taken his third World Championship in a year so mediocre, except for the USGP, that people will be almost forced to watch another year with nearly the same rules. Only the diehard fans may hang around for the ‘Great Engine Change’ of 2017.

NASCAR? NASCAR had better put on one hell of a show from race one in order to stop the femoral bleeding of viewers. I believe they can, however, but it will take an on-track product that dazzles along with very, very savvy social media to nudge the fans back into place and to grab those who never cared.

2016 will be the year of reckoning for both of these sports but will be married to social media like never before if they expect to keep people interested. The presidential elections are going to dominate social media, particularly Facebook and both of these styles of motorsports had better grab as many of those eyeballs as possible.

The political conversation will be dominated by the very same demographic as the motorsports fans for both NASCAR and Formula One. Who will take advantage of that?

As Alec Baldwin’s character in the infamous film, ‘Glen Gary, Glen Ross’ said: “They’re just sitting out there gentlemen, waiting for you to take their money. Are you man enough go and take it?”

Well Ladies and Gentlemen, are you?

 

 

 

 

Harvick Will Be The Dominant Driver At Phoenix

Gordon's teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

Gordon’s teammates will be playing chess at Phoenix in order to limit the competition for Gordon at Homestead.

With this weekend’s NASCAR race at Phoenix looming four drivers will be out of the game and four will be in, Count on Kevin Harvick to be one of the drivers who advance to Homestead for the finale’.

Harvick has had one of those seasons that had the usual ebb and flow we’ve come to expect from top drivers and teams. Periods of excellence that move to mediocre results and then come back with a vengeance aren’t uncommon for those who are in the elite club. The trick is when to peak.

Kevin Harvick seems to be more than at home in Phoenix having won 5 consecutive races at the desert track as well as 8 wins overall. He’s the favorite to win again ensuring his Homestead spot for the chance at his second Cup championship.

There are no more chances, this race is it. Jeff Gordon is ready to go, having won Darlington. The top four drivers in points are: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr, who seems to many to be an outlier.

One thing is certain the games will be in play at Phoenix with virtually all 7eligible drivers getting no help from their teammates and Hendrick rallying it’s team to block as many strong contenders as it can from being a threat to Jeff Gordon’s chances at Homestead.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

Edwards should be the favorite to transfer to the big show after Phoenix.

We were witness to that type of chess play when Jimmie Johnson so skillfully and stealthily ran down a dominant Brad Keselowski to take away a guaranteed spot for the Penske driver as well as further keep Joey Logano at bay.

That could actually play into Martin Truex, Jr’s hands, though the cards aren’t in his favor as his record at Phoenix are far from stellar and Furniture Row is a one car team.

When it’s all said and done, the money seems to point to Gordon, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards making the big show in South Florida.

Edwards has two wins at Phoenix and they are within the last few years rather than a decade old, so count him as a real threat to knock Truex out of the picture.

My picks going into Homestead: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards. Not a stretch, right?

My real hope is that Gordon goes out as a Champion and we can close the books on these cars with too much down force.

2016 is pivotal point for not only NASCAR but IndyCar and Formula One as well. It can’t come too soon for me.

NASCAR: Villains and Heroes At Martinsville Speedway

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season.

After the showdown at Talladega last weekend, I found myself astonished and speechless, given the dilemma of processing the spectacle that we witnessed on high banks in the final laps. So much transpired on the track that I considered seeking counseling. But the best advice I embraced was to simply “Let It Go”. I’m done with the Dega drama and ready to watch the final four 2016 Sprint Cup races play out.

The NASCAR circus now moves onto Martinsville Speedway for 500 laps on the tight half-mile oval known affectionately as the “paperclip”, with many simmering storylines. Like Talladega, Martinsville showcases intimate close quarters racing where drivers will be able to reach out and touch one another during the entire race. For those racers who have been keeping a mental checklist, the circumstances are ideal for a little bump and grind payback.

Villains and heroes have now emerged, in what had seemed a sedate season until the Contender round of the Chase played out. One of the unique obsessions within NASCAR is that each driver is able to build a reputation that the fans can partake in. With that mindset, I size up the forthcoming Eliminator Round contenders based on the character they have chosen to play in this latest round of theatre. The pressure of the Chase has demonstrated its ability to bring out both the best and worst in the drivers. Claims Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Crispy M&M Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

First, the Villains:

As the reigning Cup Champion, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, was accused by at least four other drivers of triggering the 11-car accident at the end of Sunday’s race to avoid being eliminated from the Chase. NASCAR, however, said a review of the incident failed to show Harvick did anything intentional, and he also rejected his competitors’ claims.

Kevin has shown his icy demeanor, having confronted Jimmie Johnson earlier in the Chicago Chase race when he felt Johnson drove him wrong. On the Talladega incident, Harvick showed no regret. “They can look at it 100 different ways, but you can’t quit. You can’t roll over and be done with it and say, ‘We tried our best.'” And so Harvick remains tight-lipped, perhaps having already said too much on the radio to raise suspicions about his intention on that final restart (or was it the second final restart; I’m still unclear).

Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Team Penske Ford, is exposing his greed, having become the first driver to sweep all three races in a Chase playoff round and the first Ford driver to win three successive Sprint Cup races since Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace did it back in 1994. Likewise, Logano eliminated NASCAR’s perennial favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., after Junior led the most laps and seemed poised to take the checkered on the final restart until the caution flag flew. Finally, Logano’s “spin and win” move on Kenseth in the final laps of Kansas two weeks ago surely alienated the entire Joe Gibbs Racing contingent of drivers, with two of those drivers hungry to push him aside in order to secure their own first title.

Kyle Busch’s taunting attitude and smug demeanor, together with his ridiculous knack of winning in all three of NASCAR series, make him an extremely reviled dude. Of course, it’s easy to dislike a driver who has supernatural talent when it comes to driving a stock car. This week, Busch stirred up the NASCAR nation by spouting off on Jeff Gordon’s chance of winning his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in his final season by saying: “I don’t see Jeff Gordon winning it this year, I just don’t see him going to Homestead and being able to beat the 4 (Kevin Harvick), (or) the 22 (Joey Logano) right now. Straight race to do that, to beat them, I don’t see that.” Massive speculation from a driver who seems to implode at some point in every Chase he has qualified for.

Lastly, Brad Keselowski is always outspoken and has cultivated an image of a brash outsider excluded from the inner circle, a “blue-collar” driver who has been to the school of hard knocks and paid his dues along the way. Brad is hungry for validation as he looks for his second Sprint Cup Championship to establish his true legacy. In last year’s Eliminator round, Keselowski got into a fight with Jeff Gordon on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway after Keselowski’s aggressive move up the middle while Gordon was leading on a restart in the final laps. “Bad Brad” still isn’t remorseful for the move he pulled on Gordon last November at Texas; in fact, he’s impressed and would surely try it again.

Now, the Heroes:

Furniture Row and Truex have a hard row to get to the title.

Furniture Row and Truex have a hard row to get to the title.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is still seeking his elusive fifth championship in his final season. He has been close several times, but has not won a Cup championship since 2001. Gordon has had a challenging year, having not yet won a race. Yet, for his legion of “Rainbow Warriors” fans, a victory and Championship would be a stellar walk-off for a driver that has given so much to NASCAR.

Kurt Busch has been flying below the radar screen, in contrast to the drama swirling around his Stewart-Haas teammate Harvick. Busch, driver of #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, is running quite well with solid top 10 results, but has stayed out of the limelight given his past PR antics. For a former Cup Champion who lost his Team Penske ride as a result of his hot-tempered attitude, this season has been a renaissance, culminated by adding a new sponsor for next year. With his fiancé, Ashley Van Metre, accomplished in the art of moving in high cotton circles, he’s marrying someone every bit his equal. Everyone loves a comeback story, and Busch’s would be stellar.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, is another comeback story, in more ways than one. Truex lost his MWR ride in 2013 after the Richmond Chase cut-off race debacle, at first believing he had qualified for his first Chase, but subsequently docked 50 points to squelch his Chase playoff qualification. As he recalled, “I pretty much said, ‘Oh crap.’ It was like getting punched in the face. You just didn’t see it coming. It came out of nowhere”. Then consider that Truex has stood securely by the side of his long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, in her battle and recovery from ovarian cancer. Running for the only single car team in the Chase, many counted Truex out at the beginning of the Chase, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He is the classic underdog that has already conquered insurmountable odds.

Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, has been running in the shadows. While his teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth have been flaming in the sport’s headlines, Carl has kept a low profile and let his on-track performance do the talking. Heck, Cousin Carl doesn’t even have a Twitter account; how much more low profile can you get? Edwards is famous for flashing that majestic smile and is one of the best sponsor pitchmen in the business. As a sentimental favorite, Edwards is the same guy who showed true sportsmanship in congratulating Tony Stewart on his 2011 Cup Championship, after Edwards was heartbroken by losing on a point tiebreaker in the final race of the season. He took a big chance this year to leave Roush Fenway Racing and join Joe Gibbs Racing, and it just might payoff with his first Cup Championship.

With the curtain now rising for the third act, NASCAR is racing forward at wide open throttle since its visit earlier this year to the historic Virginia short track. If this week’s race plays out like the spring installment at Martinsville, we should be in for a thrilling race, and perhaps a few clashes both on and off the track.

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

 

NASCAR: Jeff Gordon Looks To Shine At The Southern 500

"Heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this is not the season that Jeff Gordon anticipated as part of his farewell tour, given the strong Championship resurgence he had last year."

“Heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this is not the season that Jeff Gordon anticipated as part of his farewell tour, given the strong Championship resurgence he had last year.”

Jeff Gordon is as much an extraordinary athlete as they come in any sport today. Now competing in his 24th and final season at the highest level of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Gordon, whose crossover appeal helped take NASCAR into the mainstream, has earned four career Cup championships, 92 points-paying race wins and 88 pole positions, with all of those accomplishments for his longtime car owner Rick Hendrick as the driver of the iconic #24.

Most assuredly a first-time ballot eligible Hall of Famer, there can be no argument that the “Rainbow Warrior” has been one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR, and I will confess that his entry into NASCAR piqued my passion for the sport, as both a fellow California native and an admirer of his talents and exemplary sportsmanship.

Heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this is not the season that Jeff Gordon anticipated as part of his farewell tour, given the strong Championship resurgence he had last year. During 2015, Gordon has added little to his impressive career statistics, having no wins and only three top 5 finishes, with only 12 races remaining. While he has shown some speed with 3 poles, his average finish of 16.5 has been much poorer. The #24 team is perplexed, and even Gordon has trouble placing his finger on it, attributing some difficulty to the combination of this year’s lower horsepower and varied aero packages that have rendered the #24 team’s historical track notebooks virtually obsolete.

Comparatively, in 2014, Gordon sprinted into Victory Lane four times and had fourteen top 5 finishes. Stretching back over the prior ten seasons, Gordon has averaged thirteen top 5 finishes per year (an astounding third of the entire season). All of this from a driver that has achieved at least one victory in 19 of his 23 full-time seasons.

2015 has been a tough year for the NASCAR veteran.

2015 has been a tough year for the NASCAR veteran.

After the June Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway where he struggled to a 14th place finish, Gordon exploded, “It’s intense out there. We had a car far better than what we finished…It seems like every time we have a car capable of either winning or running in the top five, some circumstances come about that take us out.” In the most recent Bristol night race, Gordon’s irritation was even more apparent, as he stormed off without a post-race interview, after having to pit unexpectedly for two loose wheels resulting in a discouraging 20th place finish. As a result, Gordon is now teetering in 14th position of the Chase cut-off of 16 eligible drivers, with only two races remaining in the regular season.

With the return to Darlington Raceway over the upcoming Labor Day weekend throwback, Jeff Gordon surely knows how to get it done at the “Track to Tough to Tame”, which is one of his best tracks statistically. His seven career wins are the most of any active driver, along with eight top 5’s in the last eleven races. As an added twist, Darlington will showcase the lower-downforce package, which combined with Darlington’s abrasive track surface, will surely put more control in the experienced drivers’ hands. Last seen at Kentucky Speedway, the revised aero package resulted in a solid performance for Gordon, as he started 3rd and finished 7th. Gordon was positive on his team’s Kentucky performance under the new package, remarking “There at the end, everything kind of came together. We got the car working really well, got a couple of good restarts and a good pit stop. It was a solid evening.”

So, what achievement would be more momentous in Gordon’s final season: Going out as a race winner or points racing deep into the Chase playoffs without a victory? The template for the latter approach was showcased last year by Ryan Newman, driver of the Caterpillar #31 car, who made it all the way to the final Championship 4 round without winning a single race the entire season. Right now, odds-making websites place the probability of Gordon advancing to the Championship 4 round at 8%, along with his odds of winning the Sprint Cup Championship outright at 1%, which means Jeff Gordon fans must really keep the faith that the “Drive for Five” championship quest is still alive.

From my vantage point, I would prefer to see Gordon close out his final year with at least one victory. While the revamped Chase playoff format brings tremendous energy, pressure, and drama, it is ultimately a contrived system intended to generate excitement during the final 10 races of the season. As a traditionalist, I have always been slightly troubled by the full reset of the season points in the final race of the year to determine the NASCAR Cup Champion, which introduces tremendous uncertainty into the outcome.

Conversely, the racer’s mindset is characteristically to go win any race where the driver straps on his or her helmet. Points racing, while effective, is simply an aftereffect of the racer’s competitive mindset to win. Most NASCAR drivers acknowledge that they would wreck just about anybody on the last lap to win a race. Captured eloquently by the iconic words of the immortal Dale Earnhardt, “The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car; it’s the one who refuses to lose.”

So what say you, NASCAR nation? Would you wish for Jeff Gordon to win at least one more race in the remaining 12 races of his 797 career starts? Or would you rather see him play defense, given the #24 team’s lackluster year so far, and points race in order to advance through as many Chase rounds as possible? For me, the answer is clear-cut, and the Southern 500 is a great opportunity to see the #24 get back to Victory Lane.

Gordon has received many tributes from the racetracks during his farewell tour. At Kentucky Speedway, Gordon received 24 bottles of trademark bourbon. That’s fine, but I’m wagering that Gordon would prefer to spray champagne in Victory Lane before his career comes to a close.

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

Bugs Bunny Tirade Yields Safer Vegas Barriers

Looking like the "Little Martian" Character from the Bigs Bunny Cartoons, Jeff Gordon makes his point to NASCAR

Looking like the “Little Martian” Character from the Bugs Bunny Cartoons, Jeff Gordon makes his point to NASCAR

I can’t think of many things worse than a cold and rainy Atlanta, Georgia. In the Summer, a dynamic city, but when it’s cold and as inclement as it was for last weekend’s NASCAR race, you might as well be in Juneau, Alaska. I can only imagine how tough it was being a crew member standing in the pits. Truly, it’s the pits.

Several great things came out of Atlanta. The racing was close and very active. No one was injured, although Gordon’s crash could have been much worse. Fernando Alonso’s Formula One testing accident looked relatively benign, but it wasn’t. He’ll sit out the first Grand Prix in Australia due to a concussion.

That could easily have been Gordon’s fate or much worse. Las Vegas will have more safety barriers in place as a result of Gordon’s Bugs Bunny ‘Little Martian’ tirade. Always a crowd pleaser.

The racing, for me, was better than I’ve seen in a long time from the Sprint Cup series. The cars were a handful, the drivers had to work the wheel and try to create their own strategy as the race unfolded. My hat’s off to NASCAR for these particular sets of rule changes. You won’t hear me compliment NASCAR very often.

As new as these cars were to drive at Atlanta, they at least had the benefit of a track with unusual weather induced grip, although tires were getting eaten, causing more pit stops for rubber than fuel. That shouldn’t be the case at Las Vegas.

If everyone makes it through the qualifying technical inspection in due time, though that proved to not hamper anyone at Atlanta, the drivers will face a very different set of circumstances. A hot and slippery surface that should provide a much greater challenge to their chassis setups and to the drivers as they move through the cycle of stops.

Jimmie Johnson showed his skill in Atlanta. Las Vegas should be different, as in slicker.

Jimmie Johnson showed his skill in Atlanta. Las Vegas should be different, as in slicker.

Goodyear has a selected a tire mix that hasn’t been used at Las Vegas before, so how they will react to less down-force remains to be seen in terms of degradation. It doesn’t appear as if tire wear will be the big issue this weekend, but rather who can wheel a very loose car around the desert track the best.

This compound has more grip than last years and is obviously an attempt by Goodyear to keep the cars on the track, with the heat and it’s inherent slickness, it seems Goodyear is trying to get out in front of the issue.

We all know how Johnson fared in Atlanta and going into Las Vegas as the favorite doesn’t hurt his chances, this is how he likes to drive. But it may be that we’ll see an even harder car to drive in Vegas than we did in Atlanta. One can only hope.

From the moment NASCAR introduced the Checker, AKA, the Car of Tomorrow, the talent of the driver had grown from pure hatred to a ride along of setup and grip that was the first iteration of the Gen 6. It appeared as if the COT was a challenge, but more to the drivers psyche than anything else. In other words, “Is this really the form of motorsport I chose?”.

Why it took so many years for NASCAR to develop a car that actually works is beyond me.

Many people weren’t thrilled with Johnson winning the Atlanta race, but the fact is he earned it and didn’t run away from anyone. If you aren’t in the racing business or have never driven competitively you would be lulled into thinking it was dull and that Las Vegas may be more of the same. Don’t.

When drivers tell you the track or the car has a lot of grip, it’s relative. ALL racing cars slide around, it’s trying not to slide and drift that’s the trick. A sliding race car is a slow car, however when it’s loose you can, at least, rotate into the corners.

This weekend’s Las Vegas race should be the true test of what to expect from these new rules throughout the remainder of the season and no better place than Vegas to roll the dice.

 

 

 

Jeff Gordon Sportscaster? No. Gordon Hendrick Leader? Yes.

Getting ready for a leadership role?

Getting ready for a leadership role?

Let’s take a look at a few facts before I wander, as I often do, outside of the box.

Hendrick Motorsports is the General Motors factory team in NASCAR. No one can really, with a straight face, deny it.

Rick Hendrick really has no one to take over this level of operation in the future that would have his best interests at heart.

Jeff Gordon is retiring, but has stated that he doesn’t really want to get out of motorsports but is very vague in his statement regarding the future. People like Jeff Gordon do not decide to retire and not know what they’re going to do next. The simple, everyman image that he casts is a ruse. He shrewd and he knows.

My first inclination for Gordon’s possible future was that of show business, sometimes called sports-casting, but let’s face it, it is show business and Gordon is good at it. He seemed to revel in it at times, particularly while he was a ‘A’ list personality in New York City.

I recently stated to my friend and insider expert, Bill Marlowe, that I felt given Gordon’s accelerated role in commentating for the Xfinity series, he would go for showbiz.

It would seem natural, but Marlowe immediately adjusted my thinking that it would be a waste and not in the ultimate plan.

If you don’t know Bill Marlowe, you should. He’s raced Formula Atlantics, he’s engineered for Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Trevor Bayne. He knows his way around the NASCAR paddock.

Ingrid, Gordon's Belgian wife, is no doubt preparing Château belge de Gordon.

Ingrid, Gordon’s Belgian wife, is no doubt preparing Château belge de Gordon.

Marlowe then proceeded to line item by line item let me know the err of my thinking and in the process changed my mind.

Jeff Gordon will become a significant player in the Hendrick Motorsports operation.

Consultant? No. Ray Evernham is a consultant. Jeff Gordon will become a decision maker for the Chevrolet juggernaut.

How does this scenario line up without some evidence? There are plenty of breadcrumbs lying about that point to this scenario becoming a reality.

Jeff Gordon is a name with far more business acumen than a junior varsity level businessman.

He has made moves that suggest he is setting up Command Central, Charlotte. He has his New York property up for sale as well as a ranch in Utah.

Why sell these prime properties that would serve as a multi-millionaire get-away unless he had no time to use them?

In fact, the hammers and nails are flying as this goes to press on a palatial home in Charlotte. His wife, no doubt, is overseeing the European stones and artifacts being placed just so.

Think of it as a Belgian castle being planted in good old North Carolina.

He has equity in the #48 team, how much I do not know. I also don’t know if he has more equity than just the team, my suspicion is that he does.

Jeff Gordon is a household name in the United States. Ask anyone in any-town USA and they will recognize the name and General Motors is acutely aware of this.

The verdict for me, after heavy consultation with Marlowe, is that Jeff Gordon is being groomed for an executive role within the Hendrick organization. Chances are that process has been going on for quite some time.

Gordon would move into a vice-presidential role and over time, assuming he performs, will move up the ladder into what could become what we Formula One people call “Team Principle”. From there, CEO. He’s capable and has been taught well by both GM and Hendrick.

Deals such as this don’t differ dramatically from what you would see in the financial or manufacturing world who are searching for an eventual leader.

He would increase his equity stake over time as part of the package and as time goes on collect on the equity shares that have been set aside for him to acquire in the form of an earn out, thus ensuring he performs to the highest standards, which I’m sure he will.

Once the complete ‘higher education’ process is complete, he would then be offered a much greater equity stake, probably in the form of a split.

Some stock at the deal close, and the rest restricted to be taken either on specific dates or perhaps performance benchmarks. It could also be in the form of stock options, to be purchased at a preferred rate.

It makes sense. He’s been with Rick Hendrick forever, he has the knowledge and the ability, he is a household name and ultimately brings a ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ aura to General Motors.

Bill Marlowe convinced me.

Don’t you love the Machiavellian universe of auto racing? I do.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

A Great Season For Jeff Gordon: Could Get Even Better

Jeff Gordon won at Indianapolis for the fifth time in his career and is now the top winner at the track. He also won the first NASCAR race at Indy 20 years ago.

Jeff Gordon won at Indianapolis for the fifth time in his career and is now the top winner at the track. He also won the first NASCAR race at Indy 20 years ago.

For Jeff Gordon, what a difference a year makes.

You remember that last year the Hendrick Motorsports driver made the Chase for the Sprint Cup only by “decree” from NASCAR CEO Brian France.

In dealing with the Michael Waltrip Racing shenanigans at Richmond last September, among other things France ruled that Gordon, then 13th in points, was robbed of a chance to make the Chase.

MWR’s unethical behavior that was intended to ensure a Chase spot for Martin Truex Jr. was punished by the loss of 50 driver/owner points.

Truex Jr. out, Gordon in.

By the way, Truex Jr. now drives for Front Row Motorsports.

In 2014, Gordon has been so far away from relying on “legislation” to make the Chase it’s likely he barely remembers 2013.

He’s too darn busy having fun in 2014.

Gordon is at the top of his game. He’s been one of the season’s dominant drivers. What he’s accomplished so far smacks of his “Wonder Boy” days.

Gordon’s latest achievement was his victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. It was his fifth career win at the track, which broke him loose from a tie with teammate Jimmie Johnson and is tops among all NASCAR drivers.

The Brickyard was his 90th career win in 745 starts. He is now the third driver to win 90 or more races, behind David Pearson (105) and Richard Petty (200).

Gordon now has 17 top-10 finishes at Indy and 14 this year.

With his second win of the season – the first came at Kansas – Gordon has locked himself into the Chase, provided he attempts to qualify for the six races remaining before the “playoff” begins.

Gordon is having a great season. He's first in points, won twice and has secured a spot in the Chase, which begins six races from now.

Gordon is having a great season. He’s first in points, won twice and has secured a spot in the Chase, which begins six races from now.

He’s been No. 1 in points, save one week, since Texas in early April.

Oh, there is more. Gordon is bearing down on some significant NASCAR records.

As said, Indy was his 745th start – make that 745th consecutive start. Gordon hasn’t missed a race in 22 years.

If he stays in the driver’s seat through the 2015 season, he’ll break Ricky Rudd’s NASCAR record of 788 straight starts.

Yes, I could go on. But you get the idea.

For sure, Gordon gets it. For him, this is heady stuff.

“I still can’t believe I won at the Brickyard,” Gordon wrote on Twitter.

He won the inaugural Brickyard event 20 years ago and set Indiana, his home state, on its ear.

“Just in the past years since we won this race, so many fans believed that we can get number five,” Gordon said. “This team came prepared. That was an awesome Chevy and we had so much support.

“With five laps to go I was trying to look up in the grandstands. I know the Daytona 500 is a big race, but to me personally, this race means so much because of the fans.

“I would look up there and just see them standing for those closing laps pulling for us. Nothing is greater than that.”

Gordon knows full well he’s in the hunt for a championship. If he wins it, that No. 5 figures into it, again. It will be his fifth career title. He hasn’t won one since 2001.

Gordon is confident, especially after Indy.

“A Brickyard 400 win, it just doesn’t get any better,” he said. “I mean, to share that with the team that worked so hard, to see the look on their faces, you can just see it in them now, you know, they believe.

“I think we saw we were points leaders, we saw we won at Kansas, but I don’t know if we believed we were capable of winning this championship this year, truly believe it. 

“We do now.  We got to keep that fire in us, keep it going.”

Remember those rumblings about a potential Gordon retirement in the near future? They were especially loud after he talked about his back problems.

Since then, however, Gordon has won twice and said that “As long as racing is this much fun, I’ll keep doing it.”

He could say that again today.

Racing is fun because, for Jeff Gordon, everything is going his way.

“I’ve always said you make your own life and I think we’re doing that this year because we’re running up front, we’re qualifying up front,” he said. “We’re making smart decisions; we’ve got good race cars.

“So we’re taking what we’ve done so far and looking at the positives and how good it is, and we’re enjoying that but we’re also working really, really hard because we want to be the best out there.

“I feel like even though we’re leading the points, with this new point system, we’ve got to be better than this if we’re going to win the championship.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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