Is NASCAR in Viewership Free Fall Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s gone and that’s too bad.

Nothing lasts forever.

NASCAR: Don’t Expect Joe Gibbs Racing To Chase Off With the Cup

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, 'Little E' has a shot.

Based on the calculations laid out in this article, ‘Little E’ has a shot.

With the NASCAR regular season now concluded, the Chase playoffs are upon us with 16 drivers set to battle for the Sprint Cup Championship. As anticipated, except for a quick push by Aric Amirola to break into the sweet 16 during the final laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400, the Richmond race lacked in suspense, being dominated by a single driver who led the majority of laps, just like the earlier April race.

So, with NBC Sports offering a $16 million bounty for a perfect Chase grid, along with Draft Kings’ promotion of weekly plays, which drivers will steer into the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway in November?

Right now, pundits point to Joe Gibbs Racing, which served up a statement race at Richmond. Symbolic of JGR’s dominance was the Lap 126 Richmond restart, where teammates Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Carl Edwards pulled away like LMP Prototypes separating from the GTLM field at LeMans. JGR has now won eight of the last eleven Sprint Cup races.

The Chase playoff, however, is a different animal altogether. While NASCAR has again ramped up a “communication strategy” to explain it, the Chase playoff boils down to three playoff rounds comprised of three races each (nine total), with four drivers eliminated in each round, with the final remaining four drivers competing in a one round “Super Bowl” Championship race at Homestead.

Additionally, the ten Chase races are overweighted towards the larger 1.5 mile speedways that tend to be more aero dependent, where JGR’s dominance was not in evidence earlier this year. With the kickoff race set for Chicagoland this weekend, the full 2015 aero rules package will be back in effect on 1.5 mile ovals for the first time since May. Perhaps the Hendrick Motorsports camp has been in stealth mode working under DARPA-like conditions, knowing that the key to winning the title would be success with the 2015 rules package on such speedways.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

NEVER count out Kyle Busch and JGR.

So, which drivers are likely to survive through the various rounds of Chase elimination? In business school, my Finance professor always stressed “seeking the Alpha”; screening for those stocks that deliver the most consistent returns with the least amount of volatility. Applying similar theory to the Chase playoff, where one bad race can ensure a team’s elimination, requires testing one basic principle:

Which drivers have delivered superior, yet consistent finishes over rolling three race segments during the regular season (mirroring the three race Chase elimination format)? 

At the top, five drivers rise above the remaining eleven, with a high probability that at least three of these five will make the Championship 4 finale:

  1. Kevin Harvick – no surprise here, having amassed fifteen top 3 finishes so far this season. That’s about as consistent as it gets
  2. Joey Logano – again, his consistent results are second only to Harvick, and actually slightly better than Harvick during the second half of the regular season
  3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – few experts are picking him to make the Championship 4 round, yet he has been Hendrick’s most consistent driver this year, finishing the regular season third in points. His average finish of 6.1 on the 1.5 mile ovals that predominate in the Chase, combined with his restrictor plate prowess at Talladega, make him a compelling choice
  4. Brad Keselowski – solid but not spectacular this year, Keselowski is a proven Champion that is hungry to win another title and cement his legacy
  5. Kyle Busch – lacking a full season of results, the JGR driver has been on fire since his return, and shows no signs of letting up. Busch can wheel a car anywhere, and already demonstrated the consistency needed to qualify for the Chase in spite of missing almost 40% of the regular season

Conversely, in the initial Challenger elimination round, there is real pain to be had, based on the cards that have been shown so far by the teams. Looking at their three-race season averages, four drivers are at the bottom, having simply not demonstrated the needed consistency to advance in this year’s Chase:

  • Paul Menard – welcome to your first Chase, Paul, but your stay will be short
  • Jeff Gordon – something has just been off for the #24 team this year, having never got a handle on the rules package. Unless Alan Gustafson can figure it out quickly, Gordon and his crew chief will likely need to play the strategy card with some mid-race gambles if he is to advance beyond the first round
  • Clint Bowyer – relieved just to make the Chase, the pressure may now be off, but with Michael Waltrip Racing shutting its doors at the end of the season, Bowyer and team are likely looking for their next gig
  • Carl Edwards – an enigma, Edwards has shown streaks of success but lacks consistency; in the four car JGR stable, he is still the new kid on the block

So, quickly, who is the most consistent, stable Chase driver that we have not yet mentioned? For the second season in a row, Ryan Newman, a Chase qualifier in the middle of the pack, delivers highly stable, albeit not spectacular finishes typically in the low teens. The #31 team has this strategy down pat, such that we now can coin his performance as “Newmaning” the field. He and his crew chief, Luke Lambert, typically do not gamble on race strategy, thereby bringing home solid, repeatable finishes. That strategy worked last year to get him into the Championship round, and don’t be surprised if Newman’s consistency takes him deep into the Chase again.

There is no debate that this has been “the summer of JGR” for NASCAR, particularly with Kyle Busch’s storming return to the track. However, as my colleague Michele Rahal called out in his commentary this week, auto racing is inherently unpredictable and anything that can happen usually does, particularly in light of the Chase elimination format. Last season, the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut was expected to dominate the Chase.

Instead, we indulged in a Championship finale at Homestead that didn’t include a single Hendrick driver and went down to the final lap. So sit back, enjoy, as the Battle of Nations is upon us, and hopefully we will once again get the “Game 7” moments that NASCAR intended under this revised Chase playoff system.

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

Tony Stewart Should Settle In the Ward Lawsuit

Tony Stewart weathering the storm.

Tony Stewart weathering the storm.

We may not have heard much regarding lawsuits in auto racing, but it is not a precedent. Now Tony Stewart has been, predictably, dragged into one that has too many downsides for him to become distracted from what he does best, racing cars.

The youngsters out there probably wont remember the name of the late, great Mark Donahue, however you should.

Donahue drove for Roger Penske and was his first true star prior to Rick Mears. He drove Trans-Am and won, Can-Am and won, the Indy 500 and won, in NASCAR and won, he was the very first IROC champion, but then Penske moved into Formula One.

In Formula One he had 14 starts and stood on the podium in Canada. Unfortunately while practicing for the 1975 Austrian Gran Prix a tire blew, he hit a catch fence, killing a track worker, walked away and then died from a cerebral hemorrhage the next day.

His heirs sued Goodyear for a blown tire that caused the accident. But the heirs didn’t stop there.

According to an article from the LA Times in 1986:

“An out-of-court settlement was reached Wednesday at Providence, R.I., in the appeal of a $9.6-million Superior Court verdict awarded the estate of race driver Mark Donohue, killed during practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.

The verdict of April, 1984, the largest ever returned in a Rhode Island state court, had been appealed to the state Supreme Court by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, and by the Penske Corp. of Reading, Pa. 

Donohue’s heirs claimed that his death stemmed from negligence on the part of Goodyear, which made the left front tire that blew out on Donohue’s Formula One racer, and on the part of the Penske Corp., owner of the car. 

Under the terms of the settlement, the amount of which was not disclosed, Donohue’s widow, Eden Donohue Rafshoon, will share the money with Donohue’s two teen-age sons.”

Mark Donahue in the monster Can-Am Porsche 917, a Penske car.

Mark Donahue in the monster Can-Am Porsche 917, a Penske car.

Here’s the real problem: Every racing driver or corner worker knows exactly how dangerous the sport of auto racing can be. The life expectancy of a mayfly was more certain the a Formula One driver during the Donahue time period.

Despite this, signed waivers, excellent medical care and wellwishers this is a dangerous sport in all it’s forms and you can get sued. For anything.

You can get sued as a driver, equipment manufacturer (Bell was sued as well as Penske) or team owner. The problem for Tony Stewart is that he drives and owns a four car Sprint Cup NASCAR team.

Tony Stewart is only now getting comfortable with the Gen 6 2.0 car. His finishes and movement backwards to the middle of the pack in 2015 could be a direct result of both a severely broken leg and this lawsuit being brought against him for the death of 20 year old Kevin Ward, Jr. in a sprint car accident on August 9th 2014.

Does he have a defense? Of course he does. Ward was found to have marijuana in his system according to the toxicology test performed during autopsy. So what?

Anyone can be sued for anything and in a case that is as emotionally charged as this, Stewart may very well choose to settle in order to keep himself grounded, keep his sponsors out of the fray and, in general, get his life back together. It’s all taken a toll on the likable, generous and sometimes fiery Indiana native.

Here’s the takeaway:  Civil Court cases do not have to reach the level of evidence required in a criminal case. Stewart was never criminally charged. Anything he’s ever been accused of, done or said, videos, you name it, can or may be allowed in a Civil case.

Get the lawyers, weigh the potential emotional and financial damage, and if it seems to be the lessor of two evils, settle with this family rather than have this take the inevitable toll of bringing down a successful racing team and driving figure.

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and take the abuse. It may not be right, but it’s the only course of action he really has unless his sponsors are willing to have their name appear every time a reporter writes about the case.

On this one, I’ll have to agree with my friend, Bob Pockrass, who wrote an article on this subject in September of 2014.

Once again we’re having to ask ourselves: Will this litigious society we have created ultimately destroy the sport we all know and love?

Hell no, we’ll regulate it to death before the lawsuits kill it.

Jimmie Johnson Is A Greedy SOB

If you aren't greedy, self centered and ruthless....you aren't a professional racing driver.

If you aren’t greedy, self centered and ruthless….you aren’t a professional racing driver.

Jimmie Johnson is one greedy SOB. He’s a professional racing driver, what else would anyone expect him to be? It’s one of the integral ingredients of being an inveterate competitor. He should be applauded, not scorned.

Jimmie Johnson is no different than an ultra successful businessman, which he is, or an Olympic competitor. He’s not going to give anything away that might intrude on his chances at winning the Sprint Cup Chase.

Would he, at some tracks, give Earnhardt a break to get as many Hendrick cars locked into the Chase as possible? Maybe. But the idea that he gave the win at Talladega to Dale Earnhardt, Jr is absurd. Maybe not to the great unwashed, but to someone who knows what to look for, it’s not probable.

Jimmie Johnson was in the same position as everyone else in the ‘Great Talladega Conga Line’ of 2015 otherwise known as a race. Calling it a race is loosely defined if you care to watch it again on your DVR.

If Johnson had been foolish enough to try and slingshot Earnhardt, he would have been hung out to dry like many others were. Sometimes you need to take the most you can get and live to fight another day. Johnson did just that, he has a win and is putting money into his insurance policy of points.

Had he dropped down, he had a rookie, Ryan Blaney, who may or may not have dropped down with him, not to mention Denny Hamlin. Take note that those cars were a Ford and Toyota respectively. His attachment to the manufacturer had to weigh in on his decision. He had no guarantee that the rookie wouldn’t crash him or drop further down with Hamlin to blow by both Johnson and Earnhardt. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.

I read with great amusement the number of fans, mostly Junior haters, who cried foul while espousing multiple conspiracy theories across Twitter and Facebook. It’s nonsense. Johnson would have taken that win if he thought he could have. No question in my mind.

Professional racing drivers are some of the most self-centered, egotistical athletes on the planet. They have to be. Johnson wouldn’t have 6 Championships if he didn’t fit directly into that mold. He may be a nice, vanilla even, type of personality for the cameras, but beneath that veneer lies the heart of a no holds barred UFC fighter. Win at all costs.

The difference is you have to pick your battles in order to win the war. Johnson and, not to forget Knaus, always seem to know what they have, what they’re capable of and then maximizing their package. It works.

The only thing on Johnson's mind is winning.

The only thing on Johnson’s mind is winning.

The Talladega race was an anomaly. It bore no resemblance to any other restrictor plate race I’ve ever seen. I, just like you, expected that with 3 laps to go multiple cars would drop down and go together to form two lines that had a head of steam. It didn’t happen. Why? I have no real answer other than everyone somehow, collectively decided that they would take what they could get without risking a huge crash.

Perhaps they felt that leaving Talladega unscathed or at least with as little points damage as possible was the best course of action. On the other hand, it may be that as a collective, at that moment when things usually heat up, everyone thought the same thing: ‘If I go for it, I’ll be thrown to the back so I’ll stay where I am. Not normal, but in that one moment, possible.

What I don’t find credible is that Johnson would pitch a win just to give it to Earnhardt.

Yes, Jimmie Johnson is one greedy SOB.

Jimmie Johnson May Be The Best NASCAR Driver In History

Johnson took his 5th win at Texas this past weekend. He may just be warming up.

Johnson took his 5th win at Texas this past weekend. He may just be warming up.

Jimmie Johnson is best NASCAR Sprint Cup driver of the modern era. He may be the best stock car racer that NASCAR has ever seen. That’s a strong statement, I know.

Johnson took everyone to school at Texas this past weekend on how a team is supposed to operate as a unit. Not a cowboy driver, not a great crew chief, not a great team alone can make this level of success happen. It’s all of these components that have to operate in complete harmony to create a team this consistently powerful. Much like that of a modern Formula One powerplant. It’s very complex.

Jimmie Johnson, with the exception of a few hiccups in strategy, driver errors and intermural conflict is the Michael Schumacher of NASCAR. Hands down. Love him or hate him you have to acknowledge that in the modern era he really has no equal.

It was obvious that Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Keselowski and others pressed hard and developed their cars over the course of the Texas race, but when crunch time came it was Johnson who closed the deal.

In the past decade Harvick hasn’t done it, Stewart hasn’t done it and neither has Earnhardt Jr. Though Junior in 2015 is giving a more than a journeyman accounting of himself.

Harvick looked as if he would rule the night, but Johnson closed the deal.

Harvick looked as if he would rule the night, but Johnson closed the deal.

Johnson is almost always calm and even when he and Knaus fight, it’s more like a strong discussion in Starbucks than an out and out verbal brawl.

I’ve always thought of him as a ‘Vanilla’ driver. Not too flashy, very smooth and doesn’t really look that fast. That’s the mark of a champion and the attitude of an above average intelligence driver.

Michael Schumacher did for Ferrari exactly what Johnson and Knaus have done for Chevrolet and for Hendrick, delivered Championships. You cannot argue with success. You can’t.

Watching Johnson seemingly struggle at times in the Texas night race you would be lulled into thinking that perhaps this dynasty was in jeopardy, but you would be wrong. We have to accept the inevitable and that is his team, with the same resources as the rest of the Hendrick organization, which really include Stewart Haas, is just a notch above the rest.

Remember, you never have to drive faster than it takes to win and you never have to lead anything but the last lap.

Will Johnson perform as well in the playoff system this year as Harvick in 2014? We’ll see when the time comes. Granted the new system has created media buzz and better racing, everyone want’s to get into the Chase. The question is what does the dog do after it catches the car?

My sense is that luck will play a part in the final chase knock outs as it did in 2014, but in the world of auto racing you set yourself up to take full advantage of that luck when the wheel spins in your favor. Johnson’s team has that ability and we’ll all just have to see if it plays out for him.

Harvick is delivering a great showing of himself s a driver, but has come nowhere close Johnson’s accomplishments in the last 10 years. He is certainly showing that he can drive, close deals for wins and has managed to operate in that window where all of the components that comprise a championship team are present.

However, he is not at at the 48 car’s level just yet. He may very well defend his title and take another championship in 2015, but then again he may not. If he does, it will be his second Sprint Cup Championship in 14 years.

If Johnson can convert the 48 car’s attributes to a championship in 2015 it will be his 7th in 15 years.

You can’t argue with those facts.

 

Now Martin Truex, Jr is Dancing With The Stars

Martin Truex, Jr seems to have had an epiphany in his quest to make it to the top.

Martin Truex, Jr seems to have had an epiphany in his quest to make it to the top.

About a decade ago I sat down in Ybor City, Tampa’s night time playground, with my co-host of RaceDay on Fox, Rob D’Amico and Martin Truex, Jr. Obviously he was the new Nationwide Series star on the block.

I didn’t know him at all but we didn’t take the lunch as an opportunity to interview or talk shop with him. It turned out to be just a friendly lunch. I discovered that he was just a normal young guy, his head incessantly turning as if at a tennis match, watching all the beautiful ladies that adorn this part of Florida. Who could blame him.

I was impressed with his approachability and his meshing into our conversation with ease, he was comfortable in his own skin. Not everyone in this business is.

Furniture Row Racing has not been at the top of the charts, except for a few occasions. They are known for having a robust super speedway program, but not for short and 1.5 mile tracks.

When Kurt Busch found himself on the outside, again, it was Furniture Row that picked him up and he returned the favor by putting a single car team in the chase.

It’s a team that seems to thrive on hope.

Truex won two Nationwide Championships. There was no doubt he could drive, but making the transition from a Nationwide/Xfinity/Busch car is not always a natural progression. It depends on the driver.

Truex didn't have a chance to tap dance his way off of Waltrip's Island. Truex didn't leave empty handed.

Truex didn’t have a chance to tap dance his way off of Waltrip’s Island. Truex didn’t leave empty handed.

Truex showed he was a hard racer, but he had his problems closing the deal and racing is all about closing the deal. He came out of the box hot, but like a half-submerged meteorite, began to cool slowly over the years. His stint at Michael Waltrip Racing didn’t produce the results that they had hoped. He was considered a B+ driver. Almost, but not quite a star.

He was always in the hunt, putting the car on pole, leading critical laps, but either he or the car let him down when it came crunch time. Obviously, like in all sports, a change might do him good and that change came without his approval.

Waltrip lost NAPA as a sponsor and out the door went Truex. Furniture Row stepped up, as it often does with drivers who have talent but have fallen from grace somehow. The big advantage, though Truex may not have seen at the time, was that he took all of his Waltrip racing crew with him.

That could become a game changer.

Without the advantage of being a Shaman or Edgar Cayce, 2015 may very well be a breakout year for Truex. It’s almost like that recording artist that gets a hit, whose been at it for 10 years, but everyone thinks he or she is an overnight sensation.

He’s been a challenger at every race so far and seems to have gotten the bit in his teeth. He appears to have his confidence back and that’s no small thing in auto racing.

Drivers can, through circumstances of their own or another’s making, find out that they can dig down deep and discover something that was hidden. It looks as if Truex has done that, but it is early.

Ricky Craven, recently said in the popular ESPN Turn 4 debate column when asked ‘who was the most pleasant surprise so far’, Craven responded: “Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team have been an inspiring story to open the new season. This group represents a lot of what’s really good about NASCAR in 2015.”

I agree with Craven. Truex has been the biggest surprise of the year so far. He’s the outlier. Even under the new rules everyone expected the usual suspects to emerge, but Furniture and Truex? No one saw it coming.

My bet is that if they can keep the momentum up and the relationships with the powers that be, a lot of “A” list drivers will see him coming.

He smells a win and so do I.

 

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.”

      

      

Dale Earnhardt, Jr: Fiery Crash at Texas Could Have Been Much Worse

Dale Earnhardt, Jr in flames after contact with the outside wall.

This past Monday’s running of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway seemed almost surreal in that it appeared to catch a number of drivers off-guard. Crashes, miscues and running the caution laps too close to the jet driers but were a few of the anomalies.

An ex-girlfriend referred to days like this with the statement that “Mercury must be in retrograde”. Obviously that’s bad but perhaps has more meaning if you follow Astrology, which I don’t.

The most notable of the incidents to me was the bizarre crash and an ensuing fire at the start of the race by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

A hit in the points aside this accident could have been far worse than it was with Earnhardt extricating himself at the speed of light, thus earning him the nickname ‘The Flash’ by several of my journalist friends.

What made this so potentially devastating wasn’t that he made a mistake, which is understandable if the “A” pillar actually impeded his view of the apex of the dogleg, but rather what happened after he had dropped a wheel off the track and shot up the banking into the wall. Earnhardt said:

“Just didn’t see the grass. Didn’t know the grass was down there. With the way the A-post is on these cars you can’t really see that good to that angle. I just didn’t have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can’t run through there they way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part. I just didn’t know I was that close to the grass, and made a mistake.” Totally believable.

The real disaster potential was once the car had caught fire, he rolled down the track and towards an inside retaining wall, still ablaze, all the while removing the steering wheel and then the seat belts before contacting the retaining wall at roughly 25 to 30 MPH.

Earnhardt, still rolling, removing his steering wheel first.

With the car still moving, removing the steering wheel is one thing, perhaps he had no real control at that point or was so overcome with the thought of getting out that removing the steering wheel was top of mind.

The major problem was that he began removing the seat belts as well. He succeeded at the very last moment in pulling those belts aside and then grabbed the roll cage bracing for the impact.

Had this car been traveling just a scant few miles per hour faster, Dale Earnhardt, Jr could very well have had a steering column impaled into his chest.

Hindsight being what it is would it not have been more forward thinking to have unhooked the belts first? Of course it would have, but after the initial incident, which Earnhardt said was a mistake, and I don’t doubt him, he was already rattled.

But there may very well be a historical reason for his rapid and visibly shaken actions.

One must remember the incident that took place in 2007 at Sonoma when Dale Jr was to co-drive the factory Corvette in the GTS division of the American LeMans series race. Earnhardt tried to negotiated a corner, lost control and back the Corvette into a wall.

Fuel lines were severed and the Corvette burst into a fireball that looked to be all engulfing and potentially fatal. Indeed it was potentially a life threatening incident, with the flames finding it’s way into the cockpit of the car and putting Earnhardt in the middle of a fire.

Niki Lauda’s nearly fatal crash at Nurburgring, Germany in the 1970’s.

This would have shaken any driver, seasoned veteran or not. He suffered injuries that, in the grand scheme of things, were not serious but enough that he was burned on the neck and arms. It effected his Cup performance simply from the pain. The mental damage was, obviously, much worse.

For any driver fire is the one thing that really does scare you, just ask Niki Lauda, who sat in a fire at the Nurburgring for almost one minute and suffered major burns on his face, head and scorched his lungs to the point near death.

In the future when such incidents occur, and they undoubtedly will, let’s hope that the drivers have practiced a way to remove themselves quickly but with some order amidst the chaos.

Look For Earnhardt Jr., And Many Others, To Go All Out At Michigan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a favorite at Michigan in June but he returns to the track still seeking his first victory of the season.

The second date at Michigan International Speedway has arrived for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers – the Aug. 17 Pure Michigan 400.

The brouhaha in June centered on Dale Earnhardt Jr. possibly capturing his first win of the season.

He did not.

Instead, Greg Biffle followed his August 2012 victory at Michigan with the win back in June.  Biffle currently sits ninth in points as he comes back to MIS with his one win.

Earnhardt Jr. is still searching for his first win of the season – yet sits rather comfortably in sixth place in the standings.

A win at MIS would do much to boost Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence that could possibly be waning during this winless season.

It also could provide some much-needed momentum – and bonus points – as Richmond, the final race before the “playoffs” is nearing. The Chase is on the horizon.

“Junior Nation” is always supportive of its driver, but the time seems ripe for Earnhardt Jr. to capitalize on his consistent runs.  First he needs to win a few races and then capture the coveted Cup.

It’s the goal for any of the drivers in the series, and for Earnhardt Jr., it’s been a heretofore out-of-reach one.

Brad Keselowski is the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who has yet to win this season. He’s looking to get the victory at Michigan.

Last season Earnhardt Jr. was running decently in the Chase when a concussion sidelined him long enough to end his quest for the Cup.

This could be the year for potential to become reality.

Winning a championship would do much to quell the Junior haters that seem to permeate certain pockets of fandom. Like for any driver, stringing a championship season together offers the type of legitimacy little else can.

With a lot of focus this season on Danica Patrick’s rookie year in Cup, Tony Stewart’s accident that has taken him out of contention, and who may assume Stewart’s vacated No. 14 car on a weekly basis, Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed some relative peace and quiet media-wise.

He’s still a top draw for news stories, but the relaxing of the intense spotlight seems to agree with Earnhardt Jr. But it is time to perform, achieve a win, and put the championship hopes into high gear.

Of course, this can be said for the likes of Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski who both stand winless in the Cup series to date.

Keselowski is the reigning Sprint Cup champion, but Bowyer, like Earnhardt Jr., is hungry to pick up his first championship.

The top 14 in points all have a strong shot at a championship if they get into the Chase. These next four races will determine who gets locked in, who the two “wildcard” candidates will be and how this Chase will shape up.

Once in the Chase the competition gets reset with bonus points and the field is set.

This season is far from sewn up. As history shows, injuries occur, engines blow, DNFs plague teams, and nothing is a “given.”

With Michigan’s fast speeds, re-pave from last year, and proximity to the Chase, teams are putting it all on the table this weekend.

Biffle, Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer, Keselowski, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman are all hoping this race will be theirs along with the rest of the field.

We will all be watching to see what Michigan will bring.

State Of The Sport: On Johnson, Patrick And Earnhardt Jr.

Although many fans proclaim that she hasn’t performed well as a stock car driver, Danica Patrick maintains a huge fan base and is considered one of the most-ably marketed drivers in racing.

The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race was a bust for some of the fans of the sport. They poo-pooed Jimmie Johnson as winner, tried to eschew Danica Patrick winning the fan vote and were once again upset about Dale Earnhardt Jr. not performing better or getting too much coverage.

One friend of mine posted about how the live audience hated on Patrick so badly and was then shocked at the replies the thread garnered. He asked me privately to explore the reasons why women hate Patrick. I wish it were an easy request.

First let’s explore the NASCAR landscape. From 2005-2011 there were only two NASCAR Sprint Cup champions. Their names are Tony Stewart (2005, 2011) and Johnson (2006-2010). Even when not winning the Cup, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are winning races.

Stewart, while performing well earning bookend Cups to Johnson’s unprecedented five in a row, is far less consistent a competitor and although still “in the mix” last year and this, is not a dominant force at present.

The Johnson juggernaut, make that the Johnson/Knaus/HMS juggernaut, is virtually unstoppable. Some may argue that they were stopped for two seasons running by the likes of Stewart and last year’s surprise champion Brad Keselowski. But Johnson was right there in championship-striking distance.

Winning five in a row was the exception, not the rule. Even champion Dale Earnhardt won in couplets rather than all championship years strung together. That’s more “normal”.

What’s happening here is history. Johnson is making it and when you witness it the enormity of his accomplishments can easily be lost to the annoyance of having seen this before – over and over again.

Johnson has, quite frankly, done it all in NASCAR Sprint Cup. Won Daytona 500s? Yes. Won the All-Star Race? Yep, a record-breaking four times.  Won championships? Heck yeah, the only driver to do it five consecutive times. He’s won at the best tracks, the most difficult circuits, and every kind of way. Johnson is, in a word, amazing.

Looking back in history other amazing NASCAR drivers were also loved by many and detested by scores of people. Dale Earnhardt? Even in death and ‘til this day, yes. Richard Petty? Yes, him, too. With 43+ drivers to throw your fandom to, it’s very frustrating to have one dominate so completely. It can be, well, boring.

It appears that Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t getting all the attention he once did – he still gets plenty – however, he’s quietly gone about creating a good start to the 2013 season.

But one day your children and your children’s children will be asking you whether you remember this era in NASCAR and you can tell them yes.  They’ll be awed and ask you what it was like and you’ll chuckle. Revisionist history will kick in and you’ll tell the children how truly exciting it was to watch Johnson and his team rack up the accolades, wins, and championships. Because somewhere, deep down, you know it is awesome.

As for Patrick, I have to say my piece. So many people ask my opinion of this driver. Many times, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I have to defend her to people who wrongly pick on her. Quite frankly, this is frustrating to me.

Does Patrick perform up to the par she, her team, her fans, or I would like her to? Certainly not. But there is a tremendous learning curve coming from open wheel  – IndyCar in Patrick’s case – to NASCAR stock cars.

Patrick has done well enough in her first seasons running NASCAR and certainly does garner a ton of attention. She does for NASCAR what is sorely needed, brings mainstream fans over to our sport.

Informal polling on my part has found that most people I talk to about NASCAR who don’t know anything about our sport know about Patrick. They are drawn to her like the proverbial moth to the flame. Patrick is a headliner, a superstar, and a sublime creature that the whole of America seems fascinated by completely.

And what hardcore, “curmudgeony” NASCAR fans refuse to see is it has nothing to do with her talents in the cockpit and that is OK. The sport needs a superstar. Earnhardt Jr. has filled the role for well over a decade. He is still a mega-star. But the time is now for the diminutive driver with the pretty smile, long locks, and big sponsorship dollars.

Patrick earned the fan vote last Saturday night at Charlotte. She is, by far, the most popular driver out in the field. Little girls, grown men, moms and dads, open wheel fans and all race fans with pure heart root for Patrick. She is a phenomenon who has learned to market herself brilliantly, play up her assets, and assemble a fan base that defies reason. I say good for her.

There was no illicit wrongdoings, cheating, nor subterfuge to allow Patrick to win the fan vote. There didn’t need to be. She won it fair and square as “the people,” the fans, voted. It wasn’t a surprise to anybody because she has that big of a fan base. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Would it have been cool for another driver to get the vote? I suppose, but he would have had to amass an enormous campaign to win and, let’s face it, no one did.

Then there are the complaints that Patrick did nothing in the race. Too true. She didn’t. Patrick is not an all-star because of a fabulous string of wins; she is still a rookie. But the fan vote wasn’t about the best record; it was about putting your favorite in the race. Their favorite is clearly Patrick.

So, back to the original question, why don’t women (and some men) like her? I think jealousy is a big part of the equation. There, I’ve said it. People who are successful are often the target of those wishing they, too, were as successful.

Patrick is very attractive, very wealthy, and living her dream driving a race car for a living. Her path to the “Bigs” was not paved with the same hardships as others. And given her rather lackluster performance in the top tiers of motorsports, Patrick has driven makes people upset that she is still lauded over and still has a top ride.

But as a team owner, having Patrick in your stable is nothing short of brilliant. In an economy that has been suffering for years Patrick still commands huge money. She commands it because the people seek her out.

My theory is this: if the media hadn’t fawned all over Patrick when she first started sniffing around NASCAR and continue to do so with rabid attention when it hasn’t been earned, no one would be as upset about her career.

It’s the over-rambunctious, over-solicitous, overly nauseous media coverage of this driver that makes her the center of such scorn.

The only person who seems to really be benefitting from this is Earnhardt Jr. With the constant limelight off of him – there still is a pretty huge limelight on him and always will be – Earnhardt Jr. has been able to quietly get the racing job done in the last couple of seasons.

The critics of our sport say it’s “boring”, “going in the tanks”, and “not the same product as it was”. Well, no, it’s not the same.

NASCAR has had to modernize, adjust, evolve, and just plain change. From expanding its regional borders to better safety equipment, more money and more media involvement, this sport is nothing like its predecessor. Only it is.

There were always people who complained, argued, and swore they’d never watch again. But the people are watching, the fans are cheering, and the drivers are performing. Johnson is making history, Patrick is revitalizing the sport, and Earnhardt Jr. is, well, Jr. And for Junior Nation that’s all he ever needs to be.

Now, I’ve got to be going, I’m gearing up for the Coca-Cola 600. I can’t wait to see how Johnson, Patrick, Earnhardt Jr., and the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup field do! How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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