In NASCAR, Road Racing ‘Specialists’ Are Part Of The Long Past

There was a time, not all that long ago, that when NASCAR’S hulking stock cars came to the road courses, some teams opted to make changes.

Juan Pablo Montoya has won two races on road courses and will be considered a favorite at Sonoma this weekend. But he knows that to win on an oval track will cement his NASCAR career.

They dropped their regular drivers – who had honed their skills on oval tracks – for those who were considered “road racing specialists.”

For some teams that wanted to succeed on a road course, it seemed to be only logical to replace their “good ol’ Southern boy” driver with a guy with a foreign-sounding name. Or at least one who was a veteran of “them sporty cars.

Not to take anything away from those “sporty car” drivers. When hired, most of them did an admirable job piloting an unfamiliar stock car around a twisting, turning road course.

In fact, during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “sporty car” drivers dominated races at Riverside International Raceway in California, then the only road course in NASCAR.

From 1963-68, Dan Gurney won five times at Riverside. Of course, that he drove for the Wood Brothers had something to do with that.

Ray Elder won twice, in 1971 and 1972. And in 1973, Mark Donohue, driving an AMC Matador for Roger Penske, was another winner at Riverside.

He was the last “road course specialist” to win at the track, which ceased to exist after 1988.

In fact, he is the last of the “sporty car” drivers to win on any NASCAR road course – which, today, are at Watkins Glen in New York and Sonoma in California, the next stop on the 2012 Sprint Cup schedule.

A Sprint Cup regular has won every road course race over the past three decades.

Yes, specialists continued to be employed, and make no mistake they were first-rate drivers, with names like Boris Said, Tommy Kendall, Bill Schmitt and Ron Fellows – just to name a very few.

But they could not match their NASCAR counterparts for one very good reason. The Southern boys became adept on road courses. They learned how to race on tracks other than ovals.

Years ago a new generation of competitors rose to the forefront of NASCAR. Several of them did not come from the South. They had been weaned on twisting go-kart races or on dirt tracks, where skills other than simply turning left – kidding here – were mandatory.

NASCAR became infused with competitors who knew how to negotiate a road course.

They had names like Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte. Although not as highly touted, competitors such as Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin, Davey Allison and Kyle Petty also won on road courses.

Road course stalwarts such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch came along to replace their generation and are still considered favorites to win today. Each will be touted at Sonoma this weekend.

However, there is something else to consider.

In 2011, Marcos Ambrose won his first NASCAR race on the road course at Watkins Glen. He thinks he has made significant progress in his career and now is ready to win on an oval track.

Today, there are NASCAR regulars who are acknowledged to be what were once called “road course specialists.”

What this means is that while they may pursue a complete NASCAR schedule as recognized regulars, they are seldom, if ever, considered pre-race favorites at an oval track.

But they rise to the top at road courses.

Presently, only two of them compete – Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Marcos Ambrose at Richard Petty Motorsports.

And they have, indeed, proven their worth on road courses.

Montoya, from Colombia, earned his first NASCAR victory at Sonoma in 2007 and followed that up with his win at the Glen in 2010.

Ambrose, an Australian who hails from Tasmania, broke though in 2011 when he won at the Glen to garner his only NASCAR win to date.

Neither will be ignored when potential winners are mentioned this weekend.

However, they are just about everywhere else.

While this seems to be a bit unfair, I think it bears the ring of truth: Drivers – especially foreigners – with road-racing savvy who compete in NASCAR aren’t considered “real” stock car racers until they win on an oval track.

That’s pretty harsh. And, now that I think about it, it is indeed unfair. But that opinion has been prevalent, if silent, for years.

I get a very strong feeling both Ambrose and Montoya fully realize the sentiment is out there.

In Montoya’s case it seems ridiculous. For me, it is very hard to classify a man recognized as one of the most versatile and successful drivers in the world as merely a road racer when he’s won the Indianapolis 500.

He nearly won the Brickyard 400 a couple of seasons ago when, while leading comfortably, he was caught speeding on pit road.

Ambrose won his first pole position on an oval track last week at Michigan and ran well in the race, leading four times for 15 laps en route to a ninth-place finish.

But he fully realizes that his quest to win in NASCAR has been difficult, if for no other reason than when he became a stock car driver, it was all completely foreign to him. He now has a sense of accomplishment.

“I can only reflect on my own personal opinion and I feel like I’ve done a lot in this sport,” said Ambrose, who is hugely popular in Australia. “I feel like I’ve come from a long way behind.

“I came from a country that doesn’t have any oval racing. I come from a state at the other end of the world and doesn’t have any racing on it at all, so I’ve achieved a lot just to make it to NASCAR and then to make it to Sprint Cup and have a pole position and have won a race.”

But that isn’t enough for Ambrose. He feels that being with RPM and teammates who believe in him, he’s in a position to achieve more.

“I’m with a great team and I’m in the best position I’ve ever been in in the sport,” he said. “We want to win races on ovals. We want to win more than one race a year.

“As we sit here mid-season, we still feel like we’ve got a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races. We’ve got speed, we just have to convert those speed runs into good results.”

Ambrose and Montoya don’t have to prove they have talent. They have already done that.

But to break through a long-standing, stereotypical perception they share – as did others before them – they are going to have to win races on oval tracks.

It is my belief that they will.

 

 

 

 

 

Menard’s Indy Victory Adds To Season’s Competitiveness

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has established itself as one of the most unique in many years for a couple of reasons:

It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.

This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?

Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.

The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.

Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.

Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.

After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.

They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?

The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.

Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.

Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.

While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.

Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.

Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.

They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.

If a team can utilize creativity only to a certain point it often cannot gain a sizable advantage over another. That, many suggest, is what we have now.

Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.

There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.

But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.

Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.

Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.

Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.

It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.

Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.

In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.

This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.

Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.

That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.

That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.

Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.

 

** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.

His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.

It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.

These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.

Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.

If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.

 

** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.

The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.

Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.

Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.

With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

The Points System Has Provided Intrigue, With More To Come

Maybe I’m wrong and you may disagree, but if nothing else, NASCAR’S new points system has, to date, made the season intriguing.

As I understand it, the modified system awards a winner 43 points. He gets three more points for winning and another for leading a lap, which means a minimum of 47 laps.

If the winner leads the most laps that means another bonus point. The total is now 48, the most any driver can earn in a single race.

The most points the second-place finisher can get is 44 points, 42 for second, one for leading and one for leading the most laps.

Putting bonus points aside – NASCAR wanted to maintain the race winner reward – the system is pretty basic. There’s only a one-point difference between each position, from the base of 43 for first place to just one for last place.

The unique change NASCAR made for this season, in addition to rewarding consistency of performance, was to allow the top 10 after 26 races to qualify for the chase. Spots 11 and 12 would go to the drivers who have compiled the most victories and rank among the top 20.

OK, that’s enough. I’ve dwelled long enough on something you already know.

But what I find interesting about the new points system is that it has kept things fairly undecided as we enter the final six races before the Chase.

While there are a few drivers who seem safe when it comes to the Chase, there are others whose status is very much uncertain.

And Carl Edwards, the points leader, by no means has a lock on the top spot. He’s just seven points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Among the top 10 every driver except one has a victory. Kevin Harvick, fourth in points and eight behind Edwards, has three victories, as does Kyle Busch, who is fifth in points, 13 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have two wins each – and are ranked sixth and seventh in points, respectively.

I would think all four drivers are pretty much guaranteed spots in the Chase.

I’d say the same for Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch (third in points), Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who each have a victory and are among the top 10.

OK, here’s where the situation becomes a bit tense for some drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks ninth in points largely because he’s been in a competitive swoon. He was once as high as third in the standings.

But he does not have a victory. Which means two things if he wants to make the Chase: He has to hang on to the top 10 over the next six races, or, at the very least, earn a victory, something he hasn’t done since 2008.

Tony Stewart faces a similar situation. He’s tied with Hamlin for 10th in points, but unlike Hamlin, he doesn’t have a victory.

So if the Chase started immediately, Hamlin is in and Stewart is out.

But it doesn’t start immediately so Stewart has a chance to secure his place. Most likely he would prefer to do it with a victory. He hasn’t had a winless season in a career that dates back to 1999.

Other notables, such as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, pretty much have to rely on winning to make the Chase.

Bowyer is 12th in points, Kahne 14th and Biffle 15th. They are 110 points or more behind the leader. Bowyer is 28 points out of 10th place. He can certainly make up the difference but the odds are quickly stacking against him.

It’s the same for Kahne and Biffle, who are each 47 points out of the hunt.

For these three guys, a victory would be the tonic. The last time Bowyer went winless happened in 2009. He won two races last year.

Kahne has had two consecutive winless seasons. Between 2003-10, Biffle had only one year without a victory, 2009.

I don’t think there’s much doubt any of them can win this year. The question is can they do it in time to help them make the Chase?

They are not alone. It’s going to take a win for several others who rank 11-20th in points to make NASCAR’s “playoff.”

They include A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.

Fact is there’s only one driver out of the top 10 who is assured a position in the Chase – for the time being, anyway.

That’s David Ragan, who won at Daytona on July 2 to earn the first victory of his career. He’s presently 13th in points.

He’s 46 points out of 10th place. That’s not insurmountable, just as it is for Bowyer, Kahne and Biffle, and I’m sure that, like the others, gaining positions is what he’d like to do.

But he’s the only one with the luxury of a victory.

As it stands right now, the only other driver who has a shot at the Chase is Brad Keselowski. He has a victory but, in 23rd place, ranks out of the top 20.

He’s going to have to scrap his way in. He’s 25 points behind 20th-place Martin, again certainly not an insurmountable margin. He has six races to do it.

The next half-dozen races are worthy of our attention. For some drivers it’s obviously going to take victory to make all the difference.

Can they win? Certainly. The 2011 season has already produced 13 different winners, including three who won for the first time.

Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, the all-time record for most winners in a single season is 19 and the record for most first-time winners was five twice, in 2001 and 2002.

We’re on a pace to have 25 winners this year, including six who won for this first time in their careers.

I don’t know if that will happen, but the point is this season’s variety of winners would indicate that anything could happen over the next six events – and thus alter the starting field for the Chase.

Earnhardt and Montoya: Can They Make It?


Dale Earnhardt, Jr and Juan Pablo Montoya have the same problem. They get no respect and they’re both in danger of missing the Chase. Eranhardt is sliding back and Montoya is stuck. Will a crew chief change help Montoya? Will Letarte and Jr.start making progress?

The NASCAR Sonoma Slugfest

Many fans are beginning to warm to road racing in NASCAR based on the intensity of it. This weekend the Sprint Cup Series invades Sonoma’s Infineon road course. Expect to see rough racing as the noose tightens on those desperate to get into the chase. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Again, Late-Race Events Determine The Outcome

Just to offer a few musings after the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway.

** As boring as a race may appear, even when it has gone well past its halfway point and you’re thinking about beating the traffic, it’s always good to stick around.

The odds are favorable things will change, often dramatically.

I don’t know why it is but many times a race’s character will change as it winds down to is conclusion. Perhaps a dominant driver suffers a mechanical malady and drops out, which thus leaves victory a wide-open issue.

Or, and this happens most often, a race devoid of caution flags suddenly experiences a rash of them during the closing laps. As you know, anything can happen during pit stops and all it takes is one slip by a once-overpowering driver’s team to lose several positions.

Or even the driver himself. How often is speeding on or off pit road dumped a good day into the ash can?

It doesn’t have to be a rash of cautions. Just one or two will suffice. At race’s end they dictate strategy. For example, will a pit stop consist of a four or two-tire change? Or will a driver stop at all?

The right decision could be rewarded with vital track position and a shot at victory. The wrong call can take a contender right out of the picture.

Which is what happened at Dover.

The day belonged to Jimmie Johnson – or perhaps Carl Edwards. The two dominated the race and swapped the lead throughout. Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champ, led 207 laps, high for the race. Edwards led 117 laps.

But any kind of sashaying Johnson and Edwards might have done to the checkered flag came to an end on lap 362 of 400 when the race’s sixth caution period was created by Juan Pablo Montoya’s spin.

Clint Bowyer, Johnson and Edwards led the parade down pit road, accompanied by Matt Kenseth, who had been, throughout the race, lurking and seemingly biding his time – typical Kenseth.

Crew chiefs had a few choices to make on what would likely be the last stop of race.

They could sacrifice track position and take on four tires. The question was, with about 32 laps left to the end of the race from the restart, would that be enough for the fresh rubber to produce?

They could take on right-side tires only, which granted track position but might result in failure as the older tires gave way to rivals’ new.

Or they could take no tires at all. Talk about track position. But so what? How could that last for a car that had worn tires?

There’s the old adage that states a driver loves track position and clean air more than his mother. Because his Hendrick Motorsports team kept him out on the track, Martin got both as the leader when the race restarted.

Kenseth, with two new tires only, was second and soon passed Martin to lead the final 32 circuits and capture his second victory of the season.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Edwards got four tires during their stops and spent the rest of the rest fighting to stay in the top 10. Edwards was ninth on the restart, Johnson 11th. Bowyer, by the way, was eighth.

Edwards finished seventh, Johnson ninth.

While a four-tire change is usually – but definitely not always – the most popular strategy during late-race pit stops, Kenseth admitted he made a change in plans.

“In the back of my head I was thinking I should almost drive by pit road and restart in front and see what happens,” Kenseth said. “I looked to my mirror and saw everybody on the apron and I thought it wouldn’t be good for me if I did that and restarted and finished about 15th.

“We came down pit road and as I slid into the stall I keyed the mic and said, ‘Jimmy (Fenning, crew chief), are you sure you don’t want to try two?’ He didn’t hesitate and said, ‘two tires, two tires’ and it was in plenty of time. It was no problem and it went smooth almost like we planned it.”

“After we took four tires, there were so many guys in front of us when we left pit road I knew we were in trouble,” Johnson said.

Of course, it’s natural to wonder what the outcome of the race would have been if Johnson and Edwards had taken on only two tires.

But given that different late-race strategies were again played out, as they have been so many times in the past, we’ll never know.

As for Kenseth, who stands sixth in points, his second win of the year has put him in an excellent position to make the Chase as, at the least, a wildcard selection.

 

** Give Martin and his Hendrick team credit for their strategy. To stay on the track gave them the lead on the restart and, yes, they lost it.

But that’s all they gave up. Despite the fact they had old tires and many behind them had fresh rubber, not another position was lost. Martin finish second to record his first top-five finish in what has been a lean season.

Martin has only four top-10 finishes in 11 races during his last season with Hendrick. He hangs on to 11th in points and thus is still in the hunt for a position in the Chase.

“We ran very well, again, today,” Martin said. “And this time at least we didn’t finish 15th.”

When as what it is going to take for him to win a race, Martin said, “We’re going to have to go faster.”

Which gets right to the point, doesn’t it?

 

** There were several feel-good finishes among the top 10 at Dover, but perhaps most prominent among them were third by Marcos Ambrose and fifth by Brian Vickers.

Ambrose is a national hero in Australian motorsports and has gained a lot of admiration for his efforts in NASCAR. His third-place run solidifies the belief that he’s due to win on an oval track.

Which is exactly what he wants to do. He does not want to be known as a road-racer. He wants to be known as a successful NASCAR driver – and there’s only one sure way to accomplish that.

This time last year, Vickers was in the hospital suffering from blood clots. His future as a driver was in doubt.

Now, of course, he has returned to Red Bull Racing and his fifth-place performance at Dover was his best of the season so far.

The Punishment Fit The Crime – At Least This Time

Like most fans, I sometimes wonder if NASCAR’s penalties are effective. Do they, in fact, appropriately punish the offenders and curb the rise of, uh, crime?

I can recall a time in years past when NASCAR’s rulings were about as effective as a butter knife cutting hard cardboard. A punishment was little more than a slap on the wrist.

Oh, there were exceptions, of course. There was the time in late ‘70s when, after a wreck at Darlington, the entire side of D.K. Ulrich’s Chevrolet was stripped away. Revealed to all was a hidden nitrous oxide (laughing gas) bottle, obviously illegal. Ulrich was suspended for the final 12 races of the season.

Talk about a huge financial hit – Ulrich’s season wages plopped him at the poverty line.

There are other examples of NASCAR heavy-handedness but for the most part, NASCAR’s penalties were inconspicuous. A small fine here; probation there. Seldom were points taken away.

That changed fairly recently. When NASCAR introduced what was once known as the “car of tomorrow,” it made it very clear that the rules that applied to it, which were very strenuous and demanding, would be fully enforced.

NASCAR had prepared the car to its own standards, which were set to make it the safest, and most equal in performance, than had ever entered the sanctioning body’s Cup circuit.

It wasn’t going to let innovative engineers, crew chiefs, engineers or anyone else fool around with it.

Not that to do so was easy. The rules were so stringent whatever “gray area” the creative types found was small, indeed.

But find it they did – and then they tried to push their way around it.

When they did and got caught, NASCAR’s penalties were hardly inconspicuous. They grew into near death sentences.

Fines, probations, loss of points and even suspensions all became part of the legal process – and subsequently grew.

Fines of $25,000 grew to $50,000 and then $100,000. Point losses, for the drivers and owners, numbered in the hundreds. Probations didn’t last days or months, they remained in force for the remainder of a season. Offenders, mostly crew chiefs, were suspended for six weeks or more.

As a result of all this, among other things, it’s my thinking that what occurs in the garage area at each track is probably more sanitized now than it ever has been.

I just don’t think teams want to mess around with their cars knowing that they could receive punishments that, by golly, actually have a very, very negative impact. Why tempt fate?

But this is all about technology. It’s not about behavior and conduct – a couple of other things that fall under NASCAR scrutiny.

There was a time, not long ago, when NASCAR was just as harsh on its drivers as it was how teams treated the car.

Stiff penalties were handed down for swearing and antagonistic behavior (especially on TV), confrontations and even criticism of NASCAR.

As a result, drivers went into a shell. If by being themselves they incurred NASCAR’s wrath, well, the best thing to do was to be someone else.

All these “someone else” types turned out to be the same – mostly boring, colorless and devoid of singular personalities.

Fans didn’t like that. They were always told NASCAR’s history was littered with characters. Well, where did they go?

As you well know, NASCAR responded by telling us that racing was a contact sport. It told us that it wanted the drivers to settle issues among themselves. It told us it didn’t want to police behavior unless it absolutely had to do so.

Fair enough. And in my opinion, NASCAR is doing a darn good job of keeping its nose out of things. Yes, it meets with errant drivers behind closed doors but you don’t see it drag them away by their collars, and in irons, from the track.

Just an opinion here, but if indeed Ryan Newman took a poke at Juan Pablo Montoya in the NASCAR hauler during the Darlington meeting, there was a time when the sanctioning body would have punished Newman – even though the public didn’t see him do a thing.

Of course it did no such thing this time.

Which brings us to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. You remember these guys – ol’ Heckle and Jeckel at Darlington?

Their post-race altercation did draw punishment from NASCAR. Both were fined $25,000 and placed on four-race probation.

It sounds like an almost meaningless judgment but it was done for one reason.

If the two had dealt solely with each other, even through physical contact, NASCAR would have done nothing.

Instead, Harvick left his car to take a shove at Busch, who was still sitting in his.

Busch took off, struck Harvick’s abandoned car, sent it across pit road and into the inside pit wall. The car missed several people and, most fortunately, did not pin anyone against the concrete.

But it could have easily done both. And therein lies the big difference.

When the actions of two drivers involve a danger to the safety and welfare of others, NASCAR has to abandon the “boys have at it” philosophy. It must act.

Given that Harvick left his car unattended to start the fray, I at first felt certain NASCAR would more severely punish him, and I thought it should.

But that would not have been fair. Both men played a role in the creation of the situation and warranted punishment.

As said the punishment is, at best, minor. But I think NASCAR did the right thing if for no other reason than it wants to convey to Busch and Harvick, and other drivers, just where it will draw the line when it comes to “boys, have at it.”

I’m not sure the next offenders, should there be any, will get off so easily.

For Montoya Points Won’t Do, It’s Time To Win

There can be no doubt that Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the most skilled drivers in the world.

Moreover, his will to take his car to the limit and show pure aggression shouldn’t be questioned. He may draw the ire of many of his Sprint Cup contemporaries for racing too hard and being impatient, but they all respect, and even admire – if sometimes in silence – his car control ability.
The problem lies elsewhere. He has not won on an oval in his five years of Cup competition. If he expects to be considered a viable contender for a championship, he has to win- and soon.

The points game under the new system is unforgiving for those who don’t build themselves a cushion of insurance early in the season.
Yes, Montoya is tied in fourth alongside Carl Edwards, which puts him in good company, but Edwards knows how to win in Sprint Cup.
Montoya has proven himself all over the world as a versatile driver and one that has a grasp on the art of winning in open wheel. To win in Formula One takes nothing short of an aggressive, calculated and cunning driver. It is a highly specialized form of motor racing that requires every sense that the driver can muster to even get near the front, much less win.

On the other hand, Sprint Cup is highly specialized in its own right and deserves respect among the drivers of the world. But what garners the most respect is winning.

Yes, Montoya runs at the front. Yes, he’s fast. Yes, he has the ability to win but hasn’t done it yet – and that is damaging his credibility as having “arrived” and further removed the psychological advantage of having won at the Cup level.

Juan Pablo Montoya has to win, not play the points game in order to move forward. He needs desperately to have his name among those mentioned in the media as being a threat to win at any race and at any time. There’s an art to winning that he knows all to well and in Formula One he experienced it firsthand. Second place is truly the first loser. Whatever it takes, patience, greater communication, bar raising strategy, he must rise to the occasion.

The old adage that “The race doesn’t always go to the swift” is certainly in play here.

The Rodney Dangerfield’s of NASCAR

A. J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya, like the late famous comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, “Get No Respect”. Michele Rahal of Motorsports Unplugged and http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com thinks that it would be harder for a Sprint Cup driver to go to.

Title Contenders? Call All This One Man’s Folly

This isn’t exactly the usual “here are some drivers who could win the Sprint Cup championship in 2011” piece. Reckon you have seen – or will see – plenty of those.
But allow me to get a bit personal and list some drivers I’d like to see earn a title for reasons logical, sentimental, or, perhaps in your opinion, downright far-fetched.
Most of these drivers won’t be on anyone’s A-list of contenders but racing being what it is – which is to say the only correct prediction made about it is that it’s unpredictable – who knows?
Anyway, this is just one man’s folly. Hey, you might even agree with some of this.

Mark Martin – Probably nearly everyone’s sentimental choice. He’s nearly 52 years old, has been racing all his life, over two decades in NASCAR, and has yet to win a Sprint Cup championship. He’s finished second in points four times and third on four more occasions. He had a stellar season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009 with five victories – but he wound up second again.
Many thought he would contend for a title in 2010 but he had an off-season in which he didn’t win and slumped to 13th in points.
Obviously, he would love to rebound in his last season with Hendrick. Plenty of fans would love to see him do at least that and perhaps more. It would suit me.
I’m sure Martin doesn’t want to retire – whenever that happens – to be known as NASCAR’s best driver to have never won a championship.
I’m also sure that if I ever write that again Martin will express his displeasure one way or another.

Jeff Burton – The driver considered as NASCAR’s most able spokesman and statesman is also one of its best drivers. The shame is that when it comes to the Chase, he climbs the mountain but has never reached the summit. Something always gets in his way.
All three Richard Childress Racing drivers made the Chase last year but Burton wound up 12th in points and, for him, that had to be disappointing.
Although he can be feisty – we’ve seen evidence of that – Burton is considered a very nice guy. Nice guys are supposed to finish last. Would be great to see a nice guy finish first.

Kyle Busch – He’s proven that he can win in anything he drives. Problem is he hasn’t been able to put it all together in the Chase. You gotta figure that’s got to change sooner or later.
Besides, he’s perhaps the closest thing we have to the image of the opinionated, cocky, no-quarter driver of the past. He’s the poster figure for “Boys, have at it.” It would be fun – maybe even appropriate – to see the principle proponent of NASCAR’s new philosophy claim the title.
Yeah, while it would be good to see a nice guy finish first, it would be a hoot to see a bad boy do the same.

Matt Kenseth – He claimed a championship in 2003 and it’s likely he’s already been considered a title threat by many. But here’s a thought:
After Kenseth won the championship, the Chase came into existence the next season and changed the NASCAR environment. Some liked it, many did not. But it’s not going anywhere.
One of many reasons the Chase came to be is the concept that the champion should never be a driver who wins only one race in a season, which Kenseth did in ’03, while other competitors gained many more victories. Don’t know about you but I heard that a lot.
Bet Kenseth did, too.
If he could win a championship in the Chase format he’d obviously be very happy – and maybe imagine himself thumbing his nose at a lot of folks.

Kasey Kahne – He didn’t win last year and finished 20th in points, his worst showing since 2005, in a final turbulent season with Richard Petty Motorsports. He departed RPM late in the season to join Red Bull Motorsports, for which he’ll race this year. Then he moves on to Hendrick in 2012. Got all that?
Kahne is certainly a much better driver than his 2010 numbers showed. That’s so widely accepted that it hardly bears mentioning. And he’s eager to prove it.
A championship would certainly do more than that. I’m guessing many female fans would heartily approve.

Jamie McMurray – He’s a guy who wasn’t sure he had a ride as the 2009 season ended. Then he reunited with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Bank of America 500. It’s quite a Cinderella story.
Be interesting to see if the clock hasn’t struck midnight for McMurray and the story gets even better.

Juan Pablo Montoya – Think of it: A Colombian wins the championship in a sport that has its roots in the South with a bunch of good ol’ redneck boys. Ah, the irony.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – I don’t really have to say anything, do I?

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