NASCAR: The Chase Will Only Get Crazier After Chicagoland

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship got off to a wacky start at Chicagoland Speedway, where Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin came back from an early spin on lap 2, and subsequently going a lap down, to end up winning the race on a final restart with five laps to go. If the regular season was lacking in intensity, the first Race of the Chase was filled with unique storylines. Now heading to New Hampshire with nine races remaining, five crucial takeaways will continue to impact the action both on and off the track.

1) Restarts will be the key to victory (or defeat) in the Chase

Under the current aero package, track position means everything. As a result, drivers will seek out every advantage during the double file restarts after a caution flag has flown. At Chicagoland, with only six race cautions, three restarts stood out as the most dramatic moments of MyAFibRisk.com 400:

  • On a mid-race restart, Jimmie Johnson got shoved from behind by Joey Logano and ended up in no-man’s land on the non-banked apron, stuck in a three-wide situation with the leader Kevin Harvick. As Johnson slid up the race track, contact with Harvick ended up cutting his tire, resulting in Harvick’s #4 Chevy SS hitting the wall and finishing 42nd. As a result, the 2014 Sprint Cup Champion finds himself in a must-win situation in the next two upcoming races in order to advance to the Contender round
  • On the lap 145 restart, Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kyle Busch under a controversial restart. Both Gordon and Busch played mind games with each other on the restart, with Busch slowing down approaching the restart zone, while Gordon appeared to speed up. NASCAR reviewed, found no violation, and provided no further explanation, leaving a lot of wiggle room that will continue over the remaining nine races
  • The final restart with five laps to go shuffled up much of the field, with both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon starting on the front row but choosing to not come in for fresh rubber. Gordon appeared to spin the tires and bobble on the restart, dropping anchor all the way back to 14th, while Kurt Busch ended up finishing 3rd and was disappointed with NASCAR’s decision to throw the final caution for debris. Conversely, Denny Hamlin was able to execute his “spin and win” victory on the final restart by getting out front early
    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

Make no mistake, the restart rules will continue to have a big influence on the Championship, particularly given the ambiguous interpretation by the NASCAR officials. And if you desire chaos, look out if NASCAR chooses to “black flag” a Chase driver for jumping a restart. After the race, Jeff Gordon expressed his frustration that “the whole thing is just a mess because the (restart) box is just too small.”

2) Regardless of the on-track action, mainstream media will glamorize the feuds

When Johnson approached Harvick in the motorcoach lot after the race to share his take regarding the on-track contact, Harvick was having none of it, almost immediately striking Johnson in the chest and the two had to be separated. Only one race into the Chase, and the mainstream media is already toting this “punch” as a lights-out brawl. Fox News described the encounter as a violent attack (http://tinyurl.com/p2bvyap), while neglecting the proper spelling of Johnson’s first name. The vise-grip pressure of the Chase will continue to tighten moving forward, and all the contenders will be circling the fishbowl as the media watches intently. We saw similar behavior last year with Harvick, who blamed Matt Kenseth for wrecking him at Bristol and vowed that Kenseth would not win the Championship after taking him out. Don’t be surprised to see NBC use the highlight clips from the Harvick/Johnson feud as key promos for the upcoming Chase rounds.

3) Despite the premium for race victories, point consistency will remain critical for advancement

Only one race into the Chase, and Ryan Newman is running his points playbook to perfection that ensured his advancement last year to the Championship final at Homestead. The outcry from NASCAR Nation if the sport ends up with a winless Champion would be deafening, likely sending NASCAR back to the drawing board to redesign the Chase playoff system. Yet Newman, who managed to run most of the Chicagoland race in stealth mode (an average running position of 10th while leading no laps), took advantage of the final restart to finish 4th and is now solidly positioned 8th in the points for probable advancement to the next round.

In regular season everybody's a friend. After the knockout scenario starts....not so much.

In regular season everybody’s a friend. After the knockout scenario starts….not so much.

4) The Chase Challengers will take no prisoners

With everything at stake in each Chase race, the drivers will have no friends and memories are short. Last year, Harvick won his first Championship, and acknowledged that one of his closest mentors in that title hunt was the six-time Champion, Jimmie Johnson. The two have a long friendship going back to their California roots, with their NASCAR racing careers intersecting early on in Charlotte as house guests of Ron Hornaday, the four-time Truck series Champion.

After the race, Johnson, rather than taking to Twitter, chose to seek out Harvick for a private discussion regarding what happened on the track, beyond the reach of media microphones. Given Harvick had earlier sat on pit road for 51 laps while his car was being repaired, he clearly had the opportunity to calm down and review the replay of the racing incident. Instead, Harvick gave Johnson no “benefit of the doubt”, showing no willingness to hear out the six-time Champion.

5) NBC’s Perfect Grid payday of $16 million is likely safe for another year

Harvick, who statistically was the best driver this season with the most laps led and odds-on Vegas favorite to make the Championship final, may end up being eliminated in the first round. No telling how many Chase fantasy grids likely had Harvick at least moving past the first round, given some of the weaker teams. Already 22 points behind the 12th place driver cut-off, Harvick is now on the brink of elimination unless he wins one of the next two races.

The potential shock of a leading driver being upset echoes the adage that anything can and will happen in racing. With the reigning 2014 Champion on the ropes, the only certainty is that we will surely encounter more driver surprises under NASCAR’s unique playoff system. I, for one, know that I did not anticipate that in filling out my fantasy grid.

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

NASCAR: Expect Jimmie Johnson To Come Alive In The Chase

Lowes extends Johnson's contract through 2017.

Lowes extends Johnson’s contract through 2017.

It’s a difficult thing to watch what was once a powerhouse NASCAR team slowly and painfully slip into obscurity. That team is Roush Racing. Many have started to forecast, with great vitriol at times, the same fate for Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson. Don’t make that mistake.

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have 6 Championships because NASCAR engineered it. They didn’t throw false cautions to benefit Johnson or anyone else, Johnson and Chad Knaus took the same equipment and tools as his teammates and earned 6 Championships.

Sitting at the top of the charts for the 16 drivers who made it into the Chase is Johnson. Has he been the meteor of late like Kyle Busch? No. But the Hendrick organization knows where they stand, knows who is going to create the right strategy for the Chase and let them run with it.

After missing four months due to injury, Kyle Busch may now be in the right position to win his first title.

After missing four months due to injury, Kyle Busch may now be in the right position to win his first title.

It may not be such a coincidence that Johnson re-signed an extension on his contract through 2017 and just announced it, right after the Chase was set. Knaus’ extension runs through 2018. Check off the box that has ‘pressure on contract’.

Tom Lamb, the Chief Marketing Officer for Lowes said:

“Lowe’s has a longstanding history with NASCAR and knows its fans are some of the most loyal in all of sports,” said Tom Lamb, chief marketing officer of Lowe’s. “Our partnership with Jimmie and Hendrick Motorsports has been an amazing ride as we chase history, and more than 265,000 Lowe’s employees are proud to be part of such a legacy.”

That sounds like corporate word-speak, but having met, at length, with the CEO of Lowes prior to their NASCAR involvement, it’s genuine. This company want’s to win. They have and will again.

On the other side of the street, Jeff Gordon’s woes are regrettable, but time marches on and he may very well leave the sport with perhaps one win in 2015. His overall team just hasn’t been able to convert qualifying speeds into a start to finish racing strategy that has worked for him. He’s a deserving Champion but his run in the sport may be over.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are fully aware of what they face, having run a season under these rules. They won’t make the same mistakes they did last year. That’s not good news for Kevin Harvick, but no news to Kyle Busch. He could care less. Joe Gibbs and company will keep him in mission and on course to defeat all comers.

Harvick will be a contender from the first race in Chicagoland.

Harvick will be a contender from the first race in Chicagoland.

The real fight, in my opinion will be between Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. It’s possible that Joey Logano may mix it up as well as Keselowski, but I don’t see the strength at Penske that I do with Hendrick and JGR.

Joe Gibbs Racing miraculously came to life, seemingly when Kyle Busch returned to his seat after missing four months of racing. Let that soak in: Four months. He now sits second and has four wins.

These teams have different strategies that they employ during the Chase format and each of the drivers I believe will be fighting for that Championship all have top teams backing them on creating that strategy, which is always unfolding and evolving as the Chase narrows down it’s competitors.

The one thing that the fans can be sure of is that Hendrick want’s the mojo that JGR has found and Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing will have an appropriate strategy for each and every one of the remaining races complete with every scenario and response they can think of, it’s a ‘War Room’ mentality.

Will Johnson take another title? Who knows, this is auto racing where anything can and usually does happen.

One can only hope that the 16 drivers that are going for that Cup give us, the fans, the show we want to see and that NASCAR needs us to see.

It’s a dog eat dog world and these are the big dogs, no one is going to run away with this one.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Should Dale Earnhardt Jr Retire?

retiring? Not so fast.

Retiring? Not so fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmie Johnson or Harvick Will Win The 2015 Cup Title

These two drivers have everything it takes to go head to head in the Chase.

These two drivers have everything it takes to go head to head in the Chase.

So Jimmie Johnson nails his fourth win of the year and everyone hates him, and lets face it, people hate others for a myriad of reasons. In this case it’s because he wins races.

What has been missed is the fact that this season in Sprint Cup has become unbelievably competitive. They are the same cast of characters that have provided the entertainment for the past few seasons.

There’s a reason for that. They are the best drivers in Cup and they drive for the best teams. Period. When you have a series where the teams run virtually the same equipment it comes down to two things putting that car in the winners circle, talent and money.

That could be said about any form of motorsport, but in Sprint Cup it’s a spec series, which makes it harder to win. No detail can be missed and every little trick they can think of has to be tried.

Johnson appears to have a handle on psychologically running block on his competition as the Chase looms later this season. I don’t care who you are, when drivers of this caliber see someone win four races and that driver has 6 Cup Championships, it gets inside your head. Harvick would be the one driver that it probably excites.

Ultimately I believe that’s who this Chase will come down to, Johnson and Harvick. I could be wrong, it is auto racing where anything can happen, but Harvick is still atop the points heap and remains consistent all the while Johnson creeps up in the standings.

Johnson fourth win this season is propelling him to the top of the standings along with Harvick.

Johnson fourth win this season is propelling him to the top of the standings along with Harvick.

Only four races remain until the ‘Race to the Chase’ begins and no one on the horizon appears to have quite the tiny little edge that these two drivers have. Johnson and his team know how to recover from bad weekends and Harvick knows how to play this game.

The racing in Cup has never been better but you can’t deny that these two drivers have the edge, the determination, the strategies and the sheer talent to drive at the limit for extended periods of time.

The fans all have their favorites but you have to consider that these two drivers, even at this still early stage, have the ability to overcome whatever is thrown at them, accusations of cheating aside.

Of course, in Sprint Cup, you never know what might happen, but history can be telling. Johnson and Harvick both know that when the points are reset, so are they. Their teams have been planning for it and will have a completely different strategy for the actual Chase than they did getting to it.

Stewart Haas have two drivers all but locked in, that is where the main team efforts will go. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick with, perhaps, a little more influence on Harvick, It won’t be Tony Stewart or Danica Patrick.

Johnson’s team has always been on another planet when it comes down to the big fight and they learned long ago that they are the top Hendrick team. They will spare no expense or many nights using their brain-trust to execute every possible scenario to win this Championship.

Johnson wants that 7th title and Harvick now makes Pavlov’s Dogs look like a drooling Pomeranian.

Whoever wins the title this season it will have been well deserved, hopefully a clean and entertaining victory.

If I were a betting man, however, I would have to say Johnson will take the honor. Or maybe Harvick?

 

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.

 

Martinsville: Old Hot Dog Harvick Will Win

He's peaking and on a roll, don't bet against him yet.

He’s peaking and on a roll, don’t bet against him yet.

I’ve never been sentimental when it comes to racing cars. I have no real ‘dogs in the hunt’ as drivers. I couldn’t care less what hot dog they serve at Martinsville or the double wide signature edition Grandfather clock as a trophy. But, I do look at that track with admiration as the first real test of who can drive the 2015 car on almost purely mechanical grip.

Bill Marlowe, our resident Cup car expert, gave me a quick lesson in driving Martinsville and what to expect with the race this weekend.

The top speed before entering turn 1 with the Gen 6 car in it’s current configuration at Martinsville is about 123 MPH. The minimum velocity for the aerodynamics, namely the lower downforce, is about 80 MPH. Given that, you would think that the rear spoilers would play a big role in how you get around turn one. Not so.

The biggest problem, according to Bill, is that drivers tend to want to brake too deep into turn one or turn two, too late. When this happens the car doesn’t want to turn in. In an effort to overcompensate, especially the new drivers, they will drive right towards the curbs that Martinsville is so famous for.

The masters here, Gordon, Johnson and Harvick, are about two feet off of the curb and therefore have an apex that seems unnatural. The reason they end up here is that they need to roll through the corner carrying as much speed as possible without the rear stepping out.

To accomplish this they actually will back off and begin their entry into the corner on turn one right at the spotters stand. So critical is this that many of the top teams actually will install a rev limiting chip that causes the rpm’s to max out at somewhere around 8800 RPM.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

Martinsville: Not the track of brotherly love.

That means they have no choice but to back out of the throttle right about at the starters stand. Having come from a road racing background it seems unnatural to me, but apparently it’s all about rolling through the corners and mechanical grip.

Remember the cars have less horsepower and are 100 lbs lighter than they were, so carrying momentum into and through the corner is paramount in order to get out onto the next straight and the next and the next, etc.

According to the wily Mr. Marlowe, they actually use the road racing brakes on the Martinsville cars in order to get down to speed quickly and as much open air ducting as possible as the braking has to be quick, but smooth, and has to cool quickly to negotiate the next turn, which comes up at you very quickly on such a short track.

In my quest for knowledge I queried him on the chassis. So far, Hendrick has had an advantage here but that now seems to have shrunk somewhat as Stewart-Haas racing has somehow improved on it, not to mention that they have Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, both winners here.

I know, SHR uses Hendrick chassis, hell, Hendrick everything, but something so far this season has been different about them and you can see that in both Johnson and Gordon in the closing laps of the last several races. Mainly, they aren’t closing and Busch and Harvick are. I don’t want to leave Keselowski out here, but he has the Ford equivalent of the Hendrick car.

I fully expect that all four of the Hendrick based chassis and the two Fords of Penske to be at the front. With track position critical here, you don’t want to fall behind. Qualifying should be a must watch event if you’re truly a diehard NASCAR fan.

A lot has been made of the new car, the tweaks, the new rules and the first group of races. I personally think it’s the best start to a NASCAR season I’ve seen in years. Even though Harvick is a dominant force so far, Kurt Busch seems to have his number and one has to wonder what’s going to happen at such a physical track as Martinsville.

Bill Marlowe uses the phrase “10 lap magicians” to describe those drivers who have that little tiny extra, that ‘gift’ of being able to pull out a victory or pick up the game in closing laps. These are the drivers that on any given day have that ability to pull from somewhere mystical to make it happen.

Johnson, Gordon, Keselowski, Logano, Harvick, Busch (both of them) and potentially Kyle Larsen, who hasn’t quite crossed the magical Rubicon just yet but is close. Stewart was there, but so far he’s been backing up.

The winner should come out of this group and hopefully the fans will get to witness another Harvick/Busch fight.

Pick one of these drivers to win. I think it’s between Harvick and Busch but it’s racing and this is, after all, Martinsville.

 

 

 

 

NASCAR Fans: The Auto Club Race Was Great, Stop Whining

Busch wasn't happy with the final pit call, but has to meter himself.

Busch wasn’t happy with the final pit call, but has to meter himself.

I’ve heard all of the whining and complaining that the Auto Club Speedway race wasn’t exciting. Horsecrap. That race used to be the one thing besides two Quaaludes that were guaranteed to put you to sleep.

What I saw was the first time I have EVER been able to watch the California race from start to finish. The cars are harder to drive and the best drivers are doing just that: Driving them.

At Charlotte, there will be even less down-force, which should complete the changes for the season. But, the changes so far have made all of the non superspeedway races more exciting and, yes, the Auto Club race much more interesting.

To be fair they strung out, as you should expect at a minimally banked, non-plate, two mile track, but by nowhere near the margins from last year or the year before.

Complaining about Keselowski? He, or rather Paul Wolfe, out smarted everyone else and won, that’s all that counts. Just call Keselowski and Wolfe Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook.

It was the Busch and Harvick show all weekend and the two really, deep down, viscerally believed they would be their two car show at the end. They spent the entire race setting up for it. Keselowski’s chief knew it was their chance to go for it. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Harvick made a snap pit call and left his box with two tires.

Harvick made a snap pit call and left his box with two tires.

Everyone counted Keselowski out of it but that is where he shines, he comes from the back, his crew chief makes a brilliant four tire call and he has all the grip he needs to spank Harvick and Busch.

Busch was really the big loser as four tires would have delivered a win, no doubt in my mind. Harvick, on the other hand could afford to roll the dice and go for two tires, against his crew chiefs wishes. It was a fairly dangerous move to simply allow the front tire changer to clear his nose and floor it.

The jack man could have had the jack going under when he left his box which would have been a disaster, but give him credit for trying. Harvick is a fox who knows how to make calls on his own. He needs to be cautious that his prowess doesn’t run smack into Rodney Childers calls in the future, it could cost him a championship.

As for Busch, he drove one hell of a race. For a guy that seems to have the social skills of a Honey Badger, he drives like one as well. Totally focused and hell-bent on winning. He should have won, but he didn’t. His crew chief counted on it being he and Harvick dueling it out in the Octagon, but BK snuck up on them both.

The one takeaway from California is that these cars are moving in the right direction and the hard chargers are there at the end to go for the win. Isn’t that what all of you fans wanted? Let’s hold our deeply ingrained judgments about whether NASCAR did something right or wrong.

Well not really, they finally did something right and it’s hard for me to say but Brian France apologizing for the COT gave me some personal vindication after being eviscerated by others in the media for damning the car when it came out.

I’m looking forward to Charlotte and the remaining changes to see what we really have for the remainder of the season.

And bonus points for the first person who can tell me who Natty Bumppo is. You have ten seconds.

 

Harvick’s #4 Team: The Death Star

Harvick seems to be headed for a career peak. He hopes the streak continues.

Harvick seems to be headed for a career peak. He hopes the streak continues.

Is the title just a cheap attempt to emulate Matt Drudge and his sensationalism when it comes to headlines? Maybe a bit.

But, consider this: The Star Wars Death Star was a self contained world that accomplished everything it set out to based on it’s efficiency and self sustainability. OK, so has Kevin Harvick’s little side of the Stewart-Haas Racing garage. So there’s the comparison.

After his performance in Phoenix, there should be no doubt that Harvick’s team has a minimum of flaws. The trick will be to keep it that way through a grueling schedule.

Harvick has every intention of defending his title with a vengeance, now he’s figured out how. He, and everyone around him have meshed to create that always allusive well-oiled machine. Chemistry, gelling or meshed, it doesn’t matter what you call it he has it and the others don’t, yet.

The rest of the SHR organization were, and still are, all over the map.

In 2014 he was doing well with the new team, but a rash of failures, which could still happen, set him back a bit for the rest of the season. Despite this he took the Sprint Cup Championship under the new play-off system. Let’s face it, contrived, fake, whatever you want to call, NASCAR’s system worked. More people watched and Kevin Harvick took advantage of it’s idiosyncrasies.

DeLana Harvick has been in the racing business long enough to have Harvick's back totally. That comes in handy in auto racing decisions and operation.

DeLana Harvick has been in the racing business long enough to have Harvick’s back totally. That comes in handy in auto racing decisions and operation.

What does he have that they don’t have? Several things.

One, he has an immense amount of experience in owning other teams in the lower series and having a hands on approach with them, wife DeLana usually being the hatchet man.  He, along with his crew chief, Rodney Childers, have taken all the components afforded them by SHR, which is a satellite team of Hendrick and created another little biosphere of a satellite that can extract maximum talent from everyone on it.

The second part of that equation is that he has the aforementioned Rodney Childers as his crew chief. Childers jumped around quite a bit, but like Steve Jobs, his movements seemed to have purpose. He would pick up only the knowledge he needed and disregard the rest as chaff from wheat. Jobs never graduated college. He only took the courses he thought would benefit his future.

In Harvicks later days with Richard Childress he quickly saw the writing on the wall with grandson’s of the team. Austin and Ty Dillon.

Not one to be caught in a nepotistic spending free for all, he wisely took the opportunity to work with his friend, Tony Stewart, who had just completed another season as an owner/driver with a three car team.

For Harvick, it’ a matter of being consistent. He’s always been known as “The Closer”, but many times that moniker betrayed him through bad calls, mechanical failures and set-up miscues. No more.

It appears as if Rodney Childers and Harvick have put together the perfect team, although it is racing and anything can go wrong, they seem to have mitigated that risk so far in the 2015 season.

What is happening with Harvick is he is buying insurance. Win as many times as you can early, finish as high as you can when you can’t win and once you have a cushion begin to try the things you’re going to need when the Chase starts. Preparation under the new format requires an early start.

Winning at Phoenix shows he’s got the touch so far, different tracks, different compounds but high-end results.

I have no doubt that anything will change once the new NASCAR rules are fully implemented by the Charlotte race. In fact, I believe Harvick will thrive on them.

It suits his style.

 

 

 

Should Tony Stewart Leave the Drivers Seat?

Stewart hasn't had it his way for quite a while.

Stewart hasn’t had it his way for quite a while.

No one could blame Tony Stewart from doing a Michael Andretti and hanging up the  NASCAR helmet to run his multiple businesses. It has been evident that time and time again when a driver takes over his own organization, remaining in the seat and overseeing operations, it seldom works.

To be sure Smoke had a rough year in 2014 and 2015 hasn’t started out with a St. Patrick’s Day parade. He simply hasn’t seemed to recover from the Ward incident nor his broken leg. Added up, that mental stress coupled with running a business, along with a rogue partner in Gene Haas, is enough to distract anyone.

This is Sprint Cup. You are either on your very best game mentally, discarding virtually everything for the win and the Championship, or you’re just riding around. That’s not Tony Stewart. In the past he’s been all-in like a Jack Russell on steroids. Lately he’s been far more muted and ambivalent, or at least it appears so.

No one really knows what goes through a persons mind but the mental state of elite athletes are far more affected by their environment than regular folk. Pink Floyd famously crooned that “Quiet Desperation is the English Way” in the legendary “Dark side of the Moon” masterpiece. It’s not Tony Stewart’s way, not by a long shot. He doesn’t endure quietly.

This is a very complex man. He has a tough veneer but can make that toughness his core when he needs it. He’s a very compassionate man when he sees those suffering. He’s a private man who doesn’t normally make a spectacle of himself. He’s a business man who ISIS would not want to meet. They can hack away, but they wouldn’t want him bare knuckled on them.

Stewart getting ready for practice.

Stewart getting ready for practice.

So what has happened? Why are his performances in decline, and lets not sugarcoat it, they are. Yesterdays Las Vegas race was but one example. There are others.

The business that Tony Stewart controls and competes in is not a Donald Trump business model. You can only delegate so much in the professional auto racing world before everything begins to suffer.

The racing world is full of owner/drivers who failed. Stewart–Haas could be another if Smoke doesn’t take complete control of the situation.

Luckily Harvick is self sufficient. He had the years at Childress and some ownership years to know what to do and what not to do. He has pared himself down to a satellite team within a satellite team and it’s working.

Make no mistake, Smoke is a true talent. I was at the first IRL race where he lapped the field in about three laps, it was absurd. Myself and my former partner in crime, Rob D’Amico, partied in New York with him and his entourage when he won his second Championship. He was at his zenith. This guy works hard and he plays hard, however, anyone can succumb to overload and I believe that’s where Tony is. Overloaded.

Michael Andretti realized that there is life after racing. Jackie Stewart, Richard Petty, Roger Penske (who may be the best example of all) and Chip Ganassi all have made the decision that it was time, for whatever reason, to not ‘go gently into that good night’, but rather, reinvent themselves into a force of relevance in the auto racing world.

Stewart Haas Racing was never meant to be a one trick pony, but it appears to be in danger of becoming just that without a very strong leader at the helm. Stewart has proven that he can run a business and I believe that its time for him to make that decision.

Either take what time is left for him as a driver and race like hell until it ends, or step out and take control of the businesses. He can do either with no apologies to anyone.

He has made his point, but has he made his peace?

 

Next Round Ahead, Competitive Harvick Presses Forward

Kevin Harvick has been steady in the Chase, as he's moved into second place in points as the third elimination round begins.

Kevin Harvick has been steady in the Chase, as he’s moved into second place in points as the third elimination round begins.

And Kevin Harvick moves along – surely and steadily.

Harvick enters the three-race Elimination Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup second in points and in a good position to challenge leader Joey Logano.

The points for the eight drivers who have made the third round of the Chase were reset to 4,000 each. But their positions in points did not change, save for Brad Keselowski’s elevation to eighth place by virtue of his victory at Talladega.

Harvick advanced by one position. He was third after his victory at Charlotte.

More important, that Charlotte win gave Harvick automatic admittance into the Eliminator Round. Therefore, he didn’t have to worry about how he finished in the always unpredictable and often treacherous Talladega race.

Talk about being relieved.

“I’m gonna park and watch the race at Talladega,” Harvick said. “It’s gonna be crazy, offensive racing.”

Talladega was indeed a tense affair. Four drivers would be eliminated from the Chase afterward and those in peril included Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Keselowski.

As it turned out Keselowski, of course, was saved by his victory. Kenseth advanced after his second-place finish.

Victimized were Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne.

Harvick's victory at Charlotte strengthened his position in the Chase and automatically advanced him into the next elimination round.

Harvick’s victory at Charlotte strengthened his position in the Chase and automatically advanced him into the next elimination round.

For his part, Harvick didn’t park and watch the race. But he kept pretty much out of the spotlight.

He led only once for two laps – and this is a guy who has led more laps than any other driver in every race but one in the Chase.

Truth be known, he likely wanted it that way. He wanted to run a safe race and figured that might be done best if he didn’t scrap for position at the head of the pack.

Not, however, that he ever planned not to race as strongly as possible.

“Obviously it takes a lot of pressure off by not having to worry about a strategy,” Harvick said. “You just go race. The guys have worked hard on the cars to make them as good as they can no matter the scenario.

“At the bare minimum, we owe it to them and the fans to race as hard as we can and take the same approach as we have all year – try to run well in practice, qualify well, lead laps and try to win a race.

“But the thing that comes out of Charlotte is, if it works out, fine and if doesn’t, fine. Just race hard.”

Turned out it worked out pretty well. Harvick finished a comfortable ninth at Talladega, his fourth top-10 finish in six races.

Harvick considers his Chase performance, including the win at Charlotte, all the result of a maturation process.

“I look at Charlotte as what we’re supposed to do and what we should have done a number of times if it wasn’t for crazy things happening, mistakes and different things,” Harvick said. “But I think that’s part of the building process.

“You look at last week as great timing for our circumstances. With building a new team at Stewart Haas Racing, having new people in new situations and a lot of things to learn, this format has allowed us to mature throughout the process of a year.

“Hopefully we’re getting to a refined point that you think is where you need to be to race for a championship.”

Given his points position it certainly appears Harvick has reached where he needs to be in an effort to race for a championship. After all, he’s only one of eight drivers in contention and only one – Logano – is in a better position than he at this point.

“We’re doing as good a job in anything I’ve been involved in,” Harvick said. “The main thing is the speed in the race cars. You know what piece has been there all year and you don’t have to worry about that.

“We’ve continued to have that and it becomes a matter of controlling all the things we can control.

“I feel good about all those pieces we have.”

 

 

 

      

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